Pat Branning's cookbooks are a testament to her passion for context, and in the Lowcountry, there are huge helpings of that for nearly every subject we're talking or writing about.
But the author has a way of "gilding the lily" with the works of area artists that have become the trademark of her books.
You may have seen her books in area gift shops or at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, as their covers are eye-catching: "Shrimp, Collards and Grits" and "Magnolias, Porches and Sweet Tea." These coffee-table books lay out a visual feast and provide inspiration for an edible feast at the same time.
Pat first came to live in Beaufort in 1971, left and then returned with her husband for good about 40 years later. She gained a deep appreciation for Lowcountry life and its natural beauty, all the while collecting stories and recipes.
Her first go-round with "Shrimp, Collard and Grits" in 2011 grew out of a smaller book she published in 2009. Now she's come out with a another edition that includes 60 new recipes, more stories and a fresh design.
Pat explains that last year, her son, Andrew Branning, launched his own publishing company, which produced the "Magnolias" book. At the same time, rising demand was driving the need for another printing of the "Shrimp" book.
So Pat and her son joined forces to "create an authentic product, uniquely our own from start to finish, with our own photography."
The latest volume is called the "Ray Ellis Edition."
The artwork of the late artist, who died in the fall of 2013, graces the cover and is used liberally within the book's 139 pages. (The book also shows off the works of a number of other regional artists.)
Pat says she became familiar with Ellis in the early 1980s while living on Hilton Head Island. "He was part of a group of artists who met weekly at the Red Piano Art Gallery on Cordillo Parkway. There were and still are great artists there but it was Ray's work that drew me in and captivated my heart and imagination. We met several times in those days and he had a personality every bit as captivating as his paintings."
So the book's cover is Ellis' painting titled "Oyster Landing," which Pat says most resembles the surroundings of her former home on Lady's Island.
Pat also is indebted to Ellis, "because he was the first artist that I contacted who said 'yes' and gave permission to me, at that time an unknown author, to publish his paintings in my first book. I am forever grateful to him."
As for the recipes, Pat worked with some of the area's leading chefs but promises they have been simplified for the home cook.
"My theme is simple, seasonal and Southern," she says.
Among the recipes are several from Charleston restaurants, including she-crab soup from 82 Queen and the Glass Onion's buttermilk fried chicken.
The book retails for $39.95 and may be found in places including The Shops of Historic Charleston, Southern Season and the RSVP Shop on Broad. Or you may order online at www.patbranning.com.
Here's a sampling from its contents. Pat writes, "If you love seafood, you'll love the Flounder Nicoise, which can be made with any fresh local fish. Served on a bed of the best Bacon Cheese Grits, from Anson Mills, it's a dish you'll serve over and over again. It's a staple at my house at least once a week and the inspiration of Chef Neuville of The Fat Hen on Johns Island."
4 skinless flounder fillets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Flour for dredging
4 ounces brown butter (see below)
2 ounces herbs (tarragon, chives, parsley, chervil)
Juice of 1 fresh lemon
1 small bottle capers
1 ounce Nicoise olives, chopped fine
2 fresh diced tomatoes
Bacon cheese grits (recipe follows)
Take 1/2 pound sweet unsalted butter, melt it down and brown it while skimming the milk solids from the top. Set aside until ready to use. It should be brown in color and nutty in taste.
Preheat oven to warm, about 200 degrees. Wash fillets in cold water and pat dry. Season fish with salt and pepper. Dredge fillets in flour and shake off any excess.
Put the brown butter in a medium-hot saute pan and melt. Sear the fish on medium-high heat about 2 minutes on each side depending on the thickness of the fish. Fish should be deep brown and crispy. Turn fish only once.
Remove the fish from the pan and keep it warm in the oven while making the sauce.
Add capers, diced olives and tomatoes to the pan and cook for 10 seconds. Add lemon and herbs. Put the hot grits on your serving dish and place fish on top. Spoon the tomato and caper mixture over the top and serve hot.
Bacon Cheese Grits
4 slices applewood smoked bacon
6 cups water
6 cups milk
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablesoons butter
11/2 cups stoneground grits
1 pound grated white cheddar cheese
Fry the bacon and remove to a plate covered with paper towels to cool before crumbling.
In a large saucepan, over medium heat, combine the water, milk, salt, pepper and the butter. Bring the liquid to a gentle boil and whisk in the grits.
Cook for 1 hour and 15 minutes on low. Add hot water from time to time to thin out the grits. They will stick to the bottom of the pan, so make sure to scrape the bottom and stir often. Add the cooked, crumbled bacon and cheese and then season to taste with salt and pepper.
Grits may be served immediately or prepared in advance and reheated. To reheat, pour the grits into a pan and reheat in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes.