(Aug. 5) No matter what type of food you serve, it can never hurt to offer your guests a little old-fashioned comfort on a plate. And nobody knows comfort food like the South.

Southern cooking takes many forms and can certainly be integrated into your own menu. From a restaurant in Georgia that serves European food adapted to the South to a Southern-style restaurant adapted to California diners, lots of menus claim Southern influences. But many Southern chefs say the essence of Southern cuisine is comfort, soul, family and celebration.

SOUTHERN CULTURE

The South’s unique history led to many of the flavors and cooking methods still used in its cuisine.

The economic limitations of much of the region led to a prevalence of smoking, one-pot meals and preserves when refrigeration was uncommon. Thus dishes like gumbo, applesauce and smoked meats became popular. Many Southern chefs try to recreate the flavors and dishes of the old South in a lighter, fresher way.

“We try to stay true to the culture of the whole thing but to lighten things up. We’ll use some different techniques. On the whole, Southern foods seem to be heavy — cooked in fat, lard, roux. We try to be a little more light … and a little … down home and comforty,” says Neal Langermann, executive chef at Georgia Brown’s in Washington, D.C.

At Elizabeth on 37th in Savannah, Ga., the concept is to take back-of-the-stove cooking to the front of the stove, says chef Kelly Yambor. For example, instead of cooking collard greens with tomatoes overnight in a big pot, she quickly steams thinly sliced collard greens and tops them with a tomato/vinaigrette relish.

Limited travel led to a major emphasis on fresh, local produce in Southern cooking. “Southern cooking is kind of paralleled with Italian in the way they use pork and a huge emphasis on everything being fresh, seasonal and local,” Yambor says. She gets lots of ideas from adapting cooking techniques and fresh produce concepts from Italian cookbooks to the unique flavor and character of the South.

Of course, one of the most important influences on Southern cooking was African cuisine. Slaves brought with them a rich cooking history and introduced many items and dishes to America. Since slaves did most of the cooking for themselves and in the plantation houses, these traditions infiltrated the entire social system of the South. Most modern historians attribute the cultivation of produce like okra, watermelon, sesame seeds, peanuts and yams to Africans.

Here are some trends and areas of particular interest in Southern cooking:

SWEET-HOME SIDE DISHES

Some popular Southern sides include greens, tomatoes, okra, butter beans, grits, corn, potatoes and onions.

At Comfort restaurant in Richmond, Va., braised greens are one of the most popular side items, says executive chef and owner Jason Alley. He braises turnip greens, collard greens and red chard with apples, bacon and red wine vinegar.

At Catahoula Restaurant and Saloon in Calistoga, Calif., cabbage forms the basis of a “Mardi Gras slaw” using red and white cabbage, zucchini, yellow squash, red peppers and a malt and beer reduction vinaigrette dressing, says executive chef and owner Jan Birnbaum. He also serves pickled cabbage with the porterhouse steak, along with redeye gravy and soft grits. He marinates cabbage for three days in garlic, walnut oil, red wine vinegar, honey, jalapeno, malt vinegar and chili oil, he says.

Corn is used extensively throughout the South in many forms. At Elizabeth, Yambor creates a “land dish” featuring corn pudding with cheese, a rack of lamb and sautéed okra and tomatoes. She sautés the okra and tomatoes with a compound butter and tops them with kalamata olive and tomato juice.

Popular hominy grits are corn grains ground into a cereal similar to polenta, Birnbaum says. He mixes the grain with butter, chicken stock, cream, garlic, salt and pepper.

Okra and corn succotash and creamed corn accompany the crab cakes at Georgia Brown’s in D.C., Langermann says. For the succotash, he sautés okra, roasted corn and shallots together. He makes the creamed corn with onions and white wine.

Okra, also a popular Southern veggie, stars in okra fritters with tomato jam at Magnolia’s in Charleston, S.C. Executive chef Don Drake makes the fritters by frying okra, peppers and onions in a batter of white flour, eggs and buttermilk. For the accompanying tomato jam, he stews vine-ripe tomatoes with Vidalia onions in vinegar and pepper. Drake serves the two alongside goat cheese and greens.

The tomato jam with fritters is only one of Drake’s many creative tomato uses. He makes a spicy tomato horseradish glaze with fresh tomatoes, horseradish, vinegar, sugar, red pepper flakes and Vidalia onions. He cooks them all together and purees them in a food processor. He serves the glaze with sautéed chicken livers, caramelized Vidalia onions, country ham, beer-battered shrimp and creamed sweet corn. Drake offers classic fried green tomatoes as appetizers served with white cheddar stone-ground grits, country ham and green tomato cha-cha made of tomato, vinegar, sugar, mustard seed, red peppers, onions and turmeric.

Tomatoes also are an ingredient in a butter bean dish at Elizabeth. Butter beans are popular in the summer, Yambor says. She sautés about a half-cup of cooked butter beans with finely diced ham, diced Vidalia onions and butter. “The butter forms a nice little sauce with the ham, and (I) add tomatoes in at the end,” she says. “It makes the sauce for the dish — just butter and the juice from the vegetables, and I put on a little fresh black pepper.”

SOUTHERN SPICE

The use of spices defines Southern cooking.

In Richmond, curry is popular in chicken salad, mayonnaise and dressings because of the English influence, Comfort’s Alley says. Aromatics like cinnamon, cloves and allspice also are prevalent “(They’re) usually in pickles or preserves and also in dessert preparations. … I personally use cinnamon and allspice in my pepper-infused vinegar and hot sauce,” Alley says.

The Southern staple gumbo is normally chock-full of spices. At Catahoula, Birnbaum spices the gumbo with jalapenos, cumin, coriander, paprika, bay leaf, dry mustard and black, red and white peppers. He sautés tomatoes, okra, red and yellow bell and poblano peppers and adds them to the stock. Then he adds celery, peppers and onions to cool the roux. Finally, he garnishes the soup with additional tomatoes, okra, onions, celery and peppers.

Because Charleston was a coastal trading port, it became home to every spice in the book, Georgia Brown’sLangermann says. One traditional dish is a sugar and spice pork chop. “It’s really a sweet and sour pork dish, but we changed it up a bit to make it more hot and spicy. The African and Caribbean countries brought in hot peppers so there’s a little more of a hot cuisine to it, too,” Langermann says.

SOUTHERN SWEETS

Fruit can appear in both Southern entrees and desserts. At Gaby’s Bistro in Newnan, Ga., chef and owner Patrick Terrail makes a fruity, refreshing summer salsa to serve atop grilled salmon. It features tomatoes and spices like regular salsa plus chunks of cucumber, green pepper and watermelon, he says.

He also makes many fruit desserts like watermelon and peach sorbet, peach trifle and blueberry trifle. When local strawberries are in season, he makes strawberry sauces and preserves to use throughout the year.

Fruit shows up in appetizers, too. The menu at Comfort includes apple butter to serve with cornbread and pickled watermelon rind to serve on a relish tray.

At Catahoula in Calistoga, Birnbaum pairs the unique fruits of California with his classic Southern desserts. He serves strawberry shortcake on a Meyer lemon biscuit.

“I play on the combinations of things I know — Southern biscuits being one, but served with a biscuit with Meyer lemon, which you can only find in California,” he says.

Birnbaum also makes a classic Southern bread pudding with a taste of California citrus to give it a lighter, cleaner flavor, he says.

Of course, in the South, peaches are a favorite fruit. Langermann says he tries to use peaches in just about everything when they’re in season. He makes peach chutney for rack of lamb, peach relish for grilled seafood, peach cobbler and even peach martinis.

THE SOUTH SEA

Southern chefs find plenty of ways to pair fruits and vegetables with the coastal areas’ most popular staple — fish.

A bed of greens normally serves as a base for salmon and trout, along with a sauce ranging from a light mustard to a light lobster sauce at Gaby’s Bistro, Terrail says.

Some chefs prefer to mix their fish with fruit. At Comfort in Richmond, Alley often stuffs grilled snapper, grouper or trout with apples and an herb compound butter. Then he wraps the fish in bacon and grills it so the apples cook inside the trout.

In coastal Savannah, Yambor serves crab cakes and lightly breaded flounder with roasted new potatoes and creamed corn.

At Magnolia’s in Charleston, grits with fried spinach and a lobster butter sauce accompany sautéed shrimp, lobster and scallops, Drake says.

Southern cooking leaves lots of room for interpretation. So give your guests a little comfort with a Southern-inspired dish.