Review: The Poole’s Cookbook, Reimagining Southern Classics

Sweet potato hummingbird cake by Ashley Christensen.

Most cookbooks fall into one of two categories: the aspirational and the useful, those that are flipped through on lazy Sundays, then returned to the top shelf, and those that live a dog-eared life on the counter.

With “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner,” Ashley Christensen has written the rare cookbook that begs to be labeled as both.

In the book (her first), the North Carolina chef collects recipes from Poole’s Diner, her flagship restaurant, in Raleigh that range broadly from down-home to sophisticated, and from easy to labor-intensive.

But page to page, her approach remains the same: exquisite ingredients and exact instruction, applied to classics of Southern comfort cooking.

For instance, in her hands, a pimento cheese sandwich, traditionally made with white bread, veers artisanal and elegant. She calls for roasting and pickling your own peppers and making cider vinegar mayonnaise, and she uses two types of hot sauce and two types of Cheddar. She then serves it as crostini.

Mercifully, all of her recipes won’t consume an entire Sunday afternoon. Scattered throughout the book are a number of what Ms. Christensen calls “back pocket” recipes (red wine vinaigrette, charred onions, “countertop” crème fraîche) that are relatively low-fuss and can elevate workday cooking to the sublime.

Though Ms. Christensen hails from the land of “the meat and three,” the book is unapologetically pro-vegetables and sides. Her sherry-cream-shallot treatment is a brilliant one-size-fits-all-vegetables kind of recipe, and her groan-inducing macaroni au gratin and warm broccoli salad with bacon vinaigrette left this writer’s family full and speechless.

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Credit...James Nieves/The New York Times

But perhaps the most awe-inspiring recipe of the book is the sweet potato hummingbird cake, a spectacular adaptation of a banana-pineapple-pecan layer cake that was created by Southern Living magazine in 1978. It is a Thanksgiving-worthy dessert for the pie averse, crowded with grated sweet potato, roasted bananas, pineapple, peanuts and currants, and topped with a lightly sweet cream cheese frosting. It is revelatory.

Ms. Christensen’s dishes are generally not the sort to tackle on a busy weeknight, and some of the ingredients (green peanuts, white acre peas) may be tough to find if you live north of the Mason-Dixon line. But the recipes are just the thing to save for when you have a little time to savor the process and the glass of bourbon at your side.

Recipes: Sweet Potato Hummingbird Cake | Broccoli Salad With Cheddar and Warm Bacon Vinaigrette

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