Southern Specialty

Tanya Holland is taking okra where it's never been before -- and she's taking us with her, by way of her class in new soul cooking at Central Market. With her new soul cookbook, the TV chef brings a lighter touch to standards such as greens, gumbo and sweet potatoes, as well as a bit more attention to presentation. It's not that Holland doesn't see the beauty in a bowl of green beans in pot liquor with a festive slab of salt pork. It's just that when a gal has a Grand Diploma from La Varenne Ecole de Cuisine in Burgundy, she gets ideas.

Somehow, Holland's father convinced her Louisiana-born mother to raise a child in upstate New York (a region with snow and a distressing lack of boudin), giving little Tanya an early experience in fusion. Family food club adventures led Holland to cooking, more cooking, cooking school and eventually a job as a host on the Food Network's Melting Pot.

On her show, Holland sticks to the flavors of her mother's Southern birthplace, the Caribbean and Africa, and her cookery includes at least a dash of everything sought in the spice trade. Though not afraid of pig fat and famous for her gooey banana custard napoleons, the celebrity chef also offers modern dishes. Smoked turkey wings, she says, are a pretty good substitute when you don't want to use ham hocks, and her Elegant Gingered Yellow Sweet Potato Soup is pureed with just a bit of butter and an optional half-cup of cream.

A lot of celebrity cooking classes forget a subtle yet integral part of any meal: bread. Holland has a way with biscuit dough, knows her way around corn bread and is not averse to a fresh yeast roll. It's not soul food if you don't have something for soppin'.

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Edith Sorenson