Recipes and Stories

26 June 2011 Tomato Salad

June 27, 2011

Tags: Tomatoes, Historical Southern Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking

Tomato Salad a la Annabella Hill
A surer sign of summer than ants at a picnic is the annual reappearance of one of America’s most enduring food myths: that we believed tomatoes were poisonous until the beginning of the nineteenth century, and still thought them unsafe to eat raw for decades after that.

The myth is often accompanied by an equally popular tale of how some prominent American like Daniel Webster or Thomas Jefferson ate a raw tomato on the local courthouse steps to prove to his neighbors that it was not only safe, but good.

There have been many spin-offs of this myth, my personal favorite being a “factoid” on a televised history of hotdogs asserting in all seriousness that because tomatoes were believed to be poisonous, tomato ketchup was created as a medicinal tonic.

Never mind that our word ketchup (or catsup) is a culinary term, derived from a Southeast-Asian word for fish sauce, and has never been used in medicine. (Honestly: where do these people get this stuff?) By the time the earliest printed recipes for tomato ketchup began to appear (decades before that factoid claimed), everyone knew that tomatoes weren’t poisonous, and the condiment was already popular in American kitchens, and not, rest assured, as a tonic.

One reason such nonsense is so stubbornly perpetuated is in part because journalists and pop-culture historians tend to ignore the South. Even before the first cookbooks penned by Southerners made print, there were manuscript recipes for cooked tomatoes dating as early as 1770, the year the prominent Charleston matron Harriott Pinckney Horry probably recorded how “To Keep Tomatoes for Winter Use ” in her household notebook.

The title alone suggests that by the time Mrs. Horry put the recipe to paper, Carolinians had been routinely consuming cooked tomatoes for decades.

Printed American recipes for raw tomato salad go back at least as far as 1824, when Mary Randolph included “Gaspacha,” a thick soup-like Spanish salad of raw tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and peppers, in The Virginia House-wife. One might argue that the recipe, which probably came to Mrs. Randolph by way of a sister who once lived in Cadiz, was an out of place curiosity were it not for the fact that gazpacho quickly became popular in Virginia, suggesting that people in the region were long accustomed to eating raw tomatoes.

Indeed, within a very few years, other Southern cookbook authors were treating tomato salad in a very off-hand way:

“To Dress Tomatoes Raw.

Take ripe tomatoes, that are large and fine, peel and slice them tolerably thick, put them in a deep dish, and season them highly with salt, pepper, and vinegar. This is a delicious breakfast dish, and is also a fine accompaniment to roast meats, for a dinner.”

— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839.

“Tomato Salad.

Tomatoes may be eaten raw, cut up with salt, oil, vinegar and pepper, as you do cucumbers.”

— Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847.

By the beginning of the War Between the States, onion was a popular addition:

“Tomato Salad.—Scald and peel them; slice them thin, season with salt, pepper, sugar, and a little onion; add very little vinegar.”

— Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867.

What brings this all to the fore is one perfectly ripe tomato from my mother’s garden. For the first time in many years, I was able to be with my father on Father’s Day. The tomato plants in mother’s garden were just beginning to bear, and she gave me one handsome specimen to bring home—just enough for a salad for two.

With all due respect to Mrs. Hill, I was not about to spoil that beautiful tomato with scalding water and sugar. Once cored and thinly sliced, it was easy to slip the peel off with the narrow blade of a peeling knife. Spread on a plate and dressed, as Mrs. Hill directed, with shaved Vidalia sweet onion, salt, pepper, and a few drops of sherry vinegar, I strayed only by using a scattering of freshly snipped basil instead of sugar.

Sharing the plate with more of my mother’s produce (early half-runner beans and sweet yellow squash) and a bit of pork tenderloin pan roasted with sage and onions, that salad carried me back to the big Sunday lunches of childhood, a poignant reminder of how much we took for granted back then—and how much we’ve lost.

6 June 2011 Shrimp Paste

June 6, 2011

Tags: Brown Creek Shrimp, Historical Cooking, Southern Cooking, Lowcountry Cooking

A traditional Shrimp Paste appears in my book Classical Southern Cooking
One of most anticipated moments in the gastronomical life of Charleston and Savannah is the return of the small but deeply flavorful brown shrimp to the briny creeks that lace the Lowcountry’s marshes. Simply poached in their shells and served with melted butter, cocktail sauce, or homemade garlic mayonnaise, or sautéed in butter and ladled over a bed of snowy hominy grits, they have no equal, even among the fattest and sweetest Adriatic prawns.

Another great classic of Lowcountry tea and cocktail tables is this simple pâté of pulverized shrimp and butter –

“Shrimp Paste

Run a quart of boiled and picked shrimp through the grinder. Then place in saucepan with salt, pepper, mace, and two heaping tablespoons of butter. Heat thoroughly, and put into molds. Pressing down hard with a spoon, and pouring melted butter over the top. Put in refrigerator, and when cold, slice and serve. An excellent hors d’oeuvre, or an addition to tomato salad.”

– Harriet Ross Colquitt, The Savannah Cook Book (1933)

It’s a very old conserve that long predates Mrs. Colquitt, known in old English and early American books as –

“POTTED SHRIMPS, OR PRAWNS.

Let the fish be quite freshly boiled, shell them quickly, and just before they are put into the mortar, chop them a little with a very sharp knife; pound them perfectly with a quantity of fresh butter, mace, and cayenne.

Shrimps (unshelled), 2 quarts; butter, 2 to 4 oz.; mace, 1 small saltspoonful; cayenne, 1/3 as much.

– Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845).

From the Lowcountry in the same era, we have Miss Rutledge’s rather sketchy version –

“To Pot Shrimps.

Pick the shrimps (after they are boiled) from the shells; beat them well in a mortar, and put as much melted butter to them as will make them of the proper consistence to be pressed compactly together; add pepper, salt, mace, and nutmeg to the taste; put the mixture into small pans, and pour melted butter over them about a quarter of an inch thick. If wanted for immediate use, grated bread may be added.”

– Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife (1847).

Mrs. Colquitt’s tablespoon was a kitchen spoon that was larger than the standard measuring implement of our day. She’s calling for about the same amount of butter as Miss Acton. Her logic in reheating the paste is that it helped prolong its shelf life once potted, though refrigeration had made it an unnecessary caution by her day, and interestingly, the older recipes don’t mention it.

Regardless of its provenance, shrimp paste remains a staple throughout the Lowcountry, though today there’s not a single cook left in the region who would make it with a meat grinder, let alone mortar and pestle. Both methods have given way to the food processor. The old ways perhaps did yield a more interesting paste, but the machine makes such short work of it that the sacrifices in authenticity and texture seem well worth it.

All this came to mind because those little brown shrimp have arrived, and shrimp paste seemed just the thing for a recent late Sunday silver-and-linen reception. Here’s how I made it, from Classical Southern Cooking.

Shrimp Paste
Serves 6 as a first course, or 20 for cocktails or tea

1½ pounds cooked shrimp, peeled
¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 tablespoons grated shallots or yellow onion
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
1 blade mace, crushed to a powder, or whole nutmeg in a grater, optional
Ground cayenne pepper
Crisp toast points or Melba toasts

1. Fit the bowl of the processor with a steel blade and put in the shrimp. Cover and pulse until coarsely ground.
2. Add the butter, shallots, a large pinch of salt, and a dash each of cayenne, white pepper, and mace or nutmeg if liked. Process until the mixture forms a paste. Don’t over-process it to a mousse consistency: there should still be some texture. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, cayenne, and mace. Pulse a few times to mix the seasonings.
3. Lightly butter a 3-cup metal mold, or two smaller molds, or a small loaf pan. Press the paste firmly into it, making sure there are no pockets of trapped air. Cover with a plate or plastic wrap and chill for several hours until firm. Alternatively, pack the paste into crocks, cover with melted clarified butter, and chill until needed.
4. To un-mold, stand the mold in a basin of hot water for 1 minute. Loosen the edges with a knife, and invert the mold over a serving plate—the paste should come out with a couple of firm taps on the top of the mold. Smooth any gaps with a spatula and let it stand until it’s soft enough to spread. If the paste was stored in crocks, serve it directly from the crock without un-molding it. Serve with toast or use as a spread of tea sandwiches.