Recipes and Stories

25 July 2011: Okra Season

July 25, 2011

Tags: Okra, Classical Southern Cooking, Mary Randolph, Karen Hess, Marcella Hazan

Gumbs—A West India Dish, or as we refer to it in my house, Karen's Okra
One of the things I miss the most about living away from my family is my mother’s garden, especially at this time of year, when almost everything is coming in at once. There are tomatoes gathered only after they’re ripened to perfection, and green beans, squash, and okra, all of which are best when picked while young and a little immature.

There are compensations to living here in Savannah, of course: here it’s peak shrimp season, and thankfully there’s now a growing local farmer’s market whose vendors share my mother’s care with produce. This past weekend, one of my favorite farmers had okra no bigger than my thumb, gathered just the evening before. It was so beautiful and perfect that it was hard not to buy more than we could eat over the weekend.

There’s nothing else to do with okra like that but let it shine on its own, something that’s rarely allowed to happen. It’s a pity, really, because young, tender okra possesses a wonderful, refreshing flavor that is easy on digestion (and souls) wearied by summer’s dead heat. It’s a quality Mary Randolph clearly understood when she gave us:

Gumbs—A West India Dish.

Gather young pods of ocra, wash them clean, and put them in a pan with a little water, salt and pepper, stew them till tender, and serve them with melted butter. They are very nutricious and easy of digestion.

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824 *

Mrs. Randolph’s melted butter was prepared in a pan continuously shaken over a larger basin of simmering water. Barely melted to the consistency of a beurre blanc, it was used to finish just about every vegetable that went to her table.

Cooking is never static, even for historians. Whenever we take a recipe into our own kitchen, we adapt it to suit our tastes and cooking habits. While working on her definitive commentary on Mrs. Randolph’s work, my mentor Karen Hess did just that with this lovely recipe. Since she and her husband, John, once lived in Egypt, there’s a distinct hint of the Middle East in her version with its garlic and splash of fruity olive oil. Sometimes she made it with butter, but she once told me “we like it best served the next day, at room temperature, and for that, of course, olive oil is best.” Indeed.

Karen’s Okra

Whenever she offered it cold, there were always thick wedges of lemon on hand.

Serves 4

1½ pounds very fresh okra pods no more than 2 inches long
1-2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed and peeled
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Lemon wedges (optional)

1. Wash the okra under cold running water, gently rubbing to remove fuzz. Trim the cap or stem end but leave the pods whole.

2. Put the okra in a heavy, lidded skillet that will hold it in one layer. Add a splash (about a quarter of a cup) of water, the garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, a liberal pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Cover and put it over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes, until the okra are tender but still bright green, shaking the pan occasionally to help the okra cook evenly. Don’t let the liquid evaporate completely; add a spoonful or so as needed to keep the moisture from drying completely.

3. Pour the okra and any “sauce” that remains into a shallow serving bowl, remove and discard the garlic, drizzle it with fresh oil, toss to coat with sauce, and serve warm or at room temperature, passing lemon separately, if liked.

When we’re having it cold, I deviate very little from Karen, but when it will be eaten straight from the pan, my own version is equally eclectic, influenced not only by Karen, but also my mother and another mentor, Marcella Hazan.

To serve four, you’ll need all the ingredients for Karen’s Okra, using only one clove of garlic and substituting for the oil the best butter that can be had. Again, wash the pods under cold running water, gently rubbing to remove the fuzz, and trim the cap or stem end, leaving them whole. Crush, peel, and mince the garlic fine.

Put the okra in a heavy, lidded skillet that will hold it in one layer. Add about a quarter of a cup of water, the garlic, a liberal pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper, and a generous lump of butter. Cook it following Karen’s method, shaking the pan occasionally and adding a spoonful or so of water as needed. Off the heat, add another pat or so of butter and shake the pan until the okra is coated. Serve warm.

* No one is really sure, by the way, how okra, the seedpod of an African hibiscus, migrated from Africa to our continent, but it turns up in the Americas wherever there are Africans in the kitchen, from Virginia to the West Indies all the way to Brazil. And Mrs. Randolph’s name for her recipe, while by no means definitive documentation, is suggestive of the route it may have taken into our hemisphere.

18 July 2011: Okra Soup

July 18, 2011

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Southern Cooking, Okra, Tomatoes, Okra and Tomatoes, Savannah Cooking

Okra Soup, a summer staple in Savannah. Photography by John Carrington
One of the key foundations on which so much of Southern cooking is built is the rather magical pairing of okra with tomatoes. From Maryland to Florida, Virginia to Texas, whether it’s simply the two vegetables simmered together, a thick gumbo, or a complex pot of vegetable soup in which they’re joined by everything else in the garden, the combination is practically universal.

Small wonder: this union is one of those perfect marriages of flavor and texture, so perfect in fact that we tend to forget it was unheard of as little as five centuries ago. Tomatoes are of course native to Central America and okra is African; for thousands of years they were quite literally a world apart from one another.

Exactly how they came together is murky territory for historians. However, since tomatoes were introduced to West Africa by Portuguese explorers early in the sixteenth century, it seems logical that the idea sprang from the mind of an African cook. And it’s significant that the first (if not only) appearance of this pairing in American cookery is in the South, where there were enslaved Africans in many kitchens.

At any rate, it quickly took root down here. When Mary Randolph set down her recipe for “ocra and tomatas” in The Virginia House-wife in 1824, the combination was already so deeply engrained that it was practically universal. Down in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, for example, it was a defining element of the local cuisine when Mrs. Randolph was in diapers.

In Savannah, the really characteristic dish that spun off this pairing is Okra Soup, a simple mélange of tomatoes, okra, and broth made from both beef and ham. Once a staple soup course throughout the summer for formal two o’clock dinners and main dish for businessmen’s lunches and family suppers, its real beauty as a culinary concept is that it can be both refined and elegant and coarse and hearty.

Regardless of how and when it’s served, okra soup always comes with a large spoonful of steamed rice. Once, fiery little bird peppers and/or Pepper Sherry were offered as well. The peppers were passed in a small bowl, and each guest took just one to crush in the bottom of the soup plate, but removed it before the soup was ladled in (they’re so hot that that’s all most people could stand). Pepper sherry, equally as hot but more refined, made the rounds in a cut glass cruet, to be added in mere droplets at the diner’s discretion.

Such graceful customs have, unhappily, all but disappeared, but thankfully the classic soup endures.

Savannah Okra Soup

The best way to tackle this job is to turn it into a 2-day operation: make the broth on the first day, chill and degrease it, then finish the soup the following day.

Serves 6

2 pounds meaty beef shank bones
1 smoked ham hock, about ¾ pound
2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, scalded, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
1½ pounds small, tender okra (about 8 cups), trimmed and thinly sliced
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1½ cups hot Lowcountry Steamed Rice
Fresh green bird’s eye peppers and/or Pepper Sherry (see below), optional

1. Bring the beef, ham hock and 3 quarts of water slowly to a boil in a heavy bottomed stockpot over medium heat, carefully skimming away the scum that rises. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the liquid is reduced to 2 quarts, about 2 hours. Add the onion and simmer slowly until tender, about 20 minutes. Let it settle a few minutes and skim off the excess fat. You may make the broth a day ahead. Cool, cover, and refrigerate it without skimming, then you can simply remove the solidified fat from the top.

2. When you’re ready to finish the soup, bring it back to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the okra and tomatoes, loosely cover, and let it come back to a simmer. Uncover, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.

3. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender and the soup is quite thick, at least an hour more—longer won’t hurt. Remove the beef and ham hock. Some cooks pick the meat from the bone and add it back to the soup. Others frown on this practice. Discard the bones.

4. Pour the soup into a heated tureen or divide it among heated soup plates. If offering fresh bird peppers, allow guests to crush a single pepper in their bowls and remove it before the soup is ladled in. You may also pass Pepper Sherry (see below) instead. Put ¼ cup of rice in the center of each serving, or pass it separately.

Notes on additions: Other vegetables are sometimes added, most commonly butterbeans (small lima beans) and corn. Add a generous cup each of fresh, small green butterbeans and freshly cut white corn for the last 40 minutes of simmering.

To make Pepper Sherry: put a third of a cup of bird’s eye peppers (or as much as half a cup of other hot peppers) in a heatproof bowl. Pour a cup of boiling water over them, let stand for one minute, then drain and transfer the peppers to a glass cruet or jar that will hold one and a half cups. Add a cup of medium dry sherry, cover, and let step for at least a day before using.

12 July 2011: Spanish Tomatoes

July 12, 2011

Tags: Historical Southern Cooking, Tomatoes, Spanish Tomatoes, Savannah Cooking

Marilyn's Spanish Tomatoes. Photography by John Carrington
The deadly heat of a Savannah summer is not for the faint of heart. The air gets so warm and thick with humidity that it’s actually sticky, which is how the summers here came to be nicknamed “Hot Mayonnaise Season.” This year, the hot mayonnaise air settled in early, taking me back to my first July in Savannah more than thirty years ago.

The heat that summer, like this one, was record setting and brutal. Anyone with the means to do so fled for Tybee (our local beach) or a mountain cabin. The rest of us braved it out as best we could and tried to pretend it didn’t matter.

We all had ways of dealing with that heat, but fans, loose cotton clothes, and extra ice in one’s bourbon can only do so much. To get through with grace involves a certain amount of psychology, and at that, my late friend and neighbor Marilyn Whelpley was an expert.

In those days, there were no VCRs. One actually had to plan around a fixed network schedule. When Marilyn learned that a local station was airing the winter holiday classic White Christmas in the middle of July, she asked me over to make an evening of it.

Despite the heat, she’d been putting up tomatoes that day (ripe tomatoes, like corn, wait for no one), and held back a few to make a pan-full of Spanish Tomatoes—simply peeled, cut into wedges, and simmered with a few slices of onion and sweet bell pepper. Served over rice with a bit of sautéed local smoked sausage on the side, its bright, fresh flavors renewed our heat blunted appetites as we watched that classic film about waiting for snow and pretended that cooler weather just around the corner.

Neither of us knew at the time that Spanish Tomatoes had deep roots in Savannah’s culinary past. It goes back at least to the late 1860s, when Mrs. Fred (Leila) Habersham, one of Georgia’s first known cooking teachers, taught it in the cooking school she ran in her mother’s home on the corner of Abercorn and State Street.

Mrs. Habersham sautéed each ingredient separately, layered them in a dish, and baked them until they were richly concentrated and flavorful. One student aptly noted in her notebook that they were “delightful to eat just so, or served for sauce, or as an entrée.”

Marilyn’s preparation was more streamlined, and while its flavors were not as concentrated, they were fresher and more direct, just right for a White Christmas supper on a searing July evening.

Despite the heat of that summer, I fell in love with this place and came back to live. Part of it was probably a passion for historic architecture, another part, the unique warmth of these people who have become a part of my life. Perhaps it had a little something to do a timeless seafood-rich cuisine that has become an indelible part of my own kitchen.

But maybe—just maybe, it owed more than Marilyn ever knew to the comfort of White Christmas and a plateful of Spanish Tomatoes.

Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoonfuls drippings or unsalted butter or olive oil
2 medium green bell peppers, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, thinly sliced
1 large Bermuda or yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and thinly sliced
Sugar
Salt and ground cayenne pepper

1. Blanch, peel, and core the tomatoes. Over a sieve set in a bowl to catch their juices, cut them into thick wedges and scoop out the seeds. Add them to the bowl with their juices.

2. Warm the drippings, butter, or oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the peppers and onions and sauté, tossing, until the onion is translucent and softened and the pepper wilted but still bright green, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their collected juices and raise the heat to medium high. Season well with salt, a pinch of sugar (if needed), and cayenne to taste. Bring to a boil.

3. Reduce the heat once again to medium, and simmer briskly until the juices are thick and the tomatoes are tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings, let it simmer half a minute longer, and turn off the heat. Serve warm.

To bake them as Mrs. Habersham did, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. If the skillet isn’t ovenproof, at the end of step 2, transfer its contents to a lightly buttered wide 3-quart baking dish. Otherwise, just put the uncovered skillet into the oven. Bake until the juices are thick and the tomatoes tender, about 1 hour.

Blueberry Crumble

July 7, 2011

Tags: Blueberries, Southern Cooking, American Cooking

Sunday Dinner Blueberry Crumble (Photo by Timothy Hall)
Among my favorite and most cherished memories from childhood are those big, leisurely Sunday dinners that we had after church, when we actually ate in the dining room and used the good china and silver.

There were never fewer than three side dishes and always a dessert (most often banana pudding)--which marked it as a special occasion at my mother's table, since a sweet at the meal's end was not a given in our household.

Now that I am the one who gets up early on the the "Day of Rest" and does the cooking, I appreciate more the effort that my mother put into making it seem leisurely. However, it remains among my favorite meals, both to make and to eat.

Whether it's the traditional Southern roast and plethora of sides from my childhood or a simple frittata with hash browns, the challenge, for me, is that obligatory dessert at the end. Sweets are just not my thing.

Happily, blueberries are in season and over this past holiday weekend, there happened to be a couple of pints on hand. Sunday's dessert was a snap to make, because nothing is simpler, or better, than a blueberry crumble, and this one may well have been the best I've ever made.

For the fans of my Facebook page, who were drawn in by Timothy Hall's handsome picture, here's how to make one of your own.

Blueberry Crumble

Serves 6 to 8
3 pints blueberries
¾ cup sugar
Salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 lemon
7 ounces (about 1½ cups) all-purpose flour
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375° F. Wash, drain, and pick over the berries to remove any stems and blemished fruit. Put it in a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl and add the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Grate in the zest from the lemon. Toss well, taste a berry, and if they are not very tart, halve the lemon and add a squeeze of lemon juice, as needed.

2. Lightly butter a shallow 2 quart casserole and pour in the fruit. Wash and dry the mixing bowl, put in the flour and brown sugar, and toss until well mixed. Add the butter and cut it in until the mixture resembles course meal, with lumps no bigger than very small peas. Sprinkle it over the fruit.

3. Bake until golden brown and the filling is bubbly in the center, about 45 minutes.

4 July 2011 Mr. Jefferson and My Mother's Green Bean Salad

July 4, 2011

Tags: Monticello, Classical Southern Cooking, Classic French Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Haricots Verts

My mother's "pickled green beans" or green bean salad, in her cut glass relish dish
On this Independence Day, it occurs to me that my imagination probably spends way too much time wandering in the garden and kitchen at Monticello, the iconic home of founding father Thomas Jefferson. One has only to visit it once to understand why—or to comprehend the deep love for it that inspired him to write, “all my dreams end where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”
But today, with other, more stirring, words from his pen in the air, it is probably inevitable that my thoughts should turn to that hill again, and in a funny way, thinking of Jefferson’s garden and table always brings me home.
Now, Monticello is a world apart from the small-town life of my childhood, but my mother and Jefferson have a lot in common—at least, when it comes to dinner.
All her life she has shared his passion for growing things and experimenting with new plants. (Who else in the deep South was growing kohlrabi in the sixties?) She has also shared his famous diet, which consisted mostly of freshly gathered vegetables, simply dressed.
Nothing illustrates that better than a defining element of my mother’s summer table: slim, immature green beans, cooked but dressed with vinaigrette and served at room temperature, which is the very same way Jefferson himself enjoyed them. James, Peter, Edy and Fanny (the slaves who governed Monticello’s kitchen) probably could not have counted the number of times they sent up that from the kitchen during the season.
Mama called her version “pickled beans,” and they came to our table mounded on a rectangular, cut glass relish dish, neatly aligned like chord wood and garnished with finely minced onions—as lovely to look at as they were to eat.
I just happen to have one of her cut glass relish dishes, and though the slim little haricots verts that filled it did not, sad to say, come from her garden, they still seemed just the thing for celebrating Independence Day.

The beans you want for this salad should be as young as possible, very thin and small—preferably no more than three inches long—such as true young French haricots verts. Once again, Mary Randolph captured the way they were cooked at Monticello:

French Beans.

Cut off the stalk end first, and then turn to the point and strip off the strings; if not quite fresh, have a bowl of spring water, with a little salt dissolved in it, standing before you, as the beans are cleansed and trimmed, throw them in; when all are done, put them on the fire in boiling water with some salt in it; when they have boiled fifteen or twenty minutes, take one out and taste it; as soon as they are tender, take them up, and throw them into a colander to drain. To send up the beans whole, when they are young, is much the best method, and their delicate flavor and color is much better preserved. When a little more grown, they must be cut across, in two, after stringing; and for common tables, they are split, and divided across; but those who are nice, do not use them at such a growth as to require splitting.

– Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, 1824

Most modern haricots verts will not take as long as Mrs. Randolph suggests here, and at any rate, she wanted her reader to watch the pot, not the clock. In my youth, good olive oil was hard to come by in the farming communities and small towns where we lived, so the oil was mostly peanut or some generic “salad” oil. Now that she can get it, she often dresses even warm vegetables with a good fruity olive oil.

Serves 4
1 pound thin, immature green beans
3 tablespoons minced mild onion, preferably Vidalia Sweet
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
About 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar, optional
Extra virgin olive oil

1. Have ready a basin of cool water. Snap off the stem end of the beans, pulling off the strings (if there are any) as you go, then snap off the pointed tails and make sure that all the string has been removed (if it’s a stringless variety, don’t tail them—it’s not necessary). Drop them as they are trimmed into the water and let them soak for at least 15 minutes to freshen them. Prepare a basin of ice and water.

2. Put 4 quarts of water in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Throw in a small handful of salt.

3. Lift the beans from their soaking water and add them to the pot a handful at a time. Cover, let it come back to a boil, and remove the lid. Cook until al dente— still bright green and firm to the bite but no longer crunchy, about 4-to-6 minutes. True haricots verts may require a minute or so more. Drain and immediately immerse them in the ice water to arrest the cooking. Let them get cold and then drain well.

3. Put the beans in a bowl and strew 2 tablespoons of minced onion over them. Season with salt, a few grindings of pepper, and a couple of spoonfuls of vinegar. My mother often adds a teaspoon or so of sugar for a sweet-sour note. Toss well, taste, and correct the vinegar and seasonings—going easy; the flavor will intensify as they marinate. Cover and marinate for at least a thirty minutes or up to an hour.

4. When you are ready to serve the beans, drizzle them with olive oil—just enough to give them a nice gloss—and toss until evenly coated. Arrange on a shallow serving dish, sprinkle the top with the remaining spoonful of minced onion, and serve at once.

Now, that is how my mother does it. Nowadays I always reverse the oil and vinegar, adding the latter just before serving so that the beans retain their bright color, but admit that they taste better Mama’s way, even though the acid dulls them to army-fatigue olive.