Recipes and Stories

28 August 2011 The Ultimate Tomato Sandwich

August 28, 2011

Tags: Classical Southern Cooking, Tomato Sandwiches, Shirley Cannon, Bacon

Bacon is the secret to Shirley's Tomato Sandwiches. Photograph by John Carrington
Before summer is over, let’s linger for a moment over one of the great, iconic tastes of the season: the tomato sandwich. For more than a century, this sandwich has been a seasonal standard and, while we Southerners love to claim it as our own, its popularity really knows no regional – or, indeed, continental – boundaries.

Whether they take the form of the South’s homey supper-over-the sink version, made with thick slabs of freshly gathered tomato on soft loaf bread slathered with homemade mayonnaise, the crust-trimmed elegance of Britain’s neat little tea sandwiches made with thin-sliced bread, carefully salted and pressed fruit, and butter, or the classic crisply toasted American diner standard, the BLT, tomato sandwiches are universally loved.

The sandwiches of my own childhood were the supper-over-the-sink kind. Made with juicy, thickly-sliced tomatoes from Mama’s garden, lots of mayonnaise, and the kind of mushy loaf bread that tended to disintegrate in your hands, the juice ran down one’s arms and squirted all over one’s chest. Eating them was, like sex, something one did in private.

It was here in Savannah, where tomato sandwiches have been the expected refreshment for any summer and autumn afternoon party or reception worth going to, that I first encountered the more refined English teatime form, the sort that (mostly) doesn’t squirt tomato juice and is easy to eat in one or at most two mouthfuls.

Among Savannah’s legendary caterers over the last century, arriving at The Ultimate Tomato Sandwich became almost like the pursuit of the Holy Grail. “Secret” ingredients ranged from two kinds of bread (one on each side), to onion mayonnaise, herb mayonnaise, and one of several brands of seasoned salt. They’ve all made their mark, but for me, the ultimate tomato sandwich was achieved by Shirley Cannon, former housekeeper for the Green-Meldrim House.

The historic Madison Square mansion is the parish hall for St. John’s Church, and the venue for an after-church coffee hour that’s like stepping back in time at least three-quarters of a century. The coffee and tea are dispensed from Victorian silver urns into china cups, and the lace-and-linen-draped tables are heavy with homemade baked goods and tea sandwiches.

Some of the food actually does change with the tide of fashion, but the centerpiece has not: it’s still Shirley’s tomato sandwiches, made by her incomparable recipe even though she has long since retired. Her secret ingredients were McCormick’s brand seasoning salt and crumbled bacon. Face it: nobody is going to top that any time soon.

To make sixty half-moon sandwiches, you’ll need about 5 to 6 medium ripe tomatoes, some kosher salt, sixty thin slices of firm home-style white bread, about a cup of homemade mayonnaise, 8 slices of crisp-cooked and crumbled bacon, McCormick’s Seasoning Salt (no substitutes), and chopped fresh or dried dill.

First wash and core enough tomatoes to make thirty quarter-inch-thick slices. Slice and spread them on a platter or rimmed baking sheet (Shirley never peeled them), sprinkle lightly with kosher salt, and let them stand at least a quarter of an hour.

Meanwhile, cut the bread into rounds with a large round biscuit cutter. Mix the mayonnaise and bacon, and season to taste with the Seasoning Salt. Lightly spread one side of the bread rounds with bacon mayonnaise. Drain the tomatoes and pat them dry, then lay one slice each over the spread side of half the bread rounds, top with the remaining bread, spread-side-down, and cut them in half. You can make them as much as half an hour ahead. Cover them with a damp tea towel.

Just before serving, line twelve-inch round trays with lace doilies. Arrange the sandwiches on them in concentric circles, standing up on their flat cut sides. Sprinkle their edges with dill, and serve immediately.

20 August 2011 Butterbean Bliss

August 21, 2011

Tags: Historical Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Butterbeans, Southern Vegetables, Annabella Hill, Clara Eschmann, Historical Southern Cooking

Annabella Hill's Buttery Butterbeans
One of the great inventions of the modern world has to be the machine that shells summer’s bounty of beans and peas—as anyone who has ever been subjected to the job as a child will readily tell you. There are few things in this life better than fresh butterbeans from the summer garden, and even fewer that are more tedious than shelling them.

Southern cooks of the past would no doubt turn their noses up at the neat bags of butterbeans that came home with me from the farmers’ market this morning. They’d argue, and rightly, that beans that had been lying bare-naked on ice could not be nearly as good as ones that were kept snugly in their pods until just before they’re cooked.

But those old girls had help in the kitchen—or at the very least, a child they could indenture for the job—and I don’t. The small sacrifice in flavor is well worth the wear and tear it saves on my fingers, not to mention patience.

Besides, the morning was hot and making me a little homesick, and those plump little butterbeans brought back soothing memories not only of home, but of my dear old friend Clara Eschmann, the endearing lady who was for many years food editor of the Macon Telegraph.

A fantastic cook and natural-born storyteller, Clara loved butterbeans almost more than she loved bourbon (which is saying a lot). She steadfastly maintained that no self-respecting Southerner would ever call them lima beans, and relished spinning the tale that their Southern name derived from the fact that they had to be cooked with butter—and plenty of it.

She was in good company. Witness Mrs. Hill’s directive on the subject, put down a good half-century before Clara was born:

360. Lima, or Butter Beans.—When fully formed, and before the hull turns yellow, shell them; wash them well, and put them to boil in hot water, sufficiently salted to season them. When tender, pour off nearly all the water; make the remainder of the broth rich with butter, and serve upon a hot dish. Never pepper them unless with white pepper; the small black particles of the common pepper upon so much white vegetable gives them an untidy appearance.

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

Mrs. Hill’s reputation as a cook could rest on that recipe alone. Say what you will about what salt-cured pork and pepper bring to other kinds of beans, these delicacies need absolutely nothing but salt, butter, and two hands that don’t mind one another—a stingy one with the salt and a generous one with the butter. Anything else just gets in the way.

To serve 4 people, you’ll need about a pound (shelled weight) of small fresh butterbeans—which works out to about 3 generous cups. You’ll also need a little kosher or sea salt and about 2 ounces (4 tablespoons) of best quality butter. Put the shelled beans in a colander, rinse them well under cold running water, and let them drain.

Bring a quart of water to a boil over medium heat, season it lightly with salt, and add the beans. Bring it back to a boil, skimming off the foam that forms, and reduce the heat. Simmer gently until the beans are tender, which could take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes, depending on their size and maturity. Drain off most of the liquid and stir in the butter a few lumps at a time, until the liquid is lightly thickened and creamy. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more butter if they’re not creamy enough. Heat a serving bowl by rinsing it with hot water, turn the beans into it, and serve immediately.

You might think that such a recipe could barely be called cooking, but sometimes the mark of a real cook is knowing when to leave well enough alone.

10 August 2011: Supper Shrimp and Grits

August 11, 2011

Tags: Shrimp, Classic Southern Cooking, Grits, Shrimp and Grits

Summer Supper Shrimp and Grits. Photography by John Carrington
Long before it was discovered by ambitious chefs and made the poster appetizer for the Nouvelle Southern Cooking movement of the 1980s, shrimp with grits was hearty, humble breakfast and supper fare in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry that no one would have thought of as fancy, let alone an appetizer.

To begin with, it would not have occurred to anyone to have grits at dinner, particularly not at a formal table. In the second place, in those days the idea of something as substantial and satisfying as shrimp swimming in rich gravy as merely an appetizer would have seemed truly strange.

Once it got into the hands of creative chefs, however, there was no turning back until it had been so gussied up and overdone that it was hackneyed and passé. It then came full circle and was rediscovered as fashionably “retro”—whatever that is supposed to mean.

That’s not meant to be a cranky slam of what professional cooks do when they spin on a classic. It’s just that, in all their spinning, everyone lost sight of the original dish and its humble origins.

A lot of us stopped thinking of shrimp and grits as a perfectly sensible breakfast and supper dish and started thinking of it as too fancy for regular meals. We either quit making it altogether or saved it for company—something our grandmothers would rather have died than do.

This past Monday evening, I’d picked up some lovely local brown shrimp for supper. Since there were just two of us, it needed to be something simple, and I stood there with the refrigerator door open, getting nowhere, until the bag of grits on the bottom shelf caught my eye.

How could I have forgotten about shrimp and grits? The perfect supper on a hot summer evening had been there all the time, just waiting to be noticed.

For two persons (and this doubles nicely), you’ll need

¾ pound of medium shrimp
2 strips of extra-thick-cut bacon cut into ½-inch dice
1 small or half a medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and ground cayenne pepper
4 cups hot Cooked Hominy Grits (recipe follows)

1. Peel the shrimp, reserving the shells. Cover, and refrigerate the shrimp. Put the shells and 4 cups of water in a stainless or enameled pot. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, being careful not to let it boil over. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1 cup. Turn off the heat, strain the broth into a stainless steel or glass bowl. Discard the shells. If not proceeding right away, cool completely, cover, and refrigerate. (If you’re in a hurry, you can omit this step and just use water for the gravy, but this does make it tastier.)

2. When you are ready to continue, put the bacon in a large sauté pan or skillet that will hold the shrimp in one layer. Sauté over medium heat, tossing occasionally, until browned. Add the onion. Raise the heat to medium-high and sauté, tossing frequently, until it’s pale gold, about 4 or 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant but not colored. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until it is lightly browned, about 2 minutes more.

3. Slowly stir in the shrimp broth (or 1 cup of water) and bring it to a boil, stirring constantly. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and season lightly with salt and cayenne. Cook until the shrimp are curled and pink, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings and serve at once over hot grits.

Cooked Hominy Grits
Serves 2

½ cup hominy grits (often labeled “regular” grits . . . whatever that means)
Salt

1. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in an enameled or stainless steel saucepan over medium heat. Prepare a teakettle of water, bring it to a boil, and keep it simmering.

2. Slowly add the grits to the saucepan in a steady stream, stirring constantly. Bring it to a boil, still stirring, and reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Loosely cover the pan and cook, stirring often, until the grits are very thick and tender, about an hour. If the grits get too thick before they’re tender, add a little of the simmering water from the kettle.

3. Season to taste with salt and simmer 5 minutes longer.

31 July 2011: MaMa’s Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash

August 2, 2011

Tags: Summer Squash, Stuffed Vegetables, Southern Cooking, Summer Cooking

My Grandmother's Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash, Photograph by Timothy Hall
There’s never a time that I don’t miss my grandmother, but summer is probably when I miss her most. That was when, for two wonder-filled weeks, we each got to stay with her all by ourselves. The best part for me was the time spent with MaMa in the kitchen, making homemade vegetable soup and pimiento cheese, frying chicken, doughnuts and turnovers, and baking—even in the dead heat of summer with no air conditioning.

Of all the things we cooked together, nothing recalls those days more poignantly or delectably than one of MaMa’s great specialties: young swan-necked yellow squash, scooped out and filled with its own pulp mixed with stale crumbs and seasoned simply with sliced green onions, salt, and pepper.

Ever since the first time I crumbled the bread for them fifty years ago, MaMa’s squash have been a regular part of my summer table—although, through those years, I’ve strayed from the simple elegance of her formula, adding at various times bacon, prosciutto, seafood, sausage, sage, thyme, Parmigiano, Cheddar, and garlic. But when it comes down to it, if the squash are good to begin with, all that just gilded the lily and got in the way.

To achieve perfection as my grandmother did, choose four medium-sized yellow crookneck squash that are impeccably fresh. They should have clear, glossy-smooth skins and stems that are plump and bright green. Wash them carefully under cold running water and steam them whole in a steamer basket set over at an inch of simmering water until barely tender, about 12-15 minutes, depending on size. Rinse them under cold water to stop the cooking and let them cool enough to handle.

Position rack in center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. Generously butter a nine-by-twelve-inch baking dish. Lay the squash on a cutting board with their crooknecks to one side so that they lie flat. Slice off about a quarter of their tops, chop it coarsely, and put it in a ceramic or glass bowl. With a melon baller or teaspoon, carefully scoop the pulp and seeds from the squashes, leaving their outer walls intact. Gently squeeze the excess moisture out of the pulp, chop it, and add it to the bowl. Invert the squash shells over a rack and let them drain for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, trim, wash, and thinly sliced enough green onion to make half a cup. Add them to the squash pulp along with a generous cup or so of finely crumbled stale but still soft biscuits, dinner rolls, or loaf bread. Season to taste with salt and a fresh grinding of pepper. Lightly beat an egg until it’s well mixed and just moisten the filling with it; you may not need all of it. Mix well and spoon it evenly into the shells, mounding the excess up on the top. Sprinkle the tops generously with more crumbs, gently pat them in, and put the squash in the prepared dish. Cut thin slices of butter over the tops and bake until hot through and golden brown, about half an hour.

Let the most intense flush of heat dissipate for a few minutes, then sit down with a glass of sweet tea and taste the pure essence of summer on a fork.