When I was trying to construct a recipe for my first cookbook, in her typical way, MaMa said, “I never measured anything for soup, so just guess.” Well, of course, she measured— (more…)
Recipes and Stories
August 18, 2018
When I was trying to construct a recipe for my first cookbook, in her typical way, MaMa said, “I never measured anything for soup, so just guess.” Well, of course, she measured— (more…)
January 12, 2018
The nicest thing one could say of most of these misbegotten things is that they’re bewildering. (more…)
December 24, 2017
If you’ve not encountered it, drinking custard is the same thing as custard sauce, only made with fewer egg yolks or whole eggs so that it’s thin enough to sip from a cup the way you’d do eggnog. For many Southern families, it was and still is a long standing holiday tradition and is actually the base that is often used for eggnog, especially if it contains no alcohol.
Mama used to tell stories of the days when my father was in seminary in Louisville and pastored a small country church (more…)
December 8, 2017
Hers was one the most extraordinarily moist cakes I’ve ever had. The great secret for its moistness is also the reason it tasted more intensely of coconut than any other. (more…)
May 27, 2016
While we were in shrimp territory, we ate as many of them as we could manage. Most of the shrimp we ate were bought from the many local fishermen who sold them roadside from the tailgates of their battered pickups, (more…)
March 4, 2016
Even when those other noises are missing (and, all too often, even when they’re not), we’re talking. Non-stop. Count on it: in any moment where complete silence is the order—a religious service, a funeral, the quiet contemplation of nature or art, that silence is always, always interrupted by the sharp hiss of a whisper.
Our need to fill the void permeates nearly everything we do, but it’s most troubling manifestation is in our kitchens. (more…)
May 8, 2015
There was nothing wrong with those sauces—when we have the time to properly execute them and can serve them immediately, but there’s also nothing wrong with well-made pan gravy, especially for home cooks. (more…)
May 6, 2015
One of the most under-appreciated elements of any cuisine, but of Southern cooking especially, when well-made and carefully seasoned, pan gravy is also the best sauce imaginable. Rich with the browned essence of the food it will accompany, it enhances without smothering, and can partly redeem indifferent or accidentally over-done food. (more…)
April 14, 2015
February 20, 2015
October 22, 2014
August 7, 2014
April 8, 2014
— Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867
Here’s an odd and suggestive historical puzzle: many nineteenth century American cookbook authors agreed with Mrs. Hill, conceding that beets taste best when they are baked whole rather than boiled. And yet, not one of them, Mrs. Hill included, provided directions for doing it. (more…)
March 31, 2014
March 29, 2014
November 5, 2013
August 24, 2013
July 30, 2013
May 2, 2013
January 4, 2013
January 3, 2013
December 21, 2012
December 12, 2012
There may be something in the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt; (more…)
November 4, 2012
Someone is naïve, all right, but it’s not the cooks of the past. (more…)
October 23, 2012
But fried chicken is—or, rather, should be—special occasion fare. For me, the simplest, and most satisfying, way of cooking a chicken is roasting, especially at this time of year: the aroma is the very essence of autumn’s kitchen. (more…)
October 15, 2012
August 25, 2012
While working on a story for a Labor Day backyard party, I kept coming across articles that were reaching (or should we say, stretching) for something new and different—and with very little real success. What they generally ended up with was the same old things with a different sauce slathered onto it.
August 4, 2012
I submit this in response to the persistent myth that Southerners historically had no subtlety with the vegetable pot: it comes from a late nineteenth century Savannah manuscript. (more…)
August 3, 2012
July 28, 2012
July 20, 2012
July 3, 2012
June 29, 2012
June 23, 2012
May 26, 2012
Here in Savannah and over in Italy, one of the best of these blooms is, pardon the expression, presently in full flower: the butter-yellow blooms of summer squash (more…)
May 4, 2012
It is popularly supposed to have originated in Kentucky, where true bourbon is made, and perhaps the classic version was—Lord knows, it ought to have been, since tomorrow at Derby time mint juleps will be flowing across Kentucky like rainwater after a spring thunderstorm. (more…)
April 25, 2012
This is the smallest and most delicate species of the Windsor bean. Gather them in the morning, when they are full-grown, but quite young, and do not shell them till you are going to dress them. Put them into boiling water, have a small bit of middling, (flitch,) of bacon, well boiled, take the skin off, cover it with bread crumbs, and toast it; lay this in the middle of the dish, drain all the water from the beans, put a little butter on them, and pour them round the bacon.” (more…)
March 14, 2012
March 6, 2012
February 14, 2012
That has not always been the case: until the middle of the nineteenth century, chocolate was rare and expensive, and the lavish bonbons, cakes, mousses, and pots de crème that tempt lovers nowadays didn’t exist. Chocolate was almost exclusively used as a beverage and, moreover, was a luxury that few could afford. In short, only the most elite lovers could conjure with chocolate, and they had to do so with a cup.
They could have done worse. Drinking chocolate goes back at least to the ancient Mayans, who used it in religious rituals and may well have believed it to have had aphrodisiacal powers. The Europeans, upon discovering it, certainly did. But then, they thought almost everything from the New World was an aphrodisiac.
Never mind. Silky rich drinking chocolate has a power all its own—and isn’t the biggest part of romance in our heads anyway?
By the days of the early Republic, drinking chocolate was still a luxury, but had become affordable enough to be well established in America. It was made in some variation of the method put down by Lettice Bryan in 1839.
Chocolate cakes are carved in little squares on one side, to each of which, if the chocolate is good, allow about three jills* of water. Scrape it very fine with a knife, mix it with just enough boiling water to dissolve it, mashing it with a spoon till smooth, and then put it in a block-tin boiler, mix in the remaining water, which must also be boiling, cover it, set it on a trivet over a bed of coals, and boil it gently till reduce to about two thirds its original, giving it a light stirring two or three times: then replenish it with cream or rich sweet milk, making the boiler as full as it first was with water; watch it closely, stirring it a little till it boils up; then take it instantly from the fire, or it will boil over the top and a good part of it will be lost. Whirl round in it, near the top, a chocolate mill, (or a small bunch of bended wires will answer) till you raise a rich froth on the top, and send it to table hot, accompanied with chocolate cakes**, dry toasts, or hard rusks.
— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839.
* Mrs. Bryan meant “gill,” an archaic name for ¼ pint, or ½ cup in modern liquid measurements.
** These were crisp sugar cookies designed for eating with the beverage. They didn’t contain chocolate.
With all respect to Mrs. Bryan, Miss Eliza Acton, one of the finest cookery writers of nineteenth century England (or, for that matter, anywhere else) provided a more refined recipe in her 1845 masterpiece that set a new standard for cookbooks.
To Make Chocolate.
An ounce of chocolate, if good, will be sufficient for one person. Rasp, and then boil it from five to ten minutes with about four tablespoonfuls* of water; when it is extremely smooth add nearly a pint of new milk, give it another boil, stir it well, or mill it, and serve it directly. For water-chocolate use three-quarters of a pint of water instead of milk, and send rich hot cream to table with it. The taste must decide whether it shall be made thicker or thinner.
Chocolate, 2 oz.; water, quarter-pint, or rather more; milk 1 pint: ½ minute.
— Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845.
* Miss Acton means a common table or kitchen spoon roughly double the size of the standard modern measuring spoon. The closer equivalent to our tablespoon was a dessertspoon. Notice that while she says an ounce of chocolate will be sufficient for one person, the amounts given in the ingredient list and within the recipe are for two servings.
Very little of Miss Acton’s method needs further illumination for modern cooks. By milling she meant to whip it with a chocolate mill, a round whip on a long handle that was spun by rubbing it between the hands. Her recipe was accompanied by a drawing of a chocolate pot that came equipped with such a mill.
To Make Chocolate for Two.
Finely grate two ounces of best quality unsweetened dark chocolate. Bring a scant half-cup of water to a simmer over medium low heat, stir in the chocolate, and keep stirring until it dissolves. Let it simmer slowly while you bring one-and-three-quarters cups of light cream (or a blend of whole milk and cream) almost to a boil in a separate pot. If liked, add a cinnamon stick or half a vanilla bean to the milk before heating it, and let it simmer for five minutes. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the chocolate, sweeten it to taste with sugar, and if you’ve not used cinnamon or whole bean vanilla, flavor it with a little homemade Bourbon Vanilla (see 26 October 2011). A tiny pinch of cayenne is considered good for increasing one’s romantic inclinations. Whisk or mill until there is a thick froth on top and serve immediately.
You will not have to wait long for results.
February 9, 2012
If you aren’t familiar with Calamondins, they look like a miniature tangerine or Clementine, and have the same thin, pliable skin that easily detaches from the fruit. But unlike Clementines, the pulp of a Calamondin is tart, with a bitter edge, which is of course why they’re so perfect for marmalade.
Several friends suggested that the juice would be a perfect substitute for that of bitter oranges in marinades for such things as Cuban style pork roast, or hearty roasted fish such as grouper or snapper. But using only the juice meant wasting those beautiful, vibrant skins, and since the day was cool and clear—ideal for making preserves—why quibble with marmalade just because it’s obvious?
When it comes to marmalade, the old-fashioned kind, with a nice bitter bite to cut the sweetness, is best. And for that, we need look no further than Lettice Bryan’s 1839 masterpiece, The Kentucky Housewife:
Grate fine the yellow peel from some ripe deep colored oranges, cut up all that are decorticated, saving the juice and removing the seeds and cores; mix with the pulp the grated peel, add an equal weight of powdered loaf sugar and a very little water, simmer the whole together till it becomes thick and quite transparent. When cold put it up in small glass jars, and cover them with brandy papers.”
The delicate skins of Calamondins would not have taken to grating, but Mrs. Bryan’s formula otherwise made better sense than the things that had turned up on the Internet. The pitted fruit was sliced and tossed into the pot without separating the skins. The only addition to her sensible recipe was a tiny pinch of salt to brighten the flavor.
Calamondin Orange Marmalade
Wash the oranges and carefully twist off the stems (don’t pull or their delicate skins will tear). Weigh the fruit, then halve, seed, and thinly slice it, conserving all the juices. Toss the fruit and its juices into a heavy-bottomed stainless steel or enameled pot as it is cut.
Add an equal weight of sugar, a scant cup of water for each pound, and a small pinch of kosher or pickling salt. Stir until the sugar is mostly dissolved, then bring it to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Maintain a steady boil and cook until the skins are transparent and tender and the syrup is thickened and jellies when dropped from the spoon onto a saucer (210-220 degrees F. on a candy thermometer). It will take about half an hour or a little more.
Let the marmalade cool slightly, then using a perfectly clean stainless or silver ladle and wide-mouthed funnel, transfer it to sterilized half-pint jars. Cover with new canning lids, cool, and refrigerate or, for prolonged storage, process in a water bath for 5 minutes.
January 25, 2012
Originating in Indonesia, mace comes from the fruit of myristica fragrans or, more commonly, the nutmeg tree. Though the fruit itself is bitter and inedible, its kernel contains two of the most intoxicatingly powerful spices in the world. The fat, oval nut at its center is nutmeg, and mace is the leathery, bright orange-red netting that covers its hard shell.
The flavor and aroma of mace is more pungent and pronounced than that of nutmeg. Bitter and often peppery hot, it’s one of the essential spices for garam masala and can be found in many curry blends. But when judiciously mated with other things, it adds a surprisingly mellow richness that no other spice can match.
Though whole blades don’t hold their pungency as well as whole nutmegs, they still keep their oomph longer than ground mace. Unfortunately, the latter is just about all you’re likely to find unless are lucky enough to have an Indian market in the neighborhood. Whole mace is well worth seeking out, even if you have to mail order it.
Store mace in an airtight jar away from heat and light. When a recipe calls for a blade, use a whole shard about three-quarters of an inch long. When the ground spice is wanted, pulverize it as needed with a pestle (ideally of wood) in a stone or unglazed ceramic mortar.
Historically, whole blades were used much like a bay leaf in cream and milk based sauces, soups, stews, and fricassees. Ground mace could be found in both savory and sweet dishes and was once the characterizing spice for pound cake.
Mace adds a subtle richness to bechamel and old-fashioned cream-based sauces such as bread, onion, and oyster, and is a lovely mate for shellfish, veal, and poultry.
One handsome historical use for mace was in Turtle Bean Soup (see the recipe from 16 January). Another especially masterful one is this old fashioned conserve.
Drop one-and-a-half pounds of small shrimp into two quarts of rapidly boiling water. Cover, and count 1 minute. Uncover, and as soon as the shrimp are curled and pink, drain, rinse under cold running water, and let them cool enough to handle. Meanwhile, pulverize a blade or two of mace in a mortar and pestle. In a small saucepan over medium low heat, simmer two heaped tablespoons of minced shallots in an ounce of butter until softened. Turn off the heat.
Peel and roughly chop the shrimp. Put them in a stone or unglazed ceramic mortar or the bowl of a food processor. Add the mace, shallots, a large pinch of salt, and ground cayenne to taste. Some traditional recipes add a grating of nutmeg, too. Beat with a wooden pestle or process until finely ground then gradually beat in 4 ounces of softened butter. Taste and adjust the seasonings and mix them in.
Pack it into a crock leaving half an inch of headroom and cover it with a quarter of an inch of melted clarified butter. Cool, cover, and refrigerate until needed but let it soften to room temperature before serving. It should keep for up to two weeks until the butter seal is broken. Serve it with crisp toast points or plain crackers.
January 17, 2012
Fortunately, despite such daytime extremes our evenings have been cool enough to stir a seasonal longing for warming, comfortable bowls of soup. And when comfort is required, is there anything that fills the bill quite so well as bean soup?
All bean soups, from the thick, pasta-studded zuppas of Tuscany to the fragrantly spicy mélanges of the Caribbean, speak of the region from whence they came, and Savannah’s own, made with black, or as they were colloquially known, “turtle” beans, was no exception.
Where most bean soups are robust and provincial, and eaten from coarse everyday pottery, this one was a subtly seasoned, velvet-smooth puree served in the best company china. Ranking second only to Turtle Soup for refined elegance (it even had the same garnish of wafer-thin sliced lemon, sieved egg, and minced parsley) it was the culinary answer to the graceful architecture that surrounds our celebrated squares.
Unhappily, modern Savannahians rarely encounter this lovely soup at all, let alone served in that gracious way. The black bean soup to be found in local cafés and on far too many family supper tables is a Cuban or Southwestern inspired concoction spiced up with chilies, cilantro, cumin, and enough garlic to ward off an entire family of vampires.
Now, there’s a lot to be said for a spicy dose of Caribbean or Southwestern sunshine on a cold, drizzly winter day. But when the soul needs both warmth and refinement, Old Savannah had the better medicine.
Savannah Turtle Bean Soup
Sometimes the eggs were merely sliced and laid on the bottom of the tureen or soup plate before the soup was ladled in, imitating the way the turtle’s eggs were used in that soup, but for state occasions, they were forced through a wire mesh sieve and sprinkled over the top of each serving.
Serves 8 as a first course at dinner, or 6 as a main course at lunch or supper
1 pound dried black beans
½ pound lean salt-cured pork, in one piece, or ¼ pound if pre-sliced
6 cups meat broth
1 large or 2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and chopped
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced small
1 small turnip, scrubbed, peeled and diced small
2 ribs celery, washed, strung and diced small
3 tablespoons tomato paste (or, in season, 2 medium ripe tomatoes scalded, peeled, seeded and chopped)
1 bay leaf
2 large sprigs of parsley
3 whole cloves, beaten to a powder with a mortar and pestle
1 blade mace, beaten to a powder with a mortar and pestle
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 tablespoon mushroom catsup or Worcestershire sauce
2 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled
6-8 tablespoons sherry (1 tablespoon per serving)
1 lemon, thinly sliced
2-3 tablespoons minced parsley
Pepper Sherry, optional
1. Rinse the beans under cold running water, sort through and discard any damaged or discolored ones, and put them in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Beans cook better in soft water: if your water, like Savannah’s, is hard, use bottled or filtered water. Bring the beans slowly to a boil point over medium heat. Turn off the heat and soak until the beans have doubled in volume, about an hour.
2. Replenish the water with enough to cover the beans by 1 inch. Put the pot back over medium heat and bring it to a simmer again, skimming away any scum that rises. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about an hour.
3. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid, and return the beans to the pot with 2 cups of cooking liquid, the salt pork, and meat broth. Raise the heat to medium, and bring it back to a boil. Add the onion, garlic, carrot, turnip, celery, and tomato paste, let it return to a boil, skimming off any scum that rises, then put in the bay leaf and parsley, powdered cloves, a pinch or so of salt (going easy; you can correct it later), a liberal grinding of pepper, a small pinch of cayenne, and the catsup or Worcestershire. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer, cover, and cook until the vegetables are very tender, about 2 hours.
4. Puree the soup through a food mill or with a hand blender, regular blender, or food processor. If it’s too thick, thin it with some of the reserved bean cooking liquid. Return it to the pot and bring it back to a simmer over medium heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and let it heat 2 to 3 minutes longer.
5. Meanwhile, force the eggs through a coarse wire sieve. To serve, add a tablespoon of sherry to each bowl and ladle in the soup. Float a slice of lemon on top of each and sprinkle with egg and parsley. Serve at once, passing Pepper Sherry separately, if liked.
November 12, 2011
Notice how much the color has deepened. It will continue to get richer and darker as it ages.
There's no need to decant the extract from the beans: in fact, one shouldn't; the extract can actually be replenished for a long by simply by adding bourbon in kind to replace what was taken out. When it seems to be weakening, just use it up and start a new batch.
November 9, 2011
A Ragout of Turnips.
Peel as many small turnips as will fill a dish; put them into a stew pan with some butter and a little sugar, set them over a hot stove, shake them about, and turn them till they are a good brown; pour in half a pint of rich high seasoned gravy, stew the turnips till tender, and serve them with the gravy poured over them. (The Virginia House-wife, 1824 ed., p. 128)
She does not add that the gravy should be pretty much reduced to a glaze. I always add a little butter to enrich the glaze at the end.
2 pounds of very small turnips of the same size (or larger ones, if necessary, see step 1)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup rich veal or beef broth
1. Scrub the turnips under cold running water, drain, peel, and trim them into uniform ovals. If they are larger, cut them into halves or quarters and trim each piece to a neat ovals of similar size.
2. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat and, put in the turnips. Toss until they are well coated, then sprinkle with sugar and shake to even distribute it. Sauté, gently shaking the pan to roll them, until they are nicely browned, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the broth and bring to a boil, again gently shaking the pan. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer gently until the turnips are just tender. The broth should be reduced considerably. Raise the heat and quickly boil, again shaking the pan gently, until it is reduced to a glaze. Add the remaining butter, shaking until it dissolves into the glaze, taste and adjust the salt as needed, and pour into a warm serving bowl.
November 9, 2011
This past weekend, it was my privilege to speak at the annual George Washington symposium, held in the conference center at the gate to his beautiful Mount Vernon estate. This year’s symposium officially launched the historic site’s handsome new cookbook, Dining with the Washingtons, so the subject was naturally Virginia foodways.
There can be little conversation on that subject without mention of Mary Randolph and her landmark book, The Virginia House-wife, published in 1824. Widely believed to be the first comprehensive chronicle of Southern cooking, it is one of the earliest published cookbooks in America to be truly American and regional.
My job was therefore to discuss Mrs. Randolph and Virginia’s role as the cradle of that cuisine, a somewhat daunting assignment, since I (1) am not a Virginian and (2) had in my audience Nancy Carter Crump, one of the great pioneers in the field of modern culinary history. The preeminent authority on Virginia foodways, Nancy was the recipe developer for Dining with the Washingtons.
Fortunately, she is a gracious lady and, thanks to her work, and that of our mutual mentor, Karen Hess, I was not unprepared for the task.
The setting could not have been more perfect: Mount Vernon, under clear, deep blue skies and surrounded by brilliant displays of colored leaves, was at its most exquisitely autumnal best. However, the highlight was spending time with Nancy, whose charm, graciousness, and sheer knowledge made for the very best of company.
Rounding out the mix were historians David Hancock, an authority on Washington’s beloved Madeira, English culinary historian Ivan Day, Mount Vernon’s research historian Mary Thompson and senior curator Carol Borchert Cadou, and Chef Walter Staib, a lively and charming character who presides over the kitchen of historic City Tavern, which Washington frequented whenever he was in Philadelphia.
If only Mary Randolph herself could have been there to complete the round table. By all accounts, a formidable woman, Queen Molly (as she was nicknamed in her the glory days as Richmond society’s leading hostess) was known not only for her culinary prowess and keen wit, but for her often-sharp tongue and incisive opinions. She was not a woman who held back.
At any rate, one of the things that one does at foodways symposia is eat—and eat a lot. Over the course of the weekend, we sampled many things that Martha Washington would have ordered from Mount Vernon’s kitchen, all prepared from Nancy’s delft interpretations of dishes from period cookbooks in Mrs. Washington’s collection.
One of the things stood out in particular for me, however, (and of which I think Queen Molly would have heartily approved) was a simple dish that everyone else probably barely noticed: seasonal turnips mashed and dressed with butter and cream. It was the perfect foil for the herb-stuffed collared pork loin it accompanied, and a refreshing reminder that, while the cooking of the Virginia gentry could be as elaborate as a State Banquet, it could also be exquisitely simple.
Since Thanksgiving is fast approaching, it is worth noting that these turnips would also be the perfect accompaniment for roast turkey. Here it is, the original, by Hannah Glasse, and as interpreted by Nancy Carter Crump in Dining with the Washingtons.
To Dress Turnips.
They eat best boiled in the pot, and when enough take them out and put them in a pan, and mash them with butter, and a little cream, and a little salt, and send them to the table. But you may do them thus: pare your turnips, and cut them into dices, as big as the top of one’s finger, put them into a clean sauce-pan, and just cover them with water. When enough, throw them into a sieve to drain, and put them in to a sauce-pan with a good piece of butter and a little cream; stir them over the fire for five or six minutes, and send them to table. (Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1806 ed., p. 32)
Serves 6 to 8
2½ pounds turnips, peeled and diced (about 4 cups)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup heavy cream
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1. Put the turnips in a large saucepan, barely cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until the turnips are fork-tender. Remove from the heat, and drain thoroughly.
2. Return the turnips to the saucepan, and set over low heat. Add the butter and stir until melted. Stir in the cream, and season with salt and pepper. Stir until well blended and heated through. Pour the turnips into a serving dish, and send to the table, or mash them roughly or until creamy, if preferred.
October 26, 2011
It may, in fact, have become a little too popular, thanks to the proliferation of cheap imitation flavorings, which have made vanilla so commonplace that the very word has become a synonym for bland, predictable and boring.
There is nothing bland or boring about real vanilla, and nothing that can equal its heady, fragrant magic. And while its imitations may be had for next to nothing, the real thing is still exotic and expensive.
However, a single bean can be made to go a very long way by infusing it into an extract. There are quality commercial extracts available, but making your own is very simple and gives a lot of satisfaction, not to mention flavor, that money can’t buy. All it takes is a couple of first quality vanilla beans, some decent bourbon, and a little patience.
Some people use vodka or brandy, but I prefer the mellowness that bourbon lends. The most fragrant proportion is one bean for every quarter cup of alcohol, about half the alcohol usually called for in these infusions. You simply split the bean lengthwise, halve it, put it into a clean glass jar and cover it with the prescribed amount of booze. Seal and give it a vigorous shake, then put it in a cool dark cupboard that you’ll be going into every day. For the first week or two, give it a shake every day.
Homemade extract lasts a lot longer because you leave the beans in the brew, replacing the extract as it is used with the same quantity of alcohol. It’ll last you for a couple of years at the least. Once the flavor starts to weaken, use it up and start a new batch.
Though I have full bottle of bourbon infused with excellent Madagascar vanilla beans, there’s another new batch infusing in my pantry, thanks to friend Colleen Crislip, who came home from her last trip to Mexico with one of the loveliest gifts imaginable: a slim glass tube containing three supple, fragrant Mexican vanilla beans. One of the most aromatic vanillas in the world, they haven’t always been available to us north of the Rio Grande. They make the most fragrant extract imaginable, rich with hints of coconut and chocolate.
The photograph was taken yesterday, just after the bourbon was poured over the beans. As it matures during the next couple of weeks, I’ll share its progress.
October 17, 2011
The main task was to define Gullah cooking and address whether or not its present incarnation was authentic.
During the question and answer period, a man lamented that Gullah culture had been entirely obliterated by twentieth century development of the barrier islands of Carolina and Georgia.
This even though two Gullah women were sitting right in front of him.
His remark, however, did bring the real issue into focus: it forced the acknowledgment that the discussion had been less about definitions and context than authenticity within the framework of history. Had the Gullah community ceased to exist because its people had changed and adapted to cultural encroachment, and was their cooking, both in the Lowcountry and in the diaspora, still “authentic” in the face of these cultural adaptations?
If you think on that for half a minute, you’ll answer yes, of course it is—as authentic as it was three hundred years ago when the West African slaves who founded this culture first adapted their rice based cuisines to incorporate new ingredients such as cornmeal, beans, and salt pork. To argue otherwise would be like arguing that Italian food has not been authentic since the sixteenth century, when chocolate, coffee, corn, beans, tomatoes, and zucchini were introduced from the New World.
The only constant in life is change. When confronted with that constant, civilizations have three choices: move, adapt, or die. A cuisine that adapts to the forces of change is simply following a natural continuum that began the day the first men and women learned that holding food over a fire did good things to it.
The history of cooking is not a series of contained plateaus ascending like stairs but a free-flowing river that picks things up along the way, has things thrown into it, and in turn tosses things onto its banks and leaves them behind.
The logical illustration of this would be something from a Gullah kitchen; but as Jeff obligingly pointed out to our audience (and as you will readily notice from my picture), Gullah cookery is not part of my heritage.
A dish that is a part of it, that has been on my mind ever since the season turned, is Chicken Kentuckian, a handsome sauté of young chickens basted with bourbon and finished with mushrooms and cream.
It came to me from my former minister, the late Rev. William H. Ralston. Its lineage in his Kentucky family goes back at least to his grandmother, who made it with the family’s young yard chickens, rough homemade whiskey, and mushrooms that had been gathered in nearby horse pastures.
Fr. Ralston used a chicken from the market, refined distillery-brewed whiskey, and white button mushrooms. Though I routinely use the same whiskey that he did, my original rendition added dried porcini mushrooms to lend the earthy depth of the wild mushrooms his grandmother used. In more than twenty years of making it, subtleties that I’m not even conscious of have crept into the pan, making it uniquely my own.
Which version is the most “authentic?” All of them are. No, Fr. Ralston’s probably was not quite like his mother’s and certainly not his grandmother’s, and mine is no longer quite like his, just as your interpretation will eventually become uniquely your own.
Will what you taste be what Fr. Ralston’s grandmother did a hundred years ago, or what he did a mere two decades ago, or even what I do today? No. But will you still be experiencing an authentic taste of history? You bet.
2 young frying chickens, no more than 2½-3-pounds each, disjointed as for frying
½ cup all-purpose flour
8-10 large, wild mushrooms, sliced thick, or ½ pound crimini or portabella mushrooms
½ ounce dried boletus edulis mushrooms (porcini or cèpes), optional
¼ cup unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped scallion
½ cup well-aged bourbon
1 cup heavy cream (minimum 36 percent milkfat)
1. Wash the chickens, pat dry, and spread them on a platter. Lightly dust with salt and flour. Wipe the fresh mushrooms with a dry cloth and slice them thickly. If using dried mushrooms, put them in a heatproof bowl, pour 1 cup of boiling water over them, and soak until cooled.
2. In a large, heavy skillet that will hold all the chicken without crowding, heat the butter and olive oil over low heat. Add the chicken and chopped scallions and sauté, turning frequently, until it is golden and tender, about half an hour. While it cooks, baste every few minutes with spoonfuls of the bourbon, being careful to add it in small amounts so there is never any liquid accumulated in the pan: it should sauté, not steam. When the chicken is cooked through and golden and all the bourbon has been used, remove it to a warm platter.
3. Turn up the heat to medium high. If using the dried mushrooms, lift them out of their soaking liquid, dipping to loosen any sand that is clinging to them, and put them in the pan. Filter the soaking water through a paper towel or coffee filter and add it to the pan. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, and boil until all the liquid is evaporated. Add the fresh mushrooms and sauté, tossing constantly, until beginning to color, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the cream and scrape loose any residue that may be stuck to the skillet. Simmer until just heated through and starting to thicken, about 1-2 minutes, depending on the richness of the cream. Taste the sauce and correct the seasonings, pour it over the chicken, and serve at once.
October 4, 2011
My cooking students have heard this truism hundreds of times, but for rule-bound cooks, it really can’t be repeated often enough. For culinary historians, it is more than an invitation to color outside the lines: it’s a reminder that slavishly following the map is no guarantee of historical authenticity.
Sticking strictly to the bare bones of an eighteenth century recipe is no assurance that you are anywhere near eighteenth century cooking: just as singers in Mozart’s day were expected to ornament a song, cooks were expected to ornament a recipe.
In short, there’s nothing to be gained by making a recipe into a straitjacket.
Cooking is never static: ingredients change, the cook’s mood changes, and each of us brings an individual judgment to the pot that is a complicated mixture of experience, taste, prejudice, and the moment. There’s also the wildcard of outside influence.
While it’s usually a good idea not to ignore the map altogether, it’s also a mistake to deny individual instinct its proper place. If nothing else, it makes the trip more fun and often gives unexpected pleasure to the final destination.
Now that it’s oyster season again, one classic roadmap that’s on my mind and palate is creamed oysters. Whether they’re ladled straight from the pan over homey thick slabs of buttered toast or from a silver chafing dish into elegantly trimmed pastry cups, they’re a staple of Southern entertaining. Here in the Lowcountry, creamed oysters are the very essence of autumn’s table.
There are many traditional embellishments to this simple yet magical marriage of shellfish and cream: mushrooms, a scattering of green onions, or a splash of sherry, Worcestershire, or pepper sauce—all depending on where the oysters and the cook have come from, what’s in the pantry, and, often, who will be at the table.
Then there’s that wild card of outside influence. This wild care for my own creamed oysters is the influence of two very different cooks who by chance happened to work in the same place: a classic continental restaurant in downtown Savannah called La Toque. One of its signature specialties was escargots bathed in a luxurious sauce of leeks, brandy, and cream.
Conceived by the Swiss chef-owner in the classic French style, it underwent a startling and delicious transformation when a French-trained Vietnamese cook took over the kitchen and added ginger and garlic (and plenty of both) to the pan.
The restaurant is long gone, but I still dream about those escargots, and now, leeks, ginger, and whiskey have become an inseparable part of my creamed oysters. Now, these things are all familiar territory to Savannah cooks, and creamed oysters are kissing cousins to those escargots, but would a nineteenth century cook, lacking the influence of that Swiss and Vietnamese cook, have added them to the oyster chafing dish? It seems doubtful. But then again, since ginger, garlic and whiskey were all old hat to Savannah cooking, who is to say that they didn’t?
One thing is certain: no nineteenth century Savannahian would’ve thought them strange—and once you’ve tried it, you won’t, either.
Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream
Serves 4 as a first course, 2-3 as a main dish
1 pint shucked oysters
2 medium leeks, trimmed split lengthwise, and washed well
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large, or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 quarter-sized slices fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
8 small (2-inch diameter) Hoecakes (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1. Set a sieve over a stainless or glass bowl and pour the oysters into it. Drain for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the liquor (you can freeze what you don’t use and use it in recipes calling for fish stock). Thinly slice the white and most of the tender greens of the leeks.
2. Melt the butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and sauté, tossing frequently, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and continue sautéing until fragrant, about half a minute more. Add the bourbon and let it evaporate, then pour a cup of oyster liquor. Bring it to a boil and let it reduce slightly. Add the cream and bring it to a boil. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until it is a little thicker than you want the finished sauce (the oysters will throw off moisture as they cook, diluting it). Turn off the heat. You may prepare it up to this point several hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate the oysters and sauce in separate containers.
3. Half an hour before serving, preheat the oven to 170° F. (or the “warm” setting). Put the hoecakes on a cookie sheet in a single layer and put them into the warm oven. Turn on the heat under the sauce to medium and bring it to a simmer. Add the oysters, a small pinch of salt (go easy, you can correct the salt later), and a liberal grinding of white pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the oysters plump and their gills curl, between 1 and 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and taste and adjust the seasonings.
4. Put 2 hoecakes per serving onto warmed individual serving plates. Spoon the oysters and sauce over them, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once.
Lemon Pepper Hoecakes
The original hoecakes were very simple griddle breads, consisting of little more than cornmeal, water, and salt. Whether or not it was actually baked on the blade of a hoe is lost in time. Today, it is griddle baked, and in the Savannah restaurants that have made it popular, its batter is generally enriched with milk, eggs, and melted fat.
Makes about 12, serving 4 to 6
1 cup stone-ground white cornmeal
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
The zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg, lightly beaten
About 1¼ cups whole milk buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt thinned with milk to buttermilk consistency
Melted bacon drippings, butter, or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven, place a large, baking sheet on it, and preheat to 170° F. (the warm setting). Whisk together the meal, soda, salt, pepper, and lemon zest in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the liquids. Quickly stir them together. It should be moderately thick but still pour easily from a spoon: if it doesn’t, add a little more milk or water.
2. Warm a griddle or wide, shallow skillet over medium-high heat until it is hot enough for a drop of water to “dance” on the surface. Brush the griddle lightly with fat (if it smokes, the griddle is too hot—adjust the heat). Pour the batter in about a tablespoon-sized portion from the end of a large spoon (for larger cakes about 3 inches in diameter use a generous two tablespoons). The edges will sizzle and form lacy air bubbles.
3. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, turn, and cook until uniformly golden, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked hoecakes to the baking sheet in the oven as they are finished and repeat with the remaining batter until it is all cooked. Serve hot.
September 4, 2011
You’re probably thinking “Southern scaloppine” is an oxymoron, since most Americans believe that scaloppine, Italy’s name for medallions of meat pounded thin, cooked quickly, and finished in gravy made by deglazing the pan with wine or broth, is a concept we’ve only become acquainted with during the last half-century. But that’s only because early American cooks didn’t use the Italian name for the concept. It’s actually quite an old idea that wasn’t confined to the boundaries of Italian kitchens. Early cookbooks that Europeans brought with them to America often gave recipes for it.
The old English name for scaloppine was “collop,” and it was used for any thin slice of meat, just as “escalope” was in French, though it most often referred to thinly sliced veal round. That’s probably because, until dairy practices changed in the 1930s and 40s, veal was actually commonplace and relatively cheap. However, the word was also applied to similar cuts of beef, mutton, or venison. So was the cooking technique.
Pork was rarely mentioned in connection with those recipes until the mid-nineteenth century. While salt pork and ham were ordinary everyday food in the days before refrigeration, fresh pork was seasonal, especially here in the South.
The early recipes for pork scallops were more often called “steaks,” and while they could be cut from the round, they were more often taken from the loin and delicate (some would say bland) tenderloin. While the latter have become quite popular and commonplace today, in the past they were a rare late-autumn treat.
Recipes like this one were as uncommon as they were lovely:
213. Pork Steaks.—The tenderloin makes the best steak. Cut them a quarter of an inch thick; fry in boiling lard, turning constantly; serve hot. Make gravy by pouring in a small quantity of boiling water; let it boil up once, and pour over the steak. Serve with them tomato or onion sauce. Steaks may be cut from the hindquarter or chine.
— Annabella P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867
Mrs. Hill was using “fry” very loosely: what she intended was the same light sauté as a scaloppine, the constant turning necessary to keep the thin pieces of meat supple and tender. Though she was silent as to seasonings, most of her pork recipes called for the meat to be rubbed with salt, pepper, and sage, a triad that was practically a given in Georgia from her day until now.
Other cooks used wine in the pan gravy, and in later recipes, the medallions were dredged (sprinkled) with flour before sautéing, then added back to the gravy after browning for a brief finishing simmer—exactly like scaloppine.
The following is one such recipe that has become a personal favorite for fall in Savannah, where at times the climate is autumnal in name only. The key ingredient is Madeira, a wine that was once practically a religion in this town and to this day remains an integral part of its cuisine.
Pork Medallions (or Scaloppine) with Sage and Madeira
From my latest book, The Savannah Cookbook.
1 pork tenderloin, weighing about 1 pound
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
2 teaspoons finely crumbled dried, or a heaped tablespoon of finely minced fresh, sage
2 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter
¼ cup flour, spread on a plate
½ cup Madeira
½ cup meat broth, preferably homemade
1. Wipe the pork dry with an absorbent cloth or paper towels. Trim away any fat and silver skin and cut it crosswise into 8 equal medallions about 1-inch thick. Lay them on a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper, cover with a second sheet, and gently pound them out to ¼-inch thickness. Season both sides well with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the sage evenly over both sides of the pork, and rub it into the surface.
2. Warm the drippings or butter and oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat until bubbling hot. Raise the heat to medium high, quickly roll the pork in the flour, and slip it into the pan until it is filled without crowding, cooking in batches if necessary. Fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes, turn, and brown the second side, about 2 minutes longer. Remove the scallops to a warm platter.
3. Stir a teaspoon of flour into the fat in the pan. Let it cook for a minute, stirring, and slowly stir in the Madeira. Cook, stirring and scraping the pan, until thickened, then stir in the broth. Bring to a simmer and cook until lightly thickened. Return the scallops to the pan and cook, turning them several times, until they are heated through and the sauce is thick. Turn off the heat, taste and correct the seasonings. Return the pork to the platter, spoon the gravy over it, and serve at once.
August 28, 2011
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.
July 25, 2011
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.
Whenever she offered it cold, there were always thick wedges of lemon on hand.
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.
July 4, 2011
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:
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.
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.
June 27, 2011
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.
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.
April 12, 2011
Those words, from her landmark 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, were penned in the days before our global garden, when winter’s table was dominated by cabbages and dried beans. One of the first edible sprouts to nose its way through the thawing earth after the long, cold winter, asparagus was the very essence of spring, available for only a few precious weeks of the season.
It would never have occurred to Mrs. Bryan to explain that, or to caution that asparagus is only “nice” when it has just been cut from a garden that is merely minutes away from the pot. There was no need to warn against spears that had been shipped across several continents or preach that only locally grown, seasonal asparagus was worth having.
She offered no advice, as most authors do today, for keeping it fresh until it’s used, but simply directed to “Gather them when fully grown but very tender, taking care to have them as near the same size as possible, that they may all get done at the same time” and went right into preparing them for the pot. She also provided just three perfect recipes, knowing that, in this case, discretion was the better part of valor.
Of the three, the loveliest and most sensitive—indeed one of the loveliest recipes in print, then or now, was—
Your asparagus must be young and tender; scrape and wash it neatly, and let it lie for a time in cold water; cut small some of the green tops, and put them also in cold water. Make a broth in the usual manner, of a few pounds of fresh veal or poultry, and a small piece of ham. Cut the stalks of the asparagus into pieces not more than an inch long, and boil them in the broth till tender, seasoning it with salt, pepper, and butter. Mash to a pulp enough of the asparagus to thicken the soup, and let the other remain in pieces. Stir in a little rich sweet cream; just let it come to a boil, and serve it up with toasted bread cut in dice, dispersing over it some sprigs of the green tops.
—Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839
Yes, today we can have “fresh” asparagus any time we want, but to have it just minutes from the garden, prepared by the hands of such a cook, is unfortunately rare even in its season.
In translating the recipe for Classical Southern Cooking, I did absolutely nothing but standardize the format, fill in directions that she took for granted, and set proportions for six servings. Everything else is as Mrs. Bryan intended it, right down to the nouvelle-cuisine-sounding raw tip garnish. All it requires is the freshest asparagus you can find.
1 quart of Chicken Broth or Meat Broth made with veal bones (preferably homemade)
2 ounces country ham in one piece
1½ pounds young asparagus
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 cup heavy cream at room temperature
1 cup Buttered Croutons (Recipe follows)
1. Bring the broth and ham to a boil in a large pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel the asparagus and drop it briefly into a basin of cold water. Let it soak for half an hour.
2. When the broth begins to boil, take up the asparagus, cut off the pointed tips, and cut the stems crosswise into one-inch long pieces. Roughly chop a dozen or so of the tips and set them aside in a bowl of cold water to cover.
3. Drop the remaining asparagus and the butter into the boiling broth. Let it return to a boil, then cover and lower the heat. Cook at a good simmer until the asparagus is tender, about 5—and no more than 10—minutes. Season it to taste with the salt and pepper.
4. With a slotted spoon, take out about a cup and a half of the greenest stems and tips and put them to the side in a covered bowl. Puree the remainder with the broth by forcing them through a sieve as Mrs. Bryan originally directed, or through a food mill. If you are not that energetic, a stick blender or food processor does this job nearly as well.
5. Return the soup to the pot and heat it through over medium heat. Stir in the reserved cooked asparagus and cream. Simmer until just heated through, stirring well, and turn off the heat.
6. Ladle the soup into individual heated soup plate and garnish with croutons and a sprinkling of the chopped raw tips.
Cut ½-inch thick slices of good, day-old bread (preferably homemade) into small, bite-sized cubes. For every cup of cubed bread, allow 2 tablespoons of butter. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a heavy skillet that will comfortably hold all the bread. Add the bread cubes and quickly toss them to until they are coated. Sauté, tossing frequently, until they are golden brown and crisp.
Another way requiring less attention: preheat the oven to 300° F. Put the butter in a shallow baking pan that will hold all the bread cubes in one layer, and melt it in the oven. Add the bread and toss until it is well coated. Return the pan to the oven and bake, stirring from time to time, until they are lightly browned and crisp, about half an hour.