Those historical recipes were a simple triad of cooked shrimp, chopped celery, and homemade mayonnaise. That was it. And the basic recipe has changed very little: The most that sensible modern cooks add is a little onion. (more…)
Recipes and Stories
July 29, 2017
Those historical recipes were a simple triad of cooked shrimp, chopped celery, and homemade mayonnaise. That was it. And the basic recipe has changed very little: The most that sensible modern cooks add is a little onion. (more…)
July 3, 2017
Well, no matter what you call it, it’s one of the happiest pairings of two of our best summer staples: (more…)
June 29, 2017
August 11, 2015
There’s nothing wrong with the idea. When properly done, it’s one of the loveliest vegetable dishes in all of Southern cooking. The problem lies not in the concept, but in its misguided application. (more…)
February 24, 2015
There was a time in my mother’s living memory when a fresh pineapple was a special treat and she has never let us take them for granted. (more…)
February 14, 2015
March 31, 2014
February 26, 2014
This morning dawned cold, wet, and gray in Savannah and I’ve been taking advantage of a rare day on my own to put a batch of said beef broth through one last simmer while reading Julia’s delicious prose as background for a newspaper story. (more…)
December 24, 2013
There wasn’t one single silver bell, red and green blinking street light, or rushing shopper for miles. (more…)
April 10, 2013
February 23, 2013
January 4, 2013
January 3, 2013
November 28, 2012
November 21, 2012
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 19, 2012
October 15, 2012
October 9, 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 16, 2012
July 3, 2012
June 29, 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…)
April 2, 2012
It is none of those things to me. (more…)
March 14, 2012
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.
January 4, 2012
Of them all, perhaps the loveliest and most distinctive is Hoppin’ John, the classic pea and rice dish of the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry. It may also be one of the least understood dishes in all of Southern cooking. Hoppin’ John isn’t cooked peas and rice mixed together: it’s a pilau, which means the peas and rice are cooked together using a specific technique. To understand that technique, we need only look to Sarah Rutledge’s venerable chronicle of early Carolina cookery, The Carolina Housewife, 1847:
One pound of bacon, one pint of red peas, one pint of rice. First put on the peas, and when half boiled, add the bacon. When the peas are well boiled, throw in the rice, which must first be washed and gravelled. When the rice has been boiling half an hour, take the pot off the fire and put it on coals to steam, as in boiling rice alone. Put a quart of water on the peas at first, and if it boils away too much, add a little more hot water. Season with salt and pepper, and, if liked a sprig of green mint. In serving up, put the rice and peas first in the dish, and the bacon on the top.”
— Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847
Perhaps the oldest printed recipe for this iconic dish, it plainly describes the classic West African pilau technique, leaving no doubt that Hoppin’ John originated in the rice based cuisines of West Africa. The addition of salt pork, an ingredient foreign to the largely Muslim kitchens of that part of Africa, tells us how thoroughly it had been adapted into Lowcountry cookery by the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Like most of the regional recipes in this lovely book, it’s little more than an outline; that lone sprig of mint is the only suggestion of the heady seasonings that would have been commonplace in its original form. It doesn’t mean that the Hoppin’ Johns of those days were not highly seasoned, but the fact that Miss Rutledge gives the mint as an option does suggest that the variety of seasonings may have been on the wane.
A few notes on Miss Rutledge’s ingredients are in order for modern cooks. Red peas are tiny field peas that look like miniature kidney beans; they’re often hard to find outside coastal Carolina and Georgia, which may be why black-eyed peas often replace them in modern Hoppin’ John recipes—even within the Lowcountry. Bacon back then was not the breakfast meat we take for granted now but salt-pickled pork. It was not smoked and could be made with almost any cut from the pig. Though most modern recipes call for breakfast bacon, salt pork is closer to the original intent, as would be pancetta, the un-smoked bacon of Italy. To wash rice (essential for distinct, separate grains), put the raw grains in a bowl of water and gently rub them together until the water is milky. Drain through a wire mesh sieve and repeat until the water is almost clear.
Here’s how Lowcountry cooks make this classic pilau today. Since large pieces of salt pork are not as easy to come by as they were in the past, it’s more usual to use diced bacon or salt pork. When cut small, the meat releases more flavor into the broth, so we typically use about half of Miss Rutledge’s amount.
Oh, and as for the name “Hoppin’ John,” its origin remains obscure and is the subject of lively debate among historians and folklore-bound Southerners, but it is most likely a corruption of a Gullah name with West African or West Indian patois origins. But don’t worry about that; just make it and enjoy it.
Serves 6 to 8
2 cups dried red peas (see notes)
½ pound lean salt-cured pork, pancetta, or bacon, cut into ¼-inch dice
1 large onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and finely chopped
2-3 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced
1 small pod hot red pepper, stemmed, seeded, and minced, or ground cayenne to taste
Whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 bay leaf
1 sprig mint, plus 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 cups long-grain rice, washed and drained
1. Wash and drain the peas. Put them in a large pot with about 6 cups water and bring them to a boil over a medium heat. Do not add salt. Carefully skim off the scum, reduce the heat to a slow simmer, cover, and simmer half an hour.
2. Meanwhile, put the salt pork or bacon in a sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Fry until it is browned and its fat is rendered. Add the onion and sauté until golden, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and hot pepper and sauté until fragrant. Turn off the heat and add the contents of the skillet to the peas. Put in the bay leaf and mint sprig and season liberally with pepper, cover loosely, and simmer until the peas are tender.
3. Taste the broth and correct for salt, keeping in mind that it must be highly seasoned since a lot of it will be absorbed by the rice. Drain off but reserve the broth and measure 4 cups back into the pot. Bring it to a boil over medium heat, stir in the rice, and let it come back to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer 14 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and distinct steam holes appear. Cover tightly, turn off the heat, and let it steam 12 minutes, or until the grains of rice are tender but still loose and distinct.
4. Fluff the rice with a fork: it should be fluffy and fairly dry, but if it seems too dry, moisten it with a little reserved broth. Turn it into a serving dish, sprinkle with chopped mint, and serve.
September 25, 2011
Foraging for them requires two things: a thorough knowledge of wild mushrooms and a sense of responsibility. Though wild-growing chanterelles are distinctive and easy to spot, novices can, and have, gone wrong, and over-harvesting or careless gathering by the greedy have all-too-often depleted many once plentiful beds.
In his masterpiece on Lowcountry cooking, John Martin Taylor (a.k.a. Hoppin’ John) instructs that the responsible way to gather chanterelles is to cut the stem just above the ground with a small knife or very sharp scissors rather than plucking them, so that they leave their genetic imprint behind for next year. You should also not be greedy and gather more than your share.
If all that intimidates you, or if you live in an area where these wonders don’t grow, farmed chanterelles are now available in many specialty grocers. While they’re expensive and won’t have the flavor of freshly harvested wild mushrooms, they are still delicious and well worth your while.
Since I don’t have a ready source for gathering them locally, the market is where I usually get mine, and when I spied a bin of them in a local specialty grocery, looking bright, fresh, and meaty, it was impossible to resist them, even at close to twenty dollars a pound. It’s only once a year, after all.
Regardless of how you come by them, preparing chanterelles for the table is a simple operation. Lowcountry cooks have long known that they need very little kitchen conjuring to bring out their best. The secret to perfection is a generous hand with the best butter that you can find.
¾ pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms (or a whole pound of you’re flush)
6 tablespoons best quality butter (preferably Parma or French butter*)
½ cup finely chopped shallots
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, finely minced (not pressed)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 generous tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
1. Gently brush any soil from the mushrooms with a dry cloth and thickly slice the large ones and halve the smaller ones. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. When it is barely melted, swirl the pan and add the shallots. Sauté, tossing often, until they are translucent and beginning to color.
2. Add the chanterelles and garlic and rapidly toss to coat with butter. Sauté, tossing, until the garlic is fragrant and beginning to color and the shallots are golden, about a minute.
3. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and sprinkle in the parsley. Let them heat, tossing, half a minute longer and take them off the heat. Add the remaining butter cut into bits and shake the pan until it is just melted. Eat them as is, or over (not in) omelets, or over pan-toasted bread, or as a sauce for pasta.
* Parma butter is a by-product of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese manufacturing, but don’t think of it as leftovers: it’s made from the rich, skimmed cream from the night milk. It, and sometimes excellent-quality French butter, can often be found in specialty grocers.
Serving Up the Chanterelles
Over an omelet: It is hard to beat chanterelles over (not in) an omelet made with fluffy newly-laid eggs. Prepare the mushrooms first and keep them warm, then make the omelets and spoon the chanterelles over them after they’re plated.
Over pan-toasted bread: Cut ½-inch thick slices from a good quality round loaf. Generously spread both sides with softened butter and put them in a skillet over medium heat. Pan-toast turning several times, until uniformly golden and crisp on the outside but still soft at the center. Keep them warm. Prepare the chanterelles as above, put the toast on 4 warmed salad plates, and top with the mushrooms.
With Pasta: This is how I had mine. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil, add a small handful of salt, and cook ¾ pound of pasta while you prepare the mushrooms in a pan large enough to hold the pasta up to the point of adding the finishing butter but don’t add it. When the pasta is done, drain, saving a little of its cooking water, and add it to the mushrooms over low heat. Toss well, adding a little of the cooking water if it’s too dry, then add the finishing butter and toss until it is melted and incorporated. Serve immediately. Good pasta choices: homemade egg tagliatelle, or short factory pasta such as penne, campanelle, lumache (snail-shaped), or ziti.
September 20, 2011
August 21, 2011
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.
July 12, 2011
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
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.
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.
May 22, 2011
Now, having worked as a journalist myself, let me quickly say that I have every respect for those whose job it is to pave our glutted information highway. Our society is inordinately curious about celebrity, down to the most tediously boring detail of their lives, and someone, I suppose, has to satisfy that curiosity.
Witness the recently published private correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto, which has been my bedtime reading over the last few weeks. At best, about a quarter of these letters are interesting to cooks and culinary historians, chronicling as they do Child’s growth as a cook and teacher and the development of her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The rest of it is, even for historians, about as interesting as watching paint peel.
Is what Mrs. Child thought of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover really important? Not really, no. But because she was famous, someone thinks it ought to be.
Well, regardless of that, the historian who compiled and edited these letters at the very least maintained a healthy respect not only for both these women’s privacy but also for the truth. Unhappily, not all journalists take that much care.
For many of them, being clever, it seems, is more important than being factual.
Recently, because of my work as recipe developer for Dining at Monticello, a collection of essays and recipes that chronicle the food culture at Thomas Jefferson’s beloved home, I spoke on the subject at a nearby public library.
The following day, the local paper published an on-line video about the event that was introduced by a young woman who reported that Jefferson was not only a founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence, he was “also a very good cook.”
Clearly she did not hear my lecture, and subscribed to the time-honored Southern theory that facts should never be allowed to interfere with a good line.
Now, Jefferson was a lot of things, but he was no cook. Those were, in fact, just about the first words out of my mouth that evening. Yes, he’s an almost iconic figure in American culinary history, right up there with Mrs. Child, but unlike that lady, it is not because he mastered the art of French cooking—or, for that matter, any other kind.
He didn’t even know how to cook in theory, and never so much as lifted a pan, turned a spit, or cracked an egg. Jefferson was a gentleman farmer, and men like that simply didn’t do such things back then. Oh, to be sure, there were male cooks, even in the kitchen at Monticello, but he wasn’t one of them.
What set Jefferson apart for us was not his active participation but his catholic curiosity. While he was not the only man in his position to care about the quality of his table, he was the only one who cared enough to find out how a thing was done, and to copy out that how for those whose job it was to actually do it.
Unfortunately, he knew so little of actual culinary practice that he would often get the method hopelessly wrong. Luckily, his cousin (and daughter’s sister-in-law), Mary Randolph had a knowledge of cookery that went well beyond theoretical. She made sense out of Jefferson’s culinary scribbles in her lovely cookbook, The Virginia House-wife, published just two years before Jefferson died.
Were it not for Mrs. Randolph, my job translating the recipes that survive in Jefferson’s hand would have been a challenge. One can only imagine the hilarity with which that lady would have met our intrepid reporter’s pronouncement.
Well, what else could I do but follow Mrs. Randolph’s lead, laugh it off, and head back to the kitchen, where I happened to have some fresh, locally grown shiitake mushrooms and a pint of premium 40 % milkfat cream from a local organic dairy.
While it was not the season for the common field mushrooms that Mrs. Randolph used, nor are shiitake found in Virginia, even among the horticultural curiosities at Monticello, I still looked to her exquisitely simple recipe for inspiration.
Gather grown mushrooms, but such as are young enough to have red gills; cut off the part of the stem which grew in the earth, wash them carefully and take the skin from the top; put them into a stew-pan with some salt, but no water, stew them till tender, and thicken them with a spoonful of butter mixed with one of brown flour; red wine may be added, but the flavour of the mushroom is too delicious to require aid from any thing.
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824.
It was the perfect foil for misunderstood history, but it wasn’t, unfortunately, the perfect recipe for wood mushrooms like shiitake. In keeping with the spirit of her cooking, Jefferson’s fondness for French style, and perhaps because I’ve been reading about Julia Child, I instead got out a sauté pan and made
Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms with Cream
¾ pound Shiitake mushrooms
¼ cup minced shallot
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
¼ cup heavy cream
4 thick slices buttered and toasted baguette
1. Clean the shiitake, cut off their tough stems and thickly slice them.
2. Put the shallot, butter, and olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat and sauté, tossing often, until golden, about 5 minutes.
3. Raise the heat to medium high and add the shiitake, quickly tossing them so that they evenly absorb the butter. Like most mushrooms, they will immediately suck up the butter, but after they’re thoroughly heated, will release it once more into the pan. Sauté, tossing almost constantly, until they are wilted and coloring, about 4 minutes.
4. Splash in the cream and let it lightly thickened, about a minute more. Season liberally with salt and pepper, turn off the heat, and immediately pour them over the buttered toast.
May 11, 2011
Anyone who has ever attempted classical French cooking (or any other kind, for that matter) on an open hearth knows better. An open fire requires a level of wisdom and skill that today’s motor-driven cooks, dependent as they are on thermostatically controlled ranges, electric food processors, and high-speed hand blenders, simply don’t have.
What’s more, all the dishes and foodstuffs that so many of these so-called “foodies” think they’ve only recently discovered have been around for a long time, and I don’t mean the obvious, in their countries of origin: I mean right here in River City.
Just take a casual dip into the cookbook that is widely believed to be the first penned by a Southerner, The Virginia House-wife. Within the pages of this lovely book, published almost two hundred years ago by Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph, you’ll find such wonders as raspberry and herb vinegars, gazpacho, polenta, Spanish Olla and Ropa Veija, seviche (she spelled it “caveach”), classic French cooking, authentic homemade egg pasta, and fava beans.
That last masqueraded under an archaic name, “Mazagan” beans, but they’re fava all right—
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.”
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824
Windsor bean is (or was) the common English name for fava. Lest you think she didn’t really know about these staples of Mediterranean gardens, she continues—
“When the large Windsor beans are used, it is best to put them into boiling water until the skins will slip off, and then make them into a puree as directed for turnips—they are very coarse when plainly dressed.”
There you are, a fava puree just like the one that was recently published in one of our trendy food magazines.
Mrs. Randolph’s recipe with “middling, (flitch,) of bacon,” (salt-cured side meat), has a lot in common with the Roman way with these beans, known outside the city as “alla romana” but within it as “alla guanciale,” salt-cured pork jowl.
All this comes to mind because there were lovely fresh fava in the produce bins at my neighborhood natural food store. They were so young and beautiful that the first handful were shelled, dipped in sea salt, and eaten raw, as Romans do when these wonders first come into season. For the rest, we were alas fresh out of salt-cured pork jowl, the country ham stash in the freezer was way past usefulness for anything but shoe sole repair, and there wasn’t a scrap of middling to be had without going out again.
Ah, but a perusal of the spice cabinet turned up a precious little tin of Virginia Willis’s pecan-wood smoked sea salt. The results were—
Fava (not quite) alla Romana
Or Middling-less Mazagan Beans
3 pounds of fresh unshelled Windsor (fava) beans
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, trimmed, peeled, and minced
1 medium clove garlic, lightly crushed and peeled, but left whole
Pecan or hickory smoked sea salt, or kosher salt
Whole black pepper in a mill
1. Shell the beans and rinse under cold running water. Put the butter and shallot in a wide, lidded sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is translucent and beginning to color, about 4 to 5 minutes.
2. Add the garlic and continue sautéing until it is beginning to color on the edges. Add the beans and season well with smoked salt (or plain salt) and pepper, both to taste. Add enough water to barely cover the beans, bring it to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently until tender, between 6 and 15 minutes depending on the age and size of the beans.
3. If the liquid remaining in the pan is still thin, uncover, raise the heat, and quickly evaporate it to a thick sauce. Turn off the heat, shake the pan to evenly coat the beans with the sauce, and serve immediately.
April 27, 2011
When it’s the latter that’s called for, I once again look no further than that under-appreciated culinary master from the nineteenth century, Mrs. Lettice Bryan, whose lovely individual shepherd’s pies can be found under –
Take small scolloped pans, butter them well, and put over each a smooth paste of mashed potatoes, which have been highly seasoned with salt, pepper, butter, and sweet cream. Peel, slice and season some fine, ripe tomatoes; put a layer of them on the bottom of each pan, then put on a layer of cold boiled mutton, shred as fine as possible, and one of grated ham, sprinkle on some grated lemon, pepper, and nutmeg. Add a few spoonfuls of rich gravy, and as much wine; put a paste of potatoes over the tops, and bake them a delicate brown, in a brisk oven. When done, turn them out smoothly in a dish, spread over them a heated napkin, and send them to table immediately, with a boat of melted butter and wine.
– Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1847.
How timeless Mrs. Bryan’s recipe remains to this day, reading like something from the latest issue of a trendy food magazine. There’s not much a modern cook could think up that this lady hadn’t already tried.
Though still popular in Kentucky, mutton is hard to come by for most of us, and “boiling” (their word for poaching the joint whole) fell out of favor as the iron range replaced the open hearth. But luckily this is equally as lovely with leftover roast lamb.
The recipe needs very little clarification for a modern cook. By grated lemon, she means the zest, and the “boat of melted butter and wine” is basically a buerre blanc.
Because American housewives in those days were rarely equipped with a wire whisk, butter was melted or “drawn” by adding it to a little water in a small pan. The cook held the pan over a simmering water bath and gently shook it (the best method) or stirred its contents until the butter was barely melted and still quite thick. Usually a little flour was added as insurance against “oiling” (their word for having it break).
At any rate, the casseroles are rich enough on their own: they certainly don’t need a butter sauce, but if you’re so inclined, bring a tablespoon of water and two of Madeira or dry sherry to a simmer over medium low heat, gradually whisk in 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter a teaspoon at a time, adding more before the previous bit is completely dissolved. It should be the consistency of thick heavy cream by the time all the butter is incorporated and melted. Season it with salt, to taste, and serve it immediately in a sauceboat that has been warmed by rinsing it with scalding hot water.
Here, with a little more detail, is Mrs. Bryan’s recipe for modern cooks. I’ve never added wine to the seasonings because the pan gravy from my lamb roast usually has a bit of Madeira in it. And because unmolding them is a bit tricky, I “send them to the table” in the individual gratin dishes in which they’ve baked.
Individual Mutton or Lamb Casseroles
1½ pounds leftover boiled or roast mutton or lamb
3 large, or 6 Roma-type ripe tomatoes
1 recipe Mashed Potatoes (recipe follows)
Whole black pepper in a peppermill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
The grated zest of 2 lemons
1½ cups leftover gravy (recipe follows)
1/3 pound cooked or raw country ham or prosciutto, roughly chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 350° F., and put on a teakettle of water to boil. If using roast lamb, chop it by hand with a knife or in the food processor, pulsing the machine to keep from completely pulverizing it.
2. Blanch, peel, and core the tomatoes. Cut them crosswise into 8 to 10 even slices. Seed and drain them in a colander set over the sink. Lightly butter 4 large ramekins or individual gratin dishes and line them with half the mashed potatoes.
3. Pat the tomatoes dry and put a layer of them over the mashed potatoes, about 2 slices per dish. Divide the meat evenly between each and season with a few grindings of pepper, a grating of nutmeg to taste, and the lemon zest. If the ham isn’t very salty, add a little salt. Top with the gravy and then the remaining mashed potatoes, smoothing them with the flat of a knife or spatula.
4. Bake until nicely browned and heated through, about half an hour.
For the mashed potatoes, as Mrs. Bryan would have made them:
In the spring, when the potatoes are old and strong, they are much nicer mashed than when served whole, though mashed potatoes are fine at any season. Boil them till they are very tender; if old, in a good quantity of water, but if young, in barely enough to cook them tender. Peel them, mash them fine, press them through a sieve, to get out all the lumps, season the pulp with salt, pepper and butter, moistening it with sweet cream or milk; stir it with a spoon till the seasonings are well intermingled with the mass, and serve it warm, making it smooth in the dish. They are nice with any kind of meat, particularly poultry.
– Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1847.
In case you need a bit more detail, my translation of the standard method for a modern kitchen, From Classical Southern Cooking, is:
2½ pounds mature potatoes of a uniform size
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
About ½ cup cream or milk
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1. Scrub the potatoes under cold, running water, and put them in a large pot. Add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Remove the potatoes, cover, and bring almost to a boil over medium high heat. Add the potatoes, bring to a full, rolling boil, reduce the heat to medium (a steady bubble but not a hard boil) and simmer until tender, from 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and let sit in a warm place for about 5 minutes, then quickly peel them.
2. Force the hot potatoes through a ricer back into the pot in which they were cooked. Over low heat, gradually beat in the butter, then the cream, and a healthy pinch of salt.
3. Stir until they are smooth and the liquid is incorporated. If they appear to be too dry, add a spoonful or so more cream or milk, but don’t overdo it. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Mound them in a warmed serving bowl, dust the top with a little black pepper, if liked, and serve at once.
March 28, 2011
Spring turnips in particular have a sweetness and delicacy that all too soon gives way to more robust flavors as the vegetables grow large and fat in summer’s lusty heat. To preserve their delicacy and bring out their best, I rarely look any further than this lovely two-hundred-year-old recipe from one of the South’s earliest (and still best) cookbooks:
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.”
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824.
Mrs. Randolph’s ragout is actually a classic French recipe for glazed turnips, one that she almost certainly learned from the French-trained cooks at Monticello. Jefferson’s great granddaughter, Martha Jefferson Trist Burke recalled having had the dish there, but unhappily her recollections were dim at best and her attempt at a recipe was, to put it bluntly, completely inept. Fortunately, her great-grandfather’s cookbook-writing cousin was paying better attention, because her rendition is lucid and absolutely right.
At Monticello, this would have been prepared (as Mrs. Randolph suggests) on the stew stove in the state-of-the-art French kitchen that Jefferson added to the south wing dependencies in 1809. Here, for modern cooks, is the same recipe with a little more illuminating detail.
Ragout of Turnips (Navets Glacés, or Glazed Turnips)
2 pounds very small young turnips of the same size
2-3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup rich, well seasoned veal or beef broth
Wash, peel, and trim the turnips to uniform rounds or ovals. Over medium heat, melt the butter in a sauté pan that will comfortably hold the turnips in one layer.
Add the turnips and raise the heat to medium high. Shake the pan until they are evenly coated with butter and then sprinkle the sugar over them. Sauté, shaking the pan to keep them rolling, until they are uniformly golden brown, about 4-to-5 minutes.
Add the broth, bring it to a boil, and then cover and reduce the heat to medium low. Simmer, frequently but gently shaking the pan, until the turnips are tender, about 10-15 minutes.
What Mrs. Randolph doesn’t tell us is that the “gravy” should be reduced to a glaze. If it isn’t, uncover and briefly raise the heat and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated, again gently but almost continuously shaking the pan. She also doesn’t mention what I usually do—swirl in a pat of fresh butter at the end, which is in keeping with classic technique.
Pour the turnips into a warm serving bowl and serve immediately.