Recipes and Stories

29 August 2015: Mary Randolph’s French Beans

August 29, 2015

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Mary Randolph, French Beans, Haricots Verts, Green Beans, Classic French Cooking, Monticello

Mary Randolph's French Beans, here finished with a little of her Melted Butter.
A couple of weeks ago, I revisited one of the loveliest and most misunderstood dishes in all of Southern cooking: pole beans slow-simmered with salt pork. With small new potatoes laid on top to steam during the last part of the simmer, it remains one of my all-time favorite ways of cooking these sturdy beans.

But pole beans are not the only ones that I, and many other Southern cooks, bring to the table. While researching for a lecture on the indomitable Mary Randolph, whose 1824 cookbook was one of the earliest printed records of Southern cooking, I was once again taken by her lucid and careful directions for French beans. (more…)

22 October 2012: Roast Chicken

October 23, 2012

Tags: Roast Chicken, High Temperature Roasting, Classical Southern Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Mary Randolph, Lettice Bryan, Annabella Hill

A simple roasted chicken is the very essence of autumn's kitchen
For the last two centuries, fried chicken has taken all the attention as the ultimate symbol of Southern cooking. Nothing else, except possibly barbecue, has hogged the limelight nearly so completely—and not without reason. When properly done, it’s one of the loveliest things in any cuisine’s repertory.

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…)

13 October 2012: History on the Egg I--The Big Green Egg as Brick Bread Oven

October 15, 2012

Tags: The Big Green Egg, Historical Cooking, Historical American Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking, Mary Randolph, Annabella Hill, Historical Bread Baking

The Bread of our Forefathers, fresh from the Big Green Egg
When Kitchenware Outfitters, the kitchenware store where I have worked for the last six years, became a dealer for Big Green Egg, the ceramic outdoor cooker that was modeled on an ancient Asian technology, the historian in me was fascinated by the realization that these cookers performed much like another ancient technology: the open hearths and brick bread ovens of our ancestors here in the West. (more…)

28 July 2012: Okra and Tomatoes

July 28, 2012

Tags: Okra, Tomatoes, Okra and Tomatoes, Historical Southern Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking, Mary Randolph, Annabella Hill, Lettice Bryan, Sarah Rutledge

Classical Southern Okra and Tomatoes, with small, whole okra and fresh tomatoes
One of the great flavor combinations of a Southern summer is the masterful pairing of okra and tomatoes. This near perfect mating was not discovered down here, nor is it limited to our corner of the globe, but we’ve certainly laid claim to it and made it peculiarly our own. (more…)

20 July 2012: Yellow Crooknecks

July 20, 2012

Tags: Summer Squash, Classical Southern Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Mary Randolph, Lettice Bryan, Annabella Hill, Nancy Carter Crump, Cymling Squash, Yellow Crookneck Squash

A still life of yellow crookneck squash, being made ready for the pan. Photography by John Carrington
Summer squash is in the air (and, where the drought hasn’t struck, overflowing in the garden). When fellow culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump mentioned them in a recent short essay, it inspired a look back to the four doyennes of Southern cookery, and turned up three different ways of getting the similar results from Mary Randolph, Lettice Bryan, and Annabella Hill: (more…)

21 April 2012: Fava alla Randolph Revisited

April 25, 2012

Tags: Fava Beans, Windsor Beans, Classical Southern Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, Classic Italian Cooking, Fava alla Romana, Fava alla Guanciale

fava not quite alla Randolph or Romana
Last year, a cache of fresh fava beans inspired a dip into Mary Randolph’s lucid recipe for these ancient legumes in her iconic book, The Virginia House-wife (see 10 May 2011: Fava alla Randolph):

“Mazagan Beans.

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…)

7 November 2011: Part II Queen Molly's Ragout of Turnips

November 9, 2011

Tags: Mary Randolph, Classical Southern Cooking, Monticello, The Virginia House-Wife, Virginia Cookery

Queen Molly's Ragout of Turnips--the second recipe in today's essay
Mary Randolph provided a similar recipe to that given by Hannah Glass below, though without cream. A few pages over, we find a gorgeous and absolutely classic treatment for turnips that is an equally perfect autumnal accompaniment for pork and poultry of any kind. It almost certainly came to Mrs. Randolph by way of the French-trained cooks at Monticello, since Jefferson’s granddaughter, Martha Jefferson Trist Burke, recorded having had “turnips with brown sugar” at Monticello. Unfortunately, Mrs. Burke’s memory was dim and her attempt at the recipe is, to put it politely, inept. But happily Queen Molly, as usual, got it absolutely right.

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.

Serves 4

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.

7 November 2011: Part I Creamed Turnips and Queen Molly

November 9, 2011

Tags: Turnips, Creamed Turnips, Nancy Carter Crump, Mary Randolph, Martha Washington, Mount Vernon, Virginia Cookery, Classical Southern Cooking, David Hancock, Ivan Day, Chef Walter Staib

Hannah Glass's To Dress Turnips (Creamed Turnips)
7 November 2011: Creamed Turnips and Queen Molly

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.

25 July 2011: Okra Season

July 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

Gumbs—A West India Dish.

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

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

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

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

Karen’s Okra

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

Serves 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 May 2011_History in the Hands of Clever Reporters

May 22, 2011

Tags: Thomas Jefferson, Julia Child, Mary Randolph, Historical Southern Cooking, Mushrooms, Monticello, Classic French Cooking

One of the vagaries of having published a cookbook that involves a famous historical figure is that one will eventually have to talk to reporters about that figure.

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.

Stewed Mushrooms.

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
Serves 4

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.

10 May 2011: Fava alla Randolph

May 11, 2011

Tags: Classic Italian Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Fava Beans, Mary Randolph

One of the amusing things about our modern “foodie” culture is all the posturing about how much more worldly and smart today’s cooks are than those of the past.

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—

“Mazagan Beans.

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
Serves 4

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.