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…)

14 February 2015: An Historical Romance

February 14, 2015

Tags: Blanc Manger, Blancmange, Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Romance in the Dining Room, Historical Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking

Blanc Manger (or blancmange) for two makes a lovely end for an amorous dinner for two
Why we set aside just one day to commemorate romance (and inadvertently bludgeon those who don’t have any in their lives), I do not know. But since we do, and many a lover will be trying to win (or at least please) the heart they crave by way of the stomach, here are a few thoughts on romance at the table on the Feast of St. Valentine. (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.

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

July 4, 2011

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

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

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

French Beans.

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

– Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, 1824

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.