In History's Kitchen
July 28, 2012
July 25, 2011
There are compensations to living here in Savannah, of course: here it’s peak shrimp season, and thankfully there’s now a growing local farmer’s market whose vendors share my mother’s care with produce. This past weekend, one of my favorite farmers had okra no bigger than my thumb, gathered just the evening before. It was so beautiful and perfect that it was hard not to buy more than we could eat over the weekend.
There’s nothing else to do with okra like that but let it shine on its own, something that’s rarely allowed to happen. It’s a pity, really, because young, tender okra possesses a wonderful, refreshing flavor that is easy on digestion (and souls) wearied by summer’s dead heat. It’s a quality Mary Randolph clearly understood when she gave us:
Gumbs—A West India Dish.
Gather young pods of ocra, wash them clean, and put them in a pan with a little water, salt and pepper, stew them till tender, and serve them with melted butter. They are very nutricious and easy of digestion.
— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824 *
Mrs. Randolph’s melted butter was prepared in a pan continuously shaken over a larger basin of simmering water. Barely melted to the consistency of a beurre blanc, it was used to finish just about every vegetable that went to her table.
Cooking is never static, even for historians. Whenever we take a recipe into our own kitchen, we adapt it to suit our tastes and cooking habits. While working on her definitive commentary on Mrs. Randolph’s work, my mentor Karen Hess did just that with this lovely recipe. Since she and her husband, John, once lived in Egypt, there’s a distinct hint of the Middle East in her version with its garlic and splash of fruity olive oil. Sometimes she made it with butter, but she once told me “we like it best served the next day, at room temperature, and for that, of course, olive oil is best.” Indeed.
Whenever she offered it cold, there were always thick wedges of lemon on hand.
1½ pounds very fresh okra pods no more than 2 inches long
1-2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed and peeled
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Lemon wedges (optional)
1. Wash the okra under cold running water, gently rubbing to remove fuzz. Trim the cap or stem end but leave the pods whole.
2. Put the okra in a heavy, lidded skillet that will hold it in one layer. Add a splash (about a quarter of a cup) of water, the garlic, a drizzle of olive oil, a liberal pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Cover and put it over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes, until the okra are tender but still bright green, shaking the pan occasionally to help the okra cook evenly. Don’t let the liquid evaporate completely; add a spoonful or so as needed to keep the moisture from drying completely.
3. Pour the okra and any “sauce” that remains into a shallow serving bowl, remove and discard the garlic, drizzle it with fresh oil, toss to coat with sauce, and serve warm or at room temperature, passing lemon separately, if liked.
When we’re having it cold, I deviate very little from Karen, but when it will be eaten straight from the pan, my own version is equally eclectic, influenced not only by Karen, but also my mother and another mentor, Marcella Hazan.
To serve four, you’ll need all the ingredients for Karen’s Okra, using only one clove of garlic and substituting for the oil the best butter that can be had. Again, wash the pods under cold running water, gently rubbing to remove the fuzz, and trim the cap or stem end, leaving them whole. Crush, peel, and mince the garlic fine.
Put the okra in a heavy, lidded skillet that will hold it in one layer. Add about a quarter of a cup of water, the garlic, a liberal pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper, and a generous lump of butter. Cook it following Karen’s method, shaking the pan occasionally and adding a spoonful or so of water as needed. Off the heat, add another pat or so of butter and shake the pan until the okra is coated. Serve warm.
* No one is really sure, by the way, how okra, the seedpod of an African hibiscus, migrated from Africa to our continent, but it turns up in the Americas wherever there are Africans in the kitchen, from Virginia to the West Indies all the way to Brazil. And Mrs. Randolph’s name for her recipe, while by no means definitive documentation, is suggestive of the route it may have taken into our hemisphere.
July 18, 2011
Small wonder: this union is one of those perfect marriages of flavor and texture, so perfect in fact that we tend to forget it was unheard of as little as five centuries ago. Tomatoes are of course native to Central America and okra is African; for thousands of years they were quite literally a world apart from one another.
Exactly how they came together is murky territory for historians. However, since tomatoes were introduced to West Africa by Portuguese explorers early in the sixteenth century, it seems logical that the idea sprang from the mind of an African cook. And it’s significant that the first (if not only) appearance of this pairing in American cookery is in the South, where there were enslaved Africans in many kitchens.
At any rate, it quickly took root down here. When Mary Randolph set down her recipe for “ocra and tomatas” in The Virginia House-wife in 1824, the combination was already so deeply engrained that it was practically universal. Down in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, for example, it was a defining element of the local cuisine when Mrs. Randolph was in diapers.
In Savannah, the really characteristic dish that spun off this pairing is Okra Soup, a simple mélange of tomatoes, okra, and broth made from both beef and ham. Once a staple soup course throughout the summer for formal two o’clock dinners and main dish for businessmen’s lunches and family suppers, its real beauty as a culinary concept is that it can be both refined and elegant and coarse and hearty.
Regardless of how and when it’s served, okra soup always comes with a large spoonful of steamed rice. Once, fiery little bird peppers and/or Pepper Sherry were offered as well. The peppers were passed in a small bowl, and each guest took just one to crush in the bottom of the soup plate, but removed it before the soup was ladled in (they’re so hot that that’s all most people could stand). Pepper sherry, equally as hot but more refined, made the rounds in a cut glass cruet, to be added in mere droplets at the diner’s discretion.
Such graceful customs have, unhappily, all but disappeared, but thankfully the classic soup endures.
Savannah Okra Soup
The best way to tackle this job is to turn it into a 2-day operation: make the broth on the first day, chill and degrease it, then finish the soup the following day.
2 pounds meaty beef shank bones
1 smoked ham hock, about ¾ pound
2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, scalded, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
1½ pounds small, tender okra (about 8 cups), trimmed and thinly sliced
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1½ cups hot Lowcountry Steamed Rice
Fresh green bird’s eye peppers and/or Pepper Sherry (see below), optional
1. Bring the beef, ham hock and 3 quarts of water slowly to a boil in a heavy bottomed stockpot over medium heat, carefully skimming away the scum that rises. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the liquid is reduced to 2 quarts, about 2 hours. Add the onion and simmer slowly until tender, about 20 minutes. Let it settle a few minutes and skim off the excess fat. You may make the broth a day ahead. Cool, cover, and refrigerate it without skimming, then you can simply remove the solidified fat from the top.
2. When you’re ready to finish the soup, bring it back to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the okra and tomatoes, loosely cover, and let it come back to a simmer. Uncover, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
3. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender and the soup is quite thick, at least an hour more—longer won’t hurt. Remove the beef and ham hock. Some cooks pick the meat from the bone and add it back to the soup. Others frown on this practice. Discard the bones.
4. Pour the soup into a heated tureen or divide it among heated soup plates. If offering fresh bird peppers, allow guests to crush a single pepper in their bowls and remove it before the soup is ladled in. You may also pass Pepper Sherry (see below) instead. Put ¼ cup of rice in the center of each serving, or pass it separately.
Notes on additions: Other vegetables are sometimes added, most commonly butterbeans (small lima beans) and corn. Add a generous cup each of fresh, small green butterbeans and freshly cut white corn for the last 40 minutes of simmering.
To make Pepper Sherry: put a third of a cup of bird’s eye peppers (or as much as half a cup of other hot peppers) in a heatproof bowl. Pour a cup of boiling water over them, let stand for one minute, then drain and transfer the peppers to a glass cruet or jar that will hold one and a half cups. Add a cup of medium dry sherry, cover, and let step for at least a day before using.