Recipes and Stories

21 April 2018: Of Spring Peas and Thyme

April 21, 2018

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Classic French Cooking, Green Peas, Spring Peas, Puree, Soup, Pea Soup, Chilled Soup, Thyme

Fresh Spring Pea Soup with Spring Onions and Thyme
Whether you call them garden, green, sweet, or, as we often do in the South, “English” peas, you probably take the plump, round seeds of the trailing plant pisum sativum for granted. You may even think of them as ordinary and a bit boring. Yet, once upon a time, these little orbs were celebrated as a precious commodity and a rare harbinger of spring.

Thomas Jefferson even carried on a friendly competition with one of his neighbors for the first pea harvest of the season. (more…)

9 October 2017: Broccoli, Bacon, and Potato Soup

October 9, 2017

Tags: Soup, Broccoli, Bacon, Classic Southern Cooking, Classic American Cooking, Autumn Cooking

Broccoli, Bacon, and Potato Soup
This morning, my office window looks out on an autumnal scene that seems like the beginning of perfect day for soup. Through the dwindling leaf canopy of the old pecan tree that dominates the view, the early sun occasionally peeks weakly through clouds that promise rain. There’s even a bit of frost on the window panes.

Unhappily, appearances, as they so often are here in Savannah, are deceiving: (more…)

5 September 2017: Peanut Soup

September 5, 2017

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Virginia Cookery, Peanuts, Peanut Soup, Ground Nuts, Ground Nut Soup, Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, The Williamsburg Cookbook, Colonial Williamsburg, Soup

Old-Fashioned Peanut Soup, still served in Colonial Williamsburg's King's Arms Tavern.
An old New Yorker friend tells me that, until recently, on Tuesday morning after Labor Day the subways smelled heavily of mothballs, regardless of what the weather was like. Since the holiday marked the symbolic if not actual end of summer, summer whites were dutifully put away and fall woolens came out of storage.

Well, it may be the symbolic end of the season, but here in the Deep South, we’re facing another full month or more of summer heat and humidity. Those white shoes may be ceremonially moved to the back of the closet, but other wardrobe changes will have to wait.

All the same, there’s a distinct shortening of the daylight hours and the lengthening of the shadows, bringing subtle changes in the light that inevitably turn our imagination toward fall. At the table, we may not be ready for heavy cold weather fare, but we’re weary of a steady litany of salads and chilled soup and are ready for the mellow flavors of autumn. (more…)

9 February 2017: The Art of Broth and the Comforts of Chicken Soup

February 9, 2017

Tags: Chicken Soup, Classic Southern Cooking, Classic American Cooking, Jewish Penicillin, Soup

My Chicken Noodle Soup
The deep belief in the healing power of chicken soup may well be one of the most universal concepts in the world’s cuisines.
No matter where on this globe one happens to be, if there are chickens in the barnyard and sick people in the house, there will be chicken soup in the pot. The details and flavorings that go into that pot will vary, depending on the culture and the cook, as will the age and size of the bird. It’s often called “Jewish Penicillin” in our country, but the faith in it as a curative really has no territorial or cultural boundaries. (more…)

25 March 2016: Make-Ahead Easter I, Carrot Puree

March 25, 2016

Tags: Easter, Easter Dinner, Carrot Puree, Make-Ahead, Classic French Cooking, Soup

Carrot Puree, a simple yet luscious beginning for Easter Dinner that can be made well ahead of time
My favorite beginning for Easter dinner, or, for that matter, any other spring celebration meal, is with a simple puree of fresh, spring carrots.

It’s so easy to make: though they were originally pureed by rubbing them through a wire mesh sieve, a process that took no particular skill but a fair amount of elbow-grease, if your kitchen is equipped with a blender, food processor, or that favorite modern chef’s tool, the hand blender, there’s nothing to it.

Best of all for the busy host, it can not only be made ahead, but is actually improved by it, (more…)

24 July 2015: Chicken and Corn Chowder

July 24, 2015

Tags: Corn, Corn Chowder, Chicken and Corn Chowder, Seafood Chowder, Classic Southern Cooking, Savannah Cookery, The Savannah Cookbook, Soup

Savannah Chicken and Corn Chowder, photographed in the dining room of the Historic Green-Meldrim House by John Carrington Photography
25 July 2015 Chicken and Corn Chowder

A lovely compensations for the intense, wet heat that settles over Savannah each summer like a warm wet blanket, is fresh sweet corn. And a popular, if a bit ironic, way of having that corn is in chowder, a rich yet simple soup that has been a fixture in Savannah for at least a century.

Recipes for it have been turning up in community cookbooks since the end of the nineteenth century, (more…)

1 April 2015 Mastering the Make-Ahead Easter Dinner II (No Fooling)

April 1, 2015

Tags: Spring Purees, Carrot Soup, Make-Ahead Easter, Dinner Party Planning, Classic French Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Soup

Spring Carrot Puree is a perfect make-ahead first course for Easter Dinner.
Once you have the menu fixed, today or tomorrow shop for the things that will keep: pantry staples, dairy products, the meat, potatoes, onions, and anything that you’ll need for the next make-ahead—in this case the soup.

My own menu: Puree of Spring Carrots, Butterflied Roast Leg of Lamb, Potato Gratin, Asparagus (the jury is still out on the sauce for this), and chocolate pots-de-crème. (more…)

19 March 2015: Strawberry Soup

March 19, 2015

Tags: Strawberries, Strawberry Soup, Classic American Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Fruit Soup, Soup

Chilled Strawberry Soup with Orange and just a touch of whipped cream for garnish
Now that strawberries are in season again, we’re constantly making use of them in the dessert bowl at the end the meal. But while they turn up all through the season in our cereal, salad, and snack bowls, we don’t often think of beginning the meal with them.

And yet, a cool, refreshing strawberry soup is a lovely and novel way to tease palates at the beginning of dinner, luncheon, or even brunch. (more…)

21 November 2014: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner II—The Broth

November 21, 2014

Tags: Thanksgiving 2014, Thanksgiving Dinner, Homemade Broth, Soup

Since I've not yet made my own broth, this is a picture of last year's stockpot. Let's face it: broth isn't terribly photogenic while it's in the making, but at Thanksgiving, it's the difference between a good dinner and a great one.
One of the most essential elements of Thanksgiving dinner, the one on which the rest of the meal rests, is the one that is the most often neglected: the broth. Each year, of the big packaged broth companies hawks its chicken broth with a warm, fuzzy thing about how caring cooks who love the process always rely on packaged broth to boost the flavor of their best dishes. (more…)

28 October 2014: Mastering the Art of French Onion Soup Gratinéed

October 28, 2014

Tags: Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée, French Onion Soup Gratinéed, Classic French Cooking, Onions, Soup

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée (Classic French Onion Soup Gratinéed)
One of the most enduringly popular dishes of fall and winter’s table is Gratinéed French Onion Soup. It’s one dish that we call “French” that actually is; “soupe à l’oignon gratinée” is a standard found in bistros and home kitchens throughout France.

This time of year it begins to turn up on menus throughout our country, too, from New England to South Florida without regard to outside temperatures. Unfortunately, what comes to the table is more often than not as indifferent as it is popular. (more…)

19 August 2014: Summer Squash Soup

August 19, 2014

Tags: Yellow Crookneck Squash, Squash Soup, Summer Squash, Southern Cooking, Essentials of Southern Cooking, Soup

Summer Squash Soup with Sage and Thyme
Of all the produce of summer, nothing is as deeply entwined with memories of my childhood, mother, and grandmother, as yellow crookneck squash. Possibly one of the reasons that they stand out is because most of the things that came from my mother’s and grandfather’s gardens were cooked only one or, at best, two ways, but those sunny crooknecks knew no limits. (more…)

14 April 2014: Easter II Spring Purees

April 14, 2014

Tags: Easter Dinner, Classic French Cooking, Purees, Spring Purees, Classic Southern Cooking, Soup

Spring Puree, in this case made with fresh young carrots.
One of the nicest ways of beginning an Easter dinner (or any other spring celebration meal) is an old-fashioned French puree. These are not the thick, mashed-potato like “purees” that have become so fashionable lately, but fresh vegetable soups that have been pulverized to a suave, elegant cream.

Not only do purees show off the fresh, full flavors of the season’s produce, they adapt beautifully to the unpredictability of the weather, being equally as good cold as hot. (more…)

29 March 2014: Spring Carrot Soup

March 29, 2014

Tags: Spring Cooking, Spring Carrots, Spring Leeks, Classical Southern Cooking, Carrot Soup, Soup

The text you type here will appear directly below the image
Here on the coastal plain of Georgia, spring carrots have been turning up at the farmers’ market for a couple of months, but it is now that they’re really hitting their prime. Friend Relinda Walker, the proprietress of Walker Farms, grows both the usual orange and colorful rainbow varieties of sweet young carrots. Laid out with their bright, fresh greens still attached, they’re as beautiful to look at as any bouquet of flowers you can imagine. (more…)

23 January 2013: A Trilogy of White Bean Soups

January 23, 2013

Tags: White Bean Soup, Bean Soup, Classic Italian Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Cannellini Beans, Soup

White Bean Soup II, with Garlic and Rosemary. If you're feeling the need for pig, ramp it up with pancetta or bacon
A welcome nip in the air has conspired with a touch of homesickness to bring on a craving for hearty, old-fashioned bean soup. There are so many good ones—from my father’s simple mélange of copper-brown pintos with ham and onion (eaten with hot cornbread crumbled into the bowl) to the suave, sophisticated puree of black beans that once graced so many Savannah dinner tables. I love them all, but my favorite is a simple, hearty white bean soup. (more…)

16 November 2012: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner III

November 16, 2012

Tags: Thanksgiving Dinner, Broth, Homemade Broth, Soup

It doesn't look like much, but the contents of this pot make all the difference between a good Thanksgiving dinner and a great one.
Today, let’s talk about the foundation on which the entire Thanksgiving dinner will rest: broth.

The most neglected pot in far too many American kitchens is the stockpot. At Kitchenware Outfitters, the kitchenware store where I work and teach, we sell a respectable number of these pots, but inevitably the words “cooking pasta” or “spaghetti sauce” or “chili” or “stew” come up, accompanied by a lot of questions about other possible uses for this tall, relatively narrow pot. (more…)

8 October 2012: Mushroom Soup

October 9, 2012

Tags: Mushrooms, Mushroom Soup, Sarah Rutledge, German Cooking, Early American Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Soup

Thick, rich Mushroom Soup made with both fresh and dried mushrooms and broth, cream is only added as a garnish at the end
After my recent newspaper story on fall mushrooms, several correspondents asked about a good recipe for mushroom soup, since one wasn't included in the story. I went looking to see what might turn up in some the early American cookbooks in my collection, and to my surprise, found only this simple recipe in The Carolina Housewife: (more…)

14 March 2012: Spring Shallot Soup

March 14, 2012

Tags: Spring Shallots, Emma Morel Adler, Shallot Soup, Savannah Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Bouillon, Soup

Emma Morel Adler's lovely Spring Shallot Soup, photographed by John Carrington, from The Savannah Cookbook
Pondering green-sprouting spring onions last week sparked memories of a nearly lost pleasure of the Southern gardens of my childhood: tender, spring shallot sprouts. They’re a luxury born of necessity: sprouting shallot beds have to be culled so that they don’t crowd one another, giving the bulbs room to grow fat and multiply. Since they’re too beautiful to just toss away, they’ve long been used as other green onions might be. (more…)

26 February 2012: Of Leeks and Potatoes, Potage Parmentier

February 27, 2012

Tags: Lenten Cooking, Classic French Cooking, Potage Parmentier, Leek and Potato Soup, Preparing Leeks for the Pot, Soup

Potage Parmentier, a Lenten Discipline worth rediscovering
One of the benefits of observing a Lenten discipline at the table is the discipline it imposes on us as cooks in the kitchen. A Lenten table isn’t just about doing without: simpler food is not merely an exercise in restraint; it actually commands more from the cook, asking us to pay closer attention, to think more carefully about what we’re doing.

Simpler food, stripped of artifice and flavor-enriching fats, is more exposed, its flavors more direct. Simpler, understated preparations likewise leave the cook more exposed, with very little margin for error. The simpler the cooking is, the less the cook can afford to let his attention waver.

Nothing more fittingly illustrates the point than that old mainstay of the French kitchen, Potage Parmentier—or, as we know it, leek and potato soup. It’s the perfect dish for a Lenten table, and once was very popular during the season; unhappily, it is nowadays sadly overlooked and neglected.

The classic soup is nothing more than its English name implies: fresh, young leeks and potatoes thinly sliced and simmered together—and that’s about all. There’s no broth and its only seasonings are a little onion and salt. The finished soup can be enhanced with a splash of cream, a handful of crisp croutons, a sprinkling of bright, freshly snipped chives, and sometimes a whisper of white pepper, but even those garnishes become superfluous when the soup has been well made from first rate ingredients. And if it hasn’t been, well, there’s not a garnish in the world that will make it palatable.

The leeks must be vibrant, fresh, and carefully handled—well cleaned without that misguided technique of slicing and then soaking it in ice water (which may take away the sand, but unhappily will take a good deal of the flavor along with it), thin-sliced, and slowly sweated in a little butter to draw out its flavors without caramelizing it.

The potatoes should likewise be selected with care—mature, but still firm, snapping crisp, and fresh tasting, then thinly sliced so that they cook quickly and evenly without taking on that heavy, almost sour aftertaste that overcooking can bring to them.

The onion, salt, and (if they’re even used) the garnishes play only a supporting role.

In short, Potage Parmentier is not a complicated dish nor do the techniques involved require any particular skill from the cook. But to be done well, it does require a good deal of thoughtfulness and finesse, and it never hurts to be reminded of that.

Potage Parmentier, or Leek and Potato Soup

Though not classic, one of my own favorite variations for this soup is to save a couple of cups of the tender leek greens, stir them into the pureed soup, and gently simmer until they are barely tender. They lend both texture and a bright, fresh flavor.

Serves 6-8

1 pound leeks
1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound Russet or mature Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
6 cups water
Kosher or sea salt
¼-to-½ cup heavy cream, optional
Croutons (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons minced chives or tender leek greens
Whole white pepper in a mill

1. To clean and prepare the leeks, lay them flat on a cutting board, slice off the root tendrils without removing the root base altogether, then, with the knife parallel to the board, carefully cut them in half lengthwise. Holding each half root-end-up under running water, fold back the leaves and wash away the sand and dirt that is caught between the leaves. Drain and thinly slice both the white and pale tender greens. You should have about 3 cups. Lay aside the other greens for the stock pot.

2. Warm the butter in a heavy-bottomed 3½-to-4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over low heat. Add the leek and onion and let them sweat until softened and translucent, about 8-to-10 minutes. Add the potatoes, toss well, and let them heat through.

2. Add the water and raise the heat to medium high. Bring to a boil, adjust the heat to a simmer, and season with salt. Cook gently until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Puree in batches with a food mill, blender or food processor. (It can be made several days ahead up to this point: let cool, cover, and refrigerate.)

3. Return the soup to the pot and reheat it slowly over medium low heat, stirring often. Stir in cream to taste (if using), taste and adjust the seasonings, and heat for a minute to let the flavors meld. Serve garnished with a few croutons on each bowl, a sprinkling of chives or leek greens and, if liked, a light grinding of white pepper. You may also add another spoonful of cream to each bowl, or opt to use the cream only as a garnish.

Croutons

Preheat the oven to 300 F. Put 2-3 tablespoons of butter (or olive oil) on a rimmed baking sheet and heat until it is just melted (or in the case of the oil, fragrant). Cut 2 cups of stale home-style bread into small cubes. Put them on the baking sheet and quickly toss to evenly coat them with fat. Bake, stirring occasionally, until the croutons are evenly golden and crisp, about 20 to 30 minutes. For soups, I prefer to use butter, but olive oil is better for salad croutons.

16 January 2012: Turtle Bean Soup

January 17, 2012

Tags: Savannah, Black Beans, Turtle Beans, Black Bean Soup, Savannah Turtle Bean Soup, Classical Southern Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Historical Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Soup

Savannah Turtle Bean Soup served in the old tradition. Photography by John Carrington, from The Savannah Cookbook
Across the lane from my office window (in Savannah, we do not have “alleys”), there are orange and gold turning leaves right next to a magnificent tulip magnolia in full bloom. In mid-January. Such rare mornings as have commanded a topcoat and scarf have more often than not dissolved into afternoons that are downright balmy, barely demanding a sweater. This is almost unheard of, even in our little seaside corner of Georgia.

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
Ground cayenne
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.

18 July 2011: Okra Soup

July 18, 2011

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Southern Cooking, Okra, Tomatoes, Okra and Tomatoes, Savannah Cooking, Soup

Okra Soup, a summer staple in Savannah. Photography by John Carrington
One of the key foundations on which so much of Southern cooking is built is the rather magical pairing of okra with tomatoes. From Maryland to Florida, Virginia to Texas, whether it’s simply the two vegetables simmered together, a thick gumbo, or a complex pot of vegetable soup in which they’re joined by everything else in the garden, the combination is practically universal.

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.

Serves 6

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.

12 April 2011: Asparagus Soup

April 12, 2011

Tags: Asparagus, Asparagus Soup, Historical Cooking, Southern Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking, Soup

“Asparagus,” wrote Lettice Bryan with her singular gift for understatement, “is a nice vegetable, and requires equally as much nicety in preparing it.”

Those words, from her landmark 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, were penned in the days before our global garden, when winter’s table was dominated by cabbages and dried beans. One of the first edible sprouts to nose its way through the thawing earth after the long, cold winter, asparagus was the very essence of spring, available for only a few precious weeks of the season.

It would never have occurred to Mrs. Bryan to explain that, or to caution that asparagus is only “nice” when it has just been cut from a garden that is merely minutes away from the pot. There was no need to warn against spears that had been shipped across several continents or preach that only locally grown, seasonal asparagus was worth having.

She offered no advice, as most authors do today, for keeping it fresh until it’s used, but simply directed to “Gather them when fully grown but very tender, taking care to have them as near the same size as possible, that they may all get done at the same time” and went right into preparing them for the pot. She also provided just three perfect recipes, knowing that, in this case, discretion was the better part of valor.

Of the three, the loveliest and most sensitive—indeed one of the loveliest recipes in print, then or now, was—

Asparagus Soup.

Your asparagus must be young and tender; scrape and wash it neatly, and let it lie for a time in cold water; cut small some of the green tops, and put them also in cold water. Make a broth in the usual manner, of a few pounds of fresh veal or poultry, and a small piece of ham. Cut the stalks of the asparagus into pieces not more than an inch long, and boil them in the broth till tender, seasoning it with salt, pepper, and butter. Mash to a pulp enough of the asparagus to thicken the soup, and let the other remain in pieces. Stir in a little rich sweet cream; just let it come to a boil, and serve it up with toasted bread cut in dice, dispersing over it some sprigs of the green tops.

—Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839

Yes, today we can have “fresh” asparagus any time we want, but to have it just minutes from the garden, prepared by the hands of such a cook, is unfortunately rare even in its season.

In translating the recipe for Classical Southern Cooking, I did absolutely nothing but standardize the format, fill in directions that she took for granted, and set proportions for six servings. Everything else is as Mrs. Bryan intended it, right down to the nouvelle-cuisine-sounding raw tip garnish. All it requires is the freshest asparagus you can find.

Asparagus Soup

Serves 6
1 quart of Chicken Broth or Meat Broth made with veal bones (preferably homemade)
2 ounces country ham in one piece
1½ pounds young asparagus
1 tablespoon butter
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 cup heavy cream at room temperature
1 cup Buttered Croutons (Recipe follows)

1. Bring the broth and ham to a boil in a large pot over medium heat. Meanwhile, peel the asparagus and drop it briefly into a basin of cold water. Let it soak for half an hour.

2. When the broth begins to boil, take up the asparagus, cut off the pointed tips, and cut the stems crosswise into one-inch long pieces. Roughly chop a dozen or so of the tips and set them aside in a bowl of cold water to cover.

3. Drop the remaining asparagus and the butter into the boiling broth. Let it return to a boil, then cover and lower the heat. Cook at a good simmer until the asparagus is tender, about 5—and no more than 10—minutes. Season it to taste with the salt and pepper.

4. With a slotted spoon, take out about a cup and a half of the greenest stems and tips and put them to the side in a covered bowl. Puree the remainder with the broth by forcing them through a sieve as Mrs. Bryan originally directed, or through a food mill. If you are not that energetic, a stick blender or food processor does this job nearly as well.

5. Return the soup to the pot and heat it through over medium heat. Stir in the reserved cooked asparagus and cream. Simmer until just heated through, stirring well, and turn off the heat.

6. Ladle the soup into individual heated soup plate and garnish with croutons and a sprinkling of the chopped raw tips.

Buttered Croutons

Cut ½-inch thick slices of good, day-old bread (preferably homemade) into small, bite-sized cubes. For every cup of cubed bread, allow 2 tablespoons of butter. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a heavy skillet that will comfortably hold all the bread. Add the bread cubes and quickly toss them to until they are coated. Sauté, tossing frequently, until they are golden brown and crisp.

Another way requiring less attention: preheat the oven to 300° F. Put the butter in a shallow baking pan that will hold all the bread cubes in one layer, and melt it in the oven. Add the bread and toss until it is well coated. Return the pan to the oven and bake, stirring from time to time, until they are lightly browned and crisp, about half an hour.