Recipes and Stories
January 22, 2016
Blustery winter days like this one, when so much of the eastern seaboard is blanketed with snow, just call for a hearty stew that can fill the house with wonderful smells and fill those in the house with warmth and contentment. I published this stew last fall in a Savannah Morning News story, but it’s ideal for a lazy winter day and really does live up to its name, since there’s no browning and everything is mixed together all at once in the pot in which it cooks; the extra-low simmer makes it possible to add all the vegetables at once. Best of all, it can be made in the slow cooker or the oven. (more…)
November 9, 2015
The problem is that the yard it shades is also a playground and free cafeteria for a motley assortment of spoiled, fat, urban squirrels. (more…)
January 17, 2015
October 22, 2014
August 19, 2014
August 7, 2014
July 14, 2014
April 8, 2014
— Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867
Here’s an odd and suggestive historical puzzle: many nineteenth century American cookbook authors agreed with Mrs. Hill, conceding that beets taste best when they are baked whole rather than boiled. And yet, not one of them, Mrs. Hill included, provided directions for doing it. (more…)
March 4, 2014
December 24, 2013
There wasn’t one single silver bell, red and green blinking street light, or rushing shopper for miles. (more…)
November 5, 2013
July 1, 2013
December 12, 2012
There may be something in the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt; (more…)
July 16, 2012
February 14, 2012
That has not always been the case: until the middle of the nineteenth century, chocolate was rare and expensive, and the lavish bonbons, cakes, mousses, and pots de crème that tempt lovers nowadays didn’t exist. Chocolate was almost exclusively used as a beverage and, moreover, was a luxury that few could afford. In short, only the most elite lovers could conjure with chocolate, and they had to do so with a cup.
They could have done worse. Drinking chocolate goes back at least to the ancient Mayans, who used it in religious rituals and may well have believed it to have had aphrodisiacal powers. The Europeans, upon discovering it, certainly did. But then, they thought almost everything from the New World was an aphrodisiac.
Never mind. Silky rich drinking chocolate has a power all its own—and isn’t the biggest part of romance in our heads anyway?
By the days of the early Republic, drinking chocolate was still a luxury, but had become affordable enough to be well established in America. It was made in some variation of the method put down by Lettice Bryan in 1839.
Chocolate cakes are carved in little squares on one side, to each of which, if the chocolate is good, allow about three jills* of water. Scrape it very fine with a knife, mix it with just enough boiling water to dissolve it, mashing it with a spoon till smooth, and then put it in a block-tin boiler, mix in the remaining water, which must also be boiling, cover it, set it on a trivet over a bed of coals, and boil it gently till reduce to about two thirds its original, giving it a light stirring two or three times: then replenish it with cream or rich sweet milk, making the boiler as full as it first was with water; watch it closely, stirring it a little till it boils up; then take it instantly from the fire, or it will boil over the top and a good part of it will be lost. Whirl round in it, near the top, a chocolate mill, (or a small bunch of bended wires will answer) till you raise a rich froth on the top, and send it to table hot, accompanied with chocolate cakes**, dry toasts, or hard rusks.
— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839.
* Mrs. Bryan meant “gill,” an archaic name for ¼ pint, or ½ cup in modern liquid measurements.
** These were crisp sugar cookies designed for eating with the beverage. They didn’t contain chocolate.
With all respect to Mrs. Bryan, Miss Eliza Acton, one of the finest cookery writers of nineteenth century England (or, for that matter, anywhere else) provided a more refined recipe in her 1845 masterpiece that set a new standard for cookbooks.
To Make Chocolate.
An ounce of chocolate, if good, will be sufficient for one person. Rasp, and then boil it from five to ten minutes with about four tablespoonfuls* of water; when it is extremely smooth add nearly a pint of new milk, give it another boil, stir it well, or mill it, and serve it directly. For water-chocolate use three-quarters of a pint of water instead of milk, and send rich hot cream to table with it. The taste must decide whether it shall be made thicker or thinner.
Chocolate, 2 oz.; water, quarter-pint, or rather more; milk 1 pint: ½ minute.
— Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845.
* Miss Acton means a common table or kitchen spoon roughly double the size of the standard modern measuring spoon. The closer equivalent to our tablespoon was a dessertspoon. Notice that while she says an ounce of chocolate will be sufficient for one person, the amounts given in the ingredient list and within the recipe are for two servings.
Very little of Miss Acton’s method needs further illumination for modern cooks. By milling she meant to whip it with a chocolate mill, a round whip on a long handle that was spun by rubbing it between the hands. Her recipe was accompanied by a drawing of a chocolate pot that came equipped with such a mill.
To Make Chocolate for Two.
Finely grate two ounces of best quality unsweetened dark chocolate. Bring a scant half-cup of water to a simmer over medium low heat, stir in the chocolate, and keep stirring until it dissolves. Let it simmer slowly while you bring one-and-three-quarters cups of light cream (or a blend of whole milk and cream) almost to a boil in a separate pot. If liked, add a cinnamon stick or half a vanilla bean to the milk before heating it, and let it simmer for five minutes. Slowly whisk the hot milk into the chocolate, sweeten it to taste with sugar, and if you’ve not used cinnamon or whole bean vanilla, flavor it with a little homemade Bourbon Vanilla (see 26 October 2011). A tiny pinch of cayenne is considered good for increasing one’s romantic inclinations. Whisk or mill until there is a thick froth on top and serve immediately.
You will not have to wait long for results.
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.
October 26, 2011
It may, in fact, have become a little too popular, thanks to the proliferation of cheap imitation flavorings, which have made vanilla so commonplace that the very word has become a synonym for bland, predictable and boring.
There is nothing bland or boring about real vanilla, and nothing that can equal its heady, fragrant magic. And while its imitations may be had for next to nothing, the real thing is still exotic and expensive.
However, a single bean can be made to go a very long way by infusing it into an extract. There are quality commercial extracts available, but making your own is very simple and gives a lot of satisfaction, not to mention flavor, that money can’t buy. All it takes is a couple of first quality vanilla beans, some decent bourbon, and a little patience.
Some people use vodka or brandy, but I prefer the mellowness that bourbon lends. The most fragrant proportion is one bean for every quarter cup of alcohol, about half the alcohol usually called for in these infusions. You simply split the bean lengthwise, halve it, put it into a clean glass jar and cover it with the prescribed amount of booze. Seal and give it a vigorous shake, then put it in a cool dark cupboard that you’ll be going into every day. For the first week or two, give it a shake every day.
Homemade extract lasts a lot longer because you leave the beans in the brew, replacing the extract as it is used with the same quantity of alcohol. It’ll last you for a couple of years at the least. Once the flavor starts to weaken, use it up and start a new batch.
Though I have full bottle of bourbon infused with excellent Madagascar vanilla beans, there’s another new batch infusing in my pantry, thanks to friend Colleen Crislip, who came home from her last trip to Mexico with one of the loveliest gifts imaginable: a slim glass tube containing three supple, fragrant Mexican vanilla beans. One of the most aromatic vanillas in the world, they haven’t always been available to us north of the Rio Grande. They make the most fragrant extract imaginable, rich with hints of coconut and chocolate.
The photograph was taken yesterday, just after the bourbon was poured over the beans. As it matures during the next couple of weeks, I’ll share its progress.
September 20, 2011
September 4, 2011
You’re probably thinking “Southern scaloppine” is an oxymoron, since most Americans believe that scaloppine, Italy’s name for medallions of meat pounded thin, cooked quickly, and finished in gravy made by deglazing the pan with wine or broth, is a concept we’ve only become acquainted with during the last half-century. But that’s only because early American cooks didn’t use the Italian name for the concept. It’s actually quite an old idea that wasn’t confined to the boundaries of Italian kitchens. Early cookbooks that Europeans brought with them to America often gave recipes for it.
The old English name for scaloppine was “collop,” and it was used for any thin slice of meat, just as “escalope” was in French, though it most often referred to thinly sliced veal round. That’s probably because, until dairy practices changed in the 1930s and 40s, veal was actually commonplace and relatively cheap. However, the word was also applied to similar cuts of beef, mutton, or venison. So was the cooking technique.
Pork was rarely mentioned in connection with those recipes until the mid-nineteenth century. While salt pork and ham were ordinary everyday food in the days before refrigeration, fresh pork was seasonal, especially here in the South.
The early recipes for pork scallops were more often called “steaks,” and while they could be cut from the round, they were more often taken from the loin and delicate (some would say bland) tenderloin. While the latter have become quite popular and commonplace today, in the past they were a rare late-autumn treat.
Recipes like this one were as uncommon as they were lovely:
213. Pork Steaks.—The tenderloin makes the best steak. Cut them a quarter of an inch thick; fry in boiling lard, turning constantly; serve hot. Make gravy by pouring in a small quantity of boiling water; let it boil up once, and pour over the steak. Serve with them tomato or onion sauce. Steaks may be cut from the hindquarter or chine.
— Annabella P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867
Mrs. Hill was using “fry” very loosely: what she intended was the same light sauté as a scaloppine, the constant turning necessary to keep the thin pieces of meat supple and tender. Though she was silent as to seasonings, most of her pork recipes called for the meat to be rubbed with salt, pepper, and sage, a triad that was practically a given in Georgia from her day until now.
Other cooks used wine in the pan gravy, and in later recipes, the medallions were dredged (sprinkled) with flour before sautéing, then added back to the gravy after browning for a brief finishing simmer—exactly like scaloppine.
The following is one such recipe that has become a personal favorite for fall in Savannah, where at times the climate is autumnal in name only. The key ingredient is Madeira, a wine that was once practically a religion in this town and to this day remains an integral part of its cuisine.
Pork Medallions (or Scaloppine) with Sage and Madeira
From my latest book, The Savannah Cookbook.
1 pork tenderloin, weighing about 1 pound
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
2 teaspoons finely crumbled dried, or a heaped tablespoon of finely minced fresh, sage
2 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter
¼ cup flour, spread on a plate
½ cup Madeira
½ cup meat broth, preferably homemade
1. Wipe the pork dry with an absorbent cloth or paper towels. Trim away any fat and silver skin and cut it crosswise into 8 equal medallions about 1-inch thick. Lay them on a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper, cover with a second sheet, and gently pound them out to ¼-inch thickness. Season both sides well with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the sage evenly over both sides of the pork, and rub it into the surface.
2. Warm the drippings or butter and oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat until bubbling hot. Raise the heat to medium high, quickly roll the pork in the flour, and slip it into the pan until it is filled without crowding, cooking in batches if necessary. Fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes, turn, and brown the second side, about 2 minutes longer. Remove the scallops to a warm platter.
3. Stir a teaspoon of flour into the fat in the pan. Let it cook for a minute, stirring, and slowly stir in the Madeira. Cook, stirring and scraping the pan, until thickened, then stir in the broth. Bring to a simmer and cook until lightly thickened. Return the scallops to the pan and cook, turning them several times, until they are heated through and the sauce is thick. Turn off the heat, taste and correct the seasonings. Return the pork to the platter, spoon the gravy over it, and serve at once.
August 2, 2011
Of all the things we cooked together, nothing recalls those days more poignantly or delectably than one of MaMa’s great specialties: young swan-necked yellow squash, scooped out and filled with its own pulp mixed with stale crumbs and seasoned simply with sliced green onions, salt, and pepper.
Ever since the first time I crumbled the bread for them fifty years ago, MaMa’s squash have been a regular part of my summer table—although, through those years, I’ve strayed from the simple elegance of her formula, adding at various times bacon, prosciutto, seafood, sausage, sage, thyme, Parmigiano, Cheddar, and garlic. But when it comes down to it, if the squash are good to begin with, all that just gilded the lily and got in the way.
To achieve perfection as my grandmother did, choose four medium-sized yellow crookneck squash that are impeccably fresh. They should have clear, glossy-smooth skins and stems that are plump and bright green. Wash them carefully under cold running water and steam them whole in a steamer basket set over at an inch of simmering water until barely tender, about 12-15 minutes, depending on size. Rinse them under cold water to stop the cooking and let them cool enough to handle.
Position rack in center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. Generously butter a nine-by-twelve-inch baking dish. Lay the squash on a cutting board with their crooknecks to one side so that they lie flat. Slice off about a quarter of their tops, chop it coarsely, and put it in a ceramic or glass bowl. With a melon baller or teaspoon, carefully scoop the pulp and seeds from the squashes, leaving their outer walls intact. Gently squeeze the excess moisture out of the pulp, chop it, and add it to the bowl. Invert the squash shells over a rack and let them drain for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, trim, wash, and thinly sliced enough green onion to make half a cup. Add them to the squash pulp along with a generous cup or so of finely crumbled stale but still soft biscuits, dinner rolls, or loaf bread. Season to taste with salt and a fresh grinding of pepper. Lightly beat an egg until it’s well mixed and just moisten the filling with it; you may not need all of it. Mix well and spoon it evenly into the shells, mounding the excess up on the top. Sprinkle the tops generously with more crumbs, gently pat them in, and put the squash in the prepared dish. Cut thin slices of butter over the tops and bake until hot through and golden brown, about half an hour.
Let the most intense flush of heat dissipate for a few minutes, then sit down with a glass of sweet tea and taste the pure essence of summer on a fork.
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.
July 7, 2011
There were never fewer than three side dishes and always a dessert (most often banana pudding)--which marked it as a special occasion at my mother's table, since a sweet at the meal's end was not a given in our household.
Now that I am the one who gets up early on the the "Day of Rest" and does the cooking, I appreciate more the effort that my mother put into making it seem leisurely. However, it remains among my favorite meals, both to make and to eat.
Whether it's the traditional Southern roast and plethora of sides from my childhood or a simple frittata with hash browns, the challenge, for me, is that obligatory dessert at the end. Sweets are just not my thing.
Happily, blueberries are in season and over this past holiday weekend, there happened to be a couple of pints on hand. Sunday's dessert was a snap to make, because nothing is simpler, or better, than a blueberry crumble, and this one may well have been the best I've ever made.
For the fans of my Facebook page, who were drawn in by Timothy Hall's handsome picture, here's how to make one of your own.
Serves 6 to 8
3 pints blueberries
¾ cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
7 ounces (about 1½ cups) all-purpose flour
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 375° F. Wash, drain, and pick over the berries to remove any stems and blemished fruit. Put it in a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl and add the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Grate in the zest from the lemon. Toss well, taste a berry, and if they are not very tart, halve the lemon and add a squeeze of lemon juice, as needed.
2. Lightly butter a shallow 2 quart casserole and pour in the fruit. Wash and dry the mixing bowl, put in the flour and brown sugar, and toss until well mixed. Add the butter and cut it in until the mixture resembles course meal, with lumps no bigger than very small peas. Sprinkle it over the fruit.
3. Bake until golden brown and the filling is bubbly in the center, about 45 minutes.
June 6, 2011
Another great classic of Lowcountry tea and cocktail tables is this simple pâté of pulverized shrimp and butter –
Run a quart of boiled and picked shrimp through the grinder. Then place in saucepan with salt, pepper, mace, and two heaping tablespoons of butter. Heat thoroughly, and put into molds. Pressing down hard with a spoon, and pouring melted butter over the top. Put in refrigerator, and when cold, slice and serve. An excellent hors d’oeuvre, or an addition to tomato salad.”
– Harriet Ross Colquitt, The Savannah Cook Book (1933)
It’s a very old conserve that long predates Mrs. Colquitt, known in old English and early American books as –
“POTTED SHRIMPS, OR PRAWNS.
Let the fish be quite freshly boiled, shell them quickly, and just before they are put into the mortar, chop them a little with a very sharp knife; pound them perfectly with a quantity of fresh butter, mace, and cayenne.
Shrimps (unshelled), 2 quarts; butter, 2 to 4 oz.; mace, 1 small saltspoonful; cayenne, 1/3 as much.
– Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845).
From the Lowcountry in the same era, we have Miss Rutledge’s rather sketchy version –
“To Pot Shrimps.
Pick the shrimps (after they are boiled) from the shells; beat them well in a mortar, and put as much melted butter to them as will make them of the proper consistence to be pressed compactly together; add pepper, salt, mace, and nutmeg to the taste; put the mixture into small pans, and pour melted butter over them about a quarter of an inch thick. If wanted for immediate use, grated bread may be added.”
– Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife (1847).
Mrs. Colquitt’s tablespoon was a kitchen spoon that was larger than the standard measuring implement of our day. She’s calling for about the same amount of butter as Miss Acton. Her logic in reheating the paste is that it helped prolong its shelf life once potted, though refrigeration had made it an unnecessary caution by her day, and interestingly, the older recipes don’t mention it.
Regardless of its provenance, shrimp paste remains a staple throughout the Lowcountry, though today there’s not a single cook left in the region who would make it with a meat grinder, let alone mortar and pestle. Both methods have given way to the food processor. The old ways perhaps did yield a more interesting paste, but the machine makes such short work of it that the sacrifices in authenticity and texture seem well worth it.
All this came to mind because those little brown shrimp have arrived, and shrimp paste seemed just the thing for a recent late Sunday silver-and-linen reception. Here’s how I made it, from Classical Southern Cooking.
Serves 6 as a first course, or 20 for cocktails or tea
1½ pounds cooked shrimp, peeled
¼ pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 tablespoons grated shallots or yellow onion
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
1 blade mace, crushed to a powder, or whole nutmeg in a grater, optional
Ground cayenne pepper
Crisp toast points or Melba toasts
1. Fit the bowl of the processor with a steel blade and put in the shrimp. Cover and pulse until coarsely ground.
2. Add the butter, shallots, a large pinch of salt, and a dash each of cayenne, white pepper, and mace or nutmeg if liked. Process until the mixture forms a paste. Don’t over-process it to a mousse consistency: there should still be some texture. Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, cayenne, and mace. Pulse a few times to mix the seasonings.
3. Lightly butter a 3-cup metal mold, or two smaller molds, or a small loaf pan. Press the paste firmly into it, making sure there are no pockets of trapped air. Cover with a plate or plastic wrap and chill for several hours until firm. Alternatively, pack the paste into crocks, cover with melted clarified butter, and chill until needed.
4. To un-mold, stand the mold in a basin of hot water for 1 minute. Loosen the edges with a knife, and invert the mold over a serving plate—the paste should come out with a couple of firm taps on the top of the mold. Smooth any gaps with a spatula and let it stand until it’s soft enough to spread. If the paste was stored in crocks, serve it directly from the crock without un-molding it. Serve with toast or use as a spread of tea sandwiches.
April 12, 2011
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—
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.
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.
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.