Before July slips completely away, here’s one last word on those old-fashioned chopped meat salads, specifically, one that’s quintessential to a Lowcountry summer: shrimp salad.
No one would argue that tomato sandwiches are the primary hallmark of summer for most of us. We eagerly anticipate that first really vine-ripened tomato so we can thickly slice it, tuck it into soft white bread slathered with mayonnaise, and relish it wearing an old shirt (or no shirt) while standing over the sink, because it’s going to drip all over us when we bite into it.
But here in the Lowcountry, the hallmark sandwich of summer is shrimp salad. Read More
Recipes and Stories
One of the loveliest mid-summer supper dishes of the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry is a simple casserole known in these parts as shrimp and corn pie. Traditionally, almost any custard-based dish cooked in a shallow casserole is called a “pie” in Carolina and Georgia, just as our version of macaroni and cheese is known as macaroni pie, although a similar dish would be called a “pudding” in Virginia or other parts of the South.
Well, no matter what you call it, it’s one of the happiest pairings of two of our best summer staples: Read More
Winter in the Carolina and Georgia lowcountry is rarely what one could call harsh, but the last week or so has been unusually mild even for us—more like late spring than the dead heart of winter. But we know that those balmy whispers of spring are fleeting and can never be trusted. And, sure enough, this weekend the temperatures have once again dropped.
It’s still not what a New Englander would call cold, but it’s blustery enough to make us crave heartier fare, something that will not only warm us in the moment, but stick with us for a long time. And when that kind of craving comes calling, nothing answers it better than a good stew. Read More
When shrimp season rolls around each May, it always takes me back to some of the best days of my childhood. That may seem odd, since I didn’t grow up on the coast where the opening of shrimp season marks the real beginning of summer. But a small part of most of my childhood summers was actually spent on the Isle of Palms, a barrier island just north of Charleston.
While we were in shrimp territory, we ate as many of them as we could manage. Most of the shrimp we ate were bought from the many local fishermen who sold them roadside from the tailgates of their battered pickups, Read More
3 May 2016: Shrimp and Ham Jambalaya
Whether you call it pilau, pilaf, perlow, paella, or jambalaya, in the end, it all amounts to the same thing.
The techniques used vary slightly from dish to dish and the type of rice may differ—a paella, for example, is made with a short-grained rice whereas a pilau is made with long-grain rice. Read More
One of the lovely things about early summer on the coast in the South is the brief window when soft-shell crabs are in season.
Like most crustaceans, as blue crabs outgrow their hard outer shells, they shed them and begin growing a new one. For a few fleeting hours before it hardens, the new shell is soft, delicate, and completely edible. They’re a much-anticipated seasonal delicacy here in the Lowcountry. That season is already waning here, but we still have a little bit longer to enjoy them. Read More
Unlike pasta, leftover rice is perfect for recycling in a salad: while pasta often turns gummy and flabby when cold, rice holds its shape, remains firm and yet tender, and because its surface starches “set,” the grains don’t clump together but remain distinct and separate. Read More
Crab cakes have become standard fare on Southern restaurant menus from Maryland to Louisiana, and one of the signature dishes of modern Southern cooking. They’re so popular that it seems petty to quibble over them. But as delectable as it can be (when well made), molding cooked crabmeat into a regular, round cake presents a delicate balancing act for the cook: keeping the binding breading to a minimum without having the cake fall apart in the frying pan. Read More
For most Southerners, beginning a new year without dried field peas on the table would be unimaginable. Though stewed black-eyed peas are the most commonplace, the type and mode of cooking them varies from place to place across the region.
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. Read More
My cooking students have heard this truism hundreds of times, but for rule-bound cooks, it really can’t be repeated often enough. For culinary historians, it is more than an invitation to color outside the lines: it’s a reminder that slavishly following the map is no guarantee of historical authenticity.
Sticking strictly to the bare bones of an eighteenth century recipe is no assurance that you are anywhere near eighteenth century cooking: just as singers in Mozart’s day were expected to ornament a song, cooks were expected to ornament a recipe.
In short, there’s nothing to be gained by making a recipe into a straitjacket.
Cooking is never static: ingredients change, the cook’s mood changes, and each of us brings an individual judgment to the pot that is a complicated mixture of experience, taste, prejudice, and the moment. There’s also the wildcard of outside influence.
While it’s usually a good idea not to ignore the map altogether, it’s also a mistake to deny individual instinct its proper place. If nothing else, it makes the trip more fun and often gives unexpected pleasure to the final destination.
Now that it’s oyster season again, one classic roadmap that’s on my mind and palate is creamed oysters. Whether they’re ladled straight from the pan over homey thick slabs of buttered toast or from a silver chafing dish into elegantly trimmed pastry cups, they’re a staple of Southern entertaining. Here in the Lowcountry, creamed oysters are the very essence of autumn’s table.
There are many traditional embellishments to this simple yet magical marriage of shellfish and cream: mushrooms, a scattering of green onions, or a splash of sherry, Worcestershire, or pepper sauce—all depending on where the oysters and the cook have come from, what’s in the pantry, and, often, who will be at the table.
Then there’s that wild card of outside influence. This wild care for my own creamed oysters is the influence of two very different cooks who by chance happened to work in the same place: a classic continental restaurant in downtown Savannah called La Toque. One of its signature specialties was escargots bathed in a luxurious sauce of leeks, brandy, and cream.
Conceived by the Swiss chef-owner in the classic French style, it underwent a startling and delicious transformation when a French-trained Vietnamese cook took over the kitchen and added ginger and garlic (and plenty of both) to the pan.
The restaurant is long gone, but I still dream about those escargots, and now, leeks, ginger, and whiskey have become an inseparable part of my creamed oysters. Now, these things are all familiar territory to Savannah cooks, and creamed oysters are kissing cousins to those escargots, but would a nineteenth century cook, lacking the influence of that Swiss and Vietnamese cook, have added them to the oyster chafing dish? It seems doubtful. But then again, since ginger, garlic and whiskey were all old hat to Savannah cooking, who is to say that they didn’t?
One thing is certain: no nineteenth century Savannahian would’ve thought them strange—and once you’ve tried it, you won’t, either.
Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream
Serves 4 as a first course, 2-3 as a main dish
1 pint shucked oysters
2 medium leeks, trimmed split lengthwise, and washed well
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large, or 2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 quarter-sized slices fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
8 small (2-inch diameter) Hoecakes (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1. Set a sieve over a stainless or glass bowl and pour the oysters into it. Drain for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the liquor (you can freeze what you don’t use and use it in recipes calling for fish stock). Thinly slice the white and most of the tender greens of the leeks.
2. Melt the butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and sauté, tossing frequently, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and continue sautéing until fragrant, about half a minute more. Add the bourbon and let it evaporate, then pour a cup of oyster liquor. Bring it to a boil and let it reduce slightly. Add the cream and bring it to a boil. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until it is a little thicker than you want the finished sauce (the oysters will throw off moisture as they cook, diluting it). Turn off the heat. You may prepare it up to this point several hours in advance. Cover and refrigerate the oysters and sauce in separate containers.
3. Half an hour before serving, preheat the oven to 170° F. (or the “warm” setting). Put the hoecakes on a cookie sheet in a single layer and put them into the warm oven. Turn on the heat under the sauce to medium and bring it to a simmer. Add the oysters, a small pinch of salt (go easy, you can correct the salt later), and a liberal grinding of white pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the oysters plump and their gills curl, between 1 and 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and taste and adjust the seasonings.
4. Put 2 hoecakes per serving onto warmed individual serving plates. Spoon the oysters and sauce over them, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once.
Lemon Pepper Hoecakes
The original hoecakes were very simple griddle breads, consisting of little more than cornmeal, water, and salt. Whether or not it was actually baked on the blade of a hoe is lost in time. Today, it is griddle baked, and in the Savannah restaurants that have made it popular, its batter is generally enriched with milk, eggs, and melted fat.
Makes about 12, serving 4 to 6
1 cup stone-ground white cornmeal
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
The zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg, lightly beaten
About 1¼ cups whole milk buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt thinned with milk to buttermilk consistency
Melted bacon drippings, butter, or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven, place a large, baking sheet on it, and preheat to 170° F. (the warm setting). Whisk together the meal, soda, salt, pepper, and lemon zest in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the liquids. Quickly stir them together. It should be moderately thick but still pour easily from a spoon: if it doesn’t, add a little more milk or water.
2. Warm a griddle or wide, shallow skillet over medium-high heat until it is hot enough for a drop of water to “dance” on the surface. Brush the griddle lightly with fat (if it smokes, the griddle is too hot—adjust the heat). Pour the batter in about a tablespoon-sized portion from the end of a large spoon (for larger cakes about 3 inches in diameter use a generous two tablespoons). The edges will sizzle and form lacy air bubbles.
3. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, turn, and cook until uniformly golden, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer the cooked hoecakes to the baking sheet in the oven as they are finished and repeat with the remaining batter until it is all cooked. Serve hot. Read More
Foraging for them requires two things: a thorough knowledge of wild mushrooms and a sense of responsibility. Though wild-growing chanterelles are distinctive and easy to spot, novices can, and have, gone wrong, and over-harvesting or careless gathering by the greedy have all-too-often depleted many once plentiful beds.
In his masterpiece on Lowcountry cooking, John Martin Taylor (a.k.a. Hoppin’ John) instructs that the responsible way to gather chanterelles is to cut the stem just above the ground with a small knife or very sharp scissors rather than plucking them, so that they leave their genetic imprint behind for next year. You should also not be greedy and gather more than your share.
If all that intimidates you, or if you live in an area where these wonders don’t grow, farmed chanterelles are now available in many specialty grocers. While they’re expensive and won’t have the flavor of freshly harvested wild mushrooms, they are still delicious and well worth your while.
Since I don’t have a ready source for gathering them locally, the market is where I usually get mine, and when I spied a bin of them in a local specialty grocery, looking bright, fresh, and meaty, it was impossible to resist them, even at close to twenty dollars a pound. It’s only once a year, after all.
Regardless of how you come by them, preparing chanterelles for the table is a simple operation. Lowcountry cooks have long known that they need very little kitchen conjuring to bring out their best. The secret to perfection is a generous hand with the best butter that you can find.
¾ pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms (or a whole pound of you’re flush)
6 tablespoons best quality butter (preferably Parma or French butter*)
½ cup finely chopped shallots
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, finely minced (not pressed)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 generous tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
1. Gently brush any soil from the mushrooms with a dry cloth and thickly slice the large ones and halve the smaller ones. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. When it is barely melted, swirl the pan and add the shallots. Sauté, tossing often, until they are translucent and beginning to color.
2. Add the chanterelles and garlic and rapidly toss to coat with butter. Sauté, tossing, until the garlic is fragrant and beginning to color and the shallots are golden, about a minute.
3. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and sprinkle in the parsley. Let them heat, tossing, half a minute longer and take them off the heat. Add the remaining butter cut into bits and shake the pan until it is just melted. Eat them as is, or over (not in) omelets, or over pan-toasted bread, or as a sauce for pasta.
* Parma butter is a by-product of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese manufacturing, but don’t think of it as leftovers: it’s made from the rich, skimmed cream from the night milk. It, and sometimes excellent-quality French butter, can often be found in specialty grocers.
Serving Up the Chanterelles
Over an omelet: It is hard to beat chanterelles over (not in) an omelet made with fluffy newly-laid eggs. Prepare the mushrooms first and keep them warm, then make the omelets and spoon the chanterelles over them after they’re plated.
Over pan-toasted bread: Cut ½-inch thick slices from a good quality round loaf. Generously spread both sides with softened butter and put them in a skillet over medium heat. Pan-toast turning several times, until uniformly golden and crisp on the outside but still soft at the center. Keep them warm. Prepare the chanterelles as above, put the toast on 4 warmed salad plates, and top with the mushrooms.
With Pasta: This is how I had mine. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil, add a small handful of salt, and cook ¾ pound of pasta while you prepare the mushrooms in a pan large enough to hold the pasta up to the point of adding the finishing butter but don’t add it. When the pasta is done, drain, saving a little of its cooking water, and add it to the mushrooms over low heat. Toss well, adding a little of the cooking water if it’s too dry, then add the finishing butter and toss until it is melted and incorporated. Serve immediately. Good pasta choices: homemade egg tagliatelle, or short factory pasta such as penne, campanelle, lumache (snail-shaped), or ziti. Read More
One of most anticipated moments in the gastronomical life of Charleston and Savannah is the return of the small but deeply flavorful brown shrimp to the briny creeks that lace the Lowcountry’s marshes. Simply poached in their shells and served with melted butter, cocktail sauce, or homemade garlic mayonnaise, or sautéed in butter and ladled over a bed of snowy hominy grits, they have no equal, even among the fattest and sweetest Adriatic prawns.
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. Read More