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Recipes and Stories

30 June 2020: Lowcountry Summer in a Bowl

Shrimp with Tomatoes and Okra

 

Three quintessential ingredients of a lowcountry summer table are tomatoes, okra, and local creek shrimp. And nowhere is the eclectic blending that defines our cooking better illustrated than when those three are combined in the pot.

 

Though they've found their way into gardens and pots the world over, tomatoes are believed to have originated in Central America. Okra, while now common in the Atlantic Rim's African Diaspora and in Southeast Asia, has its roots in Africa. And although dozens of varieties of shrimp are found in every part of the globe, our local brown creek shrimp have a unique sweetness thanks to the grassy marshes where they've thrived for thousands of years.

 

When all three come together in the same pan, however, their sum speaks solely of the coastal plains of the South and subtropical Caribbean,  Read More 

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23 June 2017: Seafood Stuffed Tomatoes

Seafood-Stuffed Tomatoes, Photographed by John Carrington Photography

One of the many things that Southern cooks share with Italians, especially those along the Ligurian coast that’s known as the Italian Riviera, is a love for filling hollowed-out vegetables with a blend of their chopped pulp, stale bread crumbs, herbs and seasonings, and often some kind of chopped meat, poultry, or seafood.

Here in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, stuffed vegetables have long been a beloved part of our summer tables. Recipes for them date back well into the nineteenth century. Read More 

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2 August 2015: Fresh Okra and Tomato Salad

Southern cooking that you may not know about: raw okra and tomatoes weaving their combined magic in the salad bowl.

The union of okra and tomatoes in the pot is an inspired marriages that happens to be one of the great foundations of Southern cooking. From vegetable soup and gumbo to that soul-comforting triad of okra, onion, and tomato simmered together into a thick stew that can be served forth as a side dish, or over rice as a vegetarian main dish, or as the base for heartier main dishes with meat, poultry, and fish or shellfish stirred into the pot. Read More 

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30 July 2015: Tomato Aspic

Tomato Aspic is a perfect beginning for summer luncheons and formal dinners

One of the half-forgotten and much misunderstood delights of summer’s table in the South is tomato aspic, a cooling, velvety concoction usually made with canned tomatoes or tomato juice, even at the height of tomato season. In my youth, it was considered the quintessential first course for formal summer luncheons and company dinners, especially when that dinner, following a long-gone Southern custom, was served early in the afternoon.

Yet, as little as twenty years ago, when my first cookbook Classical Southern Cooking was published, tomato aspic was a long way from being forgotten.  Read More 

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29 July 2014: Really Fresh Okra and Tomatoes—Okra and Tomato Salad

Fresh Okra and Tomato Salad

One of my favorite summer snacks is a handful of small, raw okra pods — eaten as is, without so much as a speck of salt or pepper. When very young, small, and tender, okra has a delicate flavor that knows no equal. And contrary to what you might expect if you’ve ever chopped or sliced it for a gumbo, or tried to eat it when it was overcooked, the raw pods are not in the least gooey or sticky, but are as crisp and refreshing as a chilled cucumber. Read More 

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4 August 2012: More Summer Tomatoes

Young Green beans, which often go by their swanky French name, "haricots verts"--in fresh tomato sauce -- photography by John Carrington, from The Savannah Cookbook
While summer tomatoes are still at their peak, indeed, overflowing in some home gardens, here is another lovely thing to do with them.

I submit this in response to the persistent myth that Southerners historically had no subtlety with the vegetable pot: it comes from a late nineteenth century Savannah manuscript.  Read More 
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28 July 2012: Okra and Tomatoes

Classical Southern Okra and Tomatoes, with small, whole okra and fresh tomatoes

One of the great flavor combinations of a Southern summer is the masterful pairing of okra and tomatoes. This near perfect mating was not discovered down here, nor is it limited to our corner of the globe, but we’ve certainly laid claim to it and made it peculiarly our own.

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18 July 2011: Okra 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. Read More 

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12 July 2011: Spanish Tomatoes

Marilyn's Spanish Tomatoes. Photography by John Carrington
The deadly heat of a Savannah summer is not for the faint of heart. The air gets so warm and thick with humidity that it’s actually sticky, which is how the summers here came to be nicknamed “Hot Mayonnaise Season.” This year, the hot mayonnaise air settled in early, taking me back to my first July in Savannah more than thirty years ago.

The heat that summer, like this one, was record setting and brutal. Anyone with the means to do so fled for Tybee (our local beach) or a mountain cabin. The rest of us braved it out as best we could and tried to pretend it didn’t matter.

We all had ways of dealing with that heat, but fans, loose cotton clothes, and extra ice in one’s bourbon can only do so much. To get through with grace involves a certain amount of psychology, and at that, my late friend and neighbor Marilyn Whelpley was an expert.

In those days, there were no VCRs. One actually had to plan around a fixed network schedule. When Marilyn learned that a local station was airing the winter holiday classic White Christmas in the middle of July, she asked me over to make an evening of it.

Despite the heat, she’d been putting up tomatoes that day (ripe tomatoes, like corn, wait for no one), and held back a few to make a pan-full of Spanish Tomatoes—simply peeled, cut into wedges, and simmered with a few slices of onion and sweet bell pepper. Served over rice with a bit of sautéed local smoked sausage on the side, its bright, fresh flavors renewed our heat blunted appetites as we watched that classic film about waiting for snow and pretended that cooler weather just around the corner.

Neither of us knew at the time that Spanish Tomatoes had deep roots in Savannah’s culinary past. It goes back at least to the late 1860s, when Mrs. Fred (Leila) Habersham, one of Georgia’s first known cooking teachers, taught it in the cooking school she ran in her mother’s home on the corner of Abercorn and State Street.

Mrs. Habersham sautéed each ingredient separately, layered them in a dish, and baked them until they were richly concentrated and flavorful. One student aptly noted in her notebook that they were “delightful to eat just so, or served for sauce, or as an entrée.”

Marilyn’s preparation was more streamlined, and while its flavors were not as concentrated, they were fresher and more direct, just right for a White Christmas supper on a searing July evening.

Despite the heat of that summer, I fell in love with this place and came back to live. Part of it was probably a passion for historic architecture, another part, the unique warmth of these people who have become a part of my life. Perhaps it had a little something to do a timeless seafood-rich cuisine that has become an indelible part of my own kitchen.

But maybe—just maybe, it owed more than Marilyn ever knew to the comfort of White Christmas and a plateful of Spanish Tomatoes.

Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoonfuls drippings or unsalted butter or olive oil
2 medium green bell peppers, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, thinly sliced
1 large Bermuda or yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and thinly sliced
Sugar
Salt and ground cayenne pepper

1. Blanch, peel, and core the tomatoes. Over a sieve set in a bowl to catch their juices, cut them into thick wedges and scoop out the seeds. Add them to the bowl with their juices.

2. Warm the drippings, butter, or oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the peppers and onions and sauté, tossing, until the onion is translucent and softened and the pepper wilted but still bright green, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their collected juices and raise the heat to medium high. Season well with salt, a pinch of sugar (if needed), and cayenne to taste. Bring to a boil.

3. Reduce the heat once again to medium, and simmer briskly until the juices are thick and the tomatoes are tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings, let it simmer half a minute longer, and turn off the heat. Serve warm.

To bake them as Mrs. Habersham did, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. If the skillet isn’t ovenproof, at the end of step 2, transfer its contents to a lightly buttered wide 3-quart baking dish. Otherwise, just put the uncovered skillet into the oven. Bake until the juices are thick and the tomatoes tender, about 1 hour. Read More 
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26 June 2011 Tomato Salad

Tomato Salad a la Annabella Hill

A surer sign of summer than ants at a picnic is the annual reappearance of one of America’s most enduring food myths: that we believed tomatoes were poisonous until the beginning of the nineteenth century, and still thought them unsafe to eat raw for decades after that.

The myth is often accompanied by an equally popular tale of how some prominent American like Daniel Webster or Thomas Jefferson ate a raw tomato on the local courthouse steps to prove to his neighbors that it was not only safe, but good.

There have been many spin-offs of this myth, my personal favorite being a “factoid” on a televised history of hotdogs asserting in all seriousness that because tomatoes were believed to be poisonous, tomato ketchup was created as a medicinal tonic.

Never mind that our word ketchup (or catsup) is a culinary term, derived from a Southeast-Asian word for fish sauce, and has never been used in medicine. (Honestly: where do these people get this stuff?) By the time the earliest printed recipes for tomato ketchup began to appear (decades before that factoid claimed), everyone knew that tomatoes weren’t poisonous, and the condiment was already popular in American kitchens, and not, rest assured, as a tonic.

One reason such nonsense is so stubbornly perpetuated is in part because journalists and pop-culture historians tend to ignore the South. Even before the first cookbooks penned by Southerners made print, there were manuscript recipes for cooked tomatoes dating as early as 1770, the year the prominent Charleston matron Harriott Pinckney Horry probably recorded how “To Keep Tomatoes for Winter Use ” in her household notebook.

The title alone suggests that by the time Mrs. Horry put the recipe to paper, Carolinians had been routinely consuming cooked tomatoes for decades.

Printed American recipes for raw tomato salad go back at least as far as 1824, when Mary Randolph included “Gaspacha,” a thick soup-like Spanish salad of raw tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and peppers, in The Virginia House-wife. One might argue that the recipe, which probably came to Mrs. Randolph by way of a sister who once lived in Cadiz, was an out of place curiosity were it not for the fact that gazpacho quickly became popular in Virginia, suggesting that people in the region were long accustomed to eating raw tomatoes.

Indeed, within a very few years, other Southern cookbook authors were treating tomato salad in a very off-hand way:

“To Dress Tomatoes Raw.

Take ripe tomatoes, that are large and fine, peel and slice them tolerably thick, put them in a deep dish, and season them highly with salt, pepper, and vinegar. This is a delicious breakfast dish, and is also a fine accompaniment to roast meats, for a dinner.”

— Lettice Bryan, The Kentucky Housewife, 1839.

“Tomato Salad.

Tomatoes may be eaten raw, cut up with salt, oil, vinegar and pepper, as you do cucumbers.”

— Sarah Rutledge, The Carolina Housewife, 1847.

By the beginning of the War Between the States, onion was a popular addition:

“Tomato Salad.—Scald and peel them; slice them thin, season with salt, pepper, sugar, and a little onion; add very little vinegar.”

— Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867.

What brings this all to the fore is one perfectly ripe tomato from my mother’s garden. For the first time in many years, I was able to be with my father on Father’s Day. The tomato plants in mother’s garden were just beginning to bear, and she gave me one handsome specimen to bring home—just enough for a salad for two.

With all due respect to Mrs. Hill, I was not about to spoil that beautiful tomato with scalding water and sugar. Once cored and thinly sliced, it was easy to slip the peel off with the narrow blade of a peeling knife. Spread on a plate and dressed, as Mrs. Hill directed, with shaved Vidalia sweet onion, salt, pepper, and a few drops of sherry vinegar, I strayed only by using a scattering of freshly snipped basil instead of sugar.

Sharing the plate with more of my mother’s produce (early half-runner beans and sweet yellow squash) and a bit of pork tenderloin pan roasted with sage and onions, that salad carried me back to the big Sunday lunches of childhood, a poignant reminder of how much we took for granted back then—and how much we’ve lost. Read More 

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