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 deeply engrained. 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 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.