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Recipes and Stories

19 August 2018: MaMa’s Vegetable Soup

MaMa's Vegetable Soup, photographed for my first book, Classical Southern Cooking, by the incomparable John Carrington.

If my entire life as a cook could be summed in one thing, it would be a lifelong—and so far—failed quest to reproduce my maternal grandmother’s summer vegetable soup. Her kitchen was where I first cooked, and we made many a pot of vegetable soup together during my summer visits. The memory of its taste remains vivid more than half a century later. But somehow, I’ve never been able to get my own to taste and look exactly like hers.

When I was trying to construct a recipe for my first cookbook, in her typical way, MaMa said, “I never measured anything for soup, so just guess.” Well, of course, she measured—with the eyes and nose and taste buds of an experienced cook. She also drew on the experience of generations of family cooks, all of whom had learned to cook, not by reading, but rather with their senses by watching, feeling, tasting, and smelling.

Her “recipe” had evolved from years of doing the same, so instead of trying to draft it, we made it together and took notes. Since then, I’ve made it with my mother while MaMa stood over us and coached. And in the years since she died, my mother and I have made it over and over and have still not quite gotten her touch with it.

Most Southern vegetable soups share a lot with Italian minestrones: Both are constructed in the same way, and both are less a recipe than an idea that varies from place to place. And, for a time, every one of my attempts ended up looking and tasting like minestrone alla romana with corn and okra in it. They were really good, but they weren’t MaMa’s.

The closest I have ever come was when I just relaxed, stopped trying so hard, and let my taste memories to have a free rein. Whenever I do that, I can close my eyes and the smells and flavors take me back to her sunny kitchen, a place that has been long gone for more than thirty years, so while it’s not quite hers, it’s pretty close.

MaMa’s Summer Vegetable Soup

Unfortunately, if you live outside the South, you’ll have a harder time reproducing her soup than I do. Many ingredients that my grandmother routinely used will not be in season at the same time in cooler climates, and some of the beans given here are difficult to find in other regions. There are a few notes about the strictly regional ingredients at the end.

Regardless: Everyone must have a favorite dish from childhood that does as much to feed the soul as it does the body with its memory-packed flavors and smells. This one is mine. In it are all the best memories of that childhood: a sunny, yellow kitchen, a laughing, teasing grandfather, and a loving grandmother who was a very peculiar little boy’s best friend.

Serves 16 to 20 as a first course, or 8 to 10 as a one dish meal

¼ pound lean salt-cured pork side meat, rinsed and patted dry
1 pound of stewing beef such as chuck
10-12 medium tomatoes
2 large yellow onions
2 ribs of celery
3 carrots
1 cup butter beans or butter peas (see notes)
1 cup speckled butter beans (see notes)
1 cup mature pole beans, shelled (see notes)
1 cup green beans, preferably half-runners or Kentucky wonders
1 small head green cabbage
3 medium yellow crookneck squash or zucchini or both, mixed
Enough small crisp okra pods to make a generous cup when sliced
1 cup fresh or thawed frozen green peas (see notes)
1 cup fresh white corn kernels, freshly cut from the cob
1 teaspoon or so of sugar
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill

1. In a heavy-bottomed, 6-quart pot, sauté the salt pork over medium heat until the fat is rendered out of it and the fatty tissues are golden brown. Drain off all but a spoonful of the fat.

2. Put the beef in the pot and brown it in the fat rendered from the salt pork, about 3 minutes per side, then add 3 quarts of water. Bring it to a simmer and let it simmer for at least an hour.

3. Meanwhile, cut an X into the bottom of each tomato and put them in a heatproof bowl. Bring a large teakettle of water to a rolling boil and pour it over them until they’re completely covered. Let them stand 1 minute, then drain, rinse with cold water, and then peel and seed them over a sieve set in a bowl to catch their juices. Chop the tomatoes and add them to their juices.

4. Trim, split lengthwise, peel, and dice the onions small and stir them into the pot. While it is coming back to a simmer, scrub, string, and dice the celery small. Add it to the pot, and while it returns to a simmer, scrub, peel, and slice the carrots. Add them and let it come back to a simmer. When it’s simmered about 5 minutes, add the butter beans and shelled pole beans. Cover again and simmer for another half hour.

5. Add the tomatoes and their juices, return it to a simmer, reduce the heat to low. Let it simmer, loosely covered, while you prepare the green beans and cabbage. Top, tail, and string the green beans and snap or slice them into ½-inch lengths. Shred enough of the cabbage to make 2 cups, then wrap and refrigerate the rest of the head for another use. Add both to the simmering soup, bring it back to a simmer, and let it cook for half an hour. Taste the broth and season it with the sugar, salt and pepper at this point, then cover it and let it simmer for still another half hour, or until the cabbage is tender. By now the beans should be very tender, but not mushy.

6. Scrub the squash under cold running water, trim the stem and blossom ends, and slice the long narrow crooknecks. Quarter the main part and slice it. Add it to the pot. Wash the okra under cold running water, trim off the caps, and slice it thinly. Add it to the pot. Let it come back to a simmer and simmer for 20 minutes more. Add the peas and corn. Cook the soup only until the corn and peas are cooked through—about 15 to 20 minutes. Keep in mind that the vegetables will continue cooking from the residual heat for a while after you have turned off the heat.

7. If you plan to serve the soup cold, turn off the heat immediately after adding the corn and peas and let it sit, tightly covered, for about 10 minutes. Then remove the lid and set the pot in a cool place until it is cool enough to refrigerate. If the weather is especially warm, and it is likely to be so when you make this soup, cool the soup in a large bowl set in an ice water bath to hasten the cooling. Refrigerate as soon as possible.

8. To serve vegetable soup cold, refrigerate it overnight (24 hours is even better) to allow the flavors to meld. The next day, take it from the refrigerator an hour before serving, skim off any fat that has congealed on the top, and allow it to return almost to room temperature. Add a little cold water if it’s too thick, but don’t dilute it too much, as it should be thick and rich.

Notes: My grandmother is a native of North Georgia, and it was reassuring to find that her way of doing vegetable soup is very much like Annabella Hill’s. Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book also included a vegetable soup au maigre that was virtually identical to Minestrone alla Romagna, with the vegetables added one at a time to simmering butter. In New Orleans, vegetable soup au maigre was pureed and enriched with cream—so much for meager: au maigre in old French Creole cookery just meant that there was no meat in the pot.

MaMa always started by making the broth for the soup as directed here. If you already have a good, rich meat broth on hand, you may omit the beef and skip steps 2 and 3, and make the soup with the broth instead. If you use canned broth, know that it will not taste quite right, and dilute it with 2 parts water to 1 of broth.

Butter beans are related to limas, but are smaller and have a buttery taste, hence the name. Butter peas are in the same family, but smaller, about the size of a navy bean. You may substitute fresh small limas such as Ford Hooks for these, or use good-quality frozen ones.

Speckled butter beans are brightly colored when mature, like cranberry beans, but turn brown when cooked. They have a distinctive flavor of their own for which there is no equivalent. You could try substituting fresh fava or cranberry beans.

“Pole bean” is a generic Southern term for any green bean that grows on climbing vines. They’re trained onto poles, hence the name. As a rule, they have a more distinctive flavor than our generic supermarket green beans. They produce lovely legumes when mature (in the deep South, mature ones are called, “shelly beans” because the pod too tough to eat). They’re essentially the same as French flageolets. If you can’t get them, substitute pinto, great northern, or cranberry beans—either fresh or reconstituted and parboiled dried ones. Unless you grow your own or have access to a market, you probably won’t find half-runner or Kentucky wonder green beans. Use the broad, flat green beans that are sometimes labeled “Italian” beans.

It was pointed out to me by Northern friends that there was no way that English peas would be in season at the same as most corn and tomatoes. Actually, my grandmother used them only when she had late peas that occasionally overlapped the early corn and tomatoes down here. But she liked peas in it, and if memory serves, she added a small can. I like peas in it, too but mainly have to resort to frozen ones.

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