August 2007

Posted on August 31, 2007 in Archives

August 2007


08/27/07 Late Summer on the Eastern Shore

We spent a lovely weekend at our friends’ house on a cove near Tilghman Island, Maryland. Figs and raspberries were abundant, and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, cooking. Here is a picture of a sour cherry tart that I made, as well as my friend Chuck’s son Ethan getting ready to dig into a feast of Chicken Country Captain. I served the curry dish with pickled okra, roasted peanuts, freshly grated coconut, fig chutney, and chow chow (see Green Tomatoes, below). Though we ate the berries out of hand, I preserved figs in several ways and made a cobbler as well. Picking figs is a zen-like experience for me, and I find myself truly enjoying the nonintellectual activity. Even if you plan to make preserves or a dessert with the crushed fruit, you want to pick them with the stems intact so that they hold their delicate dewiness for as long as possible. The fruits appear at the juncture of leaves, and you snap them off from the branches with a pinch of the thumbnail, a motion all but identical to the one you use to head fresh shrimp. You want to pick figs early in the morning, before they ripen to mushiness, when the milky sap still drips from both ends of the fruit. John Manalatos, the chef at Washington’s Cashion’s Eat Place, has said, “The underripe fig tastes like fig. But until the end opens up and that honey drips, it doesn’t have the depth and complexity, the moistness and mouth feel of a ripe fig.”

In addition to the intensely flavored fig conserve (see The Pantry, below), I like to preserve whole figs. Use the riper figs for other recipes, where the fruit will be crushed. If you follow my formula for preserving figs, you will end up with an additional jar of elegant, violet-colored fig syrup that you can use on French toast and pancakes. This weekend I was making a fig chutney following the recipe for pear chutney in my Lowcountry book and used last year’s extra fig syrup in lieu of the syrup made from brown sugar that the recipe calls for. (The pear chutney is made from Kieffer or hard, underripe, pears and calls for cooking the fruit first until soft. The syrup is then made by adding brown sugar to the cooking liquid. Since figs are already soft, I cut up the fresh figs and added them to the already made syrup.) The recipe for preserving whole figs is simplicity itself: You wash the figs and cover them in a nonreactive pot with lime water for 10 minutes. (1 tablespoon of pickling lime to each quart of water. Lime kills any bugs and firms the fruit. It is becoming hard to find, though it’s simply calcium hydroxide, a weak base that is also known as hydrated or slaked lime. In rural areas where figs grow, grocers sell 1- and 2-lb bags of it; it is sometimes available from pharmacists as well.) Rinse the figs thoroughly in cold water, then add 2/3 pound of sugar for each pound of figs to a preserving kettle and cook at a low boil until the figs are transparent, about an hour. Pour into hot sterile jars at once, screw down the lids, and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes (or simply put the preserves in the refrigerator and use within a couple of weeks). You’ll need one pint jar for each pound of figs.  Lemon slices are a nice addition if you care to add them.



One of the easiest recipes I know is also one of the biggest crowd-pleasers. Though I called it “campfire cobbler” in my first book, it is perhaps best known as “cup o’, cup o’, cup o’,” a mnemonc device that recalls its simple batter of a cup of flour, a cup of sugar and a cup of milk. Use any fruit you have on hand. Peaches and berries are delicious in this dish. You can use frozen fruit, but zap it in the microwave and sprinkle it with rum or a liqueur of some kind beforehand. If the fruit is not juicy and sweet, add some lemon juice and sugar to it and allow it to sit for the juices to draw. If you use hard fruit such as apples or pears, cook them a bit first. If you use dried fruit, just rehydrate it first and include the soaking liquid in the recipe. This is a great recipe to share with a child in that you can hardly mess it up: it is good when under- or over-cooked. If the fruit isn’t very flavorful, serve it with a big scoop of whipped or ice cream. You can use frozen store-bought peaches in the winter for a taste of summer. You can serve this hot from the oven, warm, or at room temperature. There is a great variety of deep-dish fruit pies in the South, some with a rich, sweet biscuit dough topping the fruit, others with a cakelike batter. This one is not only simple to make, but it is also delicious. This weekend I used a cake pan instead of the casserole dish called for in the recipe. I used about four cups of fresh ripe figs, stemmed and slightly crushed in my hands, then tossed in some lightly salted walnuts I found in the refrigerator, sprinkling it all with a bit of sugar before putting it in the oven.


     1/4 pound (I stick) unsalted butter

     2 to 4 cups ripe, soft fruit with its juice

     1 cup sugar

     1 cup all-purpose flour plus 2 teaspoons baking powder OR 1 cup self-rising flour

     1 cup milk


Put the butter in a deep casserole at least 9 inches in diameter, place it in a cold oven, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. If the fruit is not juicy, sprinkle it with some of the sugar and set aside for awhile.

Sift the baking powder and flour into a mixing bowl, add the sugar and milk to the flour, and mix until evenly blended. The batter will be thin. When the butter has melted and the oven has reached 350, pour the batter all at once into the dish, then pour the fruit and juices into the center of the batter. Return to the oven and bake for about an hour or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester poked into the center comes out clean.


Peach Daiquiris

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and most of my desserts are simple concoctions such as the tart and cobbler (above) that feature fruit. I also steer clear of most sweet beverages (a little Coke in a bottle for a hangover, maybe; a ginger ale if I have a cold). But I do love a margarita, made with fresh-squeezed lime juice, and I am a fool for fresh peaches. I published a recipe for a “peach fuzzy,” a formula for a single frozen daiquiri made with unpeeled peaches, in my first book, but here’s what I did this weekend to make these light afternoon cocktails. Chuck said it was the best drink he’s ever had:

Make a sugar syrup by putting 1 cup of sugar and a half cup of water in a saucepan and heat until the sugar is melted. Place the pan down inside another pan with ice water to facilitate cooling. Place the cooled syrup, 10 ounces of fresh-squeezed lime juice, 10 ounces of light rum, and 5 peaches, cut up (with or without the peels), into a blender. Puree the mixture then pour half of it out into a container and reserve. Add 4 cups of ice, blend well, and pour the frozen daiquiris into glasses to serve 4 to 6 people. Pour the second half of the mix into the blender, add another 4 cups of ice, and blend to make a second batch which you store in the refrigerator until folks are ready for seconds (or to serve to another 4 to 6 people). These frozen, refreshing cocktails each have only 1 ounce of rum, which is half a jigger. You won’t get drunk sipping one of these by the pool in the sun.



08/21/07 Hurricane Dean

Having weathered — in a sense (I was out of my home for nine months and my business for a year) — Hurricane Hugo in 1989, I have a special place in my heart for the victims of natural disasters. In January I rented, with some friends, a house on Soliman Bay, just north of the dramatic Mayan ruins at Tulum. I was so worried that they would be damaged by the storm, and now I am feeling a bit contrite for worrying about those ancient structures instead of focusing on the poor people in Dean’s path. 








I do know from living in tourist towns both before and after disasters that one of the most important things you can do to help the stricken areas is to go spend your money there as soon as possible after the fact. The Costa Maya will be needing your tourist dollars, especially the smaller resorts such as Mahajual that bore the brunt of the storm. Mahajual is south of the Sian Ka’an biosphere preserve and is not far from several Mayan ruin sites. These photos are of the dramatically situated ruins at Tulum, but there are many other sites nearby. I highly recommend that you rent a house or an apartment with a kitchen so that you can take advantage of the wonderful local produce, poultry, and seafood. You can eat out marvelously and very reasonably, but if you are a cook, don’t cheat yourself of this opportunity to delve into the native cuisine on our your own.


CHEESE STRAWS: A Personal History

Please note that this essay has moved to Other Writing.
















We worked in the garden all day Sunday, pulling up tomato plants and planting radishes and beets again. The drought this summer has been really bad, and our community garden only has “rain barrels.” Back in the spring, when it became evident that we were entering a drought, I arranged with the City for us to be able to use a fire hydrant that is adjacent to our community garden. It has been a godsend, but not enough. Yesterday after watering for several hours, the soil was still powdery just an inch underneath the surface. But last night we finally got rain. I managed to harvest about five pounds of green tomatoes, with which I’ll make some chow-chow to have throughout the winter. What really defines much of classic southern cooking to me is our vast array of condiments, and chow-chow is one of my favorites. A culinary oddity, it is a British interpretation of an Indian relish that appears in all southern states in various forms. More often than not it includes cabbage and green tomatoes boiled in a pickle thickened with a buttery, flour-thickened roux. Everyone loves turkey sandwiches in the days following the fall holidays, but to me, a turkey sandwich is nude without chow chow.

Green tomatoes are also famously fried down South, but I think they’re equally good when grilled (just brush with a little olive oil and season with salt and pepper), baked with a roast (green tomatoes and onions are delicious in the pan with chicken, pork, or veal), and in soups. To roast tomatoes alone, just preheat your oven to 350 degrees, wash and core a pound of rock-hard, blemish-free green tomatoes (to serve 4 people), cut them into quarters or eighths, and toss them in a baking dish with a tablespoon of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Spread them out in one layer and roast for about a half hour, tossing them about a couple of times during roasting.


I went to one of the big Asian markets this weekend hoping to find a “hofo” chicken (Heads On/Feet On; it’s a poultry industry term), because they are the only chickens that produce a stock that isn’t insipid, but they didn’t have any. They did have beautiful fresh duck legs, so I made confit. I’ll let it cure for a couple of weeks before I decide, depending on the weather, how I’ll serve them. Hofo chickens, by the way, are also known as Chinese chickens (because they are sold Chinese style, with the heads and feet). Sometimes they are marked as being  “Buddhist chickens,” I assume because of the way they are raised and killed (although I had always thought that Buddhists aren’t supposed to kill for food). In this country, they are often Kosher as well.  I highly recommend them. For years I could never get my chicken stocks to taste as good as even the greasiest ones in Chinese restaurants. The birds are usually very big (9 pounds is common), so it takes a long time to cook them, but the flavor is exceptional. I’ve tried making stock from big old stewing hens, but without those heads and feet, they, too, pale in comparison.


Tonight I made one of the most delicious dishes I’ve ever conjured in my kitchen. Yesterday when we came home from the garden, I washed the malformed and misshapen carrots and their tops very well and made a soup with the carrots, the carrot tops, and a bunch of onions and herbs from the garden. I added a big hunk of dried ginger I brought back from Sri Lanka and a crushed stick of lemon grass, some vegetable stock that I had on hand, and cooked it until the carrots were soft. I then pureed it in a blender, then pressed it through a fine sieve. Tonight I sectioned several oranges over a sauté pan that had about an inch of the soup in it, adding the sections of one of the oranges. I then reduced that until it was very thick, and strained it again. I lightly seasoned some big, thick, sticky, fresh sea scallops that I got at the Fish Wharf in DC this afternoon with a litle salt, pepper, and cayenne, and seared them in a well-seasoned skillet — about 30 seconds on each side — while I further reduced the soup, adding the juice of half a lemon and some salt, then whisking in about 3 tablespoons of butter until it was silky perfection. I poured a pool of the sauce on warmed plates, added the seared scallops and the remainder of the orange sections, and served a dish that I know I will make again.


08/16/07 Quail is one of mine and Mikel’s favorite foods, and we’re lucky to live near a Latin American grocer who usually has beautiful, fresh (never frozen), plump birds for sale. Certainly better than most of the chickens I can find. I grew up eating wild southern quail, Colinus virginanus, called “bobwhite” for the sound of its call. They eat harmful insects and weed seeds and are therefore a boon to southern farmers. Many former cotton plantations in the South remain as large tracts of land maintained as quail preserves. The plantations require serious management: favorite food and cover crops are planted for the birds, feral cats must be controlled, and forest floors are burned to control undergrowth. Hunters pay a premium for hunting rights on these quail havens. Corn is often a bumper crop on these quail plantations.
The white flesh of the bobwhite is widely renowned for its delicious flavor, but what most southerners now know as quail is actually the European or Pharoah Quail (Coturnix vulgaris), widely raised for the table. A migrating species, the Pharoah quail have both white and dark meat, like chicken. They lay an average of 15 eggs per clutch (of which 12 survive), so they are favorites of breeders. Manchester Farms in Dalzell, South Carolina, has been raising them for the food market since 1971.
Very popular with restaurants is a boned bird, suitable for stuffing and eating with knife and fork. But most southerners either fry or grill quail, then eat the delicious little birds with their hands.

Last night I had beautiful cauliflower and green beans, so I prepared the quail in the French manner, browning them in butter, removing them from the pan, adding shallots from our garden, and allowing them to cook a bit, splashing them with the Provencal rosé I was drinking, then returning the quail to the pan and allowing them to braise until done (the juices flow clearly from the leg joints), about 15 or 20 minutes. I then removed them to warmed plates with a puree of cauliflower and lightly dressed, room-temperature blanched beans, splashed the pan again with the wine and whisked the sauce to a silken texture, napping the birds and the cauliflower with the shallot reduction.

08/15/07 Chicken soup isn’t the only cold remedy. When either of us has a head cold, I Iike to make spicy fish soups. Mikel, my partner, picked up a summer cold on a flight home from California, I’m sure. Many of you have asked for a photo of him, so here he is with me and our friend Gilson Capilouto, a marvelous cook in her own right (more on Gilson to come!). 

I bought a pretty whole snapper (clear eyes, bright red gills, and fresh ocean smell), removed the gills, scaled it, cut filets from the sides, and made an aromatic stock from the head and carcass, adding several thick slices of fresh ginger and a crushed stalk of lemongrass to the normal mix of onions, carrots, celery, and fresh herbs. I had sent Nancie McDermott (see June 2007) some sacred basil plants I had grown from her seeds yesterday, so perhaps I was already in a Thai mood. When the stock was pleasantly flavored, I added some fresh chopped tomatoes, peppers, and okra from the garden and let it simmer slowly for awhile until the okra was soft, then I added the fish at the last minute, allowing it to poach until just done. I then seasoned the soup heavily with fresh squeezed lime juice and a splash of nam pla,  garnished it with fresh cilantro leaves, and served it with corn bread. One of the peppers was a fairly hot jalapeño, so I did not need to serve any more hot sauce alongside.

Fish Fry

08/12/07 We had a fish fry last night as a fond farewell to our friends Charles and Chris, who are moving to China. Chris has taken a job with the Peace Corps and they will be moving to Szechuan, where Mikel, my partner, lived twenty years ago. I love to host fish fries because everyone loves the food. I make my Moravian Cole Slaw (see below, no mayonnaise!) a couple of days in advance (it improves with age and will keep for a month!), then make the desserts the day before. For this party of 14, I put out olives and sliced sausages and pimiento cheese and devilled eggs as appetizers while I went outside and fried the fish, which I kept on racks in a warm oven. I then fried a batch of hushpuppies to get folks to come to table, then fried another fresh batch as folks served their plates.

For dessert, we had the chocolate cake with chocolate icing and the pineapple upside-down cake from my second book, and flan that I picked up from a new Latin American bakery in my neighborhood. It was a fine send-off to our friends whom we will miss, but whom we also envy.

Folks love this cole slaw. If you prefer it with mayonnaise, just drain it well, then add mayo to suit your own taste.

I give detailed instructions for perfectly fried fish and hushpuppies in The Fearless Frying Cookbook. Note the thermometer to maintain the oil at the perfect temperature and the rack to drain the fish on.


Moravian Cole Slaw from The New Southern Cook


No fried chicken or barbecue restaurant in the South is without its cole slaw. There are just as many recipes for slaw as there are for the chicken and hog. Slaw might not seem peculiarly southern, but Germans were early settlers in the Carolinas. The recipe that follows is, in fact, from Old Salem, the Moravian village in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Many recipes call for mayonnaise, celery seeds, caraway seeds, and other binders and flavorings. Add them to your taste if you will. This version “is good as long as you keep it.” The amount of liquid may seem like a lot, but the sugar and vinegar preserve the cabbage. Serve the slaw with a slotted spoon in order to drain off the excess.

     2 cups water
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups sugar
3 pounds grated cabbage
2 medium white onions, chopped fine
1 green bell pepper, chopped fine
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon mustard seed 


     Combine the water, vinegar, and sugar, and bring to a boil. Set aside to cool. When cool, pour over the remaining ingredients. Mix well and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving.
Makes 12 servings.


The Pantry




As the summer progresses, I take stock of my pantry to see how I’m coming along and what I’ll need to put away for the year and for gifts. From the left in the photo are fig preserves, hot pepper vinegars, caponata, Meyer lemon marmalade (behind the sour cherries, which rest on a jar of tomato sauce), pear chutney, cherry bounce (in the flask), dill pickles (on top of okra pickles), more tomato sauce (on top of dilly beans), and preserved Meyer lemons. It makes all the hard work of gardening  worthwhile! This morning in our community garden I was dismayed to find most of our melons gnawed on by critters. I think the next time I find our melons mutilated, I’ll bring the rinds home to make preserves!


We pulled up the spindly heirloom tomatoes on our deck at home and replaced them with some hearty hybrids so that we can have tomatoes into the fall. We had planted the heirlooms in so-called self-watering containers, packed with the proper companion plants such as those described in several books, notably, Louise Riotte’s classic, Carrots Love Tomatoes (Storey Publishing; 1975, 1998): carrots, onions, garlic, marigolds, basil, chives, and nasturtiums. I washed the carrots well and topped them, and preheated the oven to 400 degrees. I then placed them on a baking sheet, drizzled them with olive oil and unrefined, coarse grey sea salt from Brittany. (I bought mine in Montréal, but you can find it online here.) I shook the pan all around to make sure that the carrots were coated with oil, then placed the onions on top of the carrots and roasted them for about 25 minutes, until a sharp, thin knife easily slipped into the carrots and onions but they were still slightly firm. I removed the onions to a cutting board, sliced off the root ends, and popped the onions out of their skins onto a serving platter with the roast carrots, sprinkling them with freshly snipped mint and lemon thyme. I served them as an appetizer before a dinner of shrimp gumbo, cornbread, and a salad of just-picked arugula anointed with walnut oil. The cornbread is my most-requested recipe, and is both here and on recipe cards that come with my stone-ground cornmeal. The Shrimp Gumbo recipe is from my second book, The New Southern Cook. I made it with fresh tomatoes, okra, peppers, and onions from my garden:


Easy Shrimp Gumbo (from The New Southern Cook)


    In New Orleans, every gumbo recipe begins with the line, “First, you make a roux.” The easiest way to make a roux — a cooked flour paste used to thicken the gumbo — is to use the oven, rather than stirring a pot for an hour. Since the slightest burned speck of flour will destroy the delicate nutty flavor of a properly cooked roux, it is much easier to bake it, which frees you to start chopping the “Holy Trinity,” as Cajuns call the onions, peppers, and celery that add zest to the gumbo.
Mix equal weights of melted fat (vegetable oil, lard, duck fat, or any combination) and flour in a sheet pan and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until the desired color is achieved, stirring the mixture every 10 or 15 minutes so that it does not scorch. Cook the roux until it reaches a rich mahogany color. Remove some from the pan and allow the rest to reach an intense chocolate color. The darker roux goes into seafood gumbos. Freeze what you don’t use immediately in 1/2-cup quantities.
The real secret to any successful gumbo, whether soup or sauce style, is good, homemade stock. A simmering pot of bones and aromatic vegetables changes a house into a home; homemade stocks similarly enrich gumbo. Flavors are simmered to mingle in a stock. Ingredients are then added to the stock; the flavor of each should be discernible.
This recipe is one of the easiest gumbos you can make; it is absolutely delicious.
will take about 3 hours from the making of the roux to serving your table of 8, but most of the work is unattended and simple.

For the stock:
3 pounds shrimp in their shells
1 large or 2 small carrots
1 large onion, quartered
2 celery ribs
a handful of fresh herbs such as parsley, oregano, thyme, and savory, plus a bay leaf
1 gallon water

For the gumbo:
1/4 cup dark roux (see text above)
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped green bell pepper
1 pound okra, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
6 vine-ripened tomatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and chopped, or 1 28-                    ounce can peeled tomatoes with their juice
2 fresh jalapeño or other hot peppers
3 cups cooked long-grain white rice

Peel the shrimp, dropping the shells into an enameled or stainless-steel stockpot. Cover the shrimp bodies with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator to use later.
Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot and cook the stock, uncovered, at a low boil until the onions are transparent, the carrots are soft, and the stock is pleasantly infused with a shrimp flavor — about an hour. The liquid will be reduced to about 3 quarts. Strain out and discard the solids, reserving the stock. If you do not have roux on hand, make it while the stock is cooking.

     To make the gumbo, heat the roux in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, and bell pepper and cook until the onions begin to become transparent, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes. Add the okra and cook, stirring often, until all the ropiness is gone, about 20 minutes. (Note in the photo that the string-like strands formed by the mucilaginous okra and roux have all but disappeared.) Now add the tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the hot peppers and reserved stock and simmer, uncovered, for about an hour.

Five minutes before serving, add the reserved shrimp bodies to the gumbo. Serve in large bowls over fluffy white rice.
Serves 8.

To drink with the gumbo, Debbie (see Charleston) recommends a well-chilled Marsanne Blanc.




With temperatures reaching the century mark the first week of August, the figs this year are not only ready a week or two earlier than usual, but they are also ripening before they flesh out. So this year, I’m making a spicy conserve rather than preserving them whole. This is actually a variation on one of my mother’s recipes, and is typical of the vast array of condiments we Southerners pride ourselves on. I use it as a marmalade on toasted hearty bread, or chutney-like, alongside game.

     2 pounds fresh ripe figs
1 cup chopped pineapple
2 medium lemons, cut up small
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped nuts, optional*
peppercorns, optional**

Wash the figs and cut them up into small pieces. Mix the pineapple and the lemons, then fold them into the figs with the salt. Add an equal weight of sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently until it thickens, but is still a little runny.
Add the nuts and peppercorns, if desired, and put in hot sterilized jars and screw down the lids. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.
*Mother always used pecans, but I like to use walnuts, or wanuts in combination with pecans and/or black walnuts.
**Alice B. Toklas’ infamous recipe for Haschich Fudge, which includes neither chocolate nor haschich, combines dried figs and dates with nuts and spices, including peppercorns. The exotic touch does, indeed, make this more chutney-like. I put several whole peppercorns in every other jar of preserves. Some years I will add a tablespoon or so to the pot while it is cooking, or simply grind a bunch of pepper into the pot.
Makes about 5 pints.


My Fresh Peach and Coconut Chutney

from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking

It’s that time of year! This recipe calls for about a peck of fresh ripe peaches, minus the three or four you eat out-of-hand over the sink as you are peeling and stoning them. Most chutney recipes call for firm fruit, but the desired chunkiness is provided by the coconuts in this recipe, and the intensity of ripe fruit flavor is a foil for the spiciness.
You may peel the peaches, like tomatoes, by dropping them in boiling water for a few seconds to loosen the skins.

     10 pounds peaches, peeled and pitted. Crush them in your hands, but do not chop them into small pieces.
10 onions, or 4 pounds, peeled and chopped
3 coconuts, about 2-1/2 pounds of meat, removed from the shell, pared, and diced into 1/2″ – 3/4″ cubes
15 cups sugar
10 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped (These may be
fresh or pickled, but, in either case, wear rubber gloves when handling them.)
1/2 pound fresh ginger, peeled and grated (a 5-8″ piece)
2 quarts vinegar
fresh mint

    Sterilize five quart canning jars and lids and have ready for use.
Boil all of the ingredients, except the mint, together in a preserving kettle until the onions are clear and the desired consistency is reached. Pack in sterilized jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. I stick a fresh sprig of mint in each jar before sealing.
Let the chutney sit for a few weeks before using. You can simmer shrimp in it, bake a pork roast in it, or use it as a condiment. It is especially tasty with fresh field peas and rice, and as a sauced for grilled fish.
Yield: 5 quarts





In 1987, I purchased two sorrel plants (Rumex acetosa). I had frequently cooked with sorrel when I lived in France, and used it often in Italy, where the Latin acetosa is also the Italian word for the plant.  In the Ligurian Appenines high above Genoa, I had learned to make prebôggion, a mixture of spring herbs that is used as a stuffing for ravioli, in soups, and in frittate. It might include borage, beet greens, spinach, chicory, lovage, and myriad wild greens as well as sorrel.  In ancient Rome, both Rumex and acetosa were words meaning sorrel, but acetosa also means vinegary, sour, or pungent. Cultivated sorrel is much milder than most of the wilder varieties, and for centuries it has lent its tartness to many dishes, such as the French classic, shad with sorrel. My friend Elizabeth Schneider has written that the dish is indeed delicious but “half the fun is saying alose à l’oseille — pronounced ahLOZ-ah-lozay.”

When Hurricane Hugo rolled into Charleston in 1989, the courtyard behind my shop where the sorrel was planted was covered in two feet of “pluff mud” from the neighboring marshes. The next spring when I was finally able to move back in, imagine my surprise to find those two sorrel plants thriving in the otherwise destoyed yard! A friend gave me a local folk artist’s tire planter as a gift when I reopened the store, and I decided then that the two sorrel plants needed to be saved for perpetuity. These are those same plants, in that same planter, now 18 years later!!! The plants sometimes die back during the winter, but they always come back, and I keep them robust by assiduously pinching back flower shoots so that they don’t go to seed.

Sorrel was common in kitchen gardens throughout colonial America, but it has come in and out of favor over the years. When I wrote my book on lowcountry cooking, I included a traditional recipe that appeared in several old Charleston manuscripts. It includes both egg yolks and cream, in the French tradition. Nowadays, I’m likely to simply boil some potatoes and leeks with homemade stock, then add a good handful of freshly picked sorrel leaves when the potatoes are done, for just a few minutes, until they are wilted. I puree it all, then serve it cold in the dog days of summer or hot in the fall and early spring.