I got involved in a community garden here in DC. My neighborhood, traditionally African-American and Hispanic, is rapidly being gentrified, but I wanted to grow some traditional old southern favorites like okra and cowpeas with my neighbors while introducing them to other heirloom varieties such as the lovely French summer squash, ronde de Nice, and delicious tomato varieties such as Costoluto Genovese and Aunt Ruby’s German Green.
We had our share of diseases and pests while gardening in the lowcountry, but inner city gardening here presents its own set of distinct problems, including squirrels and their nocturnal cousins that get to our harvest before we do! Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed radishes, beets, chard, collards, summer squash, okra, tomatoes, and peppers and beans of several varieties, even if we have lost all the cucumbers to some four-legged pests! The photo at right is of recently harvested vegetables from our plot.
Summer squash is one of those vegetables that deserves to be featured in the simplest dishes. I usually choose the smallest ones I can find and simply steam them with onions, then dress them with a hint of butter, salt, and pepper. But Mikel, my partner, swore to me that his mother’s squash casserole is like no other, and that he wished I could make it. I told him that I would call her and ask her for the recipe, but he warned, “She won’t tell you everything.”
But Dixie (yes, that’s her name) and I have a mutual admiration society going, so I gave her a call and asked, but before doing so I read through a good dozen or so southern cookbooks, looking through the recipes to see what to expect. Invariably, they included lots of dairy: milk, eggs, and cheese. Even the updated and lightened version with mint that appears in my lowcountry cookbook has an egg and 2/3 cup of milk to a pound of squash. Mikel swore to me that Dixie’s didn’t.
I made the casserole last night and, I must say, it’s a winner. Here’s the recipe, pretty much the way she told it to me:
Wash 2 pounds of just-picked, tender young summer squash. (Crookneck is the southern standard, and possibly the most flavorful, though I’m partial to the buttery texture of small ronde de Nice.) Cut them up into 1/2 slices and put them in a stockpot with the water that clings to them and one Vidalia onion, chopped. Cover and steam over medium high heat until they are just tender, but still al dente. Carefully stir them around if you must or add a touch of water if necessary, but the less you add, the more you’ll taste the subtle flavors of the squash. (Jeanne Voltz and Caroline Stuart, writing in The Florida Cookbook (Knopf, 1993), advise, “Use as little water as you dare, none if you can keep the heat low and stir the squash every minute or two, or 1/2 inch of water if you have other things on your mind.” Drain the squash and onions and stir in about a tablespoon or two of butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Dump the contents into an 8″ baking dish, preferably glass or ceramic.
While you are steaming the squash, melt another 6 tablespoons or so of butter in a skillet over medium heat and add one of those inner packages of saltines from the big box, crushed. Stir the mixture around until it begins to brown, then remove from the heat. Spread the buttered saltine mixture on the top of the casserole and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until warmed through (the juices will bubble) and the top is evenly browned, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately. We had it with fried chicken and a freshly picked arugula and tomato salad.
I’m not much of a leftovers kind of a guy, but this simple squash casserole, with its stick of butter, was delicious reheated a couple of days later as well!
Here’s a photo of an emergent ronde de Nice squash from our plot in the local community garden.
Many food writers seem to think that boiled peanuts and grits are the definining foods of the South, but I sell stone-ground, whole-grain, heirloom corn grits to folks in every state, and many of my customers are chefs in restaurants. Very few of them are, in fact, southerners. And the Lee Bros. have popularized boiled peanuts in New York City, though I do think that the popularity of edamame (boiled green soybeans, very similar in texture and flavor) at sushi bars has helped boiled peanuts’ visibility. Everyone has heard of blackeyed peas, perhaps the best known of the cowpeas. There’s even an heirloom California black-eye. But few people outside the Deep South grow or eat the myriad other varieties of Vigna unguiculata. The nomenclature, both scientific and common, can be maddening, because all peas and beans, including cowpeas, green peas (Pisum), soybeans (Glycine), pigeon peas (Cajanus), and common beans (Phaselous, which includes lima beans, black beans, Navy beans and green beans) belong to the legume family (Fabaceae). They have subtle and dramatic culinary differences. Red beans and rice, for example, does not taste like hoppin’ john, but unripe cowpeas in the pod can be eaten like unripe common beans (“green beans”) At the turn of the century, Sturtevant classified cowpeas with pigeon peas, which also came with the slave trade from Africa, but today cowpeas are recognized as a separate genus. They are neither (green) peas nor (common) beans, but you may hear them called both. If you hear a southerner talking about shelling peas, he means cowpeas, which are also known as crowders, field peas, and, tellingly, southernpeas.
The varieties are as varied as grapes or apples, and southerners tend to crave the type that was grown in their neck of the woods. I’m partial to cream peas and some of the lesser known blackeye types, such as whippoorwills, but, in truth, I love them all.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1798 that the cowpea ”is very productive, excellent food for man and beast.” He praised the plants’ ability to improve the “tilth and fertility” of the soil, and he sowed them in the South Orchard at Monticello between 1806 and 1810. Perhaps the cowpea’s reputation as both fodder and a soil enhancer has kept it off tables, because the season is not too long for most American climates. Indeed, the culinary historian William Woys Weaver (see Tomatoes, below), grows several varieties in his awe-inspiring garden in Devon, Pennsylvania. Mine matured as quickly as my tomatoes and squash, and before my corn and melons.
The above photo shows whippoorwills on the left, both green and dried, and clay cowpeas, a rare old favorite of Confederate soldiers who both added them to their rations and planted them in fields alongside battlefield stations. One of the great beauties of growing them is that you can eat them fresh (I simply boil a piece of smoked ham hock or neck bones in water until it’s seasoned, then add the peas and cook on a low boil for about half an hour) or save the dried beans for winter use. The green and dried cowpeas in the photo were harvested on the same day from the same plants. I’ll be able to harvest several more times, then I’ll simply leave the plants in the ground to provide nutrients for next year’s corn.
We have had great luck with heirloom cowpeas from both
Figs and the Fourth of July
Another plant that is deeply rooted in traditional southern cooking is the fig. Though native to the Mediterranean, the earliest English settlers in North America found figs naturalized on southern shores, left behind by earlier French and Spanish colonies. Today’s southern figs may not be directly related to those first American plants, but they are a world apart from any other fig. Neither the skin nor the seeds are noticeable. They are so tender, however, that that are rarely shipped. They make superior preserves and desserts, and, when cooking, they perfume your house with the most intoxicating fragrance. I’ve written a small article about figs for Gourmet magazine. It will probably not run until next summer.
On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, my friends have four trees, each 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide. I’ll go out for a weekend in August and pick over 25 pounds from the lower branches of just one of the trees. That one harvest will yield over two dozen pints of my mother’s recipes for whole fig preserves and a conserve (see August)made with pineapple, lemon, and nuts. Those four trees will continue to produce hundreds more pounds for a month.
There are some early figs that appear on last year’s growth, called the Breba crop. On the Eastern Shore, they are often ripe on the Fourth of July. Here’s a tart I made with nothing but figs and pasta frolla.
The Eastern Shore
I’ve been house-sitting out on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where my friends Chuck and Bruce have a country retreat on a charming cove off the Chesapeake. They have blackberries and blueberries and raspberries, from which I made jam yesterday, and they have fruit trees (we canned sour cherries earlier this year) and a vegetable garden. I always look forward to the figs that will ripen later in the summer. This year, the native black cherry trees have a bumper crop. This is Prunus serotina, the wild cherry whose flavor most of us know only from cough drops. It is native to all of the eastern states and is seldom used in the kitchen because the raw berries are slightly poisonous. I use them to make Cherry Bounce, an old-fashioned cordial long a favorite in Charleston. Here’s the recipe:
Wash a quart of wild cherries and put them in a wide-mouth quart jar with a cup of sugar. Shake the jar gently to distribute the sugar and set them, uncovered, aside in a cool place for the juice to draw, several days. Add about three cups of bourbon or rye to the jar, being sure to cover the cherries. Lightly cover the jar and allow to steep for 10 days. Strain the Cherry Bounce into a nice decanter and serve over ice cream or as an after-dinner drink.
I’ve been making this lovely cordial for over 30 years, but only while picking cherries recently was I overwhelmed by nostalgia. Growing up in the lowcountry, I was an insatiable tree-climber. One of the unspoken joys of being up in the trees was the “chewing gum” that many of our native trees produced, black cherries among them. My taste buds have changed over the years, but I couldn’t resist trying the gum from this limb. If you have access to wild cherries, make the cordial instead. That’s the Chesapeake in the background of the photo.
Sour cherries were in season back in June, when my dear friend, the artist and songwriter Dana Downs, came to visit. Speaking of tree-climbing, in this photo by Dana, here I am, nearly sixty years old, picking cherries to preserve for tarts. You’ll note it’s very windy!
It takes a lot of cherries to make a tart or a crostata, the Italian version, but the sour cherry season is so ephemeral, I feel guilty not preserving what I can in the weeklong opportunity. This year, I bought a German cherry pitter, and while a few pits may have slipped through, I was able to pit 10 pounds of cherries in a matter of minutes. Last year it took me about 2 hours to pit half that many! Most recipes for preserving the fruit call for equal weights of sugar and cherries, plus some flavorings such as spices and rum. But since I like to eat sour cherries out of hand, I simply add a little sugar to the fruit. I like to put them up in half-pint jars and make small tarts with them.
I only add about 3/4 cup of sugar to each quart of cherries, then heat them slowly until the sugar dissolves and the cherries are heated through. I then pack them in sterilized jars, leaving 1/2″ head room and making sure that the cherries are covered with syrup. I process them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
One half-pint jar is enough to fill a small (8″) tart pan. The tart, made with a classic Italian pasta frolla, is a delightful end to a summer’s meal, or, if you can wait, serve it in the dead of winter, when fresh fruit seems so far away.
For anyone seriously interested in growing heirloom vegetables, I highly recommend William Woys Weaver’s seminal work, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening (Henry Holt & Co., 1997). For a fascinating look into the tomato’s rise in popularity, Andy Smith’s The Tomato in America (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1994), is culinary history at its best. (See www.AndrewFSmith.com. Andy is the editor of The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, in which I wrote about Southern food.) This year we ordered plants from a reputable firm. I am inordinately fond of Aunt Ruby’s German Green, a spicy and sweet beefsteak variety that is green throughout, except for a slight blush on the blossom end, even when fully ripe. It is also an indeterminate type, which means that the plant produces fruit right up until frost. To ensure that my Aunt Rubys wouldn’t cross with other tomatoes, I grew them at home, in new soil, far from the community garden, or, for that matter, from anyone else’s tomatoes. As Weaver has written: “Hyridizing over the past few centuries has altered the structure of the tomato flower, particularly the female part of it. Thus, many older types of tomatoes are more likely to cross than newer ones. As a rule, the tomaotes most likely to cross in a given garden are those with potato leaves, those with double flowers (found on beefsteak types), and the currant tomatoes. All of these should be kept very far from other tomato varieties, at least 50 feet.” (Italics mine.) I can’t tell you how disappointed I was to watch what I thought were Aunt Rubys develop potato leaves and fruit into bland yellow tomatoes. So let this be a warning to you: when you buy plants, make sure that the varieties were grown separately from each other. This year I’ll be cooking most of our tomatoes, serving the Costoluto Genovese with basil and a dribble of Ligurian olive oil, and slicing the fat, powerfully flavored Brandywines for the perfect tomato sandwich. To quote Weaver again, “This tomato is undoubtedly the most famous of all American heirloom tomatoes dating from the nineteenth century, and … it has become a symbol of the seed-saving movement.” Some of Weaver’s Roughwood Seed Collection, consisting of some 2000 varieties of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, are offered through the Seed Savers Exchange at www.seedsavers.org.
Okra, Tomato, and Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons
My sister Sue, who ran my bookstore for 6 years, says that my real forte in the kitchen is my ability to open up anyone’s refrigerator and pantry and make a meal with what’s there. That said, I’m also not one to let anything go to waste. I plan my meals so that there are no leftovers, shopping each day for the finest, freshest ingredients I can find or harvesting them from my garden. When I lived in Charleston, I had a Meyer lemon tree that produced several dozen orange-sized lemons each fall. The young couple who bought our house there have continued to send me a big box of the lemons, and I keep a jar of classic, Moroccan-style preserved lemons on hand. My refrigerator rarely holds any foodstuffs but condiments; some dairy products like cheese, cream, eggs, and butter; and some limes, lemons, and ginger. I shop for everything else every day.
I can buy beautiful fresh small chickens in one of the Salvadoran markets in my neighborhood, and a few days ago I brined one for a few hours, sprinkled it heavily with lemon juice, and then massaged it well with olive oil, being sure to put oil under the skin, before placing the bird on the rotisserie on my gas grill. When it was nicely browned and my instant-read thermometer read 165 degrees, I removed the bird to rest before carving it. Much to my chagrin, the bird wasn’t done (my thermometer needed adjusting and I had spit-roast it at too high a temperature)! I had been to the garden while the bird was roasting, so I had fresh-picked okra, peppers, tomatoes, Swiss chard, and onions. I made up a batch of fresh ras el hanout with spices I brought back from Sri Lanka, and I put together a tagine that was begun by sautéing onions, celery, and chard stems, then adding peeled tomatoes and a variety of peppers and allowing the flavors to mingle before adding the pulled chicken meat, preserved lemons, okra and spices. It was one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten. There are several varieties of heirloom okra in my garden, and even the long ones are tender when cooked. The stubby, ridged one in the right center of the photo is an Israeli variety, the Star of David, with a distinctive flavor. You can find Star of David okra seeds at www.seedsofchange.com. I served the dish lowcountry style, with rice instead of couscous.