We live in Maryland, which as you may know from your high school American History course sided with the Union during the Civil War, but not without a great deal of conflict. At the time of the Civil War, not quite half of Maryland’s black population were freedmen, and its membership in the Union was assured not so much by local volition as by the Federal troops stationed on a hill overlooking the south side of the Baltimore Harbor shortly following the Baltimore riots in April 1861. On April 19th of that year, pro-secessionist Marylanders attacked a regiment of Union forces traveling between the train stations en route to Washington, DC, in an event widely considered the first bloodshed of the Civil War. So Maryland, and Baltimore in particular, always have seemed more Southern to me than Northern, a legacy of the longtime pro-Southern sympathies of the population. Indeed, the Mason-Dixon line divides Pennsylvania from Maryland. (And Maryland’s nickname, “The Free State,” has nothing to do with its stance on abolition, but refers instead to a later dispute over Prohibition.)
Historically and culinarily, it seems appropriate to count Maryland as part of the American South (and apropos of this discussion, the Disunion piece earlier this week in the New York Times discusses Baltimore’s Confederate tendencies). If you’ve ever spent any time down south, you know that Southern cuisine really is all about vegetables. Not that Southerners shun the meats by any means – country hams and fried chicken are two of the finest Southern contributions to carnivorism, after all – but Southern farms take advantage of longer growing seasons to produce some of our finest vegetables and fruits – peaches and okra, corn and tomatoes, sweet potatoes and greens. One of the finest aspects of Southern tradition is a reluctance to waste perfectly good food – pig’s feet get pickled, hocks get smoked, bacon grease and lard are saved for frying, unripe, “green” tomatoes are fried or turned to jam like the last of the season’s fruit harvest. Southern kitchens are masters of the art of “putting up” – preserving, pickling, and salting to extend the summer harvest throughout the year. In season, though, you’ll find fresh vegetables on show – boiled or fried, stewed or creamed. Traditionally, vegetables are flavored with bacon or salt pork, or butter and onion, and served in a rustic family style.
A year or two after moving to the east coast, I started spending summer weekends at the Delaware beaches. My husband and I make the drive every few weeks when the weekend weather is good – three hours out, and a shorter trip back, usually in the same day. A typical visit to the Delaware shore ends with an evening stop at one or two stands for melons, corn, peaches, and whatever looks especially good that day, Sometimes, it’s the lavender and white-striped graffiti eggplant, like easter eggs in cardboard nests; sometimes, freshly dug baby potatoes; once it was a red variety of okra, and another time glossy poblanos, popular among the area’s growing Latino population. On our last trip – just before leaving for Europe – we picked up corn and cantaloupes, peaches and tomatoes, okra and zephyr squash. Enjoy the summer’s vegetables and fruits – from your own garden, a farm stand or local market, or the supermarket – while they’re at their best.
The very best way to eat a truly fresh ear of corn is on the cob, after a quick blanch in salted boiling water. The next best way is creamed or puréed- corn relish and sautés are nice, but usually involve too many extraneous ingredients like peppers and such.
As you know, corn is starchy, which means it thickens up well. A little flour added before the milk lends a creamier texture, but I’m not crazy about the way it sticks to the palate – basically a béchamel sauce. So you decide whether you prefer a thinner, looser creamed corn or the thickened version. Excellent with fried chicken (pictured below).
4 ears corn, shucked and kernels cut off
2/3 c cream
optional: 1/2 c milk and 2 tsp flour
6 branches thyme, bundled
4 tbsp butter, divided
salt and pepper
chives or scallions, sliced thinly
Simmer the corncobs in the milk with the thyme for 15 minutes to extract the sweetness of the cobs and intensify the corn flavor. Remove the cobs and the thyme branches.
Place a saute pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp butter. Once the butter melts and begins to foam, add the corn and season with salt. Saute until the corn is just cooked through (about 2-3 minutes). If using, add the flour, stir well to incorporate into the butter, add the milk and cream, and simmer for about 10 minutes. Otherwise, just add the cream and simmer.
Season with salt and pepper, and chives or shredded mint.
Heirloom tomato risotto
As with corn, probably the best way to eat a summer tomato is raw, with sherry vinegar and a little salt, or on a sandwich with mayonnaise. Sometimes you harvest (or buy) so many that you need to find a way to dispose of them before they go bad. Paste tomatoes make great confit, but what about the juicier varieties?
Try this heirloom tomato risotto. This isn’t a Southern dish, obviously, but tomatoes and rice are both classic Southern ingredients. I like making a tomato stock first with the tomatoes, rather than leaving them whole, for a refined texture and intense tomato flavor.
4 lb heirloom tomatoes (mixed if you like, or a specific kind – the black-purple types make a really intensely flavored risotto)
2 c white veal stock, chicken stock, or vegetable stock
rind from a block of Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional but recommended)
1 small onion, minced
4 cloves garlic confit
2/3 c dry white wine
1 1/2 c carnaroli rice
6 sprigs thyme, bundled
3 tbsp butter
1/2 c grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Place a large pot, filled with water, over high heat and bring to a boil. Mark a shallow “x” with a sharp knife in the non-blossom end of each tomato and, when the water boils, dip the tomatoes in the water for about 10-15 seconds. Plunge into ice water and peel the skins.
Dice the tomatoes (if you’re feeling especially anal-retentive, you can scoop the seeds and gel into a strainer and let the juice drip into a bowl). Place a sauté pan over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp oil. Reserve about 1/4 c tomato for later. Add the remaining tomatoes, reduce the heat, and cook the tomatoes until tender. Continue to cook, breaking up the tomatoes, until they fall apart. Add 2 c stock and bring to a simmer. Strain through a chinois. Return to the pan and reduce to about 5 c. To this point, you can prepare this dish up to two days in advance (chill the tomato stock).
Bring the tomato stock and Parmigiano rind to a simmer. Reduce heat and maintain a bare simmer
Place a risotto pan (any deep pan with somewhat rounded sides will do) over medium heat and, when hot, add 1 tbsp (1/2 oz) butter. When foaming, add the onion, and sweat until tender. Add the rice to the pan and sauté until the grains are all coated well with oil, about 2 minutes (tostatura). Add the wine to the pan and stir continuously until the wine is absorbed. Increase the heat somewhat and add the garlic confit and tomato stock, a ladle at a time, stirring slowly and well until virtually all the liquid has been absorbed before adding any more. Each addition should take several minutes. The rice takes about 20 minutes to cook and, when properly al dente, should still have a little resistance but not hardness in the center of each grain.
As soon as the rice is cooked al dente, remove from the heat and stir in the butter and the Parmigiano. Season with additional salt as necessary and espelette pepper to taste.
Plate the risotto and add the basil leaves and reserved diced tomato. Serve immediately.
I’m not even going to pretend. This is a straight rip-off of the Rick’s Pick’s Smokra. I devised this recipe when I discovered that I could eat an entire jar of those pickled okra in one sitting. They cost something like $8/jar, and okra’s maybe $2/lb in season, so. The genius is the use of the smoked paprika. And the pickling process draws that slime right out of the okra.
1 lb okra, trimmed but left whole
12 cloves garlic, peeled but left whole
8 chile de arbol
1 tbsp pimentón de la vera, agridulce
1 tsp curry powder (Madras)
1/2 tsp cayenne and crushed chile pepper
1 tsp each mustard seed (whole), coriander seed
3 1/2 tsp salt
2 1/3 c apple cider vinegar
2 c filtered water
Sterilize 2 pint jars with lids. Trim the okra tops and tails.
Bring all the ingredients except the okra to a boil. Meanwhile, pack the okra vertically into the jars. Ladle the liquid and an equal quantity of the solids (seeds, chile pepper, garlic) into the jars.
Seal tightly and process in a boiling water bath, covered with water, for 10 minutes. Be sure the lid is sealed appropriately. Pickle on the shelf for a couple of weeks before eating.