My Meal Planner
Tips & Information
Charleston, South Carolina is a splendid place to spend a few days in late
fall. The weather is perfect, with none of the oppressive heat and
humidity, not to mention crowds, of the summer vacation season.
It is a
city of architectural masterpieces, including the 17th century Circular Congregational Church.
In the heart of the historic district
with its multitude of antebellum homes, antique shops and art galleries,
lies East Bay Street, home to some of the city's best restaurants. We
dined recently at one of these, Slightly North of Broad. The menu
advertises a first course of "Charleston Okra Soup," and indicates that the
dish is made to order. That's a bit unusual for a soup, and what, as I
inquired of my dining companion, is "okra soup" if it is not that
quintessentially Southern concoction known as "gumbo?"
I discovered that this soup is indeed a form of gumbo, and a uniquely
bright and delicious one. It is also ideal for the home cook because all
of the preparation can be done hours in advance and the soup completed
while your guests are finishing their drinks. I provide two versions.
The first is as near a duplicate as I can achieve of the soup I was served
in Charleston. The second is a variation that uses ingredients more widely
available than the fresh local seafood abounding off Charleston's coast.
My recent dinner guests found it especially delicious.
Charleston Okra Soup Slightly North of Broad
Prepare the following ingredients, up to 24 hours in advance, holding them
covered and refrigerated until ready to use. Bring everything to room
temperature about an hour before you want to complete the soup. The actual
cooking takes only about 15 minutes.
Reserve the shrimp shells and other trimmings for the stockpot.
2 quarts homemade seafood stock (recipe follows)
chopped green bell peppers
carrot coins, blanched 6 minutes, refreshed in ice water, and well drained
minced fresh parsley
pickled okra, rinsed, patted dry with paper towels and the pods sliced
crosswise into one-half inch pieces
1 pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 dozen oysters, shucked, about 1 pint, with their liquor
Also have on hand:
canned whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped, with their juices
fresh (if possible) bay leaves
Adjust the quantities to suit the size of your dinner party. I used one
large onion, three stalks of celery, one large green bell pepper, and
three medium carrots (coins should be about the size of a nickel, for best
presentation). This recipe serves eight generously.
Use one pod of pickled okra about the size of your forefinger for each of
your guests. Using pickled okra accomplishes two things. This otherwise
extremely seasonal vegetable is usable at any time of year, in this case
during cooler weather, when shrimp and oysters are superb off the South
Carolina sea islands. Second, the pickling process removes all traces of
sliminess and results in a perfectly tender vegetable that retains a slight
"bite." The pickle taste, by the way, blends into the soup, and the
vegetable itself is remarkably like fresh okra.
When you are ready to complete the soup, bring the stock to a simmer on the
back of the stove, and keep it covered.
In a large saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add 1
tablespoon of olive oil. As soon as the fats are hot, add the onions and
celery, and saute until the onion is translucent. Add 2 bay leaves and the
bell peppers, sprinkle on some Creole seasoning, and saute one minute. Add
2 cups tomatoes and the stock, bring to a rolling boil over high heat, and
add the shrimp and carrots. Reduce the heat as needed and simmer until the
shrimp are opaque and pinkish, about 3 minutes. Add the okra and the
oysters with their liquor and cook at a low simmer until the oysters are
done, a minute or so. Taste carefully and add more Creole seasoning and/or
salt. Serve immediately garnished with minced parsley.
In a stockpot heat a dribble of olive oil and saute the rinsed and drained
shells from a pound of medium shrimp until they turn pink. Add 2
tablespoons each chopped onions, celery and carrots, 1 bay leaf, and a few
parsley stems and saute 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup dry white wine and cook,
deglazing the pan, until the wine is reduced to a tablespoon. Add 2
quarts water and bring to a simmer. Add 1 teaspoon peppercorns, a piece of
fresh lemon peel, and a small pod of cayene pepper (optional). Simmer 30
minutes, then strain, pressing on the solids to extract their juices before
discarding them. To store, cool the stock quickly by immersing the bowl in
a pan of ice water, then cover and refrigerate.
John's Variation Without Seafood
This being the Thanksgiving season, I made the soup with leftover roast
turkey and substituted chicken stock for the seafood stock. The result was
impressive. About a cup of roast turkey breast meat, chopped into 1/2 inch
pieces, was substituted for the seafoods.
A Final Note About Creole Seasoning
Many commercial Creole seasoning mixes are on the market. Most consist of
salt, onion and garlic powders, paprika and cayenne pepper in varying
proportions. You can make your own, and even elaborate on the theme with
such additions as herbes de Provence. An advantage to home concoctions is
that the salt can be reduced or eliminated entirely. Grandmothers from
New Orleans to Nags Head, however, would probably buy Zatarain's brand of
Creole seasoning at the grocery store. That product was used in testing
these recipes. As a guide for amounts, treat Creole seasoning as if it
were plain salt. Then taste to achieve the final balance of flavors.
Adding some of the seasoning at different stages of the cooking process
results in what Chef Paul Prudhomme has called "roundness" in the final
taste. This characteristic, which can only be adequately understood by
actually tasting the food, also develops in the preparation of other dishes
that involve many spices, such as curry, and even barbecue sauce. Heat, as
from cayenne pepper, is not the only goal of Creole spice mixtures,
contrary to rumors abounding among the inexperienced. In fact, the brands
of seasoning mix I have tried are rather tame in this respect. You can
always add more ground pepper, or pass hot sauce at the table, if you want
the finished product to be hotter. Adding more seasoning mix to achieve
this will make the dish too salty.
John Tullock is an expert gardener and self-taught cook who likes to
develop new recipes using his own fresh produce and the best from the local
market. His interest in plants and horticulture begin in childhood, and he
holds a masters degree in biology from The University of Tennessee. Now a
full-time freelance writer and author of six books, Tullock also co-owns
"Gardener and Gourmet," a retail business that specializes in rare plants
and fine food products.
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