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Charleston's "Gumbo"
John Tullock

Charleston, South Carolina is a splendid place to spend a few days in late Church 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 onions
chopped celery
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
Creole seasoning
unsalted butter
olive oil

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.

Seafood Stock

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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