Before you begin to prepare the recipes in this book, read through these listings of some special ingredients and equipment found in the Lowcountry kitchen. All of the recipes in this book have been cooked at home in my minuscule kitchen; it is not professionally outfitted. But I do have at hand, and take for granted, many utensils and ingredients that most kitchens do not, as a rule, include. Some, such as wood-framed drum sieves (tamis) from France, are excesses for the fanatic. Others, such as a kitchen scale, are, I feel, absolutely essential. It’s unnecessary to buy the top-of-the-line, state-of-the-art KitchenAid or Robot Coupe, but you will need both a mixer and a food processor. Mine are both inexpensive models; all of the recipes have been checked with these typical home appliances. If you do own the powerful professional-quality mixers and processors, you may be able to cut the mixing times in the recipes. A few notes on useful kitchen equipment are found at the end of this chapter. For every task there is the proper tool. But no tool ever a cook made.
Of all the cooking skills and techniques that typify the Lowcountry kitchen, none is more difficult to describe or teach than the use of one’s senses—and not just the sense of taste. Salting and timing the cooking of a simmering pot of hominy or soup can be done through the nose of a seasoned cook; Geechees say, “She has an old hand.” A pinch of dried herbs or a handful of fresh ones is tempered by the way it looks; a roast is basted according to its hisses; a steak is done to the touch. Slow down and read recipes carefully so that you have well conceived the results before you begin. Above all, be sensitive to the ingredients and prepare the foods so that all flavors are featured; there is no reason to include an ingredient if you plan to mask it.
Lowcountry flavors are based on the region’s cash crops of today and yesterday. Among those are rice, corn, greens, legumes, root vegetables, and members of Solanaceae—the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, and the peppers, all native to the Americas. Nothing matches the flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes; if you cannot find them, I recommend using canned ones. Unlike their appearance in southwestern American cuisine, peppers in the Lowcountry are used as condiments rather than centerpieces, typically spicing a bottle of sherry or vinegar and appearing in relishes and pickles served alongside other dishes. I add a few fresh hot peppers (poked with a knife in several places to release their fire) to jars of sherry, olive oil, and vinegar. If you cannot buy fresh peppers where you live, you may want to buy some commercially spiced oils and vinegars to approximate those that we make here in the Lowcountry. When a recipe instructs to “season to taste,” I would hope that you would do just that: most Lowcountry cooks use not only Worcestershire sauce, but soy, prepared mustard, and pickle juices as well.
Once you have eaten freshly stone-ground whole-grain grits, the bland degerminated store-bought ones will never do. No perfectly shaped Japanese persimmon will ever match the flowery aftertaste of a misshapen, ripe, indigenous one; but I have made persimmon bread with the Japanese variety in Europe to rave reviews. On one pantry item, however, I can’t compromise; when stock—which the French call “the foundation of the cuisine” (and in French cuisine means both the kitchen and the cooking)—is called for, I demand homemade, not only for flavor but also for the ease of preparation. Canned and concentrated stocks are usually too salty to be of use in any reduction. A simmering pot of bones, shells, and aromatic vegetables changes a house into a home; homemade stocks similarly enrich soups and sauces. Recipes for basic chicken, fish, duck, vegetable, and shellfish stocks are included in the section that follows.
Finally, in your efforts to understand the Lowcountry kitchen, consult other sources as well. A bibliography follows the text. For the scholar interested in the culinary history of the Lowcountry, I highly recommend a trip to the rich collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, the Library Society of Charleston, the Caroliniana collection of the University of South Carolina, and several other museums housing Caroliniana, such as the Charleston Museum. For more recipes my workhorses are The Carolina Housewife of 1847 and the Junior League’s Charleston Receipts of 1950. While I was working on this book, many people asked me why I was writing a Lowcountry cookbook when we already have those two marvelous books, spanning a hundred years of Charleston’s history: real Lowcountry cuisine is, after all, right there in those two books, they said. The Carolina Housewife’s archaic language is reason enough to rewrite those wonderful receipts so that they are usable today, and although I’m on my third or fourth copy of Charleston Receipts, I wanted to eliminate some of the baking powder, cans of soup, and overreliance on commercial products. My Lowcountry recipes present the sumptuous fare of antebellum Charleston for the modern cook.
© 1992 All rights reserved. Published by UNC Press.