There is probably no other dish that is more characteristically Old Savannah than this simple, hearty mélange of beef and ham broth, tomatoes, and okra. Each family-indeed, each cook, has its own version. Often other vegetables are added to the pot-a heaping cup each of butterbeans, diced yellow summer squash, and freshly cut corn are the most frequent-but the essential core is a homemade trio of broth, fresh tomatoes, and okra. Many cooks today make it with canned tomatoes, but it is at its best when it can be made with fragrant, sweet vine-ripened tomatoes. Though this recipe is based on several old manuscripts, its core is from Leonora Candler, whose cooking, in the early to mid-twentieth century, was legendary among her family and friends.
A large spoonful of rice is always added to each serving, and when it is the main course, cornbread is usually passed. Once upon a time, bird’s eye peppers and/or Pepper Sherry were always offered as condiments.
The passing of whole bird’s eye peppers with okra soup was once quite a ritual. The fiery peppers were passed in a small bowl, and each guest took a single pepper to crush in the bottom of his soup plate. The pepper was then removed before the soup was ladled in; you did not want to run the risk of biting down on the whole thing.
Notes on Additions: For most traditional cooks, okra soup is a 2-day operation. The broth is made one day, chilled and degreased, and then the soup is finished the second day. Other vegetables may be added, the most common additions being butterbeans and corn. Add a generous cup each of fresh, small green butterbeans and freshly cut white corn for the last 40 minutes of simmering.
Basic Meat or Chicken Broth:
5 pounds meat scraps and bones (beef, veal, or pork, or a mixture of all, or a 5-pound stewing hen or chicken or turkey scraps)
3 large yellow onions (2 for chicken or turkey), 2 peeled and thinly sliced, 1 peeled but left whole and stuck with 4 whole cloves
1 large carrot (2 for chicken or turkey), peeled and thickly sliced
1 large rib celery (2 for chicken or turkey), including the leafy top
1 large leek, split, thoroughly washed, and sliced (including the green top)
3 to 4 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed and peeled but left whole
1 quarter-size slice fresh gingerroot
1 large, leafy sprig parsley (at least 3 inches of leafy stalk)
2 large, leafy sprigs fresh thyme (at least 3 inches long), or 1 teaspoon dried thyme tied up in a cheesecloth or stainless-steel tea ball (or sage for chicken or turkey)
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
5 quarts water
1. Put all the ingredients into an 8- to 10-quart stockpot, adding a small handful of salt. Turn on the heat to low, cover loosely, and bring the broth slowly to a simmer. This could take from 30 to 45 minutes.
2. Adjust the heat so that the liquid simmers very slowly, the bubbles not quite breaking the surface of the broth. With the lid askew, let it simmer for a minimum of 2 hours; 3 or 4 will only improve it. If you use a whole bird, you may take it up after it is tender (about 1-½ to 2 hours), skin and bone it, and return the bones, skin, back and neck to the pot. Let it simmer at least an hour longer.
3. Turn off the heat and let the broth settle for 30 minutes. Strain it carefully through a wire mesh strainer and let it cool completely. Cover and refrigerate until the broth is very cold and the fat on the surface is congealed. Lift off the fat and discard. The broth will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator, or for up to 6 months if frozen in small portions.
Makes about 4 quarts
Low Country Steamed Rice:
1 cup raw, long-grain rice (my own preference is real basmati)
1. Put the rice in a large bowl (or the cooking pot) and fill to within an inch of the rim with water. Gently rub handfuls of rice between your fingers until the water is milky and pour off the water through a large fine-mesh sieve. Repeat until the water is nearly clear. Many local cooks also let the rice soak for a few minutes. Drain thoroughly.
2. Put the rice and a scant 2 cups of cold water in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add a healthy pinch of salt. Stir once to make sure the salt is dissolved. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stir once to make sure that the rice is not sticking, and reduce the heat to low. Set the lid askew on top of the pot and simmer for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the water is almost completely absorbed and clear, dry steam holes form on the surface.
3. Gently fold the top rice under with a fork, close the lid tightly, and heat for a minute more to build the steam, and turn off the heat. Move the pot to a warm spot (if you have an electric range, leave the pot where it is; the residual heat in the burner should be just right). If you don’t have a warm spot, put the pan in a larger pan of hot water. Let it stand for 12 minutes-longer won’t hurt it. Fluff the rice with a fork, and turn it out into a serving bowl.
Makes about 3 cups, serving 4 to 6
OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together
Dietary ConsiderationEgg-free, Gluten-free, Lactose-free, Peanut Free, Soy Free, Tree Nut Free
Taste and TextureMeaty, Savory, Smoky
Type of DishHot Soup, Soup
- 2 pounds meaty beef shank (soup) bone, or 2 quarts Basic Meat or Chicken Broth (made with beef (see Notes)); do not use canned broth
- 1 smoked ham hock, about ¾ pound
- 2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
- 1-½ pounds small, tender okra (about 8 cups), trimmed and thinly sliced
- 3 pounds ripe tomatoes, scalded, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
- Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
- Fresh Bird’s Eye Peppers
- 1-½ cups hot Low Country Steamed Rice (see Notes)
If using beef shank bones, put them with the ham hock in a heavy-bottomed soup kettle or Dutch oven with 3 quarts of water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer until the liquid is reduced to 2 quarts, at least 2 hours. If using meat broth instead, bring the broth and ham hock to a simmer over medium high heat, reduce the heat to medium low, and simmer, loosely covered, for at least an hour. Skim off the excess fat, add the onion, and simmer slowly until it is tender, about 20 minutes. You may make the broth a day ahead up to this point, cool, cover, and refrigerate. Remove the solidified fat from the top before bringing the broth back to a simmer over medium heat.
Stir in the okra and tomatoes, loosely cover, and let it come back to a simmer. Uncover, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
Taste and season the soup with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until the okra and tomatoes are very tender and the soup is quite thick, at least an hour more-longer won’t hurt it. Remove the bones and hock from the pot. Some cooks cut up any meat on the bone and add it back to the soup. Discard the bones.
Pour the soup into a heated tureen or divide it among heated soup plates. If offering fresh bird’s eye peppers, allow guests to crush a single pepper in their bowls and remove it before the soup is ladled in. Put ¼ cup of rice in the center of each serving, or pass it separately.