Sunday, September 7, 2014

Southern Pea Succotash...with Pan-Seared Salmon

In John Thorne's book Simple Cooking there is a great little essay (in the chapter "Perfect Pleasures") in which he sings the praises of a well-made succotash.  As a child, Thorne had apparently been regularly subjected to some atrocious (frozen foods) versions of succotash and had consequently carefully avoided all encounters with it until well into his adulthood.   But at some point he discovered that when properly prepared, this humble, late summer dish can be quite delicious.

One of the reasons I love this essay is I am able to relate to it so well.  I too have stories to tell of childhood food aversions that turned into love when I tasted their well-made counterparts as an adult.  (I chronicled one of the first of these experiences a few years ago in my post about ratatouille.)  However, I can say with all honesty that succotash was not one of these dishes.  (It probably would have been if I had ever tasted the childhood versions he describes.)  I'm not sure that I even knew what succotash was until I read Thorne's essay.  I think Sylvester the cat was my only reference point.  But after reading his essay, I had to try it.  And I agree, it really is a delicious dish. 

Classically succotash is simply a combination of well-buttered, freshly-cooked, sweet corn and lima beans.  I have not had access to fresh lima beans in many years (the one grower who had them at my market disappeared several seasons ago), so a few years back I began making my own version of succotash with the summer shell beans I did have access to—pink-eyed, purple hull peas.  

I think I like this version even better (the Pink-eyed peas are the same size as the corn kernels....making for a much prettier dish).  I'm sure that this dish would be pretty fine when made with whatever shelling bean happens to grow well in your part of the country.

If you've looked ahead to my recipe, you'll notice that I include more than just corn and shell beans in the mix.  As it turns out there are lots of traditional additions to succotash...all of them prolific, late summer foods:  fresh tomatoes, sweet onions, garlic, fresh herbs, summer squash and green beans.  And this is probably a short list—I'm sure there are other regional additions that have not yet crossed my path.  The version I'm posting is the one I most often make.  It is a combination of Thorne's recipe and the one in The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters. 

As for the salmon...this is just my favorite thing to eat with succotash, so I have written the recipe to include it.  But it would be fine served with another fish...   or a pork chop...   or steak...   or even eaten all by itself as a big summer vegetable stew.  The most important thing is to make it when all of the ingredients are fresh and in season.  While I will admit that I occasionally make a very good version of this dish in the winter with corn and shell beans that I have frozen myself (I leave the tomatoes...and summer squash...out of this version), I have to agree with John Thorne that it is the seasonal immediacy of this dish that makes it special.  So now is the time to make it—before the corn and shell beans are gone for the year.  And even if this dish is among those that you would classify as a childhood atrocity, I encourage you to give it a try.  I don't know if I would go so far as Thorne—who calls succotash a delicacy—but I will say that I think you will find that it is very, very good.  

Pan Seared Salmon with Southern Pea Succotash

2 to 3 ears sweet corn
1 lb. southern peas (pink-eyed peas, Crowder peas, lady peas, etc.), shelled—about 1 to 1 1/2 cups peas depending on the variety
Salt & Pepper
Olive oil
1 medium red onion, cut in a 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)
2 t. minced fresh thyme
2 to 4 T. unsalted butter
2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes (about 8 oz.), peeled, seeded (juices reserved) and diced 
2 T. or so of minced fresh herbs of your choice (basil, parsley, chives or dill)

4 fillets salmon (4 to 6 oz. each), skin on or off—as you prefer
Salt & Pepper
vegetable or olive oil

Cut the corn from the cobs—you should have about 2 cups. Set aside. Scrape the cobs and reserve the scrapings separately. Cut the cobs in half cross-wise.

Place the peas and corn cobs in a sauce pan and cover the peas with water by 1 1/2 inches. Bring to a simmer and cook until the peas are tender but not mushy—about 30 minutes...more or less, depending on the kind of pea. Add salt to taste about half way through the cooking time. Peas may be cooked ahead. Cool and store in their cooking liquid. Drain just before using, reserving the cooking liquid.

Heat a medium-sized straight-sided sauté pan over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or so of oil. Add the onions along with the thyme and a pinch of salt. Cook until tender and a bit caramelized. Add a tablespoon or so of butter. 

When the butter is melted, add the corn and cook for a minute or two. 

Add the drained peas, the corn scrapings and the reserved tomato juices. If the succotash seems dry, add enough of the bean cooking liquid to moisten (but not so much that the succotash becomes soupy). Simmer gently until the corn is tender while you cook the fish (if the corn is cooked before the fish is done, remove the pan from the heat and finish the succotash while the fish is resting). 

Heat a 12-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. While the pan is heating, season the fish with salt & pepper. Add the oil to the pan. When the oil is very hot, add the fish. If the skin is intact, put the skin side down; if the salmon has been skinned, place it skinned side up. Cook until nicely browned (skin should be crisp)—about 3 minutes. Turn and cook the fish, until barely opaque in the center—about another 3 minutes (you may need to reduce the heat to medium—regulate the heat to maintain an active sizzle). Remove the fish from the pan and keep warm.

Finish the succotash: Add herbs and the tomatoes and heat through. Swirl 1 or 2 T. of butter into the simmering succotash, adding more bean cooking liquid if necessary to coat the vegetables with a light buttery sauce. Taste and correct the seasoning. Spoon the succotash onto serving plates and top with the salmon.

Serves 4

Optional Additions:
  • One or two small zucchini or summer squash, diced. Add to the pan with the onion when the onion is tender. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes before adding the corn. 
  • 1 or 2 cloves minced garlic. Add with the corn. 

Printable Version

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