From a Southern Table: The Importance of Vegetables

Food for thought. Written by Eileen Mouyard Sessoms 

During the late summers of my childhood, when the corn had finally become so blissfully perfect, I remember gnawing through piles of salty, peppery, buttery corn, paying no attention to the barbecue or burgers. I only had eyes for the ears.

From an early age, I understood the importance of fruits and vegetables. And not just so we don’t get scurvy or rot our teeth with sugar (though, I admittedly have rotted my teeth with sugar and will continue to do so until I am dead and gone or the world runs out of pie). Rather, I learned about the importance of fruits and vegetables for their ability to teach us a thing or two about life.

Sitting in our rusty maroon Subaru, my mother gave my siblings and me an earful about how, while apples grow on trees, money does not. So, by God, if any of us ever again took only one bite out of an apple and then tossed it away, we were “off to live with the gypsies.”

My mother was also always pulling pieces of fruit—namely oranges—from her bag any time someone needed a pick-me-up or forgot their lunch. And she never batted an eye at a bruise or a smudge of mold on a tomato or an onion.

“Eh, don’t whine,” she’d say. “Sometimes there’s an icky part. Just cut it away, move on and it’s fine. We can’t be wasteful, Eileen.”

While apples grow on trees, money does not. So, by God, if any of us ever again took only one bite out of an apple and then tossed it away, we were ‘off to live with the gypsies.’

 

I learned how to make stock from scraps and peels, and a meal to last a week out of whatever was on sale in the scratch-and-dent section of the farmer’s market. I’ve learned how to make something from nothing, be budget-conscious, be mindful of others and how when life gets a little bit icky (as it so often does) to do what I can to cut it away and move on. You can’t waste your life crying over bruised fruit or a bruised heart.

So, when a little over a year ago I found myself wandering around a different part of the South—the South of France, on a farm that was once an Armagnac distillery—pulling weeds and dodging snails in the grass, I was given a bit of a new perspective from a different mother.

I worked alongside the matriarch of a little farming family, doing lots of tasks and errands (recycling centers and feed and seed stores in France are as trés chic as they are in Georgia), with most of my time spent in the kitchen discussing the importance of everything from good olive oil to duck fat, ratatouille to potatoes. This mother also reminded me that vegetables can teach us about how the uncomplicated is often the most beautiful, and when it comes to what’s on our plates, simplicity is key, both literally and figuratively.

“Eat these mushrooms, tiny American,” she’d whisper with a slanted smile, handing me a glistening bowl of them and a small glass of wine. “Eat these with your eyes closed and tell me they don’t change your life.”

And they did. They showed me why I began cooking and baking in the first place: to find my way home in the Great American South. I owe it all to those vegetables, and the wisdom of a good mother.

Really Good Braised Mushrooms

 

This is a riff on the mushroom dish I had while in France. I often ate them for lunch, delightfully piled high on a slice of toasted rustic bread with olive oil, alongside some brie cheese. It also makes a delicious side dish on its own, or with some grits and a green salad for supper.

16 ounces mushrooms of your choice (I like to use a mix crimini and oyster), wiped clean, trimmed and left whole

Glug of good olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Pinch of red pepper flakes

About 1/4-1/2 cup of wine—red in the winter, white in the summer

Knob of butter (about 3 or 4 tablespoons)

Mix of freshly chopped parsley, rosemary, thyme and chives

Splash of balsamic or sherry vinegar (about 1-2 tablespoons)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Toss ingredients together in a bowl and then pour into a casserole dish. Place in oven and “kind of forget about them for a bit” (this is what I was told when I asked about the cooking time). I advise checking them after 30 minutes. Allow the mushrooms to braise until they become a rich, dark brown color, adding more wine or olive oil if needed. Just before they’re finished, stir in the knob of butter, a generous handful of the herbs and the splash of vinegar. Cook for another 5 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and serve immediately.

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