I love being from the South. I mean there are a lot of things you can say about the South but regardless of your take on it, the American South remains the one truly unique cultural island in a country of every increasingly homogenized people, places and things.
From the rural language and dialects to the customs and the food the American South has a rich history. It is that sense of history that keeps southern people, well...Southern. Being a southerner gives me a sense of pride about where i come from, my family history and traditions, and grounds me in a manner that is hard to describe. For instance, I love old things. My hometown is very "old" by American standards. Some of the buildings in Charleston appear to just sprout up out of the ground, as if the earth itself was organically producing them. The masonry and architecture gives them a life of their own. That sense of old, time, and history is what is alluring about Charleston and the South in general. In the John Denver song "Country roads take me Home", he echos this sentiment in the line "life is old there , older than the trees".
That sense of history is what colors my culinary imagination when I step back and observe southern food. Oh I know we think or it as all fried chicken and biscuits, but there are a lot of older southern dishes that I have come to know and appreciate. Dishes who's tendencies are more towards the epicure than the pedestrian. The problem with the way many people view southern food is they look at what is popularly sold as southern, and think of it only in it's most dumbed down form . But might I suggest something that takes us out of that box. In the low country of South Carolina they grew cotton to make fabric for clothing. They grew indigo for coloring that fabric. And they grew rice for feeding the soul. Rice farming was something that had completely disappeared in the low country until in the last ten years a new farm started producing a carolina gold rice. A variety which grows well in the climate and had an excellent taste. Rice was very important to the Carolina Planters. Not only did it provide income but also nourished a population both black and white. It was a dietary staple and as such gave rise you a variety of dishes.
One dish sort of stands out and actually had had a culinary resurgence on the southern food scene in the past 10 years. That dish is Rice Pilau. Pronounced "Per-loo" by a South Carolinian this is the low country's version of risotto. Similar to it's cajun cousin Jambalaya it uses a tomato and onion based sauce to flavor the mix but it is not as spicy or peppery nor does it have as many ingredients. Originally from African cooks who flavored the rice dish with shredded meats or seafood, it was a one pot wonder.
Today modern southern chefs are rediscovering and reinventing the dish for high end tables all over the South. I have been experimenting with my recipe and so I offer it up! This version of Pilau varies from the original but keeps the spirit of the dish. I hope you are intrigued enough to try it.
Low Country Rice Pilau (makes 4 to 5 servings)
For this dish you will need
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 slices of bacon
3 tablespoons butter
1 medium white onion finely chopped
2 or 3 garlic cloves minced
1 summer or yellow squash finely diced
1 1/2 lb shrimp peeled and deveined tails off
1 red pepper diced
1/2 pound okra or baby zucchini chopped in rounds
1 1/2 cup carolina gold rice ( Anson Mills carries this)
1 cup celery finely chopped
1 cups of water
1/2 cup clam juice
1/2 cup white wine
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon tarragon vinegar
1 or 2 big dashes of hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon old bay seasoning
1 /4 Freshly chopped parsley
Chopped chives for garnish
In a large pot bring the water clam juice and wine up to a boil then reduce and keep warm
In another pot bring some water to a boil reduce then add red pepper, squash and okra or zucchini.
Blanche until bright and a little soft, remove and drain, reserve and let cool.
In the same water poach the shrimp and reserve 1/2 the shrimp
The other 1/2 of the shrimp coursely chop and reserve
In a large heavy bottomed pot saute bacon till done remove from pan, cool and crumble and add oil to bacon grease in the pan
Add onion and celery and cook until almost soft then add garlic and cook till the garlic blooms and becomes tender
Add butter till melted then add rice stir until the rice is browned a little and had absorbed the fat.
Add the "stock" and bring to a boil stirring the rice
Cook until rice is done about 20 mins and most of the liquid is gone then fluff.
Add the seasonings and the last 3 tablespoons of butter, add the reserved vegetables gently stirring, add chopped shrimp and the parsley into the hot rice mixture reduce heat check seasoning and add salt to taste then cover for about 5 mins. and let sit.
Serve into bowls, divide up the shrimp and top each bowl with the shrimp, crumbles of bacon and chopped chives!
Photo From Food and Wine's Article on Rice Pilau 2007