photo by Johhny Autry
Jennifer Hill Booker cooks in the place where the South meets France. She arrived there on a trail that took her from a Mississippi Delta farm to culinary school in Oklahoma and then, by virtue of her marriage to a military man, a year studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. The vissult was her cookbook, Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent, published in 2014.
“Southern and French food really are different sides of the same coin,” Booker says from her home in Lilburn, Georgia, the Atlanta suburb where she raises two teenage daughters and works as a personal chef and caterer. “The French love their pig just like we do. And they don’t throw away anything. If you’re a farmer or rely on the land for your food, you are very careful with what you do with it.”
That’s one reason why succotash, the classic mix of beans and corn that makes great use of two of summer’s most prolific crops, is a staple in her kitchen, though it wasn’t always. As a child, she never really liked the dish—at least when it appeared studded with waxy lima beans. (“I still dislike them,” she says.) But she had grown up eating tender butter beans cooked with salt pork or pieces of smoked ham. One summer day, Booker realized she could use them to reclaim succotash, and give it a nice French twist, too.
Succotash has always been the most adaptive of recipes. An early version of it was most likely on the table at the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, courtesy of their Native American guests, and some credit the Narragansett word for broken corn kernels—sohquttahhash—for giving the dish its name. For Booker, French-style lardons of bacon echoed the salt pork her family used as seasoning. A pour of cream and plenty of soft, anise-flavored tarragon leaves add more Gallic flair. The trick is to think like a chef when chopping the vegetables. Precise knife work will result in a more beautiful dish and further elevate what is, at its heart, a humble plate of beans and corn cooked together.
“Everyone has the thing they are good at, and mine is balancing color, texture, and seasoning,” Booker says. “My grandmother and my mother always had color on the table. I just enjoy beautiful food.”
2 cups butter beans, fresh or frozen
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup (about 5 or 6 strips) thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/4-inch lardons
1 small sweet onion, finely chopped
3 celery ribs, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 cups corn kernels, fresh or frozen
2 large cloves garlic, minced
4 scallions, white and green parts, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsp. fresh tarragon, roughly chopped (plus extra for garnish)
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
Bring 1 quart of well-salted water to a boil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven and add butter beans. If they’re fresh, cook for about 4 minutes. Frozen beans will need to cook for about 8 minutes. Test for tenderness and then remove from heat, drain, and set aside.
Meanwhile, over medium heat, melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the bacon and cook until crisp, about 7 minutes. Stir in onion, celery, and bell pepper, stirring to coat with butter and bacon fat. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add the corn, garlic, and scallions and cook an additional 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Gently fold in the butter beans, then add cream, tarragon, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 5 more minutes, or until succotash is heated through and the cream has started to thicken.
Meet the Chef: Jennifer Hill Booker
Hometown: Charleston, Mississippi
Favorite kitchen tool: A rubber spatula, stiff enough to scoop every last bit out of a jar. “I grew up hearing, ‘Use that rubber spatula. We ain’t rich.’”
Favorite food celebrity: Anthony Bourdain. “I would eat wherever he took me.”
Want more delicious recipes like this? Check out Chef Jennifer's cookbook, Dinner Deja Vu: Southern Tonight, French Tomorrow.