As the summer season draws to a close, fans of fresh produce flock to farmer’s markets in search of the fruits and vegetables that reach the height of their excellence during this phase of the year. Once they have their seasonal bounty in hand, they head to their kitchens to prep dishes that fully highlight these ingredients … and in the South, a “dish that uses late-summer vegetables to their greatest effect” often equals “succotash.”
What is succotash?
One of the most intriguing aspects of succotash is the way that it defies easy explanation. There are certain ingredients that most (but not all) succotash fans will accept as “canon” … but the ability to improvise and experiment with this mercurial side dish knows no bounds. In its most commonly found form, succotash is a side dish that includes sweet summer corn, lima beans, fresh tomatoes, seasonal herbs, and a hearty serving of fat (either lard or butter) to tie the flavors together.
Succotash can be found in cuisines spanning the Eastern seaboard, but the American South truly claimed it for its own in the decades during and following the Great Depression. The Southern version frequently supplements succotash’s corn-based formula with okra and either bacon or salt pork for a savory kick. The end product is a flavorful salad packed with in-season veggies that pairs beautifully with BBQ fare.
Thinking about whipping up a succotash for your Labor Day cookout? Follow these expert tips from chefs who know a thing or two about this classic summer treat:
Pay close attention to your corn.
If the tomatoes, okra, and other succotash ingredients represent different paint colors, then the corn is the canvas on which they all can co-mingle. Therefore, you’ll want to select and prepare the best possible corn to provide your succotash’s foundation. “The word ‘succotash’ literally means ‘broken corn kernels’,” chef Danyelle Hudgins of The Listening Room Cafe in Nashville, Tennessee offers by way of context.
Executive chef Ben Iozzo of The Vinoy Club in St. Petersburg, Florida also has some corn-related advice for aspiring succotash makers: “When making succotash, remember that it’s all about the corn. Husk and char-grill the corn, and then make sure to rinse off any additional silk before cutting the corn off the cob. I use this method for two reasons: it brings a nice char flavor to the succotash and it just as importantly helps eliminate the chance of any corn silk (hairs) from getting into the succotash.”
If you’re including okra in your succotash, stick with small pods.
Okra, a vegetable with longstanding influence over Southern cuisine, tends to be a divisive piece of produce. Some love its grassy flavor and unique texture, while others blanch at the “slimy” consistency of its interior. Nevertheless, traditional succotash recipes include sliced okra, and if you’d like to avoid any risk of sliminess in your finished dish, founder David Lewis of Kitchen Ambition advises you to “pick small okra pods. When preparing succotash, pick okra that is firm and 2-4 inches long. These fruit pods are tender and most suitable for eating when they’re young. As the season progresses, the pods get bigger, woodier, and more difficult to cook without becoming slimy. Okra slime may be a great characteristic for thickening gumbo, but it’s not a welcome texture to most palates or a great fit for succotash.”
Feel free to improvise with different flavor profiles and ingredient swaps.
Among the best characteristics of succotash is its remarkable versatility. As long as you’re using corn as the core ingredient, then you have free rein to experiment with different ingredients until you discover the perfect combination for your palate. When making her preferred succotash recipe (full recipe below), partner/chef Liz Clifford of Dunharrow Concepts in Richmond, Virginia draws inspiration from the New England flavors that she came to love as a culinary student at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island (albeit with a few adjustments: “The best succotash tip I have for a Southern cook is this: the Yankees are right about the fresh beans and salty pork, but don’t follow their lead on the tomatoes. Local cherry tomatoes in season make something good into something amazing.”
According to Clifford’s co-partner and chef at Dunharrow Concepts, Jon Martin, a well-made succotash doesn’t have to include lima beans. “While I know that lima beans are the classic Southern succotash legume, I, like many people, just don’t like them. Black-eyed peas are just as classically Southern, [they] work great in succotash and I think they taste way better,” Martin insists.
Danyelle Hudgins also fully endorses the try-different-succotash-ingredients approach, and she particularly urges home cooks to explore various seasonal veggies. “Fresh [and] in-season is the best! Have fun and discover a new combo for yourself. Try adding garbanzo beans and green beans. Or go for mushrooms and some shredded kale with a spiced up kick!” she says.
Succotash can be paired with a wide range of dishes, and while it’s commonly eaten with classic cookout fare, it also goes beautifully with fish.
Succotash is a regular sight at cookouts, barbecues, picnics, and any number of potlucks. The simplest reason for its prevalence involves the fact that it’s an easy side to pair with a wide variety of dishes and flavor profiles. That said, Ben Iozzo tells us that, in his view, succotash “pairs perfectly with all fish — I tend to serve it with swordfish or grouper.”
(By Liz Clifford, chef/partner, Dunharrow Concepts, Richmond, Virginia)
Clifford’s favorite succotash recipe combines flavors from different areas of the East Coast (hence the titular reference to Interstate 95, which runs from Miami, Florida to the U.S.-Canada border in Maine. “While the version [of succotash] I make now is influenced by my time in Richmond (and delicious Hanover County tomatoes), I still keep an eye out for fresh cranberry beans [a common New England produce item] every August,” Clifford says of her geographic-hybrid succotash recipe.
- Kernels from 6 ears of sweet corn
- 1 medium sweet onion, julienned
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 8 tbsp butter (one stick)
- 6 oz salt pork (Clifford says that “a chunk of slab bacon also works”)
- 2 lb fresh cranberry beans (Clifford says that “any fresh shell bean will do, and canned will work in a pinch”)
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes, sliced
- 2 tbsp fresh basil, roughly chopped
- Melt half the butter in a large wide-bottomed saucepan over medium heat.
- Add the onions and garlic to the butter and sweat until they are just beginning to color. Add the salt pork or bacon and allow it to color and release some of its fat.
- Add the corn and cranberry beans and saute for about 10 minutes, until the onions become golden brown.
- Add enough water (stock or broth, if you have it on hand) to barely cover the beans. Add the rest of the butter. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook uncovered for 10-15 minutes, until the beans are cooked through.
- Remove the salt pork from the pan and stir in the cherry tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with basil.
(By Ben Iozzo, executive chef, The Vinoy Club, St. Petersburg, Florida)
Chef Ben Iozzo takes a somewhat radical approach to succotash by completely eliminating beans and tomatoes from his recipe. The resulting dish, which features charred corn and pomegranate seeds, is best served with “pan-seared black grouper on a bed of cabbage, braised with a sour gose ale [alongside] butternut squash grits with port-infused beet puree.”
- 3 ears of corn
- 1 pomegranate
- .5 red onion
- 12 Shishito peppers (Iozzo says that “if you can’t find Shishitos, [you can] substitute with poblano peppers”)
- 1 bunch chopped cilantro
- Husk corn and chargrill for a few minutes until ears darken. Once cooled off, cut corn off cob.
- Peel and remove seeds of one pomegranate.
- Finely dice half of a red onion.
- Julienne 12 Shishito peppers.
- Chop one bunch of cilantro.
- Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.
- Before serving, briefly sauté the succotash to warm it through.
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