Zucchini, tomatoes and the Appalachian South: Menus, recipes evoke nostalgia

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

At an already phenomenal meal at Catbird Seat in Nashville, one of the simplest dishes was also the most memorable. It wasn't particularly pretty. It had no remarkable bells or whistles, like the white sturgeon caviar crowning the next course of watermelon-cucumber salad.

The dish that pulled me in and wrapped me up in warm nostalgia was a simple bowl of summer squash with tomato conserva, or preserved tomatoes, bursting with the flavors of garden herbs. It was served in a bowl of salted buttermilk, with a cheese-stuffed squash blossom on the side to mop up what was left when the vegetables were gone.

It moved me in a similar way to the food at Audrey, Sean Brock's East Nashville restaurant. Both meals paid culinary homage to summer and its generally abundant produce. Audrey's menu is Southern Appalachian at its core, while Catbird Seat's references to Appalachia were fleeting.

'A Star Among Us':Nashville chef Star Maye shares pot pie recipe, new book details

Those flavors are a deep part of my own background. I come from Appalachian farmers, gardeners and Baptist church builders, all of whom scratched out an existence with gospel, tomatoes and grit.

My grandparents grew up with dirt floors and farm labor, but they never turned away from growing produce even when they reached a more comfortable life.

They ate "kilt" lettuces, or garden greens wilted with hot bacon fat. They ate cornbread with salted butter, and so much ham, grits and greasy beans. Each of those ingredients are highlighted in some way on Audrey's menu, a love letter to the food that was so a part of growing up that I never gave it a second thought then.

The Wash:What you'll find to eat at The Wash, East Nashville's newest micro food hall

Nor did I find it remarkable that my grandfather ate vegetable sandwiches "dragged through the garden," fragrant with Vidalia onions and stacked with thick slices of salty garden tomatoes. He would wash them down with a glass of buttermilk, which I surely thought was strange then. When he died, we served those sandwiches at his wake and smiled at the strength of the onion slices, how his kitchen always smelled faintly of them, though not in an unpleasant way. It just was.

Appalachian food always "just was." It was subsistence food at its core, but also a loving expression of what came from the ground. It was often unapologetically pungent, all ramps, onions and the earthy funk of stewed collards. 

Which is why, most likely, the humble dish of zucchini stood out to me. It was not gilded with truffles, crowned with caviar or served with foie gras. With its buttermilk, fresh garden herbs and allium flavors, it tasted exactly like what an Appalachian gardener might eat standing in the kitchen before heading back out to pick more tomatoes. 

Tomato conserva, spooned over sauteed zucchini.

Tomato and sweet onion conserva

This is a good way to use your garden abundance. You can scale this recipe up as needed. 

There are multitudes of ways to preserve tomatoes. This one is a slightly sweet, slightly tart version that works beautifully spread on bread or spooned over roasted vegetables. I plan to serve it tonight with sauteed zucchini. When you serve these tomatoes, add some minced garden basil on the top. There's nothing like it. 

Yield: About a cup and a half.

Ingredients

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 peeled garlic clove, minced

1 small sweet onion, thinly sliced

1 pint ripe cherry tomatoes, whole

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1 sprig thyme

1 cup water

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed, nonreactive saucepan over medium-high heat, then add the onions. Saute and stir until soft and just beginning to caramelize, about 10-15 minutes. Add the garlic clove and stir, cooking for about one minute.

Add the rest of the ingredients and then turn the heat to high, bringing the mixture to a boil. Reduce to a more gentle boil over medium-high heat and then cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes begin to stick to the bottom of the pan and brown slightly, about 25-30 minutes.

Turn the heat down to low. Scrape the bottom of the pan. Continue to stir the tomatoes vigorously until they're all broken up and the oil separates, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Adjust salt to taste. This will keep in a glass container for at least a week or so, but you'll eat it before then.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com