"I should probably be featured on the show Hoarders," Sean Brock laughs in our Test Kitchen.
He's (mostly) joking, but the chef admits to owning several freezers full of heirloom seeds (that would include 300 varieties of corn and 500 varieties of beans) that he cooks with at Charleston's Husk (Brock also owns a Mexican restaurant, Minero, and an outpost of Husk in Nashville).
Today, though, he's showing us a dish from his gorgeous new cookbook-slash-journal, Heritage ($40): a classic Lowcountry brown oyster stew (see the recipe). It's a deceptively simple dish with more historical weight than its humble ingredients suggest.
"Oyster stew is an example of taking nothing and making something extraordinary," Brock explains. "It's a simple soul food dish made from scraps and things you can forage. It's the food of the slaves and the basis of Lowcountry cuisine."
The stew is also significant in its use of an ingredient that once flourished in the South but was lost to time until Glenn Roberts—who Brock calls "the Indiana Jones of Southern food"—started Anson Mills, a line of milled goods made from heirloom grains and seeds.
Said ingredient would be benne, a predecessor of sesame and a vital ingredient in the antebellum diet. Once sesame started being mass-produced for oil, it lost nearly all of its flavor. Benne, on the other hand, is nutty and a touch bitter with a strong peanut buttery taste.
"The problem with Southern food for the last 50 years is that it was made with inferior ingredients—and because of that, it was dismissed," Brock says.
He is, obviously, a stickler for using the most authentic ingredients when making the stew (Anson Mills products can be purchased online); it uses both bennecake flour, as well as a sprinkling of the seeds for garnish. The rest of the humble ingredients—from white bread flour to homemade chicken stock to chunks of bacon—add layers of flavor to the chowder-like soup.
"The bennecake flour was the garbage that was left after pressing the seeds for oil," Brock says. "But it's the heart and soul of this dish."
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