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Recipes and Stories

30 May 2020: Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash

Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash with Bacon

 

My mother is descended from generations of gardeners, and fresh produce from our family garden counts among the fondest memories and greatest comforts of my childhood.

 

From late spring when the red clay of the Carolina hills was turned over for new planting until the frost nipped the last of the tomatoes and sweetened the fall greens, our gardens were both a place of deep comfort and a source for even deeper comforts at the table.

 

Of all the things that came from them, the one that resonates with the best of those childhood memories and characterized our summer table is yellow crookneck squash.  Read More 

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16 May 2020: Quarantine Cooking for Two—Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks

Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks with Red Wine Déglacé

16 May 2020: Quarantine Cooking for Two—Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks

 

One of the most revealing things about this pandemic lockdown is the power that the comfortably familiar has had over us, especially in the kitchen and at the table.

 

Many of us who cook as much for pleasure as necessity have a list of things we're always saying we'd master if only we had the time. Well, now we have it. But instead of leaping to explore those uncharted culinary avenues, what did we do? Most of us turned inward, fell back on the kinds of safe comfort foods we've made hundreds of times.

 

It's only natural, in such unsettling, uncertain times as these, that we'd not just crave but need the safety of familiar comforts. There's nothing wrong with it. Read More 

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12 May 2020: More Pasta and Squash

Pasta with Bacon and Yellow Crookneck Squash

 

As many of you know, for most of my adult life, two culinary traditions have been inextricably intertwined in my kitchen: the Southern cooking of my childhood, and the Italian cooking that made such a marked impact while I was studying architecture as a young adult.

 

Part of it is that the two cuisines (or, I should say, collections of cuisines) have so much in common. The cooks of the South's many cuisines, and those of Italy, especially Northern Italy, share so many of the same ingredients and approach them with a similar mindset, combining and building flavors in exactly the same way. Because of that, the blending of these cuisines in my kitchen has a natural logic.

 

At any rate, that blending has marked my cooking for nearly half a century. Read More 

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20 April 2020: Improvising on the Routine in Quarantine

Fusili (Rotini) Pasta with Zucchini, to which chicken can be added as it was in the accompanying recipe

 

A social-media query that has often been bandied about among the curious (or merely bored), in this time of pandemic-induced social isolation, is whether or not it's had a significant impact on our individual cooking patterns.

 

Are we cooking more? Are we experimenting more? Have irregular shortages of certain staples such as meat, flour, eggs, milk, and pasta impacted what we do cook?

 

For my part, not much has changed. I routinely cook every day, and other than developing a recipe for a newspaper column, the only real difference in what I cook is that I'm tending to be less experimental, and am falling back more and more on things I've made dozens, if not hundreds of times. Read More 

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3 April 2020: Finding Comforts in Isolation

Aunt Margaret's Congo Squares (Bars), a comfort in any season, but especially now

 

As we move into a third week of isolation and face that it's not going to end any time soon, we're all looking for comfort in this time of uncertainty wherever we can find it. Someone asked if I was cooking more—and actually, I'm not: we but rarely eat out and I cook every single day.

 

But what I cook has changed. I don't bake a lot, especially not sweets, except around the mid-winter holidays. But warm baked treats are a comfort—if you have flour—and I do, having just filled my flour canister up for a seminar I'd been asked to do on bread in the Bible. Social distancing orders caused the seminar to be postponed, but it meant I had a reasonable supply of flour on hand when hoarders stripped our grocery's shelves, so I've actually been baking a little.

 

A couple of days back, Timothy asked if I would make Congo Bars. It opened a floodgate of warm, deeply comforting childhood memories. They were just what we needed.

  Read More 

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30 March 2020: Simple Carbs in a Crisis

Gratin of New Potatoes and Spring Onions

 

A dear friend and fellow food writer/cooking teacher reminded me this morning of one reason that panic hoarders have cleaned out the flour, pasta, and rice from most of our markets over the last two weeks: Simple carbohydrates are a natural mood elevator.

 

She suggested breadmaking as a great way to expend energy in this time of confinement that has an added bonus of providing a lovely, warm simple carbohydrate that comforts and naturally lifts us from the inevitable depression that comes with being cooped up.

 

It's a fine idea. Unhappily, unless you made it to the market before panic emptied the shelves of bread's primary ingredient, for the moment, an idea is all it can be.

 

So far, however, no one has been panic-hoarding one of natures great sources of simple carbohydrates: potatoes (at least, not here in Savannah where I live). Read More 

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16 March 2020: Braised Cabbage

Lettice Bryan's Fried Cabbage is actually braised, and makes a fine accompaniment for roast poultry, pork, ham, and that St. Patrick's Day Corned Beef

16 March 2020: Braised Cabbage

 

The middle of March marks an all-too-brief moment in the year when green cabbage, which gets so little attention the rest of the year, comes into its own and finally gets to share a bit of culinary lime light.

 

After months of being taken for granted slivered up in coleslaw or stewed with salt pork and languishing on the steam table of restaurants offering so-called "country" cooking, green cabbage finally gets to nestle up to that ubiquitous hunk of St. Patrick's Day corned beef and shine, if only for a day or two.

 

That wasn't always the case: Read More 

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11 March 2020: Why You Should Be Loving (and Using) Your Grandmother's Silver

A Tomato Server: Just because that's its name doesn't mean that it can only be used to scoop up sliced tomatoes.

 

Today, we're taking a break from cooking to talk about another important aspect of the meal, one that is especially timely just now.

 

Unless you've been hibernating for the last few weeks, you're well aware of how the outbreak of a new, influenza-like virus has sent a wave of panic over the globe, creating a renewed hyper-sensitivity to sanitation.

 

Instructions on proper handwashing have become common on social media. There have been runs on toilet paper, hand-sanitizer, and masks. We're being cautioned about being in the confined crowds of an airplane, theater, church, and other such public places. And when people do venture out, they've started shying away from direct contact with others, avoiding handshakes and that modern habit of hugging everything and everyone in sight.

 

There is, however, a simple and very effective practice that most people have overlooked, one that has almost been lost to our progressively modern world: the use of silver tableware. Read More 

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11 February 2020: Smothered Pork Steaks with Sage and Shallot Gravy

Smothered Cubed Pork Steaks with Sage and Shallot Gravy

 

One of the best things about having a basic set of simple dishes that we turn to again and again is that they provide us with knowledge and skills that we don't even have to think about. So, when we're confronted with a new ingredient, once we understand its essence, we can automatically apply the knowledge and innate set of skills we already have, without having to dig out a recipe.

 

Recently, a recipe featured in my newspaper column called for a small amount of fresh pork. While shopping for it, I ran across cubed boneless pork steaks on sale, and found a package that contained just enough for the recipe with two nice-sized steaks that could be set aside for another meal.

 

I'd never cooked cubed pork steaks, but it didn't matter.  Read More 

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27 January 2020: A New Leaf

Ground Beef and Macaroni Casserole: Simple comfort food whose subtleties should no be taken for granted.

It's been a bit quiet on this page for a reason—one that doesn't say anything flattering about me.

 

The electric range in my apartment kitchen, which has given me fits ever since we moved in, decided to up its battle plan and try to put me over the edge: the burner whose switch and thermostat was going bad went all the way, and instead of randomly surging to high stayed there no matter what it was set on.

 

It left me to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas with two small heating elements, a large one that could only be used to bring water to a boil in a hurry, and an oven that runs hot and doesn't heat evenly. The only way to get a slow braise or stew was in that oven on a baking stone. And once that pot or kettle of water was boiling, it had to come off the element; the heat was too intense even for cooking pasta. Read More 

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24 December 2019: Christmas Ham Rolls

Christmas Morning Countnry Ham Rolls

 

One of the advantages of having a second home in Virginia is that we can get baked country ham sliced to order from the supermarket deli up there, a luxury we've not had here in Savannah for a long time. Which means that over the holidays we'll be able to enjoy an old Southern Christmas treat: baked country ham sliced wafer-thin and piled high in warm biscuits or yeast rolls.

 

Sadly, the tradition of having this treat on Christmas morning is vanishing faster than snow in Florida. Read More 

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12 December 2019: Fruitcake Season

My Christmas Fruitcake. Photography by Rich Burkhart.

For more than twenty years, beginning in the early days of researching my first cookbook when the handsome antique recipes first captured my cook's imagination, fruitcake making was one of my favorite holiday chores.

 

There was something soothingly nostalgic about it, even though it wasn't part of my childhood. My mother was a fine baker and had made the family fruitcakes in her youth, but she stopped making them when she married a minister and became a working mother with three rowdy boys.

 

And yet, candying my own citrus peel, picking over the pecans, hydrating the dried fruit and steeping it in whiskey, mixing the spice-and-sherry-laced pound cake batter, was always like a refreshing visit back to childhood. And the aroma after it went into the oven was worth every minute of the trouble it had taken to get it there.

 

Then, rather abruptly, I stopped—and not because I got tired of it. Read More 

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12 December 2019: Crystallized or Candied Citrus Peel

Crystallized or Candied Citrus Peel

It's easy to imagine the cook who first decided not to waste the fragrant lemon and orange rinds that were left behind when the fruit was peeled and prepared for the table, fiddling around and boiling it in honey or sugar syrup until the tart, brightly colored peelings were plump and sweet. It's still one of the most delightful candies ever created, but is also indispensable in holiday baking, especially in fruit cake.

 

Though commercially candied citrus peel for baking has been around for a long time now, today most of it is made with high-fructose syrup, which, while cheaper, is cloyingly sweet with an unpleasant aftertaste. Fortunately, making it at home isn't difficult or all that time-consuming and is an excellent way to use leftover citrus peelings that would otherwise be thrown out. Read More 

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18 November 2019: Early American Bean Soup

Early American White Bean Soup

 

It never pays to get carried away and overthink things in the kitchen.

 

When the weather finally turns cool, nothing warms and comforts quite as simply or completely as a hearty bean soup. The ingredients are inexpensive, the method is artless and requires next to nothing in the way of skill from the cook, and virtually the only way to mess it up is to walk away from the pot and forget it long enough for it to boil dry.

 

And yet. When I dug up one of my recipes from an old newspaper column to make a shopping list for a pot of bean soup, instead of finding simple directions for a simple dish involving one pot (as it should be) was confronted with an unnecessarily complicated operation requiring two pots and a layered sautéing step that was supposed to "build" the flavors but in fact didn't contribute enough to those flavors to make it worth the trouble. Read More 

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5 November 2019: My Grandmother's Dumplings

MaMa's Dumplings, My Broth. Heaven in a Bowl

 

Well, it only took close on to sixty years to accomplish it, but I think I've finally mastered one of my favorite dishes from childhood: my maternal grandmother's dumplings.

 

MaMa made broad, flat noodle-like dumplings that are sometimes called "slipperies," and the broth in which she simmered them depended on the time of year, what she had on hand, and her mood. Even when rolled flat, the dough is similar to biscuits, with exactly the same ingredients—flour, salt, baking powder, shortening of some kind, and milk.

 

My mistake lay in the assumption that it was exactly the same as biscuits, Read More 

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29 October 2019: Party Food and Hot Cheese Dip

Hot Baked Three Cheese Dip

 

One of the biggest challenges of writing my regular newspaper column is party food. That's mainly, I confess, because I'm a bit of a broken record when it comes to putting out a party spread: I butter-roast a couple of pounds of pecans, toss them with salt (and chopped rosemary if I'm feeling racy) grate a pound or so of cheddar and stir it into a batch of pimiento cheese, stuff a pan of biscuits with country ham or roll out a batch of spicy cheese straws, and call it a day.

 

Coming up with a different menu that's clever and interesting and doesn't have any of those things on it, is always a struggle.

 

The clever part is the biggest stumbling block. Read More 

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25 October 2019: Soup Season and Beef Soup Monticello

Beef Soup Monticello

Last weekend, more than sixty members of my high school class gathered in the cool of a rainy upstate Carolina evening to celebrate the anniversary our graduation into adulthood. It was a welcome refreshment of the spirit, not only in the renewing of old friendships, but in the taste of distinctly autumnal weather afforded those of us who now live away from those hills.

 

The respite from our lowcountry heat made it easy to get into a fall mindset for the research and development of seasonal stew recipes for my regular newspaper column. But a bonus was that the combinations of flavors that came to the fore inevitably brought me back to a favorite recipe from a favorite kitchen of the past: Beef Soup Monticello. Read More 

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18 September 2019: Panned Oysters

Elegant simplicity, Panned Oysters on Toast

As Savannah's weather begins to moderate and our season for oysters opens, it seems like a very good time to revisit an old local favorite, Panned Oysters. There may be other ways of preparing oysters that are as good, but short of forcing a live oyster open and slurping it without ceremony right out of its shell, none can top it for flavor or surpass its elegant simplicity. Read More 

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14 September 2019: Blackberry Cobbler

Old-Fashioned Blackberry Cobbler, with a proper pastry crust.

Some of my loveliest late-summer memories are of foraging for wild blackberries in the pastures, woodland thickets, and shoulders of country lanes in the rural communities and small towns where I grew up in upstate South Carolina.

 

We'd come in from those outings tired and sweaty (we had to wear long sleeves, thick jeans, and sturdy shoes as protection not only from the brambles but crawling varmints), our hands and wrists scratched and deeply stained with purple, filled with at least as many berries as we had in our pails. I could close my eyes and literally see mound upon mound of shiny purple-black fruit. Read More 

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15 August 2019: An Old Dog Relearning Old Tricks

A Quick Sauté of Beef is done in less than tweny minutes, start to finish.

I am having to relearn how to cook on an electric range, and the one on which I am learning is working my nerves.

 

Crowded into the end of our apartment's galley kitchen, the thermostat of its large front burner is defective and will suddenly make it surge to high heat when it's set anywhere between high and medium-low. From medium-low to low, it practically turns itself off and is barely warm.

 

That can be fixed, but the undercabinet microwave that hovers a mere thirteen inches above the cooking surfaces (five inches less than standard upper cabinet height) cannot. Read More 

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26 July 2019: Peach Shortcake

Peach Shortcake

 

Shortcake is one of the most versatile of all home desserts. The biscuit-like cake can be enriched with more butter and an egg yolk, spiced, studded with currants or chopped raisins, glazed with beaten egg white for a glossy finish, or brushed with milk and topped with cinnamon sugar.

 

The filling can be anything at all from savory to sweet: on the savory end, creamed chicken, creamed asparagus or peas, or even seafood (though I'd leave out the sugar in the shortcake for that); on the sweet end, fresh berries or soft summer fruit such as peaches, plums, mangoes, or figs, jam, cooked fruit compote, or even citrus marmalade. Read More 

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13 July 2019: Remembering Jo Bettoja

Jo Bettoja's Georgia Pasta is one part uptown Roman Pasta al Forno and one part down-home Southern Squash Casserole.

She was standing alone, her regal bearing making her seem much taller than she actually was. Impeccably dressed in a chili-pepper red Chanel suit, her sleek, graying hair neatly pulled back in its signature coil at the nape of her neck, she sipped from an old-fashioned glass cupped in her hand with careless grace, and exuded the kind of timeless beauty and noble elegance that had earned her the nickname "la bella contessa."

 

My breath caught in my throat. There, within just a few yards of my wondering eyes, was one of the great, iconic teachers of Italian cooking. I had two of her lovely cookbooks and had long admired her simple, direct way of writing and cooking. And she was right there. Alone.

 

Pinching myself and gathering my nerve, I ambled over, and shyly introduced myself, "Signora Bettoja, you don't know me from Adam's house cat, but I've been an admirer of yours for years and have wanted to meet you for a long time." Read More 

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12 July 2019: My Grandmother's Creamed Yellow Squash

MaMa's Country-Style Creamed Summer Squash, with my bit of fresh thyme thrown in, a quintessential taste of her summer table

 

More on the skillet steamed squash from the last essay of that name.

 

The method was the one my maternal grandmother, known to us as MaMa, used to cook the sweet, young yellow crooknecks from my grandfather's garden throughout the summer, although she did it in a deeper saucepan rather than the skillet I use nowadays.

 

But while she did sometimes bring them to the table whole, she more often took them one step further and creamed them. Read More 

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12 July 2019: Skillet-Steamed Summer Squash

Skillet-Steamed Summer Yellow Crookneck Squash with Vidalia Sweet Onions and Thyme

 

Summer squash of all kinds are a staple in my kitchen throughout the season. There are almost always a few yellow crooknecks or zucchini (or both) in the refrigerator's vegetable bin and often a tub of cooked leftovers right next to the tub of pimiento cheese.

 

More often than not, they're simply cooked by steaming them in their own juices, a method I included in a recent column for the newspaper. It's basically how my grandmother used to cook them, with a few touches of my own added through the years, and is very simple, requiring next to no skill and only a very little attention from the cook. And it works for any summer squash, though it's especially nice for our sweet yellow crooknecks. Read More 

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22 June 2019: Summer Frying

Golden, Pan-Fried Young Yellow Crookneck Squash

 

As we settle into summer and try to acclimate to the heat and cope with it in the kitchen, we often overlook a cooking method that's ideal for hot weather, and that's frying.

 

Yes, it involves boiling hot fat which can be messy and smelly, but it's also one of the quickest and tastiest way to prepare summer's produce. While the heat is intense, it's brief, and because it's fast, the flavors and textures are better preserved. And there's an added bonus in that it gives the food a flavorful caramelized, crackling-crisp surface.

 

When frying is done properly, the mess is no worse than any other way of cooking and the fat stays where it belongs—on the outside, so the finished product isn't heavy or greasy. Read More 

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10 June 2019: Crab Au Gratin

Lowcountry Crab Au Gratin, my first taste of the grand cuisine of Old Savannah, the place I have called home for four decades.

This week marks the beginning of my fortieth year in Savannah, Georgia's oldest city and its colonial capitol. Four decades of changed professions, loves lost and loves found, and learning to live with and cook in eight different kitchens. I never imagined that nearly two thirds of my life was destined to pass here.

 

I also never imagined crowning those four decades with moving. Twice. In two different directions—and within the space of not quite two months.

 

I cannot recommend it. Read More 

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27 February 2019: Melted Butter and Butter Liaisons

Bourbon Shrimp is just one of the hundreds of variations on sauces thickened with melted butter

 

When we talk today of "culinary heroes," we all too often forget the real heroes in cooking: the thousands of unassumingly genuine, curious, and clever cooks of the past who first discovered the techniques that we take for granted. It's on the shoulders of these forgotten souls that our modern culinary knowledge has been built.

 

Among one the greatest of them was the cook who discovered a simple technique that, over just the right amount of heat would—seemingly like magic—make butter melt in a way that kept it suspended in a liquid, creating a thick, sumptuously silky sauce. Read More 

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31 January 2019: Cold Weather Comfort and a Favorite Revisited

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream, a variation of the old Lowcountry staple "Chafing Dish Oysters"

 

As January winds to a close, it's deep winter in Savannah, which means that the red buds, tulip (Japanese) magnolias, and wild violets are all beginning to bloom even though it's refreshingly cold and the temperatures are hovering at freezing every night.

 

But even though the landscape is trying to act as if it's spring, it's still bracingly cold and perfect cooking weather. It's also the height of the season for our local oysters. They're wonderfully briny and yet sweet, especially raw, but since they're the clustering type, they don't lend themselves to being presented on the half-shell. Read More 

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26 January 2019: The Comforts of Pasta and Bean Soup

My Pasta and Bean Soup, or, if you really must, Pasta e Fagioli alla Damon

When the weather turns cold as it finally has done here in Savannah, nothing warms and satisfies me quite like the old Italian classic, Pasta e Fagioli, or as it's sometimes called in dialect "Pasta Fazool." In a single bowl, it combines the homey comfort of my father's beloved bean soup with my own love for beans and pasta in general, not to mention my lifelong love of both Italian and Southern cooking.

 

It's also a fine example of the many parallels between the cuisines of the American South and Italy. Both sets of cuisines have remained close to the land, even in urban centers such as Atlanta and Milan, and have withstood the relentless tide of modernization and the silly capriciousness of that recent culinary plague, "reinvention." Read More 

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22 December 2018: Old-Fashioned Thumbprint Cookies

Old-Fashioned Thumbprint Cookies

Once upon a time, I was very organized. Any holiday baking that I did would’ve been long ago planned out and done by now. But life, as the saying goes, has been too much with us lately, and other things have had to take precedence over it.

Moreover, with our grandchildren a full day’s drive away, and most of my friends and neighbors either watching waistlines or already inundated with treats, the only people here to eat Christmas cookies are the two of us. Now, two people and multiple tins of homemade Christmas cookies, cheese straws, and fruitcake is a deadly combination.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a few homemade treats in the house, and there’s always someone who’s holiday will be brightened by a gift of things we’ve made ourselves. Read More 

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