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Recipes and Stories

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.


It all began innocently enough. For several years, we've admired a charming Federal-Revival house in Petersburg, Virginia, where Timothy grew up. Though built in 1942 and wearing a sad mantle of neglect from not having been lived in for several years, it was in remarkably good condition. Every time we visited family, we'd go by, admire its undimmable charm, grieve over its neglect, speculate about what its interior might be like, and daydream of what fun it would be to save it and bring it back to life.


But that was all it was: a daydream. If nothing else, it was four hundred and fifty miles from where we live. While our hope was to retire to Virginia to be closer to family, retirement was several years in our future. And so, charming though the house was, it seemed highly unlikely that it would be we who would rescue it.


The house, however, seems to have had other ideas. It kept working its charm on us. And last fall, it abruptly went on the market just when we were planning to go up for the funeral of an old friend. Thinking there was no harm in looking, we made an appointment to see it, and on a cold, wet November afternoon, finally crossed its threshold for the first time.


It was chilly, damp, dim, cluttered, and dirty—and just about as sad as a house could possibly be. But neglect and tarnish had not diminished its charm, although it did diminish its asking price. We were smitten. No, more like bewitched. And although retirement was several years in the future, we knew we couldn't let this chance pass us by, and bought it.


At last that daydream had become real. We were thrilled. But elation quickly turned to panic. What on earth had we been thinking? What were we going to do with a house so far away from where we lived? Since we had no plans to leave Savannah—and didn't yet want to, we finally made the hard decision to downsize here and keep the house as a second home until we retired. It'll be fun, we told ourselves. Sure.


What it was was frustrating, nerve-wracking, and all-consuming. But time does march on, and while we often think of that march as our enemy, its positive gift is that even our worst moments pass. We're finally settling in to a cozy townhouse in Savannah and the refurbishing of our vacation getaway house in Virginia is nearing completion.


A bonus of that settling in is that I now enjoy having two kitchens that both work. I'd started this adventure with one that was only marginally workable. For a time in the worst of it I had not two, but three kitchens that were barely usable at all, which is why this page has been lacking in both recipes and stories. But as I adjust to the luxury of two reasonably workable kitchens and begin to get back into a rhythm of cooking and writing about it, the irony that this new chapter is opening on the anniversary of my first crossing of the old Talmadge Bridge is not lost on me.


And as I reflect on four decades of living in and loving this lovely old city,  I am well aware of the apparent irony that I came here to pursue a career in architecture and preservation only to get detoured into a career of writing about food. The truth, however, is that there's nothing ironic about it: For while it was indeed Savannah's architecture that beguiled and lured me here, it was its cuisine that made me fall in love and stay.


So, maybe—just maybe—that old saying about the way to a man's heart being through his stomach has more truth in it than we allow.


Savannah Crab Au Gratin


My first meal in Savannah on that stiflingly hot early June afternoon was a solitary lunch of crab au gratin, something I'd never had before. It came to the table still bubbling from the oven, its gilded blanket of toasted cheddar concealing succulent local blue crab meat bound in a thick, creamy sauce laced with sherry, shallots, and a hint of cayenne pepper. It was one of the first Savannah dishes I learned to make and has remained a lifelong favorite.


Serves 4


1 pound cooked and picked crabmeat (preferably both lump and claw meat)

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter

½ cup finely minced shallots or yellow onions

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 cups light cream or half and half

2 tablespoons medium dry sherry (amontillado)


Ground cayenne pepper

Whole nutmeg in a grater

2 tablespoons freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

¼ cup fine cracker crumbs

4 ounces (1 cup) grated extra-sharp cheddar


1. Pick over the crabmeat for any lingering bits of shell and cartilage and discard them.


2. Put 3 tablespoons of butter and the shallots in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Sauté, stirring almost constantly, until the shallots are softened but not colored, about 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute.


3. Slowly stir in the cream and bring it to a simmer, stirring constantly, then reduce the heat to medium low and cook, stirring, until thick, about 3 minutes. Add the sherry, return to simmer, and turn off heat.


4. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat it to 400° F. Lightly butter 4 6-inch gratin dishes or a 1½-to-2-quart gratin or shallow casserole. Fold the crab and Parmigiano into the sauce. Season it to taste with salt, cayenne, and nutmeg and divide it among the prepared gratins or pour it into the casserole. Level the tops with a spatula.


5. Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter in a small skillet over low heat. Stir in the cracker crumbs and toss until the butter is evenly absorbed. Turn off the heat. Sprinkle the cheddar evenly over top of the gratins or casserole and top with crumbs. Bake until bubbly and the cheese is melted, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot.

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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.


The technique was well known by the time Europeans began to migrate to America, and has been around in Southern cooking from the very beginning. One of the very first published records of it is Mary Randolph's lucid recipe in The Virginia House-Wife in 1824.


To Melt Butter.


Nothing is more simple than this process, and nothing so generally done badly. Keep a quart tin sauce pan with a cover to it exclusively for this purpose; weigh one quarter of a pound of good butter, rub into it two teaspoonsful of flour; when well mixed, put it in the sauce pan with one table spoonful of water, and a little salt; cover it, and set the sauce pan in a larger one of boiling water, shake it constantly till completely melted and beginning to boil. If the pan containing the butter be set on coals, it will oil the butter and spoil it.


– Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife (1824).


To echo Mrs. Randolph, there is no sauce more simple or lovely than this melted, but thick butter; yet it is seldom seen in modern American cookbooks, properly executed or otherwise.


Melted (sometimes called "drawn") butter is the same idea as a classic Beurre Blanc in French cooking: the fat is barely melted so that it stays suspended in the liquid. Though when properly done, it doesn't need flour to help with that, most old Southern cooks like Mrs. Randolph followed eighteenth century English practice of adding a little for stability.


Later in the nineteenth century, this unhappily began to change. The proportion of flour and water (or milk) to butter increased, and most recipes titled "drawn" or "melted" butter were essentially heavy white sauces with barely enough butter in them to justify the name.


In Mrs. Randolph's day, whisks were rare in home kitchens, hence the technique of preparing the butter in a small saucepan that's set over a larger pan of simmering water and gently agitated. The one quibble I would have with Mrs. Randolph is that this is much easier to accomplish without a lid over the pan, so one can watch what's happening. The lid was probably intended to keep water from accidentally splashing into the butter, but if the pan is held just above the water or right on its surface, the lid isn't necessary.


By its nature, a sauce in which melted butter is the thickener can't be hot, since overheating will cause the fat separate, or, as Mrs. Randolph put it, "to oil." That's also why it can't be made too far ahead and held over heat, but is served at once in a sauceboat that's been warmed by rinsing it with hot water. It should be warm but not so hot that one couldn't handle it with bare hands.


To Melt Butter by Mrs. Randolph's Method


Before we begin, a few notes on Mrs. Randolph's recipe are in order. Measuring spoons had yet to be regularized in her day: a table spoon was a large serving spoon, roughly twice as large as our modern tablespoon measurement (which corresponds to a soup spoon in historical recipes). Her tea spoon, however, is roughly the same as our modern measure. The proportion of flour usually given is about 2 teaspoons. I find that one is plenty for half a cup of butter, although it actually doesn't need any flour at all. The sauce is lighter and more delicate without it.


One addition that will help is acid of some kind, which enhances the emulsification and stabilizes it. It will also boost the flavor. Allow about a teaspoon of lemon juice or wine vinegar for the quantity given here.


For little more than ½ cup, you'll need 4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, a teaspoon of flour, 2 tablespoons of water, and a little salt.


First, choose a small (no larger than 1 quart), heavy-bottomed saucepan for the butter and half-fill a larger, 3-quart pan with water. Bring the water to a boil over a medium heat and then reduce the heat to a steady simmer.


Meanwhile, put the butter and flour in the smaller pan and rub it together with a wooden spoon it's well mixed, then add the water and a healthy pinch of salt. Now hold the saucepan just over the simmering water so that it's not quite or barely touching the water. Shake it gently in a swirling motion until the butter melts and is beginning to bubble at the edges, about 4 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt, pour into a heated sauceboat, and serve at once.


It's easier to accomplish with a whisk: Unlike Mrs. Randolph's method, the butter for this technique should be cold and cut into small bits. Omit the flour, which is superfluous and even intrusive in this technique. Warm the 2 tablespoons of water in a 2 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over the lowest possible heat.


When the water is just beginning to bubble at its edges, add a pinch of salt and whisk in 2-3 bits of butter to the pan until almost melted. Add 2-3 bits more and continue whisking until they, too, are almost melted and emulsified, and continue until it's all incorporated. If at any time the sauce seems to be getting too warm and the butter begins to look at all oily, remove it from the heat and whisk in 4-5 bits of butter at once to bring the temperature down. When all the butter is incorporated, taste and adjust the salt, pour it into a heated sauceboat and serve at once.


Another lovely way that melted butter is used, both in historical and modern cooking, is as a thickener and enrichment, either by whisking or shaking it into a reduction of cooking juices. The example that follows is a recipe I recently developed for a group of Southern ladies in Savannah who call themselves Southern Comfort.


Bourbon Shrimp


Here, the butter thickens a reduction that has a little lemon juice to boost the flavor and stabilize the emulsion. It's lovely as an appetizer served as-is, with crusty bread for sopping the sauce, but you can also offer it as a main dish with bread or over hot cooked rice or fettuccine.


Serves 6-8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main dish


1¼ pounds large shrimp

4 ounces (½ cup) unsalted butter, cut into bits, divided

¼ cup finely chopped shallots (about 1 large)

2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced

2 teaspoons finely chopped anchovy filets or anchovy paste

1½ ounces (1 jigger or 3 tablespoons) bourbon

½ cup shrimp stock (see step 1)

Louisiana hot sauce, to taste

2 large lemons, 1 halved and 1 cut into 6-8 wedges

1 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano

Crusty bread such as a baguette


1. Peel the shrimp, reserving their shells to make stock. If you're making it ahead of time, cover and refrigerate the shrimp. Put the shells in a saucepan with 3 cups of water. Bring it slowly to a boil over medium-low heat (watch the pot—it tends to boil over). Adjust the heat to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1 cup. Strain, cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 months.


2. Put 2 tablespoons of butter and the shallot in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté until the shallot is pale gold, about 2-3 minutes, then add the garlic and anchovy. Sauté, stirring, until the anchovy dissolves and the garlic is fragrant, about 10-15 seconds. Add the shrimp and toss until just curled and pink, but not quite firm and opaque, about 1 minute.


3. Remove the shrimp from pan and carefully add the bourbon. Let it evaporate and add the shrimp stock. Bring it to boil, stirring and scraping the pan to loosen any cooking residue, and cook, stirring often, until reduced and syrupy.


4. Return the shrimp to the pan, squeeze in the juice from one of the lemon halves, and add a couple of dashes of hot sauce. Stir, taste, and season with salt and add lemon juice and hot sauce as needed. Add the herbs and, tossing constantly, let the shrimp heat through until completely done, about ½ minute. Off the heat, add the remaining butter and shake the pan until it's barely melted and the sauce is thick. Serve warm with lemon and crusty bread.

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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.


What they do lend themselves to, and beautifully, is shucking and serving them ice-cold in a cocktail cup with crisp, horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce. They're also lovely simmered in stew and in that old Savannah winter party staple, "chafing dish" (creamed) oysters, which is oysters and sometimes mushrooms in a thick, rich cream sauce.


Of that latter, there are probably as many variations as there are cooks. My own version, inspired by a dish of escargots from a long-vanished local restaurant, is enlivened with sautéed leeks, garlic, ginger, and a splash of bourbon. Instead of serving them from a chafing dish with toast cups, I ladle them over small cornmeal griddlecakes (known down here as hoecakes).


It was one of the early recipes developed for New Southern Kitchen, and the dish that helped me woo and win the love of my life.


This week while researching for a newspaper column on romantic dining for two, that recipe popped up, reminding me sharply of how we evolve as cooks. Looking through the method, I was startled to realize that it was not the way I make it now. The structure and ingredients were the same, but there are subtle and (a few not-so-subtle) differences in the way I approach it now.


It also reminded me that it was time I made it again.


Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream


Adapted from my book New Southern Kitchen, this remains one of my favorite ways to cook Savannah's local briny-sweet cluster oysters. The original recipe served 4, but there's something intimate about this that makes me prefer to it when it's just the two of us. If you want to make it for more people, double everything but the butter (increasing that only by half a tablespoon) and bourbon (don't increase that at all).


Serves 2 as a first course


1 cup shucked oysters

1 medium leek (or ½ a large one)

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced

1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons bourbon

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill

4-6 Mini Hoecakes (recipe follows)

1 heaped teaspoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley


1. Set a sieve over a stainless or glass bowl, pour in the oysters, and let them drain for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the liquor to freeze and use as fish broth. Trim the roots and tough outer leaves from the leeks and split them lengthwise. Holding each half root end up, wash thoroughly under cold, running water, bending back each layer to get the dirt from between them. Slice the white and most of the tender greens.


2. Melt the butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and sauté, tossing often, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant, 15-20 seconds more. Carefully add the bourbon and let it evaporate, then add the cream. Bring it to a boil and cook until it is a little thicker than a cream sauce, about 2 to 3 minutes. (The oysters will throw off moisture as they cook, diluting it.) Turn off the heat. It can be prepared to this point several hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate the oysters and sauce in separate containers.


3. Half an hour serving, preheat the oven to 170-200° F. (or the "warm" setting). Put the hoecakes on a rimmed baking sheet in one layer and put them in the oven. Return the sauce to the pan over and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Add the oysters, a small pinch of salt and a liberal grinding of pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the oysters plump and their gills curl, about 1 and 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and taste and adjust the seasonings.


4. Put 2 hoecakes per serving onto warmed individual serving plates. Spoon the oysters and sauce over them, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once.


Mini Hoecakes

Makes about 12 2-inch diameter hoecakes, serving 4 to 6


½ cup stone-ground white cornmeal

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

1 large egg, lightly beaten

About ¾ cup whole milk buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt thinned with milk to buttermilk consistency

Melted bacon drippings, butter, or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle


1. If serving the hoecakes right away, position a rack in the center of the oven, place a large, baking sheet on it, and preheat to 170-200° F. (the warm setting). Whisk together the meal, soda, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the meal, pour in the liquids, and quickly stir them together. It should be moderately thick but should still pour easily from a spoon: if it doesn't, add a little more milk.


2. Heat a griddle or wide, shallow skillet over medium-high heat. The griddle should be hot enough for a drop of water should "dance" on the surface, but not so hot that it vaporizes instantly. Lightly brush the surface with fat. Pour the batter in about a generous tablespoon-sized portion from the end of a spoon—enough to pool into cakes about 2 inches in diameter. The edges should sizzle and form lacy air bubbles. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, turn, and cook to a uniform brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer them to the baking sheet in the oven as they are finished and repeat with the remaining batter until it is all cooked. Serve hot.

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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."


But it's more than that. There's a common approach to flavor, a shared logic in the way key ingredients are brought together with simplicity and respect. Traditional cooks in the South and throughout Italy have little use for novelty or cleverness for its own sake. A classic may evolve over time, with each generation adding a bit of its own to the pot, but these evolutions happen organically, within the sensible boundaries of tradition and taste.


And by taste, I literally mean what is right on one's tongue. Here in the South and in Italy, it doesn't matter how clever, startlingly inventive, or unique a cook has been. What matters is one simple thing: Does it taste of home? Are its flavors combined in a logical, sound way? And, most important of all, does it taste good?


Pasta e Fagioli endures because it does all those things—and, just possibly—because its good taste nourishes not just our bodies, but our souls.


My Pasta and Bean Soup

Or, if we must, Pasta e Fagioli alla Damon


Since there's only two of us in my household, and I usually make a full batch so we can have more than one meal from it. If the pasta has all been cooked in the soup, it'll continue absorbing the liquid and will swell up and get mushy in the leftovers, so I always cook the pasta separately and rinse it with cold water. That way it can be added to each portion as needed.


Serves 6-8


3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound ground chuck

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped

1 large rib celery, strung and chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and chopped

1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 rounded teaspoon dried

3 tablespoons tomato paste

6 cups homemade meat broth or 2 cups beef broth, 2 cups chicken broth, and 2 cups water

4 cups cooked cranberry or pinto beans, drained

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

8 ounces ditalini or small elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano


1. Warm the oil in a 4-quart heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the beef and lightly brown it, crumbling it with fork or spatula. Remove it with slotted spoon, spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of fat, and add the onion. Sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes, then add the celery and carrot and sauté until they're softened and the onion is pale gold, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and oregano and stir until fragrant, about half a minute.


2. Return the meat to the pot and stir in the tomato paste and broth. Raise the heat and bring to simmer, then adjust the heat to a gentle simmer and cook at least 20 minutes (longer won't hurt it). Raise the heat and add the beans, season to taste with salt and pepper, and it bring back to simmer. Adjust heat and simmer 10-15 minutes longer. I never do it, but if you like, it can be thickened by pureeing 1 cup beans and adding them back to the pot.


3. Meanwhile, bring 3 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Stir in the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, using the package directions as rough guide. If you're serving all the soup at once, slightly undercook it. Drain the pasta and if serving it all at once, stir it into the soup and let it simmer 2-3 minutes longer. Otherwise, fully cook the pasta and rinse it under cold running water. Just before serving, spoon ¼-½ cup of pasta into each bowl.


4. Stir the parsley into the soup, ladle it into individual bowls, and serve with cheese passed separately.


To precook dried beans, regardless of what scientists tell us, their skins will hold up better and be less likely to split if the beans are presoaked before they're cooked. Put them into a colander and pick through them, discarding any deformed or discolored ones, then rinse and drain them. Put them in a large, heavy-bottomed 3-6-quart pot. Cover with 2 cups of water for every cup of beans. Let them soak overnight. If you're pressed for time, put them over medium heat and slowly bring the water to a boil. Boil one minute and remover it from the heat. Let stand 1 hour, or until the beans have doubled in size. Either way, when you're ready to cook the beans, add more water as needed (it should cover them by at least 1 inch) and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour, replenishing the liquid with simmering water as needed. Season well with salt and let it simmer 3-4 minutes, and turn off the heat.

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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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20 December 2018: Savannah Chafing Dish Crab, or Hot Crab Dip

Old-Fashioned Savannah Chafing Dish Crab, or Hot Crab Dip

Once upon a time, an elegant fixture on the buffet table of any Savannah holiday party worth attending was a hot crab spread or dip that was simply called “Chafing Dish Crab.” It was of course named for the way it used to be served—warm but not bubbling hot from a glistening, polished silver chafing dish.

Dipped into toast cups  Read More 

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7 December 2018: Baked Potatoes

Old Fashioned Baked Potatoes: boiled and mashed potatoes mixed with butter, milk and salt, then spread in a casserole, topped with a sprinkling of black pepper, and baked until golden brown on the top.

When we nowadays hear “baked potato,” what automatically comes to mind is a fat russet potato baked whole in, as the old cooks would have put it, “its jacket,” until the outside is crispy and and the inside is fluffy and dry.

But before wood burning iron cookstoves and later, gas and electric ranges replaced the open hearth in the kitchen, that was called a “roasted potato,” which for us today usually means potatoes that are cut up, tossed with oil, and baked at a high temperature. Read More 

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30 November 2018: The Writing Life and Chicken and Dumplings

Old-Fashioned Southern Chicken and Dumplings

This page has been a bit quiet the last few months and I’m sorry about that. But I did promise at the beginning that it wouldn’t be filled with drivel just to keep myself in front of you all.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I do.

In many ways, it’s a small thing. It’s just stringing words together on a page—and not about the monumental, earth-shaking problems that are facing humankind. I don’t probe the depths of the human intellect or heart, nor contemplate the vast mysteries of the universe. I don’t attack injustice, blind hatred, suffering, or destructive greed.

All I do is write about how to cook and do it well. It’s never about being clever or inventive, and rarely tries to shake anyone up. It’s about ordinary stuff. And comfort.
 Read More 

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20 November 2018: Mastering Thanksgiving Again

My Thanksgiving Dinner from a couple of years ago.

This year, for the first time in at least thirty-eight years, I’m probably not going to be cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Or if I do, it will be in a strange inadequately equipped kitchen, sharing the job with someone else, and keeping mostly with their traditions. My sister-in-law is gathering the clan at a beach house in North Carolina and the meal is likely to be a communal effort.

It feels strange not to be making the final tweaks to my menu, planning and executing my shopping forays, and cleaning out the refrigerator to make room for everything. Read More 

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5 November 2018: Autumn Breakfast Biscuits Stuffed with Pan-Fried Pork Tenderloin

Hot, freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits stuffed with pan-fried pork tenderloin, an old time "hog killing day" breakfast treat.

Some of my very best childhood memories are tied to the cool, crisp days of autumn—and not merely because it happens to be the time of year when I was born. There’s something about the cool, clear air, golden light, and rituals of the season that are always renewing and reassuring.

One ritual of autumn that has been nearly lost to us all is the annual hog killing day. I confess to having only a vague memory of those days from when we lived in Grassy Pond, a little farming community outside Gaffney, South Carolina. But the memories that have been passed down by my mother and her parents have been told and retold until they’re almost as vivid as if I’d been right there beside them,  Read More 

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19 October 2018: Grilled Ham and Pimiento Cheese

Grilled Ham and Pimiento Cheese.

When griddle-toasted sandwiches became popular in the last century, it raised one of the oldest sandwiches known, thin-sliced ham and cheese tucked between thin slices of buttered bread, from classic to perfection. There’s nothing in all of cooking that can surpass that exquisite balance of crisp butter-toasted bread, warmed salty-sweet ham, and irresistibly  Read More 

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3 October 2018: Linguine with Crab

Linguine with Crab

There are far too many cooks who believe that a knowledge of culinary history and of the traditions of a given cuisine is a culinary straight jacket, that to be truly creative is to abandon the past and its structure, throw caution to the wind, and let your creative juices flow. But actually the opposite is true. In cooking, when there’s no grounding structure, the results are rarely memorable and all too often look less like a burst of creative magic than a train wreck.

Contrary to this notion, a firm grasp of basic the culinary principles and flavor profiles of a tradition actually lends more freedom than less to be creative in a meaningful and lasting way. Read More 

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29 September 2018: Michaelmas and Mushrooms

Mary Randolph's Stewed Mushrooms

Though autumn officially began a week ago and won’t really be felt here in Savannah for weeks to come, for me September 29, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (commonly called Michaelmas) is the real beginning of the season, which happens to be of my favorite of the entire year.

Aside from roasted goose in parts of England, there’s not a lot of food that’s connected with Michaelmas. But among the flavors that speak of autumn for me are mushrooms: in soup, sauce, over pasta, rolled in an omelette, or just on their own, sautéed in butter or, as the early nineteenth century doyenne of Southern cooking, Mary Randolph, directed, stewed in their own juices: Read More 

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27 September 2018: Ham and Coca-Cola

Ham Steak Baked in Coca-Cola, a modern Southern classic

Old, in the context of culinary history, is relative. The cuisines that collectively make up the thing we loosely refer to as “Southern cooking” aren’t exactly ancient when compared with their root cuisines in Europe, Africa, Native America, and Asia, but they’re actually a good deal older than we often suppose.

As early as the mid-seventeenth century, for example, the cookery of the Virginia Tidewater had already solidified into a cuisine that was unique to the region and would be easily recognized by modern Virginians. And by the middle of the eighteenth century, the rice cuisine of the Carolina Lowcountry, the Creole cookery of New Orleans, and, many believe, the still largely undocumented cookery of Appalachia had taken on the basic form that they have today. In short, most Southerners could go back two centuries and feel right at home at the table.

That said, many of our most iconic, argument-provoking dishes are really not much older than my generation Read More 

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14 September 2018: Old Friends, Mentors, and Sautéed Apples in Bourbon Caramel

Sautéed Apples in Bourbon Caramel Sauce

One blustery late autumn evening, Timothy and I had gone up to Charleston to sing in a choir for a special evensong and were staying, as we do whenever we can, with my lovely friend, mentor, and adopted big sister, Nathalie Dupree and her husband Jack Bass.

Our “pay” for singing was a dinner that, to Timothy’s disappointment, did not include dessert. When we got back to the house and had settled in at the kitchen table, Nathalie, who is a text book example of the maxim that Southerners are always talking about food, wanted to know all about where we’d eaten and what we’d had. Read More 

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19 August 2018: MaMa’s Vegetable Soup

MaMa's Vegetable Soup, photographed for my first book, Classical Southern Cooking, by the incomparable John Carrington.

If my entire life as a cook could be summed in one thing, it would be a lifelong—and so far—failed quest to reproduce my maternal grandmother’s summer vegetable soup. Her kitchen was where I first cooked, and we made many a pot of vegetable soup together during my summer visits. The memory of its taste remains vivid more than half a century later. But somehow, I’ve never been able to get my own to taste and look exactly like hers.

When I was trying to construct a recipe for my first cookbook, in her typical way, MaMa said, “I never measured anything for soup, so just guess.” Well, of course, she measured— Read More 

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11 August 2018: Stuffed Eggplant

Classic Seafood-Stuffed Eggplant

Eggplant, one of the great defining elements of the cuisines of the Mediterranean basin, has also been a staple in Southern kitchens at least since the late eighteenth century. Believed to be native to the Far East, this exotic vegetable with the odd-sounding name found its way to the Mediterranean and Africa long before the Americas were colonized, but its exact migration has been lost to time. Likewise, no one is sure how it found its way into the South.

In some parts of our region, it used to be known as “Guinea melons” or “Guinea squash,” after the West African nation, which, while by no means proof of the route it took getting to our shores, is certainly suggestive.

At any rate, for at least a generation before Mary Randolph’s landmark work The Virginia House-Wife was published in 1824, Southerners have been loving eggplant.  Read More 

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1 August 2018: The Joys of Summer Minestrone

Classic Minestrone alla Romana. Summer in a bowl.

In all of cooking, nothing satisfies me in the summer, both in the making and the eating of it, quite the way that a pot of vegetable soup always does. Whether it’s my best shot at reproducing my grandmother’s soup (something I have never quite succeeded in doing) or a classic minestrone alla romana, it’s my idea of the ultimate summer comfort food.

Whenever I manage to get home for a visit, it’s the first thing Mama and I make together. It’s never exactly the same: The base is always tomatoes, onions, and okra, but while she was still gardening, we’d add whatever was ready to be harvested supplemented by the stash from two enormous chest freezers in the garage. Read More 

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28 July 2018: Old-Fashioned Shrimp Salad

Old-Fashioned Shrimp Salad, here tucked into Parker House rolls and enjoyed with tea.

Before July slips completely away, here’s one last word on those old-fashioned chopped meat salads, specifically, one that’s quintessential to a Lowcountry summer: shrimp salad.

No one would argue that tomato sandwiches are the primary hallmark of summer for most of us. We eagerly anticipate that first really vine-ripened tomato so we can thickly slice it, tuck it into soft white bread slathered with mayonnaise, and relish it wearing an old shirt (or no shirt) while standing over the sink, because it’s going to drip all over us when we bite into it.

But here in the Lowcountry, the hallmark sandwich of summer is shrimp salad.  Read More 

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8 July 2018: Summer Comfort and Blueberry Crumble

Blueberry Crumble is summer comfort food at its very best.

It’s funny how, when we talk about “comfort food,” we almost always mean something that will provide comfort in the cold season, that keeps us warm and cozy inside when it’s cold and bleak outside: a hearty stew, a big bowl of chili or chicken and dumplings, a savory pot pie or pot roast.

But in the heat of summer, we often need comfort just as much as we do in cold weather, and while we may welcome a warm dish in the midst of a steady string of salads, cold soups, and sandwiches, the things that are so comfortable in the cold season are usually not all that appealing when the heat index soars. Read More 

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16 June 2018: Summer Comfort Food and Ham Salad

Old-Fashioned Ham Salad slathered thickly onto hearty bread

I’ve never been very interested in clever cooking. And the older I get, the less interested in it I become. I’m not talking about being genuinely and intelligently creative or inventive in the kitchen, but about the kind of cooking that’s more about being clever for the sake of novelty, and all too often at the expense of flavor.

If, when one sits down at the table, one is obliged to be cerebral and analytical about what’s in one’s mouth, or wade through a thicket of startling and even conflicting aromas and flavors that crowd one another out, quite frankly it gets completely in the way of any real pleasure.

In short, if I have to think over what’s in my mouth before I can decide whether I like it, in my opinion, the cook has failed at his job.  Read More 

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8 June 2018: Old-Fashioned Chicken Salad

Old Fashioned Southern-Style Chicken Salad, yes, with saltine crackers

We were just home from a quick trip to Charleston to catch up with my friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree and get in a couple of Spoleto concerts. It was midafternoon and we were tired and hungry. The refrigerator gave up a bit of leftover poached chicken and, because I’m Southern, there’s always mayonnaise and what the old cooks called “made mustard.” A quick survey turned up a nearly empty jar of bread-and-butter pickles that needed to be finished off, and while the celery was old and not very promising, there’s always onions in the pantry.

Sometimes, knowing when to leave well enough alone is a cook’s best asset.  Read More 

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21 May 2018: The Case of the Corrupted Collop

Classic Scotch Collops, here made with pork tenderloin.

Oh, the convolutions of an historian’s mind. While researching a story for my regular newspaper column, I was reminded of a curious old recipe from Harriet Ross Colquitt’s timeless classic, The Savannah Cook Book, published in 1932. The recipe was for Scotch Collops.

Now, collop is an old English word for a thin slice of meat. It could be used for anything from veal to bacon, though it most commonly described thin slices of veal or beef round. They were usually fried in butter or lard and sauced with a rich gravy made from the deglazed pan juices—essentially the same as Italian scaloppine. Read More 

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26 April 2018: Asparagus, Leeks, and New Potatoes

Stir-Fried Asparagus with Leeks and New Potatoes

Before the season for asparagus passes completely, here’s another great stir-fry that brings it together with two other favorite spring flavors, young leeks and little red new potatoes.

This is the kind of thing my mother would make when I was growing up, since Stir-frying is one of her favorite cooking techniques. Not only is the technique quick, it does wonderful things for the fresh produce that is no further than her back yard. Read More 

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21 April 2018: Spring Peas and Onions

My Father's Sweet Spring Peas with Spring Onions

While we’re on sweet peas, a favorite way to dress them in my kitchen is with bright, herby spring scallions and butter (and lots of it). It’s not only delicious, the mere aroma of it always brings with it warm memories of my father.

Contrary to the notion that ministers do nothing from Sunday to Sunday but write long, tedious sermons, my father was a very busy man. Aside from three services a week (more, if someone got married or died), Bible study groups, and not one, but three sermons to compose, there were visits to the sick, shut-in, worried, and grief-stricken, counseling sessions for troubled marriages and spirits, and patience to be found for irritating parishioners who were ever eager to find fault with him, his family (that would be my brothers and me), and the church in general. Read More 

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21 April 2018: Of Spring Peas and Thyme

Fresh Spring Pea Soup with Spring Onions and Thyme

Whether you call them garden, green, sweet, or, as we often do in the South, “English” peas, you probably take the plump, round seeds of the trailing plant pisum sativum for granted. You may even think of them as ordinary and a bit boring. Yet, once upon a time, these little orbs were celebrated as a precious commodity and a rare harbinger of spring.

Thomas Jefferson even carried on a friendly competition with one of his neighbors for the first pea harvest of the season. Read More 

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6 April 2018: Stir-Frying Asparagus

Southern-style Stir-Fried Asparagus with Country Ham and Scallions

The lovely thing about the tender new produce of spring is that it doesn’t ask for much in the kitchen, but practically begs for quick, light treatment. And nothing is quicker and lighter than stir-frying.

Most of us automatically associate stir-frying with the ancient cuisines of China and South-East Asia. But it’s actually a basic, almost universal technique (essentially the same as sautéing) that’s found in most of the world’s cuisines well beyond Asia, including France, Italy, and the Middle-East.  Read More 

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30 March 2018: Fresh for Easter V

Irish Butterflied Leg of Lamb Roasted to Medium, the temperature I prefer for lamb

I always have lamb at Easter, following the older tradition even though most Southerners have ham of some kind, and now my household is divided between the ham and lamb camps, so I usually have both. This year, someone else is bringing the ham, so I’m doing a simple butterflied leg of lamb Irish-style, in honor of our Irish priest associate who’ll be joining us for dinner. Read More 

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30 March 2018: Fresh for Easter III

Potted Whiskey Cheese

For most of us Southerners (I suspect, Americans in general) it would not be Easter without deviled eggs, but it’s always nice to have an extra nibble or two in case dinner is delayed by the roast or by a long-winded Easter sermon.

This lovely potted cheese is from one of my newspaper columns on traditional Irish fare for Savannah’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day celebration, but potted whiskey cheese is also found in England and Scotland and here in the South, where it’s usually made with bourbon. Read More 

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30 March 2018: Fresh for Easter II

Skillet Carrot Gratin is a fine side dish for either lamb or ham

While we’re on gratins, carrots just seem to go with Easter, and this goes equally well with lamb or ham (or poultry, for that matter). It can be doubled easily: If you’re making it for a crowd and don’t have a skillet big enough to do it all in one, make it in two pans or do the initial cooking in batches and transfer it to one large gratin for the final baking. Read More 

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