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Recipes and Stories

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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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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