Recipes and Stories

8 June 2017: Summer in a Bowl

June 8, 2017

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Classic Italian Cooking, Genovese Cooking, Ilda, Fruit Salad

Macedonia di Frutta all' Ilda, a lovely blend of summer fruit enhanced with Maraschino liqueur and a splash of rum.
One of the great compensations for (and means of relief from) summer’s heat is a fresh mixed fruit salad. It’s also one of the most versatile dishes of the season. Call it “cocktail” and open the meal with it; call it “salad” and serve it as the meal’s side dish or even centerpiece (all on its own or blended with cold seafood, poultry, or meat); call it “Macedonia,” “fruit cup,” or “compote” and it brings the meal to a delightful close.

Whatever we call it, and however we serve it, a fragrant bowl of well-mixed and chilled fruit is perfect warm-weather fare: it stimulates, satiates, and cools as nothing else can. It brings a ray of sunshine to a rainy day and soothing coolness to days when the sun’s rays become relentless. (more…)

30 May 2017: An Aging Palate, Wild Greens, and the Flavors of Youth

May 30, 2017

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Classic Italian Cooking, Genovese Cooking, M. F. K. Fisher, Aging Palates, Poke Sallet, Green Onions, Pasta

Fusilli (also called Rotini) with Wild Greens, Scallions, and Pine Nuts
In her later years, M. F. K. Fisher, the prominent mid-twentieth-century American essayist and food writer, once wrote poignantly of missing the ravenous, almost insatiable hunger of youth. Charmingly romantic to read in one’s twenties, it wasn’t so charming to reread years later, when that youthful hunger lingered and fought with a suddenly slowing metabolism of middle age. But there’s nothing charming or romantic about it when old age is staring one square in the face.

The problem is that, while our appetite and capacity may slow down with age, the curious cook’s palate doesn’t slow down with it. (more…)

5 November 2016: Pasta with Short Ribs

November 5, 2016

Tags: Beef Short Ribs, Short Rib Ragù, Braising, Classic Southern Cooking, Classic Italian Cooking, Pasta

Pasta with Short Rib Ragù
This morning, after days of midday temperatures that felt more June than November, Savannah finally awoke to clear, crisp air that had an actual a nip in it. Okay, it wasn’t exactly frosty, but it was cool enough to finally feel as if it was really fall—and to make the idea of cooking hearty things like pot roasts, thick stews, chili, and short ribs a welcome thing. (more…)

5 September 2016 Wasting Not and Staying Balanced

September 5, 2016

Tags: Pasta with Sausage and Tomatoes, Classic Italian Cooking, Amatrice, Norcia, Lazio, Marche, Umbria

Fusilli (also called Rotini) with Sausage and Tomatoes
Recipe testing and food styling for my books and newspaper stories almost always leave some interesting leftovers and scraps behind. After finishing a story featuring some of the celebrated pasta dishes from earthquake-devastated Lazio, Marche, and Umbria, there was half a pound of mild Italian sausage, about one-and-a-half cups of tomato puree from a large can of tomatoes, and barely 2 ounces of pecorino romano cheese in the refrigerator. (more…)

27 August 2016: For Love and Amatrice

August 27, 2016

Tags: Bucatini all'Amatriciana, Bucatini pasta, Amatrice, Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan

Bucatini all'Amatriciana, hollow spaghetti with spicy tomato sauce in the style of Amatrice
If you’ve been following my recipes and stories page or my author’s page on Facebook for any time at all, you know that Italy, its people, and its many lovely cuisines have as large a chunk of my heart as my native South, fellow Southerners, and our many lovely cuisines. And this week, that part of my heart has been aching.

By now, most everyone has heard that in the early hours of Wednesday, August 24, central Italy was hit by a major earthquake of 6.2 magnitude, followed by a series of aftershocks that were still rattling the region as late as Friday. (more…)

26 March 2016: Mastering the Make-Ahead Easter V—Asparagus alla Parmigiana

March 26, 2016

Tags: Make-Ahead Easter, Asparagus, Asparagus alla Parmigiana, Classic Italian Cooking

Blanched Asparagus, ready to be served with vinaigrette or made up in a classic gratin, asparagus alla parmigiana
You might think that fresh asparagus can’t be made ahead, but it can actually be prepped and blanched up to 3 days ahead and then all you have to do is serve it up cold with vinaigrette or make up in this lovely Parmigiani classic. (more…)

27 April 2015: Sunday Night Frittata

April 27, 2015

Tags: Sunday Supper, Frittate, Leeks, Bacon, Classic Italian Cooking

Bacon and Leek Frittata
Sundays are busy days in my house. We’re up and out to church early: Tim is the organist-choirmaster and I help with the food for coffee the hour after services. If I’m on the schedule at the store, I go there straight from church, which makes for a very long day. By evening, we’re both ready to be off our feet, preferably with a glass of wine in hand.

Sunday supper, then (especially on those work days), is usually a simple meal. (more…)

10 February 2015: The Universal Cutlet

February 10, 2015

Tags: Cutlets, Breaded Cutlets, Classic Southern Cooking, Classic Italian Cooking, Pork Tenderloin Cutlets

Breaded Cutlets made with Pork Tenderloin. Photography by John Carrington Photography
One of the great universal concepts in Western cookery is the breaded cutlet: a thin slice of meat, beaten thin both to make it uniform and to tenderize it, coated with dry bread crumbs, and fried to a delicate brown. Crackling crisp on the outside, tender and juicy inside, it’s arguably one of the most satisfying ways of giving flavor and panache to cheap and bland cuts of meat or poultry. (more…)

16 December 2014: Christmas Beef, alla Parmigiana

December 16, 2014

Tags: Rosa di Parma, Beef Tenderloin, Parmigiani cooking, Christmas Dinner, Classic Italian Cooking, Rosa Musi

Here, I'm shaving Parmigiano-Reggiano over the layer of Prosciutto di Parma that covers the flattened beef. It's then rolled up like a jelly roll, tightly trussed, and braised in wine and cognac until medium-rare.
In my family, the fat turkey of Dickens’ immortal tale, A Christmas Carol, was always the centerpiece of our Christmas dinner table, even though we’d just had turkey at Thanksgiving. Usually, my grandfather also baked a fresh ham (not the cured pink meat we think of as “ham” now, but an uncured fresh haunch of pork), an old family tradition that had been passed down for generations before him, and is carried on by my younger brother to this day. (more…)

15 September 2014: Pan-Roasting with Garlic and Learning New Tricks

September 15, 2014

Tags: Pan-Broiling, Pork Tenderloins, Marcella Hazan, Classic Italian Cooking, Classic Mediterranean Cooking

Pork Tenderloin Pan-Roasted with Garlic, Rosemary, and White Wine
One is always learning: a couple of weeks ago, supper was something I’d made hundreds of times—pork tenderloin pan-roasted with garlic, rosemary, and white wine. That lean little cut is great for two people on a busy work night: it has very little waste, is just enough for us to have two meals from it, cooks quickly, and, as its name implies, is always tender, even when it’s accidentally overcooked. (more…)

16 July 2014: Triple Comfort

July 16, 2014

Tags: Comfort Food, Vintage Tableware, Mama's China, Marcella Hazan, Ilda, Classic Italian Cooking, Spaghetti, Spaghetti alla Carbonara, Pasta

Triple comfort: my mother's china pattern, Ilda's pasta, and Marcella's voice in the background
My mother’s wedding china still stands as it did in my youth, in neat stacks in her dining room hutch. Rimmed in gold and sporting a pair of pink-tinged gardenia blossoms at its center, it was old-fashioned, feminine, and just plain “girly.” Yet it was the very essence of elegance and sophistication to my child’s mind. (more…)

4 February 2013: Ilda’s Ham and Potato Gratin

February 4, 2013

Tags: Ilda, Comfort Food, Ham and Potato Casserole, Historical Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Classic Italian Cooking

Ilda's casseruola al forno, or ham and potato gratin: comfort food in any language.
It was my first night in Italy. Our class had spent the day sketching in the picturesque port towns of Portofino and San Frutuoso. Soaked with Riviera sunshine and salty Ligurian air, we came back to the school, a villa that commanded its own picturesque view of the Bay of Genoa over the red-tiled rooftops of the old city. We were exhilarated, exhausted, and very hungry, as only active young people can be. (more…)

30 January 2013: Celebrating Simplicity—Thin Spaghetti with Butter and Scallions

January 30, 2013

Tags: Simple Cooking, Pasta, Classic Italian Cooking, Scallions, Spaghetti with Butter and Cheese, Spaghetti

Thin Spaghetti simply sauced with Butter, Cheese, and Scallions
Sometimes the very best cooking is barely cooking at all. That’s partly because the most important skill in any cook’s repertory is that of knowing when to stop.

For example, one of the best of all possible ways to sauce pasta, whether it is fresh egg noodles made at home or dried factory pasta, involves no cooking at all: it is simply tossed with just butter and freshly grated Parmigiano. (more…)

23 January 2013: A Trilogy of White Bean Soups

January 23, 2013

Tags: White Bean Soup, Bean Soup, Classic Italian Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Cannellini Beans

White Bean Soup II, with Garlic and Rosemary. If you're feeling the need for pig, ramp it up with pancetta or bacon
A welcome nip in the air has conspired with a touch of homesickness to bring on a craving for hearty, old-fashioned bean soup. There are so many good ones—from my father’s simple mélange of copper-brown pintos with ham and onion (eaten with hot cornbread crumbled into the bowl) to the suave, sophisticated puree of black beans that once graced so many Savannah dinner tables. I love them all, but my favorite is a simple, hearty white bean soup. (more…)

11 August 2012: Cooking by Numbers

August 11, 2012

Tags: Marcella Hazan, Pasta alla Vongole, Linguine with Clam Sauce, Classic Italian Cooking

Linguine with Marcella's White Clam Sauce
A popular, trend-conscious food magazine recently published a piece proudly touted on its cover as “Our best 3-ingredient recipes ever!”

Humph.

Forgive me for sounding irritable, but it can’t be helped: I sound irritated because I am. The title alone was enough to annoy, but the recipes themselves—well! (more…)

26 May 2012: Fried Squash Blossoms

May 26, 2012

Tags: Classic Italian Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Historical Cooking, Squash Blossoms, Fried Squash Blossoms, Fiori Fritti

Mama's Fried Squash Blossoms
One of the great delicacies of the garden in late spring and early summer are edible blossoms, picked early in the morning and mixed into salads, minced and folded into compound butters, or, perhaps best of all, dipped in batter and fried.

Here in Savannah and over in Italy, one of the best of these blooms is, pardon the expression, presently in full flower: the butter-yellow blooms of summer squash (more…)

21 April 2012: Fava alla Randolph Revisited

April 25, 2012

Tags: Fava Beans, Windsor Beans, Classical Southern Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, Classic Italian Cooking, Fava alla Romana, Fava alla Guanciale

fava not quite alla Randolph or Romana
Last year, a cache of fresh fava beans inspired a dip into Mary Randolph’s lucid recipe for these ancient legumes in her iconic book, The Virginia House-wife (see 10 May 2011: Fava alla Randolph):

“Mazagan Beans.

This is the smallest and most delicate species of the Windsor bean. Gather them in the morning, when they are full-grown, but quite young, and do not shell them till you are going to dress them. Put them into boiling water, have a small bit of middling, (flitch,) of bacon, well boiled, take the skin off, cover it with bread crumbs, and toast it; lay this in the middle of the dish, drain all the water from the beans, put a little butter on them, and pour them round the bacon.” (more…)

31 October 2011: Pasta al Forno and Macaroni Pie

October 31, 2011

Tags: Pasta, Macaroni, Classic Italian Cooking, Classic Southern Cooking, Marcella Hazan

Macaroni Pie, or Southern-style Pasta al Forno, photographed by John Carrington
Recently, Italian cooking authority Marcella Hazan published a thought-provoking essay called “. . . and then you do something more.” Her attention had been caught by a “creative” blogging cook’s overwrought rendition of a Bolognese classic, pork loin braised in milk. To the perfectly balanced quintet of the original dish (pork, milk, butter, salt, and pepper), the blogger had added enough garlic to fumigate lower Manhattan, at least three herbs, lemon zest, and, for reasons that completely elude this cook, olive oil.

Aptly calling the result “an acute case of culinary vandalism,” Sa. Hazan took the opportunity to remind us that cooking is a craft, and within that craft, a little creativity—like spice—goes a very long way and should never be allowed to take over and run amok.

“We should be spending our time as cooks,” she concluded, “in understanding, practicing, perfecting, and respecting a craft that is essential to our survival. We ought not to be distracted by trends, lured by fashion, obsessed by the pursuit of originality. These are not directly linked to the pleasure that well-crafted food brings.”

This came sharply home a day or two later, when I was putting together my contribution for a potluck party, a dish of baked pasta that was in my childhood simply called macaroni pie. Beneath its euphemistic name, when properly executed this Southern classic follows in the best tradition of Italian baked pasta: all it requires is good macaroni, the best cheese that can be had, and a little care with the craft.

The macaroni was good-quality Italian pasta, the cheese, a Vermont cheddar that, while it would have fallen far short of my grandfather’s standards, was still nothing to sneeze at. And there was a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano on hand to make up for its minor shortcomings. Yet, suddenly, making it the usual way seemed unimpressively simple. Maybe if I added little cubes of browned bacon, with perhaps a couple of onions caramelized in the bacon fat, and some sage . . . or rosemary . . .

I got as far as opening the refrigerator door, but before my hand laid hold of the bacon, almost as if she had actually been there, watching and reading my thoughts, Marcella’s voice came sharply to my mind's ear: stop fooling around and just make it properly. Yes, ma’am.

The dish came back home scraped so clean that it barely needed washing.

Macaroni Pie

In parts of the South, a simple egg and milk custard replaces the cream that’s used here (about 2-3 eggs, depending on size, for the same volume of milk). In other places, the binder is bechamel, just as it is in Italy. My grandfather’s version, following an old North Georgia tradition that had English roots, was plain milk, with saltine crackers distributed among the macaroni as a thickener.

But however they’re bound together, the critical ingredients here are pasta and cheese: at the risk of being tediously redundant, so long as those two things are first rate, they don’t need help, and if they aren’t good, or if you’re a bit careless with the execution, the dish doesn’t have a prayer no matter what you add—and that’s all there is to it.

Serves 6

Salt
1 pound elbow macaroni
3 cups heavy cream
12 ounces (¾ pound) well-aged extra-sharp cheddar, coarsely grated
½ cup (about 2 ounces) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Whole black pepper in a mill

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375° F. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, toss in a small handful of salt, stir, and then slowly add the macaroni, stirring. Let it come back to a boil, adjust the temperature to a steady but not rapid boil, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is al dente. Meanwhile, butter a 2-to-3-quart casserole. Just before draining the pasta, take up and reserve about a quarter of a cup of the starchy cooking liquid.

2. Drain the pasta and turn it into the casserole. Add a few spoonfuls of the reserved cooking liquid (just enough to make it seem glossy and moist—you may not need it all), the cream, and toss until the pasta is coated. Add most of the cheddar, holding back about half a cup, half the Parmigiano, and a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. Quickly toss until the cheese is evenly distributed. Smooth the top and sprinkle the remaining cheeses over it. Generously grind pepper over it and bake in the center of the oven until bubbly in the middle and golden brown. Let rest 5-10 minutes before serving.

4 September 2011: Southern Scaloppine

September 4, 2011

Tags: Classical Southern Cooking, Southern Cooking, Pork, Pork Tenderloins, Scaloppine, Classic Italian Cooking, Annabella Hill, Savannah Cooking, Madeira

Pork Medallions (a. k. a., Scaloppine) with Sage and Madeira. Photography by John Carrington
For a lot of the country, Labor Day marks the end of summer. This is rarely true for Savannah. However, as August faded into September this past week, there was actually a welcome suggestion of autumn in the air. It was only a suggestion, mind you, but that was still enough to stir my appetite for autumn’s heartier cooking, in particular an old-fashioned seasonal favorite, Southern pork scaloppine.

You’re probably thinking “Southern scaloppine” is an oxymoron, since most Americans believe that scaloppine, Italy’s name for medallions of meat pounded thin, cooked quickly, and finished in gravy made by deglazing the pan with wine or broth, is a concept we’ve only become acquainted with during the last half-century. But that’s only because early American cooks didn’t use the Italian name for the concept. It’s actually quite an old idea that wasn’t confined to the boundaries of Italian kitchens. Early cookbooks that Europeans brought with them to America often gave recipes for it.

The old English name for scaloppine was “collop,” and it was used for any thin slice of meat, just as “escalope” was in French, though it most often referred to thinly sliced veal round. That’s probably because, until dairy practices changed in the 1930s and 40s, veal was actually commonplace and relatively cheap. However, the word was also applied to similar cuts of beef, mutton, or venison. So was the cooking technique.

Pork was rarely mentioned in connection with those recipes until the mid-nineteenth century. While salt pork and ham were ordinary everyday food in the days before refrigeration, fresh pork was seasonal, especially here in the South.

The early recipes for pork scallops were more often called “steaks,” and while they could be cut from the round, they were more often taken from the loin and delicate (some would say bland) tenderloin. While the latter have become quite popular and commonplace today, in the past they were a rare late-autumn treat.

Recipes like this one were as uncommon as they were lovely:

213. Pork Steaks.—The tenderloin makes the best steak. Cut them a quarter of an inch thick; fry in boiling lard, turning constantly; serve hot. Make gravy by pouring in a small quantity of boiling water; let it boil up once, and pour over the steak. Serve with them tomato or onion sauce. Steaks may be cut from the hindquarter or chine.

— Annabella P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867

Mrs. Hill was using “fry” very loosely: what she intended was the same light sauté as a scaloppine, the constant turning necessary to keep the thin pieces of meat supple and tender. Though she was silent as to seasonings, most of her pork recipes called for the meat to be rubbed with salt, pepper, and sage, a triad that was practically a given in Georgia from her day until now.

Other cooks used wine in the pan gravy, and in later recipes, the medallions were dredged (sprinkled) with flour before sautéing, then added back to the gravy after browning for a brief finishing simmer—exactly like scaloppine.

The following is one such recipe that has become a personal favorite for fall in Savannah, where at times the climate is autumnal in name only. The key ingredient is Madeira, a wine that was once practically a religion in this town and to this day remains an integral part of its cuisine.

Pork Medallions (or Scaloppine) with Sage and Madeira
From my latest book, The Savannah Cookbook.
Serves 4

1 pork tenderloin, weighing about 1 pound
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
2 teaspoons finely crumbled dried, or a heaped tablespoon of finely minced fresh, sage
2 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter
¼ cup flour, spread on a plate
½ cup Madeira
½ cup meat broth, preferably homemade

1. Wipe the pork dry with an absorbent cloth or paper towels. Trim away any fat and silver skin and cut it crosswise into 8 equal medallions about 1-inch thick. Lay them on a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper, cover with a second sheet, and gently pound them out to ¼-inch thickness. Season both sides well with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the sage evenly over both sides of the pork, and rub it into the surface.

2. Warm the drippings or butter and oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat until bubbling hot. Raise the heat to medium high, quickly roll the pork in the flour, and slip it into the pan until it is filled without crowding, cooking in batches if necessary. Fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes, turn, and brown the second side, about 2 minutes longer. Remove the scallops to a warm platter.

3. Stir a teaspoon of flour into the fat in the pan. Let it cook for a minute, stirring, and slowly stir in the Madeira. Cook, stirring and scraping the pan, until thickened, then stir in the broth. Bring to a simmer and cook until lightly thickened. Return the scallops to the pan and cook, turning them several times, until they are heated through and the sauce is thick. Turn off the heat, taste and correct the seasonings. Return the pork to the platter, spoon the gravy over it, and serve at once.

10 May 2011: Fava alla Randolph

May 11, 2011

Tags: Classic Italian Cooking, Historical Southern Cooking, Fava Beans, Mary Randolph

One of the amusing things about our modern “foodie” culture is all the posturing about how much more worldly and smart today’s cooks are than those of the past.

Anyone who has ever attempted classical French cooking (or any other kind, for that matter) on an open hearth knows better. An open fire requires a level of wisdom and skill that today’s motor-driven cooks, dependent as they are on thermostatically controlled ranges, electric food processors, and high-speed hand blenders, simply don’t have.

What’s more, all the dishes and foodstuffs that so many of these so-called “foodies” think they’ve only recently discovered have been around for a long time, and I don’t mean the obvious, in their countries of origin: I mean right here in River City.

Just take a casual dip into the cookbook that is widely believed to be the first penned by a Southerner, The Virginia House-wife. Within the pages of this lovely book, published almost two hundred years ago by Thomas Jefferson’s cousin, Mary Randolph, you’ll find such wonders as raspberry and herb vinegars, gazpacho, polenta, Spanish Olla and Ropa Veija, seviche (she spelled it “caveach”), classic French cooking, authentic homemade egg pasta, and fava beans.

That last masqueraded under an archaic name, “Mazagan” beans, but they’re fava all right—

“Mazagan Beans.

This is the smallest and most delicate species of the Windsor bean. Gather them in the morning, when they are full-grown, but quite young, and do not shell them till you are going to dress them. Put them into boiling water, have a small bit of middling, (flitch,) of bacon, well boiled, take the skin off, cover it with bread crumbs, and toast it; lay this in the middle of the dish, drain all the water from the beans, put a little butter on them, and pour them round the bacon.”

— Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife, 1824

Windsor bean is (or was) the common English name for fava. Lest you think she didn’t really know about these staples of Mediterranean gardens, she continues—

“When the large Windsor beans are used, it is best to put them into boiling water until the skins will slip off, and then make them into a puree as directed for turnips—they are very coarse when plainly dressed.”

There you are, a fava puree just like the one that was recently published in one of our trendy food magazines.

Mrs. Randolph’s recipe with “middling, (flitch,) of bacon,” (salt-cured side meat), has a lot in common with the Roman way with these beans, known outside the city as “alla romana” but within it as “alla guanciale,” salt-cured pork jowl.

All this comes to mind because there were lovely fresh fava in the produce bins at my neighborhood natural food store. They were so young and beautiful that the first handful were shelled, dipped in sea salt, and eaten raw, as Romans do when these wonders first come into season. For the rest, we were alas fresh out of salt-cured pork jowl, the country ham stash in the freezer was way past usefulness for anything but shoe sole repair, and there wasn’t a scrap of middling to be had without going out again.

Ah, but a perusal of the spice cabinet turned up a precious little tin of Virginia Willis’s pecan-wood smoked sea salt. The results were—

Fava (not quite) alla Romana
Or Middling-less Mazagan Beans
Serves 4

3 pounds of fresh unshelled Windsor (fava) beans
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, trimmed, peeled, and minced
1 medium clove garlic, lightly crushed and peeled, but left whole
Pecan or hickory smoked sea salt, or kosher salt
Whole black pepper in a mill

1. Shell the beans and rinse under cold running water. Put the butter and shallot in a wide, lidded sauté pan or skillet over medium heat. Sauté, stirring occasionally, until the shallot is translucent and beginning to color, about 4 to 5 minutes.

2. Add the garlic and continue sautéing until it is beginning to color on the edges. Add the beans and season well with smoked salt (or plain salt) and pepper, both to taste. Add enough water to barely cover the beans, bring it to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently until tender, between 6 and 15 minutes depending on the age and size of the beans.

3. If the liquid remaining in the pan is still thin, uncover, raise the heat, and quickly evaporate it to a thick sauce. Turn off the heat, shake the pan to evenly coat the beans with the sauce, and serve immediately.