For example, one of the easiest ways to start the biggest fight you ever saw is to pronounce before a group of Southerners that there is only one true way to make pimiento cheese and then proceed to describe said way. Every single person present will argue that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because that’s not how their grandmother made it. (more…)
Recipes and Stories
February 16, 2018
For example, one of the easiest ways to start the biggest fight you ever saw is to pronounce before a group of Southerners that there is only one true way to make pimiento cheese and then proceed to describe said way. Every single person present will argue that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because that’s not how their grandmother made it. (more…)
January 27, 2018
The most useful fact to know in attempting to define Southern cooking is the same one Marcella Hazan addressed of her own native cooking in The Classic Italian Cook Book: “The first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist.”
She goes on to explain that cooking in Italy varies from region to region and from town to town within those regions, so “Italian cooking” isn’t a single cuisine, but a collection of many.
Likewise, the most useful thing to know about Southern Cooking “is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist.” As is true for Italian cooking, it also is not, and never has been, a single, homogenous cuisine. (more…)
January 12, 2018
The nicest thing one could say of most of these misbegotten things is that they’re bewildering. (more…)
December 24, 2017
If you’ve not encountered it, drinking custard is the same thing as custard sauce, only made with fewer egg yolks or whole eggs so that it’s thin enough to sip from a cup the way you’d do eggnog. For many Southern families, it was and still is a long standing holiday tradition and is actually the base that is often used for eggnog, especially if it contains no alcohol.
Mama used to tell stories of the days when my father was in seminary in Louisville and pastored a small country church (more…)
December 19, 2017
Nowadays, unless we have friends drop by, there are just two of us here on Christmas morning: Our children and grandchildren live three states away; my parents and siblings are four hours away. And one of us is a church musician with a command performance at Christmas Day Mass. We rarely have the luxury of time and leisure for a breakfast like that.
And, to be completely honest, the last thing I want to do on Christmas morning is stand in the kitchen monitoring a grits pot, hot oven, and panful of sausage patties. (more…)
December 15, 2017
It was once a classic old holiday treat that was actually rare and special, a fact we can’t really appreciate today, since sweet, flavored gelatin has lost a lot of its luster, thanks in large part to that stuff we feed convalescents. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a lovely, light dessert that adds sparkle—both literally and figuratively—to a holiday meal, and deserves to be popular again. (more…)
December 8, 2017
Hers was one the most extraordinarily moist cakes I’ve ever had. The great secret for its moistness is also the reason it tasted more intensely of coconut than any other. (more…)
November 21, 2017
My father turns ninety on Thanksgiving Day, so Tim and I are heading up to my parents’ house to be with them. I’ll be cooking, but it will be my mother’s way and there will be a lot of things that I usually do that won’t be on the table this year.
Never mind. (more…)
November 15, 2017
“Traditional” means it was packed whole, skin, bones, and all. And standing there looking at that neat stack of pink-labeled cans, what my mind’s eye saw was a gray-striped pink cylinder of fish standing tall in a chipped and grazed creamware bowl of my grandmother’s. Suddenly, she was right there beside me, murmuring excitedly, “They’re on sale! Let’s get some!” (more…)
November 1, 2017
But then. What immediately follows is an awful, restless sense of “what now?” It’s almost like being abandoned. That piece of writing has been your sole life’s purpose for days, months, sometimes years. And now it’s finished . . . with nothing to take its place. It’s not quite like writer’s block, but sometimes it feels worse. (more…)
October 30, 2017
Like so many homey dishes of its kind, there are probably as many versions as there are cooks, ranging from the elegantly simple triad of chicken, gravy and pastry to those loaded with vegetables, herbs, and spices. Some are even embellished with hard-cooked eggs and ham.
Some are made only with a whole chicken that was cooked specifically for the pie, while others are only made when there are leftovers that need using up. (more…)
October 23, 2017
Even from hundreds of miles away, I can see her puttering in that garden as clearly as if I was standing at her kitchen window looking out at it. From early spring until well after the first frost, in the morning and again at dusk, she’d be out there, her face shaded by a big straw hat, her shoes and trousers stained with red clay dust, watering young seedlings, talking to the pest-eating critters who forage among the plants, inspecting the cucumbers, okra, squash, and tomatoes for fruit that has gone from green nub to ready-to-harvest literally overnight. (more…)
October 9, 2017
Unhappily, appearances, as they so often are here in Savannah, are deceiving: (more…)
September 29, 2017
When I once asked the late Italian cooking doyenne Marcella Hazan what she felt was the most important thing in cooking, that was her immediate and emphatic answer.
Marcella died four years ago today, just a few months shy of her ninetieth birthday. When I reflect on her life as a teacher and sum what she taught us, it all comes down to that: Taste.
It may seem obvious and simplistic, but it’s all too often overlooked in our age of so-called culinary cleverness. It’s far too easy to get carried away with being “creative,” or with taking too much to heart the notion that we “eat first with our eyes,” and lose sight of the single most important thing: that moment when we lift our forks and the food meets with our tongues. (more…)
September 22, 2017
But the joy in the trip was a chance to savor some of old New Orleans and it’s legendary food in the company of lovely friends. (more…)
September 5, 2017
Well, it may be the symbolic end of the season, but here in the Deep South, we’re facing another full month or more of summer heat and humidity. Those white shoes may be ceremonially moved to the back of the closet, but other wardrobe changes will have to wait.
All the same, there’s a distinct shortening of the daylight hours and the lengthening of the shadows, bringing subtle changes in the light that inevitably turn our imagination toward fall. At the table, we may not be ready for heavy cold weather fare, but we’re weary of a steady litany of salads and chilled soup and are ready for the mellow flavors of autumn. (more…)
September 2, 2017
Magazines, newspapers, food web sites, and the air waves are full of helpful ideas for crowd-pleasing picnic and cookout fare, which is all very nice. But every good Southern cook already knows the real way please the crowd, and that’s to make sure that the picnic hamper contains an ample supply of three things: fried chicken, old-fashioned potato salad, and ham biscuits. (more…)
August 30, 2017
One of the loveliest standard dishes for those great old Southern institutions—church covered-dish suppers, dinners-on-the-grounds, and buffet spreads for family reunions and funerals—is squash casserole. Variously known as a casserole, pudding, and soufflé (those last mainly when it has eggs in it), it’s popularity as a covered-dish offering probably owes a lot to the fact that it was cheap (the main ingredient came right out of the back garden), easy to make (especially on short notice), and delicious with just about anything. (more…)
August 28, 2017
The answers to that puzzle are: mountain cabins, beach cottages, and sherry cobbler. (more…)
August 21, 2017
It was my first apartment, and therefore the first kitchen that was wholly my own: usually, such gifts led to a day of curious cooking, but a project deadline loomed and my un-airconditioned apartment was too hot to consider turning on the monstrous avocado-green electric stove that dominated my little kitchen. (more…)
July 29, 2017
Those historical recipes were a simple triad of cooked shrimp, chopped celery, and homemade mayonnaise. That was it. And the basic recipe has changed very little: The most that sensible modern cooks add is a little onion. (more…)
July 6, 2017
July 4, 2017
My grandmother diced the potatoes and then boiled them, but I've always boiled the potatoes whole, in their skins, to preserve their flavor and keep them from being sodden. (more…)
July 3, 2017
Well, no matter what you call it, it’s one of the happiest pairings of two of our best summer staples: (more…)
June 30, 2017
Most people, that is, except for me. (more…)
June 29, 2017
June 22, 2017
Here in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, stuffed vegetables have long been a beloved part of our summer tables. Recipes for them date back well into the nineteenth century. (more…)
June 8, 2017
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…)
May 30, 2017
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…)
April 11, 2017
Unfortunately, that’s more often the case than not. Despite the truth in the old Italian proverb “essere come il prezzemolo” (literally “to be like parsley,” that is, everywhere), I can rarely use it all up before it starts to fade. (more…)
February 9, 2017
No matter where on this globe one happens to be, if there are chickens in the barnyard and sick people in the house, there will be chicken soup in the pot. The details and flavorings that go into that pot will vary, depending on the culture and the cook, as will the age and size of the bird. It’s often called “Jewish Penicillin” in our country, but the faith in it as a curative really has no territorial or cultural boundaries. (more…)
January 28, 2017
It’s still not what a New Englander would call cold, but it’s blustery enough to make us crave heartier fare, something that will not only warm us in the moment, but stick with us for a long time. And when that kind of craving comes calling, nothing answers it better than a good stew. (more…)
November 5, 2016
November 1, 2016
That season’s not as strenuously observed these days, since refrigeration has made it possible to safely harvest, store, and ship oysters in warmer weather. But Savannahians tend to wait for it anyway, since oysters (especially our local cluster variety) tend to be flabby and murky-tasting while spawning, which happens mostly during the summer months, when the waters in which they live are warm. (more…)
October 14, 2016
Not surprisingly, during the early part of the twentieth century, those canned pineapple rings began turning up in all kinds of “fancy” dishes (more…)
July 11, 2016
July 8, 2016
It’s a funny thing about our tastes (and by that, I don’t mean our perceptions of flavor but our preferences for it): they’re an odd mix of innate likes and dislikes and cultural conditioning. (more…)
June 20, 2016
It needn’t be any more involved than taking a little more care with tonight’s supper, say, finishing it off with one of the quintessential fruits of early summer’s table: fresh blueberries. (more…)
May 27, 2016
While we were in shrimp territory, we ate as many of them as we could manage. Most of the shrimp we ate were bought from the many local fishermen who sold them roadside from the tailgates of their battered pickups, (more…)
May 3, 2016
Whether you call it pilau, pilaf, perlow, paella, or jambalaya, in the end, it all amounts to the same thing.
The techniques used vary slightly from dish to dish and the type of rice may differ—a paella, for example, is made with a short-grained rice whereas a pilau is made with long-grain rice. (more…)
March 29, 2016
Sometimes, particularly after a holiday when the cook has a surplus of leftover ham, macaroni pie is studded with a cup or so of diced cooked ham. (more…)
March 26, 2016
Fortunately, a boned and butterflied leg cooks quickly with a minimum of last minute fuss. (more…)
March 4, 2016
Even when those other noises are missing (and, all too often, even when they’re not), we’re talking. Non-stop. Count on it: in any moment where complete silence is the order—a religious service, a funeral, the quiet contemplation of nature or art, that silence is always, always interrupted by the sharp hiss of a whisper.
Our need to fill the void permeates nearly everything we do, but it’s most troubling manifestation is in our kitchens. (more…)
January 29, 2016
An especially lovely example is Sautéed Fish Fillets Palm Beach, which is really nothing more than an adaptation of a French classic, sole à la meunière (whole or filleted sole sautéed in clarified butter). (more…)
January 12, 2016
Frozen juice and year-round imports have dulled our appreciation for the seasonality of citrus fruit, and today’s children would probably feel cheated to find an orange in their stockings. (more…)
December 3, 2015
—Annabella Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867.
Ambrosia was the legendary food of the gods, and it’s an especially appropriate epithet for this luscious fruit salad. When well made, it is indeed heavenly. A traditional Christmas dish all over the South at least since the days of Sarah Rutledge’s The Carolina Housewife (1847) (more…)
November 17, 2015
Called Finding Home, it’s the story of award-winning children’s book author C. F. (Charlie) Bedford, who turned a childhood pet rabbit into the hero of a best-selling storybook series and rode its success right out of his small-town childhood into the kind of charmed life that every writer dreams about but that most never achieve. At thirty-eight, he’d conquered the world of children’s literature with eight bestsellers and had been living the good life in New York City.
But then he came home one afternoon to a note, an abandoned ring, and a half-empty apartment, and his charmed life began to unravel. Before he knew what was happening, he found himself right back where he’d started, in his run-down childhood home in Maple Grove, a sleepy little village in the hills of upstate South Carolina. (more…)
November 9, 2015
The problem is that the yard it shades is also a playground and free cafeteria for a motley assortment of spoiled, fat, urban squirrels. (more…)
September 25, 2015
August 29, 2015
But pole beans are not the only ones that I, and many other Southern cooks, bring to the table. While researching for a lecture on the indomitable Mary Randolph, whose 1824 cookbook was one of the earliest printed records of Southern cooking, I was once again taken by her lucid and careful directions for French beans. (more…)
August 11, 2015
There’s nothing wrong with the idea. When properly done, it’s one of the loveliest vegetable dishes in all of Southern cooking. The problem lies not in the concept, but in its misguided application. (more…)
August 10, 2015
August 10, 2015
But they were also used in an infusion with sherry to create a lovely condiment known simply as Pepper Sherry. Whether it was in an elegant crystal cruet or just a re-used soda or condiment bottle, this fiery, amber liquid graced almost every sideboard in town, from the humblest creek-side dwellings to the most elegant of townhouses downtown. (more…)
August 2, 2015
July 30, 2015
Yet, as little as twenty years ago, when my first cookbook Classical Southern Cooking was published, tomato aspic was a long way from being forgotten. (more…)
July 24, 2015
A lovely compensations for the intense, wet heat that settles over Savannah each summer like a warm wet blanket, is fresh sweet corn. And a popular, if a bit ironic, way of having that corn is in chowder, a rich yet simple soup that has been a fixture in Savannah for at least a century.
Recipes for it have been turning up in community cookbooks since the end of the nineteenth century, (more…)
July 13, 2015
What you may not know is that because they’re so juicy, they mold and rot more easily than other onions and therefore don’t keep as well. (more…)
June 21, 2015
But lately I’ve begun to realize that his influence hasn’t stopped at words. (more…)
June 15, 2015
Like most crustaceans, as blue crabs outgrow their hard outer shells, they shed them and begin growing a new one. For a few fleeting hours before it hardens, the new shell is soft, delicate, and completely edible. They’re a much-anticipated seasonal delicacy here in the Lowcountry. That season is already waning here, but we still have a little bit longer to enjoy them. (more…)
May 29, 2015
When we’re visiting family in Petersburg, Virginia, we always pay at least one visit to the Dixie Restaurant on Sycamore Street. Known to locals simply as The Dixie, it’s been around since the 1940s. Though over the course of those years this family-owned institution has known several incarnations, today it has returned to its roots as an old-fashioned neighborhood diner. (more…)
May 21, 2015
Not that hushpuppies are common fare in barbecue joints: These addictive little morsels of fried cornbread are more usually paired with fried fish. But at King’s Barbecue in Petersburg, Virginia, hushpuppies are served right along with the biscuits. (more…)
May 8, 2015
There was nothing wrong with those sauces—when we have the time to properly execute them and can serve them immediately, but there’s also nothing wrong with well-made pan gravy, especially for home cooks. (more…)
May 6, 2015
One of the most under-appreciated elements of any cuisine, but of Southern cooking especially, when well-made and carefully seasoned, pan gravy is also the best sauce imaginable. Rich with the browned essence of the food it will accompany, it enhances without smothering, and can partly redeem indifferent or accidentally over-done food. (more…)
May 5, 2015
Strawberries, that fragrant, luscious herald of springtime, have always figured prominently on Southern tables—and earlier in the year than for most of the rest of the country. But by May, the season in Florida, which produces most of the country’s early fruit, is over, and while it will linger a few weeks longer in Northern Georgia, Carolina, and Virginia, it’s beginning to wind down across the South. (more…)
April 14, 2015
April 4, 2015
Best of all, it can be made today, and reheats beautifully. (more…)
April 4, 2015
This morning, I finally took the thing out, took one last longing look at it, and said “Get over yourself and get this job done.” (more…)
April 2, 2015
April 1, 2015
My own menu: Puree of Spring Carrots, Butterflied Roast Leg of Lamb, Potato Gratin, Asparagus (the jury is still out on the sauce for this), and chocolate pots-de-crème. (more…)
March 31, 2015
March 26, 2015
Flowers are lovely and all very well, but they satisfy only two of our senses. Asparagus gets all five—even sound, if it’s not overcooked. And when it’s freshly cut (that is, only minutes from the bed), it needs absolutely nothing, not even butter. Strong flavors like ham, leeks, garlic, and even lemon can be paired with it only with care and restraint. (more…)
March 19, 2015
And yet, a cool, refreshing strawberry soup is a lovely and novel way to tease palates at the beginning of dinner, luncheon, or even brunch. (more…)
February 24, 2015
There was a time in my mother’s living memory when a fresh pineapple was a special treat and she has never let us take them for granted. (more…)
February 20, 2015
February 10, 2015
January 30, 2015
A few days ago, I reflected on how the simple act of peeling and eating a perfectly ripe Clementine orange recalled the fact that the principles of good cooking and satisfying eating are founded less on creativity than on the virtues of balance, simplicity, and restraint.
That wasn’t to suggest that there’s no room for creativity in the kitchen; (more…)
January 17, 2015
December 20, 2014
November 26, 2014
November 26, 2014
Unfortunately, few home cooks seem to make biscuits very often, which is too bad. Because once one gets the knack, they’re drop-dead easy, and serving forth a basket of delicate, piping hot biscuits never fails to impress company. They always think you’ve gone to a lot more trouble than you actually have. (more…)
November 26, 2014
The wonderful thing about what you put into that savory bread pudding that accompanies your turkey, no matter what you put in it and whether you bake it in the bird or out of it, is that it’s one time that sticking to tradition will win for you every time. You really don’t have to think about it, analyze it, or reinvent it—you just make it and sit back and bask in the praise. (more…)
November 25, 2014
November 24, 2014
November 23, 2014
November 11, 2014
Even if the only entertaining you are, excuse the expression, entertaining is that weekend, say you’re having friends and family staying over during the holiday, you’re going to need something other than an oversized bird to keep them happy. (more…)
November 1, 2014
For those who live in more moderate climates, the Deep South’s summer, especially in our sub-tropical corner, always lingers past September and sometimes even October. That means that while other parts of the country have long since gathered the last of summer’s harvest and prepared the garden for winter, ours are often still producing tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and even eggplants. (more…)
October 24, 2014
October 23, 2014
October 17, 2014
October 15, 2014
October 13, 2014
October 6, 2014
September 23, 2014
September 10, 2014
August 30, 2014
July 29, 2014
July 8, 2014
June 20, 2014
April 14, 2014
Not only do purees show off the fresh, full flavors of the season’s produce, they adapt beautifully to the unpredictability of the weather, being equally as good cold as hot. (more…)
April 9, 2014
September 21, 2013
Unlike pasta, leftover rice is perfect for recycling in a salad: while pasta often turns gummy and flabby when cold, rice holds its shape, remains firm and yet tender, and because its surface starches “set,” the grains don’t clump together but remain distinct and separate. (more…)
July 17, 2013
March 16, 2013
February 4, 2013
January 23, 2013
January 17, 2012
Fortunately, despite such daytime extremes our evenings have been cool enough to stir a seasonal longing for warming, comfortable bowls of soup. And when comfort is required, is there anything that fills the bill quite so well as bean soup?
All bean soups, from the thick, pasta-studded zuppas of Tuscany to the fragrantly spicy mélanges of the Caribbean, speak of the region from whence they came, and Savannah’s own, made with black, or as they were colloquially known, “turtle” beans, was no exception.
Where most bean soups are robust and provincial, and eaten from coarse everyday pottery, this one was a subtly seasoned, velvet-smooth puree served in the best company china. Ranking second only to Turtle Soup for refined elegance (it even had the same garnish of wafer-thin sliced lemon, sieved egg, and minced parsley) it was the culinary answer to the graceful architecture that surrounds our celebrated squares.
Unhappily, modern Savannahians rarely encounter this lovely soup at all, let alone served in that gracious way. The black bean soup to be found in local cafés and on far too many family supper tables is a Cuban or Southwestern inspired concoction spiced up with chilies, cilantro, cumin, and enough garlic to ward off an entire family of vampires.
Now, there’s a lot to be said for a spicy dose of Caribbean or Southwestern sunshine on a cold, drizzly winter day. But when the soul needs both warmth and refinement, Old Savannah had the better medicine.
Savannah Turtle Bean Soup
Sometimes the eggs were merely sliced and laid on the bottom of the tureen or soup plate before the soup was ladled in, imitating the way the turtle’s eggs were used in that soup, but for state occasions, they were forced through a wire mesh sieve and sprinkled over the top of each serving.
Serves 8 as a first course at dinner, or 6 as a main course at lunch or supper
1 pound dried black beans
½ pound lean salt-cured pork, in one piece, or ¼ pound if pre-sliced
6 cups meat broth
1 large or 2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and chopped
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled and minced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced small
1 small turnip, scrubbed, peeled and diced small
2 ribs celery, washed, strung and diced small
3 tablespoons tomato paste (or, in season, 2 medium ripe tomatoes scalded, peeled, seeded and chopped)
1 bay leaf
2 large sprigs of parsley
3 whole cloves, beaten to a powder with a mortar and pestle
1 blade mace, beaten to a powder with a mortar and pestle
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1 tablespoon mushroom catsup or Worcestershire sauce
2 large hard-cooked eggs, peeled
6-8 tablespoons sherry (1 tablespoon per serving)
1 lemon, thinly sliced
2-3 tablespoons minced parsley
Pepper Sherry, optional
1. Rinse the beans under cold running water, sort through and discard any damaged or discolored ones, and put them in a large, heavy bottomed pot. Add enough water to cover them by 2 inches. Beans cook better in soft water: if your water, like Savannah’s, is hard, use bottled or filtered water. Bring the beans slowly to a boil point over medium heat. Turn off the heat and soak until the beans have doubled in volume, about an hour.
2. Replenish the water with enough to cover the beans by 1 inch. Put the pot back over medium heat and bring it to a simmer again, skimming away any scum that rises. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and cook until the beans are tender, about an hour.
3. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid, and return the beans to the pot with 2 cups of cooking liquid, the salt pork, and meat broth. Raise the heat to medium, and bring it back to a boil. Add the onion, garlic, carrot, turnip, celery, and tomato paste, let it return to a boil, skimming off any scum that rises, then put in the bay leaf and parsley, powdered cloves, a pinch or so of salt (going easy; you can correct it later), a liberal grinding of pepper, a small pinch of cayenne, and the catsup or Worcestershire. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer, cover, and cook until the vegetables are very tender, about 2 hours.
4. Puree the soup through a food mill or with a hand blender, regular blender, or food processor. If it’s too thick, thin it with some of the reserved bean cooking liquid. Return it to the pot and bring it back to a simmer over medium heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. Taste and adjust the seasonings, and let it heat 2 to 3 minutes longer.
5. Meanwhile, force the eggs through a coarse wire sieve. To serve, add a tablespoon of sherry to each bowl and ladle in the soup. Float a slice of lemon on top of each and sprinkle with egg and parsley. Serve at once, passing Pepper Sherry separately, if liked.
October 31, 2011
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.
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.
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.
October 17, 2011
The main task was to define Gullah cooking and address whether or not its present incarnation was authentic.
During the question and answer period, a man lamented that Gullah culture had been entirely obliterated by twentieth century development of the barrier islands of Carolina and Georgia.
This even though two Gullah women were sitting right in front of him.
His remark, however, did bring the real issue into focus: it forced the acknowledgment that the discussion had been less about definitions and context than authenticity within the framework of history. Had the Gullah community ceased to exist because its people had changed and adapted to cultural encroachment, and was their cooking, both in the Lowcountry and in the diaspora, still “authentic” in the face of these cultural adaptations?
If you think on that for half a minute, you’ll answer yes, of course it is—as authentic as it was three hundred years ago when the West African slaves who founded this culture first adapted their rice based cuisines to incorporate new ingredients such as cornmeal, beans, and salt pork. To argue otherwise would be like arguing that Italian food has not been authentic since the sixteenth century, when chocolate, coffee, corn, beans, tomatoes, and zucchini were introduced from the New World.
The only constant in life is change. When confronted with that constant, civilizations have three choices: move, adapt, or die. A cuisine that adapts to the forces of change is simply following a natural continuum that began the day the first men and women learned that holding food over a fire did good things to it.
The history of cooking is not a series of contained plateaus ascending like stairs but a free-flowing river that picks things up along the way, has things thrown into it, and in turn tosses things onto its banks and leaves them behind.
The logical illustration of this would be something from a Gullah kitchen; but as Jeff obligingly pointed out to our audience (and as you will readily notice from my picture), Gullah cookery is not part of my heritage.
A dish that is a part of it, that has been on my mind ever since the season turned, is Chicken Kentuckian, a handsome sauté of young chickens basted with bourbon and finished with mushrooms and cream.
It came to me from my former minister, the late Rev. William H. Ralston. Its lineage in his Kentucky family goes back at least to his grandmother, who made it with the family’s young yard chickens, rough homemade whiskey, and mushrooms that had been gathered in nearby horse pastures.
Fr. Ralston used a chicken from the market, refined distillery-brewed whiskey, and white button mushrooms. Though I routinely use the same whiskey that he did, my original rendition added dried porcini mushrooms to lend the earthy depth of the wild mushrooms his grandmother used. In more than twenty years of making it, subtleties that I’m not even conscious of have crept into the pan, making it uniquely my own.
Which version is the most “authentic?” All of them are. No, Fr. Ralston’s probably was not quite like his mother’s and certainly not his grandmother’s, and mine is no longer quite like his, just as your interpretation will eventually become uniquely your own.
Will what you taste be what Fr. Ralston’s grandmother did a hundred years ago, or what he did a mere two decades ago, or even what I do today? No. But will you still be experiencing an authentic taste of history? You bet.
2 young frying chickens, no more than 2½-3-pounds each, disjointed as for frying
½ cup all-purpose flour
8-10 large, wild mushrooms, sliced thick, or ½ pound crimini or portabella mushrooms
½ ounce dried boletus edulis mushrooms (porcini or cèpes), optional
¼ cup unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped scallion
½ cup well-aged bourbon
1 cup heavy cream (minimum 36 percent milkfat)
1. Wash the chickens, pat dry, and spread them on a platter. Lightly dust with salt and flour. Wipe the fresh mushrooms with a dry cloth and slice them thickly. If using dried mushrooms, put them in a heatproof bowl, pour 1 cup of boiling water over them, and soak until cooled.
2. In a large, heavy skillet that will hold all the chicken without crowding, heat the butter and olive oil over low heat. Add the chicken and chopped scallions and sauté, turning frequently, until it is golden and tender, about half an hour. While it cooks, baste every few minutes with spoonfuls of the bourbon, being careful to add it in small amounts so there is never any liquid accumulated in the pan: it should sauté, not steam. When the chicken is cooked through and golden and all the bourbon has been used, remove it to a warm platter.
3. Turn up the heat to medium high. If using the dried mushrooms, lift them out of their soaking liquid, dipping to loosen any sand that is clinging to them, and put them in the pan. Filter the soaking water through a paper towel or coffee filter and add it to the pan. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, and boil until all the liquid is evaporated. Add the fresh mushrooms and sauté, tossing constantly, until beginning to color, about 3 minutes.
4. Add the cream and scrape loose any residue that may be stuck to the skillet. Simmer until just heated through and starting to thicken, about 1-2 minutes, depending on the richness of the cream. Taste the sauce and correct the seasonings, pour it over the chicken, and serve at once.
September 25, 2011
Foraging for them requires two things: a thorough knowledge of wild mushrooms and a sense of responsibility. Though wild-growing chanterelles are distinctive and easy to spot, novices can, and have, gone wrong, and over-harvesting or careless gathering by the greedy have all-too-often depleted many once plentiful beds.
In his masterpiece on Lowcountry cooking, John Martin Taylor (a.k.a. Hoppin’ John) instructs that the responsible way to gather chanterelles is to cut the stem just above the ground with a small knife or very sharp scissors rather than plucking them, so that they leave their genetic imprint behind for next year. You should also not be greedy and gather more than your share.
If all that intimidates you, or if you live in an area where these wonders don’t grow, farmed chanterelles are now available in many specialty grocers. While they’re expensive and won’t have the flavor of freshly harvested wild mushrooms, they are still delicious and well worth your while.
Since I don’t have a ready source for gathering them locally, the market is where I usually get mine, and when I spied a bin of them in a local specialty grocery, looking bright, fresh, and meaty, it was impossible to resist them, even at close to twenty dollars a pound. It’s only once a year, after all.
Regardless of how you come by them, preparing chanterelles for the table is a simple operation. Lowcountry cooks have long known that they need very little kitchen conjuring to bring out their best. The secret to perfection is a generous hand with the best butter that you can find.
¾ pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms (or a whole pound of you’re flush)
6 tablespoons best quality butter (preferably Parma or French butter*)
½ cup finely chopped shallots
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, finely minced (not pressed)
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1 generous tablespoon minced flat-leaf parsley
1. Gently brush any soil from the mushrooms with a dry cloth and thickly slice the large ones and halve the smaller ones. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. When it is barely melted, swirl the pan and add the shallots. Sauté, tossing often, until they are translucent and beginning to color.
2. Add the chanterelles and garlic and rapidly toss to coat with butter. Sauté, tossing, until the garlic is fragrant and beginning to color and the shallots are golden, about a minute.
3. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and sprinkle in the parsley. Let them heat, tossing, half a minute longer and take them off the heat. Add the remaining butter cut into bits and shake the pan until it is just melted. Eat them as is, or over (not in) omelets, or over pan-toasted bread, or as a sauce for pasta.
* Parma butter is a by-product of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese manufacturing, but don’t think of it as leftovers: it’s made from the rich, skimmed cream from the night milk. It, and sometimes excellent-quality French butter, can often be found in specialty grocers.
Serving Up the Chanterelles
Over an omelet: It is hard to beat chanterelles over (not in) an omelet made with fluffy newly-laid eggs. Prepare the mushrooms first and keep them warm, then make the omelets and spoon the chanterelles over them after they’re plated.
Over pan-toasted bread: Cut ½-inch thick slices from a good quality round loaf. Generously spread both sides with softened butter and put them in a skillet over medium heat. Pan-toast turning several times, until uniformly golden and crisp on the outside but still soft at the center. Keep them warm. Prepare the chanterelles as above, put the toast on 4 warmed salad plates, and top with the mushrooms.
With Pasta: This is how I had mine. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil, add a small handful of salt, and cook ¾ pound of pasta while you prepare the mushrooms in a pan large enough to hold the pasta up to the point of adding the finishing butter but don’t add it. When the pasta is done, drain, saving a little of its cooking water, and add it to the mushrooms over low heat. Toss well, adding a little of the cooking water if it’s too dry, then add the finishing butter and toss until it is melted and incorporated. Serve immediately. Good pasta choices: homemade egg tagliatelle, or short factory pasta such as penne, campanelle, lumache (snail-shaped), or ziti.
August 21, 2011
Southern cooks of the past would no doubt turn their noses up at the neat bags of butterbeans that came home with me from the farmers’ market this morning. They’d argue, and rightly, that beans that had been lying bare-naked on ice could not be nearly as good as ones that were kept snugly in their pods until just before they’re cooked.
But those old girls had help in the kitchen—or at the very least, a child they could indenture for the job—and I don’t. The small sacrifice in flavor is well worth the wear and tear it saves on my fingers, not to mention patience.
Besides, the morning was hot and making me a little homesick, and those plump little butterbeans brought back soothing memories not only of home, but of my dear old friend Clara Eschmann, the endearing lady who was for many years food editor of the Macon Telegraph.
A fantastic cook and natural-born storyteller, Clara loved butterbeans almost more than she loved bourbon (which is saying a lot). She steadfastly maintained that no self-respecting Southerner would ever call them lima beans, and relished spinning the tale that their Southern name derived from the fact that they had to be cooked with butter—and plenty of it.
She was in good company. Witness Mrs. Hill’s directive on the subject, put down a good half-century before Clara was born:
360. Lima, or Butter Beans.—When fully formed, and before the hull turns yellow, shell them; wash them well, and put them to boil in hot water, sufficiently salted to season them. When tender, pour off nearly all the water; make the remainder of the broth rich with butter, and serve upon a hot dish. Never pepper them unless with white pepper; the small black particles of the common pepper upon so much white vegetable gives them an untidy appearance.
— Annabella P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867.
Mrs. Hill’s reputation as a cook could rest on that recipe alone. Say what you will about what salt-cured pork and pepper bring to other kinds of beans, these delicacies need absolutely nothing but salt, butter, and two hands that don’t mind one another—a stingy one with the salt and a generous one with the butter. Anything else just gets in the way.
To serve 4 people, you’ll need about a pound (shelled weight) of small fresh butterbeans—which works out to about 3 generous cups. You’ll also need a little kosher or sea salt and about 2 ounces (4 tablespoons) of best quality butter. Put the shelled beans in a colander, rinse them well under cold running water, and let them drain.
Bring a quart of water to a boil over medium heat, season it lightly with salt, and add the beans. Bring it back to a boil, skimming off the foam that forms, and reduce the heat. Simmer gently until the beans are tender, which could take anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes, depending on their size and maturity. Drain off most of the liquid and stir in the butter a few lumps at a time, until the liquid is lightly thickened and creamy. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more butter if they’re not creamy enough. Heat a serving bowl by rinsing it with hot water, turn the beans into it, and serve immediately.
You might think that such a recipe could barely be called cooking, but sometimes the mark of a real cook is knowing when to leave well enough alone.
August 11, 2011
To begin with, it would not have occurred to anyone to have grits at dinner, particularly not at a formal table. In the second place, in those days the idea of something as substantial and satisfying as shrimp swimming in rich gravy as merely an appetizer would have seemed truly strange.
Once it got into the hands of creative chefs, however, there was no turning back until it had been so gussied up and overdone that it was hackneyed and passé. It then came full circle and was rediscovered as fashionably “retro”—whatever that is supposed to mean.
That’s not meant to be a cranky slam of what professional cooks do when they spin on a classic. It’s just that, in all their spinning, everyone lost sight of the original dish and its humble origins.
A lot of us stopped thinking of shrimp and grits as a perfectly sensible breakfast and supper dish and started thinking of it as too fancy for regular meals. We either quit making it altogether or saved it for company—something our grandmothers would rather have died than do.
This past Monday evening, I’d picked up some lovely local brown shrimp for supper. Since there were just two of us, it needed to be something simple, and I stood there with the refrigerator door open, getting nowhere, until the bag of grits on the bottom shelf caught my eye.
How could I have forgotten about shrimp and grits? The perfect supper on a hot summer evening had been there all the time, just waiting to be noticed.
For two persons (and this doubles nicely), you’ll need
¾ pound of medium shrimp
2 strips of extra-thick-cut bacon cut into ½-inch dice
1 small or half a medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Salt and ground cayenne pepper
4 cups hot Cooked Hominy Grits (recipe follows)
1. Peel the shrimp, reserving the shells. Cover, and refrigerate the shrimp. Put the shells and 4 cups of water in a stainless or enameled pot. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, being careful not to let it boil over. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1 cup. Turn off the heat, strain the broth into a stainless steel or glass bowl. Discard the shells. If not proceeding right away, cool completely, cover, and refrigerate. (If you’re in a hurry, you can omit this step and just use water for the gravy, but this does make it tastier.)
2. When you are ready to continue, put the bacon in a large sauté pan or skillet that will hold the shrimp in one layer. Sauté over medium heat, tossing occasionally, until browned. Add the onion. Raise the heat to medium-high and sauté, tossing frequently, until it’s pale gold, about 4 or 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant but not colored. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until it is lightly browned, about 2 minutes more.
3. Slowly stir in the shrimp broth (or 1 cup of water) and bring it to a boil, stirring constantly. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and season lightly with salt and cayenne. Cook until the shrimp are curled and pink, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings and serve at once over hot grits.
Cooked Hominy Grits
½ cup hominy grits (often labeled “regular” grits . . . whatever that means)
1. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in an enameled or stainless steel saucepan over medium heat. Prepare a teakettle of water, bring it to a boil, and keep it simmering.
2. Slowly add the grits to the saucepan in a steady stream, stirring constantly. Bring it to a boil, still stirring, and reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Loosely cover the pan and cook, stirring often, until the grits are very thick and tender, about an hour. If the grits get too thick before they’re tender, add a little of the simmering water from the kettle.
3. Season to taste with salt and simmer 5 minutes longer.
July 18, 2011
Small wonder: this union is one of those perfect marriages of flavor and texture, so perfect in fact that we tend to forget it was unheard of as little as five centuries ago. Tomatoes are of course native to Central America and okra is African; for thousands of years they were quite literally a world apart from one another.
Exactly how they came together is murky territory for historians. However, since tomatoes were introduced to West Africa by Portuguese explorers early in the sixteenth century, it seems logical that the idea sprang from the mind of an African cook. And it’s significant that the first (if not only) appearance of this pairing in American cookery is in the South, where there were enslaved Africans in many kitchens.
At any rate, it quickly took root down here. When Mary Randolph set down her recipe for “ocra and tomatas” in The Virginia House-wife in 1824, the combination was already so deeply engrained that it was practically universal. Down in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, for example, it was a defining element of the local cuisine when Mrs. Randolph was in diapers.
In Savannah, the really characteristic dish that spun off this pairing is Okra Soup, a simple mélange of tomatoes, okra, and broth made from both beef and ham. Once a staple soup course throughout the summer for formal two o’clock dinners and main dish for businessmen’s lunches and family suppers, its real beauty as a culinary concept is that it can be both refined and elegant and coarse and hearty.
Regardless of how and when it’s served, okra soup always comes with a large spoonful of steamed rice. Once, fiery little bird peppers and/or Pepper Sherry were offered as well. The peppers were passed in a small bowl, and each guest took just one to crush in the bottom of the soup plate, but removed it before the soup was ladled in (they’re so hot that that’s all most people could stand). Pepper sherry, equally as hot but more refined, made the rounds in a cut glass cruet, to be added in mere droplets at the diner’s discretion.
Such graceful customs have, unhappily, all but disappeared, but thankfully the classic soup endures.
Savannah Okra Soup
The best way to tackle this job is to turn it into a 2-day operation: make the broth on the first day, chill and degrease it, then finish the soup the following day.
2 pounds meaty beef shank bones
1 smoked ham hock, about ¾ pound
2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, scalded, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
1½ pounds small, tender okra (about 8 cups), trimmed and thinly sliced
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1½ cups hot Lowcountry Steamed Rice
Fresh green bird’s eye peppers and/or Pepper Sherry (see below), optional
1. Bring the beef, ham hock and 3 quarts of water slowly to a boil in a heavy bottomed stockpot over medium heat, carefully skimming away the scum that rises. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the liquid is reduced to 2 quarts, about 2 hours. Add the onion and simmer slowly until tender, about 20 minutes. Let it settle a few minutes and skim off the excess fat. You may make the broth a day ahead. Cool, cover, and refrigerate it without skimming, then you can simply remove the solidified fat from the top.
2. When you’re ready to finish the soup, bring it back to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the okra and tomatoes, loosely cover, and let it come back to a simmer. Uncover, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
3. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender and the soup is quite thick, at least an hour more—longer won’t hurt. Remove the beef and ham hock. Some cooks pick the meat from the bone and add it back to the soup. Others frown on this practice. Discard the bones.
4. Pour the soup into a heated tureen or divide it among heated soup plates. If offering fresh bird peppers, allow guests to crush a single pepper in their bowls and remove it before the soup is ladled in. You may also pass Pepper Sherry (see below) instead. Put ¼ cup of rice in the center of each serving, or pass it separately.
Notes on additions: Other vegetables are sometimes added, most commonly butterbeans (small lima beans) and corn. Add a generous cup each of fresh, small green butterbeans and freshly cut white corn for the last 40 minutes of simmering.
To make Pepper Sherry: put a third of a cup of bird’s eye peppers (or as much as half a cup of other hot peppers) in a heatproof bowl. Pour a cup of boiling water over them, let stand for one minute, then drain and transfer the peppers to a glass cruet or jar that will hold one and a half cups. Add a cup of medium dry sherry, cover, and let step for at least a day before using.