Recipes and Stories

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…)

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…)

23 April 2014: Easter Lamb Pasta

April 23, 2014

Tags: Feasting on Leftovers, Lamb, Roman Easter Lamb, Asparagus, Pasta

Penne with a Touch of Easter Lamb and Asparagus
One of the loveliest things about a feast day, I always think, is the leftovers. Bits of roast to eat cold with horseradish sauce or warmed in its gravy, cold ham and asparagus, potato gratin or baked macaroni, both of which warm-over so nicely. Soup that can be warmed or thinned with milk and served chilled, either as is, or with other things added to it. (more…)

4 August 2013: Pasta alla Diva

August 4, 2013

Tags: Pasta alla Norma, Eggplant, Savannah Voice Festival, Spaghetti, Pasta

Pasta alla Norma
This past weekend The Savannah Voice Festival debuted, and for the next two weeks, the steamy Lowcountry air will seem a little less heavy as it is filled with the glorious sounds of Fifty-three promising young performers who have gathered in our little town to study with more than two dozen seasoned singers, coaches, and accompanists. (more…)

16 July 2013: Pasta with Chicken Livers and Mushrooms

July 16, 2013

Tags: Chicken Livers, Mushrooms, Pasta

Pasta with Sautéed Chicken Livers, Mushrooms, and Scallions
Two of my favorite luxury indulgences in cooler weather are chicken livers and mushrooms sautéed in copious quantities of butter. And when the two things are brought together in the same pan, why, it’s downright magical.

Unhappily, I’m the only person in my household who thinks of livers and mushrooms as a luxury—much less an indulgence— (more…)

16 March 2013: Scallops Diane

March 16, 2013

Tags: Classic Southern Cooking, Bay Scallops and Mushrooms, Scallops Diane, Shrimp Diane, Creole Cooking, Cajun Cooking, Louisiana Cooking, Pasta

Scallops with Mushrooms and Scallions, or "Scallops Diane"
If you follow this essay series at all, you will have noticed that I rarely venture into the justly famous cookery of Creole and Cajun Louisiana. That’s mainly because, first of all, these cuisines are not directly a part of my own heritage, and secondly, they have more than enough champions on their own, both true Louisianans and posturing Creole/Cajun wannabes, to need any help from the likes of this old Cracker. (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…)

27 August 2012: American Ragù

August 27, 2012

Tags: American Ragu, American Cooking, Historical American Cooking, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Pasta, Spaghetti

American Spaghetti with Meat Sauce
If you are of a certain age, you remember it simmering for hours on the back of the stove, thick with tomatoes, redolent of garlic, oregano, and sometimes an adventurous splash of wine, filling the house with its rich aroma. It came to the table ladled thickly over a bed of fat, slightly overcooked spaghetti, dusted generously with grated cheese that came straight from a green can. (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.