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Recipes and Stories

25 September 2011: Christ Church Episcopal Potato Gratin

Today was our Parish's old-fashioned picnic, and a lot of friends asked for the recipe for the potato gratin that I always bring to it. It's just a classic French gratin of potatoes with cream and Gruyere cheese, kicked up a notch with country ham and sage. It's the perfect dinner party dish, because it's easy, elegant, can be served in its baking dish, and is a real crowd pleaser.

Here's the recipe.

Christ Church Episcopal Potato Gratin, A.K.A. French Potato Gratin with Country Ham and Sage
Serves 10

2 large yellow onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds russet (baking potatoes, about 4 large)
2 cups (1 pint carton) heavy cream
1 ounce country ham (1 slice) or prosciutto, cut into fine julienne
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 ½ cups (8 ounces) grated Gruyere cheese
Salt and whole white or black pepper in a peppermill
Whole nutmeg in a grater

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 400° F. Generously butter a 10x15 2½-3 quart gratin or baking dish (I use a Le Creuset enameled iron 3-quart gratin dish.)

2. Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until tender and evenly colored a deep gold, about 10-15 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, peel and thinly slice the potatoes with a sharp knife, mandoline, or food processor. Mix the potatoes with the onion, cream, prosciutto, sage, and 2 cups of Gruyere in a large bowl. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste and toss well.

4. Pour into the prepared casserole, pressing down and leveling the top, and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake 15 minutes and reduce the heat to 350°. Bake about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 to 20 minutes longer, or until potatoes are very tender and bubbly at the center and the top is golden brown. Serve hot or warm.

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25 September 2011: Chanterelle Season

Late season Chanterelles sauteed as in the recipe given here, photographed on November 18; they're larger and meatier than the early season mushrooms I used when the accompanying story was written.
One of the loveliest things about late summer and early autumn in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry is the annual sprouting of chanterelle mushrooms, the yellow-orange trumpet mushrooms that briefly dot oak-shaded lawns and parks. Their flavor is delicate but distinctive, and well worth seeking out.

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.

Sautéed Chanterelles
Serves 4

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. Read More 
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19 September 2011: Veal Scallops with Oysters and Bacon

Lowcountry Veal Scallops with Oysters and Bacon, photography by John Carrington
One of the great, sumptuous splurges of autumn in the Carolina/Georgia Lowcountry, as our oysters come into season, is their pairing with veal cutlets. Given the prices that veal fetches these days, it’s hard to imagine that such a thing has not always been a splurge. Read More 
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4 September 2011: Southern Scaloppine

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. Read More 
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