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Recipes and Stories

31 January 2019: Cold Weather Comfort and a Favorite Revisited

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream, a variation of the old Lowcountry staple "Chafing Dish Oysters"

 

As January winds to a close, it's deep winter in Savannah, which means that the red buds, tulip (Japanese) magnolias, and wild violets are all beginning to bloom even though it's refreshingly cold and the temperatures are hovering at freezing every night.

 

But even though the landscape is trying to act as if it's spring, it's still bracingly cold and perfect cooking weather. It's also the height of the season for our local oysters. They're wonderfully briny and yet sweet, especially raw, but since they're the clustering type, they don't lend themselves to being presented on the half-shell.

 

What they do lend themselves to, and beautifully, is shucking and serving them ice-cold in a cocktail cup with crisp, horseradish-spiked cocktail sauce. They're also lovely simmered in stew and in that old Savannah winter party staple, "chafing dish" (creamed) oysters, which is oysters and sometimes mushrooms in a thick, rich cream sauce.

 

Of that latter, there are probably as many variations as there are cooks. My own version, inspired by a dish of escargots from a long-vanished local restaurant, is enlivened with sautéed leeks, garlic, ginger, and a splash of bourbon. Instead of serving them from a chafing dish with toast cups, I ladle them over small cornmeal griddlecakes (known down here as hoecakes).

 

It was one of the early recipes developed for New Southern Kitchen, and the dish that helped me woo and win the love of my life.

 

This week while researching for a newspaper column on romantic dining for two, that recipe popped up, reminding me sharply of how we evolve as cooks. Looking through the method, I was startled to realize that it was not the way I make it now. The structure and ingredients were the same, but there are subtle and (a few not-so-subtle) differences in the way I approach it now.

 

It also reminded me that it was time I made it again.

 

Oysters in Leek and Bourbon Cream

 

Adapted from my book New Southern Kitchen, this remains one of my favorite ways to cook Savannah's local briny-sweet cluster oysters. The original recipe served 4, but there's something intimate about this that makes me prefer to it when it's just the two of us. If you want to make it for more people, double everything but the butter (increasing that only by half a tablespoon) and bourbon (don't increase that at all).

 

Serves 2 as a first course

 

1 cup shucked oysters

1 medium leek (or ½ a large one)

1½ tablespoons unsalted butter

1 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced

1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger root

2 tablespoons bourbon

1 cup heavy cream

Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill

4-6 Mini Hoecakes (recipe follows)

1 heaped teaspoon finely minced flat-leaf parsley

 

1. Set a sieve over a stainless or glass bowl, pour in the oysters, and let them drain for at least 10 minutes. Reserve the liquor to freeze and use as fish broth. Trim the roots and tough outer leaves from the leeks and split them lengthwise. Holding each half root end up, wash thoroughly under cold, running water, bending back each layer to get the dirt from between them. Slice the white and most of the tender greens.

 

2. Melt the butter in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the leeks and sauté, tossing often, until wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until fragrant, 15-20 seconds more. Carefully add the bourbon and let it evaporate, then add the cream. Bring it to a boil and cook until it is a little thicker than a cream sauce, about 2 to 3 minutes. (The oysters will throw off moisture as they cook, diluting it.) Turn off the heat. It can be prepared to this point several hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate the oysters and sauce in separate containers.

 

3. Half an hour serving, preheat the oven to 170-200° F. (or the "warm" setting). Put the hoecakes on a rimmed baking sheet in one layer and put them in the oven. Return the sauce to the pan over and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Add the oysters, a small pinch of salt and a liberal grinding of pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the oysters plump and their gills curl, about 1 and 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, and taste and adjust the seasonings.

 

4. Put 2 hoecakes per serving onto warmed individual serving plates. Spoon the oysters and sauce over them, and sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once.

 

Mini Hoecakes

Makes about 12 2-inch diameter hoecakes, serving 4 to 6

 

½ cup stone-ground white cornmeal

½ teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

1 large egg, lightly beaten

About ¾ cup whole milk buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt thinned with milk to buttermilk consistency

Melted bacon drippings, butter, or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle

 

1. If serving the hoecakes right away, position a rack in the center of the oven, place a large, baking sheet on it, and preheat to 170-200° F. (the warm setting). Whisk together the meal, soda, and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg and buttermilk. Make a well in the center of the meal, pour in the liquids, and quickly stir them together. It should be moderately thick but should still pour easily from a spoon: if it doesn't, add a little more milk.

 

2. Heat a griddle or wide, shallow skillet over medium-high heat. The griddle should be hot enough for a drop of water should "dance" on the surface, but not so hot that it vaporizes instantly. Lightly brush the surface with fat. Pour the batter in about a generous tablespoon-sized portion from the end of a spoon—enough to pool into cakes about 2 inches in diameter. The edges should sizzle and form lacy air bubbles. Cook until golden brown on the bottom, turn, and cook to a uniform brown, about 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer them to the baking sheet in the oven as they are finished and repeat with the remaining batter until it is all cooked. Serve hot.

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26 January 2019: The Comforts of Pasta and Bean Soup

My Pasta and Bean Soup, or, if you really must, Pasta e Fagioli alla Damon

 

When the weather turns cold as it finally has done here in Savannah, nothing warms and satisfies me quite like the old Italian classic, Pasta e Fagioli, or as it's sometimes called in dialect "Pasta Fazool." In a single bowl, it combines the homey comfort of my father's beloved bean soup with my own love for beans and pasta in general, not to mention my lifelong love of both Italian and Southern cooking.

 

It's also a fine example of the many parallels between the cuisines of the American South and Italy. Both sets of cuisines have remained close to the land, even in urban centers such as Atlanta and Milan, and have withstood the relentless tide of modernization and the silly capriciousness of that recent culinary plague, "reinvention."

 

But it's more than that. There's a common approach to flavor, a shared logic in the way key ingredients are brought together with simplicity and respect. Traditional cooks in the South and throughout Italy have little use for novelty or cleverness for its own sake. A classic may evolve over time, with each generation adding a bit of its own to the pot, but these evolutions happen organically, within the sensible boundaries of tradition and taste.

 

And by taste, I literally mean what is right on one's tongue. Here in the South and in Italy, it doesn't matter how clever, startlingly inventive, or unique a cook has been. What matters is one simple thing: Does it taste of home? Are its flavors combined in a logical, sound way? And, most important of all, does it taste good?

 

Pasta e Fagioli endures because it does all those things—and, just possibly—because its good taste nourishes not just our bodies, but our souls.

 

My Pasta and Bean Soup

Or, if we must, Pasta e Fagioli alla Damon

 

Since there's only two of us in my household, and I usually make a full batch so we can have more than one meal from it. If the pasta has all been cooked in the soup, it'll continue absorbing the liquid and will swell up and get mushy in the leftovers, so I always cook the pasta separately and rinse it with cold water. That way it can be added to each portion as needed.

 

Serves 6-8

 

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound ground chuck

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped

1 large rib celery, strung and chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and chopped

1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 rounded teaspoon dried

3 tablespoons tomato paste

6 cups homemade meat broth or 2 cups beef broth, 2 cups chicken broth, and 2 cups water

4 cups cooked cranberry or pinto beans, drained

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

8 ounces ditalini or small elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

 

1. Warm the oil in a 4-quart heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Add the beef and lightly brown it, crumbling it with fork or spatula. Remove it with slotted spoon, spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of fat, and add the onion. Sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes, then add the celery and carrot and sauté until they're softened and the onion is pale gold, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and oregano and stir until fragrant, about half a minute.

 

2. Return the meat to the pot and stir in the tomato paste and broth. Raise the heat and bring to simmer, then adjust the heat to a gentle simmer and cook at least 20 minutes (longer won't hurt it). Raise the heat and add the beans, season to taste with salt and pepper, and it bring back to simmer. Adjust heat and simmer 10-15 minutes longer. I never do it, but if you like, it can be thickened by pureeing 1 cup beans and adding them back to the pot.

 

3. Meanwhile, bring 3 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Stir in the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, using the package directions as rough guide. If you're serving all the soup at once, slightly undercook it. Drain the pasta and if serving it all at once, stir it into the soup and let it simmer 2-3 minutes longer. Otherwise, fully cook the pasta and rinse it under cold running water. Just before serving, spoon ¼-½ cup of pasta into each bowl.

 

4. Stir the parsley into the soup, ladle it into individual bowls, and serve with cheese passed separately.

 

To precook dried beans, regardless of what scientists tell us, their skins will hold up better and be less likely to split if the beans are presoaked before they're cooked. Put them into a colander and pick through them, discarding any deformed or discolored ones, then rinse and drain them. Put them in a large, heavy-bottomed 3-6-quart pot. Cover with 2 cups of water for every cup of beans. Let them soak overnight. If you're pressed for time, put them over medium heat and slowly bring the water to a boil. Boil one minute and remover it from the heat. Let stand 1 hour, or until the beans have doubled in size. Either way, when you're ready to cook the beans, add more water as needed (it should cover them by at least 1 inch) and bring it to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, and cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour, replenishing the liquid with simmering water as needed. Season well with salt and let it simmer 3-4 minutes, and turn off the heat.

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