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Recipes and Stories

22 June 2019: Summer Frying

Golden, Pan-Fried Young Yellow Crookneck Squash

 

As we settle into summer and try to acclimate to the heat and cope with it in the kitchen, we often overlook a cooking method that's ideal for hot weather, and that's frying.

 

Yes, it involves boiling hot fat which can be messy and smelly, but it's also one of the quickest and tastiest way to prepare summer's produce. While the heat is intense, it's brief, and because it's fast, the flavors and textures are better preserved. And there's an added bonus in that it gives the food a flavorful caramelized, crackling-crisp surface.

 

When frying is done properly, the mess is no worse than any other way of cooking and the fat stays where it belongs—on the outside, so the finished product isn't heavy or greasy.

 

If you're envisioning a bulky, steaming deep-fryer or large, heavy pot half-filled with seething grease, get past it. Deep fat isn't the only medium for frying, and while it's more economical and less of a production than most people think, it isn't always practical for a home kitchen.

 

Pan-frying, on the other hand, is far more practical, and is the time honored way of cooking Southern fried chicken, vegetables, small fish, and quick-cooking meat like pork tenderloin. It requires no special equipment and only a fraction of the fat necessary for deep-frying. All that's needed is a deep, heavy-bottomed skillet, foil or inverted cake pans to protect the surrounding surfaces from splatters, a frying skimmer or tongs (or even a slotted spoon), and, depending on what's being cooked, as little as a mere quarter-of-an-inch of fat.

 

The one disadvantage to pan-frying is that because the fat is shallow, a frying thermometer can't be used to monitor the temperature, so doing it well takes a little practice and a bit more of the cook's attention, although only a bit. If you're a gadget-loving cook and have deep pockets, you can invest in an infrared surface-reading thermometer, but once you know how to read the signals that the pan, fat, and food will give you, you really won't need it.

 

Pan-Fried Summer Squash

 

Here's a nice little recipe that's simple and great practice for beginner fryers. There are two key secrets to success in pan-frying squash: they should be very fresh and still quite young (leave the more mature ones for the stewing pot), and the breading should always be given time to set before it meets with the hot fat.

 

Serves 4

 

1½ pounds small young summer squash, preferably yellow crooknecks

Salt

About 1 cup fine cracker or dry bread crumbs

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Instant blending flour in a shaker

Lard or peanut or canola oil, for frying

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

 

1. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat it to 150°-175° F. (or the warm setting). Fit a wire cooling rack into a rimmed baking sheet. Gently scrub the squash under cold running water to remove any dirt or grit that may be clinging to them, drain, then trim the stem and blossom ends. Slice them lengthwise about ¼-inch thick. Sprinkle both sides lightly with salt and stack them in a colander set in the sink. Let them drain for 15 minutes, then pat them dry.

 

2. Spread the crumbs in a wide shallow bowl and have the eggs in second wide, shallow bowl. Sprinkle a large sheet of wax paper or a flexible cutting board with the flour. Spread the squash over the paper in one layer and dust them with flour. Turn and dust the second side.

 

3. One at a time, lift each piece, shake off the excess flour, and dip it in the egg on both sides. Lift it out and let the excess flow back into the bowl, then drop it into the crumbs, turning it over and pressing the crumbs into it until all sides are coated. Remove it to a clean, dry plate and repeat with the remaining squash. Let them rest at least 15 minutes to set the breading.

 

4. Put enough fat in a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet to come up the sides by ¼-inch. Warm it over medium high heat until it's hot but not smoking. Dip the edge of a piece of squash or the tip of a wooden spoon handle (not bamboo) in the fat: It'll have a lively bubble around its edges when the fat is ready. Slip in enough squash to fill the pan with a little space around each and fry until bottoms are golden brown, about 2 minutes.

 

5. Carefully turn and let other the side brown. Remove them with tongs or a frying skimmer, holding them over pan until fat no longer drips, and lay them on the prepared rack. Keep them in the warm oven while the remaining squash cook.

 

6. When all the squash is fried, transfer it to a warm platter in one layer. Never crowd or stack them or they'll get soggy. Lightly sprinkle them with salt and pepper and serve them at once.

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10 June 2019: Crab Au Gratin

Lowcountry Crab Au Gratin, my first taste of the grand cuisine of Old Savannah, the place I have called home for four decades.

This week marks the beginning of my fortieth year in Savannah, Georgia's oldest city and its colonial capitol. Four decades of changed professions, loves lost and loves found, and learning to live with and cook in eight different kitchens. I never imagined that nearly two thirds of my life was destined to pass here.

 

I also never imagined crowning those four decades with moving. Twice. In two different directions—and within the space of not quite two months.

 

I cannot recommend it.

 

It all began innocently enough. For several years, we've admired a charming Federal-Revival house in Petersburg, Virginia, where Timothy grew up. Though built in 1942 and wearing a sad mantle of neglect from not having been lived in for several years, it was in remarkably good condition. Every time we visited family, we'd go by, admire its undimmable charm, grieve over its neglect, speculate about what its interior might be like, and daydream of what fun it would be to save it and bring it back to life.

 

But that was all it was: a daydream. If nothing else, it was four hundred and fifty miles from where we live. While our hope was to retire to Virginia to be closer to family, retirement was several years in our future. And so, charming though the house was, it seemed highly unlikely that it would be we who would rescue it.

 

The house, however, seems to have had other ideas. It kept working its charm on us. And last fall, it abruptly went on the market just when we were planning to go up for the funeral of an old friend. Thinking there was no harm in looking, we made an appointment to see it, and on a cold, wet November afternoon, finally crossed its threshold for the first time.

 

It was chilly, damp, dim, cluttered, and dirty—and just about as sad as a house could possibly be. But neglect and tarnish had not diminished its charm, although it did diminish its asking price. We were smitten. No, more like bewitched. And although retirement was several years in the future, we knew we couldn't let this chance pass us by, and bought it.

 

At last that daydream had become real. We were thrilled. But elation quickly turned to panic. What on earth had we been thinking? What were we going to do with a house so far away from where we lived? Since we had no plans to leave Savannah—and didn't yet want to, we finally made the hard decision to downsize here and keep the house as a second home until we retired. It'll be fun, we told ourselves. Sure.

 

What it was was frustrating, nerve-wracking, and all-consuming. But time does march on, and while we often think of that march as our enemy, its positive gift is that even our worst moments pass. We're finally settling in to a cozy townhouse in Savannah and the refurbishing of our vacation getaway house in Virginia is nearing completion.

 

A bonus of that settling in is that I now enjoy having two kitchens that both work. I'd started this adventure with one that was only marginally workable. For a time in the worst of it I had not two, but three kitchens that were barely usable at all, which is why this page has been lacking in both recipes and stories. But as I adjust to the luxury of two reasonably workable kitchens and begin to get back into a rhythm of cooking and writing about it, the irony that this new chapter is opening on the anniversary of my first crossing of the old Talmadge Bridge is not lost on me.

 

And as I reflect on four decades of living in and loving this lovely old city,  I am well aware of the apparent irony that I came here to pursue a career in architecture and preservation only to get detoured into a career of writing about food. The truth, however, is that there's nothing ironic about it: For while it was indeed Savannah's architecture that beguiled and lured me here, it was its cuisine that made me fall in love and stay.

 

So, maybe—just maybe—that old saying about the way to a man's heart being through his stomach has more truth in it than we allow.

 

Savannah Crab Au Gratin

 

My first meal in Savannah on that stiflingly hot early June afternoon was a solitary lunch of crab au gratin, something I'd never had before. It came to the table still bubbling from the oven, its gilded blanket of toasted cheddar concealing succulent local blue crab meat bound in a thick, creamy sauce laced with sherry, shallots, and a hint of cayenne pepper. It was one of the first Savannah dishes I learned to make and has remained a lifelong favorite.

 

Serves 4

 

1 pound cooked and picked crabmeat (preferably both lump and claw meat)

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter

½ cup finely minced shallots or yellow onions

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

3 cups light cream or half and half

2 tablespoons medium dry sherry (amontillado)

Salt

Ground cayenne pepper

Whole nutmeg in a grater

2 tablespoons freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

¼ cup fine cracker crumbs

4 ounces (1 cup) grated extra-sharp cheddar

 

1. Pick over the crabmeat for any lingering bits of shell and cartilage and discard them.

 

2. Put 3 tablespoons of butter and the shallots in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Sauté, stirring almost constantly, until the shallots are softened but not colored, about 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, 1 minute.

 

3. Slowly stir in the cream and bring it to a simmer, stirring constantly, then reduce the heat to medium low and cook, stirring, until thick, about 3 minutes. Add the sherry, return to simmer, and turn off heat.

 

4. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat it to 400° F. Lightly butter 4 6-inch gratin dishes or a 1½-to-2-quart gratin or shallow casserole. Fold the crab and Parmigiano into the sauce. Season it to taste with salt, cayenne, and nutmeg and divide it among the prepared gratins or pour it into the casserole. Level the tops with a spatula.

 

5. Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter in a small skillet over low heat. Stir in the cracker crumbs and toss until the butter is evenly absorbed. Turn off the heat. Sprinkle the cheddar evenly over top of the gratins or casserole and top with crumbs. Bake until bubbly and the cheese is melted, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot.

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