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Recipes and Stories

8 September 2020: Roast Chicken, Leftovers, and Biscuits

Creamed Chicken with vegetables on Cream Biscuits has the hearty comfort of a pot pie without the fuss of pastry and a prolonged stay in the oven.

8 September 2020: Roast Chicken, Leftovers, and Biscuits

 

One of the most comforting things that I do in my kitchen is roast a chicken. There's something about the process that soothes and reassures like nothing else. Until recently, however, it was a comfort that had its limits.

 

While the process and the first perfect slices with their sliver of crispy skin and dribble of silky gravy are indeed an unparalleled comfort, even a small bird is more than my two-person household can consume in two meals. After the second day, what's left rapidly starts losing its appeal.

 

And as its allure dwindled, finding ways to rejuvenate it so that not even a scrap was wasted was a challenge. Even sharply reminding myself that there were hungry people who'd welcome stale leftovers didn't help. The prolonged pandemic quarantine changed all that. Read More 

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30 July 2020: A Summer Tradition with an Old Favorite

My Shrimp Creole, a dish I've made every summer for at least half a century.

 

Tradition has been defined as "how it was done when you were a child." Whether that's a general truth or just a jaded observation of how lifelong behavior patterns form at a very early age, we do tend to hold onto things, both good and bad, from our childhoods.

 

Regardless of when and how they begin, as so many personal and family traditions have been laid waste in this time of pandemic isolation, never have the ones that we can still keep seemed more important.

 

One of mine, which began when I was about ten, is making shrimp creole every summer. Even at that age, cooking and cookbooks were already a source of endless fascination. Read More 

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24 July 2020: Tomato Sandwiches

English-style tomato sandwiches for afternoon tea, the kind one can enjoy without straining ones social graces or staining one's good clothes.

 

This time of year, there's an awful lot of deeply opinionated nonsense written about one of summer's simplest and greatest pleasures: tomato sandwiches.

 

Among the silliest are the "we're just plain folks" types who claim that it must be made with gummy white loaf bread that sticks to the roof of one's mouth and is so insubstantial that a slice of it will compress to a peanut-sized nugget, and that it must squirt and run all over one's arms and shirt.

 

That's just about all that they seem to agree upon: Some authoritatively insist that the crust may never be trimmed off, others that it must always be removed, some that the tomato must be the size of a rib-steak and hang out the edges while others allow nothing thicker or larger than the bread itself. There are proponents of the dictum that the tomato must be peeled, others that it should never, ever be peeled.

 

And then there's the mayonnaise (which is taken for granted): Read More 

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16 May 2020: Quarantine Cooking for Two—Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks

Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks with Red Wine Déglacé

16 May 2020: Quarantine Cooking for Two—Pan-Broiled Hamburger Steaks

 

One of the most revealing things about this pandemic lockdown is the power that the comfortably familiar has had over us, especially in the kitchen and at the table.

 

Many of us who cook as much for pleasure as necessity have a list of things we're always saying we'd master if only we had the time. Well, now we have it. But instead of leaping to explore those uncharted culinary avenues, what did we do? Most of us turned inward, fell back on the kinds of safe comfort foods we've made hundreds of times.

 

It's only natural, in such unsettling, uncertain times as these, that we'd not just crave but need the safety of familiar comforts. There's nothing wrong with it. Read More 

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30 March 2020: Simple Carbs in a Crisis

Gratin of New Potatoes and Spring Onions

 

A dear friend and fellow food writer/cooking teacher reminded me this morning of one reason that panic hoarders have cleaned out the flour, pasta, and rice from most of our markets over the last two weeks: Simple carbohydrates are a natural mood elevator.

 

She suggested breadmaking as a great way to expend energy in this time of confinement that has an added bonus of providing a lovely, warm simple carbohydrate that comforts and naturally lifts us from the inevitable depression that comes with being cooped up.

 

It's a fine idea. Unhappily, unless you made it to the market before panic emptied the shelves of bread's primary ingredient, for the moment, an idea is all it can be.

 

So far, however, no one has been panic-hoarding one of natures great sources of simple carbohydrates: potatoes (at least, not here in Savannah where I live). Read More 

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11 February 2020: Smothered Pork Steaks with Sage and Shallot Gravy

Smothered Cubed Pork Steaks with Sage and Shallot Gravy

 

One of the best things about having a basic set of simple dishes that we turn to again and again is that they provide us with knowledge and skills that we don't even have to think about. So, when we're confronted with a new ingredient, once we understand its essence, we can automatically apply the knowledge and innate set of skills we already have, without having to dig out a recipe.

 

Recently, a recipe featured in my newspaper column called for a small amount of fresh pork. While shopping for it, I ran across cubed boneless pork steaks on sale, and found a package that contained just enough for the recipe with two nice-sized steaks that could be set aside for another meal.

 

I'd never cooked cubed pork steaks, but it didn't matter.  Read More 

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27 January 2020: A New Leaf

Ground Beef and Macaroni Casserole: Simple comfort food whose subtleties should no be taken for granted.

It's been a bit quiet on this page for a reason—one that doesn't say anything flattering about me.

 

The electric range in my apartment kitchen, which has given me fits ever since we moved in, decided to up its battle plan and try to put me over the edge: the burner whose switch and thermostat was going bad went all the way, and instead of randomly surging to high stayed there no matter what it was set on.

 

It left me to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas with two small heating elements, a large one that could only be used to bring water to a boil in a hurry, and an oven that runs hot and doesn't heat evenly. The only way to get a slow braise or stew was in that oven on a baking stone. And once that pot or kettle of water was boiling, it had to come off the element; the heat was too intense even for cooking pasta. Read More 

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18 November 2019: Early American Bean Soup

Early American White Bean Soup

 

It never pays to get carried away and overthink things in the kitchen.

 

When the weather finally turns cool, nothing warms and comforts quite as simply or completely as a hearty bean soup. The ingredients are inexpensive, the method is artless and requires next to nothing in the way of skill from the cook, and virtually the only way to mess it up is to walk away from the pot and forget it long enough for it to boil dry.

 

And yet. When I dug up one of my recipes from an old newspaper column to make a shopping list for a pot of bean soup, instead of finding simple directions for a simple dish involving one pot (as it should be) was confronted with an unnecessarily complicated operation requiring two pots and a layered sautéing step that was supposed to "build" the flavors but in fact didn't contribute enough to those flavors to make it worth the trouble. Read More 

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29 October 2019: Party Food and Hot Cheese Dip

Hot Baked Three Cheese Dip

 

One of the biggest challenges of writing my regular newspaper column is party food. That's mainly, I confess, because I'm a bit of a broken record when it comes to putting out a party spread: I butter-roast a couple of pounds of pecans, toss them with salt (and chopped rosemary if I'm feeling racy) grate a pound or so of cheddar and stir it into a batch of pimiento cheese, stuff a pan of biscuits with country ham or roll out a batch of spicy cheese straws, and call it a day.

 

Coming up with a different menu that's clever and interesting and doesn't have any of those things on it, is always a struggle.

 

The clever part is the biggest stumbling block. Read More 

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18 September 2019: Panned Oysters

Elegant simplicity, Panned Oysters on Toast

As Savannah's weather begins to moderate and our season for oysters opens, it seems like a very good time to revisit an old local favorite, Panned Oysters. There may be other ways of preparing oysters that are as good, but short of forcing a live oyster open and slurping it without ceremony right out of its shell, none can top it for flavor or surpass its elegant simplicity. Read More 

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14 September 2019: Blackberry Cobbler

Old-Fashioned Blackberry Cobbler, with a proper pastry crust.

Some of my loveliest late-summer memories are of foraging for wild blackberries in the pastures, woodland thickets, and shoulders of country lanes in the rural communities and small towns where I grew up in upstate South Carolina.

 

We'd come in from those outings tired and sweaty (we had to wear long sleeves, thick jeans, and sturdy shoes as protection not only from the brambles but crawling varmints), our hands and wrists scratched and deeply stained with purple, filled with at least as many berries as we had in our pails. I could close my eyes and literally see mound upon mound of shiny purple-black fruit. Read More 

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26 July 2019: Peach Shortcake

Peach Shortcake

 

Shortcake is one of the most versatile of all home desserts. The biscuit-like cake can be enriched with more butter and an egg yolk, spiced, studded with currants or chopped raisins, glazed with beaten egg white for a glossy finish, or brushed with milk and topped with cinnamon sugar.

 

The filling can be anything at all from savory to sweet: on the savory end, creamed chicken, creamed asparagus or peas, or even seafood (though I'd leave out the sugar in the shortcake for that); on the sweet end, fresh berries or soft summer fruit such as peaches, plums, mangoes, or figs, jam, cooked fruit compote, or even citrus marmalade. Read More 

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19 October 2018: Grilled Ham and Pimiento Cheese

Grilled Ham and Pimiento Cheese.

When griddle-toasted sandwiches became popular in the last century, it raised one of the oldest sandwiches known, thin-sliced ham and cheese tucked between thin slices of buttered bread, from classic to perfection. There’s nothing in all of cooking that can surpass that exquisite balance of crisp butter-toasted bread, warmed salty-sweet ham, and irresistibly  Read More 

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8 July 2018: Summer Comfort and Blueberry Crumble

Blueberry Crumble is summer comfort food at its very best.

It’s funny how, when we talk about “comfort food,” we almost always mean something that will provide comfort in the cold season, that keeps us warm and cozy inside when it’s cold and bleak outside: a hearty stew, a big bowl of chili or chicken and dumplings, a savory pot pie or pot roast.

But in the heat of summer, we often need comfort just as much as we do in cold weather, and while we may welcome a warm dish in the midst of a steady string of salads, cold soups, and sandwiches, the things that are so comfortable in the cold season are usually not all that appealing when the heat index soars. Read More 

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16 February 2018: Hot, or Baked, Chicken Salad

Hot, or Baked Chicken Salad, a relatively new Southern classic

Tradition has often been defined as “how they did it when we were children” and it’s not a bad description of the way we all too often look at the elusive thing that we call Southern Cooking. So much of the “traditional” cooking that sparks debate among Southerners today has actually not been around all that long.

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. Read More 

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3 February 2018: Classic Chicken Divan

My Chicken Divan


One of the great dishes of mid-to-late twentieth century American cooking is Chicken Divan, a layered gratin of broccoli, chicken breast and a velouté sauce enriched with cheese. Believed to have been name for its place of origin, the Divan Parisien Restaurant in New York City’s old Hotel Chatham (which stood at Vanderbilt Avenue between East 48th and 49th Streets), it was probably created sometime in the 1940s and is credited to Chef Anthony Lagasi.* Read More 

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12 January 2018: In Defense of Southern Cooking, Part I

Fresh Collard Greens

One day around the new year, when pots of collards and field peas were simmering away in so many Southern kitchens, a discussion arose among some of my colleagues about the frequency with which collards seemed to be turning up on so many so-called “new” Southern restaurant menus, and of how these greens were mostly being used and presented in ways that had nothing to do with Southern cooking.

The nicest thing one could say of most of these misbegotten things is that they’re bewildering. Read More 

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24 December 2017: Drinking Custard

Drinking Custard

Every year when the winter holidays roll around, I begin to crave that old-fashioned Southern holiday treat, drinking custard. Eggnog, at least, the real thing laced with bourbon or brandy, wasn’t something we had in a Baptist pastorium. But drinking custard was another thing. We could enjoy it not only at Christmas, but throughout the cold season.

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 Read More 

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19 December 2017: Christmas Breakfast

Christmas Strata with Ham and Mushrooms

When I was growing up, Christmas day always began (well, after plundering a roomful of Santa loot) with a traditional Southern breakfast: grits, eggs, my granddaddy’s perfectly seasoned pork sausage, country ham with red-eye gravy, homemade biscuits, usually with fruitcake, ambrosia, and sometimes drinking custard added in.

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. Read More 

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21 November 2017: Cinnamon-Orange Cranberry Sauce

Simple Cinnamon Cranberry Sauce is embarrassingly easy and lends a welcome homemade touch to the meal.

This year, I’m not doing my usual planning and precooking for Thanksgiving dinner, which has not been easy. For the first time in years my house isn’t fragrant with turkey broth and roasting pecans and my refrigerator isn’t crammed with more food than will fit into it.

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.  Read More 

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15 November 2017: MaMa and Salmon Croquettes

MaMa's Salmon Balls or Croquettes if you want to be dainty, served on one of her brown flameware plates with her flatware.

Nostalgia does odd things to us, at times when we’re least expecting it. Last week, while ambling down an aisle at the market, minding my own business and looking for something completely different, nostalgia, in the form of a large can of wild-caught “Traditional Style” salmon, jumped right off the shelf and accosted me.

“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!” Read More 

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1 November 2017: Of Writers’ Block and Bourbon Apple Cobbler

Bourbon Apple Cobbler

Any writer will tell you that there’s nothing to equal the exhilarating feeling that comes with finishing a piece of writing. Whether it’s a whole book, a magazine article, or just a short essay like this, it’s like winning a door prize, finally being let out of jail, and reaching the top of an impossible mountain climb or finish line of a marathon, all at once.

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. Read More 

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30 October 2017: Chicken Pot Pies

My Chicken Pot Pie, with carrots, celery, onions, and peas and a basic pastry topping

One of the most welcome of all supper dishes on a crisp autumn evening is old-fashioned chicken pot pie. For warming comfort it may have its equals, but it has no superior.

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. Read More 

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23 October 2017: Mama’s Stuffed Zucchini

Mama's Baked Stuffed Zucchini

My mother has capably filled many roles in her life—singer, teacher, administrator, pastor’s wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, but she’s never more herself than when she’s in her garden.

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. Read More 

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9 October 2017: Broccoli, Bacon, and Potato Soup

Broccoli, Bacon, and Potato Soup

This morning, my office window looks out on an autumnal scene that seems like the beginning of perfect day for soup. Through the dwindling leaf canopy of the old pecan tree that dominates the view, the early sun occasionally peeks weakly through clouds that promise rain. There’s even a bit of frost on the window panes.

Unhappily, appearances, as they so often are here in Savannah, are deceiving:  Read More 

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3 October 2017: Pork Chops for Fall

Oven-Braised Pork Chops with Apples and Sauerkraut

It was a crisp fall evening in the early days of my graduate school work at Clemson University, and we actually had something that architecture students rarely see: an evening free of deadlines.

I’d just moved off campus into my first apartment on my own, a cozy four room half-basement affair tucked into the side of a hill, with a kitchen that, at long last, was completely mine. Every free moment back then was spent in that kitchen, experimenting, puttering, nibbling. Read More 

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30 August 2017: Old-Fashioned Squash Casserole

A Southern Classic: Old-Fashioned Squash Casserole

Before summer passes, some thoughts on an old seasonal classic.

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. Read More 

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28 August 2017: Sherry Cobbler

An Old-Fashioned Sherry Cobbler. Photograph by John Carrington Photography, from The Savannah Cookbook (Gibbs-Smith, 2008).

Today, in part because of the horrendous weather that’s wreaking havoc elsewhere in the South, we’re having an unusual and welcome break from the long, unrelenting swelter that’s August in the lowcountry. With almost daily showers and high temperatures hovering at three digits, the outdoors has been a giant steam bath since July. Every year we complain that it seems worse than the last, but if we’re honest, we’ll admit it’s pretty normal for summer down here. Still, it often leads us to ponder how our ancestors got through it without air-conditioning.

The answers to that puzzle are: mountain cabins, beach cottages, and sherry cobbler.  Read More 

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4 July 2017: Old-Fashioned American Potato Salad

For Independence Day, Old-Fashioned American Potato Salad

Because it's Independence Day and I'm missing my grandmother more than usual today, tonight's dinner includes the very old-fashioned American-style potato salad that MaMa always made, with celery, sweet onion, sweet pickles, hard-cooked eggs, and mayonnaise (she used Duke's) laced with a little yellow mustard for zip and color.

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.  Read More 

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11 April 2017: Parsley

My culinary security blanket: a bouquet of fresh flat-leaved Italian parsley

Now, here’s a curious thing that I can’t explain. For reasons that are a complete mystery to me, having a bouquet of fresh parsley in my kitchen is a kind of culinary security blanket. It reassures and comforts me, even when I end up using very little of it in the pots.

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. Read More 

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