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Recipes and Stories

2 April 2021: An Intimate Easter Dinner V—Strawberry Semifreddo

Strawberry Semifreddo

 

To round out an intimate Easter dinner with elegant simplicity, one can do no better than the classic Italian semifreddo. At first glance, the name seems contradictory, since it means "partly cold (frozen)" and yet the thing is actually completely frozen.

 

The usual explanation is that the light, mousse-like texture remains soft even when frozen solid, and doesn't feel quite as cold in the mouth as gelato, sorbet, or ice cream.  Read More 

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31 March 2021: An Intimate Easter Dinner III—Gratin of Potatoes with Herbs and Scallions

Classic Gratin of Potatoes with Herbs and Scallions

 

For those who prefer potatoes as the starchy side at Easter, an alternative to the pasta suggested earlier is this luxurious but simple potato gratin. Based on a classic French one, it's usually made with caramelized onions, but here thinly sliced scallions and a few spring herbs give it a fresh lift and make it a fine accompaniment for either lamb or ham.

 

Actually, it's pretty compatible with just about anything, and is also lovely with poultry (especially roasted), fish, pork, and venison.

 

The only real work is grating cheese and scrubbing, peeling, and slicing potatoes. And, actually, those probably don't even have to be peeled if you like the skins. Once those chores are done, it's just a matter of tossing it together and popping it into the oven. Read More 

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30 March 2021: An Intimate Easter Dinner II—Thin Spaghetti with Scallions and Thyme

Thin Spaghetti with Scallions and Thyme

 

Thin spaghetti simply dressed with butter, freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and thinly sliced young scallions has long been a spring standard at my table. I start making it when the first beautiful, slender little scallions appear in the market in late winter, and have it at least once a week throughout the season.

 

It's the very essence of spring and so perfectly balanced that even thinking of adding a thing risks falling into an exercise in gilding lilies.

 

But whenever I happen to have fresh thyme on hand, a few of its leaves inevitably find their way into the bowl.  Read More 

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29 March 2021: An Intimate Easter Dinner I—Roast Lamb with Bourbon and Mint

Roast Lamb with Bourbon and Mint

 

All my life, the way holidays were celebrated has been determined by family obligations. Easter was the lone exception. It was the one holiday with no prior claims on it, the one where we could create our own traditions.

 

For most of my time in Savannah, I've hosted Easter dinner in my own home or at the very least have planned and executed it from the kitchen of a friend.

 

Last year laid waste to that tradition.  Read More 

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5 February 2021: An Old Favorite Revisited

Broccoli, Bacon, and Potato Soup

 

The older I get, the simpler my cooking seems to become. Whether it's because our aging palates develop at taste for simpler flavors or we just get lazy is a toss up, but the change has been so gradual that it might've gone unnoticed had it not been for the pandemic.

 

Through this time of isolation, our comfort favorites have been repeated over and over, and I've begun to notice how they've gotten simpler, both in their composition and execution. And it's had its merits. Stripping away extraneous layers, steps, and ingredients has made for cleaner, more direct flavors, not to mention a whole lot less fuss. Read More 

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31 January 2021: Hearty Winter Vegetable Stew

Winter Vegetable Stew

 

It's been one of those cold, wet Sunday afternoons in Savannah, the kind that's perfect for having a hearty, comforting stew simmering in the kitchen.

 

"Stew" for most of us brings to mind chunks of red meat or poultry simmering for hours in rich brown gravy. But there was no meat in the house nor time for an endless simmer. Happily, "stew" is a technique that isn't just for meat; it can be applied to just about anything. And the time it takes depends on what's in it. Read More 

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26 January 2021: A Fresh Start, Winter Comfort, and Mastering My Grandmother's Sweet Potato Pie

MaMa's Sweet Potato Custard with Bourbon Whipped Cream

 

That hackneyed saw about old dogs and new tricks has never felt more depressingly true than it has in my kitchen over the last few months.

 

The pandemic lockdown might, for some, have been a challenging adventure into previously unexplored culinary avenues. But let's face it, most of us are really not all that adventurous. For every undauntable wanderer there are probably a dozen or more of us who'd just as soon stay in with a good book and cup of tea.

 

This tired old dog is one of the latter. I settled into a nest lined with an endless cycle of repeated comfort food favorites, emerging only when forced into dipping my toes into new territory out of necessity to keep my newspaper column interesting.

 

The end of the column brought with it an end to any motivation to go exploring. Read More 

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7 January 2021: The Gentle Art of Braising

Oven-Braised Chicken

 

Braising may well be my favorite way of cooking. Not only does it concentrate flavors and tenderize tough foods, it actually keeps delicate foods moist and succulent.

 

While it's ideal for winter and for the hearty but tough cuts of meat that we favor in cold weather, this versatile method really knows no season. I turn to it year round. It's really ideal for this strange time in our lives, too, since any quantity of food, large or small, can be braised.

 

But probably the best thing about braising is that it's easy on the cook:  Read More 

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10 November 2020: My Grandmother's Chicken and Dumplings, Revisited

My Grandmother's ("MaMa's") Chicken and Dumplings

The lingering isolation and economic uncertainty of the pandemic have been difficult enough for all of us. But add in a contentious national election and our need for Comfort with a capital C has hit an all-time high.

 

And when we're craving that comfort, nothing quite satisfies like those things that comforted us as children. For me, the ultimate such comfort is my grandmother's dumplings, not just eating them, but the process of making them as well.

 

Throughout my childhood, MaMa was my best friend.  Read More 

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3 November 2020: Election Day and Autumn Stew

Slow Cooker Chicken and Vegetable Stew

3 November 2020: Election Day and Autumn Stew

 

Savannah is meeting this election day bathed in crisp autumnal sunlight and, at long last, brisk, seasonal temperatures. It's perfect weather for getting out to do our civic duty.

 

It's also a perfect day for making a hearty stew. Once they're assembled, they need very little attention, especially if you have a slow-cooker, and are perfect for election day, since they're very forgiving of being left to simmer should your polling place be extra busy and/or the social-distancing precautions make the process last a bit longer than expected.

 

For most of us, "hearty stew" conjures images of red meat and rich gravy, but it doesn't have to be. This handsome chicken stew has all the flavor and heart-warming body of those hefty meat stews without being heavy on fat. And it's so easy to put together. Although there's an extra step in browning the chicken before it goes into the cooker, that only adds a few extra minutes and one extra pan to clean. But what it adds in flavor makes the extra bit of work well worth it.

 

Chicken and Vegetable Stew

 

The presently popular boned and skinned breasts and thighs never have as much flavor as whole chicken, but this stew gets the most from them, is less messy to eat, and, if you're worrying about such things, leaner.

 

You'll need a 3½-quart slow cooker.

 

Serves 4-6

 

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts or 1 pound with 1 pound boneless, skinned chicken thighs

Salt, whole black pepper in a mill

2-3 tablespoons canola, olive, or other vegetable oil

½ cup dry white wine or extra-dry white vermouth

2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried

1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced large

1 14-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes

3 medium ribs celery, washed, strung, and cut in 1-inch lengths

5 medium carrots, washed, peeled, and cut in 1-inch lengths

3 large red-skinned or gold potatoes, scrubbed and cut in 1-inch cubes

1 cup chicken broth

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

 

1. Trim and cut the chicken into 1-1½-inch cubes, pat dry with paper towels, and season with salt and pepper. Film a heavy skillet with oil and warm it over medium heat. Add the chicken and brown it on all sides, then transfer it to the slow cooker. Deglaze the skillet with wine and pour it over the chicken.

 

2. Sprinkle with half the herbs and all the garlic. Scatter the onion over the top and add the tomatoes. Put the carrots and celery around edges and scatter the potatoes over the top center.  Add the broth and sprinkle the remaining herbs over all and season lightly with salt and pepper.

 

3. Cover and cook on high 1 hour, then low for 5-6 hours or cook the entire time on high for 4-5 hours or on low 8-9 hours, or until the chicken and vegetables are all tender.

 

4. Serve the stew in heated rimmed soup bowls or pasta bowls, sprinkled with parsley, offering crusty bread for sopping on the side.

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1 October 2020: Bourbon Pecan Squares

Bourbon Pecan Squares

 

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. While it's often depicted as an ending—as the quickening of summer fades and winter's long nap looms—for me, it feels more like a beginning, a time of hope and fresh starts. And this year, we need that sense of hope, of new beginnings more than ever before.

 

But aside from that, one of the things I love best about the season is that it's such a perfect time for cooking. The warmth of the kitchen not only becomes bearable, but welcome, and the raw materials we have to work with is at its most varied and best. Everything has fattened itself up for the dormant cold season ahead—and I don't mean just animals like us. Even the fruits and vegetables of fall have a density and richness that spring and summer produce often lacks.

 

This is also the time of year that I bake more. Read More 

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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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