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
Recipes and Stories
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
For nine years, I have hated my kitchen.
People are always surprised to hear it: Somehow, there’s a prevailing notion that all food writers are possessed of dream kitchens—spacious, light, airy, equipped with state-of-the-art appliances and gleaming copper cookware.
And wouldn’t that be nice?
I am blessed to have nice equipment (including gleaming copper), but the kitchen it occupies is rented and not the stuff that my (or anyone else’s) dreams are made of. Read More
So much contemporary food writing, my own included, focuses on the importance of freshness: Using the best ingredients that our budgets will allow; taking the time and care to select the freshest, choicest things that we can find; using care in the way we store and use them. It would be nice if our cooking could always be like that. But more often than not, our day-to-day cooking is (or should be) more about not wasting what we’ve already got on hand.
Far too many people on this planet—no further away than our own neighborhoods—are hungry. No, using up that food instead of throwing it out isn’t helping those hungry people. But to squander still edible food just because it’s not at its absolute peak is self-indulgent and irresponsible. Read More
During the post-war 1940s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s, when homemaking was still the most common profession for women, a popular form of entertainment was the ladies’ luncheon, either as an end in itself or as a part of a bridge party, garden club, or church circle meeting. The food for these occasions was dainty and fancy: tomato aspic, consommé, creamed chicken and seafood, casseroles, chicken, ham, and fish salads, and congealed and composed salads. How it looked was probably more important than how it tasted, but flavor was still not to be taken for granted.
The king, if you’ll pardon the expression, of all this dainty fare was Chicken à la King. Basically creamed chicken with an attitude, it dates back, as so many things of its kind do, to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, with at least four claims on the credit for its creation. Read More
The deep belief in the healing power of chicken soup may well be one of the most universal concepts in the world’s cuisines.
No matter where on this globe one happens to be, if there are chickens in the barnyard and sick people in the house, there will be chicken soup in the pot. The details and flavorings that go into that pot will vary, depending on the culture and the cook, as will the age and size of the bird. It’s often called “Jewish Penicillin” in our country, but the faith in it as a curative really has no territorial or cultural boundaries. Read More
If you’re doing a ham for Easter, you’re pretty much home free from here, but if you like to have lamb for the feast, as I do, you can’t cook it ahead unless you just want to have it cold on purpose.
Fortunately, a boned and butterflied leg cooks quickly with a minimum of last minute fuss. Read More
Yesterday, a regular reader asked me to devote one of my newspaper columns to the proper way of cooking a sunny-side-up egg. My first reaction was that it’s a very simple process that even a big mouth like me could not stretch out into an entire newspaper story.
My second reaction was to recall that, like all simple things, a properly fried egg does take a little finesse—and finesse is a virtue that is far too often overlooked in the kitchen, especially when the process is a simple one.
Sunny-side up is actually just another name for the classic American-style fried egg. And the real secret to success with it lies in understanding that “fried,” in this instance, is a misleading moniker. Read More
Cleaning out the cooking school kitchen at Kitchenware Outfitters, emptying the pantry of “what is THAT doing in here,” outdated samples, and small, unusable portions of condiments, pasta, curry paste, and so forth, dusting and reorganizing drawers, dish cupboards, and pot cabinets, is never my idea of a good time, but it has to be done periodically and the downtime before classes begin is the sensible time to do it.
And, truth to tell, there’s something cathartic about it that is really satisfying. Read More
Now that strawberries are in season again, we’re constantly making use of them in the dessert bowl at the end the meal. But while they turn up all through the season in our cereal, salad, and snack bowls, we don’t often think of beginning the meal with them.
And yet, a cool, refreshing strawberry soup is a lovely and novel way to tease palates at the beginning of dinner, luncheon, or even brunch. Read More
If all has gone well and you’ve done enough basic prep by tomorrow, your only really big job will be the turkey and dressing. If you haven’t tried to roast a turkey in a year (or have never done it), relax: a turkey roasts just like a chicken – it just takes longer. Allow plenty of time and remember that it doesn’t have to look like those magazine covers. Read More
Now that we’ve established that I take an ecumenical approach to the traditional sweet potato and pumpkin custard pies on Thanksgiving’s dessert board, and have shared my grandmother’s recipe for the former, here’s how she made the latter.
It’s just a standard pumpkin custard without frills or “reinvention,” varying from most other American recipes only in detail. Read More
Never mind the arguments over whether the pie should be pumpkin, sweet potato, pecan or not pie at all, but cheesecake: the easiest way to deal with whatever you’ve planned for the grand finale is to sweet talk someone else into doing it. However, if you’ve not done that (or you’re the person who got sweet-talked), and are contemplating a ready-made pastry, know that the difference between a memorable pie and a merely good one is the crust. Read More
On Thanksgiving day, practically every table across the country on which the centerpiece is our quintessentially American bird, one can almost take for granted that the turkey will be mated with another quintessentially American thing: cranberries.
And despite the hundreds, if not thousands of cranberry sauce, compote, chutney, and relish recipes that are presently cluttering the internet, most of those berries will be served straight out of a can, which is odd. Read More