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Recipes and Stories

15 August 2019: An Old Dog Relearning Old Tricks

A Quick Sauté of Beef is done in less than tweny minutes, start to finish.

 

I am having to relearn how to cook on an electric range, and the one on which I am learning is working my nerves.

 

Crowded into the end of our apartment's galley kitchen, the thermostat of its large front burner is defective and will suddenly make it surge to high heat when it's set anywhere between high and medium-low. From medium-low to low, it practically turns itself off and is barely warm.

 

That can be fixed, but the undercabinet microwave that hovers a mere thirteen inches above the cooking surfaces (five inches less than standard upper cabinet height) cannot.

 

Tall pots won't fit on the back and if there's anything on a front burner, that has to be moved before even low pots can be moved at the back. Since the large front burner is unreliable, less than half the cooking surface is really usable, and slow simmers (the one really good property of an electric range) have to be done on a small front burner in a pot that's almost too small for it.

 

Suddenly, I'm getting a sharp, unpleasant reminder of what it feels like to be a complete novice in the kitchen: Browning things without scorching them has become a challenge; rice that's uniformly fluffy and separate and not half-grainy-half-mushy is unpredictable.

 

The good things are that water comes to a rolling boil in half the time it took on the old gas range from our last place and I get really intense heat for a stir-fry or sauté. Oh, and the oven works reasonably well, but then who wants to be baking or broiling in this weather?

 

What all that means is that, while I'm relearning how to manage electric heat and wait for the necessary repairs on that front heat source, we're eating a lot of pasta, quick sautés, and stir-fries with so-so rice.

 

That relearning ought, in theory, to be simple: after all, I learned to cook on an electric range and have used one for more than half my life. But while I've never put much stock in that old saying about how an old dog can't learn new tricks, I'm finding out that it really is hard for this old dog to relearn old tricks, especially on equipment that has such added challenges built-in.

 

But what can one do? We still have to eat and even if we could afford a steady diet of restaurant food, that would be tedious at best.

 

Fortunately, sautéing is a perfect cooking method for hot weather. It's simple, fast, and requires no special skill from the cook. Sure, tossing the food as a professional chef does requires the mastery of a technique that takes practice and finesse, but, after all, there's nothing that says a home cook needs to master something that was developed by line cooks in a hurry. Steady flipping with a spoon or spatula will most of the time do the job nearly as well.

 

A Quick Sauté of Beef for Two

 

It seems appropriate, on the indomitable Julia Child's birthday, to celebrate her memory with a quick sauté of beef inspired by her recipe from The Way to Cook. The basic technique is the same regardless of the kind of protein, whether it's red meat or poultry, so you also use it for chunks of chicken or pork loin or tenderloin. It's done start to finish in less than twenty minutes, including the back-prep.

 

Because this is fairly rich, serve it with steamed potatoes and simple green vegetable or salad.

 

Serves 2

 

12 ounces beef filet tips, sirloin tips, or rib eye, cut into 1½-inch cubes

2 tablespoons minced shallot

3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

½ cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth

½ cup beef broth

1 tablespoon cream

1 tablespoon minced flat leaf parsley

 

1. Wrap the meat with several layers of paper towels, gently pressing to dry it. Unwrap it and heat 1 tablespoon of the butter and the oil in a 10-inch skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the beef, raise the heat to medium high, and brown it well on all sides, about 3 minutes tossing it often. Remove the meat to a plate with a slotted spoon or spatula and season lightly with salt and pepper.

 

2. Return the pan to medium heat, add the shallot, and sauté until golden, about 2 minutes. Add the wine to the pan and deglaze it, stirring and scraping the bottom to loosen any cooking residue. Let it cook until its aroma is no longer alcoholic and add the broth. Bring it to a boil and let the liquid boil until it's reduce by a little more than half its original volume. Whisk in any juices that have accumulated in the plate holding the meat.

 

3. Whisk in the cream and let it thicken slightly, then take the pan from the heat and whisk in 2-3 tablespoons of butter a few bits at a time. Return the beef to the pan, add half the parsley, and gently toss until the meat is coated. Divide the beef among two warm serving plates, spoon the sauce over it and sprinkle it with the remaining parsley.

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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.

 

But one of the very best of those fillings, even better perhaps than strawberries, is ripe, bright tart-sweet peaches. If you've never had peach shortcake, before the last fruit of the summer are gone, give it a try and see for yourself.

 

Peach Shortcake

 

This biscuit-like shortcake is the kind I remember my mother making throughout my childhood: She never had those little sponge cake cups and of course they were "fancy" so naturally we wanted those and not her simple homey cakes. Now we know better.

 

Makes 4:

 

For the biscuit shortcakes

5 ounces (about 1 cup) all-purpose Southern soft-wheat flour or pastry flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

2 tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits

1 tablespoon chilled lard or vegetable shortening, cut into bits

About ½ cup whole milk buttermilk or whole milk yogurt thinned to buttermilk consistency

 

For the peaches:

2 large, ripe freestone peaches

1 lemon, halved

Salt

5-7 tablespoons sugar, divided

Ground cinnamon and whole nutmeg in a grater

1 cup heavy cream

 

1. To make the shortcakes: Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 450° F. Sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and lard and cut it in with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture is the size of small peas. Make a well in the center and pour in ½ cup of buttermilk. Using a very light hand and as few strokes as possible, combine the ingredients into a soft dough. If it is too crumbly and dry, add milk by the spoonful until the dough is just holding together. Gather it into a ball.

 

2. Lightly flour the dough and a work surface and put the dough on it. Pat it out ½-inch thick. Fold it in half, pat flat again, and repeat 3-4 more times, using as light a hand as possible. If the dough gets sticky, lightly flour it, but use as little flour as possible. Pat it out ½-inch thick. Dip a 2½-inch-round biscuit cutter in flour and, pushing straight down without twisting, cut the dough into 4 rounds. Any leftover scraps can be lightly reworked and cut or baked as they are for cook's treat. Lay the cakes on an un-greased baking sheet.

 

3. Bake in the upper third of the oven for 8-12 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool on a rack and, if making them ahead, store them in an airtight tin or plastic container.

 

4. While shortcakes bake, peel, halve, and pit the peaches and slice them into a glass or ceramic bowl. Sprinkle with the juice of ½ lemon, a tiny dash or pinch of salt, 3-4 tablespoons of sugar, a dusting of cinnamon, and a light grating of nutmeg, all to taste. Toss well until the fruit is evenly coated, cover, and let it sit for 10-15 minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved. Taste and adjust the lemon juice, sugar, and spices and let it sit 5 minutes longer.

 

5. When you're ready to serve, whip the cream until frothy and beginning to thicken, sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of sugar, then whip it to firm peaks. Split the shortcakes horizontally with a serrated knife. Put the bottom halves on 4 dessert plates. Top with the peaches and some of their juice, holding back a few slices for garnish, then top each serving with a healthy dollop of whipped cream. Put the top halves of the shortcake over the filling, add a dollop or whipped cream, and garnish the edge with a few slices of peach. Serve as soon as they're assembled.

 

Recipe and some text are adapted from Essentials of Southern Cooking, Copyright © 2013 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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13 July 2019: Remembering Jo Bettoja

Jo Bettoja's Georgia Pasta is one part uptown Roman Pasta al Forno and one part down-home Southern Squash Casserole.

She was standing alone, her regal bearing making her seem much taller than she actually was. Impeccably dressed in a chili-pepper red Chanel suit, her sleek, graying hair neatly pulled back in its signature coil at the nape of her neck, she sipped from an old-fashioned glass cupped in her hand with careless grace, and exuded the kind of timeless beauty and noble elegance that had earned her the nickname "la bella contessa."

 

My breath caught in my throat. There, within just a few yards of my wondering eyes, was one of the great, iconic teachers of Italian cooking. I had two of her lovely cookbooks and had long admired her simple, direct way of writing and cooking. And she was right there. Alone.

 

Pinching myself and gathering my nerve, I ambled over, and shyly introduced myself, "Signora Bettoja, you don't know me from Adam's house cat, but I've been an admirer of yours for years and have wanted to meet you for a long time."

 

Jo Bettoja turned and, with a sly smile and sparkle in her eyes, looked me up and down and, in the thickest South Georgia accent I had ever heard, drawled, "No, sugar, but you sound like you're from my neck of the woods!"

 

She was right: we were indeed from the same neck of the woods. Though she'd spent most of her adult life in Rome, Italy, and I'd grown up in South Carolina, both of us were Georgia natives. And despite all those years in Rome where, her Italian friends insisted, she spoke Italian without a trace of American accent like a native Roman, her English still resonated with the lazy lilt of South Georgia.

 

We were at the opening reception of a conference for culinary professionals, teachers, and cookbook authors, surrounded by just about every nationality from every corner of the globe. But our voices went straight home, as if were sitting on a screened porch in Millen or Savannah having a drawling competition. Heads turned, looks were exchanged, eyebrows were raised. And we paid them absolutely no attention.

 

In true Southern fashion, we were too busy discovering the people we had in common and our shared love for both Southern and Italian cooking. Before our drinks were empty, we were sharing our favorite bawdy Southern jokes, had committed to ditching the crowd to have dinner together, and, as only Southerners and Italians seem to do, were feeling as if we'd known one another for decades instead of the twenty minutes it actually had been.

 

And so began a (very) long-distance friendship that would span well over twenty years, until almost a decade ago when Alzheimer's robbed Jo of her ability to travel and correspond by mail.

 

One of the things about this lovely woman that resonated with me was that we'd both come to writing about and teaching cooking in a very unorthodox way. I'd begun as an architect and had never taught anything but a little architectural history. Jo had begun as a model for Vogue, and was working in Rome without a thought to spending the rest of her life there, never mind to teaching its ancient cuisine.

 

But then she met Angelo Bettoja and fell in love. What happens when a good Southern cook marries an Italian and adopts his home town and cuisine as her own? She becomes a good Italian cook, that's what happens. As her family grew, and Jo embraced the cooking of her new homeland she became known even among her native Roman friends as a fine Italian cook.

 

Eventually, she and Anna Maria Cornetto, an old friend and fellow former model, noticed that many of their neighbors, who had always depended on hired cooks for family meals, were losing those cooks without any idea of how to reproduce the meals they'd provided. They decided to open a cooking school and went to Milan to study with the celebrated teacher Ada Parasiliti.

 

Even with that training on top of many years of shared experience, when they opened Lo Scaldavivande in Rome, it was met with both enthusiasm and skepticism. One of Jo's close Italian colleagues shared her reaction to this upstart American's presumption and subsequent conversion. "So, I went down to the school, I climb on the stool, I cross my arms, I cross my legs, and I say, 'Okay, Georgia girl, SHOW me! And do you know, by God, she did?"

 

And she kept on showing them. By the time she and I shared that old-home evening at that conference, she was one of the most respected and beloved cooking teachers of any cuisine. But at the risk of sounding a bit too patriotic, it has to be said that her reputation as a master in another culinary language other than her native one was no surprise to her fellow Southern cooks. She had simply recognized that the instincts and skills that had made her a good Southern cook were the same instincts and skills that had guided Italian cooks for centuries.

 

But Jo was beloved for more than just being a good cook and teacher. A large part of what made her so special was a generous heart, ready laugh, and eager joie de vivre. She was a handsome woman, but her real beauty had less to do with looks than with what radiated from inside her.

 

Last month, that generous heart gave out and the ready laugh was stilled as she succumbed to the complications of her illness. Thanks to that same illness I'd not seen or corresponded with Jo in several years, and had really missed her. Knowing that now I will not see or correspond with her ever again is poignant and saddening. And yet, that eager joie de vivre that she shared with us all will live on in my heart—and, I hope, in my cooking.

 

Jo Bettoja's Georgia Pasta

 

When I was working on my second cookbook, Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches, Jo generously gave me this lovely recipe to share in that book.

 

Nothing better illustrates the way she seamlessly blended her Southern culinary heritage with the cooking of her adopted homeland than this cross between a down-home squash casserole and uptown Roman pasta al forno. When Jo was visiting family in Georgia she made this, as I do now, with that most Southern of squash, yellow crooknecks, but in Rome, she said she "made do" with small zucchini. It's powerfully good no matter which squash you use.

 

Serves 4 To 5 (4 Italians, 5 Southerners)

 

2 pounds young, small yellow crookneck squash or zucchini

Salt and whole black pepper in a mill

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Handful fresh basil leaves (about 1/4 cup, tightly packed)

2/3 pound sedanini or pennette (small penne) or other small, tubular imported Italian pasta (lately I've been using Italian elbow macaroni because it takes me back to my own childhood)

¼ pound Parmesan (preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano), freshly grated

1 large egg

2 tablespoons fresh dry bread crumbs

 

1. Gently scrub the squash with a vegetable brush under cold running water, trim the stem and blossom ends, and cut them into 1-inch chunks. Put enough water to cover the squash in a heavy bottomed 4-6 quart pot, cover, and bring it a boil over high heat. Add a large pinch of salt and the squash, loosely cover and bring it back to a boil, then adjust the heat to medium and cook until they're very tender, about 5-8 minutes. Drain well and roughly mash them with a potato masher or fork. Add a liberal grinding of pepper and 2 tablespoons of butter. Chop two-thirds of the basil and stir it into the squash. (They can be prepared to this point a day ahead.)

 

2. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 350° F. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil in the pot in which the squash cooked. Add a small handful of salt and the pasta and cook for half the time indicated on the package (about 4 to 5 minutes—it should be underdone). Thoroughly drain and spread it on a large platter. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and three-fourths of the Parmesan, mixing it in well, and spread the pasta to arrest the cooking.

 

3. Break the egg into a separate bowl and beat until smooth. Add it and the pasta to the squash and mix well. Lightly butter a 2½-quart baking dish and turn the pasta and squash into it.

 

4. Chop the remaining basil fine and mix it with the crumbs. (This can be done in a food processor fitted with a steel chopping blade: put both in the work bowl, cover, and pulse until the basil is finely chopped.) Mix the remaining Parmesan with the crumbs and sprinkle the mixture over the top of the casserole. Bake it in the upper third of the oven until the pasta is tender and the top nicely browned, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

 

Note: Jo said that the squash could be prepared ahead of time, but don't cook and add in the pasta until you are ready to bake it. If you make the squash a day ahead and refrigerate it, let it come back to room temperature before adding the pasta.

 

The recipe and some text are adapted from Beans, Greens, & Sweet Georgia Peaches, 2nd Edition (Globe Pequot Press), copyright © 2014 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.

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12 July 2019: Skillet-Steamed Summer Squash

Skillet-Steamed Summer Yellow Crookneck Squash with Vidalia Sweet Onions and Thyme

 

Summer squash of all kinds are a staple in my kitchen throughout the season. There are almost always a few yellow crooknecks or zucchini (or both) in the refrigerator's vegetable bin and often a tub of cooked leftovers right next to the tub of pimiento cheese.

 

More often than not, they're simply cooked by steaming them in their own juices, a method I included in a recent column for the newspaper. It's basically how my grandmother used to cook them, with a few touches of my own added through the years, and is very simple, requiring next to no skill and only a very little attention from the cook. And it works for any summer squash, though it's especially nice for our sweet yellow crooknecks.

 

But while it's simple, there were nuances and details that couldn't be included in the limited space of a print medium, so I wanted to share those extra bits here.

 

My grandmother added a little water to the pan to keep the squash from drying out and scorching on the bottom, but I've learned that they don't need added moisture if they're seasoned with salt as they're layered with the onions, then left to sit for a few minutes so that their abundant moisture is drawn out by the salt. They'll lose more moisture as they cook, so there should be no need to replenish it by adding water to the pan so long as the heat is kept at a moderate level.

 

Like most simple things in the kitchen, success with this depends on the best ingredients you can get. Which means that, unless you grow your own, you'll need get them from a vendor that you know to carry local produce that's only a couple of days from harvest. Shop community farmers' markets and small vendors who sell only fresh, local produce.

 

Here's what to look for.

 

With summer squash, regardless of the type, smaller is better. The best crooknecks have very slender "necks" and "bodies" less than 2½ inches in diameter. Their skins will be smooth, taut, glossy, and firm but delicate, easily pierced with a fingernail. (But don't spoil the vendor's stock by gouging it: you'll be able to tell if it's tender and delicate just by lightly running a finger over it.) Their color will be a fresh, sunny yellow and their stems, a fresh bright green.

 

Pass over squash that are large and have a rough, "warty," and thick skin colored a deep yellow that tends toward orange: They're too mature and not only won't be tender but might even be bitter. Likewise avoid small ones that look dull and washed out, whose stems are yellow, almost white, or withered and brown: they're not fresh and will have lost a good bit of flavor.

 

The delicate skin will blemish easily, so by the time they get to market, a scratch or scrape or two is inevitable, but a heavily mottled surface with a lot of brown scars and scrapes is a surface that has been roughly handled, which means that the inside flesh is likely to be damaged.

 

The seeds should be small and underdeveloped – as Lettice Bryan put it in The Kentucky Housewife back in 1839, no more than tiny blisters. You won't be able to check for that in the market, but if you select small squash with all the above attributes, the seeds will be as they should be.

 

Cook them as soon as you can after you've bought them: remember, they've already been separated from the plant for several days and, while it's not noticeable for a day or so, deterioration actually begins the moment the stem is cut.

 

Skillet-Steamed Yellow Squash with Vidalia Sweet Onions

 

The high water content of Vidalia Sweet onions works to the cook's advantage here, lending its flavorful moisture for steaming both itself and the squash. The key is to let the squash and onions to sit for a few minutes after they're layered in the pan to allow the salt to draw their moisture.

 

The thyme is my addition: My grandmother didn't grow or use it except when it was included in the powdered herb blend marketed as poultry seasoning. But it makes a lovely pairing with yellow squash. You can omit it or try another herb such as oregano, sage, or summer savory.

 

Serves 4-6

 

2 pounds small, young yellow crookneck squash

1 large Vidalia Sweet Onion

Salt

1-2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves or chopped fresh oregano or sage, optional

 

1. Gently scrub the squash with a vegetable brush under cold running water and let them drain. Trim the stem and blossom ends, then slice them crosswise into ¼-inch-thick rounds. Trim the root and stem of the onion, halve it lengthwise, peel, and thinly slice it.

 

2. Cover the bottom of a heavy-bottomed 9-10-inch skillet with a third of the onion. Cover it with half the squash and lightly sprinkle them with salt. If you're using thyme, sprinkle some of it over the squash, to taste. Top with another third of the onion, then the remaining squash slices. Sprinkle that layer with salt, thyme (if using), and cover with the remainder of the onion. Cover the pan and leave it for at least 10-15 minutes.

 

3. Put the covered pan over medium heat. When the moisture begins to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, checking occasionally to make sure moisture doesn't completely evaporate, until squash are tender when pierced with fork. The pan isn't likely to get dry, but if it does, add a splash of water. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

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12 July 2019: My Grandmother's Creamed Yellow Squash

MaMa's Country-Style Creamed Summer Squash, with my bit of fresh thyme thrown in, a quintessential taste of her summer table

 

More on the skillet steamed squash from the last essay of that name.

 

The method was the one my maternal grandmother, known to us as MaMa, used to cook the sweet, young yellow crooknecks from my grandfather's garden throughout the summer, although she did it in a deeper saucepan rather than the skillet I use nowadays.

 

But while she did sometimes bring them to the table whole, she more often took them one step further and creamed them.

 

Creaming in this instance doesn't necessarily mean that they're doused with cream, although one could, but rather that they're mashed (as in creamed potatoes) and enriched with some kind of fat, in this case butter.

 

If I had to describe MaMa's summer table in one taste, this would be it.

 

Country-Style Creamed Yellow Squash

 

An unorthodox way of serving this that my grandmother never tried is as a delightful sauce for pasta, although she might've done it had it been suggested to her—she was an adventurous, curious cook to the day she laid down her spoon for the last time. Choose a short, craggy pasta that will hold the little bits of squash. Orecchiette, fusilli, rotini, penne, or elbows are all excellent choices. This will sauce about 1½ pounds of pasta, serving six to eight.

 

Before you begin, have a look at the previous essay from 12 July 2019: Skillet Steamed Summer Squash.

 

Serves 4-6

 

2 pounds small, young yellow crookneck squash

1 large Vidalia Sweet Onion

Salt

1-2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves or chopped fresh oregano or sage, optional

2-3 tablespoons best quality unsalted butter

 

1. Scrub the squash gently under cold running water, drain, and pat them dry. Trim the stem and blossom ends, then slice them crosswise into rounds about ¼-inch-thick. Trim the root and stem end of the onion, halve it lengthwise, peel, and thinly slice each half. Separate them into half-moon strips.

 

2. Prepare the squash and onions following the recipe for Skillet-Steamed Summer Squash from the 12 July 2019 post of that name, adding the optional thyme if liked.

 

3. When the squash are tender (easily pierced with fork), remove the lid and raise the heat. Cook, stirring often, until the moisture is almost completely evaporated. Turn off the heat and add 1-2 tablespoons of butter. Using a potato masher, roughly crush the squash, mixing until the butter is melted into them. Stir in another tablespoon of butter and serve immediately.

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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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27 February 2019: Melted Butter and Butter Liaisons

Bourbon Shrimp is just one of the hundreds of variations on sauces thickened with melted butter

 

When we talk today of "culinary heroes," we all too often forget the real heroes in cooking: the thousands of unassumingly genuine, curious, and clever cooks of the past who first discovered the techniques that we take for granted. It's on the shoulders of these forgotten souls that our modern culinary knowledge has been built.

 

Among one the greatest of them was the cook who discovered a simple technique that, over just the right amount of heat would—seemingly like magic—make butter melt in a way that kept it suspended in a liquid, creating a thick, sumptuously silky sauce.

 

The technique was well known by the time Europeans began to migrate to America, and has been around in Southern cooking from the very beginning. One of the very first published records of it is Mary Randolph's lucid recipe in The Virginia House-Wife in 1824.

 

To Melt Butter.

 

Nothing is more simple than this process, and nothing so generally done badly. Keep a quart tin sauce pan with a cover to it exclusively for this purpose; weigh one quarter of a pound of good butter, rub into it two teaspoonsful of flour; when well mixed, put it in the sauce pan with one table spoonful of water, and a little salt; cover it, and set the sauce pan in a larger one of boiling water, shake it constantly till completely melted and beginning to boil. If the pan containing the butter be set on coals, it will oil the butter and spoil it.

 

– Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife (1824).

 

To echo Mrs. Randolph, there is no sauce more simple or lovely than this melted, but thick butter; yet it is seldom seen in modern American cookbooks, properly executed or otherwise.

 

Melted (sometimes called "drawn") butter is the same idea as a classic Beurre Blanc in French cooking: the fat is barely melted so that it stays suspended in the liquid. Though when properly done, it doesn't need flour to help with that, most old Southern cooks like Mrs. Randolph followed eighteenth century English practice of adding a little for stability.

 

Later in the nineteenth century, this unhappily began to change. The proportion of flour and water (or milk) to butter increased, and most recipes titled "drawn" or "melted" butter were essentially heavy white sauces with barely enough butter in them to justify the name.

 

In Mrs. Randolph's day, whisks were rare in home kitchens, hence the technique of preparing the butter in a small saucepan that's set over a larger pan of simmering water and gently agitated. The one quibble I would have with Mrs. Randolph is that this is much easier to accomplish without a lid over the pan, so one can watch what's happening. The lid was probably intended to keep water from accidentally splashing into the butter, but if the pan is held just above the water or right on its surface, the lid isn't necessary.

 

By its nature, a sauce in which melted butter is the thickener can't be hot, since overheating will cause the fat separate, or, as Mrs. Randolph put it, "to oil." That's also why it can't be made too far ahead and held over heat, but is served at once in a sauceboat that's been warmed by rinsing it with hot water. It should be warm but not so hot that one couldn't handle it with bare hands.

 

To Melt Butter by Mrs. Randolph's Method

 

Before we begin, a few notes on Mrs. Randolph's recipe are in order. Measuring spoons had yet to be regularized in her day: a table spoon was a large serving spoon, roughly twice as large as our modern tablespoon measurement (which corresponds to a soup spoon in historical recipes). Her tea spoon, however, is roughly the same as our modern measure. The proportion of flour usually given is about 2 teaspoons. I find that one is plenty for half a cup of butter, although it actually doesn't need any flour at all. The sauce is lighter and more delicate without it.

 

One addition that will help is acid of some kind, which enhances the emulsification and stabilizes it. It will also boost the flavor. Allow about a teaspoon of lemon juice or wine vinegar for the quantity given here.

 

For little more than ½ cup, you'll need 4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, a teaspoon of flour, 2 tablespoons of water, and a little salt.

 

First, choose a small (no larger than 1 quart), heavy-bottomed saucepan for the butter and half-fill a larger, 3-quart pan with water. Bring the water to a boil over a medium heat and then reduce the heat to a steady simmer.

 

Meanwhile, put the butter and flour in the smaller pan and rub it together with a wooden spoon it's well mixed, then add the water and a healthy pinch of salt. Now hold the saucepan just over the simmering water so that it's not quite or barely touching the water. Shake it gently in a swirling motion until the butter melts and is beginning to bubble at the edges, about 4 minutes. Taste and adjust the salt, pour into a heated sauceboat, and serve at once.

 

It's easier to accomplish with a whisk: Unlike Mrs. Randolph's method, the butter for this technique should be cold and cut into small bits. Omit the flour, which is superfluous and even intrusive in this technique. Warm the 2 tablespoons of water in a 2 quart heavy-bottomed saucepan over the lowest possible heat.

 

When the water is just beginning to bubble at its edges, add a pinch of salt and whisk in 2-3 bits of butter to the pan until almost melted. Add 2-3 bits more and continue whisking until they, too, are almost melted and emulsified, and continue until it's all incorporated. If at any time the sauce seems to be getting too warm and the butter begins to look at all oily, remove it from the heat and whisk in 4-5 bits of butter at once to bring the temperature down. When all the butter is incorporated, taste and adjust the salt, pour it into a heated sauceboat and serve at once.

 

Another lovely way that melted butter is used, both in historical and modern cooking, is as a thickener and enrichment, either by whisking or shaking it into a reduction of cooking juices. The example that follows is a recipe I recently developed for a group of Southern ladies in Savannah who call themselves Southern Comfort.

 

Bourbon Shrimp

 

Here, the butter thickens a reduction that has a little lemon juice to boost the flavor and stabilize the emulsion. It's lovely as an appetizer served as-is, with crusty bread for sopping the sauce, but you can also offer it as a main dish with bread or over hot cooked rice or fettuccine.

 

Serves 6-8 as an appetizer, 4 as a main dish

 

1¼ pounds large shrimp

4 ounces (½ cup) unsalted butter, cut into bits, divided

¼ cup finely chopped shallots (about 1 large)

2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and minced

2 teaspoons finely chopped anchovy filets or anchovy paste

1½ ounces (1 jigger or 3 tablespoons) bourbon

½ cup shrimp stock (see step 1)

Louisiana hot sauce, to taste

2 large lemons, 1 halved and 1 cut into 6-8 wedges

1 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped oregano

Crusty bread such as a baguette

 

1. Peel the shrimp, reserving their shells to make stock. If you're making it ahead of time, cover and refrigerate the shrimp. Put the shells in a saucepan with 3 cups of water. Bring it slowly to a boil over medium-low heat (watch the pot—it tends to boil over). Adjust the heat to a simmer and cook until the liquid is reduced to 1 cup. Strain, cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 months.

 

2. Put 2 tablespoons of butter and the shallot in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté until the shallot is pale gold, about 2-3 minutes, then add the garlic and anchovy. Sauté, stirring, until the anchovy dissolves and the garlic is fragrant, about 10-15 seconds. Add the shrimp and toss until just curled and pink, but not quite firm and opaque, about 1 minute.

 

3. Remove the shrimp from pan and carefully add the bourbon. Let it evaporate and add the shrimp stock. Bring it to boil, stirring and scraping the pan to loosen any cooking residue, and cook, stirring often, until reduced and syrupy.

 

4. Return the shrimp to the pan, squeeze in the juice from one of the lemon halves, and add a couple of dashes of hot sauce. Stir, taste, and season with salt and add lemon juice and hot sauce as needed. Add the herbs and, tossing constantly, let the shrimp heat through until completely done, about ½ minute. Off the heat, add the remaining butter and shake the pan until it's barely melted and the sauce is thick. Serve warm with lemon and crusty bread.

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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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22 December 2018: Old-Fashioned Thumbprint Cookies

Old-Fashioned Thumbprint Cookies

Once upon a time, I was very organized. Any holiday baking that I did would’ve been long ago planned out and done by now. But life, as the saying goes, has been too much with us lately, and other things have had to take precedence over it.

Moreover, with our grandchildren a full day’s drive away, and most of my friends and neighbors either watching waistlines or already inundated with treats, the only people here to eat Christmas cookies are the two of us. Now, two people and multiple tins of homemade Christmas cookies, cheese straws, and fruitcake is a deadly combination.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a few homemade treats in the house, and there’s always someone who’s holiday will be brightened by a gift of things we’ve made ourselves. Read More 

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20 December 2018: Savannah Chafing Dish Crab, or Hot Crab Dip

Old-Fashioned Savannah Chafing Dish Crab, or Hot Crab Dip

Once upon a time, an elegant fixture on the buffet table of any Savannah holiday party worth attending was a hot crab spread or dip that was simply called “Chafing Dish Crab.” It was of course named for the way it used to be served—warm but not bubbling hot from a glistening, polished silver chafing dish.

Dipped into toast cups  Read More 

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7 December 2018: Baked Potatoes

Old Fashioned Baked Potatoes: boiled and mashed potatoes mixed with butter, milk and salt, then spread in a casserole, topped with a sprinkling of black pepper, and baked until golden brown on the top.

When we nowadays hear “baked potato,” what automatically comes to mind is a fat russet potato baked whole in, as the old cooks would have put it, “its jacket,” until the outside is crispy and and the inside is fluffy and dry.

But before wood burning iron cookstoves and later, gas and electric ranges replaced the open hearth in the kitchen, that was called a “roasted potato,” which for us today usually means potatoes that are cut up, tossed with oil, and baked at a high temperature. Read More 

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30 November 2018: The Writing Life and Chicken and Dumplings

Old-Fashioned Southern Chicken and Dumplings

This page has been a bit quiet the last few months and I’m sorry about that. But I did promise at the beginning that it wouldn’t be filled with drivel just to keep myself in front of you all.

In the meantime, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I do.

In many ways, it’s a small thing. It’s just stringing words together on a page—and not about the monumental, earth-shaking problems that are facing humankind. I don’t probe the depths of the human intellect or heart, nor contemplate the vast mysteries of the universe. I don’t attack injustice, blind hatred, suffering, or destructive greed.

All I do is write about how to cook and do it well. It’s never about being clever or inventive, and rarely tries to shake anyone up. It’s about ordinary stuff. And comfort.
 Read More 

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5 November 2018: Autumn Breakfast Biscuits Stuffed with Pan-Fried Pork Tenderloin

Hot, freshly-baked buttermilk biscuits stuffed with pan-fried pork tenderloin, an old time "hog killing day" breakfast treat.

Some of my very best childhood memories are tied to the cool, crisp days of autumn—and not merely because it happens to be the time of year when I was born. There’s something about the cool, clear air, golden light, and rituals of the season that are always renewing and reassuring.

One ritual of autumn that has been nearly lost to us all is the annual hog killing day. I confess to having only a vague memory of those days from when we lived in Grassy Pond, a little farming community outside Gaffney, South Carolina. But the memories that have been passed down by my mother and her parents have been told and retold until they’re almost as vivid as if I’d been right there beside them,  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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29 September 2018: Michaelmas and Mushrooms

Mary Randolph's Stewed Mushrooms

Though autumn officially began a week ago and won’t really be felt here in Savannah for weeks to come, for me September 29, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (commonly called Michaelmas) is the real beginning of the season, which happens to be of my favorite of the entire year.

Aside from roasted goose in parts of England, there’s not a lot of food that’s connected with Michaelmas. But among the flavors that speak of autumn for me are mushrooms: in soup, sauce, over pasta, rolled in an omelette, or just on their own, sautéed in butter or, as the early nineteenth century doyenne of Southern cooking, Mary Randolph, directed, stewed in their own juices: Read More 

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27 September 2018: Ham and Coca-Cola

Ham Steak Baked in Coca-Cola, a modern Southern classic

Old, in the context of culinary history, is relative. The cuisines that collectively make up the thing we loosely refer to as “Southern cooking” aren’t exactly ancient when compared with their root cuisines in Europe, Africa, Native America, and Asia, but they’re actually a good deal older than we often suppose.

As early as the mid-seventeenth century, for example, the cookery of the Virginia Tidewater had already solidified into a cuisine that was unique to the region and would be easily recognized by modern Virginians. And by the middle of the eighteenth century, the rice cuisine of the Carolina Lowcountry, the Creole cookery of New Orleans, and, many believe, the still largely undocumented cookery of Appalachia had taken on the basic form that they have today. In short, most Southerners could go back two centuries and feel right at home at the table.

That said, many of our most iconic, argument-provoking dishes are really not much older than my generation Read More 

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14 September 2018: Old Friends, Mentors, and Sautéed Apples in Bourbon Caramel

Sautéed Apples in Bourbon Caramel Sauce

One blustery late autumn evening, Timothy and I had gone up to Charleston to sing in a choir for a special evensong and were staying, as we do whenever we can, with my lovely friend, mentor, and adopted big sister, Nathalie Dupree and her husband Jack Bass.

Our “pay” for singing was a dinner that, to Timothy’s disappointment, did not include dessert. When we got back to the house and had settled in at the kitchen table, Nathalie, who is a text book example of the maxim that Southerners are always talking about food, wanted to know all about where we’d eaten and what we’d had. Read More 

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19 August 2018: MaMa’s Vegetable Soup

MaMa's Vegetable Soup, photographed for my first book, Classical Southern Cooking, by the incomparable John Carrington.

If my entire life as a cook could be summed in one thing, it would be a lifelong—and so far—failed quest to reproduce my maternal grandmother’s summer vegetable soup. Her kitchen was where I first cooked, and we made many a pot of vegetable soup together during my summer visits. The memory of its taste remains vivid more than half a century later. But somehow, I’ve never been able to get my own to taste and look exactly like hers.

When I was trying to construct a recipe for my first cookbook, in her typical way, MaMa said, “I never measured anything for soup, so just guess.” Well, of course, she measured— Read More 

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11 August 2018: Stuffed Eggplant

Classic Seafood-Stuffed Eggplant

Eggplant, one of the great defining elements of the cuisines of the Mediterranean basin, has also been a staple in Southern kitchens at least since the late eighteenth century. Believed to be native to the Far East, this exotic vegetable with the odd-sounding name found its way to the Mediterranean and Africa long before the Americas were colonized, but its exact migration has been lost to time. Likewise, no one is sure how it found its way into the South.

In some parts of our region, it used to be known as “Guinea melons” or “Guinea squash,” after the West African nation, which, while by no means proof of the route it took getting to our shores, is certainly suggestive.

At any rate, for at least a generation before Mary Randolph’s landmark work The Virginia House-Wife was published in 1824, Southerners have been loving eggplant.  Read More 

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1 August 2018: The Joys of Summer Minestrone

Classic Minestrone alla Romana. Summer in a bowl.

In all of cooking, nothing satisfies me in the summer, both in the making and the eating of it, quite the way that a pot of vegetable soup always does. Whether it’s my best shot at reproducing my grandmother’s soup (something I have never quite succeeded in doing) or a classic minestrone alla romana, it’s my idea of the ultimate summer comfort food.

Whenever I manage to get home for a visit, it’s the first thing Mama and I make together. It’s never exactly the same: The base is always tomatoes, onions, and okra, but while she was still gardening, we’d add whatever was ready to be harvested supplemented by the stash from two enormous chest freezers in the garage. Read More 

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28 July 2018: Old-Fashioned Shrimp Salad

Old-Fashioned Shrimp Salad, here tucked into Parker House rolls and enjoyed with tea.


Before July slips completely away, here’s one last word on those old-fashioned chopped meat salads, specifically, one that’s quintessential to a Lowcountry summer: shrimp salad.

No one would argue that tomato sandwiches are the primary hallmark of summer for most of us. We eagerly anticipate that first really vine-ripened tomato so we can thickly slice it, tuck it into soft white bread slathered with mayonnaise, and relish it wearing an old shirt (or no shirt) while standing over the sink, because it’s going to drip all over us when we bite into it.

But here in the Lowcountry, the hallmark sandwich of summer is shrimp salad.  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 June 2018: Summer Comfort Food and Ham Salad

Old-Fashioned Ham Salad slathered thickly onto hearty bread

I’ve never been very interested in clever cooking. And the older I get, the less interested in it I become. I’m not talking about being genuinely and intelligently creative or inventive in the kitchen, but about the kind of cooking that’s more about being clever for the sake of novelty, and all too often at the expense of flavor.

If, when one sits down at the table, one is obliged to be cerebral and analytical about what’s in one’s mouth, or wade through a thicket of startling and even conflicting aromas and flavors that crowd one another out, quite frankly it gets completely in the way of any real pleasure.

In short, if I have to think over what’s in my mouth before I can decide whether I like it, in my opinion, the cook has failed at his job.  Read More 

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8 June 2018: Old-Fashioned Chicken Salad

Old Fashioned Southern-Style Chicken Salad, yes, with saltine crackers

We were just home from a quick trip to Charleston to catch up with my friend and mentor Nathalie Dupree and get in a couple of Spoleto concerts. It was midafternoon and we were tired and hungry. The refrigerator gave up a bit of leftover poached chicken and, because I’m Southern, there’s always mayonnaise and what the old cooks called “made mustard.” A quick survey turned up a nearly empty jar of bread-and-butter pickles that needed to be finished off, and while the celery was old and not very promising, there’s always onions in the pantry.

Sometimes, knowing when to leave well enough alone is a cook’s best asset.  Read More 

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21 May 2018: The Case of the Corrupted Collop

Classic Scotch Collops, here made with pork tenderloin.

Oh, the convolutions of an historian’s mind. While researching a story for my regular newspaper column, I was reminded of a curious old recipe from Harriet Ross Colquitt’s timeless classic, The Savannah Cook Book, published in 1932. The recipe was for Scotch Collops.

Now, collop is an old English word for a thin slice of meat. It could be used for anything from veal to bacon, though it most commonly described thin slices of veal or beef round. They were usually fried in butter or lard and sauced with a rich gravy made from the deglazed pan juices—essentially the same as Italian scaloppine. Read More 

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26 April 2018: Asparagus, Leeks, and New Potatoes

Stir-Fried Asparagus with Leeks and New Potatoes

Before the season for asparagus passes completely, here’s another great stir-fry that brings it together with two other favorite spring flavors, young leeks and little red new potatoes.

This is the kind of thing my mother would make when I was growing up, since Stir-frying is one of her favorite cooking techniques. Not only is the technique quick, it does wonderful things for the fresh produce that is no further than her back yard. Read More 

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21 April 2018: Of Spring Peas and Thyme

Fresh Spring Pea Soup with Spring Onions and Thyme

Whether you call them garden, green, sweet, or, as we often do in the South, “English” peas, you probably take the plump, round seeds of the trailing plant pisum sativum for granted. You may even think of them as ordinary and a bit boring. Yet, once upon a time, these little orbs were celebrated as a precious commodity and a rare harbinger of spring.

Thomas Jefferson even carried on a friendly competition with one of his neighbors for the first pea harvest of the season. Read More 

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21 April 2018: Spring Peas and Onions

My Father's Sweet Spring Peas with Spring Onions

While we’re on sweet peas, a favorite way to dress them in my kitchen is with bright, herby spring scallions and butter (and lots of it). It’s not only delicious, the mere aroma of it always brings with it warm memories of my father.

Contrary to the notion that ministers do nothing from Sunday to Sunday but write long, tedious sermons, my father was a very busy man. Aside from three services a week (more, if someone got married or died), Bible study groups, and not one, but three sermons to compose, there were visits to the sick, shut-in, worried, and grief-stricken, counseling sessions for troubled marriages and spirits, and patience to be found for irritating parishioners who were ever eager to find fault with him, his family (that would be my brothers and me), and the church in general. Read More 

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6 April 2018: Stir-Frying Asparagus

Southern-style Stir-Fried Asparagus with Country Ham and Scallions

The lovely thing about the tender new produce of spring is that it doesn’t ask for much in the kitchen, but practically begs for quick, light treatment. And nothing is quicker and lighter than stir-frying.

Most of us automatically associate stir-frying with the ancient cuisines of China and South-East Asia. But it’s actually a basic, almost universal technique (essentially the same as sautéing) that’s found in most of the world’s cuisines well beyond Asia, including France, Italy, and the Middle-East.  Read More 

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