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Recipes and Stories

8 September 2020: Roast Chicken, Leftovers, and Biscuits

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

8 September 2020: Roast Chicken, Leftovers, and Biscuits

 

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

 

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

 

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

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27 August 2020: Late Summer Cooking—Pan-Seared Fish Fillets

Pan-Seared Flounder with White Wine, Lemon, and Capers

 

Probably no one will disagree that this has been the oddest of summers. It almost feels as if it passed us by without really happening. Yes, we've had the fresh produce, the heat and humidity, long hours of sunshine, and crashing thunderstorms that mark the season.

 

And to get out of the apartment and see something other than one another and the same four walls, we've enjoyed long walks in the lovely summer-green parks that make Savannah unique and have even walked on the warm surf-washed sand of Tybee Beach. But for us, at least, it's been with a kind of odd detachment, as if time suspended in March and hasn't really caught up.

 

My cooking this summer has been reflective of 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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2 July 2020: Old Home Week and Pimiento Cheese

The Arts and Crafts Cottage where my maternal grandparents lived, which we all knew as "Ma-Ma's House."

 

Last week I went back to Anderson, South Carolina, my parents' home town and the site for some of my best childhood memories and earliest cooking experiences. It was the first time I'd been back in at least twenty-three years, and was bittersweet.

 

It was surprising how much was just was it had been when I last drove away from it, as if the ensuing decades had passed without touching it. But so much had changed—and a good bit of it for the better. By the time I was in college, the old downtown was rapidly going to seed. But it has since experienced a Renaissance. The courthouse square, which had been paved over as a parking lot in the fifties, has been reclaimed as a small park and the site of a new courthouse annex. Trees lined the center median of Main Street, and new shops, restaurants, and hopping night spots have filled the old storefronts that line its edges.

 

But. While all the places that had meant a lot to me were still standing, many of them were in peril. Read More 

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30 June 2020: Lowcountry Summer in a Bowl

Shrimp with Tomatoes and Okra

 

Three quintessential ingredients of a lowcountry summer table are tomatoes, okra, and local creek shrimp. And nowhere is the eclectic blending that defines our cooking better illustrated than when those three are combined in the pot.

 

Though they've found their way into gardens and pots the world over, tomatoes are believed to have originated in Central America. Okra, while now common in the Atlantic Rim's African Diaspora and in Southeast Asia, has its roots in Africa. And although dozens of varieties of shrimp are found in every part of the globe, our local brown creek shrimp have a unique sweetness thanks to the grassy marshes where they've thrived for thousands of years.

 

When all three come together in the same pan, however, their sum speaks solely of the coastal plains of the South and subtropical Caribbean,  Read More 

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30 May 2020: Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash

Stuffed Yellow Crookneck Squash with Bacon

 

My mother is descended from generations of gardeners, and fresh produce from our family garden counts among the fondest memories and greatest comforts of my childhood.

 

From late spring when the red clay of the Carolina hills was turned over for new planting until the frost nipped the last of the tomatoes and sweetened the fall greens, our gardens were both a place of deep comfort and a source for even deeper comforts at the table.

 

Of all the things that came from them, the one that resonates with the best of those childhood memories and characterized our summer table is yellow crookneck squash.  Read More 

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12 May 2020: More Pasta and Squash

Pasta with Bacon and Yellow Crookneck Squash

 

As many of you know, for most of my adult life, two culinary traditions have been inextricably intertwined in my kitchen: the Southern cooking of my childhood, and the Italian cooking that made such a marked impact while I was studying architecture as a young adult.

 

Part of it is that the two cuisines (or, I should say, collections of cuisines) have so much in common. The cooks of the South's many cuisines, and those of Italy, especially Northern Italy, share so many of the same ingredients and approach them with a similar mindset, combining and building flavors in exactly the same way. Because of that, the blending of these cuisines in my kitchen has a natural logic.

 

At any rate, that blending has marked my cooking for nearly half a century. Read More 

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3 April 2020: Finding Comforts in Isolation

Aunt Margaret's Congo Squares (Bars), a comfort in any season, but especially now

 

As we move into a third week of isolation and face that it's not going to end any time soon, we're all looking for comfort in this time of uncertainty wherever we can find it. Someone asked if I was cooking more—and actually, I'm not: we but rarely eat out and I cook every single day.

 

But what I cook has changed. I don't bake a lot, especially not sweets, except around the mid-winter holidays. But warm baked treats are a comfort—if you have flour—and I do, having just filled my flour canister up for a seminar I'd been asked to do on bread in the Bible. Social distancing orders caused the seminar to be postponed, but it meant I had a reasonable supply of flour on hand when hoarders stripped our grocery's shelves, so I've actually been baking a little.

 

A couple of days back, Timothy asked if I would make Congo Bars. It opened a floodgate of warm, deeply comforting childhood memories. They were just what we needed.

  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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12 December 2019: Crystallized or Candied Citrus Peel

Crystallized or Candied Citrus Peel

It's easy to imagine the cook who first decided not to waste the fragrant lemon and orange rinds that were left behind when the fruit was peeled and prepared for the table, fiddling around and boiling it in honey or sugar syrup until the tart, brightly colored peelings were plump and sweet. It's still one of the most delightful candies ever created, but is also indispensable in holiday baking, especially in fruit cake.

 

Though commercially candied citrus peel for baking has been around for a long time now, today most of it is made with high-fructose syrup, which, while cheaper, is cloyingly sweet with an unpleasant aftertaste. Fortunately, making it at home isn't difficult or all that time-consuming and is an excellent way to use leftover citrus peelings that would otherwise be thrown out. 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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25 October 2019: Soup Season and Beef Soup Monticello

Beef Soup Monticello

Last weekend, more than sixty members of my high school class gathered in the cool of a rainy upstate Carolina evening to celebrate the anniversary our graduation into adulthood. It was a welcome refreshment of the spirit, not only in the renewing of old friendships, but in the taste of distinctly autumnal weather afforded those of us who now live away from those hills.

 

The respite from our lowcountry heat made it easy to get into a fall mindset for the research and development of seasonal stew recipes for my regular newspaper column. But a bonus was that the combinations of flavors that came to the fore inevitably brought me back to a favorite recipe from a favorite kitchen of the past: Beef Soup Monticello. 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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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. 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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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." Read More 

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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. Read More 

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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. Read More 

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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. Read More 

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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. Read More 

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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. Read More 

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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. Read More 

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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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