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Recipes and Stories

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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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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3 October 2018: Linguine with Crab

Linguine with Crab

There are far too many cooks who believe that a knowledge of culinary history and of the traditions of a given cuisine is a culinary straight jacket, that to be truly creative is to abandon the past and its structure, throw caution to the wind, and let your creative juices flow. But actually the opposite is true. In cooking, when there’s no grounding structure, the results are rarely memorable and all too often look less like a burst of creative magic than a train wreck.

Contrary to this notion, a firm grasp of basic the culinary principles and flavor profiles of a tradition actually lends more freedom than less to be creative in a meaningful and lasting way. 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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29 June 2017: Classic Crab Salad

Classic Crab Salad Served the the back shells. Photographed by John Carrington Photography

While lingering with friends at our table after dinner recently, the discussion turned (as it often does here in the South) to food. And as we began to share some Lowcountry specialties with a member of the party who’d recently moved to the South from New England, I was given a sharp reminder of how singular our experiences with food can be. Read More 

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23 June 2017: Seafood Stuffed Tomatoes

Seafood-Stuffed Tomatoes, Photographed by John Carrington Photography

One of the many things that Southern cooks share with Italians, especially those along the Ligurian coast that’s known as the Italian Riviera, is a love for filling hollowed-out vegetables with a blend of their chopped pulp, stale bread crumbs, herbs and seasonings, and often some kind of chopped meat, poultry, or seafood.

Here in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, stuffed vegetables have long been a beloved part of our summer tables. Recipes for them date back well into the nineteenth century. Read More 

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15 June 2015: Soft Shell Crabs

Fried Soft-Shell Crabs, with lemon and Herb Mayonnaise, from The Savannah Cookbook (2008). Photography by the talented John Carrington

One of the lovely things about early summer on the coast in the South is the brief window when soft-shell crabs are in season.

Like most crustaceans, as blue crabs outgrow their hard outer shells, they shed them and begin growing a new one. For a few fleeting hours before it hardens, the new shell is soft, delicate, and completely edible. They’re a much-anticipated seasonal delicacy here in the Lowcountry. That season is already waning here, but we still have a little bit longer to enjoy them. Read More 

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30 August 2014: Seafood Cocktails

A Timeless summer classic: Tybee Shrimp and Crab Cocktail

Labor Day weekend is traditionally summer’s last hurrah for most Americans, even though the season won’t officially end until the autumnal equinox later in September, and, in the Deep South, won’t be effectively over until well into October. But never mind about the calendar and heat index: Summer’s waning, whether actual or merely symbolic, is as good an excuse as any for one more outdoor party. Read More 

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24 August 2013: Deviled Crab

Deviled Crab, a Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry Classic

Crab cakes have become standard fare on Southern restaurant menus from Maryland to Louisiana, and one of the signature dishes of modern Southern cooking. They’re so popular that it seems petty to quibble over them. But as delectable as it can be (when well made), molding cooked crabmeat into a regular, round cake presents a delicate balancing act for the cook: keeping the binding breading to a minimum without having the cake fall apart in the frying pan. Read More 

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3 August 2012: Seafood-Stuffed Tomatoes

Savannah Seafood-Stuffed Tomatoes, from The Savannah Cookbook; photography by John Carrington
Fresh tomatoes, sweet shrimp, and delicate blue crab have a great affinity for one another, so it is no surprise to find any two of them combined in the pot wherever they all thrive, but especially in the tidewater regions of the Deep South. There’s Crab and Tomato Stew, Shrimp Creole, Shrimp and Tomato Pie, Seafood Gumbo—as many variations as there are coastal cooks. One of the loveliest and simplest ways of combining them, however, is when ripe tomatoes are used as a delicate casing for what amounts to a shellfish gratin. Read More 
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20 February 2012: For Mardi Gras, a New Orleans Classic

Crabmeat Maison

It hardly seems possible that Lent, the Christian season of penitence, is already upon us. Though the character of this season is marked by abstinence and reflection, it’s actually my favorite season for cooking, because the cooking—and eating—is more thoughtful. The simpler, less luxurious dishes that grace the Lenten table make one more conscious of the natural flavors of the food, and perhaps a little more thoughtful about what we put into our mouths.

But before Lent begins, we have one last whisper of the Winter Solstice holidays in Shrove, or “Fat”, Tuesday—or as it is known down in old Creole New Orleans, Mardi Gras. Designed as a way of using up the household stores of fat before Lent, Mardi Gras is the last burst of exuberant consumption (or in many cases, over-consumption) before settling in to the fast.

One could have the traditional pancake supper, I suppose, but to honor Mardi Gras, my mouth is stuck out for the centerpiece of every party ever given by friend and fellow food writer Julia Reed: a silver punch bowl mounded with Crabmeat Maison made as it is at the New Orleans landmark, Galatoire’s. That silver bowl of crabmeat landed her the job as food editor at Newsweek, and made her something of a legend among New York partygoers.

Crabmeat Maison a la Galatoire’s

Serves 12 to 18 as a cocktail hors d’oeuvres, or 8 to 12 as a cold main dish

1½ cups mayonnaise, preferably homemade with lemon juice (recipe follows)
½ cup (more or less, to taste) nonpareil capers, well drained
½ cup (more or less, to taste) thinly sliced scallions (about 4 small ones)
2 generous tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and whole white pepper in a peppermill
2 pounds jumbo lump crabmeat
Crisp toast points

1. Put the mayonnaise in a large mixing bowl. Gently fold in the capers, scallions, parsley, and a large pinch of salt and liberal grinding of white pepper, both to taste. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours.

2. Gently fold in the crabmeat. Mound it into a large serving bowl, surround it with toast points, and stand back for the stampede.

Homemade Mayonnaise
Makes about 1½ cups

1 whole egg or 2 large egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 generous tablespoon Dijon or Creole style mustard
1 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
1¼ cups vegetable oil

1. To make the mayonnaise in a food processor, put the whole egg, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process 1 minute.

2. With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the oil in a very thin, steady stream until it is incorporated and emulsified.

To make it using a whisk or hand-held mixer: use the two egg yolks and whisk them together with the lemon juice, vinegar, and salt in a ceramic mixing bowl. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil a little at a time. Read More 

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