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
Recipes and Stories
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
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
One of the real joys of teaching is the sharing. It’s more than just showing someone the basics of cooking, but also sharing the subtleties that make a cook into a good one, trading culinary secrets with other teachers and students, and revisiting memories of the people who’ve shaped me into the cook I’ve become.
Unhappily, it’s been a year since my last class. So, a recent class for a group of feisty Southern ladies who gather under the singularly appropriate appellation “Southern Comfort” marked a welcome return of the sharing, trading secrets, and revisiting of memories.
The best memories it brought to fore were of my lovely friend Bonnie Gaster, the fabulous cook who helped me create the appetizer that opened the class. Read More
One of the great seaside dishes of summer in the Coastal South, whether that coast abuts the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico, is shrimp salad. It’s been commonplace in the South since the beginning of the twentieth century, but I’ve not found printed recipes for it that date back much further than the latter part of the nineteenth century. That said, the same basic recipe was used for fish and lobster salads as early as the 1830s and 40s, and along the coast, shrimp would almost certainly have been made into salad in the same way.
Those historical recipes were a simple triad of cooked shrimp, chopped celery, and homemade mayonnaise. That was it. And the basic recipe has changed very little: The most that sensible modern cooks add is a little onion. Read More
About two-thirds of a left over roasted chicken, half a bag of green grapes languishing in the vegetable bin, and a new bundle of scallions. Add in a steaming afternoon in which cooking is out of the question. For most people, the logical sum of all that would’ve been chicken salad with grapes, a modern standard that has been enjoyed all over our country for more than thirty years.
Most people, that is, except for me. Read More
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
Once upon a time, a pot containing a pepper plant that produced tiny, innocent-looking peppers no bigger than small peas could be found in almost every Savannah courtyard. Known as “bird peppers,” they only looked innocent: they’re among the fieriest of all the hot pepper clan. Everyone grew them because they were a fixture in Savannah dining rooms. The fresh peppers were passed in a small bowl to be used as a condiment for soup.
But they were also used in an infusion with sherry to create a lovely condiment known simply as Pepper Sherry. Whether it was in an elegant crystal cruet or just a re-used soda or condiment bottle, this fiery, amber liquid graced almost every sideboard in town, from the humblest creek-side dwellings to the most elegant of townhouses downtown. Read More
At the end of the 1970s, DuBose Publishing Company of Atlanta released a slim little volume called Four Great Southern Cooks. Despite its unassuming appearance, this book was destined to become one of the great treasures of traditional Southern cooks and food historians. Tattered copies that survive are fiercely guarded as family heirlooms, especially here in Savannah. Read More
I submit this in response to the persistent myth that Southerners historically had no subtlety with the vegetable pot: it comes from a late nineteenth century Savannah manuscript. Read More
Pondering green-sprouting spring onions last week sparked memories of a nearly lost pleasure of the Southern gardens of my childhood: tender, spring shallot sprouts. They’re a luxury born of necessity: sprouting shallot beds have to be culled so that they don’t crowd one another, giving the bulbs room to grow fat and multiply. Since they’re too beautiful to just toss away, they’ve long been used as other green onions might be. Read More
You’re probably thinking “Southern scaloppine” is an oxymoron, since most Americans believe that scaloppine, Italy’s name for medallions of meat pounded thin, cooked quickly, and finished in gravy made by deglazing the pan with wine or broth, is a concept we’ve only become acquainted with during the last half-century. But that’s only because early American cooks didn’t use the Italian name for the concept. It’s actually quite an old idea that wasn’t confined to the boundaries of Italian kitchens. Early cookbooks that Europeans brought with them to America often gave recipes for it.
The old English name for scaloppine was “collop,” and it was used for any thin slice of meat, just as “escalope” was in French, though it most often referred to thinly sliced veal round. That’s probably because, until dairy practices changed in the 1930s and 40s, veal was actually commonplace and relatively cheap. However, the word was also applied to similar cuts of beef, mutton, or venison. So was the cooking technique.
Pork was rarely mentioned in connection with those recipes until the mid-nineteenth century. While salt pork and ham were ordinary everyday food in the days before refrigeration, fresh pork was seasonal, especially here in the South.
The early recipes for pork scallops were more often called “steaks,” and while they could be cut from the round, they were more often taken from the loin and delicate (some would say bland) tenderloin. While the latter have become quite popular and commonplace today, in the past they were a rare late-autumn treat.
Recipes like this one were as uncommon as they were lovely:
213. Pork Steaks.—The tenderloin makes the best steak. Cut them a quarter of an inch thick; fry in boiling lard, turning constantly; serve hot. Make gravy by pouring in a small quantity of boiling water; let it boil up once, and pour over the steak. Serve with them tomato or onion sauce. Steaks may be cut from the hindquarter or chine.
— Annabella P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, 1867
Mrs. Hill was using “fry” very loosely: what she intended was the same light sauté as a scaloppine, the constant turning necessary to keep the thin pieces of meat supple and tender. Though she was silent as to seasonings, most of her pork recipes called for the meat to be rubbed with salt, pepper, and sage, a triad that was practically a given in Georgia from her day until now.
Other cooks used wine in the pan gravy, and in later recipes, the medallions were dredged (sprinkled) with flour before sautéing, then added back to the gravy after browning for a brief finishing simmer—exactly like scaloppine.
The following is one such recipe that has become a personal favorite for fall in Savannah, where at times the climate is autumnal in name only. The key ingredient is Madeira, a wine that was once practically a religion in this town and to this day remains an integral part of its cuisine.
Pork Medallions (or Scaloppine) with Sage and Madeira
From my latest book, The Savannah Cookbook.
1 pork tenderloin, weighing about 1 pound
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
2 teaspoons finely crumbled dried, or a heaped tablespoon of finely minced fresh, sage
2 tablespoons bacon drippings or unsalted butter
¼ cup flour, spread on a plate
½ cup Madeira
½ cup meat broth, preferably homemade
1. Wipe the pork dry with an absorbent cloth or paper towels. Trim away any fat and silver skin and cut it crosswise into 8 equal medallions about 1-inch thick. Lay them on a sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper, cover with a second sheet, and gently pound them out to ¼-inch thickness. Season both sides well with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the sage evenly over both sides of the pork, and rub it into the surface.
2. Warm the drippings or butter and oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat until bubbling hot. Raise the heat to medium high, quickly roll the pork in the flour, and slip it into the pan until it is filled without crowding, cooking in batches if necessary. Fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes, turn, and brown the second side, about 2 minutes longer. Remove the scallops to a warm platter.
3. Stir a teaspoon of flour into the fat in the pan. Let it cook for a minute, stirring, and slowly stir in the Madeira. Cook, stirring and scraping the pan, until thickened, then stir in the broth. Bring to a simmer and cook until lightly thickened. Return the scallops to the pan and cook, turning them several times, until they are heated through and the sauce is thick. Turn off the heat, taste and correct the seasonings. Return the pork to the platter, spoon the gravy over it, and serve at once. Read More
One of the key foundations on which so much of Southern cooking is built is the rather magical pairing of okra with tomatoes. From Maryland to Florida, Virginia to Texas, whether it’s simply the two vegetables simmered together, a thick gumbo, or a complex pot of vegetable soup in which they’re joined by everything else in the garden, the combination is practically universal.
Small wonder: this union is one of those perfect marriages of flavor and texture, so perfect in fact that we tend to forget it was unheard of as little as five centuries ago. Tomatoes are of course native to Central America and okra is African; for thousands of years they were quite literally a world apart from one another.
Exactly how they came together is murky territory for historians. However, since tomatoes were introduced to West Africa by Portuguese explorers early in the sixteenth century, it seems logical that the idea sprang from the mind of an African cook. And it’s significant that the first (if not only) appearance of this pairing in American cookery is in the South, where there were enslaved Africans in many kitchens.
At any rate, it quickly took root down here. When Mary Randolph set down her recipe for “ocra and tomatas” in The Virginia House-wife in 1824, the combination was already so deeply engrained that it was practically universal. Down in the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, for example, it was a defining element of the local cuisine when Mrs. Randolph was in diapers.
In Savannah, the really characteristic dish that spun off this pairing is Okra Soup, a simple mélange of tomatoes, okra, and broth made from both beef and ham. Once a staple soup course throughout the summer for formal two o’clock dinners and main dish for businessmen’s lunches and family suppers, its real beauty as a culinary concept is that it can be both refined and elegant and coarse and hearty.
Regardless of how and when it’s served, okra soup always comes with a large spoonful of steamed rice. Once, fiery little bird peppers and/or Pepper Sherry were offered as well. The peppers were passed in a small bowl, and each guest took just one to crush in the bottom of the soup plate, but removed it before the soup was ladled in (they’re so hot that that’s all most people could stand). Pepper sherry, equally as hot but more refined, made the rounds in a cut glass cruet, to be added in mere droplets at the diner’s discretion.
Such graceful customs have, unhappily, all but disappeared, but thankfully the classic soup endures.
Savannah Okra Soup
The best way to tackle this job is to turn it into a 2-day operation: make the broth on the first day, chill and degrease it, then finish the soup the following day.
2 pounds meaty beef shank bones
1 smoked ham hock, about ¾ pound
2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
3 pounds ripe tomatoes, scalded, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
1½ pounds small, tender okra (about 8 cups), trimmed and thinly sliced
Salt and whole black pepper in a peppermill
1½ cups hot Lowcountry Steamed Rice
Fresh green bird’s eye peppers and/or Pepper Sherry (see below), optional
1. Bring the beef, ham hock and 3 quarts of water slowly to a boil in a heavy bottomed stockpot over medium heat, carefully skimming away the scum that rises. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the liquid is reduced to 2 quarts, about 2 hours. Add the onion and simmer slowly until tender, about 20 minutes. Let it settle a few minutes and skim off the excess fat. You may make the broth a day ahead. Cool, cover, and refrigerate it without skimming, then you can simply remove the solidified fat from the top.
2. When you’re ready to finish the soup, bring it back to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the okra and tomatoes, loosely cover, and let it come back to a simmer. Uncover, reduce the heat, and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
3. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until the vegetables are tender and the soup is quite thick, at least an hour more—longer won’t hurt. Remove the beef and ham hock. Some cooks pick the meat from the bone and add it back to the soup. Others frown on this practice. Discard the bones.
4. Pour the soup into a heated tureen or divide it among heated soup plates. If offering fresh bird peppers, allow guests to crush a single pepper in their bowls and remove it before the soup is ladled in. You may also pass Pepper Sherry (see below) instead. Put ¼ cup of rice in the center of each serving, or pass it separately.
Notes on additions: Other vegetables are sometimes added, most commonly butterbeans (small lima beans) and corn. Add a generous cup each of fresh, small green butterbeans and freshly cut white corn for the last 40 minutes of simmering.
To make Pepper Sherry: put a third of a cup of bird’s eye peppers (or as much as half a cup of other hot peppers) in a heatproof bowl. Pour a cup of boiling water over them, let stand for one minute, then drain and transfer the peppers to a glass cruet or jar that will hold one and a half cups. Add a cup of medium dry sherry, cover, and let step for at least a day before using. Read More
The heat that summer, like this one, was record setting and brutal. Anyone with the means to do so fled for Tybee (our local beach) or a mountain cabin. The rest of us braved it out as best we could and tried to pretend it didn’t matter.
We all had ways of dealing with that heat, but fans, loose cotton clothes, and extra ice in one’s bourbon can only do so much. To get through with grace involves a certain amount of psychology, and at that, my late friend and neighbor Marilyn Whelpley was an expert.
In those days, there were no VCRs. One actually had to plan around a fixed network schedule. When Marilyn learned that a local station was airing the winter holiday classic White Christmas in the middle of July, she asked me over to make an evening of it.
Despite the heat, she’d been putting up tomatoes that day (ripe tomatoes, like corn, wait for no one), and held back a few to make a pan-full of Spanish Tomatoes—simply peeled, cut into wedges, and simmered with a few slices of onion and sweet bell pepper. Served over rice with a bit of sautéed local smoked sausage on the side, its bright, fresh flavors renewed our heat blunted appetites as we watched that classic film about waiting for snow and pretended that cooler weather just around the corner.
Neither of us knew at the time that Spanish Tomatoes had deep roots in Savannah’s culinary past. It goes back at least to the late 1860s, when Mrs. Fred (Leila) Habersham, one of Georgia’s first known cooking teachers, taught it in the cooking school she ran in her mother’s home on the corner of Abercorn and State Street.
Mrs. Habersham sautéed each ingredient separately, layered them in a dish, and baked them until they were richly concentrated and flavorful. One student aptly noted in her notebook that they were “delightful to eat just so, or served for sauce, or as an entrée.”
Marilyn’s preparation was more streamlined, and while its flavors were not as concentrated, they were fresher and more direct, just right for a White Christmas supper on a searing July evening.
Despite the heat of that summer, I fell in love with this place and came back to live. Part of it was probably a passion for historic architecture, another part, the unique warmth of these people who have become a part of my life. Perhaps it had a little something to do a timeless seafood-rich cuisine that has become an indelible part of my own kitchen.
But maybe—just maybe, it owed more than Marilyn ever knew to the comfort of White Christmas and a plateful of Spanish Tomatoes.
Serves 4 to 6
2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoonfuls drippings or unsalted butter or olive oil
2 medium green bell peppers, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, thinly sliced
1 large Bermuda or yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and thinly sliced
Salt and ground cayenne pepper
1. Blanch, peel, and core the tomatoes. Over a sieve set in a bowl to catch their juices, cut them into thick wedges and scoop out the seeds. Add them to the bowl with their juices.
2. Warm the drippings, butter, or oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the peppers and onions and sauté, tossing, until the onion is translucent and softened and the pepper wilted but still bright green, about 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their collected juices and raise the heat to medium high. Season well with salt, a pinch of sugar (if needed), and cayenne to taste. Bring to a boil.
3. Reduce the heat once again to medium, and simmer briskly until the juices are thick and the tomatoes are tender but not falling apart, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings, let it simmer half a minute longer, and turn off the heat. Serve warm.
To bake them as Mrs. Habersham did, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 350° F. If the skillet isn’t ovenproof, at the end of step 2, transfer its contents to a lightly buttered wide 3-quart baking dish. Otherwise, just put the uncovered skillet into the oven. Bake until the juices are thick and the tomatoes tender, about 1 hour. Read More