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Recipes and Stories

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: 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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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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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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19 August 2014: Summer Squash Soup

Summer Squash Soup with Sage and Thyme

Of all the produce of summer, nothing is as deeply entwined with memories of my childhood, mother, and grandmother, as yellow crookneck squash. Possibly one of the reasons that they stand out is because most of the things that came from my mother’s and grandfather’s gardens were cooked only one or, at best, two ways, but those sunny crooknecks knew no limits.  Read More 

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8 July 2014: Sautéed Summer Squash with Onions

Sauteed yellow crookneck squash is the very essence of a Southern summer

When we were home a couple of weeks ago, the summer squash vines in my mother’s garden were bright with yellow blossoms and the most precocious vine was sporting a single fat, sun-yellow crookneck. By the time we got back to Savannah, a bumper crop of yellow crooknecks was already coming in from local farmers. The sunny color and graceful swan necks of this vegetable are, for me, the very essence of summer. Read More 

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20 July 2012: Yellow Crooknecks

A still life of yellow crookneck squash, being made ready for the pan. Photography by John Carrington
Summer squash is in the air (and, where the drought hasn’t struck, overflowing in the garden). When fellow culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump mentioned them in a recent short essay, it inspired a look back to the four doyennes of Southern cookery, and turned up three different ways of getting the similar results from Mary Randolph, Lettice Bryan, and Annabella Hill: Read More 
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