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
Recipes and Stories
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I always have lamb at Easter, following the older tradition even though most Southerners have ham of some kind, and now my household is divided between the ham and lamb camps, so I usually have both. This year, someone else is bringing the ham, so I’m doing a simple butterflied leg of lamb Irish-style, in honor of our Irish priest associate who’ll be joining us for dinner. Read More
For most of us Southerners (I suspect, Americans in general) it would not be Easter without deviled eggs, but it’s always nice to have an extra nibble or two in case dinner is delayed by the roast or by a long-winded Easter sermon.
This lovely potted cheese is from one of my newspaper columns on traditional Irish fare for Savannah’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day celebration, but potted whiskey cheese is also found in England and Scotland and here in the South, where it’s usually made with bourbon. Read More
While we’re on gratins, carrots just seem to go with Easter, and this goes equally well with lamb or ham (or poultry, for that matter). It can be doubled easily: If you’re making it for a crowd and don’t have a skillet big enough to do it all in one, make it in two pans or do the initial cooking in batches and transfer it to one large gratin for the final baking. Read More
My maternal grandfather, Levis Holmes, first made his way in the world as a farmer, but I knew him as a grocer and butcher. He was also a fine cook. Though entirely self-taught, his instincts were solid.
His version of the old American standard was a fixture on our table for any holiday meal, and we’ll be having a variation of it for our Easter Dinner this Sunday. Read More
This year, my own Easter table is being shared with a family that has its own long-standing traditions and so rather than imposing one or the other, we’re blending our menus together. In that same spirit of sharing and blending, instead of my usual make-ahead Easter dinner menu and recipes, I thought I’d offer some fresh ideas for changing up the menu.
To begin, here’s a simple potato gratin, developed for my newspaper column on fresh spring gratins, that’s lighter than the usual cream-based concoction. It’s an ideal Easter side dish whether you have ham, lamb, turkey, or fried chicken . . . or all of the above. 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
We rarely think of giving leeks in a starring role in cooking. More often than not, this kitchen workhorse is expected to retire into the background, lending its subtle, fresh flavor to the more showy main ingredients of a soup, stew, sauté or occasional casserole.
But leeks are a lovely vegetable and when they’re given the center of the stage (or plate or pan if you will) they really do shine, especially in the spring. Read More
The Historical Cuisines
The loose regions into which the South has historically been divided, for the most part, follow the patterns of European colonization. They are: the Old South, the Atlantic coast from Maryland to North Florida; the Deep South, incorporating the Gulf states from West Georgia and the Florida panhandle to Eastern Texas; the Mountain South of Appalachia, including the Western portions of Virginia, the Carolinas, and northern edges of piedmont Georgia and Alabama as well as the interior states of West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky; and the Central South, which includes parts of the “border states” of Missouri, Kentucky, and West Virginia as well as Arkansas, Eastern Oklahoma and North-east Texas.
You must understand that those loose regional boundaries are very loose indeed. Read More
Tradition has often been defined as “how they did it when we were children” and it’s not a bad description of the way we all too often look at the elusive thing that we call Southern Cooking. So much of the “traditional” cooking that sparks debate among Southerners today has actually not been around all that long.
For example, one of the easiest ways to start the biggest fight you ever saw is to pronounce before a group of Southerners that there is only one true way to make pimiento cheese and then proceed to describe said way. Every single person present will argue that you don’t know what you’re talking about, because that’s not how their grandmother made it. Read More
One of the great dishes of mid-to-late twentieth century American cooking is Chicken Divan, a layered gratin of broccoli, chicken breast and a velouté sauce enriched with cheese. Believed to have been name for its place of origin, the Divan Parisien Restaurant in New York City’s old Hotel Chatham (which stood at Vanderbilt Avenue between East 48th and 49th Streets), it was probably created sometime in the 1940s and is credited to Chef Anthony Lagasi.* Read More
Beginning to Define the Cuisine(s) or, the Tip of the Iceberg
The most useful fact to know in attempting to define Southern cooking is the same one Marcella Hazan addressed of her own native cooking in The Classic Italian Cook Book: “The first useful thing to know about Italian cooking is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist.”
She goes on to explain that cooking in Italy varies from region to region and from town to town within those regions, so “Italian cooking” isn’t a single cuisine, but a collection of many.
Likewise, the most useful thing to know about Southern Cooking “is that, as such, it actually doesn’t exist.” As is true for Italian cooking, it also is not, and never has been, a single, homogenous cuisine. Read More
One day around the new year, when pots of collards and field peas were simmering away in so many Southern kitchens, a discussion arose among some of my colleagues about the frequency with which collards seemed to be turning up on so many so-called “new” Southern restaurant menus, and of how these greens were mostly being used and presented in ways that had nothing to do with Southern cooking.
The nicest thing one could say of most of these misbegotten things is that they’re bewildering. Read More
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ Child. It marks the end of the twelve days of Christmastide and, since the wise men arrived bearing gifts, is in some traditions the day that presents are exchanged.
Where Christmas day is considered the first of those twelve days, the Eve of Epiphany (January 5) is when “Twelfth Night,” the last hurrah of Christmas, is celebrated, but where the twelve days begin on the day following December 25, the twelfth day is actually feast of the Epiphany.
Since I didn’t grow up in either tradition, we’ve sort of made up our own in our house, and will celebrate our Twelfth Night this evening. Read More