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
Recipes and Stories
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
Every year when the winter holidays roll around, I begin to crave that old-fashioned Southern holiday treat, drinking custard. Eggnog, at least, the real thing laced with bourbon or brandy, wasn’t something we had in a Baptist pastorium. But drinking custard was another thing. We could enjoy it not only at Christmas, but throughout the cold season.
If you’ve not encountered it, drinking custard is the same thing as custard sauce, only made with fewer egg yolks or whole eggs so that it’s thin enough to sip from a cup the way you’d do eggnog. For many Southern families, it was and still is a long standing holiday tradition and is actually the base that is often used for eggnog, especially if it contains no alcohol.
Mama used to tell stories of the days when my father was in seminary in Louisville and pastored a small country church Read More
They’re always saying that one can take the boy out of the Baptist Church, but one can never quite take the Baptist out of the boy. I’ve been an Episcopalian all my adult life, but at this time of year, like a Ghost of Christmas Past, my Baptist childhood comes back to me, whispering the name Lottie Moon to my conscience.
For those who don’t know, Charlotte Digges (“Lottie”) Moon, born on December 12, 1840, was a Baptist missionary to China from July of 1873 until December of 1912, Read More
When I was growing up, Christmas day always began (well, after plundering a roomful of Santa loot) with a traditional Southern breakfast: grits, eggs, my granddaddy’s perfectly seasoned pork sausage, country ham with red-eye gravy, homemade biscuits, usually with fruitcake, ambrosia, and sometimes drinking custard added in.
Nowadays, unless we have friends drop by, there are just two of us here on Christmas morning: Our children and grandchildren live three states away; my parents and siblings are four hours away. And one of us is a church musician with a command performance at Christmas Day Mass. We rarely have the luxury of time and leisure for a breakfast like that.
And, to be completely honest, the last thing I want to do on Christmas morning is stand in the kitchen monitoring a grits pot, hot oven, and panful of sausage patties. Read More
The dessert in the Christmas dinner that was shared in my last column was a lovely, old-fashioned thing called wine jelly. It’s not jelly as in a spread for toast, but jelly as in the stuff invalids are often fed when they’ve been off a solid diet.
It was once a classic old holiday treat that was actually rare and special, a fact we can’t really appreciate today, since sweet, flavored gelatin has lost a lot of its luster, thanks in large part to that stuff we feed convalescents. It’s a shame, really, because it’s a lovely, light dessert that adds sparkle—both literally and figuratively—to a holiday meal, and deserves to be popular again. Read More
Coconut cake is a traditional Christmas cake in the part of Carolina where I grew up, and both my grandmother’s made it, using basically the same recipe. But my maternal grandmother, known to us as “MaMa” (we pronounced it Maw-Maw) had a special touch that no one else could match.
Hers was one the most extraordinarily moist cakes I’ve ever had. The great secret for its moistness is also the reason it tasted more intensely of coconut than any other. Read More
As the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers disappear from our refrigerators and pantries, it suddenly seems that what’s left of the year is hurtling away as if it has been greased by turkey fat. Not only is the daylight rapidly dwindling to what has been called “the crowning of the year,” we’re ushering in our biggest—and longest—season of feasting.
Unfortunately, for all too many, it’s also the most frantic. People who never entertain suddenly start knocking themselves out to do so—dusting off the dining table, digging out holiday china, polishing Grandma’s silver. Folks who never bake and cook will actually open cookbooks, pore over cooking magazines, and tie on aprons they’ve not worn since last December. Read More
This year, I’m not doing my usual planning and precooking for Thanksgiving dinner, which has not been easy. For the first time in years my house isn’t fragrant with turkey broth and roasting pecans and my refrigerator isn’t crammed with more food than will fit into it.
My father turns ninety on Thanksgiving Day, so Tim and I are heading up to my parents’ house to be with them. I’ll be cooking, but it will be my mother’s way and there will be a lot of things that I usually do that won’t be on the table this year.
Never mind. Read More
Nostalgia does odd things to us, at times when we’re least expecting it. Last week, while ambling down an aisle at the market, minding my own business and looking for something completely different, nostalgia, in the form of a large can of wild-caught “Traditional Style” salmon, jumped right off the shelf and accosted me.
“Traditional” means it was packed whole, skin, bones, and all. And standing there looking at that neat stack of pink-labeled cans, what my mind’s eye saw was a gray-striped pink cylinder of fish standing tall in a chipped and grazed creamware bowl of my grandmother’s. Suddenly, she was right there beside me, murmuring excitedly, “They’re on sale! Let’s get some!” Read More