When I once asked the late Italian cooking doyenne Marcella Hazan what she felt was the most important thing in cooking, that was her immediate and emphatic answer.
Marcella died four years ago today, just a few months shy of her ninetieth birthday. When I reflect on her life as a teacher and sum what she taught us, it all comes down to that: Taste.
It may seem obvious and simplistic, but it’s all too often overlooked in our age of so-called culinary cleverness. It’s far too easy to get carried away with being “creative,” or with taking too much to heart the notion that we “eat first with our eyes,” and lose sight of the single most important thing: that moment when we lift our forks and the food meets with our tongues. Read More
Recipes and Stories
Last weekend, it was my privilege to celebrate the publication of my latest book, Ham: A SAVOR THE SOUTH® Cookbook, at the Southeastern Independent Booksellers Association’s annual conference and trade show in New Orleans. The big event was sharing a panel moderated by Ashley Warlick with James Beard Award-winning author and dear friend Cynthia Graubart and new friends Melinda Risch Winans and Cynthia Lejeune Nobles (authors of The Fonville Winans Cookbook: Recipes and Photographs from a Louisiana Artist).
But the joy in the trip was a chance to savor some of old New Orleans and it’s legendary food in the company of lovely friends. Read More
An old New Yorker friend tells me that, until recently, on Tuesday morning after Labor Day the subways smelled heavily of mothballs, regardless of what the weather was like. Since the holiday marked the symbolic if not actual end of summer, summer whites were dutifully put away and fall woolens came out of storage.
Well, it may be the symbolic end of the season, but here in the Deep South, we’re facing another full month or more of summer heat and humidity. Those white shoes may be ceremonially moved to the back of the closet, but other wardrobe changes will have to wait.
All the same, there’s a distinct shortening of the daylight hours and the lengthening of the shadows, bringing subtle changes in the light that inevitably turn our imagination toward fall. At the table, we may not be ready for heavy cold weather fare, but we’re weary of a steady litany of salads and chilled soup and are ready for the mellow flavors of autumn. Read More
We’re finally at Labor Day weekend and, at least where our somewhat quixotic late-summer weather is cooperating, many of us will be marking summer’s last official hurrah by packing a picnic hamper and blanket and heading for the beach, local park, some picturesque country landscape, or at the very least the back yard. Mind, here in the South, we’ll be able to picnic until well into October, but there’s just something about marking the end of summer by symbolically eating outdoors “one the last time.”
Magazines, newspapers, food web sites, and the air waves are full of helpful ideas for crowd-pleasing picnic and cookout fare, which is all very nice. But every good Southern cook already knows the real way please the crowd, and that’s to make sure that the picnic hamper contains an ample supply of three things: fried chicken, old-fashioned potato salad, and ham biscuits. Read More
Before summer passes, some thoughts on an old seasonal classic.
One of the loveliest standard dishes for those great old Southern institutions—church covered-dish suppers, dinners-on-the-grounds, and buffet spreads for family reunions and funerals—is squash casserole. Variously known as a casserole, pudding, and soufflé (those last mainly when it has eggs in it), it’s popularity as a covered-dish offering probably owes a lot to the fact that it was cheap (the main ingredient came right out of the back garden), easy to make (especially on short notice), and delicious with just about anything. Read More
Today, in part because of the horrendous weather that’s wreaking havoc elsewhere in the South, we’re having an unusual and welcome break from the long, unrelenting swelter that’s August in the lowcountry. With almost daily showers and high temperatures hovering at three digits, the outdoors has been a giant steam bath since July. Every year we complain that it seems worse than the last, but if we’re honest, we’ll admit it’s pretty normal for summer down here. Still, it often leads us to ponder how our ancestors got through it without air-conditioning.
The answers to that puzzle are: mountain cabins, beach cottages, and sherry cobbler. Read More
Toward the end of the summer of 1979, while I was in graduate school at Clemson University, my mother came for a short visit. As usual, she left me with a cache of produce from her garden, supplemented by baskets of fragrant late peaches and blueberries from local orchards.
It was my first apartment, and therefore the first kitchen that was wholly my own: usually, such gifts led to a day of curious cooking, but a project deadline loomed and my un-airconditioned apartment was too hot to consider turning on the monstrous avocado-green electric stove that dominated my little kitchen. 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
Whenever I think of my Dad’s mother, known to us all as Granny Fowler, I inevitably start to crave fried chicken. My mother and maternal grandmother also made fried chicken that was very fine in its own way, but the one that we all (even Mama and MaMa) agreed was the best was Granny’s. Read More
Because it's Independence Day and I'm missing my grandmother more than usual today, tonight's dinner includes the very old-fashioned American-style potato salad that MaMa always made, with celery, sweet onion, sweet pickles, hard-cooked eggs, and mayonnaise (she used Duke's) laced with a little yellow mustard for zip and color.
My grandmother diced the potatoes and then boiled them, but I've always boiled the potatoes whole, in their skins, to preserve their flavor and keep them from being sodden. Read More
One of the loveliest mid-summer supper dishes of the Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry is a simple casserole known in these parts as shrimp and corn pie. Traditionally, almost any custard-based dish cooked in a shallow casserole is called a “pie” in Carolina and Georgia, just as our version of macaroni and cheese is known as macaroni pie, although a similar dish would be called a “pudding” in Virginia or other parts of the South.
Well, no matter what you call it, it’s one of the happiest pairings of two of our best summer staples: 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
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
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
One of the great compensations for (and means of relief from) summer’s heat is a fresh mixed fruit salad. It’s also one of the most versatile dishes of the season. Call it “cocktail” and open the meal with it; call it “salad” and serve it as the meal’s side dish or even centerpiece (all on its own or blended with cold seafood, poultry, or meat); call it “Macedonia,” “fruit cup,” or “compote” and it brings the meal to a delightful close.
Whatever we call it, and however we serve it, a fragrant bowl of well-mixed and chilled fruit is perfect warm-weather fare: it stimulates, satiates, and cools as nothing else can. It brings a ray of sunshine to a rainy day and soothing coolness to days when the sun’s rays become relentless. Read More
In her later years, M. F. K. Fisher, the prominent mid-twentieth-century American essayist and food writer, once wrote poignantly of missing the ravenous, almost insatiable hunger of youth. Charmingly romantic to read in one’s twenties, it wasn’t so charming to reread years later, when that youthful hunger lingered and fought with a suddenly slowing metabolism of middle age. But there’s nothing charming or romantic about it when old age is staring one square in the face.
The problem is that, while our appetite and capacity may slow down with age, the curious cook’s palate doesn’t slow down with it. Read More
A gray, overcast day, a handful of small button mushrooms left over from styling a newspaper column illustration, a new block of very sharp cheddar, and a small jar of pimientos in the pantry: Probably those things will seem unlikely as an invitation to an afternoon of culinary nostalgia to anyone but me. But there it is. Read More
One of the things I love most about Southern cooking is that it’s not a homogenous fabric. It’s a rich, patchwork-like tapestry, woven from many threads and patches that defy the narrow stereotypical boundaries that we all-too-often try to put around it. Even if we could confine it to the most common of those stereotypes—biscuits, barbecue, fried chicken, pimiento cheese, and sweet tea—we’d still be faced with the hundreds of different ways that each one of those things is made all over the South. Read More
Now, here’s a curious thing that I can’t explain. For reasons that are a complete mystery to me, having a bouquet of fresh parsley in my kitchen is a kind of culinary security blanket. It reassures and comforts me, even when I end up using very little of it in the pots.
Unfortunately, that’s more often the case than not. Despite the truth in the old Italian proverb “essere come il prezzemolo” (literally “to be like parsley,” that is, everywhere), I can rarely use it all up before it starts to fade. Read More
For nine years, I have hated my kitchen.
People are always surprised to hear it: Somehow, there’s a prevailing notion that all food writers are possessed of dream kitchens—spacious, light, airy, equipped with state-of-the-art appliances and gleaming copper cookware.
And wouldn’t that be nice?
I am blessed to have nice equipment (including gleaming copper), but the kitchen it occupies is rented and not the stuff that my (or anyone else’s) dreams are made of. Read More
So much contemporary food writing, my own included, focuses on the importance of freshness: Using the best ingredients that our budgets will allow; taking the time and care to select the freshest, choicest things that we can find; using care in the way we store and use them. It would be nice if our cooking could always be like that. But more often than not, our day-to-day cooking is (or should be) more about not wasting what we’ve already got on hand.
Far too many people on this planet—no further away than our own neighborhoods—are hungry. No, using up that food instead of throwing it out isn’t helping those hungry people. But to squander still edible food just because it’s not at its absolute peak is self-indulgent and irresponsible. Read More
During the post-war 1940s, ‘50s, and early ‘60s, when homemaking was still the most common profession for women, a popular form of entertainment was the ladies’ luncheon, either as an end in itself or as a part of a bridge party, garden club, or church circle meeting. The food for these occasions was dainty and fancy: tomato aspic, consommé, creamed chicken and seafood, casseroles, chicken, ham, and fish salads, and congealed and composed salads. How it looked was probably more important than how it tasted, but flavor was still not to be taken for granted.
The king, if you’ll pardon the expression, of all this dainty fare was Chicken à la King. Basically creamed chicken with an attitude, it dates back, as so many things of its kind do, to the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, with at least four claims on the credit for its creation. Read More
The deep belief in the healing power of chicken soup may well be one of the most universal concepts in the world’s cuisines.
No matter where on this globe one happens to be, if there are chickens in the barnyard and sick people in the house, there will be chicken soup in the pot. The details and flavorings that go into that pot will vary, depending on the culture and the cook, as will the age and size of the bird. It’s often called “Jewish Penicillin” in our country, but the faith in it as a curative really has no territorial or cultural boundaries. Read More
Winter in the Carolina and Georgia lowcountry is rarely what one could call harsh, but the last week or so has been unusually mild even for us—more like late spring than the dead heart of winter. But we know that those balmy whispers of spring are fleeting and can never be trusted. And, sure enough, this weekend the temperatures have once again dropped.
It’s still not what a New Englander would call cold, but it’s blustery enough to make us crave heartier fare, something that will not only warm us in the moment, but stick with us for a long time. And when that kind of craving comes calling, nothing answers it better than a good stew. Read More
Big Christmas parties can be a lot of fun, with their crowds of folks filled with holiday cheer (never mind that it came from a bottle), festive decorations, and endless arrays of rich, fancy party food.
But they do require a certain amount of planning and work. And as we come into the last stretch before Christmas, if you’ve not already planned one, it’s a little late to start now. That does not, however, mean that it’s too late to do anything at all.
There’s no perfect-host rule mandating that the only way to entertain your friends at the holidays is in herds. Read More
A while back I was asked to—or perhaps more accurately, was cajoled into—planning and cooking a supper for a Dickensian Christmas ball earlier this month. The menu was to be drawn from Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. As we started to plan, the first heady morsel from the text to tease our imaginations, and the first name to pass our lips was “mince-pies.” Mentioned at least twice, these pastries were, back then, the very essence of Christmas and to this day remain an iconic symbol of holiday feasting.
There would, therefore, be mince-pies on the dessert board. Read More
This morning, after days of midday temperatures that felt more June than November, Savannah finally awoke to clear, crisp air that had an actual a nip in it. Okay, it wasn’t exactly frosty, but it was cool enough to finally feel as if it was really fall—and to make the idea of cooking hearty things like pot roasts, thick stews, chili, and short ribs a welcome thing. Read More
You’d not think so if you were in Savannah today, where temperatures climbed into the eighties, but we’re now into the traditional oyster season, the “cold weather” months (or, around here, just the months with an R in them).
That season’s not as strenuously observed these days, since refrigeration has made it possible to safely harvest, store, and ship oysters in warmer weather. But Savannahians tend to wait for it anyway, since oysters (especially our local cluster variety) tend to be flabby and murky-tasting while spawning, which happens mostly during the summer months, when the waters in which they live are warm. Read More
When canned pineapple was first introduced more than a century ago, cooks in places where the fruit had always been an imported and therefore rare and expensive luxury probably went a bit overboard with it. Not only had it suddenly become affordable, it was trimmed of its spike-leaved top knot, its prickly skin and tough core were removed, and it had been neatly cut into conveniently attractive rings.
Not surprisingly, during the early part of the twentieth century, those canned pineapple rings began turning up in all kinds of “fancy” dishes Read More
In all of cooking, the one thing that never ceases to fascinate, amaze, and comfort me is the little bit of culinary alchemy that makes an omelet. Using a hot, well-seasoned pan and a very simple technique that even a child can master, anyone with any coordination at all can turn a couple of eggs, a lump of butter, and a little salt and pepper into pure gold. Read More