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Recipes and Stories

18 October 2023: The Comforts of Split Pea Soup

Split Pea Soup with Ham and Oven-Toasted Croutons


We're finally having autumnal weather in our corner of Virginia: chilly nights and mild days, enough rain to bring out the color of the leaves and holly berries in our garden, and lots of sunshine giving that golden light that only happens as the year winds its way to a close.


It's perfect weather for the hearty, warming soups that are made with dried beans and peas, especially split green peas. Split pea with ham is a long-time favorite cold weather comfort in our household, and yet I'd actually not made it since we moved.


It was past time to seek out a couple of meaty ham hocks, dig out my favorite bean soup pot, and stir up a batch. Read More 

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5 July 2023: Summer Comfort and Vegetable Soup

First Vegetable Soup of the Summer 2023


When most of us use the words "comfort food" we usually mean something that warms us both inside and out, wrapping us up physically and emotionally. But during the dead heat of summer, when the humidity turns the air into hot mayonnaise, the sun turns the pavement into a short-order griddle, and we're all, as old-guard southern ladies persist in calling it, "glistening," comfort turns ice cold and is served in tall, frosted glasses and chilled bowls.


The irony is not lost on me that two of my own ultimate comfort foods are soups that are at their best in that dead heat, when their key ingredients are at their peak: my grandmother's vegetable beef soup Read More 

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18 April 2023: Spring Vichyssoise

Creme Vichyssoise Glacée

Easter dinner in our house always begins with a chilled soup. Even if the weather outside isn't exactly spring-like, it's a welcome reminder that warmer days are on the way. But mainly, it's because a cold first course can be made ahead and, as a bonus, is often the better for it.


My usual is a chilled carrot puree, but this year my spouse asked for vichyssoise, the cold soup that has become practically synonymous with the idea.


It may seem a bit old-fashioned, having been around for more than a century and unhappily, having been done to death (and all too often done badly) in the "gourmet" seventies and eighties of the last century. But when carefully and well made, vichyssoise is a deeply satisfying and delicious beginning for any meal (or as a meal in itself), and that should never be out of style. Read More 

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16 March 2023: Comfort Casserole

Ground Beef and Potato Casserole, Sort of as My Mother Used to Make It

16 March 2023: Comfort Casserole


It's funny how we all talk about "comfort food" as if it's a simple, clearly defined thing. From time to time we even see stories about an "ultimate" comfort food such as mashed potatoes. But the reality is that the concept is among the most complicated and ill-defined in all cooking, mainly because it's completely subjective.


What we find comforting is wrapped up in our individual taste preferences (which often defy everything else) and our experiences: where we were born, where we were raised, what the cooking of our family was like, how often and far we have traveled, what the climate was like at the homes of our formative years, and even what the climate is like in the places we call home now.


There are people for whom—shock of shocks—mashed potatoes would not be a comfort at all, never mind an "ultimate" one.


Likewise, there are undoubtedly a lot of people for whom a casserole of any kind would not even appeal.  Read More 

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11 March 2023: Mama's Bread Pans and Buttermilk Bread

Mama's Buttermilk Yeast Bread, baked in her small loaf pans


Once my parents were finally settled into assisted living and we knew for certain they were never going back to their house again, last fall my elder brother and his wife began the daunting task of decluttering it. Thirty years is a long time for two children of The Great Depression to be saving everything and letting it all accumulate in a relatively small house.


The kitchen/breakfast room, after Dad's study, was possibly the biggest challenge. There were six sets of dishes (my obsession with tableware came honestly), a collection of Revereware and Corningware that would supply at least three households, enough saved twist-ties to fill a 10-gallon garbage bag, enough plastic fruit containers to fill twice that many, and stacks of mail, old newspapers, and magazines (my Dad's contribution) to fill at least three lawn-and-leaf bags.


And in all that, not a single decent knife—but I digress.


When asked whether I might want any of the tableware/cookware, my immediate and emphatic answer was "Lord, no!" My own kitchen  Read More 

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28 February 2023: Into the Wilderness in Lent—New Potatoes with Garlic and Olive Oil

New Potatoes with Garlic and Olive Oil

While I've been out in the jungle we call the back garden, hacking away at the briars that have surrounded our sadly neglected greenhouse like Sleeping Beauty's castle, Lent has crept up on me.


For those who don't observe the Christian calendar, Lent is a penitential season of spiritual fasting modeled on the forty day fast that Jesus took to prepare for his ministry. Well, since he retreated to the wilderness for that one, in a way it seems appropriate that my Lenten observance began out in our own little wilderness.


Many who observe Lent focus on what they're not doing (most often what they're not eating and drinking). But a proper spiritual fast is less about the abstinence that marks it outwardly than the introspection and contemplation that ought to be going on inwardly. To that end, there's been a trend over the last few years to shift the focus from "giving things up" to "taking things on" as a spiritual discipline.


Perhaps rescuing our sadly neglected garden could be thought of as spiritual, but then again, so can everything we do. With that idea in mind, these days  Read More 

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10 February 2023: Winter Gardening and Spinach Gratin

Spinach Gratin or, as we call it down South "Souffle"


The weather here in Virginia has been unusually mild, cool enough to invigorate, but not too warm to make working in the garden uncomfortable. Since there are only a few weeks left in the dormant season, I've been back out in it, trying to get as much as possible under control before spring.


I'm doing the work mostly alone, with limited tools, which would be daunting for someone half my age. And as the masses of yard waste, pruned limbs, felled trees, cut bamboo, and tangles of cut vines continue to pile up, what remains to be done is a little overwhelming. It's probably to be expected that my cooking has been basic and heavy on winter comfort food that I've shared too often to revisit on this page.


But every now and again inspiration strikes. It may be an unexpected discovery Read More 

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30 January 2023: Winter Nesting, Missing Teaching, and Pork Scaloppine

Pork Scaloppine have become a standard in my kitchen. Here they're finished "alla primavera" with herbs and white wine


For twenty years, fully half the time that Savannah, Georgia, was my home, aside from writing cookbooks and traveling to promote them, I also wrote a cooking column for the daily paper. The challenge at the beginning was adjusting to tight deadlines and keeping the copy short and to the point. But that was nothing to the challenge that came a few years in: coming up with fresh ideas and recipes that had not already been done to death. That was especially challenging during the winter holiday season and beginning of a new year.


And then, as if that wasn't enough, I took on running the avocational cooking school of a local kitchenware store. The busiest time there was also the winter holiday season Read More 

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12 January 2023: Post-Holiday Refreshment—A Quick Sauté of Chicken Breast with Butter and Herbs

Classic Quick Saute of Chicken finished with Butter and Herbs


In the late seventies and early eighties, the airwaves of public radio were graced with the homespun wit and wisdom of Kim Williams, a naturalist and writer from Missoula, Montana. Her commentary covered just about every aspect of life, but the one that has stayed with me, and is inevitably brought to mind by this time of year, extolled the virtues of joyfully abandoning our self-control for a season of unchecked feasting.


Taking a cue from the oft-quoted beginning of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, "To everything there is a season," she believed that periods of unreserved celebrating were essential Read More 

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5 January 2023: Twelfth Night and Christmas's Last Hurrah—Winter Squash Soup

Winter Squash Soup with Bacon and Caramelized Shallots


If your Christmas tree is lying at the curb, the decorations are already packed away, and you've started your New Year's resolution to cut back and lose weight, that's too bad. Because today—not December 26, is the actual end of Christmas—its last hurrah, if you will.


That means we've got at least one more day of Christmas feasting, two if, like me, you let it linger into Epiphany Read More 

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30 December2022: The Sixth Day of Christmas

Brussels Sprouts with Bacon-Toasted Pecans

In our household, we observe the old twelve days of Christmas: Not with a collection of strange symbolic gifts (no geese a-laying here), but our halls are still decked and ringing with Christmas carols, and our feasting continues through Epiphany (January 6).


An unsung and underappreciated element of that feasting is Brussels sprouts. These seasonal greens are common on English tables at Christmas, although what's often said of them by English writers in their defense suggests that their appearance is all too often more from a sense of obligation than affection.


My own affection for them is life-long and deep.  Read More 

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23 December 2022: Rescuing Mistakes and Christmas Fudge

Dark Chocolate Fudge


Let's begin with a full disclosure that what you are about to read outlines a not-terribly-stellar moment in my life in the kitchen.


Last week, I decided to make a batch of homemade fudge for Christmas, basing it on one of my own recipes for a dark chocolate fudge frosting. Most chocolate fudge gets its flavor from cocoa powder, but that rich, dark frosting contained both cocoa and bittersweet chocolate. It seemed like just the thing for a little Christmas indulgence.


Despite the facts that it was a humid day (not the best conditions for making candy) and I had not made fudge in years, it began well. The sugar, cocoa, and milk mixture came to its rolling boil Read More 

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20 December 2022: Continuing Education in the Kitchen and Potted Ham

Deviled or Potted Ham


One of the most challenging and irksome things about writing recipes is that they, like their authors, are imperfect. But unlike their authors, once they hit print, they're static. We humans aren't: We're constantly learning and evolving—and that includes what we do in the kitchen.


The truth is, not one of us is ever completely educated. The only ways we stop learning are by either willfully refusing new information or dying. If we're breathing and paying attention, we're always coming into contact with something we've never seen, thought about, or imagined.


A good cook never stops learning—that's why they are good.  Read More 

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14 December 2022: Meatballs Bourguignon

Cocktail Meatballs in Bourguignonne Sauce


As we move into our first almost-normal holiday season in three years, I've been thinking about something the late Marcella Hazan once said of her American cooking students. Whenever she taught a dish that was new, at least one of them was sure to say that he or she was going to make it for a dinner party the following weekend.


She admired that adventurous spirit because such a notion would never even occur to most Italians. A meal offered to guests outside the family would be one they'd made hundreds of times—even if that was how often it had been served to those same guests in the past.


Well, admirable it may be, but there's a fine line between being adventurous and foolhardy.  Read More 

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12 December 2022: Christmas Shortbread

My Christmas Shortbread Cookies with Pecans


It's Christmas cookie baking time at our house, and one of our old holiday cookie tins has already been filled with shortbread cookies that I am vainly trying to forget about. The rest of the year, I have the most underdeveloped sweet-tooth of any Southerner you will ever meet, and don't find cookies even remotely tempting.


Christmas, however, is different.


Possibly it's the inner child that the season stirs up in so many of us, but this is the only time I have any real interest in cookies Read More 

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27 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner X—Turkey Soup

Turkey and Pasta Soup


Of all the turkey leftovers that we enjoy in the days following Thanksgiving, the one I most look forward to is soup. All of them have their charms: sliced and piled into sandwiches; creamed and ladled over dressing; mixed with rice; molded into croquettes, and of course diced and folded into casseroles like tetrazzini. But none of those can quite equal the soothing, soul-nourishing comfort of a bowl of fragrant  Read More 

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26 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner IX—Making the Most of the Leftovers

The Post-Thanksgiving Stockpot, ready to simmer and turn the leftover turkey carcass into liquid gold


Two of my favorite things about cooking Thanksgiving dinner are the broth pots that begin and end it. Not only does that wonderful aroma fill the house twice, that second batch of broth squeezes out every ounce of goodness the bird had to offer, and extends the holiday feasting into the weekend and beyond.


By Thanksgiving night, since we had a small bird and a large crowd, Read More 

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24 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving VIII—The Gravy

Turkey Pan Gravy, here thickened with a roux made from flour and the turkey fat


It's none of my business what kind of gravy you serve today. Whether you add wine, include the giblets and add chopped boiled eggs, or thicken it with a roux or butter is up to you. But here's how to make that gravy silky-smooth and delicious. Read More 

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23 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving VII—Damon Lee Talks Turkey (and Dressing)

My Favorite Roast Turkey


Hands down the best turkey roasting advice of 2022 is "Just put the ******* turkey in the oven!"


The more you fuss and stress over it, the more you're opening yourself to angst and disappointment. Relax: It roasts just like a REALLY BIG chicken; it just takes longer. Allow plenty of time, use a reliable meat thermometer to gage doneness, and remember the only thing that matters is how it tastes. It doesn't have to look a magazine cover shot.


So, before we turn in for the night, here are a few thoughts on that bird and its quintessential accompaniment—the dressing. Read More 

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23 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving VI—My Grandmother's Pumpkin Pie

My Grandmother's Pumpkin Pie


I'd like to tell you that my grandmother's pumpkin pie recipe was an old family one that has been passed down for generations, but I can't. She got it right off a can of pumpkin puree, varying it only in the spice and liquid she used, since I was allergic to cloves and my father to nutmeg, and she but rarely had cream in the house but always had evaporated milk.


You can make the filling completely from scratch with a pumpkin you've roasted and pureed yourself if you have nothing better to do; but Read More 

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23 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving V—Pastry

Pastry is simple stuff, just flour, cold fat and water, and just enough salt or occasionally sugar to bring up its flavor.


Today is pie-making day in my house, and in the chill of the morning, I'm putting together the pastry so it'll have time to rest before I roll and prebake it later this afternoon.


If you've never made your own pastry, this may not be the time to try to learn. Not that it's complicated or difficult: it isn't. But it does take some finesse and experience to do it well. If the very thought paralyzes you, then a ready-made roll-out crust from the market is your safest option. Buy and use it without apology. Read More 

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21 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner IV: Homemade Turkey Broth

Roasted Turkey Broth


My late Baptist-preacher father used to love relating the story of a minister who one bright Sunday morning delivered a rousing sermon on love, and then repeated it word for word the following Sunday. And on the next one. And again on the one after that. Finally, a deacon cautiously approached and, after complimenting the stirring words of his message, gently pointed out that it was the same sermon the preacher had delivered every Sunday for at least a month.


The preacher smiled, nodded, and said, "Well, yes it is. I'm glad you finally noticed. I had to keep repeating that message until I thought you all were hearing it."


Well. Here we are four days from Thanksgiving and here comes the same sermon about homemade broth that y'all have heard from me dozens of times. Read More 

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20 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner III Cranberry-Orange Preserves and Relish

Cranberry Orange Preserves


In her memoire, Amarcord, the late Italian cooking maven Marcella Hazan humorously related her first encounter with one of our country's most enduring Thanksgiving traditions, that of accompanying the turkey with a tart-sweet condiment made from cranberries.


Thinking the sauce that her host had solicitously spooned over her turkey was akin to peperonata (a savory sauce of red peppers and caramelized onions), her first bite was such a shock that it took all her self-control to keep from spitting it out.


Eventually, Signora Hazan was able to embrace the sweet tomato ketchup that was persistently slathered on her hamburgers, but never made her peace with cranberry sauce. I couldn't blame her: Read More 

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19 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner II—Menu Planning and Mama's Buttermilk Bread

My mother's Buttermilk Yeast Rolls, here baked in a seasonal decorative muffin pan, which unfortunately made them too small and crusty. I'll make regular cluster rolls for Thanksgiving Dinner


If you've not already planned your Thanksgiving menu and started shopping for it, it's time you got cracking. You don't want to wait too late to plan and shop or you could be faced with rethinking your menu when the store sells out of some of the essential ingredients.


Planning that menu will be simple if you are wise and stick to your family's traditions.


Every single autumn social media is riddled with cooks asking for "something new and different" for this meal, claiming to be tired of and/or bored with cooking and eating the same old things every Thanksgiving.  Read More 

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15 November 2022: Mastering Thanksgiving Dinner I

There's always Roast Turkey at my house, but if you hate the big bird, there's no law saying you have to have it.


Thanksgiving may be a little over a week away, but it's not too early to start planning. In fact, if you haven't already started doing that, you're a little late—but not dangerously so.


Big holiday dinners don't have to be complicated, but we're easing out of a pandemic and even seasoned cooks are a little out of practice. As for you who are unseasoned, if the closest you've ever come to turkey in your kitchen is the deli-sliced variety in a sandwich, you really do need a plan—and help, so don't be shy about asking for it.


To that end, over the next week leading up to Thanksgiving, I'm resurrecting Mastering Thanksgiving, the series Read More 

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11 November 2022: Whiskey Cheese

Potted Cheese, also known in our house as Whiskey Cheese


As the winter holidays approach, especially now that we live in a different place, my mind keeps slipping back to the holidays of my childhood. Most of us do that at this time of year, but these days I'm much more conscious of it. Despite the way we "preacher's kids" love to grumble about growing up under watchful and often judgmental eyes, not just of the church, but of the entire community, it did have its perks, particularly during Christmas.


Not only did my mother and both grandmothers turn out their usual bounty of seasonal treats, we were always showered with food offerings by the church congregation, even from people who didn't really like us. They ranged from homemade baked goods to store-bought chocolates, tea samplers, and elaborate cheese boards. One of the things I remember looking forward to the most was a sturdy brown conserve crock filled with potted cheese.


Potted cheese is a simple, old-fashioned conserve Read More 

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9 November 2022: Southern Comfort and Buttermilk-Cream Biscuits

Buttermilk Cream Biscuits, here buttered and stuffed with thinly-sliced cooked country ham


When Southerners begin to talk of the foods that most comfort us in times of grief, joy, or homesickness, biscuits almost always come into the conversation. So it's no surprise that when the Covid pandemic forced us into lockdown, soft-wheat flour, shortening, and buttermilk disappeared from grocers' shelves and were hard to come by for months.


Luckily, I had just restocked those things, and we're a small household, so I never felt the pinch of the shortage. And I probably made more biscuits during that first month than I'd made in the previous couple of years combined.


Most of them were cream biscuits, a simple formula of flour, baking powder, salt, and heavy cream. They're disgracefully easy, practically foolproof, and I'm lazy. The dough is simply stirred together, folded a few times, then cut and baked.


But they do have one big drawback: Read More 

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19 October 2022: Autumn Flavors and Pan-Roasting—Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Sage and Marsala

Pan-Roasted Pork Tenderloin with Sage and Marsala, here accompanied by roasted sweet potatoes, peas with butter and scallions, and herbed dressing


As we begin our second year living in Virginia, we're also enjoying our second full Autumn. This has always been my favorite time of the year. Maybe it's the invigorating coolness in the air, the golden light and brightly colored leaves, or the fact that it's harvest time, but this inward-turning season always seems more hopeful. It's also when I'm happiest in my kitchen.


For four decades, we lived in a place where the only hint of the season before November was that golden light. The warmth and autumnal aromas that filled my kitchen often did not go with what was happening outdoors: The frost on the windows was on the outside, where the still-warm, humid air collided with glass chilled by the air conditioner.


So it's a blessing to once again be living in a place where we have real autumn weather and my kitchen's warmth is actually welcome. It's been fragrant with Read More 

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14 September 2022: Comfort Gratin

Zucchini Gratin with French Fried Onions

14 September 2022: Comfort Gratin


It's rare that anything really personal finds its way into these essays. Most of them are about cooking technique, ingredients, method, or the provenance of a particular recipe. First person singular pronouns are kept to a minimum because it's not about me or even what I know. After all, what we know is nothing to take credit for, since most of it came from someone else.


There may be a passing thought on a lesson learned about exercising patience or focus in the kitchen, or perhaps a reminder that the most important thing in cooking is pleasing ourselves and our loved ones. But the most personal any of them ever get is to touch on how a dish makes me feel and/or its connection with someone dear to me.


This one, however, is very personal. Read More 

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5 September 2022: Summer's End and Shrimp and Grits

My Shrimp and Grits, real comfort food from the Lowcounrty


As we close in on our first year of living full time in Petersburg, we love it here, and are growing more attached to it as the months pass. But it would be a bald-faced lie to say that we aren't sometimes more than a little homesick for Savannah.


One of the things I miss most (aside from people) is Russo's fish market and the fresh local brown creek shrimp and blue crab that we so took for granted. There are a few fish markets here, but  Read More 

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