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Recipes and Stories

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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12 August 2022: Late Summer Vegetable Soup

Herbed Late Summer Chicken Vegetable Soup

 

Perhaps it's the monotonously regular summer menu of salads and cold or room temperature food, but even in the warmest of days, there are times when a hot soup is not only welcome, but the only thing that really satisfies us. There's rarely a summer day, however, when venturing into a hot kitchen to make soup, even a cold one, is welcome.

 

Luckily, most soups don't take a lot of the cook's time, nor necessarily have to simmer for hours to be good.  Read More 

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1 August 2022: White Peach Tart

White Peach Tart

 

The summer heat and humidity in our corner of Southern Virginia may not be quite as intense as it was in coastal Georgia, but it's still summer in the South. My cooking continues to be heavy on summer comfort food: lots of fresh produce, pan-roasted meat and poultry, salads, and cold soups.

 

Luckily, Petersburg has a lovely Farmers' Market in an open lot of Old Towne's River Street, Read More 

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16 July 2022: Simple Summer Cooking and Minestrone

Minestrone with Pesto

 

One of the great ironies of summer is that it's the very time of year when vegetable soups are at their best, since all the ingredients are at peak season, just when the last thing one wants to do is stand over a hot stove.

 

Luckily, these soups really don't require the cook to stand over them for more than a few minutes. You put it together before the kitchen is heated up, hang around only as long as it takes for it to come to a simmer, then just walk away Read More 

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13 July 2022: Simple Summer Cooking III—Pasta with Summer Squash and Herbs

Pasta with Yellow Summer Squash, Scallions, and Herbs

 

Of all the lovely ways there are to prepare summer squash, I never tire of pairing it with pasta, partly because I love what they do for one another and partly because the possibilities are practically endless.

 

Whether it's zucchini or our own delicate yellow crooknecks, their silky texture and subtly sweet flavor make a fine sauce for practically any pasta shape.

 

So when I came by some beautiful and fresh small yellow squash at the farmers' market, at least one of them was sure to end up in a bowl of pasta.  Read More 

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11 July 2022: Simple Summer Cooking II—Tomato Salad

Exquisitely Simple Tomato, Sweet Onion, and Basil Salad

 

Because I was late putting in our little herb garden, the basil is only just now full enough for the first batch of pesto. But clipping the tips back to make it fuller has given nice little handfuls for stirring into things like pasta with zucchini or filling in for lettuce in a BLT.

 

The best, however, is always  Read More 

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6 July 2022: Simple Summer Cooking I—Fresh Berry Compote

A Simple Compote of Seasonal Berries with Grand Marnier

 

Summer in the South (or, for that matter, anywhere) is full of irony for cooks. The bounty of produce inspires us at the very moment that the heat and humidity kill off any interest in being in front of a hot stove. The compensation is of course that summer is when the ingredients need the least amount of help from the cook. Indeed, they often don't need any help at all.

 

There's not much one can do to improve on a good peach or tomato that has been allowed to ripen to peak flavor on its tree or vine. If you doubt that, then you've never plucked one of either, given it a wipe or rinse, and bitten into it on the spot.

 

You might call it lazy, but there's wisdom (not to mention less chance of heatstroke) in knowing when to leave things alone. Read More 

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30 June 2022: Simple Summer Cooking and Squash Casserole

Summer Squash Casserole with Gruyere and Thyme

 

The beginning of our first full summer in Virginia found me out in the yard, still trying to beat into submission the overgrowth that had taken over the garden. It hasn't been without rewards:   beneath the wisteria, brambles, wild grapes, and poison ivy (that I swear sprout new growth the instant one's back is turned) lie the remains of a garden that was once a showplace.

 

Still, it's been hard not to get overwhelmed, so as the heat increases and my stamina lags, my focus has turned to small projects close to the house. One such project has been the filling of three barren planting beds on the back terrace.

 

The first order of business for this cook of course was an herb garden.  Read More 

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27 May 2022: Potato Frittate

Frittata for Two with Country Ham, Gruyere, Onion. and Potato

 

While I was a student at Clemson's center for architectural studies in Genoa more than forty years ago, Ilda, our lovely cook, used to make us something she called an "omeletta." It was really not an omelette in the French sense, nor was it a frittata, but something halfway between. Read More 

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20 April 2022: A Spring of Discoveries and Shepherd's Pie

Shepherd's Pie

 

This page has been rather quiet this spring, mainly because there hasn't been a lot of cooking going on in my kitchen that I've not already shared. While our new life in Virginia has not been without adventures, they've not been of the culinary kind. I've been excavating and discovering our own Secret Garden.

 

Our house sits on more than an acre of land, which nowadays can be called a "garden" only in the very loosest sense of the term. Mind, it wasn't always that way: Read More 

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7 March 2022: Comfort for Two—Individual Beef Pot Pies

Individual Beef Pot Pie

 

A favorite winter comfort in our house is that classic bistro standard, French Onion Soup Gratinée (28 October 2014: Mastering the Art of French Onion Soup Gratinéed). Since it's at its best made with a rich homemade broth, making it is a two day process.

 

But taking that extra step is so worth it, for its side benefit is that there's always boiled beef and extra broth left over for lovely things like another of our favorite winter comforts, pot pie. Read More 

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23 February 2022: Winter Soup

Minestrone-Style Chicken Vegetable Soup

 

Our first full winter in Virginia has been typical of the Mid-Atlantic South. There's been just enough snow to be fun without getting tedious, and we've enjoyed as much clear, crisp sunshine as rain. Temperatures have dipped just enough to make fires, soup, and hot toddies welcome, but not too cold for attacking the weeds and vines that have overrun our garden while they're dormant.

 

It's the kind of weather that's perfect for chicken soup, and hardly a week has passed without a pot of broth simmering on the back of my stove, filling the house with its warming, appetite-stirring fragrance.  Read More 

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29 January 2022: Buttermilk Pie

Lemon Buttermilk Chess Pie

 

Buttermilk pie is an old-fashioned standard of Southern baking whose history rivals that of the most put-upon heroines of any soap opera or romance novel. A humble, homespun pastry, it was as taken for granted as it was popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

 

It suffered gross neglect during the "gourmet" 1970s, and in the so-called "nouvelle southern" movement 1980s, survived a tarted-up comeback (with "reinvention" that sometimes bordered on abuse), then once again faded in the early part of this century. Happily, it's lately enjoyed yet another revival, Read More 

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23 January 2022: Sunday Pot Roast

Sunday Pot Roast

 

It's been a typical frosty January here in Petersburg, with just enough snow to be pretty and fun without getting tedious, and just enough frost in the air to make a fire on the hearth welcome but not absolutely necessary.

 

In other words, it's perfect pot roast weather.

 

After years of watching my mother and maternal grandparents assemble dozens of this Sunday dinner staple, and almost half a century of making it on my own, I never even glance at a recipe. Yet, except when I'm really homesick, it but rarely comes out exactly like the pot roasts of my childhood—by design.

 

The lovely thing about dishes like this is that once we've mastered the basic technique and keep in mind which flavors work well together, we're free to be in the moment and just cook. Read More 

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10 January 2022: Healing Soup

My Chicken Noodle Soup

 

I don't know how you all greeted the new year, but I hope it wasn't the way we did: in bed with head colds. Whenever I'm under the weather, if I can stand upright for more than two minutes, I drag myself to the store for a chicken and make a big pot of broth for chicken soup. (The one good thing about being in the middle of a pandemic is that the discipline of wearing a mask and constant hand-washing meant that there was little danger of passing that cold around.)

 

Yes, I could've just opened a can, and have been known to do that while waiting for heat to work its magic on the chicken, water, and a handful of vegetables. But the mass-produced contents of a can aren't at all the same and simply don't have the healing power of homemade soup. Read More 

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7 January 2022: Comfort Revisited—Ilda's Ham and Potato Gratin

Ilda's Casseruola al Forno (Ham and Potato Gratin) has been a comfort food staple in my kitchen for four decades

 

As our first full Christmastide in our Virginia home comes to an end, we're finally beginning to settle in and feel as if we're really at home here. It would be nice to report that settling in included an exuberant outburst of creativity in my sweet, sunny kitchen.

 

Well, no.

 

The upheaval of moving, the loss of my car thanks to being broadsided by a careless driver, unexpected changes at the church, the worrying decline of my elderly parents, and the new spikes in the pandemic have led instead to a full retreat into all our comfort food favorites.

 

We celebrated the season with the usual treats and have had more than our quota of eggnog, cheese straws, country ham biscuits and rolls, roast turkey, potato gratin, homemade fruitcake, and cookies. And, despite being laid out with terrible head colds, being good Southern boys we saw in the new year with plenty of collards and black-eyed peas.

 

But our day to day staples have been homey comfort favorites that I can make blindfolded. Read More 

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21 December 2021: Intimate Christmas Dinner—Chicken Rolls with Mushrooms and Ham

Chicken Rolls with Mushroom and Ham Dressing

 

As new variants of the Covid virus sharply remind us that the pandemic is far from over, some are choosing to once again forego large family gatherings and keep the holidays in a more intimate way with only their immediate household.

 

Never mind that this provides many of us with a convenient excuse to avoid some of our more tedious relatives, most of us have had just enough freedom for it to still be disappointing, especially those whose households are just two or even one person.

 

It also makes the large roast that's the centerpiece of the traditional feast impractical. But there doesn't actually have to be a honking big turkey, goose, standing rib, or crown roast in the middle of the table for the meal to be sumptuous and festive.  Read More 

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18 December 2021: Christmas Potato Gratin

A Classic French Potato Gratin

Last night, we ventured out to a neighborhood holiday pot-luck. It was the first time we'd done anything like it since our move, and I'm a little out of practice with cooking for crowds, so my contribution was a standard that I could do without thinking about it, an extravagant but very easy potato gratin.

 

And as it always does, my gratin dish came home scraped clean.

 

It's a simple concoction of thinly-sliced potatoes, cream, and good cheese for which I can't take any credit, since the recipe is a timeless classic French one, Read More 

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14 December 2021: Christmas Cheese Stars

Christmas Cheese Stars: Old-Fashioned Southern Cheese Straws with a Holiday attitude

 

Thanks to a move across three states, all the usual upheaval that goes with it, and a few unexpected wrenches thrown in along the way, we're still adjusting to our new home and life in Virginia. The consequence is, that my holiday baking has gotten a very late start. While that's probably not a bad thing for my waistline, it hasn't helped my spirit.

 

Yesterday, however, at long last I finally tied on an apron, got out the mixer and processor, and began my baking ritual with a batch of Christmas Cheese Stars.

 

That's just cheese straws with a little bit of a holiday spin that happened completely by accident. Read More 

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29 November 2021: The Remains of the Feast Turkey Soup

Turkey, Ham, and Orzo Soup

 

Since we had Thanksgiving dinner away from home, to give us "leftovers" other than my contributions to the feast, I'd not only made broth but later roasted a turkey breast on a bed of diced carrot, celery, and onion and baked a small pan of sage and onion cornbread dressing.

 

The weather here has turned brisk, with temperatures dropping below freezing at night, so the obvious end for those leftovers was a nice, thick soup. Read More 

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24 November 2021: Turkey Broth and the Smells of Thanksgiving

The aroma of Homemade Turkey Broth is the very essence of Thanksgiving

 

Y'all, I cannot seem to help myself.

 

For our first Virginia Thanksgiving, we're not hosting but are going to another family member's home. My part of the meal is my grandfather's macaroni pie, cranberry relish with apples and oranges, and a sweet potato souffle from a fondly remembered Savannah friend.

 

So I'm not cooking the turkey, gravy, or dressing. And yet: There's a big pot of turkey broth simmering away in my sunny yellow kitchen as I write this, and I'll roast a turkey breast later on for sandwiches, creamed turkey over dressing, and turkey soup.

 

The thing is, it's just not Thanksgiving if my house doesn't smell like roasted turkey and broth,  Read More 

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22 November 2021: The Simple, Homey Comforts of Hoe Cakes

Hoecakes, or Corn Griddlecakes

 

Most of us have heard that old saw about how moving is as stressful as the loss of a job, the death of a spouse or close family member, a divorce, or a debilitating illness. Well, having been through all of those things, I can't say it's quite up to their level, but what I can tell you is that it gets more difficult with age.

 

Two months into our new life in Virginia, people ask if we're unpacked and settled; we look at one another, let out a sigh, and then laugh. On the surface, the house is beginning to look as if we've lived here for a long time. The boxes are all unpacked, a lot of the pictures are hanging, and shelves are filled with books.

 

But unpacked isn't settled Read More 

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28 October 2021: Old Fashioned Chicken and Rice

Old Fashioned Chicken and Rice, or Chicken Pilau

 

As we settle in to our home in the foothills of Virginia, one thing that has become apparent over the last month is that we may have left the marsh-laced lowcountry, but my cooking hasn't. After four decades (almost my entire adult life) in a Savannah kitchen, the patterns and flavors of that unique coastal cuisine have become an indelible part of my cooking.

 

No matter how one looks at it, moving and resettling in another place, even a beloved one, is daunting and stressful. So it's no surprise that, once the kitchen was settled, our meals have been a steady stream of comfort food favorites. It was also no surprise that many of those comforting dishes go back to our childhood—steaming bowls of cheese grits, country-style steak, macaroni pie, my mother's baked chicken.

 

What did surprise me—and shouldn't have—is how many of them came from those four decades in the lowcountry.  Read More 

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20 October 2021: Making a Vacation Kitchen Home and an Autumnal Salad

Autumn Salad with Apples, Bacon, and Pecans before adding the Buttermilk Ranch Dressing.

20 October 2021: Making a Vacation Kitchen Home and an Autumnal Salad

 

This weekend we will have been gone from Savannah for a month. We're settling in at our house in Virginia and it's finally beginning to sink in that we're not on a vacation that will soon end: We're really and truly here to stay.

 

The most challenging and yet welcome transition for me has been the kitchen. Bright, sunny, and more inviting than any of my many kitchens have been, it's also been better equipped than those of most vacation houses. But while perfect for the on holiday cooking I've done in it, there's still been a lot of making-do.

 

Now that all the equipment has been reunited in one place, you'd think it would've been perfect.  Read More 

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6 July 2021: Summer Squash

Chicken Cutlets with Summer Squash

 

Among the best things of all the wonderful summer produce that used to come from my mother's now dormant vegetable garden were delicate, sweet summer squash. It yielded our familiar Southern yellow crooknecks by the bushel, but also produced slim little green zucchini in equal quantity, because our whole family loved both.

 

They're what I miss most from her garden. We cooked them in all the usual ways and never tired of any of them:  Read More 

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30 June 2021: Summer Squash and Pasta

Thin Spaghetti with Yellow Summer Squash, Bacon, and Scallions

30 June 2021: Summer Squash and Pasta

 

Last week I was finally able to visit my parents, whom I had not seen since December of 2019. It was bittersweet: Finally seeing and actually touching them was undiluted joy; witnessing the toll that age and pandemic isolation have taken was heartbreaking. Hearing it in their voices on the telephone, and in regular reports from my brother, was one thing, but experiencing it in person was something else altogether.

 

One of the single saddest things of all was that my mother is no longer able to do the thing she loves best: garden. Her large vegetable garden plot is now indistinguishable from the rest of the yard. And there was not one single green vegetable to be found in that house.

 

Still, it was good to actually see them and, if only for a few days, take some of the burden off my brother, and do things Read More 

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16 June 2021: Chilled Avocado Soup

Chilled Avocado Soup, here garnished simply with thinly sliced scallion, sour cream, and oregano.

 

People often ask why I never considered opening my own restaurant. My ready answer is that I'd as soon climb onto a chair, put a noose around my neck, and jump. I like cooking and want to keep it that way. But it's actually deeper than that: the truth is I've cooked professionally—only a little, but just enough for me to promise myself I'd never do it again.

 

While awaiting the publication of my first cookbook back in the early nineties, in what can only have been a moment of complete insanity, I let myself get talked into running the kitchen of a lunch café in downtown Savannah. The owner, who I suspect was a few bricks shy of a load (for goodness' sake, she'd hired an ex-architect who'd never cooked professionally to run her kitchen), had decorated the place without any idea of what kind of food it would offer.

 

Nor had any thought been given to how that food would be prepared.  Read More 

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3 June 2021: Of Fish Tacos and Mrs. H

My Fish Tacos: Be Kind. The name is Fowler and they happen to be really tasty.

 

One of my early mentors and friends in food writing was the late Marie Rudisill, whom you may have known as the outrageously frank Fruitcake Lady on The Tonight Show. Her first and best advice was, "Don't change your phone number, sugar: Half the fun you're gonna have from this thing is the phone calls you'll get."

 

The trouble was—and is—that I chose a profession that imposes solitude for a reason. I'm not outgoing by nature. But she was right; the best compensation for being reluctantly pushed into the public eye is that rare, unexpected call or letter that comes out of nowhere and lifts the spirit just when you need it most.

 

Over the years, they've sparked many treasured friendships, but none has meant more than the one that bloomed over a duck.  Read More 

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22 May 2021: Lillie's Little Lemon Puddings

Lillie's Lemon Puddings

 

The people who complain about long-winded recipe introductions will be happy with this one. I'll be short and sweet. Lillie Castleberry King was a lovely dowager from Talladega, Alabama. A true Southern lady in every sense of the title, she was noted for her baking, and these simple puddings were an after-school treat for her children when they were growing up in the 1940s.

 

She shared the recipe with me almost forty years ago.  Read More 

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