Cooking in the fall in the coastal South
November 10, 2016; Savannah, Georgia: Sometimes I wonder how on earth I managed to do everything I did before I “retired.” I put that in quotation marks because I still run my business and go to culinary events and speak at museums and conferences — as well as keeping house and gardening. But when I think back to when I ran my store, tested recipes, shopped and cooked for at least two meals each day, and wrote a half dozen books, also while taking care of my house and yard, I am honestly amazed. Mikel, my husband, is working in Washington, DC, so I am not putting an elaborate meal on the table every night, the way I did for years. It was those meals that fueled the blog. That said, when he does come home, I go all out. He was home for both Blood on the River III and to vote, so now that those major events are over, I can concentrate on selling grits and oyster knives, getting ready for Thanksgiving, and the blog.
In the photo at left are some of his favorite foods that I prepared in anticipation of his last visit — all very local and seasonal: pickled shrimp, roasted peppers from our garden, boiled peanuts, and field peas cooked with smoked neck bones. On Wadmalaw Island, where the boucherie was held, we rented a big house and my “son” Scot Hinson, who owns PW SHORT General Store in Savannah, and both of my sisters joined us. We crabbed off the dock, drank lots of Champagne (it was my birthday weekend) and had homemade duck confit. I have already blogged about many of my favorite recipes. If you scroll down near the bottom on this page from July 2008, you’ll find instructions for making the confit. At the boucherie, Scot and I opened oysters all day. The local beds were closed because of the post-hurricane flooding, so the guys at 167RAW in Charleston came to our rescue with oysters from Maine, Washington State, Massachusetts, and Prince Edward Island. All the paying guests at the boucherie got an oyster knife as part of the cost of attending. I got Wallie, Buddy, and Chase Hiers (3 generations), whose hog killin’ I have attended in Varnville, South Carolina, to come and show the chefs and cajuns how to prepare traditional lowcountry puddin’. Hanna Raskin of the Charleston News & Courier wrote about it in the Garden & Gun blog. (I have posted many captioned photos from the Varnville event on my personal Facebook page. Please feel free to ask me to “friend” you, but don’t go making snarky comments or I will unfriend you immediately. Save them for your own page, where I won’t belittle your opinions.) In the photo at right, my sister Susan Highfield and I are joined with Chef Blair Machado of the excellent Italian eatery, Indaco of Charleston, and the senior Hiers.
I’ve also made tomato aspic twice recently. A recipe appeared on the blog on March 24, 2008. I made it for a party for 20 in honor of my dear friend Julia Christian, whose recent one-man show of her recent drawings and paintings was absolutely stunning. I fried five little 3 pound chickens from Claxton, Georgia, and had butterbeans with appropriate relishes, and Scot made potato salad. I made the aspic, which I love, almost as a joke, thinking that folks would be picky and turn up their nose at such a 1950s icon. But, since everyone was southern and we have, for the most part, know each other for over 40 years, it was gobbled down in no time. I did one thing different this second time: I used pickled shrimp in the mayonnaise and then placed the aspic on a bed of lettuce with the remaining few shrimp and some of the onions from the jar.
Without Mikel or my immediate family in town, I find myself somewhat nostalgic around the holidays. In the photo at right there are several of my prized possessions, most of which are heirlooms: my grandmother’s well-seasoned cast iron pans, my mother’s silver-lined copper gratin dish, Karen Hess‘s wooden spatula (the last tool she used), my father’s Ah-So (for getting less than perfect corks out of very old wine bottles, the garde manger knife that Master Chef Thom Tillman gave me when I apprenticed under him, plus my trusty Italian drawstring salad spinner. I have seen several articles in the past thirty years about chefs’ and home cooks’ favorite tools — and ones that they could do without. Invariably, someone (usually a New Yorker with limited space) says the salad spinner is a space waster. But I use it nearly every day (unlike the Ah-So, which I use perhaps once/year). Mine is my favorite of the spinners, with a hole in the top to let running water in and more in the bottom to let it out.
One of mine and Mikel’s favorite meals is a pan-seared ribeye (using Pat LaFrieda’s method of cooking, which I described last summer) and duck fat shoestring potatoes. Having written and extensive book on frying, I can safely say that I have fried just about anything that is fryable, and I well know the rules. But for these fries I do things a bit differently. To begin, I peel the potatoes, then cut them into shoestrings using a mandoline, letting the cut potatoes fall into a bowl of cold water. I slosh them around in the water, drain, and replenish the water several times until the water is clear. I then pat them completely dry and fry them in small batches in a couple of inches of duck fat in which I have cooked confit. I toss them around continually, making sure that they cook evenly over high heat, and remove them to a rack as soon as they are evenly browned. Mikel and I hovered over the stove for the first batch (which I normally place in a low oven to stay warm while I continue frying the remaining spuds), devouring them. Using that highly seasoned fat, they need no other flavoring.
We also pulled up most of the peppers and made hot pepper vinegar with the hot peppers and simply pickled the sweeter ones — ripe or not. Here’s Mikel with some of the hot pepper vinegar (simple enough to make: simply boil your vinegar solution, using whatever seasoning suits your fancy, for a half hour and pour over the peppers packed into sterile jars), which I have placed in a cool, dark pantry until he comes home at Christmas, when we will have it with our greens.
For Thanksgiving I will go join him in Washington, where we are helping prepare a meal for 35 people, mostly international students with nowhere else to go. I’ve been making cornbread daily and putting it in the freezer to use in cornbread dressing. Those cast iron skillets of Grandma’s sure have come in handy!
Please everyone in South Carolina mark your calendars for April 1, 2017, when we will be having a Shrimp and Grits dinner to celebrate the rebuilding of the iconic Pink House that was destroyed by a falling tree a few months ago. Stay tuned!