December 2008

Posted on December 31, 2008 in Archives

December 27, 2008 Arugula gone Wild!
We went out to the Eastern Shore of Maryland with our friends Chuck and Bruce, who are totally remodeling their house there, where we have spent many wonderful weekends. I’ve written about their garden and the meals I’ve cooked there many times on the blog. It was a lovely day, and the swans and geese and a lone bufflehead (see photo) were all over the cove. We were pulling up morning glories and plotting the spring garden when I noticed that the arugula, which is well established outside the garden fence, has not only escaped, but naturalized throughout the yard, like crabgrass! I picked a bag full and we came back and I made a simple pasta dish (recipe follows).
Pasta with Arugula and Walnuts
1 pound pasta of your choice, preferably a long type such as spaghetti or fettucine
3 ounces fresh arugula
1 large clove garlic, peeled, the base and green shoots removed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup cream
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
a pinch of cayenne or hot pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
1/2 cup walnuts
1 cup finely shreddd parmesan
Put the pasta on to cook in a large pot of rapidly boiling, salted water while you prepare the sauce.
Set aside a few small arugula leaves for garnish. Place the remaining arugula and the garlic in the work bowl of a food processor and process in bursts until evenly chopped. (You can chop with a knife or an Italian mezzaluna on a cutting board just as well.) You should have about 2 cups, more or less.
Heat the olive oil and butter over medium high heat and add the arugula and cook for 3 or 4 minutes, or until the arugula begins to wilt, stirring constantly. Add the cream and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes, until it begins to thicken, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and, if desired, hot pepper. (I used some truffle-infused salt that some friends gave me. It added an earthy undertone that was nice.) Add the walnuts and cook to warm through, then add the cooked, drained pasta and grated cheese. Garnish each bowl with the reserved arugula leaves and serve with crusty bread and a simple salad.
Serves 4.
Happy Holidays! (December 25, 2008)
Think I maybe let the rolls rise too long?! I’ve been trying to find a recipe for a yeast roll that I truly love, unsuccessfully. We were having our friends Chuck, Bruce, and Patrick over for a Christmas Eve dinner of (city) ham with pear chutney, sweet potatoes in orange shells (recipe follows), collards, and fenouil à la grecque (sortof, made with oranges; recipe follows), and I made these pull-apart rolls and let them rise in the cool of our north facing “sun room.” But yesterday was in the fifites, the unheated room was warmer than I realized, and I gave them about 6 hours to rise instead of the mere three they needed. They were HUGE and everyone loved them because they were so fluffy that they perfectly mimicked the store-bought that most folks grew up with!
As you, Dear Reader, are well aware, I don’t mind showing my “failures” on this blog! The photos of the rolls and oranges are by Bruce Rashbaum.
Chuck brought fresh oysters (which thrilled me to no end since I forgot to order any and my source had none!) and I made my famous Rockefeller Turnovers (see December 20 of last year) and two different types of Cheese Straws (one with blue cheese, one with cheddar) to have with Champagne (L. Aubry, my favorite). Pat Creasy, my biggest fan, wrote and asked me how I flavored my cheese straws. Yesterday, I just used cayenne.  
Detailed instructions on cooking hams, collards, and the recipe for the pear chutney all appeared on the blog on December 17 of last year.
The sweet potato “pie” is a Charleston classic. On Thanksgiving morning, I called my friend Betsey Pinckney Apple, whose southern heritage includes some of the most illustrious families of both Virginia and South Carolina. I  asked her what she was doing. “Hollowing out oranges, thank you very much!” Last night I used sorghum molasses because that’s what I had on hand. Though the original recipe calls for boiling the sweet potatoes, I bake them for a richer flavor. I also tuck the tops of the oranges into the pan to hold the oranges upright, then replace them atop the oranges when serving.

Sweet Potato Pie in Orange Shells from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking


Rose P. Ravenel’s Cookbook or Charleston Recollections and Receipts is a beguiling collection of recipes and memoirs compiled by a Charleston lady during her long life which spanned a hundred years from mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. Her potato pie in orange shells is a favorite for the fall holidays.

I have reduced the amount of eggs and replaced the sugar with molasses. “Pies” in the Lowcountry are often without crust; the name is used in the same sense as the British “pudding.” 


6-10 oranges, depending on size

1 pound cooked sweet potatoes, peeled and mashed

1/4 pound unsalted butter (1 stick) at room temperature

3 eggs

1 cup milk

grated zest and juice of a lemon

2 tablespoons molasses

Preheat the ovent to 350o. Cut the top fourth off each orange, then hollow it with a grapefruit spoon or a melon baller. Blend the remaining ingredients well together, then fill each orange shell with the mixture. Bake for 20 minutes or until juice begins to run from the oranges.

Yield: 6 servings.


Fenouil à la grecque aux oranges (Fennel cooked in the Greek style, with oranges)
As I wrote on April 4, ” Court-bouillon means quick stock in French, but in Louisiana, where it’s prononunced “coobeeyon,” it’s a soup made by the addition of fish to the stock as it cooks. Neither the French nor French immigrants in Louisiana would dream of cooking shellfish or fennel in unseasoned water. The quick stock is made in a matter of minutes to provide an aromatic poaching liquid. Fennel is traditionally poached in a court-bouillon and served cold as an hors d’oeuvre. For some reason this very French preparation is called à la grecque (in the Greek style).”
Traditional recipes for fenouil à la grecque call for fennel simmered in a mixture of water, wine, the juice of a citron, onions, herbs, and olive oil, though the wine is often replaced with vinegar or tomatoes. Since I had hollowed out the oranges to stuff with the sweet potato mixture above, I decided to strain the pulp and use the juice in my court bouillon. The recipe is similar to the one for Shrimp in a Fennel and Tomato Court Bouillon that I posted on that April blog, using the orange juice in place of wine, increasing the olive oil, and then simmering fennel and red onion in the liquid. I then let the mixture cool completely and served it at room temperature, adding orange sections and garnishing it with the feathery fronds of fresh fennel.
2 large fennel bulbs with stalks attached
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup water
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
5 or 6 black peppercorns
a sprig of fresh thyme
juice of a lemon
1 red onion, peeled and sliced
sea salt
1 or 2 oranges, peeled and sectioned
Trim the stalks from the fennel, reserving a few of the feathery leaves for garnish. Place the stalks in a stockpot with the onion, olive oil, water, orange juice, bay, cayenne, pepper, thyme, and lemon juice. Bring the mixture  to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, for 20 minutes.
Strain the court-bouillon and discard the solids. Cut the base off the fennel bulbs but do not core them. Remove any discolored or damaged outer ribs and discard. Slice the fennel into 1/4- to 1/2-inch slices, about 6 per bulb. Place the fennel and the red onion slices in a large sauté pan with the court-bouillon, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the fennel and onion are cooked through but not mushy, anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. How long is a matter of personal taste. Stir occasionally as it cooks, breaking up the fennel clusters so that they cook evenly. Remove the fennel and onions and place in a serving bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of salt to the juice and boil hard to reduce by 2/3 to 1 cup, about 5 minutes or so. Pour the sauce over the fennel. At this point you can serve the dish warm or you can let it cool and serve it at room temperature later, adding the orange sections and garnishing with the fennel leaves. I meant to pass Cyprus Flake salt with the dish, but everyone loved it the way it was.
Serves 6.
For the rest of the holidays, I won’t be cooking much. I have a huge turkey gumbo that I pulled from the freezer (I made it after Thanksgiving with the carcass and turkey sausage.) I’ll add ham (I love that saying that “Eternity is Two People and a Ham”!) and oysters and shrimp as I reheat servings. And we’ll have ham sandwiches, and omelettes, and I’ll probably grill some lamb chops one night. And then there are the leftover desserts (I made an apricot tart and Chuck brought an apple pie, which we barely touched)!
December 22, 2008
I found some nice, sweet, plump parsnips yesterday and brought them home to have with duck. I put duck breasts with scored skins down in a skillet over medium to medium high heat and let all the fat render out of the skin, leaving a perfectly crisp and browned crust. I flipped the breasts over and seared the other side, then placed them in a warm oven while I fried batons of parsnip in the duck fat. When they were partially browned, I added them to the duck in the oven while I then tossed blanched green beans and garlic in the fat, adding a sprinkle of fleur de sel at the last minute. A very French bistro-like Sunday supper.
December 19, 2008 The Holidays
I have no holiday plans, and that’s so nice for a change! I guess I’ll get to catch up on reading and on working on my novel. At this time of the year, my business phone rings incessantly, folks wanting their grits “yesterday.” Not much I can do to speed up the artisanal process. I’ve always prided myself on the quality over the quantity of our products. I hope you ordered yours in plenty of time!
Here’s a typical scene in my kitchen: something brining (in this case, two thick-cut, bone-in pork chops, and a sink full of greens (collards). For the brine, I mixed 2 ounces of salt and 2 ounces of sugar into 2 cups of water, plus 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, covered the chops and put them in the refrigerator for about 12 hours, removing them to come to room temp about an hour before cooking, rinsing them and patting them dry before adding them to the pan.
The greens I wilted in olive oil as described on the blog this time last year (See December 17, 2007). Now that I’ve been blogging for nearly two years, I find myself making more and more of the same dishes as the foods come into season. That seems logical to me. I’ve never called myself a chef and have always maintained that the best food anywhere is the finest, freshest, local (in season) foods, simply prepared.
For dinner one night this week, I tossed cauliflower in an earthenware pan with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then placed the chops down in the pan, dragging each side through the excess oil to coat them. Roasted in a 350o oven until the chops were just barely registering 160o and the cauliflower was just beginning to brown. Served with the greens. Delicious. And a typical meal chez nous. Last night we ate again at Bistro D’Oc in downtown DC. I don’t know another restaurant where I feel so comfortable, where the bread, the food, the service, the atmosphere, and the wine list are all good and unpretentious. I had their perfectly roasted free-range chicken, its skin a crispy marvel and its flesh slightly pink, like those wonderful poulets de Bresse that I used to buy in Paris. And Mikel’s mussels, he said, were perfect. It’s downtown right across from Ford’s Theater and is a perfect place to go pre- or post-theater (we went after a movie).
December 14, 2008 Canestrelli and a novel
I’ve been under the weather for a few days and, as I’ve reported before, I am also heavy at work on a novel. The story is set partially in Genoa, Italy, where I lived 25 years ago, and where I’ll be going for a couple of weeks in the spring. Genoa is the capital of Liguria, the sickle-shaped thin strip of Italy that includes the Riviera, the Cinqueterre, and the entroterra, the high inland reaches of the region that borders the Piemonte.

In my novel, the lead character often goes up to Castagnaiêu, the home of friends in the entroterra, for mushroom hunts in the fall, the way I visited friends in the country when I lived there. On the way home to Genoa, we would often stop at the bakery in Ovada to buy canestrelli, “little baskets,” which was a type of shortbread that originated in the area around Monferrato, on the border of Liguria and the Piedmont. Each village has its own shape, none that I know of that of a “little basket.” Most common, perhaps, are those shaped like doughnuts or daisies, but in Ovada, they’re made in molds, just like shortbread as we know it.

Here’s an excerpt from the novel:


            Ovada, at the confluence of the Orba and Stura, is also officially Piedmontese. The surprisingly fragile “little baskets” are cookies shortened with butter from those upland plains. It is a rare ingredient in Genoese cooking. Jackie said it reminded her of the shortbread she had had in England, and was not surprised when the pasticcière told her that the secret ingredient is a bit of semolina, long used by commercial pasta manufacturers because it dries so well, but seldom seen in the Italian home. Her shortbread baker in Sussex had told her the same thing.

            There is not much mushroom hunting on Viana’s land. The chestnut trees, which have a symbiotic relationship with several of the favored funghi, only grow on the northernmost, highest corner of her farm. But it’s a good place to start an afternoon’s hike, when the setting sun illuminates the golden caps of everyone’s favorite, the funzo neigro (Boletus edulis), the beloved porcino of Italy and cèpe of France. From Castagnaiêu, you can walk due north all the way to Ovada along the slopes. Though only 6 miles, it takes all day, trudging through the steep hills. And during mushroom season (cool, damp springs and again when it rains in late summer, until the first cold snap), the woods, normally devoid of any sign of human activity, are filled with mushroom seekers.

            Castagnaiêu is the name of a species not loved by many, Russula delica, known as colombina bianca in Italian. It’s edible but must be not only cooked, but also pickled, before eating. They grow profusely amongst the chestnut trees on the farm – hence the name – and Viana’s pantry shelves are filled with jars of them sott’olio. They flavor many regional dishes found nowhere else.

            In late October, Jackie went on her first mushroom hunt. The rains had continued off an on as the weather cooled, and, after a week of sunshine, Donato told her, “Now’s our best – and last – chance for porcini. We should plan to do some serious hunting this weekend.”

            They drove to Castagnaiêu on a Friday afternoon and unsuccessfully combed the hills behind the house for a couple of hours after they arrived. Jackie picked every mushroom she found, but Viana said no to all of them. “Sono tutti emetici!”

            Donato encouraged her. “Never mind tonight. Tomorrow will be long, but we will find mushrooms. We’ll leave at the crack of dawn. Mama will drive us to Parodi Ligure and she’ll visit her sister. We’ll begin our hike there, and she’ll meet us in Gavi. We’re bound to find porcini.”

            Jackie had never seen landscapes like the ones she saw in the Valle dello Stura. On one gentle slope, broom sedge grew from rocky soil; on a steeper climb not 200 meters away, chestnut trees were still lush with leaves and wildflowers bloomed around the sunny edges. Abandoned farmsteads with crumbling dry stone walls would line the paths along one holler, only to give way to wheat fields around a bend. Donato kept them walking on the higher elevations of the western slopes, catching the morning sun. Below one path he chose, a sheer cliff of limestone fell sixty feet. They crossed a creek on an overturned log and Jackie could hear, but not see, a waterfall downstream.

             In a stand of beech trees that had lost most of their leaves, after walking for two hours, Jackie caught her first glimpse of the rusty golden cap of a fat porcino. She wasn’t sure what to make of it: it was a good six inches across the head. Donato was ahead of her. He had found several already, but none nearly that big. She remembered something Viana had told her about being sure to look for them camouflaged amongst the beech leaves, and she knelt next to it, admiring its size and checking to be sure that she wasn’t mistaken.

            Funzo di fò!” she then screamed. She remembered seeing one this size in a market in Sussex for something like twenty dollars. She was beside herself, like a child catching her first fish.

            Ecco,” Donato calmly said, when he came back to where Jackie was still kneeling before her prize. “La mia cacciatrice di funghi!”

            He kissed her deeply and suggested they stop and rest for a spell, but Jackie was too excited. She had never once found a morel in the hills back home, even though others had, and she knew that it was just of matter of learning to see them. Just before she left South Carolina, she had finally started to see the fossilized sharks’ teeth on the beaches, and had found dozens of them in her last few days there. She hugged Donato and told him, “I’ve been looking for mushrooms in West Virginia since I was a teenager and have never found a single one that was edible. I wish I were already home. It’s the season there, too. I’m sure I could find them now!”

            “We’ve got another hour at least to Gavi, and we’ll be moving to the eastern slopes, where the sun won’t be shining yet. You should start looking for spunziêua now. They’re really only in season in the spring, but they’ve been known to pop up in old apple orchards in the fall when it’s been rainy and warm, the way it has been this October.”

            “What’s spunziêua?”      

            “Our local morel. It’s flesh-colored.”


            The sun was getting higher and the woods were thinning as they approached the hilltop village of Gavi. On the lower slopes, farmers were bailing hay. The upper hillsides were planted in grape vines right up to the town center. Their path joined the main road near the top of the hill where they saw Viana driving up from the west. Donato and Jackie had both removed their jackets and had them tied around their waists. The weather was perfect, but they were hot and sweaty. They had about 3 pounds of porcini and a single pathetic morel in a cloth sack that Donato had thrown over his shoulder. Viana had parked her little red car in front of a building at the center of the town square, such as it was, and was waving at them. There were several stray cats in the streets, lounging in the sun. The vines had been harvested but there were workers in their three-wheeled Apes buzzing about the weathered Gothic village.

            When they reached the top of the hill, Viana was anxious to see what they had “caught,” and pulled the bag from her son’s shoulder and opened it – approvingly, they were glad to see – before she had even said hello. “Bravi!” she said, then, taking the bag, walked into the building, which was one of the four local cantine – a wine shop attached to one of the vineyards. Donato followed his mother. The room was set with a half dozen rustic picnic-like tables, dark with years of use. Jackie was leaning against the car outside the door, drinking a bottled water and soaking up the sun. She noticed three huge 25-liter fiaschi in Viana’s car.

            Donato came out. “We’ve traded our mushrooms for lunch and dinner. We’ll have lunch and relax while they fill our fiaschi, then we’ll head out on the eastern slopes in the afternoon sun and see if we can’t find some more mushrooms. Mama will drive down to pick us up at Bosio, where another aunt lives. We’ll freshen up there and come back for dinner. Hopefully we’ll have mushrooms to take back to Castagnaiêu. Mama will put them sott’olio.”

            “Our fiaschi?” Jackie had seen the big, straw-wrapped bottles in Viana’s car, but she wasn’t sure what was going on. She was tired and hungry. “What about lunch?”

            “The winery will fill the fiaschi with the new harvest. One for Castagnaiêu, one for Frantoio, and one for Zia Anna. We’ll bottle it when we get home. 33 bottles of Gavi for about eighty thousand lire!”

            Jackie did the calculations in her head. “That’s about two dollars a bottle. Wow! That ought to be enough white table wine for the next year.”


1/2 pound (1 1/2 cups) unbleached, all-purpose flour

3 ounces ( 1/2 cup) semolina

1/2 pound lightly salted butter

1/2 pound sugar (1/2 cup)



            Preheat oven to 325º. In a bowl, sift together the flour and semolina and set aside. In another large bowl, with the electric mixer on high speed, add the butter in small pieces, beating until it is uniformly softened.



            Add the sugar and continue beating until the two are creamed together. Lower the speed of the mixer and add the flour mixture a cup at a time, continually scraping down the walls of the mixer bowl, and working quickly until the ingredients are just blended. Be careful not to overmix, because the semolina, high in gluten, can toughen the canestrelli. The dough will be somewhat crumbly.



            Press the dough together into a ball and place on a lightly floured surface or waxed paper, and roll it out to a quarter-inch thickness. Cut the dough into small round shapes. I use a biscuit cutter  with a two-inch rim.



            Using a metal spatula, transfer the canestrelli to baking sheets, placing them an inch apart, then prick them all over with the tines of a fork, making the design of your choice. If you cannot get all of the dough into the oven at once, wrap the dough in waxed paper and refrigerate in the meantime. Bake for approximately 15 to 20 minutes, or until they begin to blush with color.



            Remove from the cookie sheet with a metal spatula and cool on racks.



Yield: Three dozen cookies, which may be stored for two weeks in airtight tins.


December 7, 2008 Oysters, Burgers, Fries, and Homemade Mayonnaise
Mikel and I told friends that we had plans for last night instead of joining them to go see some Christmas lights and to eat ethnic food in the suburbs. We weren’t lying: I had bought some fresh chuck to grind to make burgers. We’re trying to learn how to use our Flip® camera and how to post videos on this blog. It got (if you’ll excuse the expression) “coldern a witch’s tit” yesterday, with blustery winds and snow flurries. Because I grew up in the Carolina lowcountry, spending lots of times on our family’s boat, cold weather means raw seafood to me. My mother used to tell me to go get lunch. If it were spring, summer, or early fall, I might cast the shrimp net or see if the crab trap offered any shellfish (or the occasional eel or flounder), but in the winter months, I would go gather oysters or clams from the banks at low tide. To this day, when the first really cold snap hits, as it did yesterday, I want oysters or sushi. So I bought us some oysters and Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine (sur lie), the classic oyster wine from the mouth of the Loire River in France, and came home and made burgers, fries (see April 15, 2008, for the recipe), and homemade mayonnaise (recipe appeared on June 5, 2008). Mikel filmed me and I’ve posted the video on my Myspace page here.
For the burgers, I grind chuck, adding about a tablespoon of water per pound of chuck while it’s grinding. I lightly gather the meat into patty shapes, lightly pat it together, and lightly press an indentation in the meat, sort of like a bagel. The meat should be cold when it’s ground and cold when it goes on the grill. Never salt it until the moment you put them on the grill, and never press down on the meat while it’s cooking or you will make the burgers hard and hockey-puck-like. Cook over a low flame and turn as often as you like. When they are almost done, you can add cheese if desired. (We added pimiento cheese last night; the recipe appeared on December 27 of last year.) Move the burgers over to a section of the grill that has no heat under it, or, if using a gas grill, simply turn it off. Cover the grill for a minute or two for the cheese to soften, but never cover the grill while you’re cooking the burgers or they will bake instead of grill.
And be sure to serve a fruity Cru Beaujolais with the meal!
Bon Appétit!
Let me urge all of you to go see Gus Van Sant’s latest film, “Milk,” with Sean Penn in the title roll as gay activist and martyr Harvey Milk, the San Francisco City Supervisor who, along with Mayor George Moscone, was assasinated by former city supervisor Dan White. The film is interspersed with archival footage and is a moving tribute, without being mawkishly sentimental or sappy, to this pioneering and brave man, the first openly gay person elected to public office in the United States. Visit the film’s official site here. But don’t take my word for it, or the film’s producers’. Pick up just about any magazine or newspaper and read the gushing reviews. A. O. Scott in The New York Times called it “a marvel.” David Denby in The New Yorker called it “a rowdy anthem of triumph.” On the other side of the political fence, even the stodgy Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, a film critic since 1959 (!) wrote, “More than acting, though, Penn’s performance is a marvelous act of empathy in a movie that, for all its surprisingly conventional style, measures up to its stirring subject.”
December 3, 2008
Dear Reader, I know that it seems that I haven’t been writing much lately, but, in fact, the major reason that my blog goes neglected for days on end is that I have been working 8 to 10 hours/day on a novel. It’s my second (my first one wasn’t very good, I’m afraid, and I wasn’t willing to add the “sex and violence” that a major fiction editor told me that I needed to in order to make it saleable. Never mind that one character catches his business partner in flagrante with his wife and that same character’s 300-year-old house in downtown Charleston burns to the ground, with him barely escaping with third degree burns).
So as I write and rewrite and rewrite, and make turkey leftovers yet again, my blog gets neglected.
A well-regarded restaurateur who has been trying to get me to open a lowcountry restaurant with him yesterday asked me for a recipe for pimiento cheese because he wants to add a pimiento cheese burger to one of his restaurants’ menus. I told him that I had published the recipe several times, including on December 27 of last year here on the blog, but that if it were I adding the burger to my menu, I would consider tucking a ball of the cheesey concoction inside the burger, similar to the way I’ve been making blue cheese burgers since I was in college:

Blue Cheese Burgers (from The New Southern Cook)

I started making these scrumptious burgers when I was in college. Serve them on English muffins, lightly toasted on the grill; they’ll hold together and not stick to the roof of your mouth like ordinary, fluffy hamburger buns.

Be sure to buy meat that is fatty enough to give the burgers the right flavor and texture. You want at least 20% fat, but you also want good meat. No need to grind your own, just be sure to look for chuck that is at least 20% fat. You also don’t want to handle the meat too much, press it together too tightly, or mash it down while it’s cooking. Yes, it’s hard to resist doing that while grilling, watching the flames lick up on the burger, but don’t. You’re only making your burger more and more hockey-puck-like.

1 pound ground chuck, broken up with a fork

1/4 pound blue cheese, crumbled

Toss the meat and cheese together. Make four patties from the mixture, lightly pressing them into shape. Allow them to come to room temperature while you build a charcoal fire or preheat a gas grill. Grill 3 or 4 inches over medium heat for about 2 or 3 minutes per side, or to taste. Serve with the usual accompaniments.

Makes 4 burgers.

Debbie Recommends: Gamay from California or make this part of your Beaujolais Nouveau party.


I’ll let you know how my pimiento burgers turn out. I’m really sick of turkey.