December 2007

Posted on December 3, 2007 in Archives

New Year’s Eve: With a slight frost on the ground but a crystal clear sky, I walked over to the community garden this morning, which I hadn’t visited in over a month. I was frankly thinking I would pick some chard, since it has weathered the other meager frosts we’ve had. The greens were wilted; the beets, stunted; and the entire garden had gone gray and brown; but, to my surprise and delight, I was able to dig up 6 more pounds of sweet potatoes! (The bright orange-fleshed variety also known, confusingly, as Louisiana Yams, the most common sweet potato in supermarkets and a prolific, disease-resistant favorite of home gardeners for decades.) I will bake them with cream and horseradish for tomorrow’s New Year’s Day feast (recipe follows), and serve them alongside a city ham (see below at 12/17), country ham biscuits, braised collards (also below), cornbread, ambrosia (below at 12/20), cowpeas (see below) and, of course, hoppin’ john.We’ll drink R. Dumont & Fils Champagne. Small producers from Champignol-lez-Mondeville in the southern Aube, the Dumont brothers grow all of their own grapes on their 54 acres, as their family has done for over 200 years. Ninety percent of the vineyard is planted in pinot noir, and it shows in their delightfully fruity wine that is full of tiny, seemingly nonending bubbles and a sparkling aftertaste of fresh peaches. They keep their dosage low, so the alcohol content never goes over 12%, and the wine is perfectly balanced, a class act for such reasonably priced wine.

To begin, we’ll nibble on blue cheese straws and spicy roasted pecans (recipe follows). The blue cheese straws really do have a bluish tint to them.

Roasted Pecans
When I go to Europe, I always take some roasted pecans with me to give to friends. I prefer to roast the nuts with a little salt at a low temperature so that they do not burn. If you going to add the pecans to another recipe, you may wish to omit the salt, but be sure to include it if you want to make the Southern classic, Butter Pecan Ice Cream (which is simply made by folding the nuts into your favorite vanilla ice cream recipe). Both salted and sugared nuts are set out at the myriad parties of the holiday season in Charleston. When served with drinks before dinner, I always add some spice to the nuts, and usually splash them with sherry as well.
4 tablespoons melted butter
4 cups pecan halves
1 tablespoon salt, if desired
optional: cayenne or red pepper flakes, soy sauce, ground ginger, honey, or sherry
Preheat the oven to 325o. Melt the butter in a saucepan big enough to hold the nuts as well and add the nuts to the melted butter, turning them around carefully so as to coat all the nuts but not break up the halves.
Spread the coated pecan halves evenly on a heavy baking sheet or in the bottom of a roasting pan and bake at 325o for 30 minutes. At this point, add the seasonings, stirring carefully to make sure that the seasonings aren’t clumped on a few nuts. Bake until all liquid is evaporated and the nuts are a golden brown, another 15 to 30 minutes more. Remove them from the oven and stir well again. Cool, then store in airtight containers.
Cowpeas are any of a number of dried field peas like blackeyes. See my essay in July 2007.
For 2 pounds of shelled fresh peas, I put two quarts of water and about a pound of cured meat in a pan and bring it to a boil. In summertime I use smoked neck bones, but in the winter I might use a hock or what we call butt’s meat. Butt’s meat is salt pork, from the jowl. If you use salt pork or streak-o’-lean or butt’s meat, you’ll need to cut it up, “fry it out,” then pour off some of the fat before adding the water. After the water comes to a boil, I cook it at a low boil for about a half-hour, or until the water is flavored by the meat. Then I add the peas, return to a boil, reduce the heat, and let it simmer for about another 30 minutes. Seldom do I eat the peas on the same day that they are cooked. 2 pounds of peas yield 8-10 servings. Serve the peas over rice, with plenty of pot likker and cornbread (the cornbread will sop up what the rice doesn’t).
In the winter, using dried peas, I simply add more water and put the peas in the pot at the same time as the cured meat, cooking until they are just shy of done. NEVER SALT field peas and beans while they are cooking:  wait until they are almost done, then season to taste with salt and pepper.
Relishes are always served with peas and rice. I found some fresh Jerusalem artichokes yesterday and will be making artichoke relish.
Jerusalem Artichokes (from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking)
Jerusalem artichokes are one of the few native American foods that remain unchanged through hybridization. Indigenous to the Lowcountry, they appear most often as pickles and relishes. I know Lowcountry cooks who still walk along roadsides and make notes of the flowers blooming, only to come dig up the tubers in the fall. The late, great country cook, Mary Clare Ulmer, from Four Holes Community near Orangeburg, SC, always insisted on artichokes from the wild, even though they are difficult to clean. Some people put the ‘chokes in their washing machines to clean them, but Mrs. Ulmer told me “I don’t want sand in my washing machine any more than I want it in my pickles.” Happily for all of us, the water-chestnut-like tubers are now cultivated and are readily available, and sand-free, in grocery stores across the country. Jerusalem artichokes are delicious raw in salads, roasted, and puréed in soups.
Artichoke Relish
A plate of rice, a pork chop, and Sieva beans becomes a Lowcountry supper with the addition of a spoonful of this tart and crunchy relish.
1 cup sea salt
1 gallon water
4 cups scrubbed Jerusalem artichokes, cut up or sliced into small pieces, or ground
2 cups green and red bell peppers, finely diced or ground
2 cups chopped or ground onions
4 tablespoons mustard seed
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
2 cups sugar
1 quart vinegar
cayenneMix the salt and the water together to make a brine. Soak the vegetables in the brine for a good 24 hours. Drain the vegetables well, rinsing them briefly under cold running water. Squeeze out all the excess moisture. Sprinkle the mustard and turmeric over the vegetables and mix thoroughly. In a nonreactive pot, dissolve the sugar in the vinegar, bring to a boil, and pour over the vegetables. Fill sterilized jars, add a dash of cayenne to the jars, if desired, seal, and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
Yields 5 pints.

Sweet Potatoes with Horseradish

This is my favorite dish from my second book, The New Southern Cook. Every time I taste it, I am amazed at how new the flavor of sweet potoates seems to me. This dish pairs well with either roast lamb or chicken and is even delicious at room temperature — I’ll take these cold and leftover over pizza any day!
I first had this dish prepared by
Chef Frank Lee in Charleston. He served it with a perfectly roasted rack of lamb with a clear, natural gravy. Frank also makes these sweet potatoes into a soup by pureeing them with stock and a little cream. Try to find rather small sweet potatoes, all the same size, that are pointed at the ends.
4 average sweet potatoes (about 1-1/2 – 1-3/4 pounds)
3 tablespoons grated horseradish (fresh is better but prepared will do)
1 cup cream
Preheat the oven to 400o. Peel the sweet potatoes and slice them evenly into 1/4″ disks. Toss all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl so that the potatoes are evenly coated, then turn them out into a baking dish such as a 9″ by 13″ casserole. Cover the pan with foil and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are slightly soft, or al dente. If you want a caramelized surface, remove the foil for the last 10 minutes or so. Serve immediately.
You can also prepare this dish in a microwave: Loosely cover the dish with plastic wrap instead of foil and cook on high for ten minutes, stopping twice at 4-minute intervals to toss the potatoes around so that they evenly cook.
Serves 4 to 6.

12/27/07 Today I had to take my dog to the groomer’s, north of Washington, so I dropped him off and headed to the Amish Market in Burtonsville, Maryland. It was beautifully sunny and 55o. I arrived just as the place was opening, and there was a queue! With only one slight frost so far this year, there was still a lot of beautiful local produce. All of the animals whose meat they sell are raised naturally. I bought gorgeous fresh calves’ liver, which I made for dinner (recipe follows); perfect, tangerine-size beets with bright, spotless greens; radishes and carrots so fresh that their greens stood up erect, away from the roots (I gave the greens to my neighbor’s rabbit); and plump, fresh, 4-pound rabbits with the bulbous livers still attached. At the dairy, I couldn’t resist a tub of Pimento Cheese, about which I asked nothing. It looks to be more mayonnaise than cheese, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it outside the South. I always assumed that it was the invention of English settlers, since “potted cheese” of all sorts have appeared in British cookery books for centuries. But I was raised in a small southern town, settled by Germans and Swiss in the 1730s. And it has me wondering….
I’ll keep you posted.
Here’s a recipe for both pimiento (as it was always spelled when I was growing up) cheese and for Liver and Onions.
Pimiento Cheese (from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking)
Pimiento cheese is a staple of picnics and lunches throughout the South. It is spread on sandwiches, used as a dip, and stuffed into celery ribs. In the summers I grow my own pimientos (I brought seeds back from Spain years ago), and I usually roast my own peppers, whatever kind they are. Simply char the skins, but not the flesh, over an open flame and place them in a plastic bag to further steam the skins away from the flesh, about 10 minutes. Remove all stem, seeds, ribs, and peel, then chop to the desired size.
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 3 loosely packed cups, grated)
1/2 cup homemade blender mayonnaise (see below)
2 ounces (1/4 cup), or a small jar, of sliced pimientos and their juice; or, 1/4 cup chopped roasted red
bell pepper
1/2 small onion, grated (about 1 tablespoon grated onion)
Mix all the ingredients together and season to taste with cayenne. This recipe makes enough for four sandwiches; you can set a bowl of it out at a party with crackers and crudités and it will disappear.
Blender Mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard, or 1 teaspoon prepared
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 cup peanut oil
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Put the mustard, salt, and egg in a blender and blend for about 20 seconds. Add the oil very slowly, in droplets, and blend until all of the oil has been bound with the egg mixture and the mayonnaise is thick and creamy. Add the lemon juice and blend briefly to incorporate.
Yields a little more than a cup.
NOTE: I make several variations on this simple mayonnaise by varying the type of oil that I use. When I have used a jar of sun-dried tomatoes in oil, I use that intensely orange-colored oil to make a mayonnaise that I use on avocados and crab cakes. I also make a basil oil by filling a jar of olive oil with fresh basil stalks and leaving them in the oil for several weeks. Mayonnaise made with this greenish, pungent oil, is the great dressing for a tomato sandwich.
Liver and Onions from The Fearless Frying Cookbook
People seem to either love or hate liver; I myself was in the latter group for years, assuming that all liver dishes were the pale gray overcooked varieties I had sampled in “meat-and-threes” — those lunch counters of downtown America where the working class, students, and townsfolk dine on the “meat of the day” and three vegetables for the cost of an appetizer in fancier digs.
And then I went to Europe! Liver and onions are sautéed together in France in butter and in Italy in olive oil, but I prefer the old English version, which became America’s, with bacon grease. (Pig fat has less than half the cholesterol of butter!) There are but 2 “secrets” to perfectly delicious liver — the quality of the liver itself and not overcooking it. If you have access to a real butcher, have him slice the liver in equal pieces, with no thin ends that will overcook and become tough. Buy veal liver if you can find it.
1/4 cup strained bacon grease
1 pound veal or calf’s liver with membrane removed, sliced into equal pieces about 1/2-inch thick
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
4 onions, peeled and thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 200o. Place a serving platter in the oven to stay warm. Place a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add the bacon grease. Pat the liver slices dry and season both sides of the slices with salt and pepper. Put the flour in a bowl and dredge the liver slices in it, dusting off any excess.
When the bacon grease is hot but not yet smoking, add the liver slices to the pan, not crowding it. Cook until browned on the bottom, about 1 to 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the slices. Use tongs to turn them to the other side and cook until the second side browns as well. Remove the slices to the warmed platter and finish frying the slices if they all wouldn’t fit in the pan.
Dump all of the onions in the pan at once, gently stirring them around and cooking them until they are completely limp and have begun to brown, about 7 minutes. Remove the liver from the oven, top with the onions, and serve immediately. Mashed potatoes or rice are traditional, but I like to serve leafy greens vegetables and a great loaf of bread.
Serves 4.Christmas 2007 We’re back from four days out on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where we enjoyed the beautiful, fifty-degree weather and crystal clear skies and fairly simple meals that I’ve been anticipating here on the blog — pulled duck, Rockefeller turnovers, rack of lamb, baked ham, sweet potatoes with horseradish, apple pie, and lots of fresh fruit and wonderful wines. We made peanut butter cookies one day and ate dozens of oysters (including oyster shooters: recipes follow). This morning I made one last big frittata, with fresh herbs from the garden, potatoes, and grape tomatoes. Chuck sent me home with the last of the pulled duck, which I served tonight on hamburger buns with pan-fried potatoes and a simple salad. Recipes will follow, but, for now, I’m off to bed! Here’s supper. The recipe for the pulled duck is in the next blog entry.

Here’s how I made the potatoes:
Pan-Fried Potatoes
If you boil potatoes before you pan-fry them, the insides will be light and fluffy and the outsides will be crunchy and brown. You’ll need about 30 minutes to prepare them, so plan accordingly. Serve them hot with steaks, chops, and roasts, or alongside sandwiches, salads, and egg dishes such as omelets and frittate.
2 pounds potatoes (about 12 average new potatoes, 6 average white potatoes, or 2 or 3 Idahos)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced fresh herbs of your choice, or 1 teaspoon mixed dried herbs such as herbes
     de provence or Italian seasoning
2 or 3 minced garlic cloves
Leave the potatoes unskinned, but cut small new potatoes in half or larger potatoes into 1 1/2-inch wedges. Cook them in a large pot of boiling water until they are partially cooked but still are firm and hold their shaped, about 10 minutes depending on the type of potato.
Heat the oil in a large heavy frying pan over medium-high. When it is hot, add the potatoes. They should form 1 layer that covers the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle half of the salt and pepper to taste over the potatoes and allow them to fry in the oil without stirring for about 10 minutes or until they are golden brown on the bottom side.
Shake the pan gently to loosen the potatoes, then turn them with tongs or a metal spatula. If they are browned but are still sticking to the pan, scrape them off the bottom of the pan with the spatula turned upside down and by pushing firmly. Make sure all of the potatoes are turned over. Sprinkle the rest of the salt over the potatoes and fry until they are well browned all over, turning the wedges if necessary. It will take about another 10 minutes. If using dried herbs, sprinkle them on the potatoes now.
About 30 seconds before removing the potatoes from the pan, sprinkle them with the minced fresh herbs and garlic and shake the pan to evenly distribute.
Lift the potatoes from the pan with a slotted instrument that will allow the oil to drain off into the pan. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
Oyster Shooters
An oyster shooter, or shot, is made by filling a shot glass with a raw oyster and garnishing it in any number of ways. Our friend Chuck fills the shot glass with a dash of cocktail sauce and vodka. Several years ago, I was working with the International Olive Oil Council on a series of recipes that were traditional southern recipes that already incorporate olive oil or that I adapted to replace the traditional fats with olive oil. I approached many chefs and restaurateurs for their input. These shooters came from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, where they are tossed backed like a shot glass of tequila. The sauce is a spicy mayonnaise made with olive oil.
Use freshly shucked oysters and allow 6 per person. If you don’t have shot glasses, any small juice glass will do.
3 egg yolks
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
salt to taste
36 shucked oysters
3 lemons, quartered
Place the yolks in a small bowl and begin beating with a whisk as you slowly drizzle in the olive oil, at first by droplets. When all the oil is incorporated, whisk in the lemon juice and Wocestershire sauce. Stir in the vinegar, shallots, pepper, and salt, mixing well.
To serve, place a dollop of sauce in 6 shot glasses, then top each with an oyster. Serve the shooters with lemon quarters. As your guests toss back the shooters, refill them.
12/20/07 Christmas Brunch, deconstructed 

I’m not really sure how my family’s holiday meal evolved, but it is reflective of the various members’ tastes and talents. My mother was an amazingly accomplished cook, and we began Christmas morning with her homemade prune- and/or apricot-filled Danish pastry, a true labor of love begun the night before and finished at the crack of dawn as we ransacked our stockings. Then outdoors for fresh local oysters and Champagne. It was every man, woman, and child for himself, wielding oyster knives over a picnic table, shucking away at a bushel or more of the long, salty bivalves which we ate raw, rarely with any accompaniment. As often as not, it would have been yours truly who would have gathered them from the estuaries up behind Hilton Head, where we kept our sailboat.Only after we had our fill would we consider “roasting” some in lowcountry fashion – a wet burlap bag covered the oysters which sat on a sheet metal platform over a roaring fire. We would allow the oysters to steam until they were just barely loosened at their hinges. Carefully pried open, they would lose not one drop of their precious liquor, salty and warm, just as we were beginning to get cold.

Back indoors, there would be ham biscuits, usually served with both a spicy mustard and a sweet-and-sour condiment such as pear chutney. Yes, there were always fresh-squeezed citrus juices and hot coffee and tea, but Christmas is a celebration, after all, so we usually opt for more Champagne as we open our gifts.

Eventually, brunch, which everyone helped prepare: pan-fried quail with grits and gravy, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, ambrosia, more ham, and salty country ham biscuits.

More Champagne! Perhaps some regular biscuits as well.

Seconds, anyone? There was always a bowl of freshly made ambrosia and tin after tin of sugar cookies shaped like Christmas trees, holly leaves, bells, reindeer, angels and stars, with tinted glazes, sprinkles, cinnamon hots, and silver dragées.

Daddy and Sue disappear to a bed or couch to nap. I take the kids to a movie. If it’s sunny, we play with the outdoor toys – balls, planes, or, like this year, the remote control helicopter that Sue gave me!
We don’t normally exchange gifts, but Sue can’t resist a good toy and she knows what a child at heart I am.

It’s not long before I see Mike slicing more country ham. And is that Nancy back outside putting more oysters on to roast?Did I forget anything?

This year I’m offering up a holiday meal inspired by my family’s tradition. It may seem like a lot of work, but maybe you can dole it out to others. I’ve given a timeline for the cook as well. This is a delicious, festive meal worthy of any winter celebration. You needn’t serve the meal as brunch. It could just as easily be lunch or dinner. If you want a red wine with the duck, serve a Barbera d’Asti. But serve Champagne with the little oyster turnovers and the ham biscuits.


Rockefeller Turnovers (recipe follows)
Ham Biscuits with Pear Chutney (see 12/17, below) and Mustard
Creamy Grits with Pulled Duck (recipes follow)
Braised Collards (see Wilted Collards, below, at 12/17)
Sweet Potato Muffins (recipe follows)
Ambrosia (recipe follows)
Sugar Cookies (recipe follows)
Lemon Squares (recipe follows)


A Week Before: You can make the chutney and tuck it in the refrigerator. You can also make the sugar cookies and store them in a tin (well wrapped and frozen is good, too).

Several Days Before: If you’re cooking your own country ham, start soaking it now. You can make the cookies now as well.

Two Days Before: Cook the ham and slice the amount you’ll need. You can go ahead and put it on your silver platter, wrap it in foil, and stick it in the refrigerator if you have room. Do not wrap it in plastic wrap. Start the duck: make the stock, render the fat, pull the duck meat, then refrigerate all.

The Day Before: Bake the lemon squares but do not cut them. Allow them to cool, then wrap them well and refrigerate. Make the ambrosia and refrigerate. Make the collards, allow to cool, and refrigerate. Make the roux, then refrigerate.

The Night Before: Put whole-grain grits in a slow cooker on low before you go to bed. Figure 1 cup grits for 4 people. Salt the water (4:1 water to grits) but don’t use fats like cream or butter; they’ll just rise to the surface and are not needed. . Make the Rockefeller Turnovers and refrigerate.

That Morning: About three hours before serving the main course, remove the chutney, tea cakes, ham, duck stock and roux, ambrosia, lemon squares, and Rockefeller turnovers from the refrigerator. Bake the turnovers and begin making the duck dish. As soon as the duck is going, serve the turnovers with Champagne. Make the ham biscuits and serve them. Either bake an extra batch of biscuits or, about 30 minutes before brunch, make the muffins. About 20 minutes before eating, remove the cover on the slow cooker and turn the grits to high. Warm the collards. Voilà! You’ll want to cut the lemon squares and dust them with powdered sugar before serving.

Rockefeller Turnovers

I developed these appetizers for Food & Wine magazine. The ingredients for Oysters Rockefeller are chopped together, tucked into puff pastry turnovers, and baked. They can be assembled ahead of time, refrigerated, and baked when you’re ready to eat. Serve them warm before dinner with drinks.

1/2 pint shucked oysters
1 sheet frozen puff pastry
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup finely chopped celery
1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 pound spinach, trimmed, chopped, steamed, and drained,
or 1/2 of a 10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1/2 teaspoon salt
A few drops of Tabasco or a pinch of cayenne, to taste
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons Herbsaint or Pernod (anise-flavored liquors) or 1/4 teaspoon ground anise seeds
1/4 cup fine, dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon chopped anchovy fillets
1 egg

At least an hour before serving, place the oysters in a sieve over a bowl in the refrigerator to thoroughly drain. Remove the puff pastry from the freezer and allow to thaw at room temperature for 20 minutes.

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat, then sauté the celery and shallot until they are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, spinach, and salt and stir well to combine. Add the Tabasco or cayenne, the lemon juice, and anise flavoring, and continue cooking until most of the liquid has cooked out of the spinach and it has reduced to a puree, about another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, fold in the bread crumbs, and place the mixture on a plate to cool.

Remove the oysters from the refrigerator and place on a cutting board with the anchovies. Finely chop the oysters and anchovies together. Fold into the spinach mixture, then place again in the sieve to drain.

Roll out the sheet of puff pastry on a very lightly floured surface into a 14-inch square. Cut the square into sixteen 3 1/2-inch squares, then place a tablespoon of the mixture in the center of each square. Lightly moisten two adjacent edges of the pastry with water, then fold into triangular turnovers, corner to corner. Crimp the edges together with the tines of a fork and place the turnovers on a baking sheet.

Make a wash by beating the egg with 2 tablespoons of water. Lightly brush the top of each turnover with the wash, not letting any drip down the sides. Refrigerate until ready to bake.

30 minutes before serving, preheat the oven to 400o. Remove the baking sheet from the refrigerator, and, just before baking, lightly brush the tops of the turnovers with the egg wash again. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Serve hot.

Makes 16 turnovers.

Pulled Duck

This recipe takes a while, but it’s mostly unattended cooking and the results are scrumptious. This is typical Creole fare that reflects the mixed heritage of us southern cooks. The day before I plan to serve the duck, I simmer the duck to yield both meat and stock. I make a roux with the duck fat, which is delicious.

In New Orleans, you might find this dish called Duck Étouffée (Braised Duck), served over corn cakes, the way the late, great chef Tom Cowman used to at Upperline, a venerable uptown restaurant.

Folks tell me that duck is “too fatty,” but, in fact, duck fat is only 9% cholesterol, compared to butter’s 22%! This recipe is adapted from one of Cowman’s that I first published in The New Southern Cook.

For the duck and stock:

one 4- to 5-pound duckling
3 quarts water
1 large unpeeled onion, quartered
1 large or 2 small carrots, broken into pieces
2 celery ribs, broken into pieces
a handful of fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme, savory, and oregano
1 bay leaf
several whole black peppercorns
one whole clove

Rinse the duck well and remove most of the skin and any excess fat, setting it aside to use for the roux. Add the duck, including the neck and giblets except the liver (which I fry in a little butter or duck fat as the cook’s bonus), to the water with the rest of the ingredients and cook at a low simmer for 2 or 3 hours, or until it has reduced by a third, skimming the pot occasionally.

Strain out the solids, cool, and refrigerate the stock. Remove and discard any fat that congeals on the surface of the stock. Pick the meat from the duck carcass and discard the bones and the stockpot vegetables. You should have a good pound of meat.While the stock is cooking, put all of the skin and excess fat in the work bowl of a food processor and purée. Cover the bottom of a saucepan or skillet with water (a couple of tablespoons is enough), then add the puréed duck fat and skin. Heat over low heat until all the water has evaporated and the fat is clear. Strain into a container and keep covered and refrigerated. (It will last several months.)

For the roux:

1/3 cup rendered duck fat (see above) or butter
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350º. Melt the fat over low heat and whisk in the flour so that it is uniformly incorporated. Spread the mixture onto a baking sheet and bake in the oven, stirring every 10 or 15 minutes, until it reaches a dark brown. It will take about an hour.

For the pulled duck:

dark roux (see above)
3/4 cup finely chopped onion (about 1 small onion)
1/3 cup finely chopped celery (about 1/2 small stalk)
1/3 cup finely chopped carrot (about 1 small carrot)
3/4 cup finely chopped green pepper (about 1/2 large bell pepper)
1 clove minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste, remembering that this may be brunch
1/2 teaspoon mixed dried herbs such as herbes de provence or Italian seasoning
2 quarts reserved duck stock

About 3 hours before you plan to eat, warm the roux over medium heat in a large heavy stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the onion, celery, carrot, and bell pepper. Cook the vegetables in the roux, stirring often, until they begin to wilt and the onion begins to become transparent, about 10 minutes.

Add the garlic, salt, peppers, herbs, and stock, and bring to a low boil. Allow the mixture to cook over a low boil for about 2 hours, skimming any scum from the surface and stirring the pot from time to time. It should reduce by two thirds.

Reduce the heat and stir in the reserved duck meat. Serve warm over grits or pasta.

Serves 6. Recommended Wine: Barbera d’Asti.

Lemon Squares from Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah

These are very old-fashioned lemon squares, made with real lemon curd and shortbread. Citrus trees were popular in eighteenth century Charleston gardens; on some of the plantations the owners built orangeries to protect the trees from occasional winter freezes. The Meyer lemon, a large sweet variety, is a favored variety today for courtyard gardens. Though shunned by commercial growers because it carries a disease that damages other citrus, Meyer lemons are large, sweet, and juicy. Use them for this dessert if you can find them.

The semolina or rice flour is added for texture, per old Scottish recipes. If you use rice flour, it should be a fairly coarse, natural product, not the processed Southeast Asian type.

2 or 3 lemons (or 1 large Meyer lemon)
5 large egg yolks
1 cup sugar, well sifted
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour, well sifted
1/4 cup semolina or rice flour
Confectioners’ sugar (optional)

Grate the zest from 2 lemons onto a sheet a wax paper and set aside. Squeeze 1/3 cup of lemon juice into a measuring cup. If you don’t have 1/3 cup, squeeze juice from another lemon. In the top of a double boiler or in a wide stainless-steel bowl that will fit over a saucepan, beat the egg yolks with the lemon juice and zest and 3/4 cup of the sugar. Save the wax paper.

Put the bowl over simmering water and whisk the mixture until it is very thick and light in color, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually beat in one of the sticks of butter, a little at a time. The mixture should be very shiny and smooth. Set aside while you make the shortbread.

Preheat the oven to 325o. Cream the remaining stick of butter and 1/4 cup sugar together with the salt in a mixing bowl. Add the flour and the semolina or rice flour and mix well. Turn the mixture out into an 8-inch square baking pan and cover with the wax paper. Press evenly into the pan, then remove the wax paper.

Bake for 20 minutes, then remove from the oven. Add the lemon curd and bake another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool completely before cutting into 16 2-inch squares. Dust with confectioners’ sugar if desired.

Makes 16 squares. (Photo shows both lemon squares in the pan and the following cookies.)

Sugar Cookies

My mother called these “old-fashioned Southern teacakes,” but they are the Christmas cookies which we rolled and iced with colored sugar glazes, sprinkles, and non-pareils. Children love to make these simple, delicious cookies. The dough is really forgiving: you can work it to death and the cookies will still be delicate. I like to season them, the way my Grandmother, who kept a special glass container of them year-round in her kitchen, did, with a little mace, roll them thick, and sprinkle them with sugar.

These are “refrigerator cookies.” That is, the dough must be well-chilled. If you have the dough made up ahead of time, you can pull it out and make these with kids on a gray day during the holidays. You will need to make up the dough several hours before you plan to bake the cookies.

2-1/4 cups sifted flour, plus flour for dusting
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground mace
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 ounces (1 stick) butter
1 cup sugar, plus a little extra
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon milk

Sift the flour a second time with the salt, mace, and baking powder. Cream the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, vanilla, and milk and beat in well. Add the sifted ingredients and blend well. Refrigerate the dough for at least 3 hours and for up to several days.

Preheat the oven to 375º. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface, sprinkle a little flour on it, and roll it out to desired thickness 1/8” to 1/2″ thick. Cut with cookie cutters. Reroll the scraps and cut them as well. Transfer the cut cookies with a metal spatula to baking sheets and bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer to cooling racks and sprinkle with sugar, if desired.

Glazes can be made with confectioner’s sugar and milk or water, and dyed with food coloring.

Makes 1 to 3 dozen, depending on thickness. Stored in airtight containers, the cookies will keep for several weeks.


Christmas comes right at the height of the height of the citrus season. This favored holiday fruit salad complements the hearty breakfast fare. The recipe makes twice as much as you’ll need for this meal, but it will keep for a day or two in the refrigerator. If you can’t use freshly grated coconut, buy frozen unsweetened flaked coconut.

1 large white grapefruit
1 large red grapefruit
6 large seedless oranges
1 pineapple
1 small coconut or 6 ounces frozen flaked coconut, about 1 1/4 cups, thawed

Peel the citrus, then cut each section free of all membranes, allowing the sections to fall into the bowl. Squeeze excess juice from the core and membranes into another container, then drink it while it is fresh. Peel and core the pineapple and cut it into small chunks, adding them to the citrus. Crack the coconut and grate the interior white flesh (most easily done with a rotary grater available at Indian grocers) and add it to the fruit. Toss to mix well. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Serves 12.

Sweet Potato MuffinsThese bright orange muffins aren’t too sweet and they nicely round out the brunch plate. Bake the sweet potatoes in a 375º oven until they give to the touch, about an hour.

1 large orange
2 tablespoons sugar, divided
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup mashed baked sweet potato, about 2 small to medium
1-1/2 cups buttermilk at room temperature
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 425º. Grate the zest of the orange; you should have about 1 tablespoon. Mix half of the grated zest with 1 tablespoon of the sugar and set aside. Paint the insides of the cups of a large muffin tin with a little of the butter. Mix the sweet potato and remaining zest well with the buttermilk, then add the eggs and mix well. Add the butter and mix well again.

Sift the flour with the baking powder, soda, salt, and the remaining tablespoon of sugar into another mixing bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the wet ingredients, mixing well until it is just blended. Spoon the batter into the muffin tin, dividing it evenly among the 12 cups. Sprinkle the tops with the sugared zest. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the tops just begin to brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Turn the muffins out into a cloth-lined basket and serve at once.

Makes 12 muffins.

12/19/07 Cold weather cooking in Charleston and Greece

We’ve barely had much cold weather here in Washington, DC, but my family back home in Charleston tells me that they’ve actually had temperatures in the 20s for a couple of days. I always welcomed any cold weather back home (and here, too) because it gave me an excuse to cook some of the heartier dishes that I don’t normally cook. Like meat lasagna, or pastitsio, the Greek version.
When Sarah Rutledge, a daughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote The Carolina Housewife in 1847, she included two “Italian receipts” for macaroni. [Her grave, shown here, is located just to the right of St. Philips Church in Charleston, in the side yard.]  “Macaroni a la sauce blanche” is a precursor of the nationally beloved macaroni and cheese, with a thick béchamel and equal parts of grated parmesan and pasta baked in a hot oven for ten minutes; “macaroni a la napolitana” is a hearty red meat sauce tossed with cooked pasta and cheese.
Pastitsio is a buttery version that combines the two recipes, baking a layered dish of béchamel, pasta, meat sauce, and cheese together. I usually use lamb instead of beef, as they do in Greece.  I don’t remember the first time I had pastitsio, but I ate it many times in the 1970s at Old Towne, the Greek restaurant on King Street in Charleston. Old Towne is still going strong, mostly unchanged (and hardly fazed) by the gentrification of the city. I love that when you exit the fancy Charleston Place Hotel onto King and its glitzy shops, the first thing you see across the street are the chickens roasting in Old Towne’s window!
Greeks were among the early settlers of Charleston. but a local Greek cookbook did not appear until 1957, when the Greek Ladies Philoptochos Society published Popular Greek Recipes, now in its 14th printing. The collection includes several versions of “pastichio,” all of which fill huge baking pans.
Here’s a recipe that I developed for an 8″square Pyrex dish. Use kefalotiri cheese if you can find it. The recipe calls for fresh chopped herbs. Oregano is traditional, but I use a combination of oregano, mint, and parsley. If you don’t have fresh herbs, use a Mediterranean mix of dried herbs such as Italian seasoning or herbes de provence.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus
     butter for greasing the pan
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1 small to medium onion, chopped
1 pound lean ground lamb or beef
dash of cinnamon
2 cups chopped plum tomatoes, or
      one 14.5 oz can
1 tablepoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon fresh chopped herbs or
     1 teaspoon dried
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups hot milk
2 egg yolks
1/2 pound short tubular pasta such as ziti or penne
1/2 cup fresh grated kefalotiri or parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350o. Butter an 8″ square baking dish and coat with a dusting of bread crumbs. Put on a large pot of water to boil for the pasta and begin making the sauces.
For the meat sauce, melt 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) of butter in a wide saucepan or skillet and add the onion and meat, cooking over medium high heat until the meat is uniformed browned. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic and seasonings. I chop the garlic with fresh herbs, sprinkling them with coarse salt to facilitate the chopping. Simmer until most of the liquid has been absorbed, about thirty minutes.
For the “crema,” begin by heating the milk but not letting it boil. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over meidum heat and add the flour, and, stirring constantly, cook until the flour just begins to turn golden, about 5 minutes. Gradually stir in the hot milk, stirring constantly and continuing to cook until the sauce is thick and perfectly smooth. Turn off the heat. If you have lumps, strain it. Beat the egg yolks in a small bowl and then use the whisk from the sauce to dip down into the beaten eggs, adding a little of sauce at a time to them so that they don’t curdle. Add the egg mixture to the sauce and stir well.
In the meantime, cook the pasta according to directions on the package, drain well, and cover so that it doesn’t dry out.
Place a layer of pasta in the prepared baking dish followed by half of the white sauce. Add the meat and sprinkle with half the cheese. Cover with the remaining sauce and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake for an hour or until golden brown, and allow to cool for 15 minutes before serving with a salad and good bread. I like to serve a salad of refreshing parsley and cucumbers, seasoned mostly with rinsed and drained salted capers.
Serves 4-8.
12/17/07 It’s definitely ham season. You may have seen the photo of the ham that’s “perfect for Hanukkah” that has been circulating around the internet for the past couple of weeks. I kid my Jewish friends that it should follow the shrimp cocktail! Truth be told, very few of my many Jewish friends observe religious dietary laws, and I have eaten pork and shellfish at the homes of some of them who are otherwise strictly observant.
The holidays just don’t seem right without both a country and a city ham.
Some of this material has appeared in somewhat different form in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking and in Fine Cooking magazine. The photo of the country ham and ham biscuits is by Kelly Bugden, who was my roommate both when I was in graduate school and in New York City. He was the photographer for Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah and took this photo for a Charleston Christmas story I wrote for Metropolitan Home.
Country ham, dry cured in salt, is the most internationally known Southern food. It is no wonder: the recipes for curing have not changed in 350 years. Harriott Pinckney Horry wrote down curing receipts from Virginia in her late eighteenth century journal. By the late twentieth century, curers in Smithfield, Virginia, were shipping over 10 million hams each year!
Real ham lovers like me prefer “old hams,” aged a year or more. Like so many fine wines and cheeses, they develop character over time. Many ham producers today “cure” hams in ninety days, injecting them with brine rather than rubbing them with salt. Some “country hams” aren’t even smoked. When customers other than certified Southerners call the toll-free number for one of the big producers I know in Virginia, they are discouraged from buying the old-fashioned cured hams, because “they are too salty.” John Egerton’s carefully researched, beautifully written essay on country ham in his SOUTHERN FOOD is definitive, but sad:
“the real hams may die out…simply because fewer and fewer people will be willing to spend the time it takes to cure, smoke, and age them.”
I know two butchers in South Carolina who make old-cure hams. It is a very limited production. I pay a premium for the old-fashioned hams, and cook them in copper boilers made espeically for that purpose. Before you buy a country ham, you should be aware of what you are getting into: cooking a ham is tough and greasy work. It also comes as a shock to many first-timers to see mold growing on the hams. And, no matter how long they are soaked nor how much they are glazed, they will always be salty; that is why the slices are invariably served with grits or tucked into biscuits.
Thorton’s SOUTHERN GARDENER AND RECEIPT BOOK, published in Camden, South Carolina, in 1845, included the following curing instructions, which are typical:
For a score of hams, take about three quarts of salt, one pint of molasses, quarter of a pound of black pepper, and two ounces of saltpetre pulverized; mix well together; lay the hams on a table with the rind downwards; rub the mixture over them with the hand, taking care to appply it to every part where there is no rind; let them lay a week, and rub them over with clear salt, which continue once a week for four or five weeks, according to the size of the hams; they are then ready to smoke; or if you choose, after the mixture is sufficiently struck in, put them into brine for two or three weeks before you smoke them; and when smoked, hang them in a dry place. When a ham is cut for use, hand or lay it where you please, the flies will not touch it. We have practised this method for several years, and have no reason to abandon it.To prepare a country ham for the table, you must first soak it at least overnight in cold water. I soak the old hams that I cook for about 2 days, changing the water every 8 to 12 hours. It helps to have a ham boiler, which will fit over two burners on a standard kitchen stove. When ready to cook, scrub the ham well in warm water, removing all the black pepper and mold. If you do not have a pot big enough to cook the entire ham, you can saw off the hock so that it will fit in a smaller pot; however, you will still need a pot that is deep enough for the ham to be covered in water. Bring the water to a simmer, and let the ham cook at a simmer, never a boil, for about 20 minutes per pound, or until the meat becomes tender. (Country hams weigh between 12 and 18 pounds; you will need 4 to 6 hours of cooking time.)

Remove the pot from the stove (This is quite a job in itself; you will probably need two sets of arms.) and allow the ham to cool enough to handle, about an hour. Remove the ham from the water and trim off the skin and all but 1/2″ of fat. The ham may be sliced and served at this point. It may also be glazed with brown sugar or molasses, or saved until another day and reheated in a medium oven, with or without a glaze. I never glaze a ham, but I always serve it with a chutney such as the golden pear chutney on page 000. To carve the ham, place it on a cutting board with the meaty side up. Cut a “V” out of the ham perpendicular to the bone, near the hock. Use a sharp, thin knife and cut the slices at a forty-five degree angle, as thinly as possible.
You may refrigerate cooked country ham for much longer than other, uncured meats. Wrapped in aluminum foil, cooked country ham will last several weeks in the refrigerator. Wrapped in plastic, moisture is trapped and the ham spoils quickly. I freeze cooked ham, but only for use in composed dishes, such as ham paste.
A country ham will feed a lot of people. Even as the main meat at a meal, a 15-pound ham should feed 40; the same ham can fill 200 biscuits. These “ham biscuits” are really yeast rolls. You serve them with mustard and pear chutney. Follow the link for the biscuit recipe. The pear chutney recipe follows:
Pear Chutney
This is a perfect complement to salty country ham. In the lowcountry it is made with the hard local Kieffer pears, but you can use any underripe pear. When there’s leftover country ham, grind it with equal amounts of this chutney and put it out with crackers as an appetizer: ham paste always disappears when offered.
1 pound hard, underripe pears, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 lightly packd cup light or dark brown sugar
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2/3 cup light or dark raisins or a mixture of the two
2/3 cup chopped onion
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Cook the pears in water to cover until they are medium-soft. Drain, saving the water, then make a syrup of the water in which they were cooked and the brown sugar by boiling in a nonreactive pot until thick, about 20 to 30 minutes.
Add the pears and the remaining ingredients to the pot and cook for another 30 minutes, or until the raisins are soft, the onions are clear, and the chutney is thick.
The chutney will keep in the refrigerator for months.
Makes about 3 1/2 cups
Yesterday I bought a so-called “city ham.” Here’s how I’ll cook it so that it’s tender and juicy:
My friend Paula begged this baked ham recipe from a lady who runs a diner in Athens, Georgia. The lady agreed to give it to her but only after making Paula swear she’d keep it to herself. But Paula couldn’t resist telling me, in part because it’s so ridiculously easy: Put a whole, fully cooked, smoked ham in a roasting pan. Put a lid of foil on it, but not tight, sort of caddywhumpus, so it doesn’t get too crusty on the outside but does take on a little texture. Put the ham in a 275°F oven. Do nothing else to it for as long as eight hours. Take it out of the oven and let it rest while you bake the biscuits (you have to have biscuits). Carve and serve.
The photo is by Joanne McAllister Smart from
Fine Cooking 38 (May 2000).This ham is so good that during parties I have to make sure no one’s around when I carve it because folks will flat-out pull the thing to death.

The only hard part about this recipe (and it’s only hard if you don’t live in the South) is finding a whole, fully cooked, smoked ham, preferably not spiral-sliced and not glazed. I find most glazes sickeningly sweet and beside the point if you want to actually taste the ham.

But which ham to buy?
A ham is defined most broadly as the hind leg of a pig. Most hams are cured, smoked, or both, for preservation and flavor. (A fresh ham is not cured; it’s simply fresh pork.)

A whole ham is perfect for the holidays; it feeds a crowd easily. Most supermarkets north of the Mason-Dixon Line don’t stock whole hams year-round. (What you will find are half hams—whole hams cut into shank and butt portions.) But during the holidays you can usually find whole hams no matter where you live. And with Easter coming late this year, there’s still time for you to hound your butcher into stocking some whole hams, which weigh up to 20 pounds and can easily feed 25 people. Your best bet, however—both for availability and for flavor— may be to mail-order your ham.

But the beauty of this recipe is that you don’t need to buy the best ham. The best ham, after all, is a real country ham, which means the ham has been dry-cured in salt, smoked, and aged for at least six months. But country ham is scarce in spring, and many people find it too salty to act as the main course of a meal anyway. What you’re looking for instead is a “city” ham. It usually comes sealed in plastic (not in a can), has been cured (but not dry-cured) and smoked (but not necessarily aged), and is fully cooked (it says so on the label).

Because these hams are “wet-cured” (soaked in a brine or, if mass-produced, injected with one), they contain added water (meat is already made up of about 75% water). The National Pork Producers Council grades these hams on a water-to-protein ratio; generally, the more protein, the better the ham. A ham cured without added water, such as a country ham, must have at least 20.5% protein, and will simply be labeled “ham.” A ham labeled “ham with natural juices” must have at least 18.5% protein, and one labeled “water added” 17%. The ham to avoid is the kind labeled “ham and water product.” These hams have less than 17% protein and can in fact be much less than that. But go ahead and choose a “water added” ham; I find that added moisture is actually beneficial to the long, gentle reheating I’m suggesting. I haven’t tried this method on a “ham with natural juices.” But as with all of these hams, which have instructions that generally recommend that you heat them at 350°F for 15 minutes per pound, I think this gentler method would work better.

A bone-in ham has the best flavor, texture, and shape. I think meat tastes best when cooked on the bone. (And a ham bone is serious kitchen currency; save it—you can freeze it—to make the best bean soup.) A partially boned ham is next best; it looks like a big football, but it’s easy to carve, and if you’re carving in the kitchen, no one will see its funny shape anyway. Fully boned hams can have an off texture because the meat, once it’s been pulled off the bone,

Slices of sweet, salty, smoky ham piled on a platter are a wonderful addition to a buffet. I love it with collards braised in olive oil (see below) and baked sweet potatoes. And biscuits.

Most southerners grew up, as I did, eating lard biscuits—light and flaky but seldom bigger than a silver dollar. But there exists a biscuit that we used to see only on special occasions, such as a birthday breakfast or a holiday morning. What sets these biscuits apart is that they’re bigger and they’re made with butter in place of the lard—which seemed extravagant when I was a child but now seems oddly conservative.You’ll get the best results with soft southern flour. Literally soft to the touch, southern flour is made from the soft winter wheat that grows down South. It has less protein than northern flour, which means it forms less gluten and is therefore more tender. A decent substitute is to use half (by weight) all-purpose flour and half cake flour.

Wilted Collards
Winter meals in the South are likely to include a side of greens, often simmered for hours with a bit of smoked or salted pork. This recipe requires a strong arm, but little time. The greens are wilted in a little
oil, then braised in their own juices. This is truly one of the best ways to prepare them. You can add some lemon juice and hot pepper flakes while the greens are braising, or, you can pass hot pepper vinegars when serving. In the photo is a selection of my homemade pepper vinegars from both this year and last.
3 pounds collards (about 3 plants)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 to 3 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled, green shoots removed, and sliced
hot pepper flakes (optional)
fresh squeezed lemon juice (optional)
hot pepper vinegar(optional)Wash the collard leaves well in water, making sure that they are completely free of dirt and grit. You may have to fill the sink several times. Drain them, allowing some of the water to cling to the leaves. Trim the heavy stalks and discard them, along with any discolored or wilted leaves. Stack the leaves on top of each other and cut them into 1-inch strips.

In a very large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid, heat half of the oil over high heat until it’s very hot, just to the point of smoking. Add a handful of collards, water droplets still clinging to them, to the pot (be careful, this will sputter). Stir vigorously with a large wooden spoon until the greens are wilted. Continue adding handfuls of wet collards, stirring until they wilt before adding more. Add the salt, the garlic slices, and the remaining oil and stir well. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and let the greens braise for 15 minutes.
While the greens are cooking, you may add hot pepper flakes to taste, if desired.Taste the greens; if they’re not tender enough for your taste, continue the cooking, covered and over low heat, until they’re done to your liking. Correct the seasoning with lemon juice, if desired. If you’re making them ahead, let the collards cool and then refrigerate. Reheat them by bringing them to a boil, reducing the heat to low, and simmering for about 5 minutes.

Serve the greens hot with ham and sweet potatoes, as suggested above, or with pork, veal, and rice dishes, passing a little hot pepper vinegar if you like. 

12/15/07 I’m alone this weekend and won’t be doing much cooking, so I thought I’d write about one of my favorite ingredients, salted anchovies. If you have lived or travelled in Italy, you have probably often wondered what were some of the “secret ingredients” that flavored many of the traditional dishes with an indescribable depth of character. Many Italian cooks, particularly in the South, rely on acciughe salate, salted anchovies. They are sold in 1-kilo tins. Agostino Recca, from the Sicilian port of Sciacca, is a reliable producer whose product is now widely available in the States. The headless, gutted anchovies are packed in salt and brine. After opening the tin, I remove them to a jar, cover them with more sea salt (I use salt from the Sicilian flats near Mózia), and store them in the refrigerator. I buy mine at Vace’s, a venerable Italian deli in Cleveland Park, in Washington, where they told me that, if stored properly, “they’ll last forever.” I also buy fresh yeast and flour (Italian tipo 00) from them. They sell their own pizzas, pizza dough, homemade pastas, and sausages. But you can find salted anchovies
online if you don’t have an Italian grocer in your area.
Forget what you think you know about anchovies. These are neither oily nor fishy. They must be soaked for a brief while in water or held under running water to desalinate them and to remove the backbone, but after the salt is removed, they are used in dishes with lamb, rabbit, broccoli, beef, eggplant, tomatoes, and cheese. These are the anchovies you want to cook with, not the oil-packed ones. They melt into the dishes, providing salt while accenting other flavors, the way a wine can point to certain elements in a complementary meal. They are puréed into salad dressings and tossed with butter for a perfect topping for steak or egg noodles. Of course, they dress a pizza with pizazz as well, and I have been known to put them in cracker doughs such as for cheese straws.
Just thinking about them is making me hungry for some! I think I’ll go make some pasta now, dressed simply with olive oil, anchovies, garlic, hot pepper flakes, and bread crumbs. I probably won’t even add any cheese, but grate some instead onto the simple salad I’ll have alongside.
So here it is an hour later and here’s the pasta, which I tossed with some chopped fresh parsley at the last minute and had with a glass of Roussane from the Pays d’Oc. A perfect lunch!
12/08/07 My sister Sue is in town for a week. Many of you know her from when she ran my shop in the 90s. I took a spill on the ice and had to spend most of yesterday having tests done on this poor ol’ body of mine, but I’m okay and today I’ve been cooking some of her favorite dishes, albeit on crutches.
Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce is a southern classic, and is very simple to make. This recipe has no butter in the pudding itself, but I drench it in a simple sauce full of butter and bourbon. You can follow the recipe below, or do as I did today: buy a panettone and tear up four cups of it and use that in place of the bread and soaked raisins.
You can make it ahead and reheat it or serve it cold, warm, or hot from the oven. The buttery whiskey sauce should be warm. Or you can serve it as a breakfast dish without the sauce. This recipe is from my book, Hoppin’ John’s Charleston, Beaufort & Savannah:
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup bourbon, plus a little more if needed
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
4 cups French bread torn into bite-size pieces (from a baguette weighing about 1/2 pound)
2 1/2 cups milk
1 small cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 eggs
1 cup sugar
Soak the raisins in the bourbon for at least 30 minutes or overnight if possible.
Preheat the oven to 350o and brush the insides of a 1 1/2-quart soufflé dish with some of the butter.
Put the bread in a large mixing bowl. Drain the raisins, reserving the bourbon, and add to the bread. Place the milk, cinnamon, and vanilla in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until scalded (bubbles just begin to break the surface). Beat 3 of the eggs with 1/2 cup of sugar until well blended, then gradually stir in the scalded milk. Pour the mixture over the bread and raisins and discard the cinnamon stick. Allow to soak while you prepare the whiskey sauce.
Whisk the remaining egg and sugar together in a bowl set over simmering water until very light and nearly doubled in size. Whisk in the melted butter a little at a time, then whisk in the reserved bourbon (if you don’t have 1/4 cup, add enough to make up for what was absorbed by the raisins). Leave the sauce over the water, but remove it from the stove.
Place the greased soufflé dish inside a larger roasting pan. Add the bread mixture to the greased pan, then pour hot water into the roasting pan to a depth of about 1 inch. Place in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Drizzle whiskey sauce over the pudding as it is served.
Makes about 6 servings.
12/05/07 Today is both Dixie’s (my mother-in-law) and Bo’s (my nephew’s) birthday! Here’s to you!
In typical DC fashion, we have gone from no frost as of yesterday to snow today! Here’s a photo of a geranium on my stoop with passion vine in the background, both blooming right up until this first snowfall.
I was thrilled to see Harold McGee’s article about Stichelton cheese in today’s New York Times. The stilton-like cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk quickly became my favorite when I tasted it in London in September.
Today I’ll be going to the National Archives to do more research on Charleston’s famous she-crab soup, which I linked to Scotland’s partan bree while researching the history of lowcountry cooking back in the 80s. I’m amazed now to see on the net how many sources “quote” my findings without giving their source. Typical is Linda Stradley’s article, the History of She Crab Soup, on in which she writes, “This web site may not be reproduced in whole or in part without permission and appropriate credit given. If you use any of the history information contained below for research in writing a magazine or newspaper article, school work or college research, and/or television show production, you must give a reference to the author, Linda Stradley, and to the web site What’s Cooking America.” The article contains the following sentence: “The Scottish settlers who arrived in the Carolinas in the early 1700s are credited with bringing their famous seafood bisque recipes called partan-bree, a crab and rice soup, to the area.” She’s acting as though “the history information” is her own. [P.S. 12/6/07: I confronted Stradley about this and she’s changed her wording now.]
That’s one of the problems with the internet: it’s like a graffiti wall on which any of us can write whatever we want. Folks steal, appropriate, crib, filch, lift, loot, misappropriate, pilfer, pillage, pirate, plagiarize, plunder, poach, purloin, ransack, remove, rifle, rip off, sack, swipe, take, thieve, and withdraw whatever they like from wherever they want and post it as their own. And if you don’t believe me, then let me fess up that many of the foregoing synonyms were lifted from It’s so much easier than actually thinking.
At any rate, I’ll be publishing more findings about the soup’s origin later. Know that you will have read it first here!
I have a very special relationship with oysters, having spent so much of my youth in the brackish, marsh-lined estuaries of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts. The oysters of the lowcountry have never been cultivated, so they remain truly wild. From our boat, my mother would often send me out in the dinghy to get lunch. In the summer months I might simply empty the crab trap (where I was likely to find a flounder or eel as well as blue and stone crabs), or, depending on the tide and our anchorage, throw the circular shrimp or mullet net, hoping for a good haul. But in the “r” months at low tide, my brother and I would gather the long, skinny oysters from the banks of the rivers and creeks that meander, snakelike, behind the barrier islands. The oysters attach to each other and grow in clusters. They are much more elongated than the cultivated oysters (such as these from the Chesapeake that I bought in St. Michaels, Maryland, this weekend) because they grow upwards toward the sun from the bottom of the inlets, like a hardwood tree reaching up from the floor of a pine forest. I love oysters and have eaten thousands of them, most of which I have opened myself. It is a Christmas tradition in my family to begin the day with coffee and Danish pastry, then move outdoors for champagne and oysters (every man, woman, and child for himself! We learned how to open them at a very early age) before returning back indoors for ham biscuits, followed by the big brunch of pan-fried quail, grits, gravy, sausage, country ham, regular biscuits, ambrosia, and sugar cookies. Rarely do I find oysters as meaty and salty as the ones that I grew up eating. Indeed, my mother would have me toss back any that were less than 10″ long!!!! I think that the oysters then were so delicious because the waters were not polluted. Our sailboat was one of 3 on Hilton Head Island for 22 years. Now there are 30 golf courses and 10 marinas. 4000 boats surround the island every day.
The only accompaniment we ever served with lowcountry oysters was saltines, and, occasionally (for company), some melted butter. The tradition in our family is to eat as many raw ones as you can eat, then begin eating the “roasted” ones. A lowcountry oyster roast is simply a matter of building a fire, arranging a piece of sheet metal over the fire, and tossing the oysters on top of the hot metal, then covering it with a burlap bag soaked in clean (brackish) creek water. The oysters were always rinsed off with only creek water as well (from a pump simply rigged to pull water up out of the creek).
On Sunday, I tried not to let these Chesapeake oysters get too wet with city water, but I’m afraid in rinsing them, I destroyed what little flavor they had. They tasted like watered-down versions of what I would call a good oyster.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not nostalgic and don’t want to go back to living in South Carolina; I love my life in DC. I’m just glad that I got to know the real taste of the lowcountry before it disappeared.
12/03/07 It’s amazing to me that we still haven’t had a frost. My shrimping friends back in South Carolina are still pulling them in. There are several species of shrimp that are netted in the coastal waters of the South, but the culinary differences are negligible. Brown shrimp spawn during the winter; small young shrimp begin appearing in South Carolina waters in May. White shrimp spawn in the spring and summer; their juveniles appear in late June and July, close to the beaches along the coast. There are pink shrimp and ruby reds as well, but they are not of major economic importance.
Many environmental factors affect shrimp populations: salinity, water temperature, rainfall, river discharge, and ocean currents all have major impact on shrimp spawning periods, growth rate, and migration. In an average year, the shrimp will grow larger and larger until the first cold snap sends them to warmer waters, but this warm, dry year seems to have been a perfect one for shrimp. On Friday, I found beautiful South Carolina shrimp at a local market, “pickled” them (more at an Italian-style marinade. See recipe.), and took them with me to the country home of some friends for the weekend. I served them on a bed of chopped lettuce, then followed the salad with fried quail and homemade bread for a light lunch before we worked in the garden, dusting the ground around the blueberries and blackberries with the wood ashes from the fireplace and mulching them with pine needles (the berries love acidic soil).
A wind blew in off the Chesapeake on Saturday afternoon, making it seem much cooler than the thermometer indicated. Early in the day, I had put some thick bone-in pork chops in a pot to brine (3/4 cup coarse kosher salt and 3/4 cup sugar melted in 1 cup of boiling water, cooled, and added to a gallon of cold water. I covered the chops with the brine, adding black pepper and bay leaves and left them for 12 hours in a covered pot, outdoors in the cool, about 43o. For dinner that evening, I decided to go with a Norman-style dish, drying the chops, browning them in butter, and removing them to a baking dish and placing them in a preheated 400o oven for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, I added peeled and sliced onions and apples to the butter and sautéed them until they were soft, then added about a cup of cream and a good shot of Calvados and reduced the sauce while the chops finished cooking.
I had fallen in love with the cooking of Normandy when I first traveled there in the early 80s, when I was living in Paris. Shortly after my return to the States, a marvelous cookbook called The Norman Table, written by Claude Guermont and Paul Frumkin, was released to much critical acclaim. The book is no longer in print, but if you are enamoured of the farm-inspired cookbooks of today that are attracting so much attention (see yesterday’s New York Times Book Review’s roundup of the year’s best cookbooks, for example), then I highly recommend that you find a used copy. They are usually widely available online. From the opening sentence, “The days ran long during midsummer in Normandy” through the final paragraph on Calvados, the book could not be a more straightforward and passionate personal culinary journey through the joys of the Norman table. The authors explain that while cream and butter are now considered the cornerstones of the cuisine, until very recently, a local concoction called graisse normande was the traditional cooking medium. This rich mixture of fats and vegetable essences is the first recipe in the book, although when the book was published in the mid-eighties, fats were being blamed for just about everything wrong with civilization. The book was 20 years ahead of the curve. Make the Norman fat! It’s delicious.
Charcuterie is featured — pâtés and terrines, rillettes and boudin — and there are the expected apples, cider, and Calvados. When I got home last night, I immediately went to my old tattered copy (a softcover galley of the book with no index) to see if I had done the chops justice. The original recipe that inspired mine had no onions, and the reduced apple cream was poured over the thin chops, then baked. For the thicker chops I used, I think my version is actually better.
Today I’ve been perusing the book for the first time in years. What a joy it is! There are classics such as Sole Normande, Ham in Cider, and Cream of Watercress Soup, but the recipes are personal versions of the dishes, and they are forthright, even as the authors put them in historical context. I am reminded of the writing of Elizabeth David, and on this blustery day in Washington (30 mph winds with 50 mph gusts! DC is often incredibly windy!), I think I’ll make their authentic onion soup, the likes of which you’ve probably never had before.
Old-Fashioned Sweet Potato Pie
For dessert on Saturday, I made one of my favorite pies, an old-fashioned sliced sweet potato pie.  No milk, no eggs, no cream, no custard — just beautiful sweet potatoes, a little sugar and butter, and my favorite pie crust made with lard and butter.
The pie is one of two traditional sweet potato pies that were popular not only in America but also in England long before printed recipes for them appeared. It’s unfathomable that the custard pie became so popular and this simpler, more elegant pie didn’t. If you are a lover of sweet potatoes, as I am, then this is the pie for you! If you are avoiding dairy products other than butter, this pie fits the bill as well. And if you are in the mood for a seasonal, not-too-sweet dessert, try this lovely creation that cookbook authors have been presenting for nearly 200 years, though I think the recipe has disappeared for periods of time only because it was misunderstood, since many of the older recipes called for potatoes, when sweet potatoes were meant.
George Washington Carver offered a recipe for “Sliced Potato Pie” in a 1936 article he wrote for the Tuskegee Institute, but he added cream to the traditional recipe:
Line a deep baking dish with a rich sheet of pastry. Parboil the number of potatoes desired. When two thirds done, remove the skins, slice lengthwise, very thin, cover the dish to a depth of 2 inches, sprinkle with ground allspice and a dash of giner, cloves and nutmeg. To a pie sufficient for six people, scatter around the top in small pieces of lump of butter the size of a hen’s egg; add one teacupful of sugar and 1/2 teacupful of molasses. Add 1/2 pint of cream, dust a little flour over the top sparingly; cover with hot water, put on upper crust, crimp edges and bake in a moderate oven until done. Serve hot, with or without sauce.
A hundred years earlier, The Kentucky Housewife offered the following “Sliced Potato Pie,” a much more elegant recipe:
Boil your potatoes in a very little water till half done, then peel and slice them thin. Line a deep patty-pan that is well-buttered, with a tolerably thick sheet of standing paste, put in a layer of the sliced potatoes, disseminate over them some grated nutmeg, powdered cinnamon, grated lemon, a small portion of butter, rolled in flour, and broken up, and a small handful of brown sugar; put in a second layer of the potatoes, and then the seasonings, stratifying them till the pan is full; pour in a glass of water, one of white wine, cover it with a sheet of paste, trim it smothly round the edge, and bake it in a moderate oven. Grate sugar over it, and eat it warm.
Curiously, a nearly identical recipe appeared the same year (1839) in The Southern Gardener and Receipt Book by the Camden, South Carolina shopkeeper, Phineas Thornton.  A mere eight years later and just down the road in Charleston, the author of The Carolina Housewife included two sweet potato pones and a pudding, but no sliced potato pie like these. The recipe seems to have drifted in and out of popularity. By 1870 Mrs. Hill, writing in Atlanta, is advising her readers to bake the sweet potatoes (‘yams are best”) instead of boiling them. layering the slices with spices, thin slices of butter, and a sprinkling of flour, and mixing together “equal quantities of wine and water, lemon juice and water, or vinegar and water” and pouring in enough to half fill the pie. A decade later, the Boston Cooking School Cook Book noted that baked sweet potatoes “are better,” and “much richer when twice cooked.” The yams Mrs. Hill refers to are not really yams (a different plant family, and tropical to boot), but since New World potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams all entered European kitchens at the same time, the common names of the plants have forever been confused. Most likely, Mrs. Hill was referring to a favored variety of sweet potato, such as the Dooley Yam and Pumpkin Yam that George Washington Carver would recommend decades later.
In 1919, the 18th Amendment was passed, outlawing the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages (the language actually reads “intoxicating liquors”). Mrs. Dull’s Southern Cooking appeared in 1928, also in Atlanta. Her Sliced Sweet Potato Pie sees the potatoes being boiled again, and for flavor, she suggests “1/4 cup spiced vinegar or spices, to taste, and grape juice.” “Season highly,” she writes. “There should be plenty of juice on the inside so when served this juice is a rich brown sauce to serve with the seasoned potatoes, pastry, and hard crust. This pie tastes something like a mince pie and an apple could be added along with the potatoes. A few pieces of dried apple which have been soaked would answer. Use cloves sparingly.” Poor woman! She sounds deprived of alcohol to me, trying to make her sweet potato pie taste right during Prohibition!
As for the version I use, I’ll be damned if my crust is hard, and since I so love the flavor of sweet potatoes, I advise you NOT to season highly. And lover of alcohol that I am, I don’t include any. Modern day recipes (there are easy to find on the web) often advise the cook to add a tablespoon of “pumpkin pie spice,” but I try to buy my spices in very small quantities and grind and blend them myself. After my trip to Sri Lanka earlier this year, I got really spoiled by real Ceylon cinnamon (you can buy it in Hispanic markets; most cinnamon sold comes from an entirely different plant), dried ginger, and fresh nutmeg (all of which I grind at the last minute). No cloves. No allspice. Just a little freshly ground cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg with a bit of lemon.
When I’m buying sweet potatoes to roast and eat alone, I usually look for the oldest ones that are, as George Washington Carver says, “cured” of excess moisture. One of my favorite varieties is the Porto Rico, which is small (never more than 2″ in diameter), pointed at both ends, and with dark orange flesh. For this recipe, however, I find it best to use the larger, hard sweet potatoes you can find in any supermarket, because they will not have been cured and they will cook evenly. I peel them and cut them into uniform bite-size pieces and gently poach them until they just barely give to the tip of a sharp knife.
Here’s the recipe:
1 pound all-pupose flour, preferably a soft southern flour, about 4 cups, plus more for dusting and filling
1 tablespoon sugar, plus more for dusting pie
1/2 cup water, plus ice cubes
4 ounces chilled lard, cut into pieces
4 ounces unsalted butter, 1 stick, cut into pieces, plus one tablespoon for the filling
2-1/2 to 3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut up, about 6 cups
1/2 cup lightly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon flour
grated zest of a lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
freshly ground ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon to taste
1 egg white
milk or half-and-half
For the crust:
Sift the flour with a pinch of salt and 1 tablespoon of the sugar into a large mixing bowl. Add a few ice cubes to the measured water and set aside. Cut the lard and 4 ounces of the butter into the flour with a pastry blender, a large fork, or two knives, until the mixture is uniform and, as the old cookbooks say, it resembles small peas. Do not touch the dough with your hands. Place a wet towel under the bowl so that it will not slide around on the counter. Working deftly, scoop up large spoonfuls of the mixture from the bottom of the bowl with a metal slotted spoon while sprinkling water into the mixture a little at a time. Work quickly as you “lift in” the water, stopping before all the water is in. You should stop the second you feel the dough will hold together without more water. Now grab the entire mass of dough up in your hands and push it all together into a ball. Divide the ball in half and, if your filling is ready, wrap the dough halves in some wax paper or plastic wrap and put them in the freezer for ten minutes; otherwise put the wrapped dough in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare the filling.
For the filling:
Add a healthy pinch of salt to a cup of water in a saucepan that has a lid. Add the sweet potato pieces, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, covered, until the sweet potato pieces just barely give to the tip of sharp knife, about 5 minutes. Drain the sweet potatoes, rinsing them gently with cold water to cool them off. When completely cool and drained, put them in a bowl and toss with the sugar, flour, lemon zest, lemon juice, and spices.
For final assembly and cooking:
Preheat the oven to 425o.  Remove the pastry dough from the freezer or refrigerator and place one half on a large, lightly floured surface. Try not to touch it with your hands. Roll it out evenly to a thickness of 1/8″. Place a 9″ or 10″ pie plate on top of the dough and, with a blunt knife, cut across the dough so that an area large enough to fill the pie plate is marked off as one large piece. Set the pie plate off to the side. Place the rolling pin on one edge of this large piece of dough, and gently roll it up off the surface and onto the pin. Lay the dough down in the pie plate, allowing it to roll off the pin, and always avoiding handling the dough. Press it lightly into place, allowing any excess dough to hang over the sides.
Lightly beat the egg white and paint the inside of the crust with it. Fill the crust with the sweet potato mixture. Dot the mixture with the extra tablespoon of butter, cut up into small pieces.
Roll out the second half of the pastry dough so that it’s big enough to fit over the entire pie. Gently roll it up onto the rolling pin and unroll it onto the top of the pie. Run a sharp knife blade at an angle around the rim of the pie plate, trimming excess dough off. Brush the top of the pie crust lightly with milk or half-and-half, then crimp the edges of the pie crust layers together with a large fork. Sprinkle the pie lightly all over with a little sugar and place in the middle of the preheated oven and bake for ten minutes, lower the heat to 350o and bake for another until the crust is nicely browned all over, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Be sure to bake the pie well so that the crust will not be soggy. If you have clear glass pie plates, you can leave the pie in until the bottom has begun to brown. Don’t worry about the timing. All ovens and batches of flour bake differently. Bake the pie until it is a rich golden brown and it will be delicious.
Allow the pie to cool for at least an hour before serving, in spite of what The Kentucky Housewife said.