July 2010

Posted on July 31, 2010 in Archives

July 26, 2010 It’s that time of year again

We spent the weekend at the home of Chuck Dalby and Bruce Rashbaum on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a bittersweet reunion because their 12-year-old golden retriever Max had to be put down because he was riddled with cancer. He was the sweetest dog, and our dog’s best friend (See photo, above). The insanely hot weather broke for a blessed respite on Sunday morning and we spent several hours outdoors with the dogs. A bald eagle soared close by when Max died. Legends in several cultures, particularly Native American, would say that the eagle appeared to escort Max into the other part of the sky.

I picked wild cherries and figs and have been canning all day. I’m glad that I have those domestic chores to attend to, so that both mine and my dog’s life can get back to normal. In the photo, below, today’s kitchen projects includes wild cherries en route to being Cherry Bounce (recipe appeared on the blog in July 2007), fig preserves (see August 2007) and a fig conserve the way Mama made it:

Mama’s Fig Conserve

This is a variation on one of my mother’s recipes, and  is typical of the vast array of condiments we Southerners pride ourselves on. I use it as a marmalade on toasted hearty bread, or chutney-like, alongside game.

2 pounds fresh ripe figs

1 cup chopped pineapple

2 medium lemons, seeded and chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt


optional: 1 cup chopped nuts*



Wash the figs and cut them up into small pieces. Mix the pineapple and the lemons, then fold them into the figs with the salt. Add an equal weight of sugar and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer gently until it thickens, but is still a little runny. You can use a candy thermometer if you like. First, see at exactly what temperature your thermometer reads water boiling (yes, it should be 212 degrees F, but it may not read that way on your thermometer), then add 8 degrees (ideally 220 degrees F). Turn off the heat and transfer the jamlike mixture into jars.

If desried, add nuts and peppercorns,  before putting in hot sterilized jars. Wipe the rims and add the caps and rings. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath.


*Mother always used pecans, but I like to use walnuts, or wanuts in combination with pecans and/or black walnuts.


**Alice B. Toklas’ infamous recipe for Haschich Fudge, which includes neither chocolate nor haschich, combines dried figs and dates with nuts and spices, including peppercorns. The exotic touch does, indeed, make this more chutney-like. I put several whole peppercorns in every other jar of preserves. Some years

I will add a tablespoon or so to the pot while it is cooking.


July 21, 2010 Condiglione, Condigion, & Capponadda are words you don’t hear often outside Liguria, though you might hear them on the French Riviera, just across the border. The old port city of Imperia on the Riviera Ponente (to the west of Genoa) often claims this salad, but every village seems to have its own version. Condiglione would be Italian proper, but you’re more likely to hear or see condijon, condijun, condion, or condiggion. One cookbook I have from the area — in Italian — calls it an insalata mista della riviera di ponente — a salad from the western Riviera. That version calls for a sailor’s biscuit rubbed with garlic and soaked in water and vinegar, then broken up and mixed with salt, olive oil, vinegar, tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers. A paste is made with basil and garlic and all is tossed with salad greens and mosciame or bottarga (the former is sun-dried tuna; the latter is dried roe). The salad is seasoned to taste with olives, pickled onions, and little pieces of anchovy.

The simplest recipe I’ve found, in another regional cookbook from Genoa and Liguria, calls  for 4 tomatoes, three cloves of garlic, oregano, olive olive, vinegar and salt. I’ve come to think the term is no more specific than “barbecue,” though my friends who live near Imperia are positively wacko about what is proper and what isn’t. Of course even they don’t agree — some say the sea biscuit is absolutely necessary; others insist on fish of some kind.

Capponadda, on the other hand, is often described as a simpler version of the elaborate Ligurian seafood salad, cappon magro. It used to contain authentic mosciame, which was formerly made with air-dried porpoise. Capponadda is usually found east of Genoa, on the Riviera de Levante. This is not the caponata of southern Italy, made with cooked vegetables. One version of its origin is of sailors at sea weighing anchor with a wooden winch — caponare in dialect. Cappone is a capon, but a capone is not only a type of fish, but also an anchor. (Spelling in Italian can be very difficult, particularly because dialect words are interspersed with proper Italian, which has been the official language only since unification 150 years ago. Double consonants are particulary tricky.) The story goes that the grueling work of raising the anchor was ameliorated by the passing of bowls filled with capponadda — dried dolphin meat (nowadays often replaced with canned tuna), tomatoes, oil, and crumbled sea biscuits.

The farther east you move from Genoa, the less the preponderance of basil in dishes. In La Spezia, thyme is preferred. As you move west towards France from Genoa, artichokes begin to appear in condiggion. Many versions are simply salads with no fish at all. The important thing, today, is to use the finest, freshest salad ingredients you can find. And please try to find delicate Ligurian oil made from 100% taggiasca olives. It’s very expensive but I only use it to annoint my favorite salads and in pesto. If you want to call this dish capponnada, you should use some Italian sea biscuits (gallette marinare, which you can find in Italian grocers). But I leave them out and call it condiggion.

Here’s how I made today’s. The photo above was taken before I added, at the last minute, a huge handful of fresh herbs (basil, marjoram, mint, and oregano) chopped along with a rinsed, salted anchovy. Finally, I drenched the salad with lemon juice and one last drizzle of Ligurian oil. First, I pre-cooked wax beans and freshly dug potatoes (both from friends’ gardens) and set them aside to cool. I added a fresh stalk of celery with lots of its leaves (also from a friend’s garden), along with two cucumbers, peeled and chopped, and two banana peppers, seeded and chopped. I added four firm-ripe tomatoes (incidentally, in Liguria, a salad tomato is almost never served blood-red-ripe, but blushing green at the shoulders and sliced vertically. Not in this case.), tossed the salad, drizzled it with oil, and let is sit for an hour at room temperature for the flavors to mingle. Just before serving, I added the anchovy/herb mix, tossed again, added the juice of a lemon, tasted for salt and pepper, seasoned accordingly (with a tiny pinch of cayenne, just for the hell of it), and served the salad with lots of crusty bread. What made me think to make this, other than the fact that I was serving lunch to at least one vegetarian, was the salad with sardines that I made a couple of weeks ago (see July 12, below).

For dessert we had Frances’s cake.

Though my version is not nearly as pretty as hers (I didn’t have enough raspberries to totally cover the top of the cake), it got gobbled down by Mikel’s office staff who met here today. While recently in Charleston for a speech, I was able to see my family and a few close friends at the home of Mary Edna Fraser, the batik artist. Before our covered dish dinner, I poured wine at my friend Debbie Marlowe’s Wine Shop, so we brought the wine. Most of my family was there, including my nephew Duke Highfield, his wife Frances, and their three boys. Frances brought this cake, so I asked her for the recipe. She said she found the recipe for the cake on the King Arthur box; the icing is her old standby, a quick “buttercream” made with butter and powdered sugar.

Frances called me and recited the recipe:

For the cake:

2-3/4 cups cake flour

1-2/3 cup superfine sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 tsp salt

3/4 cup soft butter

5 eggs

1 cup full fat vanilla yogurt or 1 cup milk or half-and-half

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp almond extract

Preheat the oven to 350o.  Grease and flour two 9″ round cake pans. I lined the greased pans with parchment paper as well, greased and floured.

In the large bowl of a mixer, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter and beat at low speed until the butter is evenly incorporated. It will look like sand.

Separate four of the eggs, one at a time, adding the egg whites to the batter and mixing well after each egg white. Reserve the yolks for another use (ice cream, anyone?!). Add the remaining whole egg and mix well.

Combine the yogurt or milk or half-and-half with the extracts and add in thirds to the batter, beating after each addition. Divide the batter between the pans and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is just barely set. Do not overcook.

Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool completely on baking racks until ready to ice and serve.

For the icing:

20 tablespoons unsalted butter (2-1/2 sticks), softened

2-1/2 cups powdered sugar

good pinch of salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 to 3 tablespoons full fat cream

Blend the butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla in the large bowl of your electric mixer. Add cream until the proper spreading consistency is reached.

When the cakes are completely cool, turn one cake out onto a cake platter, lightly rubbing and blowing off any loose crumbs. Spread a layer of icing on the top of the cake, top with the second layer, and lightly brush and/or blow away any loose crumbs. If you want your icing to be pristine and crumb-free, you can thin a bit of the icing with milk or cream and lightly coat the entire cake, then put it in the fridge to chill, then remove it and finish icing it. Or you can just try to be careful.

Cover the top of the cake with fruit such as raspberries, if desired. You’ll need a little more than a pint.

July 19, 2010 Stuffed Squash Blossoms and Chard Leaves

Nothing so changed my life and my cooking style as much as living in Liguria, the crescent-shaped region of northwestern Italy that hugs the Meditteranean, its rocky, terraced cliffs hovering over the insanely picturesque villages of the Riviera. The mostly vegetarian diet of the Genoese and the inhabitants of the entroterra, the inland reaches of the area, remains my favorite to eat on a daily basis. One of the many Ligurian cookbooks I own is called “Odor di Basilico,” and I can think of no better description of the herb-based cuisine. Fiori de succhin pin (dialect for stuffed zucchini blossoms) are likely to be stuffed with a mixture of pureed green beans and potatoes, brightened with the distinctive (and rare in America) flavor of marjoram. They are often baked quickly in a hot oven rather than being pan-fried as you are more likey to find them just over the border in Provence. Most striking, however, is the extensive use of fresh herbs such as basil and borage as well as foraged wild sow thistle and fennel and the leaves of various root vegetables such as salsify. Pungent dried herbes de provence require entirely different cooking styles.

Pesto is typical, but it stands alone. Fresh basil used in mostly in pesto. Nevertheless, I use it nearly every day in my own home cooking. I can never have too many basil plants, and I’m likely to toss the leaves in any salad, and my dooryard and stoop are filled with the plants which I must constantly pinch off to keep them from going to seed. I think I have over 30 plants in less than 100 square feet.

At the recent International Corporate Chefs Summit in Charleston, SC,  where I was keynote speaker, my friend Bob Waggoner, for years the Executive Chef at Charleston Place, followed my speech with a cooking demo in which he stuffed squash blossoms with a simple shrimp mousse. He chilled his processor bowl and blades, added a pound of shrimp, pureed them, then added about 1-1/2 cups of heavy cream to the processor to thicken the puree, careful not to blend it too long so that the blades would not heat up and cook the mixture. I added basil leaves, salt, and white pepper to the “mousse” before piping it into 8 male trombetta squash blossoms. Trombetta are a climbing summer squash with a delicate mint color and a flavor reminiscent of artichokes (see photo below at July 7); their males blossoms are exceptionally large and easy to stuff.

I scooped the mousse into a freezer bag, snipped off a corner, and piped the blossoms loosely three-quarters full. I then folded over the ends of the blossoms and placed them in a lightly greased baking dish, and lightly brushed them with soft butter to keep them from drying out while I made a sauce by reducing the shrimp shells with a shallot, chopped celery, equal parts of water and white wine, and a bay leaf. I strained that stock and added 4 fresh tomatoes and a spoonful of salted capers, cooked the sauce until it was thick, ran it through a food mill, and mounted the sauce with cold butter as the blossoms baked in a 375o oven for about 7 minutes. (iPhone photo of the plated blossom, above, is by Richard Little.)

I had leftover mousse so last night I steamed some fresh chard leaves until they wilted and stuffed them with spoonfuls of the mousse, folding them over as you would grape leaves or burritos. Again I made a tomato sauce, this one a reduction of white wine and sweet onion, tomatoes, a salted (rinsed) anchovy, and basil leaves, pureed. I added a little cream to the sauce and reheated it, covered, on very low heat so as to gently poach the luscious little packets of stuffed chard. Served, of course, with bread to sop up the sauce.

July 13, 2010 Scallops

Living in the Deep South, I never had deep sea scallops (from northern waters) when I was growing up. Bay scallops were common, but they were often overcooked  (read: “fried”) and rubbery. Since I was often the very fisherman whose catch I would eat, I was leery of anything whose provenance I didn’t understand. Who caught them and how? And why were they always sold already shucked, from white plastic buckets, and not in their shells? They didn’t appear in my crab trap, or in my shrimp or mullet nets, or on the end of my fishing line. Where did they come from?

An aside: In one of those peculiar coincidences of life, I just picked up (I no longer remember why) an old sketchbook/journal (I have dozens of them) from 1979. I had just spent a year in the Caribbean, where I had encountered imported frozen scallops cooked and swimming in creamy sauces in pretentious French restaurants as the delicious local lobsters and flying fish were ignored. I was living and working in New York as the personal cook for an eccentric millionaire. (At no time in my life have I considered myself a “chef.”) In the book, I found this sketch of a scallop on the same page on which I inscribed my personal goals at the time. At the top of the list? “Write a cookbook.” What on earth made me think that at 29 with no professional training in either writing or cooking that I was capable of writing a cookbook is beyond me!!!

And then, of course, I went to Europe and discovered simply, elegantly prepared deep sea scallops, barely cooked and garnished in any number of ways. Coquilles Saint Jacques were sold whole, their bright orange corals still attached. In Galicia I had them steamed open atop a piece of sheet metal placed over a roaring fire, not unlike the lowcountry oyster roasts of my childhood. I ate them smothered in cream, fiery with mustard in crêpes, baked in their shells, broiled with fennel, and poached with ginger. Alain Senderens was serving them in salads. The Troisgros frères were steaming them with baby vegetables. Fredy Girardet was tucking them into puff pastry. And Bocuse was cooking them in a reduced veal stock with — what else?! — black truffles. My real epiphany, however, came when I ate in one of the excellent (and very expensive at the time) Vietnamese restaurants in the Marais near the Pompidou Center. The dish? Thinly sliced scallops marinated in lime juice and served with shavings of fresh coconut and a bit of coconut milk enlivened with jalapeño and ginger.

I don’t buy scallops often because it’s very difficult to find fresh diver scallops that have not been soaked in water. Scallops cannot close their shells completely, so they deteriorate rapidly upon leaving the water. Most are soaked in water. They plump up nicely, but they are basically flavorless.

I included no scallop recipes in my first book about lowcountry cooking, because they are not traditional there (though I did include a brilliant recipe from my chef friend Joann Yaeger, whose lowcountry-inspired crab soup with sweet potatoes, she advised, could be thickened with a handful of scallops thrown into a food processor at the last moment and added to hot soup bowls). By the time I began my second book, on the new cooking of the entire South, scallops were appearing on menus throughout the land. I included the following from Sam McGann, who is still at the helm of the Blue Point, after 21 years there:

Scallops with Fennel, Orange, and Red Onion (from The New Southern Cook)


            This recipe for seared jumbo sea scallops with a light orange vinaigrette is inspired by one from Sam McGann, whose upscale diner, The Blue Point Bar and Grill, is located in Upper Duck, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The Blue Point is noted for its excellent seafood and delicious local vegetables. Sam serves the scallops warm as an appetizer in the dead of winter when Florida oranges are in season, but I’ve had it chilled as lunch in the middle of summer and it’s just as delicious.

                        3 or 4 oranges

                        1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

                        2 tablespoons rice vinegar

                        1/2 cup peanut oil or olive oil, plus a little for the pan

                        salt and freshly ground black pepper

                        24 jumbo sea scallops (about 1-1/2 pounds)

                        1/2 red onion, sliced thin

                        1/2 fennel bulb, sliced thin

                        salad greens

            Peel and section the oranges over a bowl. You will need about 30 orange sections for the garnish. Set aside. Make the vinaigrette by whisking together one tablespoon of the juice from the oranges, the lime juice, vinegar, and oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

            Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Brush a cast iron skillet with oil (preferably peanut) and heat until the pan begins to smoke. Add the scallops to the pan and sear, about 30 seconds on each side. Remove the scallops from the pan, cover, and keep warm while you prepare the plates.

            Arrange a bed of salad greens of each of six plates. Toss the onion and fennel in the vinaigrette. Divide the vegetables among the plates, top each salad with 4 scallops, and garnish with about 5 orange sections per plate.

Makes 6 servings.                     

Debbie Recommends: An Italian white such as Orvieto or, in summertime, a Vouvray or cold Wente Brothers Le Blanc de Blanc.


Scallop Seviche with Grapefruit

Recently I dined at Yannick Cam’s new Bistro Provence in Bethesda, where the great chef has toned down the menu to more approachable, modern dishes. His scallop seviche was a masterpiece of understatement; so much so, that I came home and recreated it. First, I bought a pound of fresh, sticky sea scallops. I then began stirring sea salt into icy water, tasting it until it tasted like the ocean. At that point, I added more ice cubes and the scallops for just a moment or two to firm them up to facilitate easier slicing. I pulled the scallops from the icy brine one by one, patted them dry, and sliced them as thinly as I possibly could. I placed them in a glass bowl and covered them with freshly squeezed lime juice for an hour. I poured off the lime juice and placed the scallops in 6 bowls, adding grapefruit sections and freshly squeezed grapefruit juice. I garnished it with grated sweet onions (Chef Cam used red onions), placed them in the refrigerator to chill, then sprinkled them with fleur de sel as I sent them to table. Yum!!!

Here’s another recipe from The New Southern Cook, from Jimmy Sneed, who was then working his kitchen magic in Richmond. His latest venture, Sugartoad, is located outside Chicago.

Scallops with Leeks and Country Ham


This recipe for pan seared scallops with sautéed leeks and country ham is another delicious example of the food that made Jimmy Sneed’s Richmond eatery, The Frog and the Redneck, so popular. We all hated to see it close.

Serve 2 to 3 scallops per person as an appetizer or 5 as a hearty entree. Jimmy advises, “The freshness of the sea scallops is what makes this dish. If you cannot find really fresh ‘sticky’ scallops, they will burn instead of crusting.”


                        1-1/4 pound (about 20) fresh jumbo sea scallops

                        fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

                        3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

                        2 cups well washed and chopped leeks (white and light green parts only)

                        1 cup heavy whipping cream

                        1 cup diced country ham 

Slice the scallops in half so that you have two thinner discs. Season with salt and pepper, then drizzle a little of the olive oil over them. Put the rest of the oil in a hot sauté pan and sauté the leeks very briefly, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cream and cook until it is slightly thickened. Add the ham and stir well. Correct the seasoning and set aside while you sear the scallops.

Put the scallops in a very hot cast iron skillet. No additional oil should be required. Sear on one side until crusted brown. Turn the scallops and immediately remove the pan from the heat. Place the scallops on a paper or cloth towel to remove any excess oil, then serve over mounds of leeks and ham.

Makes 8-10 appetizers or 4-6 entrees.

Debbie Recommends: Vouvray.


July 12, 2010 Cooking mostly without recipes

For our first weekend alone together in I-don’t-know-when, we barely left the house except to walk the dog and go to a couple of farmers markets. I mostly prepared foods that friends had brought us from their gardens, including the savory, dark green, tall and thin (and stringless) celery from our friends Maurice and Liliana Dumas. I’ve made several batches of celery soup by sautéeing in butter cut with a little olive oil chopped celery and their large verdant leaves with sweet onions, then adding a peeled and chopped russet potato, stirring constantly, then adding a bouquet garni of fresh herbs from the garden and homemade chicken stock and letting it simmer until all the vegetables are soft. Pureed, it makes a delightful first course or luncheon item, either hot or cold.

I also made BLTs with local bacon, bread, tomatoes, lettuce, and homemade mayonnaise, as well as a salad composed of new potatoes, more of that celery and its leaves, sweet onions, some hot pepper paste, olive oil, and canned sardines (2 layers packed in water). Drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, and seasoned with salt and pepper, it was the surpise hit of the weekend (see photo, above, and also see July 21, where I realized that this is a version of a dish I learned to make in Italy). Unlike the pretentious and silly Peach Puzzle, the only recipe I followed all weekend, and which won NPR’s Heirloom Recipe Contest a few years ago. The dough was too sweet and gooey — a real mess, however clever it looked at first glance.

Why not just poach the peaches and do without that sticky sweet, buttery dough? Or, if you must turn on the oven, why not simply bake the peaches with the brown sugar sauce? We removed the peaches from the dessert, scraped off the dough, and have been eating them alone with the reserved sauce.

It’s a shame, because you can hardly go wrong with fresh peaches. I’ve even been known to peel and cut them up and stir them into store-bought ice cream when I find myself with unexpected dinner guests, which seems to happen to me a lot (the impromptu dinners, not the doctored ice cream).

At the new Petworth Farmers Market I found purple-hull crowder peas, green and red tomatoes of all sorts, and Springfield Lamb from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Since laws require that the producers sell only frozen meat, and since we had a bounty of vegetables to eat, I bought a package of their sliced lamb liver, which you can see here on the grill with sweet onions, squash, and green tomatoes. The liver thawed quickly, and it doesn’t take but a minute or two to cook. I grilled some baguette slices as well, then topped the bruschetta with onion jam (see June 2) and slices of the grilled liver. The following day, I sautéed the liver with sweet onions and peaches and served as appetizers. See the photos that follow.

On Sunday morning, I made French Toast with the last of the baguette, and drenched it in the last of our fig syrup, which is the juice left over when I can figs (see August 18, 2008). Mikel’s out of town on business again and I’ve got dinner guests again tonight. I’m going to serve very, very simple food — several cold courses (prosciutto and melon, that celery soup again, and a recreation of the scallop ceviche I had at Yannick Cam’s new Bistro Provence in Bethesda last week [recipe to follow]). I’ll follow that with a simple summer pasta dish (see June 6, 2008). Then tomorrow night I’m going to Palena with my friend Amy Borgstrom, where we will rehash the decadence of our youth over the scrumptious offerings of the brilliant chef Frank Ruta.

Mikel returns on Wednesday and we have more guests arriving on Thursday. I better get to the market and snatch some Copper River Salmon and make some gravlax (for a recipe, see July 22, 2008). Again and again I find myself repeating myself, but it’s always what’s in season.

In case there are any of you out there who don’t know how to make French Toast, here’s the recipe from my Fearless Frying Cookbook:

French Toast

In New Orleans, they call French Toast pain perdu (lost bread) for the day-old baguette that otherwise would be thrown out. I never throw out leftover baguettes because they dry rock hard and can be grated to make coarse bread crumbs that are a perfect coatin

g for fried foods. Nevertheless, French toast is best when made the New Orleans way, with day-old French or Italian bread, and a little brandy for pizzazz. This is a very rich version. Serve it for Sunday brunch with sausage or bacon, if you like, and lots of syrup — preferably homemade fig, or cane or maple. Please avoid those nasty, gooey ones doctored with corn syrup.

4 large eggs

2 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 tablespoon brandy

1 tablespoon sugar

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

8 1-inch sices day-old French or Italian bread cut at a 45° angle

Confectioners’ sugar, optional


In a shallow bowl, beat the eggs, milk, vanilla, brandy, and sugar together until well-blended. Preheat the oven to 200° and place 4 plates therein to warm. Place 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Place 4 slices of the bread in the milk and egg mixture to soak for a few minutes, turning if necessary to make sure they are soaked through.


Pick up the soaked slices one at a time and allow excess liquid to drain off, then place them down in the skillet. Fry in the butter until golden brown on each side, about 4 or 5 minutes total. Divide the slices among the plates in the oven to stay warm while you repeat the process with the remaining slices. Serve hot, dusted with confectioners’ sugar, if desired, and the best syrup you can get your hands on.

Serves 4


July 9, 2010 Charleston Magazine 35th Anniversary

I just received a copy of the July Charleston Magazine in the mail. Since I don’t subscribe, I wondered why they were sending it to me. In it, I’m listed as one of their “Local Legends: Ten Icons of life in the Lowcountry during the past 35 years” and my lowcountry cookbook (see photo, above)  is cited as one of their ten favorite “Treasured Tomes,” along with some truly outstanding books, both nonfiction and fiction.

Here I am ranked right up there with the late, great ironsmith, Philip Simmons; my friend and colleague Fran Hamby, the doyenne of Charleston caterers; the late Emily Whaley, one of the city’s premier gardeners in a city full of horticulturists; Pat Conroy (no introduction necessary); Mary Jackson, the MacArthur and National Endowment of the Arts Fellow, whose basketry is among the world’s finest (you can see some of her work now through November 28 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in the fascinating exhibition “Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art”; the late Mary Ramsey, whose 100-year-old Croghan’s Jewel Box supported innumerable charitable causes and whose tireless efforts on behalf of the mentally disabled is legendary; as well as the p. r. wizard David Rawle; the Medical University’s Dr. Marcus Newberry; and Margot Freudenberg, the 103-year-old  holocaust survivor whose beneficence and philanthropy has, since her arrival in Charleston in 1940, never abated.

I am humbled.

July 8, 2010 Okra and Tomatoes

The insane triple-digit weather we’ve been having has subsided a bit, but the humidity has doubled, so it feels about the same. Okra and tomatoes both love wet springs and dry summers, and they are flourishing on the Eastern Seaboard now. This classic lowcountry dish has as many variations as gumbo (which is a West African word for okra), and, in fact, by adding some shrimp stock and shrimp (or chicken stock and chicken), you can use the leftovers to make gumbo. No roux needed in this okra-thickened soup. In the image at right, I’ve peeled some tomatoes, and chopped fresh local celery as well as both Spanish and sweet onions for the dish. I added some fresh herbs and a hint of garlic as well, and, after letting it cook down a bit too long, I added some Spicy V-8 juice to loosen it a bit and spice it up. V-8 is one of the few processed foods that I keep on hand, and I often use it in soups and sauces. It’s one of my “secret ingredients,” like salted anchovies and vinegar, that I often rely on in the kitchen to perk up flavors. I was thrilled one day to open the late, great Jean-Louis Palladin’s cookbook to see that he, too, is fond of it, calling for it in his veal pot-au-feu. I’ve always liked to make my “tomato” aspic with it, then serve it with a shrimp mayonnaise (the recipe appeared on the blog on March 24, 2008).

Here’s a basic recipe for Okra and Tomatoes from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking.

Buy okra no longer than your finger. It should be tender and have no brown spots. Otherwise, you’re better off with frozen. You can leave the pods whole, but, if you do, trim them down to, but not into, the pods. I like to cut them into 3/4″ slices.

This simple dish of stewed tomatoes and okra is pure Lowcountry Creole, and is served over rice alongside pork, poultry, and seafood. Add no salt to the stew, as the bacon will impart its salty smokiness to the vegetables. You can of course substitute some olive oil for the bacon, but in that case, I’d add some fresh herbs, salt, and pepper to the stew.


8 thick slices of hickory-smoked bacon

1 medium onion, chopped

1 pound fresh okra, trimmed as above

5 fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes — or a 1-1/2 pound can of whole tomatoes — peeled and quartered

1 freshly picked hot pepper or ground cayenne to taste 

white wine or chicken stock


Cook the bacon in a cast iron skillet over medium heat until it is uniformly crisp. Remove from the skillet and set aside to drain. Add the onion to the bacon grease and cook until they begin to clear, about 5 minutes. Add the okra and continue cooking until the okra begins to glisten with moisture. Add the tomatoes and the pepper and lower the heat. Simmer until the okra and tomatoes are evenly stewed, stirring occasionally and adding wine or stock to the pan if necessary to keep the mixture soupy.


Serve over white rice steamed in chicken stock, and garnish with the chopped fresh herb of your choice and the reserved bacon, crumbled.

6-8 servings.

July 7, 2010 Back to Normal, sorta…

Our daughter’s internship is over, so she has returned to Athens, Georgia, where she is a rising sophomore at the University, my alma mater. We’ve had lots of guests — both house guests and dinner guests — and we’ve been on the road a lot, plus the 100-degree heat has made cooking almost unbearable (though most of my favorite foods are the fresh fruits and vegetables of summer).

Friends have brought me wax beans, pole beans, tomatoes, squash, celery, herbs, eggplant, and cherries, and I’ve been buying delicious local melons, okra, and corn at the farmers markets that seem to have sprouted all over the city.

Pole beans are one of my favorite vegetables, and the poor string beans we served as a salad next to them paled in comparison. Some of the intensely mineral-laden flat beans produce almost no bean at all. I often see them described as “earthy” in flavor, but I love their meaty flavor, especially when it’s paired with smoked pork. My standard preparation of pole beans is to simmer them with a smoked ham hock with new potatoes resting atop the beans, where they steam to a perfectly creamy consistency while the beans boil. The recipe appeared on the blog here. Last week I did not have new potatoes or a hock, so I cut little batons of salt pork and cooked them in a hot saucepan, shaking the pan frequently so that they didn’t burn, then adding water and letting it simmer until it was pleasantly smoky in flavor. I added the beans and cooked them until they were just tender. They were the first to disappear from the plates of my guests, one of many delicious market-fresh dishes I served that night, including grilled lowcountry sweet onions, grilled local sausages from MeatCrafters, grilled local squash, and wax beans poached in white wine, the way they do them in France.

I’ve had lots of response to my op-ed piece for the Washington Post, in which I lamented the situation in the gulf, while admitting that all of us are culpable for the demand for cheap fuel. While

in New Orleans, I had delicious food at Cochon and Café Dégas, where the crab and arugula salad (pictured), with grapefruit, fennel, and crispy shallots was lightly annointed with a tarragon vinaigrette. At Marigny Brasserie, I was thrilled to find fresh frog legs on the menu. I don’t eat frozen frog legs because they invariably come from the wild in Southeast Asia, where they are being depleted. Also, the frozen meat of reptiles and amphibians, while succulent when fresh, becomes somewhat gelatinous when thawed and it is often unappetizingly rubbery when cooked. Those at Marigny, however, fresh from nearby rice fields, were not only tender, but also large and fat, unlike the dessicated Asian ones.

New Orleans is its own place, decidely decadent and sultry. You could cut the hot, humid air with a knife. Several carriages full of young women in crowns — the Crawfish, Watermelon, Sweet Potato, Strawberry, and various other Queens — passed me on Royal Street. Outside Café Dégas in the Mid-City neighborhood on Esplanade, I saw Mr. Okra hawking his wares from his colorful truck. He’s been a fixture in the city for years. Arthur Robinson (his real name) is even the subject of a documentary film that won the Audience Choice award at the NYC Food Film Festival last year and was featured at Sundance this summer.

We didn’t buy any vegetables since we weren’t cooking at home, but Mr. Robinson allowed us to take some photos of his remarkable institution.

I am so worried about the plight of New Orleans, but thanks to folks such as Emeril Lagasse; whose Foundation is helping educate and feed inner city youth; and to the Historic New Orleans Collection, whose mission is to study and preserve the history, culture, and buildings of the Gulf South; and to the many wildlife organizations and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which has set up an oil-spill-specific relief fund, there is hope. Further, Gary Nabahn of Renewing America’s Food Traditions has assembled the attached brochure about food producers at risk in the Gulf, including guidelines for consumers about how you can help and what seafoods you should be buying (as well as which ones to avoid because of their threatened status). Incidentally, for those of you who only know Emeril through his BAM! antics on television, let me say that the man not only paid his dues 30 years ago by following Paul Prudhomme as Executive Chef at Commander’s Palace (a thankless position overseeing hundreds of lunches and dinners daily), but his own first restaurant is now celebrating its 20th anniversary and the Emeril dynasty supports hundreds and hundreds of workers. He’s smart, he’s kind, he’s passionate, and he has given over $4million of his own money to charitable causes.

After our brunch at Café Dégas, those of us who had spoken at the Beans + Rice Forum were treated to a real treat: a private tour of the Historic New Orleans Collection by the inimitably charming and knowledgeable John Lawrence, who is the museum’s Director of Programs.

I’ve also been to Charleston, where I swam in the ocean with my sisters and brother and nephews, and where I was the keynote speaker at the annual summit of the International Corporate Chefs Association. I poured wine at Debbie Marlowe’s Wine Shop and had a scrumptious charcuterie platter and fresh local turnips at Slightly North of Broad with Executive Chef Frank Lee, Chef Bob Waggoner and his wife Christine, Fabrice and Fabienne Rizzo of newly opened bakery Macaroon Boutique, and Pierre-Jean Sauvion of the Loire Valley’s Château du Cléray, whose perfect Muscadet, Vouvray, and Chinon I quaffed endlessly for hours.

Back home in Washington, I’ve been trying to catch up while entertaining several friends who have been in town. At left, in a photo by Dana Downs, Daphne Derven, who is the Special Projects Manager at the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, and I visit the Mexican exhibits at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

One evening, the 100-degree heat subsided long enough for us to eat on the deck. Here are two types of snap beans, fresh tomatoes and basil, olives, Italian salame, prosciutto-wrapped melon, and hummus with pita chips, which we followed with the grilled items I mentioned above. (Photo by Dana.) For dessert, I prepared the old English favorite, Summer Pudding. I had never made one before and it’s such a delight. A recipe follows.

Summer Pudding

In England, this berry-rich dessert often includes currants and/or gooseberries, which you’re unlikely to find stateside. I used mixed berries, including blackberries, raspberries, strawberries (halved or quarterd), and blueberries.

For the bread, I used a “Canadian style” loaf, dense and slightly sweet.

Begin this dish at least 24 hours before serving.

1-1/2 pounds mixed berries (see above)

zest of one lemon

3/4 cup sugar

one loaf sliced white bread (see above)

whipped cream

Combine the fruit with the zest and sugar and place in a saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover the pot, and allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Be watchful and do not let the pot boil over.

Strain the fruit, reserving both the pulp and the juice.

Remove the crust from the bread and line a 1-1/2 quart souffle dish with the slices up to the lower rim in the dish. Cut the bread so that it perfectly lines the dish, with no holes. Slicing the bread into thirds makes easily manageable strips. When the dish is lined, pour a little of the reserved juice over the bread in the bottom of the dish and allow it to soak in, then fill the dish with the fruit. Cover the fruit with a layer of bread and pour some of the juice on the top layer of bread as well, so that no white shows.

Place a plate that fits down inside the souffle dish on top of the pudding and wrap the entire dish in plastic (I used a plastic grocery bag). Place something heavy on top of the dish and place it in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. Refrigerate the remaining juice as well.

When ready to serve, run a knife around the outer edges of the dessert and turn it out onto a serving platter.

Serve with whipped cream and any remaining juice. After I whipped the cream, I added some of the juice to it.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.