December 2009

Posted on December 31, 2009 in Archives

December 29, 2009 Sweet onions, croquettes, pistou, and chocolate

Last night we had our friends Ann and Larry Cove and Ari Shapiro and Mike Gottlieb over for dinner. I began with canapés — dark, dense German-style bread slathered with French butter and topped with gravlax, capers, and dill. Another canapé I served, using the sweet onions pictured below, was an Elizabeth Schneider recipe: that same bread slathered with that amazing butter (Grand Cru AOC Charentes-Poitou “Celles sur Belle”) that had been whipped with a little honey, lemon zest, and lemon juice, topped with thin slices of the onions and a stripe of chopped dill, then pressed with a rolling pin and refrigerated until serving time, at which point I dusted it with freshly ground black pepper and sprinkled it with fleur de sel.

Our first course was chicken croquettes, pictured above, with a salad annointed with delicate Ligurian olive oil.

The recipe, which appeared in my Fearless Frying cookbook, begins with a basic béchamel sauce:

           Béchamel Sauce


For 300 years, this basic French white sauce has thickened, bound, and added character to dishes as different as lasagna and croquettes. Though shunned in the trendy 1980s, it has returned to most serious cooks’ kitchens as a staple. Béchamel is the foundation of many of the sauces of both France and Italy.


2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 1/2 cups milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

Black pepper in a mill and whole fresh nutmeg (optional)


            In a heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook until it is foamy, about 3 minutes.


Pour in the milk all at once, whisking constantly. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Remove the pot from the heat and add the salt, still whisking.  Reduce the heat and return the pot to the stove. Simmer, whisking occasionally so that the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot or burn, until the sauce is smooth and thick.


Remove the sauce from the heat and grind in a little pepper and a hint of nutmeg if desired. Use as directed in the recipe that calls for it.


Makes about 1 1/4 cups




I cannot make croquettes without thinking about Abby Fisher an African American cook of wide renown in Victorian San Francisco. Remarkably, the city’s Women’s Co-operative Printing Office published a book of her recipes in 1881. What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking remained a rare and esoteric piece of American history until it was republished in 1995, with historical notes by the scholar Karen Hess. It was long thought to be the first cookbook written by an African American. Though we know little of Mrs. Fisher, we now have an amazing collection of recipes that highlight the culinary skills of this African American cooking legend.


Among the recipes, which are, as Hess points out, “all perfectly lovely, and all perfectly feasible in today’s kitchens,” elegant breads, perfectly turned roasts, broiled chops, delicate cakes, and hearty stews share the bill with the preserves for which Mrs. Fisher was well-known. The title page of the book declares her twice the winner of medals at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Fair for best “Pickles and Sauces and best assortment of Jellies and  Preserves.”


She was also an artful fryer, as is evidenced by her “carolas” (crullers), her fried chicken, and her entire chapter of croquettes! “You can make croquettes from any kind of meat you like,” she tells us. “You need not use onions unless you like, but always salt and pepper.” Her lamb croquettes include a little sour pickle, a brightening flavor for strong-tasting lamb. For her liver croquettes, she instructs to “season high.” With a croquette of veal and calf’s brains, she suggests serving an elegant sauce of parsleyed cream. What Mrs. Fisher knew was that with a little leftover meat you can make a meal in minutes.


I encourage you to concoct your own meat croquettes. Variety meats, tomato pulp, and béchamel sauce can be included in croquettes as well as the usual egg, mayonnaise, and bread crumbs.  Sausage patties are croquettes made of ground meat bound with fat. You can add chopped oysters to sausages and croquettes and they’ll fry up nicely. Sautéed onions, garlic, celery, and peppers are nearly always welcomed additions. 


Here’s a basic recipe for croquettes made from cooked meats. Serve these for dinner with a tomato sauce or with side dishes of rice and greens. Here, I’ve served them with a salad as a first course before soupe au pistou. You can make the mixture the night before or early in the day; it needs to chill before frying. If you deep-fry them, scoop up balls with an ice-cream scoop. For pan-frying, you can simply form patties. Mrs. Fisher (1881) says to make “cakes as you would a biscuit: round.”


Season these to suit your own palate. With chicken, I recommend thyme or lemon thyme; oregano complements lamb. Parsley goes well with any meat. Use a little hot pepper sauce or cayenne if the croquettes are made from ham, some garlic with beef.


For the forcemeat: 


1 cup Béchamel Sauce (see above)

1 tablespoon grated onion

1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs of your choice

1 garlic clove, minced (optional)

2 cups ground or finely chopped cooked meat of your choice (chicken, beef, veal, lamb, ham)

Salt, pepper, cayenne, and hot pepper sauce to taste


For the croquettes:


1 large egg

1 tablespoon water

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups fine dry bread crumbs

Peanut oil for frying


Several hours or the night before you plan to serve,  prepare the forcemeat: Mix all of the ingredients well together in a mixing bowl, adjusting the seasoning to suit your own palate. Cover the bowl and refrigerate.


Place a sheet of wax paper or parchment on a baking sheet. In a shallow bowl, make an egg wash by beating the egg with the tablespoon of water. Place the flour in another shallow bowl,  and the bread crumbs in a third.

Remove  the forcemeat from the refrigerator. Make 8 croquettes from the mixture, scooping them up with a large spoon or ice cream scoop. You can make classic cones shapes or balls — or patties if you plan to pan-fry them. Dredge each croquette in flour, then dip it in the egg wash. Let any extra egg drip back into the bowl, then gently place the croquette in the breadcrumbs. Make sure the entire surface is coated, then place on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with all the croquettes, then place them in the refrigerator to chill while you prepare to fry them.


Preheat an oven to 200°. Place a rack on a baking sheet and place in the oven. If deep-frying, heat 3 inches of oil in a stockpot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. If pan-frying, pour 1 inch of oil into a large heavy skillet or sauté pan and place over medium-high heat.


When the oil has reached 375°, remove the croquettes from the refrigerator. Increase the heat and monitor it carefully. You’ll want to fry these croquettes at a higher temperature than usual — between 375° and 390°. Do not crowd the pot. Fry each until golden brown all over, turning as needed. It will take only about 2 minutes each. Remove from the oil  with a wire mesh strainer and place on the prepared baking sheet in the oven while you fry the rest of croquettes. Serve immediately.

Makes 8 croquettes.

Soup and Sweets

I didn’t serve a dessert per se last night, but I did temper some chocolate, dipped pretzels and fresh chunks of pineapple in it, and served them along with fruitcake and sugar cookies (see December 20, 2007). A cherry bounce chaser sent everyone home totally satiated.

Instructions for tempering chocolate appeared on the blog on February 4, 2009. The onion canapés, the croquettes, and the fruitcake (see November 12, 2007) were the hits of the evening, though nearly everyone had second helpings of the soupe au pistou, which is similar to Genovese minestrone, with the Marseillaise version of pesto — made without pine nuts, but with fresh tomato and Gruyère added to the mortar, the sauce swirled in just before serving.

I added a city ham bone to the bean pot, pretty much following the recipe I posted on Thanksgiving, with the addition of tomatoes to the early braise. The grocery store did not have turnips. so I added some green beans and several zucchini after I added the tomatoes to the soffrito. My sister had brought me some yellow-eyed beans from the mountains, and they cooked much more quickly than cannellini. All dried beans cook up differently, depending on not only their type, but also their age. Be sure not to overcook them, the way I almost did. Yellow-eyes (pictured above, right) are very creamy and are great for soups, but I don’t think I’d use them in this classic Provençal dish again. Roger Vergé, the great chef from the South of France, admits that everyone’s soupe au pistou is different. Daniel Young, in his excellent Made in Marseille, quotes the French food writer Jacques Bonnadier, whose ingredients are measured in quantities such as “some” or “a little.” “It’s up to the individual to determine the dosage that suits him and is based on the number of his guests.” Young warns, “Leftover soupe au pistou does not, however, take well to reheating, with or without the pistou. It is best served cool or, even better, at room temperature.” Even with all the variations, everyone agrees that the pistou sauce should not be added until the last moment. Vergé instructs, “Carry the soup the the table. The aroma that will precede you will make it unnescessary to name the dish.”

Christmas 2009

We’ve had guests for a week and I tend to make tried and true recipes during the holidays — gravlax (see July 22. 2008) and pimiento cheese (see December 27,  2007), ham biscuits and sugar cookies (see December 20, 2007), a city ham (see December 17, 2007), pancakes (see August 18, 2008), shrimp and grits, fried quail, grilled vegetables, etc. A couple of days ago, a box of HUGE Lowcountry Sweet Onions appeared on my doorstep. These are amazingly sweet, and such a treat to have them in the dead of winter, especially when there’s still a foot of snow on the ground! Since the path to my grill was blocked by snow and since I was frying quail anyway, I made onions rings for a dinner party on Wednesday night. I could only fry a handful at a time — just enough for each guest to have a ring while I fried the next batch. I think I made 10 batches. They were delicious. Photo of the rings by Hugh Schlesinger. The recipe appeared on the blog on June 20.

December 15, 2009 Happy Holidays!

Well, the holidays are upon us already. I rarely leave the house to socialize, and I’ve been out three times in as many days. We are going to a birthday party tonight and are hosting dinner parties on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I’ll be cooking tried and true recipes (rack of lamb, grilled quail, and chili con carne, the latter already cooked and in the freezer) so I doubt that I’ll be sharing any culinary revelations in the next few days. My dear friend Dana Downs and her daughter Ella Grace, whom I claim as my own, are arriving Friday for a week! Ella Grace is going to come live with us this summer when she interns at Americorps with Mikel. I’ll see if I can’t help her land a moonlit job in the food world as well.

Fruitcakes are soaking in bourbon. There’s really not much to do but shop for ingredients and make sure the liquor cabinet is stocked. If you don’t hear from me in the next couple of weeks, know that it’s that time of year. I wish you and yours a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year!

(In the photo is our standard poodle, Pantaloon.)

December 11, 2009

Pineapples, Grits, Sweet Potatoes, and Chocolate


Only after typing the above heading did it dawn on me that those four foods are allNew World natives, like tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers. I can’t imagine what it must have been like inEurope before the discovery ofAmerica.Italy without tomatoes?Germany without chocolate?Spain without peppers?England without potatoes? Grits are, of course, simply ground corn, not unlikeItaly’s polenta. But there was no corn – maize, that is – inItaly until the discovery ofAmerica.


The one food among my foursome that does not have universal appeal is the pineapple. While widely grown in Southeast Asia, Hawaii, and Latin America, most pineapples end up canned or in juice. They are popular among natives of tropical countries, but they are mostly served fresh, not incorporated into recipes. I have an extensive collection of cookbooks and find very little on pineapple, not even in books devoted to the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Yes, I love a pineapple upside down cake and make it often; and, yes, I know that both fruit and juice appear in myriad cocktails (the revival of mid-century sticky, sweet, multicolored, powerful drinks with umbrellas is a current trend I could have done without); and, yes, it wouldn’t be the holidays without a bowl of ambrosia (see December 20, 2007). But look up pineapple in the most encyclopedic cookery titles and you’ll not likely to find much.

A couple of days ago I brined some thick pork chops (see December 19.2008) all day long and grilled them alongside fresh pineapple and eggplant. I have never understood pineapple and ham on pizza but the sweet, tart tropical fruit really does love pork. Native to tropical America, Ananas comosus is fairly typical of showy Bromeliacaea plants, commonly called the Pineapple family. First spotted byColumbus onGuadeloupe island in 1493, the intense aroma and flavor of the pineapple “astonished” his crew. DeSoto praised its “very good smell and exceedingly good taste” and Sir Walter Raleigh called it “the princesse of fruits.” It has been cultivated in tropicalAmerica for so long that rarely bares seeds.Hawaii is the place with which most Americans probably associate pineapple. My dear friend Dana Downs, an army brat, worked in a pineapple cannery there as a teenager and has tales of bloody hands and coworkers passing out from the fumes. She said her parents knew she was close to home because they could smell her approach from a block away.


I love pineapples in jellied candies, but the fibrous fruits are difficult to reduce to a clear liquid, and they are notoriously reactive with proteins (probably why recipes using them are few and far between) due to the presence of the protease bromelain, one of the most common substances used to tenderize meat. Bromelain, I just learned, is now being used in the treatment of arthritis, sinusitis, and sports injuries, from which I have suffered. Not to self: Eat More Pineapple!


They are particularly delicious when heated. Pop them in the oven or place them on a grill (no need to oil them) to warm them through; serve them to your dinner guests and watch them disappear.

Last night, I had a leftover baked sweet potato and a log of soft chèvre, so I combined them with grits and baked a casserole to serve alongside leftover grilled eggplant and blanched green beans that I tossed in a quick stovetop tomato sauce. Mustard greens wilted in olive oil with the water that clung to them, then braised until tender with thinly sliced garlic rounded out the meal. For dessert, I made Bitter Chocolate Ice Cream and Meringues


Grits Casserole with Sweet Potato and Chèvre


This is a variation on the favored southern side dish of cheese grits. You could whip the egg whites separately and fold them in at the last minute to make a real soufflé, but I never bother.


4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

3/4 cup coarse, stone-ground grits

3 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 small to medium sweet potato (8 oz.), baked, peeled, and mashed

½ cup (4 oz) soft chèvre

1/2 cup cream

2 beaten eggs

black or red pepper pepper, to taste, if desired


Use a little of the butter to grease a 1-1/2 quart soufflé pan or casserole dish with tall sides. Preheat the oven to 350º.


Put the rest of the butter, the grits, the water, and the salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring occasionally so that the grits do not stick to the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook the grits, stirring often, until the water is absorbed and the grits have thickened, about 10 minutes.


Add the remaining ingredients and stir until well mixed. Turn out into the greased pan and bake in the preheated oven until a knife poked in the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes to 1 hour. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

Bitter Chocolate Ice Cream and Meringues


This ice cream recipe is adapted from one by the British chef and food writer, Simon Hopkinson, from his Second Helpings of Roast Chicken. Whenever I make custard-based ice creams, I save the egg whites to make lighter foils for creamy desserts. You can freeze the whites and continue to add to the frozen ones until you have the number desired. I simply put hatch marks on the package in the freezer. Most often, I make a large batch of ice cream, using a full dozen eggs, in which case I make an angel food cake (see November 12, 2007) to go with. But yesterday I simply whipped up some meringues, which are utter simplicity to make.


The chocolate, cocoa, and sugar amounts are by weight, not volume. Use your kitchen scale.


Hopkinson points out that this ice cream is almost black and includes no cream. “The caramel is important,” he adds, “so do be brave and try and get it really dark, though if you happen to take it too far and it starts to burn, you have no option but to start again; it is only 2 tbsp of sugar, after all, and burnt sugar makes burnt ice cream.”


For the ice cream:


2 cups whole milk (don’t use skim or 2%)

4 oz best bitter (unsweetened) chocolate

4 large egg yolks

4 oz superfine sugar

1 oz best cocoa (not Dutch process)

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon water


Scald the milk in a heavy bottomed pot. Turn it off the moment small bubbles begin to appear on the surface. Melt the chocolate over simmering water, turn off the heat, and leave the chocolate over the water.


Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until it is very pale colored and light, and the mixture falls from the beaters in ribbons free of grains. While continuing to beat the mixture, slowly add the hot milk until it is incorporated evenly, then add the melted chocolate and the cocoa, continually beating until the custard is smooth. Pour the mix into the milk pan.


To caramelize the sugar, you’ll need a small, heavy pan. (I use a very small enameled cast iron skillet that belonged to my mother. The enamel on the interior is white, so it’s easy to watch the color. I also use it to toast small quantities of nuts, sesame seeds, and spices in.) Add the sugar and water to the pan and place over high heat. When it comes to a boil, turn the heat down and watch carefully as the sugar caramelizes. Hopkinson notes, “It will turn pale golden first, then dark golden and eventually become the colour of a shiny conker.” [Yes, I had to look up “conker” as well. It’s a horse chestnut. You’re going for a mahogany color, dark but not chocolate colored.] Quickly pour the caramel into the pot, whisking hard. Don’t worry if it seizes up on you, because you are going to heat the mixture and the sugar will dissolve in doing so.


Place the pot over low heat and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture has thickened a little. Do not let the mixture boil. When you draw your finger through the custard on the back of the spoon and the trail remains, the mixture is thick enough. Pour the custard back into the mixing bowl, whisk well, and allow to cool completely before churning according to your churn’s instructions.




A recipe for my friend Gilson’s meringues appeared on the blog on February 5, 2008, but Gilson’s are very sweet meringues, chock full of nuts. Use that recipe, reducing the sugar a little and omitting the nuts, especially if you used bittersweet chocolate instead of unsweetened chocolate (and I know some of you insisted on doing that). Gilson’s intensely sweet meringues nicely contrast the  bitter flavor of the ice cream.


I was in a hurry when I made this batch, so I simply plopped the mixture down in a large plastic bag, snipped off the corner, and piped out some circles and dollops. The classic French meringue uses 4 egg whites to a cup of sugar, baked in a low oven (250º) until pale beige (anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the meringues I’m making). I usually add a pinch of salt and cream of tartar, and sometimes I add a teaspoon of vanilla extract.

December 4, 2009: Books and Cooks of Inspiration

photo of my parents, Ladys Island SC, 1979


Since Julia Child died, and more so since the release of the Julie/Julia film, I’ve found myself in several conversations about the cooks and cookbook authors who have inspired me through the years. My mother was an incredibly talented, well-versed cook, adventurous not only in spirit, but in action as well. We traveled to Panama one summer, to New York another. To San Francisco and Seattle in the station wagon one year, to Cape Cod the next. We ate and drank fine wines in the best restaurants, my parents maintaining a wine “cellar” back home in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in the fifties. By the time Julia burst onto the scene with Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, my mother was already an accomplished home cook with an extensive collection of cookbooks.


We never watched much television at our house, and I have never owned one myself unless you count the discards my parents would foist on me after I graduated from college – old color sets that invariably would be put out on the street within a few days of my having carted them home in my Ford Maverick. Julia’s appearance on television was no more than a blip on the horizon to me, other than as a celebrity whose voice everyone, it seemed, loved to imitate. I can remember Mother mentioning The Galloping Gourmet, but when she died in the early 80s, there wasn’t one of his books among her thousand-strong collection of cookery titles. After Mastering the Art, there were no more Child books, either. I think that she may have found Child’s endless instructions (nearly twenty pages to describe transforming flour, yeast, and water into a baguette!) beneath her.


My mother and I never discussed Julia Child that I recall. I don’t remember her ever making French bread, but she did make Beef Bourguignon. Julia’s version is available on the Random House website. It’s attached here. I don’t think Mother used a recipe, but, if she did, it was more than likely one she knew by rote. She often referred to the 1100-page Larousse Gastronomique, the English translation of which she had excitedly purchased upon its release in 1961. Its instructions are but a definition: “a method of preparation called à la bourguignonne…is used mainly for large cuts of braised meat…. Its main features are a red wine sauce and a garnish composed of mushrooms, little onions and lardoons.” The recipe for Braised Beef with Vegetables that appeared in Mother’s copy of The Joy of Cooking, which she bought in 1946, when my father was working on his PhD at Purdue, when made with wine instead of water, is a good version itself, with turnips and celery added to the mix. Mother loved mushrooms and while they didn’t often appear in the Orangeburg A&P, she had no problem using the agarics that often popped up in fairy rings in our yard. She had been cooking with and drinking wine for 20 years when Mastering the Art was published. When I was born, in 1949, my father bought futures on the greatBurgundy harvest that year, one of the best vintages of all time. (Here’s a photo of the last bottle of the ’49 Chambolle Musigny that my father and I drank after Mama died in the fall of 1982.) Her own collection of recipes, recorded prior to 1953, includes “a cup of dry red wine” and “a cup of dry white wine” in several of the braised dishes. Years later, my father bought himself a computer, taught himself to type, and copied the recipes, so that each of us kids would have a copy. He noted in his foreword that the recipes “were by no means her repertoire, but rather, I suspect, those not in cookbooks and those not committed to memory. Many of her long-standing and enviable recipes with her unique touches are not herein. Nor are her many variations on a theme, such as game dishes, found here or in other notes.”


When I began my freshman year of high school, in 1963, I remember being shocked at the poor quality of the cafeteria food. Surely it couldn’t have been much different from the food at the junior high school I had attended. We were living, after all, in a very small, segregated southern town, with a population of less than 20,000; about three-fourths of the residents were Black. They were the cooks, servers, and janitors in the white schools. We were fed homemade soups and cinnamon rolls; hot dogs and homemade chili on Thursdays; liver and onions every other Tuesday (I hated the gray, overcooked, leathery stuff); and a host of southern vegetables with cornbread – greens and butterbeans and squash casserole and sweet potatoes. But somehow, that summer, as puberty plowed through my skinny frame, my taste buds must have matured as well. I prepared my own lunches to take to school from then on. I was inured to the ribbing I got: we had always been outsiders in the town, the odd, intellectual scientist family who moved there “from off.”


My lunches were nothing to brag about, though I always had some raw carrots and a pickle of some kind. Sandwiches and the rare leftover from the previous night’s dinner. Mother cooked three meals a day – my father came home for lunch – and she meticulously planned each meal so that there seldom were leftovers. She always knew exactly what was in the refrigerator, where there was little room for anything extra, though we had not only a second refrigerator out in the garage, but a huge chest freezer as well. Every night we sat down together to a well-balanced meal of a meat, two vegetables, a salad, and a dessert. All made by Mama every day. More often than not, with cornbread. The only time I saw a soft drink was when there were leftovers after bridge club, or perhaps a ginger ale when we were sick.

By the time I began high school, we had traveled toPanama, theBahamas,New York, the West Coast,Chicago,New England,Florida, and throughout the South, includingNew Orleans (my oldest sister began college at LSU in 1960). We had eaten at Saito, La Fonda del Sol, Luchow’s, and the Rainbow Room inNew York. My father was on Governor Hollings’s State Development Board, with whom he had traveled throughoutEurope andSouth America. He brought home spellbinding tales of gauchos and their massive asados; of drinking 100-year-old ports at the opening of Brasilia on April 21, 1960. (I still have the hand-painted – in gold – Ginori commemorative demitasse, adorned with an image of Oscar Niemeyer’s brilliant crown-of-thorns cathedral; see photo); of huge smörgåsbords in Scandinavia; and of three-star meals in Paris. I was smitten, the way I had never been by fairy tales, superheroes, or television.


Mother, apparently, was, too, and her cooking took off. Books by Nika Hazelton and Raymond Oliver found their way onto her shelves, alongside her trusty Larousse;  their recipes entered her repertoire. She stopped deep-frying fish and hushpuppies and started making soufflés and gravlax. My senior year of high school, a mere half-dozen of my fellow francophones had made it to French III, an immersion class taught by a woman who had never been to France (years later my brother’s class would honor her with her first trip there). I wowed my classmates with my final project, an hour-long talk on French cuisine, as they cranked the homemade French vanilla ice cream and I made Cerises jubilés, accrediting the recipe to Escoffier. I was 17. (Seventeen years later — who knew?! — I would become the food editor of a French-language magazine.)


That’s right about the time that Time-Life started publishing their Foods of the World series. One of the great pleasures for me when I came home from college was reading through the fascinating books that delved not only into the recipes, but into the cultures as well. I had somehow absorbed, possibly by osmosis, Mother’s kitchen skills and palate. I was far more in need of understanding a dish – where it came from, what grew there, the lay of the land, the people and their traditions – than I was of having precise instructions. Amazingly, I found, that although I didn’t know many recipes at all, I knew how to cook. I honestly think those Time-Life books, which I still have and refer to often (if only for the photos, which continue to inspire me), taught me as much about cooking as the 7000 cookbooks I once kept in my culinary bookstore.

It didn’t hurt that I had spent the summer of 1961 with my grandmother in westernTennessee. My grandfather had died that spring, and the experience was life-affirming in ways I had never known, to have both provided comfort to my mourning grandmother and to learn old homemaking skills from her. She taught me how to peel, core, slice, and dry apples; how to make applesauce and jelly; and many basic gardening skills. She had a huge attic, full of inestimable treasures, a basement full of jars of her pickles, relishes, and jams; and a detached garage out by the fig bush, behind which was a solid brick barbecue grill where we burned the trash as well. She had a half-acre garden, apple trees, and grape arbors bursting with concords. Behind the house were woods where we gathered wild scuppernongs and muscadines as well. There was an enormous black walnut tree, surrounded by privet hedges, so that the space was an outdoor room. Though the house is now surrounded by suburbs, it was definitely out in the country when I was young. Grandma had designed it herself. The doorways were arched, the walls were stuccoed, the closets were all cedar walk-ins, with built-in drawers. There was a breakfast nook with a hanging glass globe lamp that was hand-painted with acorns. There were jars of sugar cookies next to the sink and Cokes in the refrigerator. Not my mother’s kitchen! (The photo at right was taken at Grandma’s about 1947. Mother is shelling peas as my sister Sue looks on.)


Julia Child was the consultant on The Cooking of Provincial France, which was written by

M. F. K. Fisher, considered by many to be the doyenne of culinary letters. I’ve never been a fan of Fisher’s, either, which surprises many of my colleagues and students. But the Time-Life book, one of the first in the series, made me yearn to go toFrance, and Mark Kaufman’s photos of the people, the markets, the villages, and the techniques were both intriguing and instructional in ways that no other cookbooks had been for me. The photo of four-year-old Jean-Baptiste Goethals, eating a sandwich of buttered bread topped with radishes, was a revelation to me. People eat radishes on sandwiches? With butter? I immediately began eating them, much to the astonishment of my roommates at theUniversity ofGeorgia. (Kaufman was a highly lauded photographer who died in 1971. The series of books has been out of print for years. The photo is his. ©1968 Time, Inc.)


As the 27-book series arrived monthly for two years, my mother and I (when I was home) wallowed in the foreign food cultures my father had talked about. But here, alongside Joseph Wechsberg on The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire and Nika Hazelton on The Cooking of Germany, were books on the cooking of the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Japan, Spain and Portugal, India, China, Russia, Africa, Northern and Eastern Europe, Latin  America, and Italy, as well as well as eight regional American volumes, a book on wines and spirits, and a second collection of French recipes inspired by classic haute cuisine (written by Craig Claiborne, who, at the time, had been the food editor of the New York Times for 13 years, and Pierre Franey, who, at the time, was the executive chef and vice president of Howard Johnson’s).


Some of the photographs are still stuck in my mind, like the aforementioned boy with radish sandwich, and the cover of the Scandinavian book (right) in which glassblower’s herring (sweetly pickled with horseradish and ginger), a favored element of the Swedish smörgåsbord, is shown in a sleek Finnish jar, alongside a stylish Norwegian glass filled with aquavit, Swedish bread, and Danish cheese. Mother and I were both crazy about Scandinavian design, and I still have many of her teak and stainless steel serving dishes from that era. I wish I that I also had some of her sixties Danish furniture! (The photo is by Dick Meek, who, as far I can tell, is still shooting after 60 years. © 1968 Time, Inc.)


About the same time, John Portman had opened his famous Hyatt Regency inAtlanta, which became the prototype for many open atrium hotels to follow. When my parents came to bring me home after my freshman year, we went to his new Midnight Sun, which I’m sure must have been the first Scandinavian restaurant south of New York. Mother and Daddy and I were long familiar with the pickled fish, cured meats, and egg dishes. I remember having some scrumptious berries for dessert. The place became, against all odds, one of the most successful restaurants in the South at the time. Everyone came to gawk at the 22-story lobby and to pig out on the smörgåsbord.


Cooking a full southern breakfast for six every morning, my Mother never took the time to slowly scramble eggs the way I was taught by a dear friend in college. To this day, I’ve never found a better technique. Clifford Wright, writing on ZesterDaily recently, posted his favorite way, but I’ll take the classic version, slowly and continually whisked with no evidence of white and no dry surfaces. Ann Brody Cove taught me to stir in a bit of our friend Ariane Daguin’s truffle butter at the end. I can eat a half dozen buttery, truffled eggs, cold even. But I despise the ever-popular truffle oil!


During graduate school I often cooked dinner for friends. One year a half dozen of us lived in a large house and, in lieu of paying rent, I shopped for and cooked dinner. We had a substantial garden out back, with tomatoes, eggplant, squash, okra, melons, beans, and cucumbers. My peripatetic career began shortly thereafter. I lived in Charleston for a couple of years and dove back into the bounty of the lowcountry, shrimping and crabbing on the weekends, and eating practically nothing but fresh and local foods from May through November. I then moved to the Caribbean, where I re-acquainted myself with the foods I had sampled while sailing around the islands with my parents. I had become a very good cook, but I think the only cookbooks that I owned at that point in my life were the Good Housekeeping Cookbook that my mother had given me when I finished high school and Charleston Receipts, the venerable Junior League book published in 1950 and continuously in print ever since. Little did I know that I would cook my way through that book, and several other lowcountry classics, while researching my own book on the foods of the area ten years later.


After my sisters had left for college, our abbreviated family spent a lot of time on our sailboat moored or docked up behind Hilton Head. The island was still mostly undeveloped then. I caught shrimp in a cast net; pulled crabs, flounders, and eels from the traps; and harvested clams and oysters from the banks of pluff mud at low tide. Mother often cooked the entire meal on one burner with a stacked steamer, one section holding rice, another holding shrimp, another with squash, and another with okra and tomatoes. It saved space and precious fuel in the cramped galley. We ate simply, but never better.


In the early 80s, I apprenticed with a Master Chef aboard a 112-foot yacht docked in Boca Raton. I learned classic sauces, some basic desserts, and many kitchen techniques from him. But I never saw a cookbook. After the stage, I moved to France, but not to cook. I was determined to make my way as an artist. I seemed to have forgotten all my French except culinary words. I came to know my cheesemonger, fishmonger, and baker. I ate a croissant every morning. I drank wine with every meal. I made art, made friends, and moved to Italy, where I really learned to cook. Seriously. Living in Genoa, in the heart of Liguria, my cooking became more refined, relying on subtle herbal flavors rather than the gung-ho Cajun boldness that was sweeping the US. I learned to feature cauliflower, to season with anchovies, to use delicate olive oil instead of butter. I learned to speak genovese in the city center, using old cookbooks as my guide to the peculiar dialect.


When my mother died, she left me over 1000 cookbooks. The Master Chef I had studied under asked for two of them: Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking and Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine. I gave them to him. When he died, my father got the Oliver and I got the Bocuse. When Dad died, I reunited with Mother’s La Cuisine, which he had given her as a birthday present in 1969. I open it up now and I turn to a page of illustrated terms: “Fonds are the basic stocks used in sauces and soups.” My mother always said that the secret to a good soup is a good stock. In my own first book, I wrote that the French call stock, “the foundation of the cuisine’ (and in French cuisine means both the kitchen and the cooking)…. A simmering pot of bones, shells, and aromatic vegetables changes a house into a home; homemade stocks similarly enrich soups and sauces.”


In truth, I rarely cook from books. Instead, I go shopping, the way I did inFrance andItaly. It’s the ingredients that inspire, not recipes. I’ve found that there’s really no reason to plan a meal until I see what is available. And as much as I would love for all my ingredients to be fresh and local, I also know that that’s a ridiculous pipe dream for most of us, even though I was one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of eating local, seasonal foods. But even in season, the local rockfish might not be the prettiest fish at the market, and I’ve learned never, ever, to plan a dish that requires fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes until I have them in my hand, and preferably from my own vines.

After shopping, when I’m home with, say, the beautiful veal shanks and chanterelles that I was lucky enough to find, I might pull down that Bocuse or Oliver, or, better yet, the other Time-Life series, The Good Cook, which was edited by Richard Olney, one of my favorite cookbook authors. The series includes 28 volumes on ingredients, including one on Beef and Veal. Or I might look to see what Madeleine Kamman, in all her wisdom, has to say about those ingredients. Or Anne Willan. Or my friend Elizabeth Schneider, the queen of flora. Or one of the British chefs like Simon Hopkinson or Fergus Henderson who have returned to a more traditional cooking. But I won’t pull out Julia because I don’t have any of her books. It’s just a matter of taste. I also don’t have any Nabokov or James Joyce. And I hated Forrest Gump. I know what I like and you know what you do. It would be an awfully boring world if we were all inspired by the same things.


In the end, it’s pretty obvious that my parents inspired me most. But I must give props to Grandma for the magical summer of ’61. You may have been trudging through the just-released Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but I, at age eleven, was learning how to tell when the potatoes are ripe and the jelly is set. We’ve all got our muses.


December 1, 2009: Guigal Côtes du Rhône: My house wine for over 20 years

At several recent dinner parties, both at home and at friends’, there was a lot of concern (and shopping) for the wines we were going to serve. Barbera d’Alba with the shrimp gumbo? Chinon with turkey? Roero with the minestrone?Bordeaux with the lamb? Chablis with the oysters? Morgon with the grilled quail?


I wrote last week about serving a luscious Muscadet with raw oysters andChampagne with cooked; both were perfect matches. But most of the wines that were purchased to go with the aforementioned meals were too “hot,” meaning their alcohol content was too high for the lighter dishes. A 2004 fruity Gigondas brought as a house present when I served the gumbo turned out to be the best match of all, and it reminded me that the wines from theSouthern Rhône remain my favorite, well-balanced, everyday wines, day after day, year after year.


Perhaps because I lived in hot and humidCharleston,South Carolina, for so many years, I came to love the hot climate grape, Grenache, which predominates in many wines from southernFrance. Grenache makes some of the prettiest rosés available, perfect for afternoon quaffing under an umbrella with olives, cured meats, and shrimp. And in no other wine is it so perfectly teamed with other grapes as it is in Gigondas, a wine that is inexplicably, in my opinion, less popular than the wines from neighboring Châteauneuf-du-Pape.


Grenache rules, but nowhere is blending more important than in the Côtes du Rhône, where that fruity grape is joined with Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and several indigenous vines planted nowhere else. Fruity, aromatic, robust, well-balanced Gigondas is typically 80% Grenache, 15% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre, but Châteauneuf-du-Pape might include another half-dozen varieties. Gigondas generally shows more fruit, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape generally is more tannic. Both are known for their spicy, fruity nose – like a plum pudding made with black peppercorns, and for their gamey tastes of tar and leather. They beg for cold cuts, roasted birds, bean soups, stews, vegetables, and mild cheeses. I like Gigondas with grilled marinated pork chops or rabbit.


Truth be told, though: What I usually reach for is a $12 bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône. I like the rosés and white wines from the region, but it’s the red, especially from Guigal, that won my heart and palate many years ago. I have rarely been disappointed, regardless of what I’m eating.


Marcel Guigal has his detractors. He is the region’s biggest producer, making over 3 million bottles of his Syrah-heavy Côtes du Rhône most years. His wines are consequently widely available in the U.S. But I love how he has managed to keep the alcohol level below 14%, unlike many of his neighbors, by picking his grapes at the right moment, and by his ever-changing blend that guarantees a similar wine, year after year. Even Robert Parker, who rated the currently available 2005 vintage a mere 89, rhapsodizes over the wine: “The 2005 Côtes du Rhône is a real head turner. Full-bodied, with a deep ruby/purple color and sweet notes of berry fruit, a hint of road tar, and some pepper, the wine is dense, chewy, ripe, and a surprisingly big mouthful of juicy, velvety-textured wine to drink over the next 3-4 years. The Rhone Valley’s most successful producer continues to ratchet up the level of quality of his Côtes du Rhône cuvées, of which he produces hundreds of thousands of cases. Both Marcel Guigal and his son Philippe realize how important quality is and demonstrate that commitment in these lower level wines. They just get better and better, which is incredibly admirable.”

Some critics argue that the Guigals love oak too much. It’s true that they make their own barrels, but they also follow all the traditional winemaking techniques in the region, leaving the juice to soak a long time on the skins, carefully controlling the temperature of the fermentation, and curing the wine in those barrels for 18 months. Some years a wine is not released, but every year there will be the same characteristics: the deep, dark red color; the spicy, berry-like nose; the robust, aromatic, well-balanced taste; and the elegant, long finish that only well-crafted wines exhibit. Amazingly, these fruity wines age well. I’ve drunk, in the past year, both 10-year-old and 20-year-old vintages of this wine and they had simply become fuller versions of their younger selves. Few other producers even claim that their Côtes du Rhônes will last over 6 or 7 years. Only Domaine Garrigue’s Cuvée Romaine, rated 91 by Parker, and selling, if you can find it, for $50 (!), is said to endure a decade. (Remarkably, it’s mostly Grenache!)


In 2002, when the heat and humidity blanketed the region, Guigal prudently harvested before the disastrous September rains. That year, his Côtes was 90% syrah, due to the early ripening. The following year, the famous heat wave that killed many people in Europe did not deter Guigal from producing another stellar wine that was only 50% syrah. The 2006 won’t be released for a year or so. That’s fine with me because I’ll continue to enjoy the 2005,  meal after meal, glass after glass.  Nearly all the other producers these days, even those more highly lauded than Guigal, are making wines that are at least 14% alcohol. On a Sunday afternoon, I don’t want that much kick in my wine. I want to be able to gulp it alone, with appetizers, and with dinner. The next time I’m having folks over for dinner and am in a quandary as to what to serve, I hope I remember to simply serve my house wine. I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t like it.


P.S. Jean-Pierre Chambas, who imports Guigal into South Carolina, reminds me that I should tell folks that down in the lowcountry we call it “Coo Doo Roo”!!!