Southern Snacks Cookbook

The Southern Sympathy Cookbook

I'm P.C., and I have studied food and cooking around the world, mostly by eating, but also through serious study. Coursework at Le Cordon Bleu London and intensive courses in Morocco, Thailand and France have broadened my culinary skill and palate. But my kitchen of choice is at home, cooking like most people, experimenting with unique but practical ideas.

I live, mostly in my kitchen, in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Summer Caprese Chicken Salad

Summer Chicken Caprese Salad

The tomato-mozzarella-basil caprese salad is a true summer staple. When tomatoes are at their juiciest best, it is a joy to serve them with as little fuss as possible. The pairing of tomatoes and mozzarella is deliciously simple, creamy and fresh classic. I’ve taken the idea of the caprese in a lot of directions to maximize this lovely flavor combination, so it’s no wonder I eventually landed on this chicken salad version. I was looking for another creative way to make a wonderful cold salad for a summer meal, one that could be a centerpiece, not just a supporting character. But I wanted to do something lighter and fresher than the creamy mayonnaise form (not that there is anything wrong with that). I felt like chicken dressed in a vinaigrette style dressing would be perfect, and so I turned to this creamy flavor packed standard dressing from my repertoire. And it seemed only natural that a salad with a dressing made with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese have an Italian flair. So tender chicken, creamy mozzarella, crisp pine nuts, juicy tomatoes and a sprinkle of basil it is.

I find mozzarella “pearls” easily in the grocery store, they are little bite-sized balls of cheese perfectly suited for salad. If you don’t find these, tear a ball of fresh mozzarella into small pieces instead. I like the symmetry of round cherry tomatoes and the bright pop of red, but you could easily use oblong grape tomatoes or varicolored varieties. There is likely to be some dressing left over, but never fear. It is delicious on any green salad and will keep for a few days in the fridge.

Summer Caprese Chicken Salad

For the Dressing:

2 cloves garlic

½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar

Zest and juice of one lemon

¾ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste 

For the Chicken:

4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves

Olive oil

Kosher salt

Black pepper

¼ cup pine nuts

8 ounces mozzarella “pearls”

1 pint cherry tomatoes

1 bunch fresh basil leaves

For the Dressing:

Place the garlic, cheese, vinegar and lemon zest in the carafe of a blender and blend to a rough paste. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil until creamy and emulsified. Add the lemon juice and blend to combined. Taste and blend in salt and pepper as needed. Transfer to an airtight jar. The dressing will keep in the fridge for 5 days.

For the Salad:

Preheat the oven to 400°.

Place the chicken breasts on a roasting tray lined with non-stick foil. Brush them with olive oil, then season generously with salt and pepper. Roast until the chicken reaches 165°on a meat thermometer and the juices run clear, about 25 minutes. Leave the chicken breasts to cool completely, then cut into small chunks. Place the chicken in a bowl and add the mozzarella, then pour over about half of the dressing and stir to coat completely. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight. 

About an hour before serving the salad, toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet until lightly golden and fragrant. Add the nuts to the chicken and mozzarella in the bowl. Half the cherry tomatoes and add to the salad. Stack up the basil leaves and roll into a tight cigar, then slice into thin strips. Add the basil to the salad and stir to combine everything. Shake the remaining dressing well to combine, then add a bit at a time until the salad is nicely covered in dressing, but there is not a great deal pooling in the bowl. You may not use all the dressing. Cover and keep in the fridge until shortly before serving.

Serves 6

Margarita Shrimp Salad Platter

Margarita Shrimp Salad Platter

Summer is a wonderful time to entertain – people just seem more relaxed and its easy to do something elegant and impressive without slaving away for days. Like this colorful salad. I love the big platter salad (witness the Southern Buttermilk Cobband the Muffalettaversions). The big platter were purchased from discount stores that have proven fantastically useful. And a big, colorful display of delicious food never fails to impress. And people love to customize their meal without making a fuss – just serve up the bits you like for a perfect meal.

Below I’ve laid out my basic blueprint. This may look like a lot of work, but I promise it is not, but the reward is pretty spectacular. And the elements can be done ahead in stages with only the assembly to deal with, and that doesn’t require turning on the oven or standing over the stove if you plan ahead. Choose any big, generous platter and arrange all the ingredients attractively. I use medium sized shrimp that are easier to eat in a salad, but bigger ones are just fine. I like to line the platter with lettuce leaves, then leave some readily accessible so people can easily build the salad to their own tastes. And get creative – add any other ingredients that take your fancy, I have sometimes sprinkled over crispy tortilla strips or added wedges of lime to squeeze over everything.

Margarita Shrimp Salad Platter

For the Pickled Red Onion:

1 red onion, thinly sliced

1 cup water

½ cup cider vinegar

1 Tablespoon sugar

1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon pickling spice

Layer the onions in a pint jar or glass bowl. Bring the water, vinegar, sugar, salt and spices to a boil in a small pan and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the brine over the onions and leave to cool, then seal and keep in the refrigerator for a least an hour, but the onions will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks.

For the Cilantro-Lime Dressing

½ cup mayonnaise

½ cup buttermilk

Zest and juice of one small lime

1 clove garlic

½ teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon onion powder

½ teaspoon celery salt

Pinch of kosher salt

1 cup of cilantro leaves and stems

Place all the ingredient in the order listed in a blender and blend until smooth. Pour into an airtight container, cover and refrigerated for up to two days.

For the Shrimp:

2 pounds peeled and deveined shrimp, thawed if frozen (35- 40 count), tails removed

2 Tablespoon olive oil

2 Tablespoons tequila

2 Tablespoons lime juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Pour in the oil, tequila and lime juice in a bowl or a ziptop bag and stir or shake to blend. Pat the shrimp dry and place in the marinade. Refrigerate for 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 425°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with non-stick foil. Drain the shrimp from the marinade and place in an even layer on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, then roast 8 – 10 minutes until pink and curled and cooked through. Cool the shrimp for a few minutes, then put in a bowl or on a plate and refrigerate until chilled. When they are cold, you can cover the shrimp and keep in the fridge for 24 hours.

For the Corn:

12 ounces fresh or frozen corn

2 Tablespoons lime juice

Chile – lime seasoning (such as Tajin) or chili powder

Salt and pepper

Put the corn in a pan and cover with water by about ½ inch. Bring to a boil and cook for 4 minutes. Thoroughly drain the corn and place in a bowl, the squeeze over the lime juice and stir to coat. Season well with Tajin, salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.

For assembly:

One head of butter lettuce

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

5 radishes, thinly sliced

1 (8-ounce) jar pickled jalapenos, drained

10 ounces cotija cheese, crumbled

2 avocados, diced

1 lime, squeezed over the avocado to prevent browning.

Line a big platter with lettuce leaves, then attractively arrange the remaining ingredients, with some lettuce readily accessible. Serve with tongs, spoons and a ladle for the dressing.

Serves 6 – 8

Roasted Carrot Gnudi with Dill Beurre Blanc

Roasted Carrot Gnudi with Dill Beurre Blanc

I know I some time wax poetic about my love for farmers markets, but they really are a true inspiration for me. Wandering through the stalls marveling at all the fresh produce my wheels just begin to churn and my creative juices start flowing. And not only for the jam and preserves I obsessively put by, but for creative and fresh ways to dine from all the beautiful abundance. I religiously attend one of my local markets, but I also visit markets when I travel, just so marvel offer all the produce. There is a vendor at my local market that makes his own fresh ricotta cheese and I pick some up almost every time I’m there. I use it in a lot of ways, but in the spring I love it spread on a slice of bread fresh from one of the market bakers, topped with berries and drizzled with local honey.  Once he asked me what I was planning to do with it, and before I could really think it through, I answered “gnudi.” As I turned to view another stall, I lovely bunch of carrots called out to me, and as a headed home my mind put together the idea of a combination. I made this dish for several weeks, experimenting with different sauces and techniques, just as special treat for myself. But when hit on the classic beurre blanc, punched up with dill, carrots perfect partner, I knew I really had something. I posted a picture on social media and recipe requests started coming in, so here you go.

A dish like this is so simple, it is always about the best ingredients. I buy fresh, small carrots at the farmers market. If you don’t have that option, look for smaller, firm carrots that haven’t been sitting around at the market for a long time and avoid large hard ones. I also buy freshly made ricotta at the farmers market, but look for a high quality Italian style whole milk ricotta and drain it if it has a lot of liquid. Real parmiggiano cheese makes a difference too. And splurge on some European style butter for the sauce to make it extra rich and flavorful. This makes enough for 2 generous servings, but can easily be doubled.

Roasted Carrot Gnudi with Dill Beurre Blanc

For the Gnudi:

12 ounces fresh, young carrots

Olive oil

Sea salt and black pepper

1 Tablespoon fill fronds

8 ounces ricotta, drained if it is particularly wet

2 egg yolks

¼ cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup grated parmigianno-reggiano cheese

1 ½ cups semolina flour

For the Beurre Blanc:

1 large shallot, finely diced

1 cup white wine

½ cup (1 stick) cold unsalted butter

1 teaspoon lemon zest

2 teaspoons lemon juice

3 Tablespoons finely chopped dill

Salt and pepper

For the Gnudi:

Preheat the oven to 425°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with non-stick foil or parchment paper.

Peel the carrots and cut into evenly sized, rough chunks. Place on the prepared baking sheet and drizzle with a small amount of olive oil – just enough to lightly coat the carrots, you don’t want lots of oil pooling on the pan. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper and roast for 30 minutes until soft when pierced with a knife and browned in some places. Cool completely.

Put the carrots in the bowl of a food processor, add the dill and blend until you have a rough puree (a little texture is good). Add the ricotta and egg yolks and blend until smooth, then scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the flour and cheese and generous pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper and blend until completely combined, scraping down the sides as needed.

Spread the semolina in a thick layer on the bottom of a low, flat container. Scoop out about  a tablespoon of the carrot mixture at a time and drop directly into the semolina. I use a small cookie scoop which I highly recommend. Roll the ball over in the semolina, then pick It up and toss it lightly between your hands to round it off and shake off any excess semolina. Place the ball in the corner of the container on top of te semolina. Repeat with the rest of the mixture and spread the finished gnudi out, not touching each other, on top of the semolina. Place int the regrigertor uncovered for a few hours. Remove from the fridge at elast 30 minutes before cooling. (Storing the gnudi in the semolina absorbs excess moisture so the cook up light and fluffy). 

For the Beurre Blanc:

Put the shallot and wine in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook until the wine is almost totally evaporated and the shallots have a nice glaze. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in a few cubes of butter until melted and smooth. The butter must be cold for the sauce to emulsify. Continue until all the butter is incorporated. The butter should melt into the sauce from the residual heat, but as you add the butter to the sauce the temperature lowers, so when it is not melting easily, return the pan to the very lowest heat and whisk constantly. When all ethe butter is melted and the sauce is thick and almost creamy, whisk in the lemon zest and juice, then the dill and salt and pepper to taste.

While you are making the beurre blanc, bring a large pot of very well salted water to a boil. When the sauce is done, gently shake any excess semolina off the gnudi and drop them in the water. Cook until the gnudi float to the top, about 3 – 5 minutes, then remove to a colander with a slotted spoon. Spread the gnudi in a serving dish or individual bowls and drizzled with the beurre blanc.

Serves 2

Tarragon Mustard Velvet

Tarragon Mustard Velvet

Spring has always been a season of brunch for me. Easter, graduations, wedding showers. It’s a great way to entertain elegantly and with a little planning, pretty easy to do ahead. Center the affair around a ham with biscuits or rolls, a perfect platter of stuffed eggs, add some vegetables, a casserole (maybe this hash brown version) and a few indulgent treats and you are good to go. Tangy mustard with a velvety fluffy texture is a lovely complement to the best spring and summer vegetables. I developed this to go with asparagus, but it works wonderfully well with pillowy snap peas or simply steamed green beans. But wait, there’s more – this is delicious with slices of ham, even with sliced beef tenderloin. So for the Easter buffet, you get a two for one deal – this makes enough to serve with two separate dishes. 

I love a platter of lightly steamed asparagus with a tangy, interesting sauce or dressing, and this fits the bill perfectly. If you’ve ever had the old-school molded mustard mousse once a staple of the Southern ham buffet, this is inspired by the classic, but with a much smoother and cleaner taste, old-fashioned and modern at the same time. I love the bracing flavor of tarragon, but vary that up with dill or, if you have it, chervil. And the sunshine-y yellow color adds its own touch of spring to the feast. I call it velvet because the smooth, fluffy texture works either as a dip or a spread.

Tarragon Mustard Velvet

2 egg yolks

3 Tablespoons prepared Dijon mustard

2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar (use tarragon vinegar if you have it)

1 Tablespoon water

1 Tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

¾ teaspoons kosher salt

1 Tablespoon butter

½ cup heavy whipping cream

Beat the egg yolks, mustard, vinegar, water and sugar together in a small sauce pan until smooth and combined. Stir in the tarragon and salt. Place the pan over medium heat and heat gently until thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir almost constantly to prevent the mustard from catching on the bottom of the pan. The mixture should return to the consistency of the prepared mustard. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter until melted and smooth. Scrape the mustard into a small bowl so it won’t continue cooking from the heat of the pan. Cool completely.

Whip the cream to stiff peaks, then fold through the mustard until well combined but still fluffy. Cover and refrigerate for several hours, but overnight is fine.

Roasted Artichokes with Tarragon Vinaigrette

When I was a young teenager, my mother cooked some artichokes and sat my brother and I down for a lesson on how to eat them. Apparently, when she herself was a teen, she was invited home with a friend from her boarding school and served artichokes at an elegant dinner with the family. She had never seen one before and was a bit flummoxed, and embarrassed. She worked her way through it by watching the other diners but was furious at her mother for never telling her about artichokes. When she related all this to my grandmother, she was mortified at her lapse. So she then started serving artichokes every time my mom was home from school. My mother didn’t want to make the same mistake with us, so we were given those proper lessons. I am sure at the time I sighed and rolled my eyes, but I did enjoy the artichokes. Sure enough, on several occasions later in life, I found myself at a table with an artichoke and other dinners who didn’t know what to make of it and was thankful for my mother’s foresight.

I can’t say we ate a lot of artichokes growing up, but when we did they were generally boiled then served with melted butter or, on special occasions, hollandaise sauce, though I think that was more often a restaurant thing. I sometimes buy myself an artichoke when they look good and savor it as a special meal with lots of butter. There is no getting around the fact that artichokes take some work. Removing the leaves and trimming the tips takes some patience, and they brown very quickly when cut, so you have to be work fast with the lemon. I discovered this method of roasting artichokes and I find it a little bit more manageable than finding a pot big enough to boil them in, plus it really intensifies the flavor. And this tangy vinaigrette is fresher and brighter than a heavy, creamy sauce. These artichokes are every bit as elegant the classic, but can also be presented in a more rustic way. I have put the roasting dish out next to a bowl of extra vinaigrette and a bowl for the leaves and let people pull them off and enjoy as snack. I think artichokes are a lovely way to welcome spring.

Roasted Artichokes with Lemon Tarragon Vinaigrette

4 artichokes

2 lemons

1 bunch tarragon

2 Tablespoons chopped shallot

1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard

4 Tablespoons plus ½ cup olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350°.

Cut the stalks from the artichokes so they stand straight. Cut off about ½ inch from the top of each artichoke, then remove any tough outer leaves. Snip off the pointy tops of the other leaves.  Place the artichokes in a deep baking dish that fits them close together. Cut one lemon in half and rub it over the exposed cuts on the top and leaves of the artichokes. Squeeze the juice from the lemon into the baking dish, then tuck in a few sprigs of tarragon. Pour boiling water into the dish to come halfway up the sides of the artichokes, then cover tightly with foil. Roast the artichokes for one hour.  Uncover the dish, then drizzle the 4 Tablespoons of olive oil evenly over the artichokes and cook for another 15 minutes until a knife inserted in the bottom meets no resistance and the leaves pull off easily.

While the artichokes are roasting, mix the shallots, 2 Tablespoons lemon juice, 1 Tablespoon of chopped tarragon, and the mustard and generous pinches of salt and pepper in jar. Shake to combine, then add the ½ cup of olive oil and shake until combined.

When the artichokes are done, give the vinaigrette a good shake and drizzle over the tops. Serve any extra dressing on the side for dipping.

Muffaletta Cobb Salad

Muffaletta Cobb Salad

Over the summer, in the hot, hot weather, I had a few people over for a last minute meal. I couldn’t bring myself to cook much, so I decided to make a big salad. Another last minute decision was to lay out my ingredients on a big platter rather than toss it it in a bowl. It seemed more substantial somehow. It got raves, so I made it several other times and posted as my Southern Buttermlik Cobb Salad. Since then, the big platter salad has become a favorite of mine. For relatively little effort, you get a showstopper meal or side salad. I’ve got all sorts of iterations in my arsenal, and I am sure they will make appearances here. But with Mardi Gras coming up, I decided to create a beautiful version inspired by the classic muffaletta sandwich, with olives, Italian pickled vegetables and peppers, cured meats and cheese. The dressing is tart from using the well-flavored brine from the giardinera (you could also make the dressing from olive brine). This gorgeous plate is hearty enough for a full meal with a nice loaf of French bread, or a great side for a Louisiana style meal. I prepared this for my family, and several people started picking at it with their fingers, so I suppose you could make it an appetizer as well.

Below is a basic guide to the salad. You could use a different green on the bottom and use whatever olives you prefer. I find lovely little bite-size salami in my grocery, but you can cut larger pieces if that’s what you find. I use salami and soppresatta, but you could add some mortadella or spicy salami. I buy a thick piece of provolone, sometimes sliced at the deli counter, so I can cut it into nice, hearty chunks. Use mild or spicy banana peppers as you like. You could purchase toasted baguette slices, but I tend to use half a baguette and serve the rest with dinner.

Muffaletta Cobb Salad

For the Dressing:

¼ cup brine from jarred giardiniera

¼ cup red wine vinegar

1 Tablespoon Creole mustard

½ Tablespoon dried Italian seasoning

1 clove garlic, finely minced

1 cup olive oil

For the croutons:

½ a small baguette, thinly sliced

Olive oil spray

Salt and pepper

For the Salad:

2 romaine hearts

6 ounce round of provolone cheese

8 ounces bite-sized Italian salami

3 ounces sliced soppressata

1 (25.5 ounce) jar giardiniera Italian pickled vegetables, drained (reserving brine for dressing)

1 (6 ounce) jar pitted black olives, drained

1 (10 ounce) jar pitted green olives, drained

½ cup banana pepper rings from a jar

For the Dressing:

Place the brine, vinegar, mustard, Italian seasoning and garlic in a pint jar with a tight-fitting lid. Screw on the lid and shake well to combine. Add the olive oil, cover and shake again until well combined and emulsified. The dressing can be made up to a day ahead and refrigerated. Shake well before serving.

For the Croutons:

Preheat the oven to 400°. Spread the sliced baguette on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Spray one side with olive oil, then flip over and spray the other side. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Bake for 10 minutes until crispy. Cool completely and store for up to a day in a ziptop bag. If you don’t have olive oil spray, brush the bread lightly with olive oil on both sides.

Assembly:

Cut the romaine into ½ inch wide ribbons, wash well and dry. Cut the provolone into bite size chunks. Cut soppressata slices into quarters. 

Lay the romaine evenly over a large platter. Arrange the giardiniera in the center of the salad, then make attractive rows of the salami, soppressata, provolone, croutons, olives and pepper rings. Drizzle with the dressing right before serving.

Collard and Cornbread Pudding

Any Southerner will tell you that you must eat greens on New Year’s day. It insures prosperity in the year to come (and black eyed peas) for luck. And if you got a big pot of greens to serve up, you just have to have some cornbread to go with it. So here, I have combined the two into a lovely casserole in the style of a savory bread pudding. Frozen chopped greens are a perfect shortcut and the cornbread is really easy to make from scratch.

To serve this on New Year’s Day, I usually whip up the pan of cornbread on December 30, assemble the casserole New Year’s Eve, and pop it in the oven on New Year’s Day. I prefer to cover the cornbread pan with a tea towel to leave overnight. Day-old cornbread soaks up the custard and creates a light and fluffy texture. Plus, it makes assembling the final result simpler. For your black eyed pea fix, try Hoppin’ John Salad with Bourbon Sorghum Salad, or Slow Cooker Southern Black Eyed Peas, both of which would be a perfect match with the pudding. I have to say though, don’t limit this dish to New Year’s only, it’s a fabulous side for roast pork loin, or an excellent brunch dish. 

You can use this recipe as a template and tailor it to your own tastes. Leave out the bacon and sauté the vegetables in olive oil for a meat-free version. Or stir in some chopped county ham instead of bacon. Use a red bell pepper instead of green to add a little color. Add a finely chopped hot pepper to the vegetables, up the amount of hot sauce or add a dash or red pepper flakes. You add some freshly chopped herbs and switch up the cheese with parmesan.

Collard Cornbread Pudding

For the Cornbread:

1 cup coarse yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 egg

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

For the Pudding:

1 (14-ounce) bag frozen chopped collard greens

4 strips of bacon

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped green bell pepper

1 clove garlic, minced

6 eggs

2 ½ cups milk

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon hot sauce

lots of freshly ground black pepper

½ cup grated cheddar cheese

For the Cornbread:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Grease an 8 by 8 inch square pan.

Whisk the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together in a medium mixing bowl.  Stir in the egg, milk and oil until the batter is well combined, with no dry ingredients visible.  Spread the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 25 minutes, until firm and lightly golden and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely.

The cornbread can be made up to one day ahead and kept covered loosely with a tea towel on the counter. 

For the Pudding:

Place the collards in a large, deep skillet and cover with water by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the greens for 20 minutes. Drain the greens through a colander, pressing out excess liquid with a spatula.

Wipe out the skillet, then cook the bacon strips until crispy. Remove to paper towels to drain. Drain all but two tablespoons bacon grease from the pan, then add the onion, celery and bell pepper and cook over medium-high heat until soft and glassy. Stir in the garlic and cook one minute more. Remove from the heat and stir in the collard greens, separating them and making sure the vegetables are well distributed in the greens. Break the cornbread into small pieces and add to the greens, stirring to distribute everything evenly. Chop the bacon into small pieces and stir into the mix. Turn the mixture into a 3-quart baking dish and leave to cool.

Whisk the eggs and milk together in a bowl, then whisk in the hot sauce, salt and pepper.  Pour the egg mixture evenly over the cornbread and greens and leave to soak for 15 minutes.  Sprinkle the cheese over the top, cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, but up to 12 is fine.

When ready to bake, take the pudding out of the fridge to take some chill off while you preheat the oven to 350°. Bake the pudding until puffed and golden, about 30 – 40 minutes. Serve warm.

Serves 8 – 10

Sweet Potato Skordalia

I first had sweet potato skordalia in Birmingham, Alabama at a meal during a Southern Foodways Alliance event prepared by Tim Hontza’a of Johnny’s in Homewood. The whole “Greek and three” meal was fantastic, but I was enchanted by the little dab of sweet potato skordalia on the edge of the plate. It was the perfect combination of classic Greek cooking with Southern sensibility. Skordalia is a Greek spread traditionally made with yellow potatoes, garlic and almonds or walnuts. Since that meal, I have wanted to re-create the skordalia, so I delved into Greek recipes and got to work. I realized the beauty of this dish is simplicity.  I tried spices and herbs, but the simple combination of earthy sweet potatoes, the bite of garlic and a touch of almond nuttiness is a perfect combination.

This spread is a perfect snack for fall and Thanksgiving and a really creative twist for a friendsgiving spread. It is simple to make and can be made a day or two ahead and the vibrant orange color is beautiful. Finely grind some blanched almonds in the food processor or use almond meal. Almond flour is a bit too fine for this. Serve it with a drizzle of olive oil on top for spreading on pita bread or hearty crackers.

Sweet Potato Skordalia

2 large sweet potatoes

3 garlic cloves

juice of 2 lemons

2 Tablespoons finely ground almonds or almond meal

2/3 cups olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into evenly sized chunks. Place in a large saucepan covered by water by about an inch. Bring to a boil and cook for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are very soft. Drain the potatoes and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic, lemon juice and almond meal and process until smooth and well combined. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil until the dip is smooth. Season well with salt and pepper and blend again. Scrape into bowl and leave to cool to room temperature before covering and refrigerating for up to two days.  Serve with pita bread or hearty crackers, the top drizzled with olive oil.

Sweet Potato and Country Ham Gratin

Sometimes, the side dishes are the best part of the meal. That’s where this comes from. I had a meal restaurant meal that was generally unremarkable, but for a dish ordered for the table as something of an afterthought. It inspired me. That dish was a slightly overwrought, oddly-shaped plate with a small swipe of béchamel sauce topped with roasted sweet potatoes and a sprinkling of country ham and some gruyere, run under a broiler. But it got the wheels turning in my head though. A creamy sauce with rich roasted potatoes and salty country ham and nutty gruyere works together beautifully. I knew it would make a fantastic gratin, with plenty of each ingredient perfectly balanced.

Give this a try for Thanksgiving, it’s a switch from the cinnamon and brown sugar versions we are used to in the best possible way. And it can be made a day ahead to cut down on turkey day chaos. Every time I have served this, it’s gotten absolute raves. It’s also great beside a roasted chicken or pork loin, and frankly would make a great main dish. I like to use center cut biscuit sliced of country ham which are easy to find.

Sweet Potato and Country Ham Gratin

4 medium sweet potatoes

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper

About 6 ounces country ham, to make 1 cup finely diced ham

1 leek, white and light green part

4 Tablespoons unsalted butter

2 Tablespoons flour

2 cups whole milk

1 ½ cups grated gruyere cheese

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil sprayed with cooking spray.

Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into chunks about ½ inch square as evenly sized as can be. Place the potato chunks in a ziptop bag and pour over the olive oil. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, then toss around to coat all the potato pieces with oil. Spread in an even layer on the prepared baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes. Finely dice the country ham. Remove the pan from the oven and gently turn the potato pieces over with a spatula. Sprinkle the diced ham over the top of the potatoes and return the pan to the oven for a further 15 – 20 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and the edges are brown and crispy. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

While the potatoes are roasting, cut the white and lightest green part of the leek in half, then into quarters and thinly slice. Place in a colander, rinse well and shake to remove as much water as possible. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a deep skillet and sauté the leeks until they are soft and glassy. Try not to let them brown. Add the remaining two tablespoons butter, and when it is melted, sprinkle over the flour. Stir to coat the leeks in the flour and cook for a few minutes. Stir in the milk and bring to a nice bubble. Stir frequently until the sauce is thickened. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let cool for 10 minutes, then gently stir in the roasted potatoes, making sure they are well coated in sauce

Spread the potatoes in a baking dish, then sprinkle over the gruyere. At this point, the dish can be covered and refrigerated overnight. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the gratin for 20 – 30 minutes, until heated through and bubbly and the cheese is melted.

Serves 8

Herbed Farro Salad with Tomato Vinaigrette

It’s still summer, but the hope of fall is in the air. We are still in the cold salad territory, but moving into something heartier. I love this robust grain salad – it’s a change up from a standard pasta salad, but the addition of fresh herbs and cucumbers freshens things up and it makes the most of the end of tomato season with bright baby tomatoes and a tangy fresh tomato vinaigrette. If you haven’t experimented with farro yet, you should give it a try. It’s a healthy whole grain wheat with a slightly nutty, toasty flavor and a substantial texture and bite. I love it in soup, but is so fabulous in this tabbouleh-inspired salad because it beautifully absorbs the dressing. It’s the perfect picnic or grilling side, but is substantial enough to be the main course.

I say here to use a cup of cherry tomatoes, but it can be a little tough to judge. When I find little bitty tomatoes at the farmers market I love their cuteness and usually just cut them in half. Large tomatoes I quarter, but if all you can find in season is large tomatoes, seed them and chop them well. Reserve some of the dressing to stir through right through right before serving – the grain will absorb a lot of it while refrigerated. I also like to chop the cucumber into quite small pieces so every bite of salad has a bite.

Herbed Farro Salad with Fresh Tomato Vinaigrette

1 ½ cups farro

3 cups vegetable stock

1 lemon, zested and juiced, divided

2 teaspoons of kosher salt

1 (15 ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

½ cup mint leaves

½ cup Italian parsley leaves

¼ cup cilantro leaves

3 green onions

½ seedless cucumber

1 cup cherry tomatoes

1 tomato, about 8 ounces

¼ cup white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon honey

½ teaspoon salt

Generous grinds of black pepper

¼ cup olive oil

Place the farro in a strainer and rinse well with cool water. Place it in a pot with the vegetable stock, 1 Tablespoon lemon juice and 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 20 – 25 minutes, until the liquid is mostly absorbed and the grains are tender, but still have a little chew. Drain the farro through the strainer and rinse with cool water. Leave to drain, then transfer to a large bowl. Pour over 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and add the zest and stir to coat. Add the chickpeas and stir to combine.

Finely chop all the herbs and add to the farro. Chop the cucumber into very small pieces, add to the bowl, then chop the green onions finely and add. Half or quarter the cherry tomatoes and stir to combine everything well.

Cut the tomato in half and remove the core and seeds. Place in the carafe of a blender, add the vinegar, honey, 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, honey salt and pepper and blend until completely pureed. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil until blended and smooth. Pour about ¾ of the dressing over the salad and stir to coat. Reserve the rest of the dressing in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Cover and refrigerate the salad and remaining dressing for several hours or overnight. When ready to serve, you can add some extra dressing if you feel it is needed and season with a little salt if you like.

Serves 6