20 Savory Secrets

What do you wish your mama taught you in the kitchen?  Anna Heritage and Amy Paige Condon comb the corners of our community for the culinary wisdom every Savannahian should know.

1. Find the Freshest Catch

Sallie Ann Robinson developed a discerning palate for wild game and fresh seafood as a native daughter of Daufuskie Island.  And, she can spot a “wooden nickel”—a beyond-its-prime cut of meat or fish—from a sniff sniff.

“Texture, taste and smell—those are the biggest factors in cooking,” this self-proclaimed Gullah diva informs.  “There should never be a loud smell.”

When shopping for fresh fish, she inspects for clear eyes, a firm belly, no gumminess to the touch and the clean scent of salt water.  “Same goes for oysters, conch, clams, crab and shrimp,” she says.  Another helpful tip from Sallie: the freshest shrimp shells peel off and devein in one easy motion with a fork tine down the center line.  » For more of Sallie’s cooking wisdom: thegullahdiva.com

2. Make Better Corned Beef

Tradition calls for boiling corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day dinners, but Wiley McCrary of Wiley’s Championship BBQ smokes it low and slow just like his award-winning brisket.  It’s ready right about the time the parade ends.   » Wiley’s Championship BBQ, 4700 U.S. 80 E, 201-3259

3. Curate Your Collards

Nita Dixon, of the fondly remembered Nita’s Place, reminds us that collard greens are “most tender when the dew is on them” during the colder winter months.  But too much water, she warns, can ruin a pot of greens, making them turn mushy and gray.

Nita rinses her greens two or three times, drains them well and pats them dry.  She cooks the ham hock until almost done, brings chicken stock, chopped bell pepper and a mixture of vegetable and olive oil to boil, then she drops in the collards for only 15 to 20 minutes—enough to soften the leaves but not long enough for them to lose their rich green hue.

Sometimes the smell of greens can overwhelm a small house, so to cut the smell, Nita suggests keeping a pot of coffee brewing or boiling a cup of vinegar in a small saucepan.

4. Cook Kiss-worthy Grits

For come-heres, grits can be downright mystifying.  They aren’t cream of wheat, exactly, but they aren’t rice, either.  Do you sprinkle them with sugar (Uh, no!) or slather them with the holy trinity of salt, pepper and butter?  For the skinny on these illusive little grains, we consulted an expert: Elaine Bronson, executive chef for Paul Kennedy Catering.

Chef Bronson will only cook with Adluh Stone Ground Yellow Grits.  She mixes equal parts half-and-half and chicken broth for the base liquid.  And, instead of cheddar, she uses sharp, shredded parmesan or Romano cheese, which she stirs in just before serving.

The secret weapons in her flavor profile?

“Nutmeg and dill,” Bronson confides.  “When you put these two together, they taste like butter.”  »  Paul Kennedy Catering, 964-9604, paulkennedycatering.com


5. Get Your Thrills

In the 1930s, our African- American neighborhoods were filled with confectioners—in-home shops rife with baked goods and candies for sale to passersby and kids walking home from schools.  Among the treats most prized during the city’s steamy summer months were Thrills, made from individually frozen layers of flavored drinks.  Back then, they were sticky and sweet because they were made with corn syrup.  Today, they’re still prized, but most often made from different flavors of Kool-Aid.

“How you find them is an unspoken secret,” says Vaughnette Goode-Walker, owner of Footprints of Savannah Walking Tours.  “You see someone on the street with one and you ask, ‘Where’d you get that Thrill from?  They’ll say, ‘The Thrill Lady.’  Then, you’ll ask, ‘Where’s the Thrill Lady live?’ and they’ll point down the way.”

These days, you can find Thrills when you take the house tour at King-Tisdell Cottage, the city’s only black history house museum, 514 Huntingdon St.

Excerpted from "Back in the Day Bakery Made with Love" by Cheryl Day and Griffith Day (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Angie Mosier.
Excerpted from “Back in the Day Bakery Made with Love” by Cheryl Day and Griffith Day (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Angie Mosier.

6. Perfect Your Pie Crust

“All-purpose flours are not created equal,” cautions sweet queen Cheryl Day, co-owner of Back in the Day Bakery (along with with her savory-minded husband, Griff).  “Some have more protein than others.”  To give her hand-made pie crusts that “shattering flakiness,” Cheryl has relied on an old family secret, bequeathed to her by her grandmother: a splash of cider vinegar.  “It relaxes the gluten in the dough,” she explains, “and it rolls out with ease.”

Cheryl also has been known to substitute leaf lard for the butter in her extra-flaky pie crust when she has it on hand.

Extra-Flaky Piecrust

Makes two 9-inch piecrusts or 1 double crust

2½  cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder, preferably aluminum-free

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

½ cup ice water

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

½ pound (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a measuring cup or a small bowl, combine the water and cider vinegar. Set aside.

Toss the butter in the flour mixture to gently coat it. Then use a pastry blender to cut the butter into the flour. You should have various-sized pieces of butter, ranging from sandy patches to pea-sized chunks, with some larger bits as well. Drizzle in about half of the ice water mixture and stir lightly with a fork until the flour is evenly moistened and the dough starts to come together. If the dough seems dry, add a little more ice water, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time. The dough will still look a bit shaggy at this point. If you grab a small piece of dough and press it slightly with your hand, it should mostly hold together.

Dump the dough out onto an unfloured work surface and gather it together into a tight mound. Using the heel of your hand, smear the dough a little at a time, pushing it away from you and working your way down the mass of dough to create flat layers of flour and butter. Then gather the dough back together with a bench scraper, layering the clumps of dough on top of one another. Repeat the process once or twice more; the dough should still have some big pieces of butter visible.

Cut the dough in half. Shape each piece into a disk and flatten it. Wrap the disks in plastic and put in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or overnight, to rest.

The dough can be stored for 3 days in the refrigerator or up to 1 month in the freezer. If frozen, defrost in the refrigerator overnight.

If the recipe calls for a parbaked or prebaked pie shell, preheat the oven to 375°F and follow the instructions on page 119. Let cool completely before filling.

Tip: It’s easy to make piecrust in advance to freeze. Roll out the dough on a piece of parchment paper, then carefully roll it up in the parchment. Write the date on the parchment and pop into the freezer to firm up, about 30 minutes. Then wrap the crust securely in plastic wrap. The dough can be frozen for 1 month. Defrost the dough in the refrigerator overnight or thaw it on the kitchen counter for about 30 minutes.

Excerpted from Back in the Day Bakery Made with Love by Cheryl Day and Griffith Day (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Angie Mosier.

»  Back in the Day Bakery, 2403 Bull St., 495-9292, backinthedaybakery.com

To get a copy of Cheryl and Griff's new book, come to the book release and signing party at Back in the Day Bakery, 2403 Bull St., Saturday, March 21, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.,  or Friday, May 22, 5 to 5 p.m., at Paris Market, 36 W. Broughton St.
To get a copy of Cheryl and Griff’s new book, come to the book release and signing party at Back in the Day Bakery, 2403 Bull St., Saturday, March 21, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.,  or Friday, May 22, 5 to 5 p.m., at Paris Market, 36 W. Broughton St.

7. Make a Mad Manhattan

“Don’t be afraid of Vermouth,” urges James Gray, the beloved mixologist at 45 Bistro.  “When making a Manhattan, good vermouth is more important than good whiskey.  That’s what will set it apart.”  »  45 Bistro, 123 E. Broughton St., 234-3111, 45bistro.com


Photograph by Izzy Hudgins
Photograph by Izzy Hudgins

8. Cultivate Your Cake

In the petite backyard kitchen of A Squad Bakeshop, confectioner Natasha Gaskill demonstrates how to make a gum-paste dahlia that looks like the real thing.  It’s what she does for Savannah’s brides, when she handcrafts stargazer lilies, peonies and other botanicals.  The flowers adorn tender, tiered cake layers Natasha fills with bright curds composed of freshly picked loquats, tart currants or other lush fruits in season.

It’s a multistep process that starts out like an afternoon in kindergarten making shapes with Play-doh.  There’s a small bowl of shortening, which we rub generously on our hands to keep the gum paste pliable.  A handy pasta roller flattens the taffy-like dough into a thin ribbon for shaping.  There’s a “rat”—a clean nylon filled with cornstarch—readily available to dab our implements and cutters so that the gum paste doesn’t stick.  There are plastic bags to hold each petal and leaf, so that these fragile forms remain supple until we’re ready to assemble our bouquet.

“You need to be really conscientious of what the flower really looks like,” Natasha muses.  “I usually have my computer out here so I can study the flower, it’s structure and shape.”  »  A Squad Bake Shop, 713-7563

9. Stage Your Salad

Julie Rahn Tucker remembers dining at the Regency Room in the old Downtowner Hotel after attending performances at the Civic Center when she was a teen.  The highlight of the evenings:  the tossed-at-the-table Regency Salad.  When she was old enough to hold her own dinner parties, the Regency Salad became a staple at her home—as theatrically presented as in those memories.

Here is Tucker’s interpretation:

Serves 6

1 head of lettuce, washed, dried and cubed

2 bunches of green onions, finely chopped

1 bunch of radishes, sliced paper thin

1 large carrot, peeled and finely grated

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 slices cooked bacon, crumbled

1 cup herb-seasoned croutons

Caesar dressing mixed with honey

Combine the lettuce, onions, radishes and carrot in a large salad bowl.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, bacon and croutons.  Toss the salad with desired amount of dressing and serve on chilled salad plates.

10. Make Your Fish Fly

Now that you’ve found the freshest whole flounder at the market, you’ll want to crisp it just like Chef Gerald Green’s celebrated dish at Garibaldi Café.  Easier said than done at home, right?

Chef Green suggests that you fill a wok up halfway with vegetable oil and bring it to 375° F.  Clean and pat the flounder with a paper towel until it is dry.  Score the fish on both sides—“just touching the bone”—in a diamond pattern with a sharp knife, then season each side with a little salt and pepper.  Lightly dust the fish in flour, shaking off any excess.

“If you’re gluten-free,” Chef Green offers, “you can skip the flour completely.”  Gently submerge the fish in the heated oil.  As all good things tend to do, the fish will rise to the surface when done.  »  Garibaldi Café, 315 W. Congress St., 232-7118, garibaldisavannah.com

11. Fantastic Fries

Chef Matt Baldwin knows French fries—“hand-cut, old-school” slices of golden-fried potato that he tops with savories like garlic sauce, cheese, bacon, chili, black beans and tangy Angel’s pulled pork.  His secret to authentic restaurant-style fries?  The double dunk.  Matt blanches the string potatoes at 300° F, drops them into the deep fryer at 350° F, then fries to order.  The longer they’re in, the crisper they’ll get.  For thicker wedges, Baldwin poaches the wedges in water first, then pats them dry before blanching.  »  Sly’s Sliders and Fries, 1710 Abercorn St., 239-4219

12. Toss Your Own Pizza

Say you’ve had a frustrating day—you missed your deadline, for instance—and the last thing you want to do when you get home is cook dinner.  Before you pull into Papa John’s, reconsider.  It turns out nothing decompresses stress like pounding a cold-proofed dough ball into a round, then stretching it on your knuckled fists to make the foundation of a pizza.

“Keep most of the dough in front of you and let gravity do the work,” instructs Jim Johnson*, the big cheese at Vincenzo’s Pizzeria. (*Mea Culpa: In the March/April 2015 print edition of the magazine, we made a mistake and called Jim Johnson Jim Thompson.  Jim Johnson, along with his wife Rene, own Vincenzo’s Pizzeria.) 

When you crimp the edges, then press out the air bubbles, something inside you lets go.  After that, it’s just art.  First comes the sauce, then the whole milk mozzarella, then anything you want.

At home, you don’t have a “Betsy”—the retro deck oven, a wedding present from Jim’s father-in-law that crisps and browns the pizza at a blazing 600° F.  But you might have a pizza stone, and if you heat it up to 425-475° F, you’ll get pretty close to the thin, crunchy crust of your dreams.  »  Dough balls, $5, Vincenzo’s Pizzeria, 12417 White Bluff Road, 921-7800, vincenzos-savannah.com

13. Party Heartier

“Think outside the dining room when entertaining,” says Libbie Summers, our hometown food-inspired lifestyle guru.  “A simple blanket for two under the stars, a homemade tent, breakfast on a dock or dinner on a roof.  Be inspired by your surroundings.”

Photograph by Libbie Summers
Photograph by Libbie Summers

Summers doesn’t stop there when discussing the keys to presentation.  “Let the season and the guests inspire the table setting,” she says.  “Does the guest of honor love pearls?  Use them in the centerpiece.  Or consider that April is strawberry season and May is ripe with blueberries.  Set a wooden table with quarts of berries placed down the center—and send guests home with a sampling and a recipe for your best strawberry bread.”

Be as thoughtful about your garnish as you are about the dish.

“I recently served a West African stew,” Libbie offers, “and instead of just sprinkling the top with peanuts, I floated crispy peanut butter sandwich ‘croutons’ on top.  Love went into that thought—and into the homemade peanut butter.”  »  Get more inspiration at libbiesummers.com.

Photography by Chia Chong.  Styled by Libbie Summers.
Photography by Chia Chong. Styled by Libbie Summers.

14. Have Your Cup of Tea

Gloria Horstman, co-owner of the former Tea Room on Broughton Street, is an expert on making the perfect cup.  “Always start with fresh cold water in a clean kettle when boiling tea,” she says.  “Never reboil water.  Water loses oxygen content every time it is boiled, and tea will not taste as good with old water.”

She recommends warming the teapot by pouring hot water in the pot, then discarding the water before brewing the tea.  “Take the teapot to the kettle so that the water is still boiling when poured into the pot for brewing.”

The exception is green tea, she cautions, which should not be brewed using boiling water.  Boil water, then let it cool to 180° F before steeping.

tea kettle

15. Sweet Dreams

“When I got married, my dearest mother-in-law gifted me a dog-eared copy of the spiral-bound Gottlieb’s Bakery Cookbook to help me acclimate to Southern Jewish life,” recalls Jessica Leigh Lebos, “civil society” columnist for Connect Savannah and author of the blog, Yo, Yenta!  “Gottlieb’s, of course, is integral to Savannah’s Jewish and mainstream history.  It thrived for 100 years on Bull Street and was the birthplace of the very first Girl Scout cookies.

“My favorite recipe from the book is Sister Sadie’s Honey Cake, which we eat at Rosh Hashanah to usher in the Jewish New Year with something sweet.  The secret Southern ingredient to these luscious loaves of love?  Flat Coca-cola.  I hit the Latino market to track down a bottle of the Mexican version with real sugar and leave it open overnight, which makes Aunt Sadie’s recipe a real multicultural marvel.

“If you ask my kids, they’ll tell you our family secret is that I burn the honey cakes every year.  What they don’t know is that we don’t actually have an Aunt Sadie.”

16. Raise Your Steaks

“Always leave the fat on,” commands butcher Willie Hughes of Smith Brothers Butcher Shop, which returns to downtown this March.  Most people want the fat trimmed off when they buy meat from the butcher counter, he admits, but the fat is where the flavor is and it ends up cooking off anyway.

When grilling steak, advises owner and grill master Robert Anderson, always cook medium rare.

“If you want it well done, might as well eat a hamburger.”  »  Smith Brothers Butcher Shop, 535 E. Liberty St.

17. Bedevil Your Eggs

Dept. 7 East’s Meta Adler and Michele Jemison make all of their devilish eggs from the same base, then they play around with funky ingredients and toppings, like homemade bread-and-butter pickles, avocado and ham, or pickled shrimp.

For presentation, Meta pipes the filling.  At home, she serves the whimsical halfsies on vintage egg platters she’s found while thrifting.  At the restaurant, customers receive the little devils on compartmental plates—smaller, modern interpretations of those platters of yore.  »  Dept. 7 East, 7 E. Broughton St., 232-0215, dept7east.com

Deviled Egg Base

Serves 6

14 hardboiled eggs

1 cup mayonnaise

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

¼ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

3 drops Tabasco sauce

Cut eggs in half lengthwise with a sharp knife.  Scoop the yolks into a bowl, then rinse the egg whites to remove any remaining yolk.  Pat the whites dry and set aside.

Mix the yolks with the other ingredients until it reaches a smooth, piping consistency, then experiment with additional ingredients such as mashed avocado, curry powder or grated onion.  Fill a piping bag with the yolk mixture, then pipe the yolks back into the egg whites.  Top with your favorite garnish and serve cold.

18. Fine-tune Your Tomatoes

“Growing the perfect tomato organically in coastal Georgia is quite the task,” says Rafe Rivers, owner with his wife, Ansley, of the certified organic Canewater Farm north of Darien.  “We have more to fight … myriad bacterial and fungal disease.  The key is picking the proper type and variety.  Our best performing varieties are Sungold cherry tomatoes, Juliet Romas and Mountain Merit for slicing.  These are all hybrid tomatoes bred for disease resistance and perform best in our humid and rainy summer conditions.”

Rivers trellises and prunes his tomatoes.  “Don’t be afraid to prune the suckers every few days,” he recommends.  “This will enhance airflow for longer production, maximize photosynthesis and enable your plant to dry faster.”  Space the tomatoes 18 to 24 inches apart, he add, to increase air and give your plant room to grow.

“Against our best business sense, we grow a few heirlooms as they are our favorite crop to eat—Cherokee Purple, Striped German and Brandywine,” Rivers says.  To protect against pests, he picks the tomatoes as soon as they begin to blush and lets them ripen on a windowsill.  »  Canewater Farm, 307-690-6629, canewater farm.com

19. Pick the Perfect Strawberries

Ottawa Farms’ Pete Waller says the best strawberries are picked fresh from the field.  “Don’t wash or remove the caps until you’re ready to eat them,” Waller suggests.  “If you remove the caps too soon, the berries won’t stay fresh.”  Instead, he recommends that when you’re ready to eat them, lightly rinse them just to clean them from dust.

“Don’t soak them; berries will absorb too much water and break down.”  »  Ottawa Farms, 702 Bloomingdale Road, 748-3035, ottawafarms.com

20. Host a Better Roast

“A good roast starts with a good sear,” says Steve Ottinger, chef at the Toucan Café.  “Searing locks in the juices, gives you a nice, crispy outside, and allows you to control the temperature of the food.”

To achieve a proper sear, Chef Ottinger urges home cooks to let the meat come to room temperature.  Then, wash it and pat it dry with a paper towel until there is no surface moisture.  Just before searing your roast, season it with salt and pepper.  The salt will draw out too much moisture if you season it too soon.  Finally, use a heavy-bottomed pan on high heat with just a little oil.  This technique applies to seafood, steaks, chicken, and even vegetables, Ottinger says.  »  Toucan Café, 531 Stephenson Ave., 352-2233, toucancafe.com


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