Thursday, July 30, 2009

Charleston's Lowcountry Cookin'

To continue my praise of Southern food, I thought I would take you on a tour of the low country cooking I enjoyed while in Charleston recently.

I am so lucky that two of my close girlfriends live in Charleston, and that their doors are always open to Phil and me. Charleston is one of the greatest food cities in the U.S. (a May 2009 article in Gourmet magazine confirms what anyone who’s ever visited the city already knew), and in my mind the top destination for foodies in the Southern U.S. Top chefs with impressive pedigrees rub shoulders with traditional local cooks, all taking inspiration from a region with a rich culinary history colored by Caribbean and African influences and utilizing impressive low country ingredients (especially seafood). The first issue of Saveur offered an interesting article on Lowcountry cooking and its history and ingredients that you can read here.

A top place to sample the local offerings is Hominy Grill. To my great delight, my friend Ang lives right around the corner from the place so we stopped in for lunch on our way to visit Magnolia Plantation.

As soon as we were seated, our server brought us a dish of boiled peanuts.

Now, why boil peanuts, you might ask. The answer is: I don’t know. They’re well known to be an acquired taste, and I am still in the process of acquisition when it comes to this one. To make boiled peanuts, you boil peanuts. And you boil them to DEATH. For like, seven or eight hours. It’s actually more involved than just buying a sack of Planters and boiling them on the stove – raw, or “green,” peanuts are essential and are only in season from May to November. They’re boiled in heavily salted water in large quantities, and the cooking time depends on the type of nut you’re using. They’re available from roadside stands and at fairs and flea markets all over the South, sometimes flavored or spicy or plain, but always VERY salty, and always VERY mushy. They’re also called goobers, and if you switch the g and the b in that word, well, now you have an idea of the texture of these little guys. Okay sorry I am not usually one to knock such a widespread part of Southern food culture, so I ordered some of Hominy Grill’s killer sweet tea and dug in. Ang and I finished all of the boiled peanuts but after they were gone we were kinda left wondering, WHY?

One dish I never have to question is fried green tomatoes, and boy were they done right here.

I always wonder why you can’t often find fried green tomatoes anywhere other than the South. I mean, unripe tomatoes are found all over the friggin world, and well, doesn’t breading and frying them just seem so obvious? They’re just so GOOD that way. Wake up, people! Okay, back to the ones at Hominy Grill. These were from generously sized tomatoes and had a crisp coating that wasn’t soggy in the least. They were nestled atop a pool of creamy housemade ranch dressing.

I was very happy that I didn’t have to share these. Ang doesn’t like tomatoes, fried stuff, or ranch dressing. Ang, darling, you are missing out on some of the best stuff this life has to offer (but no doubt you will be much skinnier than I am in twenty years)! Ang chose a vegetable plate that offered three choices from the extensive menu of side dishes, plus a hunk of cornbread. Here’s her trio of cauliflower gratin, jasmine rice, and mac ‘n’ cheese.

And the buttery, slightly sweet cornbread that accompanied her veg plate.

I had a really difficult time choosing from all of the classic Southern options, like okra and shrimp beignets, fried green tomato BLTs, fried catfish, pimento cheese, okra pickles, pinto bean cakes, chicken country captain, shrimp creole and low country purloo. So in a moment of stress I fell back on a sure-to-be-winner, local favorite, and one of the house specials, shrimp ‘n’ grits.

The shrimp is sautéed with bacon, mushrooms, and scallions and served over savory grits flavored with sharp cheddar and parmesan cheeses, butter, and a hint of Tabasco sauce. A classic preparation, but I still do find myself dreaming about the shrimp ‘n’ grits I had at brunch a few years back at High Cotton. Their version is saucier and I thought more flavorful due to the additions of tasso ham and a garlic, tomato, and scallion butter.

You’d think that would be enough hearty Southern food for one girl for one day. But, you’d be wrong. I’m telling you, sooner or later my butt is going to look like this guy’s.

Dinner that very same evening was at a classic diner in Mount Pleasant, where we were staying with friends that night. Our good buddies Emily and Mike escaped the Boston winters a few years ago, trading them for the Southern sun and Southern comforts of fried chicken, fried okra, and fried pickles. Can you blame them? They introduced us to one of their favorite local spots, Boulevard Diner.

Phil and I could immediately tell we were going to like this place. We were greeted by a friendly staff, everything on the menu was very affordable, the atmosphere was super casual and welcoming, and judging from the plates in front of the other diners, the portions were huge. We started off with a shared plate of fried green tomatoes and fried pickles. The tomatoes were a bit thinner and greasier than those at Hominy Grill, but the pickles, oh, the PICKLES! They were topped with a sweet mustard sauce that echoed the tang of the pickles, and they remained crisp through all the dredging and frying.

I was so excited about the meatloaf on the menu, but even more excited when I saw I could choose green bean casserole as my side dish! How many places do you know that have green bean casserole on the menu?! And mashed potatoes and gravy and cornbread…. What a classic plate of American comfort food. Our country just totally rocks sometimes.

Em’s fried chicken breasts with applesauce and mashed potatoes made for an equally comforting plate, and probably my favorite of the night. The chicken was topped with a tangy chow chow relish that pulled the whole plate together.

Phil’s chicken pot pie wasn’t my favorite of the evening (I can’t help but compare all other CPPs to Ina Garten’s perfect recipe), but Phil was very happy so that is all that matters.

It would be remiss of me to forget to mention the biggest surprise of the evening, Mike’s heaping plate of cornmeal-crusted fried okra. You gotta be kidding me. I didn’t even think I was in love with okra until trying this dish – not at all slimy or weird, just completely addictive.

We accompanied our meals with a local brew, a Palmetto amber.

And everyone needs to know about the latest drink craze sweeping the South. Firefly sweet tea vodka tastes JUST like sweet tea – no joke! It’s available all over the country, but I’d never seen it before my friends introduced it to us in Charleston. It really is the PERFECT summer drink. Serve it over ice with just a splash of water and possibly a squeeze of lemon. They have a number of different flavors. I’ve tried the mint tea and the raspberry tea, but the sweet tea is my favorite.

Stay tuned for a fancier take on Charleston!!

Hominy Grill

207 Rutledge Ave, Charleston, SC
(843) 937-0930

Hominy Grill on Urbanspoon

Boulevard Diner

Boulevard Diner 409 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant, SC

(843) 216-2611

Boulevard Diner on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Southern Food for a Southern Crowd

Time for a mini geography lesson.

Florida is in the South.

And we all know what that means. The food is so good down here, SO good, and so comforting and so homey and so filled with love, that you literally have no control over your waistline. Come down here looking like Angelina, you'll leave looking like that lady in the photo sidling up to the BBQ cart!

Thankfully I haven’t hit that level. Yet. But I do suppose it’s only a matter of time. Our budget is so tight that I’ve been making almost every meal at home lately, and I think that has been my saving grace. I crave diversity when I cook at home, so our table has been overflowing with all sorts of crazy ethnic dishes inspired by Indian and Javanese and Chinese and Caribbean and Mexican and Argentine and Peruvian cuisines. So, when Phil’s birthday rolled around in June, I told him he could literally have ANY dinner he wanted, from ANYWHERE in the world. And you know what he wanted? Fried chicken, mac ‘n’ cheese, collards, and cornbread. What a good Southern boy.

Now let me tell you I was quite nervous about this meal. I planned on cooking Southern classics for fifteen of Phil’s friends, who all grew up in the South, and who all had grandmas with generations-old recipes for these dishes. People can be quite opinionated about what they believe constitutes the perfect fried chicken or collards, and I worried that I would fail miserably at pleasing the crew. So, I decided to do a test run of the dinner a few weeks before Phil’s birthday. A recipe for fried chicken I have come to trust is one brought to my attention by Ruth Reichl in one of her books. I had made Claritha’s Fried Chicken Wings a few times in the past and they were always moist from the dry-brining and buttermilk marinade, slightly tinted with an oniony flavor, and nicely crusted from the double-battering process.

I used Vidalia onions instead of regular brown onions in the marinade to lend a sweeter note, and I also threw in some chicken legs to give both a white and a dark meat option (the recipe only uses chicken wings). I also seasoned the flour for dredging more heavily than recommended with cracked black pepper and cayenne, and added in some adobo (a Puerto Rican seasoning mixture of salt, garlic powder, oregano, and turmeric). A heavy, well-seasoned cast iron skillet is absolutely essential in maintaining a consistent frying temperature. Yum! These are even excellent cold the next day, if you have any left over!I also made a skillet cornbread. Southern cornbreads are much different from their northern counterparts, and having lived up north most of my life I’m used to the sweet, thick, moist cornbreads you get in Ohio or New England. But in the South, little to no sugar is used and the bread is at its best when the batter is poured into a hot cast iron skillet so it can achieve a contrast of textures, with a crusty brown exterior and a creamy interior. I used a recipe for Iron Skillet Corn Bread from Jean Anderson’s A Love Affair with Southern Cooking and it was divine hot from the oven. However, unlike that moist cornbread from up north that only gets better as it sits for a few days, this Southern version wasn’t nearly as tasty the next day.For this practice run of Phil’s Southern birthday dinner I also made my favorite Martha Stewart macaroni and cheese. This recipe never fails and is one of my all-time favorites! It didn’t disappoint, but I wasn’t sure it fit in perfectly with such a traditionally Southern meal. When I’d had mac ‘n’ cheese in restaurants or in friends’ houses down here, those versions never had a crispy crouton topping and they weren’t normally as creamy as Martha’s recipe. Thankfully I visited my good friend Ang in Charleston the day before the big dinner, and she pointed me to a mac ‘n’ cheese recipe in The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook that perfectly complemented the other dishes.

And, last but certainly not least, the biggest hit was my big ole pot o’ collards. Yeah boy are these good! They definitely benefit from an overnight nap in the fridge, so they make a perfect do-ahead party dish. (Recipe below)For dessert to follow the test run, I got excited and used my new kitchen gadgets to make Virginia Willis’ Georgia Peach Soufflés. I had picked up some lovely Georgia peaches at the farmers’ market and WOW was this recipe a winner. It was my first time making soufflés, and I wasn’t confident enough in my ability to crank out 15 of these for a dinner party, so the soufflés didn’t make it on the party menu.All-in-all, Phil’s birthday dinner was a hit, and since everything was made with love, I received nothing but love in return in the form of compliments from a big crew of real, friendly Southerners.Big Pot o’ Collards
1 big bunch of collard greens
4 or 5 strips of good bacon, chopped
2 Vidalia or regular brown onions, coarsely chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup cider vinegar (or more, to taste)
1 tbsp light brown sugar (or more, to taste)

Remove the large woody stems from the collards and cut them into 3/4 inch strips. Clean collards thoroughly by floating them in a large bowl of water or in the kitchen sink, allowing the dirt to sink to the bottom of the bowl.

Cook the bacon over medium-high heat in a cast iron or other heavy-bottomed pot until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon to a plate, leaving drippings in pot. Add onions to the kettle and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and reserve in a bowl.

Place the chicken broth, vinegar, sugar, and half of the bacon into the pot and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add the collards to the liquid. You might have to do this in two batches, waiting for the first batch to wilt and make room for the other half of the greens. Stir the greens and make sure they are covered in pot likker (the broth), then cover the kettle, turn the heat to medium low, and simmer for about an hour and a half, checking the greens and stirring them occasionally.

After an hour and a half of simmering, add the onions back to the collards, season them with salt and pepper, cover the kettle, and cook for another 30 minutes to an hour, until the greens are tender but not mushy. At this point, taste the greens and add more vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper to get them just like you like. Top the greens with the rest of the crispy bacon and serve.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Florida Food under the Florida Sun

I didn't know what I had in store when I came down to Florida in April. After a long winter full of cheeses and sausages and casseroles and potatoes and hearty breads and big beers in northeastern Switzerland, weeks of pastas and pizzas and fried fritters in Italy, and a cold few weeks spent in Ohio with my family eating all the comfort foods I’d dearly missed during the last year and a half abroad, boy did I welcome the sunshine and the sunny Florida food that came along with it.As a state that benefits from so many diverse cultural influences, Florida offers some of America’s finest regional fare. Southern American foods are found here at their best – I’ve had many a helping of barbecue, fried chicken, mac ‘n’ cheese, collards, crawfish boils, and cornbreads so far this summer, and look forward to many many more. There’s also a strong Latino and Caribbean influence, so cubanos, empanadas, beans and rice, tostones, and Jamaican meat pies are easy to find. I can’t wait to tell you all about these foods and the cultures behind them and the amazing Southern and Latino meals I’ve had in restaurants and made at home. But first, I think it only appropriate to give you a little taste of that sweeeeeet sunny Florida lifestyle by taking you on a tour of the some of the cheeriest restaurants I’ve ever been to. It’s hard to define this uniquely Florida style of food and dining, because it has a lot to do with the casual, relaxed, friendly vibe that can only survive in a place where people enjoy year-round great weather and beach access. None of the restaurants below would make it through a Boston winter, that’s for sure! The Florida breeze is a crucial element in these dining experiences, as all are either on or very near the beach. At most of these eateries, the best seats in the house are unquestionably outdoors or in open air dining rooms and decks. Seafood is always abundant on the menu, and smiles come at no extra charge. :)

One item ubiquitous on the menus of Florida-style restaurants isn’t easily found in other parts of the world. Fried gator is so representative of Florida that I just had to have it as an appetizer at my wedding rehearsal dinner at Kingfish Grill in St. Augustine. The conch fritters at Caribbee Key in Neptune Beach are buttery and light and served with a spicy mayonnaise-based dipping sauce.Conch fritters incorporate the best qualities of two of my other favorite fritters – the batter is like a hushpuppy, and hidden inside are tender morsels of conch, just like Japanese takoyaki sneaks pieces of octopus into perfectly round little batter balls.
Conch on FoodistaThe roasted corn and crab chowder at Caribbee Key is also a winner, and Phil always orders the blackened mahi mahi sandwich with house-made sweet potato chips.This next quintessentially Florida restaurant wins the prize for the coolest restaurant name ever.
Squid Lips! Awesome! And, even awesomer, the food is just as good as the name. A dish that just perfectly depicts the sunshiney tropicality of Florida food is the coconut onion rings at Squid Lips. Boy were these perfectly executed. Thick, sweet Vidalia onion rings dipped in a coconut rum batter, rolled in shredded coconut, and deep fried. Heck yeah! I could eat these every day! The island dipping sauce complemented them so well and I’m determined to replicate it at home. I detected some orange juice, orange zest, and ginger in there but it will take some serious experimentation to get it just right.My family enjoyed the sandwiches they ordered – fished coated in that same coconut rum batter, topped with mango chutney and smothered with melted Swiss cheese……and a lobster-n-crabcake sandwich, both served with French fries and coleslaw…Clearly seafood is the way to go at Squid Lips (my aunt was unhappy with her pulled pork sandwich in a Jamaican jerk barbecue sauce). I mean, the place is literally on the water.And, gosh, what’s more Florida than key lime pie?Squid Lips has an extensive raw bar menu, too, and while I didn’t order anything from it, I did have a plateful of plump raw oysters at another place right on the beach. This is what Florida is all about, man.Know what else it’s all about? Super casual eateries right next to the ocean.Stir It Up on Saint Augustine Beach takes casual dining to the next level; the only tables are outdoor picnic tables, and orders are taken through a window. When yours is ready, they call you out by your first name. Shirts, shoes, showers – all optional here, my friend. The menu, which you can see here, offers smoothies, sandwiches, burritos, and salads with many of the names inspired by the songs of Bob Marley, all using the freshest of ingredients. I had The Wailer burrito, loaded with beans, rice, cheese, salsa, hummus, avocado, and shredded carrot.(BTW – how cute is my ma?)Another place right near the beach in Saint Augustine in THE spot for an afternoon beer and some seafood snacks. The Oasis is family friendly and always buzzing. They’ve got a full raw bar, and the steamed oysters with lemon and drawn butter were devoured so quickly that I wasn’t even able to get a photo. I did manage to immortalize Phil’s pile of friend shrimp and my overflowing twice-baked veggie potato with broccoli, carrots, cauliflower and cheddar. This sucker was a meal in itself.Cheers to Florida’s beaches, sun, and top-notch casual eateries!Kingfish Grill
252 Yacht Club Drive, Saint Augustine, FL
(904) 824-2111
Kingfish Grill on Urbanspoon

Caribbee Key (sometimes referred to as Sunny Carribbee)
100 First Street, Neptune Beach, FL
(904) 270-8940
Sunny Caribbee Grille Tropical on Urbanspoon

Squid Lips Grill
1660 Indian River Drive, Sebastian, FL
(772) 589-3828
Squid Lips on Urbanspoon

Stir It Up
A Street & A1A Beach Blvd., Saint Augustine Beach, FL
Stir It Up on Urbanspoon

The Oasis
4000 A1A & Ocean Trace Road, Saint Augustine Beach, FL
(904) 471-3424
Oasis Restaurant on Urbanspoon