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


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