Charleston, in Letters

The holidays meant my seventh trip to what’s known as the Holy City. And since I can’t top my last post, the lettering is about as creative as it’s going to get, folks. Besides, you’re here to read about the food, so that’s what you’ll get. And I have plenty to say about Charleston cuisine! (And no, there are no pictures. Mainly because I realize I’m not a skilled photographer and could not, therefore, do justice to the food being served. It’s out of respect for the chefs/cooks that I avoid visually butchering what they’ve worked hard to present. Also? I want to eat when the food hits my table, not try to find the perfect light for the plate.)

C is for cheeseburger.
Meat in the land of seafood o’plenty? Trust me, you’ll want to give a few burgers a shot, particularly the one at Butcher & Bee (if you can catch it on the menu, which rotates daily; check their Facebook site so you have an idea of what to expect any given day) and the Business Burger at Closed for Business. The former is a hefty portion of perfectly seasoned beef topped with American cheese (I eschewed my non-processed regimen this one instance), housemade pickles, and veggies sandwiched between two grilled pieces of a hearty whole wheat. The latter features local beef that I recommend topping with the standard lettuce, onions, pickles, and the omnipresent pimento cheese for an extra buck. As it turns out, it’s the perfect hangover cure (see: the letter E). Neither restaurant asks how you want your burger cooked; the guys behind them are pros, not the 15-year-old working a summer job, so just trust them. Besides, if you want your burger cooked beyond medium rare, you shouldn’t be wasting the good stuff. (See the letter A for another cheeseburger recommendation.)

H is for High Cotton.
High Cotton is becoming one of my favorite “haunts” in Charleston. The ambiance seems more suitable to the environs of a sultry Savannah joint, but the food is pure Charleston. We celebrated New Year’s Eve here this time around (see: the letter E). The roasted duck was perfection, the best I’ve had yet. Cooked to medium, High Cotton’s sizeable portion of what’s become my favorite meat featured about a quarter of an inch of heavenly fat. Normally I set aside the fat from animal protein, but not in this instance. Duck fat is manna; it is sinful, but it’s a treat, so go for it. It literally (as cliche as it sounds) melts in your mouth. And the crust resulting from all of that fatty goodness? Crispy and seasoned to a peppery finish. And hey, I found out I can stomach radishes as long as they’re roasted. You really learn something new about your taste buds every time you visit Charleston.

A is for alm kaffe.
If you find yourself in Charleston without a reservation to Husk (as we did this time around), go hit up the bar. It’s a separate building located directly beside the main restaurant. We actually prefer the ambiance of the bar to the restaurant; it’s low key, cozy, and encompasses that quintessential Southern style of the Holy City (the bar is housed in a renovated carriage house, so think thick wooden beams and plenty of exposed brick). They do cocktails right at Husk, with a main bartender calling most of the shots as to what goes on the menu. This isn’t a place to get wasted; this is a place to go enjoy some artistry. As with the food menu at Husk, the cocktail menu rotates fairly frequently and complements the seasons, so it’s always a guessing game as to what you’ll find. This time, I found alm kaffe, a cup of comfort comprising hot coffee, unsweetened whipped cream, port, and raw sugar. You can also give some products coming out of Husk kitchen a go at the bar; around 5 p.m., you can order off the bar menu, which features, yes, a cheeseburger. At $10 with a side of potato wedges, it’s definitely the way to go (and a bargain). I’m sure it’s a cardinal sin to say this, but I actually prefer the bar food at Husk to the restaurant food.

R is for risotto grit cake topped with wilted arugula, local radishes, pulled pork, and crispy-skinned snapper.
Yes, you read that right. Pork and snapper, together. It makes no sense in your head, but after one bite, you’ll believe. This dish, featured at Poogan’s Porch, was apparently served at the James Beard House during Executive Chef Daniel Doyle’s invitation to cook there. That accolade was mentioned on the menu, but it’s not why I ordered the snapper. Maybe I read too much Anthony Bourdain, but the James Beard distinction doesn’t mean much to me. I just know what I like, and I liked this snapper. The grit cake and pork could have been a bit warmer, but the flavors paired well together. When wilted, the arugula provides just enough of a bite to balance out the sweetness of the pulled pork without being overwhelming, which I find raw arugula to be. The snapper really holds up well to the pork, and the crispy skin of the fish and the crunch of the grilled risotto cake are great ways to take the texture from too tender to something interesting. The meal is a refreshing revamp of the classic surf and turf pairing. Also? Poogan’s Porch has extraordinary biscuits. I’m pretty sure they are made with pure White Lily, the standard flour of Southerners. Served with a side of honey butter, the biscuits are a great way to start a meal. Hell, I’d have a few as a meal in and of themselves.

L is for lemon bar.
I like sour. If I order a lemon bar, I don’t want too much sugar. I want a pucker. I want to start salivating at the thought of biting into this bar. Unfortunately, most get a good lemon bar all wrong, drenching it with a coating of confectioner’s sugar and all-in-all drowning out the lemon tang. Not at Jestine’s Kitchen. This popular restaurant (sorry, it doesn’t have a website) has a separate sweet shop just around the corner, which is perfect if you want a treat but don’t feel like standing in a line that I’ve seen wrap a block down the street from the restaurant’s main entrance (not that the restaurant isn’t good; in fact, it’s a great, budget-friendly intro to Charleston food). I always get the sour lemon bar. I’ve been known to eat four of these lemon bars in one weeklong visit to Charleston. The bar is substantial in every way; it’s big enough to split between two with a top-heavy lemon filling (something else most get wrong when they only feature a thin filling and too much dough). Best of all? The folks at Jestine’s don’t add confectioner’s sugar. Sure, you can request it, but why ruin it?

E is for espresso martinis.
This evil little cocktail can be found at High Cotton (although I’m not sure how long it stays on the cocktail menu). I say evil because I indulged in four of them on New Year’s Eve. Try going to sleep after that overload of caffeine and alcohol. One martini is perfection; as much as you may want to keep going, just stop at one. Have it at the bar and enjoy some live jazz music. If you’re not into the college scene of way too many girls using “like” way too many times during some inane conversation, this is the place to be.

S is for stuffed hush puppies.
Didn’t listen to me and overindulged in the espresso martinis? Head (or stumble) to Fleet Landing to hit up these bombs of protein and carbs. When they say stuffed, they’re not exaggerating. You’ll be served three puppies about the size of baseballs. Oddly enough, they don’t carry the weight of a baseball. They look heavy, but it’s not all breading. In fact, the breading is fairly light. What makes it indulgent are the sizeable portions of lobster and shrimp you’ll find inside, all topped with a decadent creole tomato sauce. I’m not going to lie, this isn’t a to-die-for plate; it’s just a great way to sop up some extra alcohol.

T is for tasting head cheese.
Don’t gag. Don’t make that face. Head to Cypress and get a small plate of the charcuterie, which features ham, sausage, kielbasa, perfectly small biscuits, a housemade mustard, pickles, and (yes) head cheese. Cypress Executive Chef Craig Deihl is known for his cured meats, and it’s no wonder. We were first introduced to his skill at Lambstock where we tried his spreadable salami, an item that’s also featured on the Cypress menu. So, if you’re not brave enough to test the head cheese waters, go with the spreadable salami. Or both. Or just enjoy a martini or two at the restaurant’s incredibly spacious bar. You can’t go wrong here.

O is for oysters.
These briny fellows are a mainstay on pretty much every menu in Charleston. Oysters are abundant here, but make no mistake: they’re not all made the same, and you can get some subpar preparation (see the letter N for a laundry list of restaurants to avoid). If you’re looking for fried oysters, go with High Cotton or Anson (at least, the latter was perfection when I was last there; unfortunately, we haven’t made it back to Anson since our honeymoon in ’08). If you’re looking for oysters on the half shell, head to Pearlz Oyster Bar (which also features an incredible happy hour menu) and get a dozen or so to split, or try their oyster shooter of a raw oyster, vodka, and cocktail sauce (if that sounds odd, just don’t think about it too much before you knock one back). The folks from Charleston’s touted FIG (Food is Good) restaurant have opened up The Ordinary on King Street; my understanding is that the raw oyster bar opens at 3 p.m. most days. The Ordinary was on our list to try, but we never quite made it there since it’s a bit off the walking path. From all accounts, it’s worth seeking out, and I have no doubt their oysters are some of the best in the city.

N is for Noisy Oyster.
Don’t go there. In fact, don’t go to any of the Charleston standards such as Bubba Gump’s, Sticky Fingers, or Hyman’s. These places are buzzing with folks who’ve been unceremoniously dumped off the latest cruise ship that’s docked in the city for a day or two. There are a lot of fanny packs and dark socks paired with sandals crowding these restaurants. There’s much, MUCH more to be found in Charleston restaurants. I know because I’ve tried the places like Noisy Oyster (I was young; I didn’t know better). That isn’t Charleston food, and no matter what anyone tells you, Hyman’s is a poor excuse for great seafood. If that sounds harsh, that’s too bad. If you’re going to be in Charleston, don’t waste your money or your taste buds. In reality, these more tourist-y restaurant traps cost more than what you’ll pay at a really good restaurant. Go to Husk, get the $10 burger and fries that will make you want to slap the person sitting next to you for not ordering one; go to Jestine’s (preferably for a really late lunch to avoid the line) and get a po’boy, homemade fries, and some pickles for $12 or $13; hit up Cypress for a small meat plate for $8 to $10; try 39 Rue de Jean for a bowl of mussels for $10; seek out the happy hours or small plates/appetizers at places like Pearlz, High Cotton, SNOB (that’s Slightly North of Broad), The Macintosh (which has a Bacon Happy Hour). In fact, that’s the best way we’ve found to discover Charleston cuisine: go for a bar/food crawl, hitting up the restaurants on your must-try list and ordering an appetizer or an entree to share with a cocktail to boot. Go explore, go walk! That’s the beauty of Charleston, especially the downtown historic section: park your car and walk if you are capable of doing so. Don’t be lured into the Market Street establishments (although the Market itself is a fun place to shop once, if only to say you did it); keep walking. If you find yourself staring at a menu on which fried mozzarella is listed as an appetizer, just keep going; you’ll find better (note: pimento cheese fritters, however, are perfectly acceptable). Most places I’ve listed take reservations if you want to do the full-blown dinner thing, but most are just as easily accessible if you park your rear at the bar. And if you’re a Charleston regular and have some places to recommend, send them my way, because we’ll definitely be back!

And to the wonderful couples we met at High Cotton on New Year’s Eve, wherever you may be: I’m sorry we never got your names or properly thanked you for giving us a large slab of your Peninsula Grill coconut cake. It lived up to its hype, and we appreciated it to the last bite!

Sea Bass, Roasted Goodness

Augh, I’m so behind lately. It’s called, “I don’t handle humidity so well when I run, so I’m dead by the time I get home.” You can’t call it laziness if you crash as soon as you get home because of running, right?

Anyway, the other night I stumbled upon something kinda magical. I’ve used sea bass myriad times, frequently in fish tacos. It’s a substantial, almost buttery white fish that takes on different flavors so well. It’s a good fish to grill, but I’m coming to find that it’s especially flavorful when roasted. So, that’s what I did.

I adore rustic recipes, and I consider this to be one. A simple, lemony marinade really makes the tomato and fish sing, as cliche as that reads. It’s a bright, refreshing dish, the perfect way to start the summer send-off (thank god, because seriously humidity–I am done with you; but fresh seasonal tomatoes, I shall mourn your passing when the time comes).

My husband loved this one, and it’s earned sacred status as a possible pre-race meal. (His pre-race meal, mind you. I’ve tried fish the night before a race. Um, not a good idea. Not a good idea.)

Roasted Sea Bass and Tomatoes
Notes: I prefer to use a rainbow of cherry tomatoes as it makes for a more visually appealing dish. Tomatillos, which for some reason are often confused as being part of the pepper family, are actually of the ubiquitous nightshade family. Generally called “green tomatoes” in Mexico, they are the stars of salsa verde cruda (or tomatillo salsa). Tomatillos are tangy and complement the lemon used here quite well. If you don’t have easy access to locally grown tomatillos, just sub in more cherry tomatoes.

1 pint mixed cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
4-5 tomatillos, husked, washed, and quartered
1 lemon
Fresh rosemary and oregano, finely chopped
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper
1 lb. sea bass (I use chunks since that’s what our local fishmongers have on hand)

In a large mixing bowl, stir the tomatoes, tomatillos, a few zests of the lemon, the juice of half the lemon (the other half may be refrigerated or frozen for later use), chopped fresh herbs, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle enough olive oil in the bottom of a baking dish to coat; place in oven to allow the oil to heat.

While the oil is heating, add the sea bass chunks to the tomato mixture. Cover again with plastic wrap and let sit for 10 minutes (do not leave any longer because the acidity of the lemon can actually cook the fish, which will leave you with ceviche, which isn’t a bad thing, but we’re roasting here).

Pour the fish/tomato mixture into the heated baking dish. Roast for 25 minutes or until fish is slightly golden on top and flakes easily with a fork.

Serve with a green salad or potatoes cooked to your liking (I went with what The Joy of Cooking called pan-broiled potato shreds, but really it was just hashbrowns. Don’t try to be fancy, Joy of Cooking.)

The Great Cornbread Debate

I have to admit, it’s going to be hit and miss around here during the next week due to deadlines, of both the full-time and the freelance nature. You may see a guest post from my husband in the meantime. I don’t know. I’ve kind of usurped the kitchen the past 5 years, so he’s not sure what he can cook other than a killer PB&J sandwich. At any rate, this may have to tide you over for a few days until I can come back up for air.

So, cornbread. I know there’s debate among cornbread lovers whether it should be sweet or savory. I don’t really care which is right or wrong. I just know what I prefer, and it’s usually cornbread with a touch of sweetness. If you prefer the savory, just leave out the honey from the recipe below. Simple solution; no need to get your panties in a bunch. Really, there’s much more to worry about than cornbread.

I made up this recipe, so it could use some fine tuning (like more honey). But, for the first go-round, it did the job pretty well (meaning it was at least edible). When coming up with new recipes, I find it’s best to turn on some Alabama Shakes and just go for it. Sometimes with a beer as a backup confidence booster. Also, it’s apparently necessary that I burn the shit out of myself at some point.

I baked the cornbread for 20 minutes, and it came out a mix between cake-y and spoon bread consistency, which I actually prefer. Obviously, if you want less spoon bread consistency, bake it 5 or so more minutes.

The yogurt? Some cornbread calls for sour cream, and this is about as close as I could come given what was in our fridge. I decided I wanted a bite of heat in the cornbread, thus the jalapenos. If you don’t like them, just leave ’em out. The same with the corn. It’s all subjective, all up to you, but below is the basis I used. I served this with catfish and tomato “jam” (although I decided to just grill the catfish and season it with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika). To counterbalance the jalapeno, I just threw together a cold salad of chopped watermelon (an ingredient I’m currently obsessed with), chopped cucumber, and some mint.

Roasted Corn and Jalapeno Cornbread
3 jalapenos, whole
Kernels from 3 ears of fresh corn
1 c. cornmeal
1 c. soft white flour (aka pastry flour)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1/4 c. yogurt (I use a raw yogurt, but Greek yogurt or sour cream would probably be comparable here)
1/2 c. milk
1/2 Tbsp. honey
Duck fat or oil

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Drop a tablespoon of duck fat (or oil) into a glass baking dish or roasting pan and place in the oven to heat. When the fat/oil is heat, carefully add the jalapenos and corn kernels; roast for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, milk, and honey. Fold the egg mixture into the flour, stirring until just combined. Set aside.

When the jalapenos/corn are finished roasting, remove from the oven and reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Drop a tablespoon of fat/oil into a small cast iron pan and place in oven to heat.

While the pan and fat/oil warm, add the roasted corn kernels to the cornbread mixture. Slice the jalapenos (either with or without seeds; with seeds will add more heat) and add to the cornbread mixture. Stir until the corn and jalapenos are incorporated.

Remove the cast iron pan from the oven, drop in the cornbread mixture, and bake for 20-25 minutes (see above notes for consistency/baking times).

Serve warm with honey, butter, or a great piece of fish.

 

What She Order, Fish Filet?

The title seemed appropriate given that this has been stuck in my head and sea bass was on the King menu.

For once, I decided not to do fish tacos (because I’ve had WAY too many carbs swimming around in my tummy lately). Instead, I wanted fish and pasta and tomatoes. But what to do when I didn’t want any more processed carbs? Zucchini and squash!

Yep, there’s a hella easy way to use up that excess zucchini and squash that doesn’t involve baking: faux pasta. It’s simple, it tastes just as substantial as pasta, but without all the guilt. Topping it off with some roasted tomatoes and nectarines (inspired by a recent trip to River and Rail, have you guys made your reservations yet?!) is a great, summery take on the classic pasta and tomato sauce. Sea bass holds up well, with a crispy exterior and a moist, fatty, almost meaty texture on the inside. But, any white fish could be just as good here. I opt to treat fish simply–just some salt and pepper, perhaps a little lemon. Quality fish doesn’t need much else.

The side here was just sweet potato fries: slice sweet potatoes into matchsticks of desired thickness, coat in olive oil, sprinkle with 1/2 to 1 tsp. garam masala (a classic Indian spice), drizzle with honey, and season with salt. Bake at 400 degrees for 35 minutes, flipping halfway through.

Roasted Tomatoes and Nectarines (serves: 2, with some leftovers)
Note: I prefer to use a mix of tomatoes, both in size and in taste. For this, I used cherry, Roma, zebra, and golden tomatoes. It’s just much prettier in presentation. Nectarines are perfect with tomatoes; remember, both are fruits.
1 lb. assorted, fresh tomatoes, quartered if they are larger (no need to cut the cherry tomatoes)
1 to 2 nectarines, sliced into 1-inch chunks
Olive oil
Salt

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Coat the bottom of a glass casserole dish or roasting pan with olive oil. Add the tomatoes/nectarines, drizzle with more olive oil, and season with salt. Roast for 35 minutes, stirring halfway through.

Zucchini and Squash “Pappardelle” (serves: 2)
1 to 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 small or 1 large zucchini
3 small or 1 large squash
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper

Heat over medium low enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a saute pan. Meanwhile, using a mandoline or a vegetable peeler, slice the zucchini and squash into thin ribbons (mimicking the look of pappardelle; you’ll end up with about 4 cups). Add the minced garlic to the saute pan and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the zucchini/squash mixture, drizzle with more olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes.

Grilled Sea Bass (serves: 2, with leftovers)
Note: A thinner white fish could be used here; just reduce the grilling time.
1 lb. sea bass (our fish peeps remove the skin, but skin-on is fine), cut into 2 to 3 strips
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper

Season the fish with salt and pepper. Heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a grill pan. When heated, add the fish and grill for about 20 minutes. (You want the exterior to be crunchy and golden.) Place over the zucchini/squash “pappardelle” and top with the roasted tomatoes and nectarines.

Mini-Shrimp Boil

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Shrimp boil? Good. Shrimp boil the evening before running 14.5 miles? Um, not the best idea in the world. Now that I’ve whet your appetite, I promise the food was totally tasty the evening before. Just, you know, save it for a time when you’re not doing something ridiculously taxing the next day.

What’s great about a mini-shrimp boil like this (meaning it’s only going to serve 2-3 people and not some massive gathering that requires the customary newspaper spread out, although those are equally good, but we never have anyone over, so really shrimp and all the accoutrements thrown on a newspaper in our dining room would just be kinda sad) is that it’s a one-pot deal. Excluding your cutting board and knife. It’s a mess to eat, yes, but not to fix.

I went simple and opted for the traditional onions, potatoes, corn, and shrimp. As far as the shrimp go, you really don’t want to use the peeled variety as the shells give this boil additional flavor. Just don’t eat the shells when the food’s done. Or do. Whatever floats your boat.

For the potatoes, I used a mix of Yukon gold, new, and adirondack blues. (FYI, the blues ended up looking like some morphed version of poi, which, I’m sorry, but that shit’s disgusting. Yes, I’ve tried it. I loved Hawaii, I did. You introduced me to fish tacos. You’re super chill. But seriously? Poi? And Spam? Is there some lack of gelatinous crud in your diet that you feel you need to eat these things? Because I’m genuinely curious.)

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Mini-Shrimp Boil (Serves: 2 or 3 if you have a third wheel hanging around your house)

3 c. stock (I used a homemade, no-salt-added chicken stock, but whatever you have on hand should work fine. Just adjust the seasoning as needed. I’m a control freak when it comes to salt, so I prefer to be able to add it as necessary.)

6-7 c. water

1-2 Tbsp. Cajun, blackening, or Old Bay seasoning

1/2 tsp. cayenne (Or, if you’re like me, about a teaspoon after you realize, crap, that’s not blackening seasoning in my hand. Oh well, we’ll clean our sinuses out tonight.)

1 Tbsp. salt

1 yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped

2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1/2 to 1 lb. potatoes, washed and quartered

2 ears of corn, shucked and cut in half

1/2 lb. medium-sized shrimp, heads removed

Hot sauce

Butter (I’m a cilantro-lime butter addict now, but use what you prefer.)

Bring the stock, water, seasoning, cayenne, salt, onion, and garlic to a boil over high heat in a large stock pan. Reduce heat to medium high and add the potatoes and corn. Let boil for 30-35 minutes, or until the potatoes spear easily with a fork. Add the shrimp (which takes no time at all to cook, so they’re always the last to go in) and boil for another 10 minutes, or until the shrimp are coral in color.

Plate up with a good piece of bread and salad, and serve with hot sauce, butter, plenty of napkins, and a bowl for the discarded shrimp shells.

For dessert, nothing beats fresh, cold watermelon. Especially if you’ve dumped too much cayenne into your boil and topped it all off with habanero hot sauce. Also? Beagles f-in love watermelon, no matter what Wes Anderson claimed.

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Catfish ‘n Corn

Catfish are one of those great Southern foods and are surprisingly versatile. It can be gussied up (or fixed with an ethnic flare, as I’ve done before). It can be blackened and grilled. It can be battered and fried. But, as far as I’m concerned, cornmeal and catfish can’t be beat. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate, but better (some of us aren’t chocolate fans, okay?). Because cornmeal isn’t heavy it doesn’t detract from the natural taste of catfish. I like to say the fish is “cornmeal dusted” because it’s just a lighter breading. Plus, it makes me sound fancy.

I started this meal knowing I wanted a version of shrimp and grits, a true Southern staple (and one I’ll cover further down the line). Except, you know, catfish and grits. I decided I wanted to use a tomato base instead of the classic roux (a thickening agent comprising a mixture of flour and fat) found in most shrimp and grits recipes. I originally planned to try out a tomato gravy recipe from (personal food obsession culinary hero) Sean Brock that I stumbled upon in a magazine. However, somewhere along the line during a mass recycling effort, that magazine got tossed. Sinful! As I couldn’t find the recipe online, I just decided to wing it and stew some bright cherry tomatoes from the market in sauteed onions and cilantro-lime butter.

The grits? If you’re not in the South and don’t have easy access to locally milled grits, then a) I’m sorry and b) Bob’s Red Mill has a decent version. For my money, though, I’d rather support a smaller operation. Unfortunately, our supply of Geechie Boy Grits from Edisto Island, SC, had quickly dwindled, so during a recent outing to the farmers market in Abingdon, VA (what’s up hometown?!), I picked up a bag of White’s Mill stone ground yellow grits.

Recipes are below for my take on catfish and grits topped with what I’m going to call a chunky tomato gravy. You can serve these with a side of greens (which provides its own entertainment if you have an eater like my husband who physically recoils at the sight of greens), but honestly, this was incredibly filling on its own.

Cornmeal-dusted Catfish (serves: 2, with some leftovers)

1/2 c. cornmeal
1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (depends on how spicy you want this)
1-2 tsp. smoked paprika or pimenton
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 c. milk
1 pound catfish fillets
Olive oil
Hot sauce
Fresh cilantro, chopped

In a small, flat dish, mix the cornmeal, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt, and black pepper. In a separate bowl, pour the milk. Dredge the catfish fillets in the milk, then dredge in the seasoned cornmeal, lightly coating each side of the fillet. Place the fish on a plate and put in the refrigerator until ready to cook. (I’ve found breading seafood/meat then letting it chill in the fridge results in a crispier texture when grilled.)

When ready to grill, remove the fillets from the fridge. In a large skillet or cast iron grill, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is heated, add the catfish and cook about 10 minutes per side (if the fillets are thicker, add another 3-4 minutes per side). The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.

Place the fillets over the grits (below) and top with a few spoonfuls of the chunky tomato gravy (below) and chopped fresh cilantro. Serve with hot sauce (obviously).

Corny Corn Grits
Note: You can omit the milk and use an extra cup of water, or you could sub in chicken stock. Basically, you want a 3:1 ratio of liquid:grits.

2 c. water
1 c. milk (I use raw, but 2% works well)
1 c. stone ground grits
1 tsp. salt
2 c. fresh corn kernels
1/4 c. grated hard cheese (I used a locally made cheddar-style cheese, but any mixture will do of a sharp, hard cheese)
3-4 dashes hot sauce
Pepper

Bring the water, milk, and grits to a boil over medium heat. Add corn and salt, then reduce heat to low. Let simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently. Keep an eye on the grits, because in just a few minutes’ time, the consistency can turn from perfection to plaster. You’ll know the grits are done when the ingredients all come together while remaining creamy.

Pull the grits off the heat, then stir in the cheese, hot sauce, and pepper. Taste and add more salt as needed.

Chunky Tomato Gravy
Olive oil
1/4 c. yellow onions, diced
3 Tbsp. cilantro-lime butter (this can be made by just mashing chopped fresh cilantro and lime zest into softened butter)
1 pint cherry tomatoes (an array of colors makes for a better presentation)
Salt
Pepper

In a small sauce pan, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is heated, add the diced onions and butter. Let sweat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until the onions are translucent and soft. Add the tomatoes, cover, and let sweat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the tomatoes are softened, smash with the bottom of a spoon (you still want to keep a chunky consistency). Season with salt and pepper.

Simple Tuna Steak

Some days simple is best. Actually, almost all days simple is best, especially when it comes to food. And especially when I get home after a long run and want dinner done in 30 minutes because, yeah, I’m hungry. Girl’s gotta eat!

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to buy my fresh fish out of the back of a truck. (You’re probably better off clicking the link for that explanation if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) I was able to get some tuna steaks, and there’s a reason they call them “steaks.” They are meaty. As such, I like to treat them like a piece of red meat, literally. That means just olive oil, salt, and pepper. That’s it. Just grill over medium-high heat until desired doneness. (I think these can technically stand to be a bit pink , maybe a medium rare or medium, but I usually cook them all the way through, which took about 12 minutes per side.)

To “gussy” this up a bit, I topped the tuna with a cilantro-lime butter I picked up from one of my favorite vendors at our market: Beyond Homemade.

Not only does she make some flavorful butters, but she’s also my sole source for freshly ground flour. We’re incredibly lucky in this area to have someone willing to grind wheat berries by hand so more wholesome flour is available (basically not stripped of all its good, nutritious stuff, which is what happens to processed flour). She’s also my go-to for a treat after especially long training runs as she not only uses her flour in her baked goods, she also avoids processed and refined sugars, ingredients which I’ve come to avoid. Anyway, more about the flour later as I’m going to try my (somewhat more confident) hand at making bread at home this weekend. For now, the cilantro-lime butter was the perfect pop for a no-fuss tuna steak. See? You don’t need a litany of ingredients to make something special.

Don’t have access to a great vendor who makes flavored butter? Just chop up some fresh cilantro, zest a lime, and smash the two into your favorite butter. (And hopefully it’s not the margarine kind; real, honest-to-goodness butter is going to work so much better here.)

The sides for this were leftover lemon-herb quinoa salad and roasted tomatoes (just slice fresh tomatoes about 1/2-inch thick, place in a glass baking dish, drizzle with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast for about an hour in a 400-degree oven). Easy. Simple. Healthy.