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!

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Autumn in Asheville: Day 1

I suppose it’s here that I should start with some memorable tale about my first trip to Asheville, what I experienced. But the truth is: I don’t remember when it was. I have some vague recollection that it was during the first of many high school field trips taken with a French class to Biltmore. (Incidentally, I know way more about Biltmore than I do about the French language.)

Anyway, I don’t think I can truly recall when I first visited Asheville because in some ways it’s always been a part of me. I’ve visited Biltmore probably a good 15 times, if not more. Family trips have been taken there during Christmastime; part of my honeymoon was spent at Biltmore/Asheville; my husband surprised me with a trip to Biltmore on my 30th birthday; hell, I spent my 21st birthday at the Biltmore Winery, and I’ve (half) jokingly stated I want to be cremated and have my ashes strewn around the estate grounds. (Seriously, though, is that possible? Does anyone know?) It’s notable that Biltmore was always interchangeable in my head with the City of Asheville; I considered them one and the same.

But they’re not.

It wasn’t until my last two trips to Asheville that I took Biltmore completely out of the equation (despite some serious hesitation) and just visited the city. As a result, the fantasy of inhabiting Biltmore has been supplanted with the reality of wanting to live and work in Asheville.

Is it safe to base future living plans on the food and bar scene of an area? Because to me that’s one of the biggest draws of Asheville (well, that and, “Holy crap you guys, look at all the Obama signs! There isn’t a Romney sign to be found! It’s like they know me!”). You see, we don’t get out much at home. The food scene is terribly “meh” around here. There are some fine restaurants in the areas skirting ours, but chain restaurants and processed food abound for the most part. Even at independently owned restaurants, the food quality is just standard. Yes, I adore cooking, but sometimes a girl just wants to go out for a good meal and some good drinks. Good drinks, especially craft beers, are admittedly abundant here, but the good meal part requires at least 20 minutes of driving if you, like me, actually care about what you eat and prefer to support local restaurants that use local farms.

Asheville, though, has it all. The city is home to an incredible craft beer scene, with several heavyweights (Sierra Nevada, New Belgium) slated to open breweries in the area within the next few years. They join a respected lineup of established breweries in the area, including Pisgah Brewing, Green Man Brewery, and Highland Brewing Company. The downtown bars tout their local beers–and craft beers in general–in spades.

Our first stop when we got to Asheville was Thirsty Monk, where our menu got traded out for a new one as soon as we sat down (the beer menu changes every day; according to the website, the bar tapped more than 1,075 beers last year). I tried out Natty Greene’s amber ale, which was smooth and perfect for a fall evening. Thirsty Monk is divided into two levels: hit the upstairs area for American craft beers, the downstairs for Belgian beers. We tried out both levels during our long weekend, and neither disappointed. The overall atmosphere is congenial, with (and this is indicative of most of Asheville) all walks of life converging: the hipsters, the business folk, tourists, locals, young, and old. The upstairs area opens out to the street, with a more festive feel to it; the downstairs section is a bit more cellar-like in feel, a bit more conducive to some pensive thinking (although that could have been because we visited the lower level on a Sunday, a quieter day for those who feel less like playing tourist and more like becoming an adopted local). There’s also some pretty good bar food to be had at Thirsty Monk, and this is where my appreciation for Asheville grows: even on a bar menu you can easily find food that is sourced locally whenever possible. You just can’t find that around here, which makes me sad and frustrated. At Thirsty Monk, we shared some baked pretzels that were accompanied by local mustard from Lusty Monk Mustards (yes, I appreciated too often the fact that we were eating Lusty Monk while at Thirsty Monk). I’d read about this mustard in a local magazine and was interested in finally trying it out. I will be ordering some online soon, because the “Original Sin” was insanely divine. Much more potent than stone ground mustard you may find elsewhere, this had a kick and bite that hit right at the back of the nose. Overwhelming at first, it was soon addictive, and I’m slightly drooling now at the thought of it. We followed up the pretzels with a pizza, which featured homemade dough made using New Belgium beer (craft beers are incorporated into most of the foods served at Thirsty Monk). I’m usually not a big fan of a thinner crust because it tends to be too crunchy for me, but this thinner crust was quite good: chewy and definitely homemade (i.e., fresh with no overly processed aftertaste). It was just a good, solid pizza (we topped ours with lamb and mushrooms), nothing extraordinary but definitely better than most pizzas you’ll find in a place geared much more towards beer.

Because we had a long run the next day, I couldn’t indulge in exotic foods or too much alcohol. I capped myself at one beer, enjoyed the standard fare of carbs in the form of pizza and some pretzels, and headed to French Broad Chocolates for a treat. Now, as a rule I don’t eat many sugary goods. However, I do splurge before a longer run (i.e., if it’s more than 15 miles) because the energy boost keeps me going. While I chose Oaxaca hot chocolate that night, my husband ordered something a bit more off the beaten path: xocolatl, which is definitely not your typical hot chocolate drink. A bitter (read: not sweet), spicier blend, the drink is described on the menu as one that “looks back to chocolate’s early culinary origins” and is “fabled for its ability to sustain a man walking all day without other sustenance.” Every dessert looked incredible, but we decided to split a shortbread cookie dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with pistachios (next time, I’m definitely going for a slice of cake; the cookie was great, but the carrot cake was clearly screaming my name, and I foolishly ignored it). We sat down in the bricked, comfy interior to enjoy our “nightcaps” (seriously, I would live in this chocolate lounge during the chilly days of autumn and winter just for the atmosphere), and my husband immediately squinched his nose up at the xocolatl. Granted, he was trying something new, but I ended up with it instead. As someone who enjoys spicier foods over sweet, it was a bit more palatable to me. I did have to take a few sips of the sweeter Oaxaca hot chocolate (now in my husband’s possession) to balance out the bitter, but something about the “ability to sustain a man walking all day” lore appealed to me, and I finished off the xocolatl thinking maybe it could help with my 22 miler the next day. And my run felt like perfection the next day. It’s the longest distance I’ve run to date in training for an upcoming (my first) marathon, yet the distance felt smooth and almost relaxed. It’s quite possibly all in my head, but I credit the xocolatl and only hope I can find something comparable before I get to the starting line in November (runners are incredibly superstitious when we find food combinations that work).

Now, I should mention that before our little jaunt out to the downtown area our first night in town, I also indulged in a slice of chocolate cake made at our chosen bed and breakfast, Pinecrest. I’m incredibly driven by good food, and part of the reason we chose Pinecrest over the other B&Bs in the historic Montford area of Asheville was because they served a homemade baked good during the afternoon hours (vacation is for indulging, after all!). Always follow your stomach, because it turned out to be a wise decision. The English Tudor-style house sits within easy walking distance of the downtown area (if you don’t mind a walk of a mile or so; it’s well worth it because the Montford area boasts some incredible houses, and we spent each evening imaginary house-hunting) and was built in the early 1900s; some of its structure is attributed to the architect of Biltmore. B&Bs have somewhat of a reputation as being accessible only to the wealthy, the retired, and/or the older population. As someone who has always fostered a desire to own and run a B&B, I find them more charming than I guess others of my generation. Yes, we were the youngest couple staying there, but the innkeepers (Stacy Shelley and Janna and James Martin) made us feel right at home. I had called a few days before our arrival to see if it would be possible to have some breakfast set aside our first morning because we would be up bright and early for our long run and would miss the serving time of 9 a.m. (and there was no way I was going to miss a big, homemade breakfast if I could help it). Because the inn makes a point of rotating the breakfast menu to avoid serving guests the same meal twice, there was no guarantee this could happen, but we were assured they could at least have fruit, yogurt, bread, and juice/coffee on hand when we returned from the run. Well, as soon as we checked in, we were told they had arranged the menu so they could serve a breakfast that could easily be reheated when we got back Saturday morning. It was clear from the start the inn owners would go out of their way to make guests feel special. (And for those who have nutritional sensitivities such as gluten intolerance or are vegetarians, the innkeepers are more than happy to accommodate special dietary requests.)

I’ll have more to say about the inn during subsequent posts, but I will add this: if you are interested in visiting Asheville and prefer to stay at a B&B but are overwhelmed by the options, start with Pinecrest (if they have the availability; and in no way, shape, or form am I being compensated for recommending Pinecrest or any other establishment mentioned on this blog). The prices were beyond reasonable (it should be noted we stayed during October, which is a notoriously busy month for Asheville with the changing of the leaves, so most B&Bs will charge a higher rate for that month), the innkeepers were so welcoming and were easily accessible to provide recommendations of where to eat and what to do (they had already dubbed us “old pros” since we knew the area well and were more than content to let us wander on our own, always asking the following day what we found to do/eat), and the breakfast and afternoon treats were some of the best meals I had during our stay. The house was in a quiet neighborhood, and we heard neither the comings nor goings of our fellow housemates. If they heard us creaking down the stairs our first morning at 6:30, no one made mention of it. I don’t mind staying in hotels, but if I have the opportunity to stay in a place loaded with character that smells like freshly baked brownies every evening, it’s a no-brainer!

Because I’m long-winded, I’m dividing our trip into several parts. Why there are no pictures I think is indicative of the fact that we were too busy enjoying the moment, but there are plenty of pictures of the referenced establishments on their respective websites.

Road Trip. Destination: Lambstock

I’ll be honest. I’m still not quite sure how I got invited to this event. The folks who invited me probably wondered how I got invited as well. But I did. And, as one of my friends put it in an email, it was “a fantasy straight out of Mindyland.”

Pulling out of our driveway in the midst of a downpour on an unusually cool Sunday afternoon for August (and feeling a bit like we were transplanted into that scene from “Dirty Dancing” when they run out to the car in the pouring rain and Johnny has to knock out the window, except there was no glass-shattering that day, just a few cuss words because I forgot to write down the directions before we left the house), with my husband starting to wonder aloud where the hell I was taking him, I knew there was no way I was going to miss out on Lambstock.

This is a culinary event held by gracious host Craig Rogers and his family at Border Springs Farm in Patrick Springs, VA. Now in its third year of festivities, Lambstock features everything, well, lamb. Those in the restaurant business show up to the event (which spans three days/nights) to talk food, yes. But they also show up to celebrate what Craig and his farmers do everyday: raise quality meat in a humane way.

I’ve admitted before that great chefs are the equivalents of rock stars to me, and there were plenty converging at Lambstock to make this girl slightly giddy. Even after I chose college over culinary school (following my parents’ wise counsel to work a summer with a chef), those in the restaurant industry who are producing exceptional food remain strong inspirations. I respect the hell out of what they do, the hours they keep, the passion that goes into what they do on a daily basis. The opportunity to meet some of those people made for a great day. But it was more than that.

It was a chance to visit Border Springs, to see a small farm in operation.

Those who know me know that, aside from the health and environmental benefits of eating locally, I also choose to do so to directly support small farmers who care about what they produce/what they grow/what they raise. It’s not about the bottom line above all else with these folks; it’s about quality and care.

It’s a conscious choice I make to eat locally, but it’s also one influenced by heritage. My family has a background in farming. My great-grandparents on my mom’s side lived off the land (probably more so out of necessity of feeding 11 children). My great-grandparents on my dad’s side made a living off of farming, setting up “camp” in an area known as Rich Valley in Southwest Virginia. Supposedly our Scottish ancestors chose the area because it reminded them of home. It’s easy to see the similarities with the rolling hills, the incredible vistas. Our family name is entrenched in the area, with current family members overseeing a substantial chunk of mostly federally protected farmland.

I have plenty of strong memories connected to farmland. My grandfather would help on the farm in Rich Valley, even though he lived a few miles down the road in a neighboring town. I remember his myriad cars usually smelling of cow manure, of him having to go corral some stray cattle that meandered into the road. Before my great-grandmother died, our Christmas days would be spent in the main household of the farm, eating ourselves silly on oyster soup. Last year, to celebrate the 78th birthday of my grandfather and his twin, dozens upon dozens of family and friends came to Rich Valley to eat, dance, ride four wheelers, and eat some more. With the ever-so-comforting smell of hamburgers and hotdogs in the air, the sounds of banjos and an upright bass mingling with laughter, myriad shaggy dogs running around and between everyone’s feet, it was the perfect evening to make everyone forget what was inevitably looming on the horizon.

My grandfather now holds permanent court over the land since being buried in Rich Valley nearly six months ago (I can’t say this strongly enough: fuck cancer). To me, farms and farmers have always in a way represented home, stirring memories that are now bittersweet but consoling nonetheless. Being at Lambstock and being surrounded by people who appreciate and support what small farmers do was, well, it was heartwarming, if you want to get sappy about it.

We arrived at Border Springs as the rain cleared, just missing a huge breakfast. But, we were treated to lamb hotdogs (I’m not big on hotdogs in general, but these had a fantastic, fresh taste and the perfect hotdog “snap” when biting into it); an astounding spreadable fennel salami brought in by Craig Deihl, executive chef of Cypress in Charleston (that one’s going on the must-eat-at list for the next Charleston trip since we only managed to snag some tasty drinks there last time); and my new favorite seasonal beer, Summer Basil, from small-batch brewery Fullsteam in Durham, NC.

Though I’m a technical editor by day, I am doing freelance food writing (on top of this blog and training for a marathon; man it’s been busy). Food in general and the use of regional foods in particular are passions of mine. Some probably think I’m fanatical about it. As with other things, I don’t care what people think. To me, it’s a no-brainer to support small farmers. Thank god folks like Craig are around to raise meat in a humane way that, well, tastes damn good. And thank god there are chefs who buy his products so he can continue his labor of love.

And thank god I had the opportunity on Sunday to meet some of these folks. To stand around with them in awed silence watching a whole lamb being dressed, spiced, and placed over a spit to roast felt like I was among kin. Watching fat drip into the open fire on a day that heralded the coming of autumn while overhearing talk of oysters and drunk-eating fistfuls of heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with Maldon salt (because chefs don’t drunk-eat the way most of us do) was just the perfect way to spend an afternoon. Maybe that sounds odd to others (and most likely downright evil to vegetarians and vegans), but those watching the lamb-roasting process had nothing but respect for that meat, for its farmers, for the entire cycle of life. The same can’t be said of factory farms. To know your food, to know the source, to meet the face behind the farm, is something downright special.

So thanks to Craig, his family, and his farm family for having us. Hopefully we’ll be invited back next year, because, as much as I loathe camping in general, I would camp out for this!

The Great Cornbread Debate, Part II (Electric Boogaloo)

So you know that other cornbread recipe I posted a few days ago? Scratch that. Apparently I’ve stumbled across something better. And this is how it went down. (Sorry, there are no pictures because I was already coming off making another batch of 32 bagels, dinner, and the first pie crust I’ve made in 10 years. There was a lot going on in the kitchen that day.)

I received a cornbread recipe about five years ago from the wife of a friend of my husband. It was great, and I used to serve it for Thanksgiving meals and bring it to tailgates (speaking of which, holy crap it’s almost football season Hokies!). And then I changed the way I ate, and I couldn’t justify fixing cornbread made with Jiffy mix, sour cream, and canned corn. It was too much for my delicate senses.

Thus, the cornbread recipe fell out of favor and was stashed away for about two years in a family cookbook. Until I resurrected it Saturday and decided to give it a bit of a makeover. I was heading to my first Lambstock (so much more on that later), and of course a proper Southern gal never shows up to a food event empty-handed. Even if that food event is brimming with legitimate chefs. Hey, I’m a-ok with my cooking skills; there’s not much that intimidates me.

Anyway, I started by Googling, “What’s in Jiffy cornbread mix?” Proper way to start, right? Granted, the answer was nothing too terribly bad, but I really can’t stand to use boxed or pre-made items if I can make my own version. And generally, I can. And always, it tastes better.

I transitioned from my Google search to making the cornbread with some tweaks here and there (e.g., subbing in yogurt for sour cream, etc.). But what I really think made the difference here was duck fat. Duck fat makes everything better, you guys. I’m pretty sure the answer to most of life’s little questions is: duck fat. Why is the “check engine” light still on in my Honda? Duck fat. Why do our beagles fart so much? Duck fat. (Okay, I don’t feed them duck fat, and that’s certainly not what makes them little gassy, four-legged machines. Neither will duck fat solve all of your problems, but it’s a start, especially when pondering how to make certain foods taste richer.)

I rolled into Lambstock with my little Ziploc bag full of this cornbread and plunked it down, okay in the fact that no one was really eating it (I think because my husband had placed himself directly in front of the bag and kept sneaking pieces). But eventually, someone did. And on my way back from a little jaunt to the port-a-potty (after which I totally washed my hands, don’t worry), I heard several people hunkered down underneath the Cardinal Point Winery tent yell my name. Then, someone shouted, “Bring the cornbread up here!” Well, at least I wasn’t going to have to take any home with me.

Apparently they thought it was good (one person asked if I was a chef; it’s always funny to watch other’s faces as I say, “I’m a technical editor,” because yeah, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to explain my job in a fascinating way, either, even though I enjoy what I do). Meanwhile, my husband was threatening to keep the bag to himself. I guess it was decent stuff.

So now, the recipe. This is, once again, a sweeter cornbread. That’s just my preference, and I assume the honey could be ommitted if you’re so inclined. If you don’t have duck fat, I really don’t know what to tell you (aside from advising you to go buy a duck and render down the fat, which isn’t so hard at all to do, but that’s another post for another time). It worked great here, and I doubt olive oil or another fat could easily be substituted. But, you never know. If you try it using a different fat and you think it tastes great, lemme know!

Lambstock Cornbread (fits perfectly in a 9×9 baking dish but could easily be doubled to fit in a 9×13 dish)

2 ears fresh corn

1.5 Tbsp. duck fat

2/3 c. hard red flour (again, I use flour ground by hand from Beyond Homemade, but AP flour could be used)

1/2 c. cornmeal (I use Bob’s Red Mill in a pinch)

1 Tbsp. baking powder (non-aluminum, please)

1/4 tsp. salt

2 eggs, room temperature

3 Tbsp. honey

3/4 c. yogurt (I used a mix of Greek yogurt and raw milk yogurt, but all Greek could be used)

3 oz. butter, melted and cooled slightly (scalding butter would only lead to scrambled eggs)

Place 1 Tbsp. of the duck fat in a glass baking dish. Place the dish in the oven, and heat the oven to 400 degrees. (Allowing the dish to sit in the oven while it heats obviously melts the duck fat but also helps prevent sticking.)

Meanwhile, shuck the corn and cut the kernels off the cob (the cobs can be reserved to thicken soups, etc. or composted as need be–obviously, I don’t like to waste things). Remove the dish/fat from the oven and gently drop in the kernels (because splashing, hot fat is never fun on the skin), stirring to lightly coat the kernels in the duck fat. Place dish back in oven and roast the kernels for about 30 minutes, stirring halfway through.

While the kernels roast, mix together in a large bowl the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, honey, yogurt, and butter. Fold the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined (the batter should resemble that of pancake batter, if a bit runnier). Set aside.

When the corn kernels are finished roasting, remove from oven and allow the kernels to cool slightly. Fold into the cornbread mixture; set aside.

In the same baking dish or a cast iron skillet (the more traditional method) drop the remaining 1/2 Tbsp. duck fat. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees, and place the dish/skillet in the oven to allow the duck fat to melt. When heated, remove the dish/skillet from the oven and pour in the cornbread mixture. Shake the dish/skillet back and forth a few times to level out the mixture (using oven mitts, obviously; trust me, grabbing a hot skillet with your bare hands is not the best of ideas).

Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes. The top should be golden, and the cornbread is ready when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Enjoy with some honey, butter, fruit preserves, etc. Or more duck fat. And/or some Cardinal Point wine! And CP guys, my husband and I keep talking about getting up that way soon to do some wine tours, so next time we’re around, I’ll be sure to bring more than a bag of the cornbread!

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.

 

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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Twisting Classics: Julia Child’s Roast Chicken with Grilled Grits Cakes and Peaches

For lovers of all things food, whether professionals or home cooks, Julia Child (who would be celebrating her 100th birthday next month) is one of those models of excellence. To me, she’s simply a class act and represented all I wanted to become: a chef who came into her own at a not-so-tender age, confident, striking, bold enough to get on TV and suggest that if you drop a chicken just pick it up and move along (if the guests aren’t in the kitchen, they won’t see your mistakes). She also inspired some of my favorite “Cosby Show” scenes during which Cliff Huxtable would mimic her unique timbre.

I envied, and still do, Julia’s life as a cook, and I still look to that classic French cookbook for guidance (even reading the section about how to properly handle a knife worked wonders).

By now, that cookbook automatically falls open to one section: roast chicken. It’s a butter-spattered page, one well used. I think it was Anthony Bourdain (or maybe I just like attributing most culinary wisdom to him because he’s just as equally inspiring as Julia: everyone needs a little devil on their shoulder dropping the f-bomb once in a while in the kitchen) who once said that all home cooks should learn to roast chicken. And for good reason. When done right, it’s just simple perfection (although I admit my love of roast duck now exceeds my love of roast chicken). It’s versatile in that leftovers can be used for myriad purposes (sandwiches, soups, etc.). And really, it’s not a difficult meal to master. For the sake of full disclosure, yes, my roasting has resulted in quite a few dry chickens in the past, but that’s because I would always doubt myself. The trick here is one I follow when making anything involving yeast: just go into it sure of yourself. Be confident, be cocky. Success will happen, and the reward is slices of juicy chicken dripping with fat and oil, all surrounded by a perfectly salted, crispy skin. What more could you want?

Now, I’ve tried other roasted chicken methods. There are tons out there. But none–none–beat the Julia Child method. Yes, it requires extensive time at the stove (we’re talking more than an hour), but it’s a small sacrifice to pay. And yes, maybe this recipe is more suited to cooler, fall-like temperatures, but screw it. I want chicken, I fix chicken. The recipe involves flipping, basting, and (ugh) math. But don’t freak out. Just grab a pen and paper and write all the necessary times down in advance, using it as a checklist. (I’m sorry, I majored in communications, my brain is just automatically geared to hate numbers.) It beats the hell out of getting 30 minutes into the process and forgetting if you have another
10 minutes, or are you supposed to flip after this? Shit, I should have taken notes. So just, you know, take notes from the start.

I’ve labeled this entry “twisting classics” because the original recipe uses butter and oil with only salt sprinkled and butter smeared in the chicken cavity. (Yep, if you’re squeamish just reading the term “chicken cavity,” you’re not going to last long in this process because it involves the use of a whole chicken, not those sanitized chicken breasts. Just get over it and be thankful you didn’t have to cut the chicken’s neck and de-feather it.)

I’m not sure if what I’ve done here would make dear Julia roll over in her grave, but I did it anyway. I used cilantro-lime butter and stuffed the cavity with a cut lemon. I also added fresh, whole jalapenos during the roasting process in lieu of the traditional carrots (and to supplement an onion). I’m sorry Julia, I am, but if you tried the final result, you couldn’t possibly be upset with me. This was make-you-wanna-slap-your-mama-it’s-so-good chicken. (And I don’t know why you’d want to slap your mom if something is good, but there you have it.)

Technically, I can’t reprint the recipe because I don’t have permission from the publisher, and I didn’t adapt the recipe enough to really claim such. So, you know–go buy the cookbook. You’ll get your money’s worth with the roast chicken recipe alone, trust me. But don’t be afraid to change it up, as I’ve done. Add a lemon or even an orange or quartered apple in the chicken cavity (after salting and smearing with butter, of course). Try out a flavored butter (the cilantro-lime version can be made by smashing fresh cilantro
and lime zest into softened butter). Add veggies other than onions and carrots. Try out the jalapenos if you like some heat or toss in red peppers for a milder bite. But, above all, do not overcook your bird. If you’re at all hesitant, things will go wrong. Follow the cooking
times prescribed in the cookbook, bearing in mind that, as I’ve found, a chicken that has been purchased from a local farm (e.g., not stuffed to the gills with antibiotics) cooks faster than its less fortunate grocery store kin. (Yes, even if the fresh chicken has been previously frozen.) I used about a three-pound bird I purchased from a local farm (Weathertop Farm), so I opted for a 1:10 total roasting time. Eagle-eyed readers will note my “cheat sheet” says 1:20, but I backtracked because it’s always easier to stuff the
bird back in the oven to undergo some additional roasting than it is to recover
from a dried-out chicken.

Now, I can include my recipe for grilled peaches and grits cakes topped with feta, roasted onions, and honey. I’ve become fond of grilled fruits, especially peaches, which pair well here with the roasted onions and the creaminess of the grits. Remember my catfish n’ corn from the previous night? I made enough grits so that I could have some leftover for this meal. A simple way to use up leftover grits, as I’ve done here, is to pour them into a glass baking dish (I used an 8×8 dish), press the grits down into the pan to mold to its shape, then pop in the fridge to chill and set overnight. The next day, just slice and grill. They’re great topped savory or sweet, for breakfast, lunch, brunch, or dinner.

Grilled Peaches and Grits Cakes with Feta and Honey (serves: 2)

Olive oil

2 ripe peaches, peeled

4-5 slices of grits cakes (see above method)

Roasted onions (these were roasted with the chicken, but you could easily roast whole onions for about 40-50 minutes in a 400-degree oven)

Fresh feta (I prefer locally made, but whatever you have available)

Honey

Over medium high, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your grill pan. Add the grits cakes on one side of the pan, the peaches on the other. Drizzle both with more olive oil. Grill about 8 minutes per side, or until grill marks form. Plate the grits cakes, top with the roasted onions and peaches, crumble over some feta cheese, and drizzle over some olive oil.