Saturday, May 20, 2006

Lowcountry Shrimp Docks

Now that the season is underway, if you want to get the best, freshest local shrimp, cut out the retailers and go straight to the docks where the shrimp is unloaded. The South Carolina Shrimp Marketing Association has a list of Lowcountry docks on their website.

C.A. Magwood's off of Shem Creek is my usual stop, and they are currently selling heads-on white shrimp for $4.00 a pound and heads off for $6.50.

We have a few more weeks left in the white roe shrimp season, then the smaller, sweeter brown shrimp season will take over.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sazerac Cocktail

I came across this page searching for drink recipes that use Pernod. A few months ago, when on a kick of buying and trying new types of liquers, I bought a bottle of Pernod. In part this was a little nostalgia for grad school, when a friend of mine served Pernod absinthe-style at a few parties. Though I still think the classic way of serving the liquorice-flavored Pernod (well watered, with a ratio of about 1:5 Pernod to water) makes for a refreshing summer drink, I've been looking for other ways to try it.

I was impressed by the depth of knowledge and research that went into the Sazerac Cocktail page, and it helps that it is a distinctive regional drink. As soon as I get around to acquiring a bottle of rye whiskey I'm going to give this one a try.

Old School Barbecue Sauce--Really Old School

Lex Culinaria's Summer Barbeque Challenge asks bloggers to step outside their comfort zones and come up with interesting barbecue dishes so we all don't have to keep coming back to the same old set of standbys we always use. My approach is not to come up with something new and creative but rather to go old school--really old school--and try the flavor of America's original barbecues. And, a good place to start is with barbecue sauce.

Barbecue fans know that the sauce served with ribs, brisket, and pulled pork varies greatly from one part of the United States to another. The American Barbecue Belt can be divided into distinct “sauce zones” defined by the dominant ingredients in their native concoctions--vinegar-based in North Carolina, mustard-based in central South Carolina, molasses-and-tomato based in Kansas City, etc. Over the past 20 years, the bottled barbecue sauce business--long dominated by a few brands from Kraft and Heinz--has blossomed, and dozens of varieties from many different regions can be found on the typical supermarket shelf. But, as entrenched as these products are in American backyard cooking, barbecue sauce as we know it today is a relatively recent development.

Barbecue originated among the Caribbean and North American Indian tribes before the arrival of Europeans to the New World. British colonists adopted both the word and the cooking technique from the Native Americans, and over time it took on the additional meanings of a dish cooked in such a manner as well as the social event at which the food is served--such as the backyard barbecue.

Americans had been cooking barbecue for more than a century before the first instructions for preparing it began appearing in print. The earliest recipe for pit-cooking barbecue is likely the one in Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife (1839), which calls for only the simplest of basting sauces: “nothing but a little salt-water and pepper, merely to season and moisten it a little.” Once the meat was done, Bryan recommended the cook “squeeze over it a little lemon juice, and accompany it with melted butter.”

Three decades later, Mrs. Annabella Hill, from La Grange, GA, published similar directions in Mrs. Hills New Cook Book (1872), though her recipe incorporates butter and a little mustard into the basting liquid: "Melt half a pound of butter; stir into it a large tablespoon of mustard, half a teaspoonful of red pepper, one of black, salt to taste; add vinegar until the sauce has a strong acid taste.” At the end of cooking, “pour over the meat any sauce that remains.”

This basic combination of butter or some other fat, vinegar, and pepper remained the standard barbecue sauce throughout the 19th Century. An 1860 account of a Virginia event described iron vessels positioned along the side of the pit, ”some filled with salt, and water; others with melted butter, lard, etc. into which the attendants dipped linen cloths affixed to the ends of long, flexible wands, and delicately applied them with a certain air of dainty precision to different portions on the roasting meat.” In 1896, Harper’s Weekly described a Georgia barbecue and noted that the meat was cooked for twelve hours and “basted with salt water . . . then, just before it is eaten, plentifully bedabbled with ‘dipney’—a compound of sweet country lard and the strongest vinegar, made thick and hot with red and black pepper.”

Today, eastern barbecue sauces couldn't be more different from their Texas counterparts, but On a Mexican Mustang Through Texas, an 1883 travelogue, described a barbecue outside San Antonio with a sauce almost identical to that used in Virginia and Georgia: “Butter, with a mixture of pepper, salt, and vinegar, is poured on the meat as it is being cooked.” The famed regional variations in barbecue sauces apparently did not develop until the 20th Century.

Early barbecue sauces were simple, prepared in bulk, and used only basic staples for ingredients. One notable feature of the old recipes is that they did not include sugar. That addition began appearing in cookbooks in the 1920s. Around the same time, a variety of other new ingredients began working their way into the sauces, many of them commercially-prepared products such as ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. By World War II, barbecue sauce had evolved from a thin, peppery basting liquid to a sweet, cooked product with a mix of many flavors.

The addition of sugar to barbecue sauce altered its nature, making it thicker and turning it into something that, like ketchup, can be poured directly onto meat in large quantities. Sugar caramelizes and burns when exposed to direct heat, so using such sauces to baste cooking meat can lead to a charred, blackened crust. For this reason, barbecuists typically wait until the end of cooking to pour on the sauces or use a separate low-sugar “mopping sauce” during cooking and save the sweet stuff until serving time.

The addition of sugar to barbecue sauces seems to have changed the way people eat barbecue. Modern sauces are thicker and sweeter than the original varieties, and when slathered on at the end of cooking they can overpower the natural smoked flavor of the meat. As a result, many cooks these days devote less attention to the cooking process because they can just dollop on a lot of flavor at the end. They can now use electric cookers and gas grills to get a crispy grilled crust on the meat and rely on the sauce for the flavor. The addition of liquid wood smoke to barbecue sauces has completed this process. Now, you can pour half a bottle of K.C. Masterpiece over some chicken parts, slap them in a 350 degree over for an hour, and—voila—barbecued chicken!

So, my new approach for the backyard barbecue is to go old school. If you want to get serious about it, you can dig a pit in the ground and burn your own hickory and oak logs down to coals--that's how it was done in the 19th Century. But, you can compromise a little and use charcoal and a modern kettle grill and still get meat that is smoky and flavorful. Here's how I do barbecue chicken the classic way:

1. Build a charcoal fire in your grill (I prefer using a chimney starter). While it's burning, soak 2 handfuls of hickory wood chips in a bowl of water.

2. While the charcoal is burning down, prepare the barbecue sauce Start with about a cup of vinegar (apple cider and/or white) and add in a bunch of salt, black pepper, and red pepper. I don't have any set formula here, but you want to end up with salty, hot vinegar.

3. Take two whole chickens and split them down the middle so you have four chicken halves. Place in a large baking dish and brush them down well with the vinegar sauce, reserving the rest of the sauce for basting during cooking.

4. When the coals have burned down to glowing embers, spread them evenly in the grill.

5. Drain the hickory chips and scatter them across the hot coals. If any of them catch fire and start flaming, give them a minute or two to burn.

6. Place the chicken halves on the grill (inner part downward) and brush with more of the vinegar sauce. Put the lid on the grill and let them smoke.

I wish I could say I had more of a method from here, but essentially I let the chicken smoke undisturbed on the grill as long as I can--at least an hour. Sometime's I'll open the lid and peek in to see how things are going, but usually I try not to disturb it. Sometimes if I open the lid I'll dab on some more of the basting sauce; other times I leave it alone. It always seems to come out just fine. I would recommend piercing the chicken down to the thigh bone before serving, though, to make sure it is cooked through. If the grill has gone cold and you still have red juices, you can finish the cooking in a 350 degree oven.

The key is the hickory chips, which impart the rich, smoky flavor (and that distinctive mahogany smoke ring a quarter of an inch or so into the chicken), and the sauce, which leaves the outer skin salty, spicy, and delicious but doesn't get in the way of the smoky flavor. I have a refrigerator full of various types of bottled barbecue sauces, but my wife and I don't use them at all with this barbecue chicken. The meat itself carries the day.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Sunflower Cafe

Here's a new one to add to the Dining in Charleston list:

Sunflower Cafe, 2366 Ashley River Road (Highway 61): Don't understimate this small, unassuming looking restaurant tucked away in the corner of an old strip mall off of Ashley River Road. It looks like it would be a standard pancake-breakfast, meat-and-three lunch kind of place. But, the food is really fantastic.

The breakfast menu boasts a series of eggs benedict variations (including country ham and crab), rich omlets, beignets, and french toast. For lunch, there's steak sandwiches made not with some cheap cut but tender filet(!), plus chicken and crabcake croissants, and a range of fresh salads.

The Sunflower is off the beaten path--way down Highway 61 past I-526. But, if you are heading out to Drayton Hall or Middleton Place, drop in and give it a try for breakfast or lunch (they close at 2:30 PM). It's one of my new West Ashley favorites.

Shrimp Season Opens

I was out of town last weekend, visiting my parents, so I missed what is surely one of the most important events of the food season in the Charleston: the Blessing of the Shrimp Fleet in Mount Pleasant, which marks the opening of the state's first shrimp season of the year.

All of the shrimp boats from Shem Creek and surrounding areas gather out in the Charleston harbour, where a blessing is read over loud speakers. The boats then parade northward up the coast of Old Town Mount Pleasant, past Alhambra Hall (a county park), where a crowd gathers to watch the boats sail past and hear descriptions and histories of each boat read over the PA system.

South Carolina has 3 distinct shrimp seasons. The first, "roe shrimp" (which are white shrimp), starts in May or June (depending upon when state biologists determine sufficient eggs have been spawned) and lasts about a month. The haul depends upon how cold previous winter was, with a mild winter meaning more shrimp. A second season starts fast on the heels of the first, this time for brown shrimp, and usually lasts through August. In the fall, the main white shrimp season begins, and it is usually the largest of the three. The shrimp caught during this season are the offspring of the Spring spawn. The white shrimp seaon peaks in September or October and can lasts as long as December.

Local shrimpers are predicting a good catch, though they are hurting economically from high gas prices and competition from oversea shrimp farmers. I'm about to head down to my seafood market and see if they have some fresh white shrimp in yet--it's been a long dry winter living off the frozen stuff.

Lose the Tomato

Don't get me wrong. I love tomatoes. When July rolls around, I'll be down at the Marion Square farmer's market every Saturday loading up my bags, and twice a week I'll plead with my father (who grows wonderful tomatoes in his backyard garden) to hook me up with another basket. They are perfect in fresh salsa, pasta sauces, BLTs, and my favorite summer salads. But recently I've started to use tomatoes less and less in my cooking, and it's had a remarkable effect.

Tomatoes have a mysterious power to make good things even better--hamburgers and sandwiches, for example. A handful of diced tomato sprinkled across a plate of enchildas not only brightens the look of the dish but makes the taste richer and more alive. A leaf of lettuce and two tomato slices have neglible calories. So, how can a plain ham and cheese sandwich seem so much more filling and satisfying when you dress it up with lettuce and tomato?

In part it is a matter of texture. Lettuce adds crispness that contrasts nicely with softer foods, and the tomato adds a little tangy flavor and some moisture to things that would otherwise be too dry. But, it turns out there's another factor at play: tomatoes really do make things just plain taste better.

Tomatoes are high in glutamic acid, a common amino acid. In its "free" form--when it is not bound up with other amino acids into protein--it imparts a savoriness to food and creates the perception of richness or thickness. Free glutamate is often called a "flavor enhancer", something that intensifies the flavors already present in foods. That is what makes monosodium glutamate (MSG) such a common (and notorious) food additive: it helps make foods seem richer and more flavorful. "Hydrolized protein" and "autolyzed yeast extract" are essentially the same thing. (Jeffrey Steingarten gives a great overview of glutamate and its food effects in It Must Have Been Something I Ate.) Tomatoes, in short, act as a natural form of MSG.

So, what's the problem with a little glutamic acid in the form of tomatoes? Despite all the controversy a decade or so ago, I have no real problem with MSG or the concept of flavor enhancers. In fact, the natural flavor-boosting properties of tomatoes seem something to relish and take advantage of . . . up to a point.

The problem with flavor enahncers is that--like too much sugar or too much salt--they can add a lot to a dish, but they also can change the basic flavor balance and sometimes overpower the more subtle tastes of the other ingredients. If you leave the enhancer out of a dish where it usually has been found, you may miss out on some of the rich, thick mouthfeel. But, you also may find some new flavors and subtle complexities of taste that you hadn't noticed before.

So, why not lose the tomato and see what happens? A few of the dishes that are changed without tomato include gumbo, pizza, barbecue sauce, chili, and braised meat (like short ribs). Since I'm very much on a no-tomato kick these days, I'll probably post recipes for many of these soon. For now, here's my tomato-free take on chili, which uses a slow-simmered chili sauce rather than tomatoes to provide richness. It takes a little more effort, but I find it much, much better than my old tomatoed-up kind.

Chili Sauce

3 oz. dried ancho chili peppers
3 clovers of garlic, peeled & minced
2 T olive or vegetable oil
1 t dried oregano
1 t ground cumin
2 cps. chicken stock

Slit the sides of the dried peppers and remove the seed, then remove the stems. Toast the peppers in a dry pan over medium-high heat, tossing occassionally, until the fragrant smells are released (3 to 5 minutes). Then, dump the peppers into a quart of hot water and let soak for about half an hour.

When the peppers are almost done soaking, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy sauce pan. Add the garlic, then a minute later the cumin and oregano. Saute till lightly brown.

Put the soaked peppers in a food processor or blender alon with about half a cup of the soaking water. Pulse till pureed. Pour the mixture through a fine strainer into the stock pot with the garlic and spices. Use some of the soaking water to rinse the food processor container and the strainer to make sure you get all the pepper puree into the stock pot.

Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Allow to boil until reduce by about half (10 minutes or so), then lower the heat and allow to simmer as long as you can, periodically skimming the orange foam from the top. A half hour is a minimum, since the sauce will be bitter at first and needs slow cooking to richen. When the sauce has simmered down to a good consistency, season with salt and pepper to taste.

If you are going to use it in a slow cooked dish like chili (below) then you can keep the time short, since it will have plenty more slow cooking with the other ingredients. If you are going to make a big batch to use with enchilidas or as a condiment, let it go all day at low, low heat.

Tomato-Free Chili Con Carne

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, diced
1 lb. chopped round steak or ground beef
2 cups cooked kidney beans
2 cups chili sauce (see above)
2 T chopped parsley
salt & pepper

Cook the onion, garlic, and beef over high head until browned. Drain off the fat and add the beans, chili sauce, parsley, and salt & pepper. Cover and cook forever, or at least as long as you can stand it. Slow simmering is the key to getting all the complex flavors to mingle and emerge.

I like to serve in a bowl with a little grated cheese, sour cream, and green onions on top.

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