Friday, October 27, 2006

Remembering Bowen's Island

Charleston lost one of its dining landmark's Sunday when Bowen's Island Restaurant burned to the ground. Details and memories can be found in The Post & Courier, on Mustang Rolling, and on Czuk's Corner

Thursday, October 26, 2006


In the past I've written about two of my absolutely favorite dishes: roasted chicken and roasted potatoes. These have become old standbys in my house, and we have them at least once a week. Lately, I've taken to combining the two, with superb results. Just prep the chicken as in the normal recipe and put it in a large baking pan, then cut up the potatoes and spread them around the chicken in the pan, and put it in the oven. Every fifteen minutes or so, remove the pan and stir the potatoes around so they get good and coated in the melted chicken fat and spices. It's ready in about an hour and fifteen minutes.

This technique not only makes the preparation easier but cuts down the clean up, too: a true one dish meal. And, since I usually cover the leftover bird with plastic wrap and put the whole pan in the refrigerator, I usually don't even have to wash the pan that night.

Best of all, potatoes roasted in chicken fat are fabulous--rich and tender and spiced just right. So good, in fact, that it has made me want to start exploring cooking with schmaltz--if it makes potatoes so wonderful, imagine what it might do for other foods?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Great Tacos at El Mercadito

I had read about El Mercadito a number of times in the past, and all of the reviews began with something along the lines of "who would expect to find great Mexican food way out on John's Island in a Piggly Wiggly shopping center?" So, it has been on my list of Charleston restaurants to try for quite some time. This weekend I finally made it out there for lunch.

When I first opened the menu I was pretty disappointed. I was expecting some fantastic roll call of Mexican specialties that you just can't get on the Carolina coast--things like mole and real tamales and meatballs in chipotle sauce. What I found looked like the same menu you see in every one of those La Hacienda/Monterrey/San Jose/etc. restaurants that have Mexican (or, at least, Latino) owner/operators but apparently all share the same distributor and recipes--including, of course, the "Speedy Gonzales" #1 Lunch Special , which must appear on about eighty-three thousand Mexican restaurant menus in the Southeast.

And then I spied, amid all the standard franchise tex-mex numbered combos, a picture of a platter of tacos, and I knew immediately what I was ordering.

I was about to write, "El Mercadito has real tacos," but I really can't say that for sure, having never been to Mexico and not knowing for sure even if Mexico is the home of the real taco. If you believe food writers (like Mark Bittman, who recently published a nice column on "real tacos" in the New York Times) then these are the real thing. And, real or not, I can say with certainty that they are GREAT tacos.

First, each taco is served on two soft, warm corn tortillas (not a deep fried corn tortilla shell nor a chewy flour "soft taco" tortilla). And, second, you get a choice of five great meats: al pastor, pork carnitas, carne asada (beef), something I can't remember (probably chicken), and cabeza. I knew the last one literally means "head", but the menu had it translated as "beef cheeks". I ordered three tacos, including one with cabeza, figuring that something so odd-sounding had to be good. And, as luck would have it, they were all out of cabeza (or, at least they claimed to be out of it. As with the seared pig trotters at Amuse, I'm starting to suspect that whenever I order something unusual the waiter takes a look at me, figures I don't look like an adventurous enough guy, and tells me they're out of it just to spare me from being disappointed.) So, I ended up with a carnitas, a beef, and an al pastor.

The latter was probably my favorite--a hard call to make, admittedly: all the meats were tender with crisp edges and smoky and fantastic and miles away from the typical overly-spiced steamed ground beef. Tacos al pastor are made from a big hunk of pork coated with spices and cooked on a rotisserie, then shaved off as the tacos are ordered--much like the giant blocks of lamb meat from which gyros are carved.

El Mercadito dresses its tacos not with a big wad of shredded iceberg lettuce and gobs of pasty colby-jack but rather with onions and a little cilantro and nothing else. Wedges of lime are placed on the side, and a small rack of three salsas--pico de gallo, salsa verde, and a rich red chile sauce--are served alongside. And the tacos were fantastic.

Surfing the web as I worked on this post, I noticed a review that suggested El Mercadito recently underwent a renovation to make it into more of the classic "American Mexican" restaurant that Southern diners have come to expect--explaining the presence of the infamous "Speedy Gonzales" lunch combo.

I say more power to them. If the bland, standard menu and baskets of chips and salsa get more patrons in the door and helps pay the bills and keeps the restaurant open that's fine with me. As long as they keep tacos al pastor and other genuine delicacies tucked away somewhere in the back of the menu, I'll be happy. And, I'll be coming back for more.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Low Prices Don't Rule in the UK

An article in last week's Economist magazine discusses the disappointing performance of Asda, the British discount supermarket chain purchased by Walmart in 1999. The reason for Asda's stuggle? Low prices don't seem to matter that much to British shoppers these days.

Whereas in the U.S. (as the huge success of the Super Walmart grocery business has proven) low-cost trumps all, in the UK less than 50% of shoppers say they consider price when selecting food. British food habits are changing: celebrity chefs are hot on UK TV, Britons are both eating out more often and cooking more fresh meals from scratch at home. Quality--or, at least, the perception of quality--sells now, with premium and organic brands growing in market share.

It's an interesting sign that while low prices are an important factor in retail success, they aren't everything. It will be interesting to see if similar trends begin to play out here in the U.S., where the market seems to be increasingly polarized between high-end/organic/expensive (WholeFoods) and low-cost/low-quality/industrial (Super WalMart), without much room in between for people whole like traditional, fresh, wholesome foods.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Trumer Pils

There's a new beer on the Charleston scene . . . or, at least, that was going to be the lead line for this post, until I surfed the web a little and realized I may be a bit behind the times. So, to be more accurate . . .

There's a beer that's new to me on the Charleston scene: Trumer Pils. The label bears two locations: Salzburg and Berkeley, which indicates the beer's origin. The recipe is that of the Trumer Brauerei, a small Austrian family brewery. It was brought to the U.S. two years ago by Gambrinus, Co. of San Antonio, which imports Corona, Modela Especial, and other Mexican beers and owns the breweries that make Shiner Bock and Pete's Wicked Ale. The U.S. version of Trumer Pils is made in the former Golden Pacific Brewing Company plat in Berkeley, California. It is currently distributed in only a limited (but growing) number of states. Charleston, in fact, was the first market in which the beer was released.

Okay, okay . . . but how does it taste? Pretty good, in my view. It's a very light, clean tasting beer, with a nice bitter bite at the end. It's definitely a beer you would want to serve ice cold.

So, even though I'm a year or so late noticing it, it's a beer that is fairly unique to Charleston, and one I'm sure I'll pick up again in the near future.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Wild Ride Continues

Brett over at In Praise of Sardines has posted episodes 3 through 5 of his Wild Ride series on opening a restaurant.

Flat-Iron Steak

I've always been a fan of low-budget cuts of meats. Big ribeyes or tenderloin filets are great treats every now and again, but they are pricey and best suited (for my pocketbook, at least) for special occasions. Many of my favorite dishes are rooted in creative ways to transform the less expensive cuts of meat into tasty delicacies (Braised short ribs, brisket, coq au vin, and osso buco come immediately to mind). While many of these require hours of long, slow cooking and are therefore not ideal for weekday cooking after a busy work day, I'm always on the look out of new, tasty, affordable cuts of meat.

So enter the flat-iron steak. I first saw this version of steak cropping up at my local Publix supermarket. It looked like a pretty nice cut and, at around four bucks a pound, was very reasonable priced. So I bought one and took it home and made a very passable steak dinner from it. It's now entered my list of regular weeknight dishes which can be made quickly and, at less than 2 dollars a serving, isn't going to break the bank.

But what is a flat-iron steak? As it turns out, it's a rather recent cut, and one with a lot of science behind it. Also called a top blade steak, the flat-iron is a cut taken from the top of the chuck (don't forget your handy cuts of beef chart, available here) and apparently is the result of some intensive research from a team at the University of Nebraska's Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources. Working in collaboration with a team from the University of Florida in a project funded by the National Cattlemen's Beef Assocation (yes, there were many people involved in this work), the Nebraskans systematically studied and characterized over 5,500 muscles in the beef chuck and round, searching for new, tender, and inexpensive cuts that traditional butchers had missed (full story here).

One of the cuts they identified was the flat-iron. Because the top shoulder has a big mass of connective tissue running down the middle of it, it looks tough. But, if you cut against the grain and remove the connective tissue, you are left with two thin filets that are exceptionally tender.

I'm always a little suspicious of food born from the science lab, but the flat-iron doesn't involve chemical concoctions or anything like that. It's just a different way to cut up the chuck. Some butchers claim that the flatiron is second only to the tenderloin in overall tenderness. I'm not sure how to verify that, but I cook my flat-iron steaks in the same way I do tenderloin filets, and they always come out great. Below is my standard stove-top version:

Pan-Seared Flat-Iron Steak with Red Wine & Shallot Reduction

2 flat-iron steaks (about 4 to 6 oz each)
coarse kosher salt & pepper
1 shallot, peeled & chopped
2 T parsley, chopped
1/2 cup red wine
1T olive oil
1T butter

Heat a frying pan over medium high heat. When it's hot, add the olive oil. Season the steaks well with salt and pepper and add to pan. Cook on both sides till outsides are brown and crispy--about 3 minutes per side for rare, longer for more doneness.

When steaks are done, remove to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm. Return pan to heat and add butter. Once it is melted, add the parsley and shallots (the smell of the shallots hitting the pan is one of my favorites) and cook until translucent. Turn heat to high, add red wine, and deglaze the pan, stirring with a wooden spoon to get up all the brown bits. Let the red wine reduce till it's a thick sauce; I usually uncover the steaks a pour any of the remaining meat juices into the frying pan, too.

Put the steak on a plate, pour the reduce sauce over the top, and serve.

I usually serve this with mashed potatoes and either green beans or a salad. From start to finish I can do that meal in less than 45 minutes, with the steak taking only 15 or so, so it's perfect for a weeknight.

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