Monday, December 25, 2006

My Favorite Gift

Here's my favorite Christmas gift so far. Now if I can just contrive to cut my finger . . .

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Lowcountry Nibbles

The owners of Charleston's TBonz Gill & Grill and Pearlz Oyster Bar restaurants have teamed up with a Brazilian partner to open a new Brazilian Steakhouse in Myrtle Beach. The name? "Rioz Brazillian Steakhouse." Hopefully this new venture will turn a profit quickly so they can finally afford a few S's.

As Chuck Boyd has observed, several more of Charleston restaurants have gone 100% smoke free of their own volition.

I'd seen quite a few articles about The Sanctuary on Kiawah, the Wentworth House downtown, and the Woodlands in Summerville getting five-diamond ratings from AAA. But now the stories appear to have gotten picked up as far away as Canada. Too much more press like this and Charleston may turn into a tourist destination.
Rotten Oysters reviews Fiery Ron's Home Team BBQ.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Charleston Coffee Exchange

One of my new favorite places in town is the Charleston Coffee Exchange, which has been open not quite a year out on my side of town in the BiLo Shopping Center at the corner of Bee's Ferry and Highway 61. It took me a while to stop in because I figured, hey, it's just another coffee shop. When I finally did give it a try I realized--whoa--this is much, much more.

For $1.75 you can get a large coffee made from freshly roasted beans, with flavors that vary from day to day. My favorite thus far has been a Papua New Guinea variety that, upon first taste, I didn't think I was going to like. It was sort of strong and vegetably--a definite pumpkin flavor. By the third sip that initial flavor started fading away and was replaced by the most wonderful, subtle taste. Something that I can't even find word to describe, except to say that it was very likely the best cup of coffee I've ever had in my life. I drank it in my car on the way to go shopping and it made my whole afternoon happy.
They also sell a wide range of whole coffee beans by the pound and half-pound, and at very reasonable rates. The Papua New Guinea variety I loved so much is only $6.99 for a half-pound, which is less than many of the gourmet beans you find in grocery stores.
Forget Starbucks. This place has the real goods.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Here's Your Sign

Okay, so it's a cheap gag, but I love this BBQ sign generator. There are literally several possible uses you could put this to.

Tip of the hat to Meathenge for the link.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Holy Guacamole!

A recent lawsuit filed against Kraft foods accuses the corporation of fraud for selling "guacamole" that is only 2% avocado:

Like much of the prepared guacamole sold in supermarkets, Kraft guacamole is essentially a whipped paste made from partially hydrogenated soybean and coconut oils, corn syrup, whey and food starch. Yellow and blue dyes give it the green color.

Of course, no story is ever quite what it seems. As it turns out, the woman bringing suit against Kraft is a serial plaintiff in class-action lawsuit against corporations, and Kraft's "Guacamole dip" isn't even all that popular. But still--green-dyed whipped oil/sugar paste? Gargh.

And, Kraft isn't the only one skinny-dipping us on the avocado. Thank God there are plenty of lawyers out there who are selfless enough to protect us.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What's Up with Triggerfish?

It seems like every time I've been out to a halfway nice restaurant recently "triggerfish" has been on the list of specials. It sounds exotic, and not too long ago at Red Drum Gastropub in Mount Pleasant I sampled some of my dining companion's triggerfish dish and found it to be pretty darn tasty--a white, flaky, firm fish, which they had served with a light buttery sauce. Over at Ping Island Strike, Sean Brock from McCrady's has a photo of triggerfish with eggplant, black truffles, tomato, and maiitake mushrooms that looks fantastic.

But, I can't recall ever having seen triggerfish on a restaurant menu before the fall of 2006.
There doesn't seem to be much written about the triggerfish, but they are certainly popping up at restaurants all over the South. The triggerfish is related to red snapper and grouper, but it has a lot of bones and is tough to skin, and half of its body consists of the head, which cuts down on the amount of usable meat and may explain their relative obscurity up until now. An article on North Carolina fishmonger Jon Haag notes "hogfish and triggerfish used to be considered 'trash fish' by commercial fishermen, seafood shop owners, and restaurateurs. Now, both are in high demand and command prices three or four times higher than their 'trashy' label once allowed."
But, I've not seen any explanation for this recent rise in popularity.
One factor may be the renewed interest among restauranteurs (particularly here in Charleston) in serving fresh, locally-caught seafood. But is there more to the story? Has someone perfected a way of easily skinning and filetting the previously-stubborn fish? Or, perhaps some clever distributors have figured out how to take an inexpensive trash fish you could once barely give away and upsell it to susceptible cooks and consumers.
It does taste good, though.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Affordable Cuts of Meat Part 2: Sirloin Tip Side Steak

I am a notorious fan of economical cuts of meat (flat iron steak, for example). Taking an inexpensive cut and transforming it through braising and reduction into a fine dinner satisfies both my inner gourmet and my inner cheapskate. So, it was with great joy that I found a nice selection of sirloin tip side steak at my local grocery store--.85 lbs at $3.89 lb, for a total of just $3.31 for two serving's worth.

And here's what I did with them:

Braised Sirloin Tip Steaks

Approx. 1 lb sirloin tip side steaks or other inexpensive "braising" steaks
1/2 white onion, finely diced
1 carrot, peeled & finely diced
1 stalk celery, finely diced
approx. 2 T minced parsely
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 glass of red wine
1 cup chicken or beef stock

1. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat, adding in a drizzle of olive oil when the pan is hot.

2. Season the steaks liberally with kosher salt and pepper and add to the pan.

3. After steaks are well browned on the first side, turn them over and add the carrot, onion, celery, parsley and thyme to the pan.

4. Cook until steaks are fully brown and vegetables are cooked translucent.

5. Add the red wine to the pan and let it reduce away, stirring up all the crispy bits at the bottom of the pan.

6. Pour in the chicken or beef stock and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to around medium low and cover.

7. Allow to simmer, turning the steaks occassionally, for between 1 and 1-1/2 hours until the meat is tender.

8. Remove the steaks to a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.

9. Strain the vegetables and cooking liquid through a sieve into a bowl, pressing and mashing the vegetables to extract all the juices. Discard the vegetables.

10. Return the pan to the stove, turn heat to high, and add in the cooking liquid. Cook over high heat until reduced to a thick sauce.

11. Put the steaks on plates and drizzle with the reduced sauce.

I served my sirloin tip side steaks with some white rice and crusty bread and it was so good I forgot to take a photo of the finished product until I had almost finished the entire plate (and nothing looks more unappetizing than photos of half-eaten food!)

Braise, braise, braise, then reduce, reduce, reduce the cooking liquid. It can turn even the lowliest cuts of meat into an uptown meal.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Unsolicited Advice for the Novice Cook (Part I)

As they are learning the ropes, most home cooks reach a point when they have eaten and read and experimented enough to know that there is this nebulous thing you can call "good cooking" that is somehow different from the run-of-the mill variety. It's an exciting place to be--where you begin finding some classic techniques to be indispensible, discarding others as junk--and can really see your dishes improving with each passing month.

I'm sure every cook would have their own list, but if I could roll back the clock ten years (to when I was just trying to learn how to cook from scratch) and share some key lessons with myself, here's a few of the one's I'd choose:

1. Stop using margarine and start using butter. This has nothing to do with the health benefits of one over the other (and who can keep track of the latest scientific consensus, anyway). Butter has a creaminess and a texture and an enriching quality that you just can't get from margarine, which is essential salty vegetable oil, and it is indispensible for so many classic recipes. Unsalted butter is best--you can always add salt to a dish, but you can't take it away.

2. Use wine to deglaze pans. This is a simple step that adds so much. I keep a four-pack of those small bottles of white wine (the single-serving size) in my refrigerator for just this purpose.

3. Don't thicken sauces with flour or constarch: reduce them instead. Using a lot of flour to thicken sauces dates back to the days of Scientific Cookery in the late 19th Century, but it can be a crutch that ruins the texture of sauces. It's a snap to stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour to thicken something up; using cornstarch is even easier. But, they introduce an unpleasant gummy texture and, since they replace the long-simmering time required to make reduced sauces, result in a less-flavorful sauce. It's a shortcut that isn't worth it. Just turn up the heat and let the sauce bubble away until it is reduced down to the thickness you desire.

4. Make your own stock and use it liberally. Non-cooks seem to be overly impressed (or just puzzled) by people who make their own stock. I'm not sure why. It may take hours of cooking time, but the actual work involved is minimal--you just put a pot of water on to boil and toss in some meaty bones or chicken carcasses and some roughly chopped vegetables. Even if you roast your bones and vegetables first and skim the stock while it simmers, it's just not very labor intensive. And the payoff is huge. Using stock in dishes adds so much more flavor--and complexity of flavor--that once you start cooking with it, it's hard to imagine going back. It's an essential component of many classic sauces, and certainly a key for "high cuisine", but it also makes every day recipes--like chili and spagehetti sauce--richer and more flavorful as well. And, if you make a big pot you can freeze it in plastic containers and always have it on hand for cooking.

5. Control your own spices. The supermarket boasts dozens of pre-made spice mixes, like "chili seasoning" and "Italian Herbs", that are convenient but take all control of the flavoring away from you. Many contain non-spice additive like starch or MSG that, like using flour in sauces, is a shortcut way to get some thickness or body to cooking but, ultimately, result in an industrial aftertaste to food. It takes trial and error to learn what spices go well together and in what proportion, but over time you will achieve far, far better flavor than you would if you rely on a packaged mix to do it for you.

6. Get a good chef's knife and learn to chop and dice. I got a good chef's knife as a wedding present, and I'll never go back. There's no need to drop 75 bucks on a package that comes with 12 different knives (most of them serrated, which is the only way to make cheap metal able to cut) and a block to store them in. The same $75 will buy you a nice chef's knife, and that's really all you need--and I mean really. I have only two other knives (a thin boning knife and a bread knife), but in a pinch the chef's knife could substitute for either of them. Spend a little extra for a steel and keep the knife sharp.

Those chef-sized knives with a serrated edge are next to useless (q.v. bad kitchen equipment)--you can only use them for sawing, not chopping or slicing. With the cheapy knives (or a dull good knife), you'll never be able to chop or dice vegetables finely, which cuts out a whole spectrum of cooking. Once you have your good knife, it will be a prized tool for years to come.
7. Cook with Shallots and Fresh Parsely: For some reason, these two ingredients are not widely used in most home cooking, but both add deep, harmonious flavor to a wide range of dishes. One of my absolute favorite cooking smells is when I dash a handful of minced shallots and parsley into a hot frying pan along side an almost-done steak or pork chop. That's the scent of heaven. Buy some shallots the next time you are at the grocery--they are remarkably inexpensive--and give them a whirl.

These are just a few of my favorite kitchen lessons: I'll add some more down the road. I love hearing what other cooks have found to be their key tips and tricks, so please share!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Lowcountry Nibbles - 7 December

Josh M, a student at MUSC, has started a new blog devoted to South Carolina barbecue. Just a few posts so far, but let's hope he keeps it going.

What does Brown's Barbeque in Kingstree, the Chestnut Grille in Orangeburg, and The Beacon in Spartanburg have in common? As the Post and Courier notes, they are all regular pit stops on the South Carolina political circuit. The Sunset Restaurant, a meat-and-three in West Columbia, is another noted hot spot (Republican, in this case) that didn't make the list.

A host of Charleston retaurants, including FIG, The Boulevard Diner, The Noisy Oyster, and Charleston's Cafe will be featured on the Food Network's "Hungry Detective" program Tuesday night (Dec 12th) at 10:30 PM.

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