Friday, December 28, 2007

Egg v. Egg

Every now and then I like to test my own assumptions about food--in particular, about the differences between supermarket-bought "conventional" shipped-from-who-knows-where and the fresh locally-raised organic free-range and/or heirloom stuff that's supposed to be so superior to the former kind.

It's that "supposed to be" part that bothers me. There's so much emotion and romance and sentimentalism and outright hysteria surrounding food that it's hard to separate taste from psychology. We all know that the best meals you ever ate had more to do with circumstance than with the quality of the food itself--either because you were famished, or you were in a particularly charming locale, or you were eating with someone with whom you were desperately in love. And, we know that our era has inherited hundreds of years of food angst and food guilt that warps and blurs our perception of taste.

So, how to separate taste from context, wish from reality? The blind taste test is a great start.

It's really a two part test. First, can you even distinguish one item from another? If so, then the second part is: which tastes better?

Past contests have included organic whole milk (pasteurized and homogenized) vs. conventional whole milk. The result? I couldn't even distinguish between the two, much less say one was better than the other. Raw, unpasteurized milk was another story--easy as could be to tell the difference vs. conventional milk, though there's not a clear winner on taste (raw milk definitely is an acquired taste). Grass-fed beef vs. corn-fed beef: you can tell them apart a mile off. The grass-fed tastes like, well, grass, and easily beats out the conventional stuff (to my palate, at least) when it comes to texture and flavor.

This round it's eggs. In the left corner, in the brownish speckled shell, a fresh free-range all organic egg from a local farm out on Wadmalaw Island. In the right corner, in the pure white shell, a conventional grocery store egg from some hen battery somewhere. The method of cookery: hard boiled in the same pot for 15 minutes (to ensure equal cooking). Then cooled, peeled, and sliced.

The Wife tolerates these sorts of experiments of mine with the forebearance available only to those who, on a regular basis, have to do things like buckle seat belts on imaginary friends, read the same pop-up book 39 times in succession, and try to explain for the twelfth time why chanting "No cuts, no butts, no coconuts" while pointing to one's groin is not only unfunny but also quite impolite. With that unmistakable "maybe if I help him quickly he'll go away and let me read my book" demeanor, she gamely assisted in the contest.

I placed one slice of each into separate spoons then turned my back and closed my eyes and had The Wife deposit one of the slices into my mouth without telling me which one it was. I chewed pensively and concentrated my mental focus on my tongue and the roof of my mouth. Is this the free-range? Or the conventional? Does it taste stronger, firmer? Hmm . . .

A quick swig of beer to cleanse the palate, then egg number two. Okay, the texture's slightly different, but only slightly . . . tasty, but I've always loved hard-boiled eggs no matter what the type. This one was going down to the wire . . .

"Okay," I said finally. "The first one's the free-range egg, and the second one's the conventional one."

"Nope," The Wife said, almost gleefully. "The first one was the regular egg. The second one was the brown one."

So there you have it. Not only did I guess the identity wrong, I can honestly say that they tasted pretty much the same to me. Now, there are any number of explanations to take into account here. Maybe hardboiling isn't the best way to compare them (it did seem a lot cleaner than trying to, say, make an omlet or use them in some sort of complicated recipe). And maybe the free-range egg wasn't all that fresh (there was no date on the container) and if it had been snuck out from under the hen that very morning and never refrigerated maybe the taste difference would have been more dramatic.

But for now I'm calling it a draw.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Goose

A great goose tale.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Slippery Slope

I've been buying Le Petit Francais bread for several years now, ever since I found it in my local Publix's freezer aisle. While it can't really hold a candle to properly-made fresh bread, it is head and shoulders above the stuff distributed by Pillsbury and the average grocery-deli french loaf. I always keep a few packages in my freezer so I'm never without good bread for dinner.

One of the reasons why I like it is that it's very basic stuff, with an ingredients list that doesn't require a chemistry degree to understand: wheat flour, yeast, spring water, and sea salt. The bread is par-baked, and making it is simple: remove from the freezer, thaw on the counter for about 15 minutes, then bake at 425-degrees for eight to ten minuets. Perfect for that scrambling-to-get-it-together-cause-I-just-got-home-late-from-work family dinner.

Then, six months or so ago, I noticed a new little slogan on the package: "freezer to table in 10 minutes!". How can this be, I wondered, when the very instructions on the package say you have to thaw it for fifteen minutes before you even put it in the oven? I kept making the bread the same old way and it tasted fine.

Then, a few months ago, Le Petit Francais came out with a new version of the product: mini-baguettes, which are about half the size of the original, and have new instructions: "No thawing necessary--place directly on the center rack of the oven." The dough appears to be exactly same as the longer baguettes, so why no 15 minute thaw?

The other day, as dinner was about ready, I realized I had forgotten bread. I had a bag of mini baguettes in the freezer and grabbed a couple. Dinner would be ready in just 10 minutes, and the bag said "no thawing required"--so I tossed them in the oven icy and hard as a rock. 10 minutes later the outside was nicely browned, and when I split one apart it was cooked through and soft and steamy in the middle.

Midway through the meal, The Wife commented, "You know, I'm just not crazy about this bread." And, as usual, she was right. The bread just wasn't good at all--flat and tasteless. I nibbled at it, but left most of the hunk on the edge of my plate at the end of the meal.

So the next time, I was very careful and thawed it the full fifteen minutes (probably more) and--guess what?--the bread was crisp and crusty on the outside and rich and tasty on the inside, the way good bread is supposed to be.

So what's the deal? A wild guess: marketing. I can only imagine that someone for Le Petit Francais ran some focus groups and found their bread wasn't selling as well as it could because it takes too darn long to prepare--who has that extra fifteen minutes for thawing, after all? I can only imagine that Pillsbury is eating their lunch with their ghastly but (judging from the amount of it on my local grocery store shelves) strong-selling "Hot & Crusty in 5 Minutes Twin French." 5 minutes!?!? How can we compete?

And thus begins the slippery slope (or, rather, continues the slippery slope, since the reason I bought Le Petit Francais in the first place was for the convenience of always having pretty-good bread on hand.) To save a few extra minutes we settle for a product that is markedly inferior but before long we forget what the good stuff ever tasted like.

And before long we have Easy Mac.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Note for the Childless

I'm on a "Friendly Friday" email list with a bunch of old grad school buddies, and every Friday someone sends out a question to get a conversation rolling, and it's a fun way to keep in touch. This week, the question came from one of the single people on the list, and it was as follows:

Why is it that people with kids a) take their young children to nice restaurants and b) don't seem to care that their children are screaming and yelling and running through the aisles and annying everyone? When you are childless and single and eating with friends at a nice place, you used to make fun of these what happened to make you become one? Will I become one too?

This is what I replied:

The other day a guy with a mustache cut me off in traffic and gave me the finger. Why are people with mustaches such jerks? If I grow a mustache, will I start giving people the finger too?

On point a), a little clarification: Define “nice.” If by nice you mean someplace WITHOUT a child’s menu and crayons at the door, where entrees cost more than $10, where you would order a bottle of wine with your meal, and/or would take a date for dinner, then the answer is, “I have no idea. They must be clinically insane.” I would no sooner take my kids there for dinner than pay $50 bucks to buy them an opera ticket—-we’d all be miserable and it’s money down a hole, and when I eat at a nice restaurant I like to linger over coffee and dessert and not eat my dinner in 19 minutes or less.

On point b) if you mean literally running through the restaurant screaming, then the answer is “those people are assholes. They don’t care about other people around them”. Those people were never like you back when they were childless and single. They were the jerks who would crash your party, drink all your beer without asking, and steal your CDs. Becoming a parent doesn’t make you an asshole, but becoming a parent doesn’t cure an asshole either.

On point a), if by "nice" all you mean is someplace where you don’t order at a counter and they actually refill your drinks for you then, first, you need to elevate your standards and, second, it’s no surprise that the second date never happens. And, if at one of these “family restaurants” you mean on point b) not literally screaming and running through the aisles but really mean periodically throwing their silverware on the floor and crying every three minutes because you won’t let them put your steak knife in their mouth and keep trying to get up and go to the hostess stand because they need a different shade of blue crayon, then you don’t realize that children will break your will to the point where you just don’t give a crap anymore.

Yes, you will become like this, too, just like you will slowly turn into your dad and make the same corny jokes you hated when you were eleven. Your wife will turn into your mother in law, you will become unable to turn a corner in your car at faster than 3 mph, and you will lose the ability to stop rambling on about “when Coca-Cola used to cost fifty cents and came in 12 ounce cans” and there’s NOTHING you can do about it. Until then, I advise eating at places without a kid’s menu. The buffets at strip bars are usually pretty reasonable priced.

Maybe for next week's list we’ll pose this “question that people without kids ask stay-at-home mothers” (actually posed by my younger cousin to my wife at Thanksgiving), “Aren’t you terribly bored? I mean, what do you DO all day?” I’ll let The Wife tackle that one.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Pan-Seared Squid

I was down at Mt. Pleasant Seafood company and saw some good looking squid and bought it. And, as usual, I was in a quandry over what to do with it since fried calamari is a great and wonderful thing but a pain to make at home (unless you enjoy the odor of fishy, burnt cooking oil liongering in the air for day, which is usually what happens whenever I try to stove-top deep fry anything that came from the sea).

So, I trolled the 'Net and found a promising looking recipe for "Squid with Bacon and Garlic Oil" from Bobby Flay on the Food Network site. Here's my version, pared down a little in volume, and it made for a great tapas-style appetizer--enough to keep at bay The Wife (who oddly thinks eating at 9:00 PM is too late) while I bathed The Seven Year old then cooked a big shrimp-and-scallop feast:

2 slices of bacon, sliced into small bits
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
drizzle of olive oil (about 1 T)
4 squid tubes, rinsed and sliced into rings
salt & pepper
chopped parsley
1/4 of a lemon

Cook the bacon slowly in a pan over medium heat until the fat has rendered out and it's starting to get crispy. Raise the heat to medium-high and add a drizzle of olive oil, then the garlic and squid. Cook, tossing occassionally, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the squid is cooked through. Don't overdo it--overcooked squid turns to rubber.

Remove from the heat, stir in the chopped parsley, and squeeze over the lemon juice.

The lemon juice doesn't appear in Flay's recipe, but when I took the pan of squid off the stove they were almost audibly screaming to be squirted with lemon juice. So I did, and the resulting lemon-and-bacony-garlicky-olive oil combination was so unbelievable I had to sop it all out of the bowl once the squid was all gone.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

BBQ Takes New York

First it was the nationwide barbecue cook-off competitions, then regionalism-blurring sit-down barbecue restaurant chains, then round-the-clock coverage on Food Network. Now barbecue has conquered New York City. Pit-smoked BBQ joints are now popping up all over the city, and (according to an article in today's New York Times) "demand has pushed up salaries for pit masters by 50 percent during the last two years."

BBQ marches on . . .

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Fresh Greens

I had dinner at McCrady's the other night--the home of Sean Brock, one of Charleston's most notable chefs and a proponent of both high-quality fresh, local ingredients as well as a devotee of Ferran Adria, the Spanish deconstructionist chef. I didn't see any extreme examples of molecular gastronomy on the menu that night, but there was enough wizardry to make for an interesting meal.

Perhaps my favorite part of the dinner was, if you can believe it, the salad. Just a basic mix of very fresh greens along with a little goat cheese, some thinly sliced beets, and an almond-citrus vinaigrette. There was something soothing and refreshing and tasty about it that I've been thinking about nothing but green salads ever since.

The greens at my neighborhood supermarket leave much to be desired. But, I found the batch of baby lettuces pictured above at a stand at the Marion Square Market on Saturday and snatched them up. It's been fresh salad every night since!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Dining Guide, Web 2.0 Version

I've been playing around with the Google Maps API for a project at work, and it struck me that it was a great platform for creating an interactive version of the Al Forno Guide to Dining in Charleston. I hacked around at it last weekend and put enough finishing touches on it this weekend for it to be at least usable. So, here's the new Web 2.0 version of the Dining Guide.

Just click on the push pins to see each restaurant and a brief summary, or you can use the links on the side to locate a restaurant on the map. There's still more I'd like to do with it (and I'm working right now on a bug in the JavaScript that keeps it from working for FireFox users), but the cool thing is that it's very easy to update the restaurants on the map just by editing a little XML file.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Mimi Roll Wars, Round 2

I suspected there would be treachery, and I was right.

All families have their special Thanksgiving traditions. One of my family's is "Mimi rolls, " so-called because for years they were the special contribution of my grandmother, whom everyone calls "Mimi." These are puffy white yeast rolls made in a big pan and are as essential to my family's Thanksgiving as the turkey and stuffing. Brown and crispy on the outside and tender soft in the middle, they are the ideal accompaniment for Thanksgiving dinner and taste best when sopped full of gravy and cranberry sauce.

As time passed and the kids grew up and got married and had their own kids, the gathering has gotten larger (this year's totaled 37 people) and Mimi has gotten older. Her energy has faded with age, but her native German frugality has only strengenthed. About five years ago Mimi announced that instead of the traditional two pans of rolls she was making only one, which she calculated out to be one roll per person, which was "all that anyone needs, anyway."

This set off a minor crisis at the dinner buffet, as some in the front of the line weren't aware of the one-per-person rule and took more than their share and some in the back found themselves out of luck. There was grumbling and some accusations of roll-hogging. One uncle was rumored to have secured a small stash of rolls that he was selling to the highest bidder.

Clearly this wouldn't do, and the next year my mother and I hatched a plan to save Thanksgiving. She had gotten the recipe from Mimi several years before, and she passed it on to me, and we each made a pan of the rolls and snuck them into the kitchen and added them to the basket for the buffet. And a good thing, too--with the addition of another fiancee and a few boyfriends to the crowd, one pan wasn't even enough for one-each.

We kept this all on the QT, not wanting to offend Mimi. But, word got out pretty quickly that there had been some roll augmentation, and an aunt or brother-in-law would pull us off to the side and whisper, "Great job with those rolls . . . they taste just like Mimi's!" One cousin, who had tried to replicate Mimi rolls herself in the past and failed miserably, heaped praise upon us for being able to get the texture and shape just right. And this, of course, went straight to our heads.

Within a couple of years, Mimi--now in her nineties--stopped making the rolls altogether, and the torch has now been passed to my mother and me to supply the Thanksgiving staple. And somewhere along the way a relative heard about this and said, in passing, "we'll have to see whose rolls turn out better." And thus a competition ensued.

It's an unspoken competition. My mother would deny that she has even a single competitive bone in her body and could care less who thought whose rolls were better. But I know better, and I'm on to her tricks. Last year, The Wife caught her scrambling the rolls, taking the ones from her pan and mixing them in the big serving baskets with the ones I made, ensuring that no one would be able to compare the two. Clearly, my mother must have sampled the two batches in advance and determined that hers couldn't hold a candle to mine in a fair head-to-head taste test and undertook to ensure the match never took place.

This year there was more treachery. We moved houses over the summer, and when I went to make my batch of Mimi rolls Wednesday night I couldn't find my old handwritten recipe. So, I called my mother up and she read the ingredients out to me over the phone. "I don't even need to look it up," she told me. "I can do it from memory." And she rattled off the list of ingredients and their amounts. "I think I'm forgetting something," she said once finished. "Oh, let me look it up." A little rustling of paper, then a few seconds later. "An egg! That's it. Don't forget the egg."

A clever piece of gamesmanship on her part, the I-almost-forgot-the-egg thing. I followed the recipe as I had written it down--mixing up the dough and kneading it and putting it into a bread bowl to rise. As I was covering it with a towel I had a sneaking suspicion I was missing something . . . and then it hit me: yeast! I'd been following the directions just as she gave them to me and not using my brain, and I'd completely forgotten that risen bread requires yeast. Fortunately, I'd remembered in time. I dumped the dead dough ball into the trash and started over, this time adding in the two packets of yeast that she had so conveniently omitted from the recipe.

They came out perfectly, and Thankgiving went off without a hitch. Better luck next year, Mom.

Here, for posterity's sake and to keep me from being at the mercy of my mother the next time I can't find the hand-scrawled instructions, is the recipe for Mimi Rolls:

Mimi Rolls

2 cups milk
4 T butter
4 T sugar
2 t salt
2 eggs
2 packages rapid-rise yeast
7 - 8 cups of flour

These are all the ingredients, as far as I'm telling

Put the milk in a saucepan and scald it over high heat, removing it from the heat just as it begins to get bubbly but before it starts to boil (watch carefully--it will foam up out of the pot in a flash once it hits the boiling point). Add in the butter, sugar, and salt and stir till melted and dissolved. Allow the milk to cool until it is between 120 and 130 degrees F. You could just let it sit on the counter for a while, I usually speed this up by putting the saucepan in an icebath and stirring it while measuring with an instant read thermometer. Doesn't take but a minute or two to get it to 130 this way.

Combine 4 cups of the flour with the yeast (don't forget the yeast!) in a large mixing bowl, make a well in the middle, and pour in the liquid. Add the two eggs. Stir with a wooden spoon until the liquid is all absorbed, then start adding more flour a half cup at a time until the mixture is too stiff to stir. Lose the spoon and knead the dough by hand, working in the remainging flour until the dough has a smooth, elastic consistency. Knead another five to ten minutes, then form the dough into a ball, cover the bowl with a towel, and let it rise an hour or so until it has about doubled in size.

Up to this point it's a pretty conventional yeast roll recipe. The trick to Mimi Rolls (according to everyone who has tried to make them) is shaping them correctly. I've never seemed to have much problem with it, but it has done in many a cousin who tried to reproduce Mimi's originals. Here's how I pull it off:

Once the dough has risen, pinch off a large blob about the size of a golf ball. Knead the blob between your hands a few times until it feels soft and pliable. Take the ball with both hands and poke your fingers into one side, then turn the dough inside out on itself. Place the dough between your palms and roll it back and forth until you've shaped it into a smooth, cigar-like cylinder. Place the dough roll into a large Pyrex baking pan and repeat. When you are done, you'll have a pan filled with two rows of little dough cylinders. Cover with a towel and let rise until about doubled again.

Bake in a 375-degree oven until golden brown on top, about 20 - 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, brush the tops with melted butter, and allow to cool on a baking rack.

It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without them.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Shrimp n' Grits

I recently observed that you can't swing a cat in a Charleston restaurant without hitting a plate of fried green tomatoes. If this is not literally true, it's only because you'd hit a bowl of shrimp and grits first. In the past twenty years, the classics of "Lowcountry cuisine" have been officially canonized on the menus of local restaurants, and shrimp-and-grits tops the list. Like fried green tomatoes, though, shrimp and grits are a relatively recent newcomer to the fine-dining scene--especially in their current incarnations.

Fried green tomatoes achieved a bogus status as a Southern classic due to the movie version of Fanny Flagg's novel, but the pedigree of shrimp and grits is a little more genuine. Quite likely, shrimp-and-grits have been eaten in the Lowcountry of South Carolina for centuries. It's just that until the 1990s nobody made a big deal about them, you couldn't find them in restaurants, and they were really less a "dish" than two things served together, like ham and eggs or chicken and rice.

I did some digging but couldn't turn up any old recipes for shrimp and grits together nor even any references to them in diaries or journals. The best I could find were some recent food writers who look back to shrimp and grits as a breakfast dish. For example, John Martin Taylor writes in his Hoppin' John's Lowcounctry Cooking"Until recently families all over the Lowcountry partook of 'breakfast shrimp,' as the dish is often called, every morning during shrimp season." No one ever explains why people stopped eating breakfast shrimp, but I've never seen it served for breakfast in anyone's home here in Charleston (on restaurants' brunch menus, yes, but not in an actual home).

So how did shrimp-and-grits become the iconic Lowcountry dish? Abe Grant, who ran Abe's Shrimp House on Hilton Head Island from 1968 until 2000, claims to be the first person to put shrimp and grits on a restaurant menu, and from what I can tell he might be right. But, it was a few Charleston restauranteurs who seem to have put it on the culinary map.

When Donald Barickman opened Magnolia's in downtown Charleston in July 1990, he made the unusual choice to serve not French or Italian cooking--as most of the city's high-end restaurants did--but rather "Southern cuisine", focusing the menu on traditional regional foods such as collard greens and grits, the latter of which he called "the almost forgotten staple of the South". Barickman is often credited with sparking the "New South" culinary movement that took ingredients and recipes formerly found only in meat-and-threes and local home kitchens and putting them on the white tablecloths of upscale restaurants.

His version of shrimp and grits includes shrimp sauteed with chicken stock and Italian sausage and served over stone-ground grits cooked in chicken broth and cream, all of which is topped by a spicy Tasso ham gravy, and this style of preparation has become standard not only in the Lowcountry but throughout the South. Barickman wasn't alone in introducing shrimp-and-grits to the fine dining world--82 Queen was serving them at least as far back as 1992--but he was certainly one of the first.

So, shrimp-and-grits may not be a total newcomer on the scene, but it went uptown only in early 1990s--about the same time that fried green tomatoes became such a hit. In my mind, though, there's a huge distinction between fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits that you have to take into account: shrimp and grits are really, really tasty, while fried green tomatoes are just plain awful.

Now, if there is such a thing as old-school shrimp and grits, it would probably be just sauteed small shrimp served over grits made in plain old salted water, with maybe a little butter or onions to flavor things up. The New Southern style gussies things up by adding lots of cream, butter, and/or cheese to the grits and serving the shrimp in a thick, spicy sauce or gravy. Barickman's version, which comes with a tasso gravy, is less a true Lowcountry dish than a fusion of ingredients from different parts of the South prepared with modern restaurant cooking techniques. Tasso is a highly spiced smoked pork shoulder and a Cajun specialty. Shrimp is definitely a Lowcountry classic, but rice was the staple Charleston grain. Grits is more properly a backcountry food, and the New Southern style of preparation is more akin to polenta than what you'd find in Grandma's kitchen.

But that's no strike against it, in my mind. I've been a fan of New Southern style shrimp and grits ever since I first had them (which, if I recall correctly, was at Mr. Friendly's New Southen Cafe up in Columbia sometime in the mid-1990s), and I've spent quite a bit of energy learning to duplicate the various recipes at home. If you want to make shrimp and grits the way Charleston restaurants do, there are a couple of things you need to do:

1. Use fresh shrimp. Interestingly enough, the old breakfast shrimp recipes were for "creek shrimp"--the small, sweet shrimp caught in marshes and creeks. Most restaurants, though, go for the jumbo variety, butterflied down the middle before sauteeing, which makes for a more dramatic presentation.

2. Never, ever use quick or instant grits. Part of the success in the revival of grits in New South cooking is that the chefs wised up and realized that coarse, stone-ground grits are a thing of wonder. Instant grits made with water, on the other hand, are only slightly removed from eating wallpaper paste (and might, in fact, serve as an effective subsitute in a pinch.) Old fashioned stone ground grits used to be nigh-on impossible to find in stores, but most grocery stores in the area now carry them (though you often have to look on the specialty item shelves to find them). There are plenty of places where you can order them online, too, like here and here.

3. Cook the grits in stock, cream, or both. Good grits cooked in water are fairly tasty, but stock and/or cream give them extra richness and help win over converts who think they don't like grits because they've only had the Jim Dandy variety. You can add cheese to the grits, too, but with all the shrimp and sauce I don't think it's necessary.

From here, it's pretty hard to go wrong, and there are a thousand different variations. Here's my most recent favorite version, based loosely on Donald Barickman's recipe from Magnolia's:

For the grits:
1 cp milk
1 cp chicken stock
2/3 cp good stone ground grits
salt & pepper

For the tasso gravy:
2 T butter
2 T flour
1/4 cp diced tasso
1 cp chicken stock
salt & pepper

For the shrimp:
1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T parsley, minced
salt & pepper
1/2 glass white wine

Like most of my recipes, this makes just 2 servings.

Start with the grits first. Combine the milk and chicken stock in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Watch the pot carefully! Milk goes from nothing to a big foamy overflow in about three seconds flat when it hits the boiling point. At the first sign of foaming up, remove the pot from the stove and stir in the grits. Return to the heat and cook over medium-low to medium, keeping the liquic at just a simmer. Stir occassionally and add more liquid if necessary, cooking til the grits are soft and creamy--about 20 minutes or so.

While the grits cook, make the tasso gravy. Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add the diced tasso and sautee a minute or two over medium heat until slightly browned. Add the flour and make a roux, stirring occassionally till light brown, about 5 minutes. Add in the chicken stock, stirring constantly until the flour is fully incorporated and the stock starts to thicken, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste towards the end.

Last is the shrimp. Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat and add in a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Add the shrimp, garlic, parsley, and spices and sautee, tossing the pan frequently to keep the shrimp cooking evenly, till the shrimp is pink all the way through and just beginning to brown around the edges--usually 2 or three minutes is all you need. Deglaze the pan with 1/2 glass of white wine.

To serve, place a large helping of grits in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl, spoon over the shrimp, and spoon a generous portion of tasso gravy over the top.

It may not be an old Carolina classic, but it's a new one, at least.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Pickled Red Onions

Most of my favorite recipes are things I came up with trying to replicate something I ate at one restaurant or another. These onions are my version of a sweet, crispy garnish I had at an otherwise forgettable Mexican restaurant during my California trip.

A snap to make: thinly slice 1 large red onion (or two small ones) and 1 small green chile (I used a mild green one, but you could use anything from a bell pepper to a jalapeno depending on your heat preference). Combine 1 cup of white vinegar with a half cup of sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir until sugar is dissolved, them remove from the heat. Put the onion and chile in a plastic container and pour over the liquid. Refrigerate until chilled.

As the brine pickles the onions, the red coloring mutes to a beautiful pink and the sharpness of the onion is dampened. These would go great on a sandwich or to brighten up tacos or enchiladas, but I've ended up just eating these straight from the container as a little cocktail snack during the afternoon.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Local Schmocal

Is anyone else out there starting to get sick of all the "eat local" hullaballoo?

I'm not sure why it's suddenly getting to me. For years I've sung the praises of great local seafood and local produce and locally-owned restaurants. Fresh-caught shrimp and homegrown tomatoes and freshly picked greens--what could be better? I've always leaned toward the gamble of trying the local dives instead of the franchised chains, believing the risk paid off often enough to outweigh the mediocre sameness of Everywhere USA. Nothing makes me happier than pottering down the aisle of my local farmer's market and discovering fresh, wonderful produce grown just down the road by a small-scale local farmer.

I still love all these things. But just in the past few months or so something has shifted and it's now seeming a little out of proportion. "Eating local" is no longer a hobby or a personal preference or even an aesthetic philosophy. It's now a full blown "movement", complete with books and websites and organizations and journals. You can't throw a rock in the high-end restaurant community without hitting some chef who pronounces his commitment to "localism and sustainable food."

Perhaps I'm just getting a bit of the "no one goes there anymore: it's too crowded" syndrome. Trendiness can be annoying, especially when you know that half the people raving today about the angelic brillance of their locally-raised free range rabbit with heirloom radish puree will, three years from now, be standing in line waiting for a table at the hip bistro of the month specializing in factory-farmed owls raised in anaerobic isolation tanks in China because that's what's all the rage according to Gourmet and The New York Times food section.

But that's not the real reason. I guess what really bothers me most is that the "Eat Local" movement is doing the right things for all the wrong reasons. Something about the high-minded moralism gets to me: it's an odd form of sensual Puritanism. We should be buying and relishing local produce not because it's morally superior to other ways of eating nor because it helps advance some fuzzy notion of "sustainable agriculture" but rather because it tastes good and is fun to eat.

I'm not going to stop eating at locally-owned restaurants or going to the farmer's market or seeking out fresh local shrimp (which I once thought was morally superior to imported or farmed shrimp but, as it turns out, aren't high on the "sustainability" rankings because the trawler nets can catch sea turtles and other endangered creatures, so it's hard to know what to do). I'll still eat locally. But, I'll probably stop talking about it so much.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

California BBQ

"Oh, no, you don't want to eat barbecue in California," my brother's West Coast friends told me. "You'll just be disappointed."

I tried to explain to them that I was no barbecue bigot, that just because the Carolinas are home to innumerable world-class pulled pork joints didn't mean I wasn't receptive to slow-smoked brisket and beef ribs and sausage links and any number of other barbecue variations. I even tried to explain to them that barbecue had a long history in California, that in the 1930s and 1940s no upper-middle class ranch home was complete without a custom brick barbecue pit in the backyard.

They were unswayed. "Stick to fish in California," I was told. "There's no good barbecue here."

This was about two weeks ago, and I was in Los Angeles for my brother's wedding, which was taking place at a ranch in the hills near Malibu (not far from where some of the big wildfires have been burning, but this was a week before those started). On the opposite side of the 101 freeway from our motel in Agoura Hills was a fairly frumpy looking building with a green, pagoda-like roof and a plain sign saying "Wood Ranch BBQ & Grill."

The exterior looked like something out the late 1970s, the kind of building that might house a Ponderosa or some sort of buffet cafeteria. But, a continuous plume of smoke churned from a brick chimney, and when the wind was blowing the right way the entire motel parking lot was awash in the fabulous aroma of roasting meat. The cautions of my brother's friends were still fresh in my mind, but my barbecue ecumenicalism won out. How bad could it be?

The answer is: not bad at all. Wood Ranch surprised me. I was expecting the interior to be bare-bones and a bit run down. Instead, I found a very modern, upscale restaurant with young, perky servers wearing buttondown shirts and ties. Now, this might bode ill for a barbecue joint in some parts of America, but in California it must not, for the Wood Ranch had a true item of glory on its menu: barbecued tri-tip.

I had never seen tri-tip on a barbecue restaurant menu before, so I bypassed the pork and beef ribs and the slow-roasted chicken and went with the specialty of the house. This was a big two-inch slab of beef that had been slow-roasted overnight then finished just before serving on a mesquite-fired grill. I had mine medium rare (which is as rare as it comes), and it was juicy, tender, and utterly delicious.

The Tri-tip roast is a cut from the bottom sirloin and, though obscure just about everywhere else, it's apparently a popular choice for barbecuing in California. So, to those naysayers who claim California doesn't have a distinctive barbecue style or, even worse, doesn't have any good barbecue at all, I say, try the tri-tip.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Slow Burn

Two weekends ago I finally carved out sufficient time in my schedule to smoke a big Boston Butt in my new side-burner grill (along with two whole chickens, for good measure). I took some photos and meant to blog about it, but then I got caught up in getting ready for the big trip I took this past weekend with my family to Los Angeles and didn't get a chance to post anything.

Slow-smoking meat is a time-consuming process: for Boston Butt it takes about 1.5 hours per pound, and I had a 5 pound cut, so you do the math. I'm still getting to know my Char-Griller Super Pro, so much of my time was spent fiddling with the air vents and adding more lump charcoal and more hickory chunks, but after a few hours I had gotten the hang of it and was able to keep the smoker consistently in the 220 to 250 degree range.

For all my fighting with the temperature of the fire and general futzing around not knowing what I was doing, there were two remarkable things. First, you go through a ton of charcoal during an 8-hour burn--an entire bag of lump charcoal, in my case, along with half a bag of hickory chunks. Second, maybe it was just beginner's luck, but the end product was absolutely unbelievable--far better than I ever dreamed it would be. Tender, juicy, smoky pork with great burned ends and a good half-inch red smoke ring.

Here are some pics:

The meat prepped with a spice rub and ready to hit the grill

The end product: tender, juicy, and perfect for pulling

The day after: barbecue sandwiches

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Seewee Restaurant

This weekend I took a drive with my family up Highway 17, heading north out of Charleston, and we stopped for lunch at the Seewee Restaurant in Awendaw. The Seewee is located in an old wooden building, a former general store with old, thick brown floorboards, a collection of mismatched furniture, and a long, low old-style Pepsi cooler in the back where they keep drinks and little cups of cocktail sauce. It's got charm.

The Seewee has gotten a lot of ecstatic reviews praising the general fantasticness of the food. The late R. W. Apple of The New York Times wrote last year that the Seewee is "blessed with virtuoso practioners of [the] old Lowcountry art, frying," pointing particularly to their skill in "frying shrimp, as well as any Tokyo tempura master, without a scintilla of heaviness or a smidgen of grease to mar the love affair 'twixt crustacean and palate."

Now that's some fancy writing and quite a build-up, too, so I felt duty-bound to try the fried shrimp. And I did, along with onion rings, mashed potatoes, and lima beans.

I'd love to crank up the adjective machine here, but I've gotta be honest: I found the Seewee's food to be solid meat-and-three fare, but nothing out of the ordinary. I think a lot of reviewers have been bowled over by the restaurant's atmosphere and got a little carried away with hyperbole. The fried shrimp was a little on the smallish side, competently done but nothing to write home about (and certainly not holding a candle to the fried shrimp from The Wreck or any number of other Charleston restaurants). Ditto for my wife's chicken-fried steak, another staple of Southern meat-and-three fare: good, but not in the top 10 local entries.

But, the waitresses were friendly, and there's a little icebox with glass bottled Cokes and Nehis next to the cash register--perfect for taking one for the road. I wouldn't drive out to Awendaw just for the Seewee, but if you're on the road going to Georgetown or Myrtle Beach, it's worth dropping in for a nice country-fried lunch.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

This Just In

Cereality, the restaurant chain that specializes in selling bowls of cold cereal (over 30 brands of them) to college kids, has announced that its King Street franchise location is closing. The company's website quotes a USA Today reporter asking, "The latest fast-food concept is so absurdly simple, self-indulgent and reflective of one's inner child that, well, how can it fail?"

As it turns out, the answer to that one is simple. The Charleston franchise attracted a good breakfast crowd, according to its franchisee, but "business was slow the rest of the day."

Go figure.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Fried Peanuts

Fried okra, fried pickles, fried Snickers bars--just when you thought Southerners couldn't fry another thing, here come fried peanuts! They seem to be fairly new on the scene, but I've seen them popping up more and more in gas stations and roadside stands across the Carolinas. These are whole peanuts fried in the shell, and they come salted or in Cajun flavor (I've also heard reports of barbecue and salt-and-vinegar flavors, but I've never actually seen them for sale). Intrigued, I finally bought a batch, made by Mike's Peanuts in Summerville SC and sold down at the Boone Hall Farm store on US 17 here in Mount Pleasant.

The thing about fried peanuts is that you can, in theory, eat them shell and all. Whether you would want to is another matter. Since it's fried up nice and crispy, the shell can be easily chewed and swallowed, but it's still a little too fibrous for my taste. At the same time, if you just split and discard the shell like you would with a roasted peanut, you lose out on a lot of the good salty flavor. One route is to pop the whole peanut into your mouth (like many people do a boiled peanut), pop out the nuts, then discard the shell. Or, you can follow the advice of one sage fellow on the Web and eat the shell of every third peanut, which, as I see it, is enough to get the good salty flavor while doing minimal damage to your intestinal tract.

I love the South.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Lump Charcoal

For all my grilling years I've used charcoal briquettes as my fuel, as had my father before me, and his father, too. I played around with using lighter fluid and matchlight charcoal before settling on the charcoal chimney as the superior way to ignite the coals. This summer, though, I've turned to something new (new to me, at least): lump charcoal. And I couldn't be more pleased with the results.

Lump charcoal burns hotter and cleaner than briquettes and leaves behind fewer ashes at the end. This also means that it will burn faster, too. My first experience with lump charcoal left me surprised at how quickly the charcoal ashed over and was ready for cooking--about half the time as with good old Kingsford briquettes--and also how quickly the charcoal seemed to melt away into ashes. But, as I have learned, you can control the speed of burning by limiting the air supply to the grill, and I've had great success mastering the little rotating air vents to limit the burning without dropping the heat too low.

With lump charcoal gaining in popularity with barbecue nuts like myself, one might think that it was the Johnny-come-lately on the scene. But, it's actually older than briquettes, dating back to the 19th Century. When outdoor grilling first became popular in the 1930s and 1940s, lump charcoal was the fuel of choice, getting displaced sometime during the mid-1950s with the rise of Kingsford and other popular brands of charcoal briquettes, which were made by grinding up charcoal and binding them together with starch and other fillers into the now-universal briquette shape.

But now lump charcoal making a comeback, particularly among the hard-core competition barbecuers and grilling nuts. Such folks claim that, since lump is free of the starches and binders and additives of briquettes, it doesn't impart unpleasant flavors to the meat. While I can't attest to this for certain without a head-to-head taste test, the items I made with lump charcoal certainly had a very clean, nice wood-smoked flavor.

There are some other benefits, too. You can throw a handful of lump charcoal on top of burning coals and stretch out a fire without having to break out the lighter fluid or start a separate chimney of charcoal burning. Since it burns more cleanly, there's less mess to clean up at the end of a grilling session. But, the coolest thing about lump charcoal is that it tinkles while it burns. It's hard to explain unless you are there to hear it, but there's a definite tinkling, like a thousand tiny chimes as the lumps burn and settle into coals.

Long languishing in obscurity, lump charcoal is getting easier to find: I got my last bag at Lowe's, and I've even seen it popping up in grocery store aisles. If you don't use a charcoal chimney and are more the type to just quickly grill up some burgers or a steak, then it might not be worth the experiment. But, the last three or four times I've used my grill it's been with lump charcoal, and I don't think I'm ever going back.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Pork and Whiskey

There's a newish (since February) Charleston-based blog out there called Pork and Whiskey. In the last few weeks he (and I'm going out on a limb and assume that anyone who writes a blog called "Pork and Whiskey" and takes the penname "Rev. BigDumbChimp" is likely a male) has posted some great recipes, including one for making your own Tasso ham at home and a wonderful-looking Grilled Rubbed Pork Tenderloin with BBQ Sauce, Roasted Poblano Creamy Grits and Chipotle Slaw, which if it tastes even 25% as good as it looks and sounds must be one hell of a dish.

Give it a visit.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Chicken Under a Brick

One of my all-time favorite chicken dishes is Chicken Under a Brick, which is also known by its Italian name pollo al mattone. I'd never tried making it on the grill before, even though that is how the classic Tuscan version is traditionally cooked. My old faux-Webber kettle grill would never had stood the weight of the brick, particularly after one of the legs broke free from the rusted-out kettle bottom and turned the whole thing into a perilously-shaky contraption. Instead, I always made it inside using the stove and oven and a couple of cast iron skillets, until a combination of poor kitchen ventilation and an overly-sensitive smoke detector made it an off-limits recipe.

My new house has a similarly inadequate stove fan, but no matter. My fancy new barbecue grill with its cast-iron cooking grates is ideal for chicken-under-a-brick, as I confirmed last night. Here's my old favorite recipe, updated to use a grill rather than the stovetop:

1 whole chicken
2 tsp Kosher salt
1-2 cloves minced garlic
1 Tbsp minced rosemary
olive oil

First you have to prep the chicken by removing the backbone and splitting it so it will lay flat. To do this, use a sharp knife to cut along either side of the backbone from front to rear, removing it as a single 1- to 2-inch wide strip. Then, spread the chicken out flat in a large baking dish or similar pan.

In a small bowl, mix about 1 Tbsp olive oil with the salt, garlic, and rosemary, then rub the mixture all over the chicken--both the skin-side and the inside. Put the chicken in the fridge and let it marinate while you prep the grill.

Fire up the grill and prepare a large batch of charcoal. When it's ready, spread the coals, rub a little oil on the cooking grates, and place the chicken, skin side down, on the grill. Weight down the chicken with something good and heavy. I took a small concrete paving stone from the border around my flower garden and wrapped it twice in aluminum foil (much easier than trying to scrub the thing clean.) Place the weight directly on top of the chicken to flatten it out and keep it compressed while it cooks.

Cook the chicken at least 15 minutes skin-side down then, using a thick towel or oven mitts, remove the weight, flip the chicken over, and re-weight it. Let it go for another 15 minutes or so, then flip it again and finish it skin side down. This should take no more than 10 minutes, but, to be certain, pierce the thick part of the leg and make sure the juices run clear.

You can eat it straight off the grill or let it rest for up to 30 minutes.

I'm not sure of the mechanics of it, but cooking the chicken under the heavy weight seems to keep it moist and juicy inside while ensuring a fantastic crispy skin. We ate ours with a tasty pear-and-blue cheese salad and some roasted potatoes, and enjoyed spending a little time catching up with this old friend. From now forward, this will be an outdoor dish for me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Duck Fat

I picked up a pound of frozen duck fat at Ted's Butcherblock on Saturday. This may sound like a rather mundane event, but for me it was an important step forward. I've been meaning to go out and get my hands on some good duck fat for months, but for one reason or another I never seem to think about driving down to Ted's until it's Sunday afternoon, and the shop is closed on Sundays.

This past Saturday I finally managed to make it by, and this purchase has now allowed me to perfect the art of roasting potatoes.

For years roasted potatoes have been one of my absolute favorite side items. I make them at least once a week, and they go so well with so many different entrees, from basic roasted chicken to veal marsala to braised pork chops. Recently I've been tinkering with my old favorite recipe--nothing radical, just a few slight variations that make a great dish even better.

The key changes? Slice the potatoes thinner and cook them a little hotter. Rather than cutting the potatoes into inch-thick chunks (which usually meant quartering small baby red potatoes), I now cut them into about 1/2 inch slices. And now the most important improvement of all: roast them in duck fat.

The rest of the prep is simple--drizzle with about two tablespoons of melted duck fat, then sprinkle with salt, pepper, paprika, and chopped parsely. Lately, I've been roasting them at 425 degrees (rather than 350 degrees), and I stir and turn them more often--about once every ten minutes (I use my kitchen timer to remind me.)

I don't know what it is about the duck fat that adds so much to the potatoes, but they seem to come out just a little crispier and a little more tender on the inside and with a great punch of flavor that you don't get with olive oil or even chicken fat. Magnificence.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My New BBQ Grill

When we moved to our new house back in July, my old Weber-style kettle grill didn't make the trip. After years of being left out behind the old house in the rain, it was shot--the plastic wheels shattered and useless, the bottom of the kettle so rusted out that one of the three legs was no longer attached. The grill had served us well, but it met an ignominious end at the city dump.

It's taken a little while for me to replace it. The Wife has a lot of curious notions, such as thinking that painting walls, upgrading bathroom fixtures, and buying a sofa for the new living room should somehow take precedence over seaching for a new barbecue grill. I find this baffling. Which of these invites sounds better to you: "Why don't you guys come over Saturday and we'll grill up some chicken in the backyard?" or "Hey, come over this weekend and we can sit on the couch." Seems like a no-brainer to me, but The Wife is immune to logic.

Finally, after two long two months without any means to smoke, sear, or char meats over an open fire, I finally went out and purchased my new grill. And I did it my way, too. The Wife, a long-time Consumer Reports subscriber, would have gone about it much differently--spending days researching the market, comparing product rankings, and settling on what the absolutely best make and model would be for her budgeted price range.

My approach is a little different. I headed down to the nearest home improvement megastore, figuring they probably had a pretty good selection, my mind completely unfettered by any sense of budget or brand preference. I perused what they had out on the floor and chose what looked like the best of the lot. Then, I took it home and, following a round of doubt and impending buyer's remorse, decided to look the model up on the Internet and make sure I hadn't bought a lemon.

Fortunately, my selection--the Char-Griller Super Pro--has gotten pretty good reviews on the barbecue enthusiast message boards, which was not only a relief but also confirms in my mind that I have a keen eye for grill detail as well as the general superiority of my method of shopping.

This time around, I avoided the Webber kettle and its ilk, having decided a long time ago they aren't really suited for grilling (since you can't adjust the height of the grill over the coals) nor for smoking (since there's not enough room in the kettle to really build and keep an indirect fire going). I also decided to not go down the path of the gas grill. There is a certain appeal to the gas grill: I could have shelled out two weeks' salary and gotten a chrome-plated beauty with indicator lights and shelves and cabinets and more amenities than my kitchen and lorded it over all my neighbors, which would be fun. And, in theory, I could come home from work, switch the thing on, and grill up a steak in about twelve minutes. But I know I never would.

It's not about convenience. The point of grilling in the backyard is that it needs to take time. You can have a beer while the charcoal burns down and chat with your friends and play with the kids. If you don't have a good two hours or more to relax and hang out in the backyard and just enjoy a lovely weekend afternoon, what's the point?

For the price of a low end gas grill, I went hog wild on a charcoal-burning model, including the side smoke box so that I can take on major barbecue initiatives. I also deviated from past precedent and actually read and followed the manufacturer's instructions.

Step 1: Assemble the grill. I have developed my own rating scale that measures the ease of assembly and quality of a product's instructions from 0 to 100, with 0 being the best score. The scale represents the number of swear words you utter while trying to put the &$#^@% thing together added to the number of times you tell the Six Year Old, "Don't tell your mother you heard me say that." The Char-Griller scores pretty well here--definitely in the single digits and well below anything I ever purchased the children for Christmas. It took about an hour, but soon the sleek black beauty was assembled and ready for action.

Step 2: Season it. I have been cooking with cast iron pans for years, so it was with great delight that I discovered the Char-Griller has heavy cast iron cooking grates that you season just like you would a cast iron skillet. (Note to The Wife: These are the kind of little joyous discoveries you miss out on if you do a bunch of research before buying a product.) In fact, the instructions recommend you season the entire grill. This means rubbing the inside of the grill with vegetable oil, and the cast iron grates with bacon grease (yes, bacon grease). Then, you light a fire inside, close it up, and let it go for 2 hours.

Step 3: Cook something.I had intended to do something dramatic for the first cooking, like slow-smoking an entire pork shoulder. But it was already mid-afternoon by this point, and a little quick math (5 pounds of pork @ 1-1/2 hours of cooking per pound) told me that unless I wanted to eat at midnight I'd have to scale it back a bit.

So, I went with smoked chicken wings instead. I marinated a big package of wings (about 16 of them) in lime juice and garlic while I prepped the fire, then loaded them all into the big drum and let them smoke slowly for about 2 hours. When I was ready to serve them up, I took the wings off, added some more lump charcoal to the grill and worked up a good hot fire, then returned the wings to the grill and gave them a quick searing directly over the flame to crisp up the skin.

The wings ended up even better than I expected, and they bode well toward a long autumn of fine backyard feasts.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Long Point Grill

I now have a new favorite lunch spot: The Long Point Grill. You probably won't just stumble across it driving around, unless you're driving a container truck. The Grill is down on the far end of Long Point Road just before you get to the Wando terminal. It's yet another restaurant created by Sal Parco (of The Mustard Seed fame), and while the name and location might suggest truck-stop fare, it's anything but.

The Long Point Grill has many, many problems. The dining room is too small. If you aren't there by noon you'll have to stand around with the rest of the crowd spilling out the front doors, waiting for a table. Parking can be a challenge too, since the lunchtime crowd quickly overwhelms the small lot and folks end up parking on the grass and along the side of the road. And, to top it off, it smells far too good when you walk inside the door, making waiting for a table all the more agonizing.

I suppose these are good problems to have.

But the biggest problem is that there are way, way too many good things on the menu. For an ordering-decision-challenged person like myself, it causes considerable lunchtime consternation because it's just too darn hard to narrow down my selection. I usually end up picking something with a random, eyes-closed finger poke, and I've yet to be disappointed by my selection.

The LPG Burger is one of my particular favorites--encrusted with crushed peppercorns and served with smoked cheddar cheese and delicious "cabernet onions", which I guess are sauteed in red wine. Other winners include the macaroni and cheese--which comes complete with bacon and onions mixed in--and the fried chicken "special"--not really a special, since it's always on the special board, but the side items and topping vary from day to day but are always wonderful, like creamy mashed potatoes and a rich tasso gravy. And, if there regular menu and the regular specials weren't enough, there's always several special specials to add to the indecision, such as Amberjack over polenta or a hanger steak topped with crawfish butter. (The pineapple slaw, one of the standard side dishes options, is fantastic, too.)

Which means I have to keep going back to keep trying all the new things.

With entrees in the 7 to 10 dollar range, it's solid, good cooking for a reasonable price--another hallmark of the Parco restaurants. It's kid-friendly, too, and you'll see a lot of younger folks there on Saturdays. Get there by 11:45 to beat the rush. LPG is open for dinner, too, Monday through Saturday.

Long Point Grill: (479 Long Point Rd, Mount Pleasant, 843-884-3101)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Open Table

An interesting article from the New York Times about the flip side of OpenTable (the online restaurant reservation site) that diners don't see. Like those "frequent shopper" cards you get from your grocery store, it turns out the reservation site is as valuable for the information it gives restaurateurs as it is for the diners who want to reserve a table.

Thanks to Sam at Becks & Posh for the link.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Kitchen Disasters I Have Known

If you're like me, you have at least one Disaster Dish in your past--a dish that sounds so good when you read about it that you think you just have to try it and, when you do, it turns out to be so completely awful that you toss it in the trash and whip together a pathetic turkey sandwich instead. And yet, a few months down the road, you decide to give it another go. And it's just a bad as the first time. And a few months later you think, "Maybe third time's the charm." But third time isn't the charm.

Unfortunately for me (or, to be more accurate, for my poor wife, who has to eat this stuff), I have quite a number of candidates in the running for my Disaster Dish.

Shepherd's Pie is one: ground beef, onions, and mashed potatoes cooked up together. How hard could it be? I try it religiously once a year, turning to a new recipe each time, and each one turns out pasty and tasteless and a complete loss. I even tried Pastisio, which I think means "Shepherd's Pie" in Greek, and it turned out to be the same horrid glop as the British version, albeit with a cinnamonny accent that didn't help things at all.

I absolutely love gnocchi and eat it at restaurants whenever I can because--to be honest--I simply cannot make it at home. I've read countless recipes, absorbed all the secret tips, and watched closely as television chefs turn out one flawless little potato pillows after another. In my kitchen I end up creating a sticky floury mess that coats every square inch of counter and boils to squishy mush in the pot.

Today I stumbled across another one: posole, a rich stew made from pork and hominy. This is a recipe I've been eager to tackle for quite some time, and when I noticed a big can of Mexican hominy in the grocery store the other day I decided to give it a shot. I made up a from-scratch chili sauce (using my tried-and-true recipe), then sauteed up some diced country-style pork ribs along with a little onion. Once the pork was well-browned, I simmered it for a good hour or more in the chili sauce and, upon tasting it, found it to be quite savory. So, I added in the hominy and the other ingredients and thirty minutes later--a sticky mess. So I let it go another half-hour, thinking the hominy needed time to soak up the chili sauce. Then another half hour. Finally I threw in the towel, picked out a few of the bigger pork bits and ate them, then dumped the rest of the mess down the In-Sink-Erator.

But this time I'm going to be smart. I'll leave posole to the pros and save my chili sauce for plain old chili. (Until next year at least!)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Anti-Bacterial Humbug

I've long suspected that anti-bacterial soaps were a bunch of hooey, so research findings like these, which conclude that plain old soap is just as effective in preventing disease as the antibacterial variety, don't surprise me in the least.

What I find amusing is how many journalists reporting on the findings (like the medical editor of the London Telegraph) immediate race to the flip side of the story and proclaim that antibacterial soaps just might, in fact, be bad for you, supposedly by helping build up antibacterial-resistant "super bugs".

If you read the studies' results closely, you'll see that no one has found real evidence that soap-inspired resistence is actually happening in the real world. Which makes sense. If the antibacterial compound in these soaps (triclosan) isn't in contact with your skin long enough to kill the bacteria then it's probably not around long enough to turn them into super bugs, either. One would think a reporter proclaiming the ineffectiveness of the soaps due to lack of real-world evidence would also insist on real-world evidence of soap-created resistance before running headlines about "Super Bugs". But one is often wrong.

In any event, I'm sticking with the old bar of Ivory next to my kitchen sink.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Simple Tomato Salad (Again)

Andrea over at Andrea's Recipes has created the "Grow Your Own" event for bloggers to post about their favorite dishes using one or more ingredients grown either in their own gardens or acquired as gifts from someone else's garden. In my case, that ingredient would be tomatoes which, unfortunately, I don't grow in my own garden but am still lucky to receive as regular gift from my father, who's been growing tomatoes in his backyard for as long as I can remember.

I've written about this recipe in the past, but it's so good that it bears repeating, especially considering I make it at least once a week for as long as tomatoes are in season. It's my favorite kind of salad--one that dispenses with the idle fluff of greens and cuts straight to the good stuff.

Start with an equal number of fresh tomatoes and hardboiled eggs. Slice the tomatoes about an inch thick and place on a flat serving dish. Sprinkle liberally with kosher salt and black pepper. Slice the eggs and place one piece atop each tomato slice. For the dressing, whisk together olive oil with vinegar, dijon mustard, and a little honey. Drizzle the dressing over the tomatoes, toss ver some chopped parsely, and serve.

With good, fresh homegrown tomatoes, this one can't be beat.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

My New Favorite Kitchen Tool

A Microplane grater. I regularly add grated parmesan cheese to all sorts of dishes, so how have I lived so long without getting one of these things? It churns out the wispiest snow-like shavings that melt immediately into hot pasta. Only about an inch wide, it's perfect for quick grating tasks, and not bad for zesting lemons, either.

A new addition to my list of Good Kitchen Equipment.

Bull Shot

Okay, so this is one of those things that could be really good or really disgusting: a meat-based cocktail.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

BBQ at Boone Hall

The Rig for the Blackjack Barbecue team

The Six Year Old and I hit the Southern National BBQ Championship & Bluegrass Festival at Boone Hall yesterday. For the barbecue fan, the festival is a Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned event and drew dozens of professional and amateur team for the chicken, ribs, pulled pork, and beef brisket contests. For the music lover, there was a steady stream of bluegrass bands playing from an old stage. And, for the fathers of Six Year Olds, there were ideal festival conditions: a beer truck and three jump castles.

A Few Finishing Touches

Competitors Delivering their Entries to the Judges' Tent

We started off with a little quality time at the jump castles, then got some cold drinks and strolled down the long isle lined with RVs and tents and all the contestants with their barbecue rigs. I got a chopped-pork plate with slaw and baked beans and ate it while the Six Year Old took another turn at the jump castles. Then we sat under the shade of a tree and took in a little bluegrass music.

BBQ Plate

The pork plate was okay, but the real fun started when the MC at the bluegrass stage announced, "there's a rumor that some of the competitors are now sampling." That's the signal I was waiting for. We made the tour of the rigs again, me with a fork and a little paper plate to scarf up the bits of pork shoulder, beef brisket, and chicken that the contestants put out for free. By the time we made it to the end of the aisle, I was starting to limp a little and was halfway into a smoked-meat induced haze. I recovered under the shade of the big oaks while the Six Year Old made one last tour of the jump castles. And then home for a good, long nap.

Sampling: The Best Part of the Day

* - * - *

Update 8/28: Lowcountry Foodie has some great pictures of the Southern National BBQ Championship, including a chat with Grand Champion Myron Mixon.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Fried Green Tomato Swindle

Not too long ago, a visitor named "Former South Carolinian" left a request in a comment:

Could you do a segment on Fried Green Tomatoes? Every time I come down to South Carolina, I'm amazed that something that was rarely on *any* (rich man, poor man-they all have it) menu is now on them all. I seem to remember that fried green tomatoes were something that appeared on the menu at a certain time at certain "low end" (typically a meat, three and tea) restaurants, but only when the tomatoes were in season. Now I see them on the menus in the finest restaurants and almost every upper crust restaurant has fried green tomatoes on the menu. So much for the movies. (the movie did get one thing right - the secret is in the sauce when it comes to many barbecue eateries.) But this little change of pace in southern cooking tradition just bothers me greatly. Who says Hollywood doesn't influence popular culture?

The Hollywood reference is to the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, the 1992 film version of Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which was published in 1987.

I probably would have looked into it anyway, since I was flattered just to get a request to write on a particular topic. But, Former SCian's comment intrigued me even beyond that. I grew up in South Carolina with both parents and grandparents who had their own gardens and grew tomatoes by the bushel, but I never once remember anyone in my family battering and frying tomatoes, green or otherwise. The first time I remember seeing fried green tomatoes was after I had already graduated from college and was waiting tables at a seafood restaurant. Our kitchen manager served them up one day as an appetizer special, and I remember thinking, "how weird."

Perhaps not so coincidentally, I was working at that restaurant in the spring of 1992. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes premiered in January of that same year.

Intrigued, I decided to look into it.

The Internet wasn't much help. An old article on the University of Georgia's College of Agrictulture and Environmental Sciences web site provides a nice capsule summary of the scholarship on the topic to date: "No one really knows the origin of fried green tomatoes. But a movie from Georgia really put them on the national culinary map." Clearly there's was room for a little original research here (and the movie takes place in Alabama, not Georgia).

The first stop was the newspaper archives. I found eleven recipes for fried green tomatoes published in newspapers between 1900 and 1919, but interestingly all eleven of were in Northern or Midwestern cities--ranging from Fitchburg, MA, to Lincoln, NE,--the southernmost being Frederick, MD, which is a border state at best. During the 1920s, two Southern newspapers (one in Danville, VA the other in Fayetteville AK) published recipes while eleven non-Southern ones did. And the Danville VA recipe was from a nationally-syndicated column. No Southern newspapers I could find ran recipes in the 1930s, and only one (the Dothan AL Eagle) in the 1940s, and none in the 1950s or 1960s.

I was starting to wonder whether there might be a little secret here. What if fried green tomatoes, that quintessentially Southern dish, aren't really Southern at all?

But, wasn't that cafe in Fanny Flagg's novel based on a real-life model?

Indeed it was. Flagg reveals the fictional cafe's origin in The Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook, which she wrote in 1993 to respond to "thousands of requests from all over the world asking for recipes from that cafe." Here's her explanation:

The Irondale Cafe was started by my great aunt Bess in the thirties . . . just outside my hometown of Birmingham. The good news is that it is thriving, doing a roaring business, with people coming from miles around to enjoy those same hot delicious meals. Not only that, Virginia Johnson, that fabulous cook who first went to work for my aunt when she was eleven, can still be found in the kitchen, happily frying up a fresh batch of fried green tomatoes every day, the same kind that I, along with generations of others, have enjoyed since we were children.

The Irondale Cafe has a website, and the history on the site indicates the cafe was well known in the early days for its sandwiches, meats, and vegetables. But, there's no mention of fried green tomatoes until well after Bess Fortenberry sold the cafe in 1972 to Bill McMichael, who worked for the Southern Railway and was a regular diner there. The first time the famous dish is mentioned is in conjunction with the release of the movie:

In January 1992 the movie Fried Green Tomatoes premiered at the Cobb Galleria Theatre in Birmingham, and Fannie Flagg, Bess Fortenberry’s niece and author of the book by the same name, came to the opening with many of her friends and associates. Right after it opened, tourists from all over started coming to the Café. The local newspaper ran an article that asked: 'Seen the movie? Now taste the title.' The crowds grew. Everyone who comes to the café for the first time orders our fried green tomatoes! We fry 60 or 70 pounds every weekday, and more than that on Sundays.

Bill and Sandi McMichael sold the Irondale Cafe in 2000 and retired, but they retained the rights to the name "Whistlestop Cafe" and continue sell their fried green tomato batter mix in stores and over the Internet. But how authentic is this mix? Sandi McMichael spills the beans in the history posted on the "Original Whistlestop Cafe" website:

When we started frying so many tomatoes, we knew we had to have a batter mix that would be good to use in a deep fryer. We experimented, and my husband developed the Fried Green Tomato batter, which is now available around the country.

So, the special recipe at the cafe was invented AFTER the movie! This doesn't mean that the Irondale Cafe didn't serve fried green tomatoes before the movie came out, but they appear to have been at best a minor side item up until the movie fans descended.


So where did fried green tomatoes really come from?

Fanny Flagg provides her own explanation of the dish's history in the Original Whistlestop Cafe Cookbook: "Like most of this [Southern] food, it really started getting to be a popular dish during the Depression. People would fry up most anything and pretend it was meat or fish, and actually as it turned out, a pitcher full of sweet iced tea and a plate of fried green tomatoes turned out to be a delightfully tasty and light summer supper on nights when it was so hot you didn't feel like having a big heavy meal."

This sounds pretty good on the surface, but you have to be wary of the "it started during the Depression" school of food origins when it comes to Southern cookery. The Depression did not have nearly the crushing effect on the lifestyles of people in the South as it did in the rest of the nation for the simple reason that the Southern economy was already crippled from the agricultural disasters of the 1920s and had been, in fact, a wreck since the Civil War. From the very beginning, when Alabama was frontier country, Southern cookery was founded on hard-times staples like corn meal and sidemeat. If people in the South weren't already frying green tomatoes long before the Depression, there'd be little reason for them to start then.

Based upon my research to date, here's my best inferences on the true history:

Fried green tomatoes are by no means a Southern dish at all. By all accounts, they entered the American culinary scene in the Northeast and Midwest, perhaps with a link to Jewish immigrants, and from there moved onto the menu of the home-economics school of cooking teachers who flourished in the United States in the early-to-mid 20th century.

A recipe for "Fried Green Tomatoes" appears in the International Jewish Cookbook (1919), recommended as "an excellent breakfast dish," and in Aunt Babette's Cookbook (1889), another kosher Jewish recipe book. Recipes for "fried tomatoes" (though not necessarily green ones) appear in several Midwestern cookbooks from the late 19th Century, including the Buckeye Cookbook (1877) and The Presbyterian Cookbook (1873) from the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, OH. By the early part of the 20th Century, recipes for fried green tomatoes were appearing regularly in newspapers throughout the northeast and midwest, usually in cooking columns that were widely syndicated and often as part of canned pieces that offered to layout for a homemaker a complete week's menu (breakfast, lunch, and dinner).

I am not going to question Fannie Flagg's memory and suggest that the Irondale Cafe wasn't serving fried green tomatoes as far back as the 1930s. But, if it was, it seems they were serving up not a common Southern favorite but something the cook may have found in a syndicated newspaper column or a general-interest, national cookbook.

In fact, if you look a little closer at the lone fried green tomato recipe I could find in a Southern newspaper between 1930 and 1960, you'll notice something interesting. It's an article on the front page of the September 28, 1944 issue of the Dothan (Alabama) Eagle. The text mocks a leaflet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that advocates all Americans start the day with a sound, nutritious breakfast, and recommends items such as shortcake, baked beans, and fried green tomatoes. The title makes the Alabama editor's opinion clear: "No, Thank You, Suh! Our Culinary Tastes Won't Permit It, Suh!" The implication is that, as of the 1940s at least, no self-respecting Southerner would dream of eating a fried green tomato.

One can only conclude that Flagg's book and movie were responsible for taking fried green tomatoes from the world of obscure home-ec fare and injecting them into the pantheon of classic Southern dishes. Flagg herself noted the effect her novel had on the restaurant biz in the South: "One night we were in Atlanta," she writes in her cookbook,

and my friend, Dan Martin, took me to an exclusive, decidedly elegant restaurant. The captain, after announcing a long list of exotic entrees, announced that no dinner would be complete without their specialty, fried green tomatoes.

Dan whispered to me: 'I wish you had a piece of the tomato market--I heard that prices have quadrupled and restaurant buyers are having fistfights trying to get the best green ones.' I can't help feeling a little bit guilty, however. I have caused thousands of poor little green tomatoes to go to an early picking.

This wasn't just a passing fad, though. Fried green tomatoes have persisted ever since as one of the signature dishes of Southern cooking. Here in Charleston, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a platter of fried green tomatoes in some upscale restaurant, and you'll spend anywhere from $5 bucks to $16 for what was once a low-rent economy food.

I must thank Former South Carolinian for suggesting this line of inquiry, and my ultimate reaction to reaching these conclusion was not outrage or disappointment or even sadness but rather a profound sense of relief. The truth of the matter is that, since the time I first tried them in 1992, I've thought fried green tomatoes are absolutely awful! The cornmeal batter when it cooks up crisp and golden brown is just fine, but it would be just as good if you fried up an old shoe sole or a cardboard beer mat. The last time I tried fried green tomatoes was as part of an Eggs Benedict special at the Sunflower Cafe. I ate the eggs, hollandaise, and crispy fried batter but left the nasty green disks behind on my plate.

Red-ripe tomatoes fresh from the vine are one of nature's great delights. Much better to have a plate of sliced red tomatoes and a hunk of cornbread on the side.

I never really admitted this green-tomato aversion to anyone until now. I am an unabashed fan of a wide range of Southern delights, from barbecue hash and liver pudding to Moon Pies and Sundrop. I've long felt guilty about disliking fried green tomatoes, since they seemed like such an iconic Southern dish that I should somehow be honor-bound to love them. No more.

I am well aware that many people love fried green tomatoes, and more power to them. They certainly have a long history in American cooking, even if there not as much Southern twang to the story. But it may be bad news for the roadside market vendors around Charleston who, as best I can tell, mark up green tomatoes and sell them for a thirty cent premium above ripe tomatoes for no good economic reason I can think of except the Barnum principle.

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