Saturday, April 28, 2007

Scenes from the Marion Square Market

Friday, April 27, 2007

What's In Season?

My recent post on creamed corn made me wonder: what is in season in South Carolina this time of year? At both the Marion Square market downtown and the Mount Pleasant Farmer's Market, you have to look carefully to figure out if you're getting true local produce. Both markets have established some strict rules governing what can and can't be sold at the market, with the goal of fostering local agriculture, but there are some wrinkles.

Mount Pleasant has mandated that all produce sold must have been grown in the State of South Carolina, while Marion Square seems to be a little more liberal (judging by the boxes of yellow bananas you can find there.)

Under the "50% Rule" at both markets, produce vendors must have personally grown at least 50% of the items being sold at their tents rather than reselling other farmers' wares. This is in effect only during the area's early and late harvest seasons: mid-May until mid-July for the first period, then the beginning of September until the end of October.

The "Local Season Rule" takes it a step further: for items that have come into season locally (meaning in Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester, Georgetown, and Colleton counties for Mount Pleasant and East of I-95 for Marion Square) no secondhand sales are allowed at all, guaranteeing the farmer who grew it is the one selling it (assuming no one cheats, of course--but be careful, the Market Manager has the authority to "remove questionable items").

Great, but what's in season when? Right now here's the list: asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, cucumbers, green onions, kale, mustard, potatoes, strawbeerries, summer squash, and turnips.

I'm off to the Marion Square market in the morning, so I'll be checking these items out.

Lowcountry Nibbles - April 27th

Don't miss the Blessing of the Fleet at Alhambra Hall in Mount Pleasant on Sunday, which will kick off the South Carolina shrimping season.

There's lots of buzz around town about whether Ruth's Chris is going to open an outlet in Charleston or not, especially now that Columbia is going to get one. Having never eaten at one, I'm not sure what the fuss is all about--especially since we already have Oak and Grill 225 and you can get good steaks at any number of restaurants on the Peninsula.

Amid various local ordinances banning workplace smoking, restaurants statewide are a step closer to having to go totally smoke-free. A smoking ban measure was passed by the state Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17th.

Whole Foods in Mount Pleasant will be hosting a "South Carolina Specialty Foods Day" on May 19th from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m to showcase the products of local growers and food producers.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Creamed Corn

It's still way too soon for local corn, but I saw some pretty good looking ears from Florida in the grocery store yesterday and bought them. And, I think I have determined once and for all that "creaming" corn is my favorite way to prepare it.

For years creamed corn conjured up images to me of that sickly-sweet Green Giant stuff. I always steamed my corn still on the cob. But gnawing at a cob slick with butter is pretty messy, and you invariably get several pieces of kernel hull stuck in your teeth. Creaming the corn lets you avoid all that fuss and focus on the pure corn flavor.

First, before cooking, you remove the kernels from the cob. To do so, husk the corn and remove the silk, then get a large shallow bowl. Stand a cob upright in the bowl and slice downward with a sharp knife the cut off the kernels. Don't worry about the size of the slice--a smaller slice of only a couple of rows of kernels at a time, turning the cob as you go, will give the best results.

The key step comes once you have cut off all the kernels: use the back side of the knife to scrape the remaining "milk" from the cob into the bowl. This is the part that is going to give you that great sweet corn flavor. (Good pictures of the slicing and scraping technique can be found here and here.)

Once you have removed all the kernels and milk, pour them into a sauce pan and add about half a tablespoon of butter per ear (I usually do four ears with 2 Tbsp of butter) along with a little salt. And that's it: no water or other ingredients required. Put the pan on the stove over medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the butter is all melted and the corn has been heated consistently through--just three or four minutes. Serve immediately or place a lid on the pot and reduce the heat to the lowest setting to just keep it warm.

I've seen recipes that call for a lot of additional ingredients, like onions or spices, but they just aren't needed. And, you don't even need cream. If the corn is good and fresh, it will be so sweet and creamy that it will be almost like eating dessert. I always make extra, since it keeps and reheats well.
Bring on the summertime crop!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Traveling In Style

John Mariani has a great piece on traveling in appropriate attire in his weekly online newsletter. Many people would find his advice stuffy and conservative, but it appeals perfectly to my old-fashioned sensibilities.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Volunteer Mint

Last fall, as the mint in my window herb garden started to struggle, I put the pot outside in hopes that a little more natural light would help it out. I forgot about it as the weather turned cold and eventually the plant died. But not, apparently, before spreading its seeds.

Spring is here and as I was getting started with a little yard work I discovered . . . volunteer mint. A whole host of it. I think this is nature's way of saying I should renew my experiment with learning to make a proper mojito. The secret, I'm convinced, is in the muddling. And maybe I'll give a mint julep a try, too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Perfecting the Potatoes

For years now 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 radically, but a few slight variations that make a great dish even better.

The key changes? Slice them 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. The rest of the prep is the same--drizzle with olive oil then sprinkle with salt, pepper, paprika, and chopped parsely. Lately, though, 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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Terrapin Rye Pale Ale

I'm always on the lookout for new beers, and when I saw Terrapin Rye Pale Ale on the shelf at EarthFare the other day I had to give it a shot--especially when I saw it's from just down the road in Athens, GA.

As it turns out, it's not exactly from Athens. Not yet, anyway. Terrapin just signed a lease on a 45,000 square foot facility near the UGA campus and acquired brewing equipment formerly used by Atlanta's Sweetwater and Zuma breweries, so soon Terrapin will truly be a local Georgia beer. For now, it's contract brewed in Frederick, Maryland, as it has been since the company was founded in 2002.

But, does it really matter? It's definitely a good beer, with the crisp, hoppy taste of a classic pale ale. A small amount of rye--a grain rarely found in beer--is included in the mix. I couldn't discern the rye, necessarily, but no matter. It's definitely a great beer. The Terrapin Rye Pale Ale recently won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, so I'm not alone in that opinion.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Scenes from Domestic Life

It's a scene played out with painful regularity in my family: it's a Saturday or Sunday morning, everyone is ready to get out of the house, and we decide, "let's eat lunch out." So, we pile into the car and get out on the road and I ask, "Okay, so where are we going?" And no one has any ideas. So I'll name a restaurant and The Wife will say, "We've eaten there a million times."

"So you pick one," I say.

"How about the Sunflower Cafe?"

"We just ate there yesterday."

"But it's really good."

"Yes, but we at there yesterday."

"Well, then you pick the place."

"How about Burger King?" The Six Year Old says.

"No!" The Wife and I say in unison.

"I never get to pick the place!"

"You might if you picked something other than Burger King," The Wife Says.


"No, I mean somewhere where we can all sit down and have a nice meal. Not fast food."

"But I want Chick-Fil-A!!!"

"How about Andolini's?" I say. "We all like that."

"I don't feel like pizza," The Wife says.

"You never feel like pizza. If you're going to be so damned picky, then you choose the place!"

"Augh! There's nowhere good to eat in this town!"

And it goes on for about 5 minutes until we're all steamed and snipping at each other and turning what should be a perfectly nice afternoon outing into a scene from an Ibsen play.

But, the problem is not that there are no good places to eat in town. There are plenty of good places to eat, some of them so good we eat there almost once a week. But, we're becoming more and more set in our ways, with the circle of restaurants open for consideration limited to about 5 or 6 favorites. We want something a little nicer than fast food, but we aren't looking to plunk down $200 for a family of four to eat, and it needs to be somewhere you can take a 1-year-old without angering the entire restaurant. So that narrows the field a little. And, it has to be someplace good--someplace that is interesting and original and serves food that is different from or better than the things I can cook at home. And that does narrow it down a bit (sorry, O'Charley's and Outback Steakhouse--you don't make the cut.)

But still that leaves dozens and dozens of restaurants that should be suitable. We should literally be able to eat at a different restaurant each weekend for an entire year and never have to venture beyond the city limits of Charleston.

So why is it so hard?

The real problem is risk management. None of us wants to be the one who picks the place where we have a crummy meal.

Lunch and dinner are special, each coming just once a day. When you go out and plunk down decent money for a meal, you want it to be something special, too. For me, it's not the risk of having an outright bad meal--undercooked chicken or foul, greasy sauces or inedible side dishes. Those are easy enough to handle--you send back the meal or demand your money back.

No, the real risk is that we might have a mediocre meal, where the food is okay but not great, the dining room a little too crowded and the chairs a little too uncomfortable, the service a little slow, and at the end you think, "I really could have had something this good at home." It's the sinking feeling of leaving a restaurant disappointed and knowledge of a lost opportunity. If we had just picked a different spot, we'd be leaving saying, "Wow, that was really good." And we'd be full and contented the rest of the afternoon.

And memory is long. "This better not be another Noisy Oyster," The Wife will frequently say when I suggest we try a new restaurant, referring to a disappointing evening at the old seafood restaurant at Buzzard's Roost Marina on Mayback Highway. The Wife does not easily forget culinary slights, and she was gratified to learn the The Noisy Oyster was recently demolished to make way for new development. And, in fairness to me, it wasn't that we had a bad meal there--just a less than thrilling one.

And that's where the risk aversion comes in. We've become conservative, too unwilling to step out a little and try someplace new. Yes, we might discover the next G&M Fast French or Bessenger's Barbecue or El Mercadito and add it to our pantheon of "good solid places to eat". Or, it might be the next disappointment that joins a long list of restaurants where the food was just so-so and we left feeling cheated.

But, no more! I'm throwing down the gauntlet. Life is too short to eat the same meal again and again, even if it is a really good meal. In our fear to take a few risks, we're guaranteeing that we'll never find new thrills, condemning ourselves to a cyclical life of predictable sameness. There are some 38 weekends left in the year, which means 30 to 40 opportunities for new culinary adventures that lay before us. It's time to step out there and discover the Next Great New Thing!

And we'll probably be sitting down at the Sunflower Cafe sometime around noon.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Lowcountry Nibbles -- April 14th

Legislation currently before the South Carolina legislature would raise the cap on beer alcohol levels from 5% to as much as 21%. Pop the Cap South Carolina is one group pushing to get the law passed so that a variety of high-end specialty beers can be sold in the state.

Opening soon at Marion Square . . . Cereality, a restaurant devoted to breakfast cereal. At first I thought this was an April Fool's gag, but, no, it's all too real. The target market? College kids, of course.

Starbucks is opening a coffee-roasting plant up the road in St. Matthews, a moved fueled by recent growth of the chain in the Southeast, where it currently has 2,200 stores.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Legendary River Dog

The Six Year Old and I hit Joseph Riley Park this afternoon for our first Riverdogs game of the season. The Six Year Old caught his first baseball ever ("caught" that is, in the sense that he didn't drop it when one of the visiting Greenville Drive relievers handed him a ball that had just rolled into the vistors' bullpen off an easy grounder). And, I had my first River Dog of the season.

The River Dog is a monument of minor league ballpark cuisine, one I am willing to bet cannot be found anywhere else in the country: a hot dog with coleslaw, mustard-based barbecue sauce, and--the coup de grace--a whole piece of pickled okra laid along top. You wouldn't think it would be good, but it is. Really, really good. The tanginess of the barbecue sauce and the pickled okra blend together perfectly, and the coleslaw gives just the right crunch. Wash it down with a cold draft beer and you are living right.

There are a half-dozen concession stands in The Joe, but you can only get The River Dog at The Doghouse, the stand located just behind homeplate on the main concourse. In the words of The Six Year Old, "it's a Carolina classic!"

The Slippery Coffee Slope

A great post on home espresso from David Leibovitz and Greg Sherman. All told, it make a great local coffee shop like the Charleston Coffee Exchange seem like a better and better deal . . .

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Water on the Brain

San Francisco is a treat. Here in South Carolina, a sizable portion of the population still finds purchasing water in a bottle a strange affectation. Or, as my Uncle James Lee might say, "Why the hell would anyone pay good money for something you can get for free from the hose pipe?"

Bottled water has found a healthy market around here for take-home consumption, but this is mostly of the Dasani and similar varieties of "filtered waters" distributed by the soda companies. A few higher-end restaurants do offer specialty bottled water ("sparkling or still?"), but at most places you just get tap water over ice (and usually with a lemon wedge on the rim).

Not so under the Golden Gate. They are at least two steps ahead of us. First, bottled water became de rigeur in the finer Bay Area restaurants and (due to the amazing mark-up on the items) a major source of revenue for restaurateurs. Now, the trend is starting to roll the other way and restaurants are removing bottled water from their menus--and advertising the fact. As befits the West Coast, they are doing it in a self-righteous, moralizing fashion. It isn't sufficient to say, "why pay a bunch of money for bottled water?" Instead, it must be wrapped in a bunch of pompous rhetoric about "sustainable development" and "eating local" and saving the planet.
In solidarity, I pledge to go an entire week without buying a single bottle of water. It's the least I can do for Mother Earth. Literally.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Rinse Yer Grits

It only took me a few years, but I finally figured out why every time I made up a batch of local stone-ground grits (like the Mill at Riverside kind that are sold at grocery stores and specialty shops around Charleston) there were unpleasant hulls and shells in them. You gotta rinse yer grits!

It's easy to do. Just pour the amount of grits you are going to serve into a large bowl and add enough water to cover them by an inch or so. Wait a few minutes until the bran (the hulls and whatnot) has floated to the top, then drain off the water, taking care not to pour the good grits out with the chaff. Repeat a couple of times if you like. The end results are grits that are rich, creamy, and completely husk-free.

After rinsing, my recipe for a perfect plate of grits is simple: bring 2 cups of milk almost to a boil (watch carefully--milk will boil up in a flash and foam all over your stove), then stir in 2/3rds of a cup grits along with a teaspoon of salt. Simmer for about a half hour, stirring occasionally, and serve.

Jim Dandy they ain't. Plain old white grits (and especially "instant" grits) made with water are, to be frank, just a step up from kindergarten paste. Fresh and coarsely ground and properly cooked (with milk or, if you want to go nuts, with cream), grits are a luxurious treat and a fine base for many delicious meals.
Just be sure to rinse 'em first.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Butter Beans

One of my latest rediscoveries is butter beans, a passion largely fueled by the flavor from Benton's hickory smoked bacon.

The prep is easy: dice 1/2 a slice of bacon (you don't need any more--Benton's is very smoky), chop about a 1/4 cup of onion, then add it to a pot along with the butter beans and enough chicken stock to cover them. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat. Add salt and pepper to taste and let it simmer for about 45 minutes.

It's a snap to make, and the hickory smokiness from the bacon pervades the beans and the pot liquor and . . . boy, is it tasty. I serve these with almost anything: roasted chicken, fish, meatloaf. Add in some corn about 20 minutes before you serve and you've got a fantastic succotash, too.

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