Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eggs Benedict

Eggs Benedict is not a new concoction by any means, though for many years I had only the fuzziest sense of what they were. They persisted in my mind as yet another example of "fancy cooking", part of that pantheon of vaguely-exotic dishes that constituted the American version of gourmet dining in the 1960s and 1970s. Things like Beef Wellington, Lobster Newburg, Cherries Jubilee, and Baked Alaska. Most of them I knew only from reading, or perhaps from the occasional wedding reception dinner or as the punch line to lame jokes ("there's no place like chrome for the Hollandaise . . .").

Many of these sorts of dishes have roots as far back as Delmonico's and the grande cuisine of the Gilded Age. During the culinary revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s, they were portrayed as representing everything that was insipid and tired and wrong about so-called "gourmet" dining in America. They were cast aside sneeringly by young celebrity chefs seeking the freshest greens and exotic spices and inventive new devices for creating tall food. Most are museum pieces that can rarely be found outside the odd business banquet or small-town country club dining room.

Not so with eggs benedict. They are back in a big way and, if anything, appear to be growing more popular with each passing month, driven, I am convinced, by the popularity of the Sunday brunch. And the reason is simple: they are the perfect hangover food.

There was a time in my life when hangover food meant a bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuit from Hardees and a cup of luke-warm leftover keg beer ("Dude, put a little ice on it and it'll be good as new!"). These days, hangovers are much less frequent and my dining budget a bit larger, but the same principles apply. Apart from large doses of Ibuprofen, two items more than any other seem guaranteed to salve the pain of the morning after: greasy food and a little hair of the dog.

The classic Sunday brunch beverages are the mimosa (orange juice and champagne) and the bloody mary (tomato juice, vodka, and a bunch of spices). These are just breakfast drinks mixed with alcohol, a little hair of the dog wrapped up in morning-time respectability.

And what about Eggs Benedict? They are essentially the same as that bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit, just gone uptown. English muffin instead of biscuit, poached egg instead of fried, and Canadian bacon instead of the old strip kind. Actually, I've got that a bit backwards, since Eggs Benedict have been around for more than a century--at least as far back as the late 19th Century. (One common story, which displays all the typical hallmarks of a last minute improvisation, has stockbroker Lemuel Benedict wandering into the Waldorf Hotel in 1894, seeking to cure a hangover, and ordering toast, poached eggs, bacon, and hollandaise sauce, which was later added by the maitre d' to the menu, with English muffins and ham substituted for the toast and bacon.)

The bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit is, if anything, Eggs Benedict gone slumming. And, in fact, the McDonald's Egg McMuffin was based upon Eggs Benedict. It was created in 1972 by Herb Peterson, a McDonald's franchisee who suceeded in taking Eggs Benedict down-market by replacing the hollandaise with American cheese.

Old-fashioned Eggs Benedict are enjoying a resurgence in the American culinary scene. And not just the classic egg, Canadian bacon, and English muffin combination. Here in Charleston, The Sunflower Cafe makes a mean Benedict with spicy sausage and sauteeed peppers (pictured above). Down at Vickery's, you can soothe the previous night's mistakes with a crab-cake Benedict while looking out over the shrimp boats in Shem Creek. Several local restaurants--including Poogan's Porch and The Bookstore Cafe (or is that the Charleston Cafe, or the Charleston Bookstore Cafe?)--offer a quintessential Southern twist on the classic Benedict, with fried green tomatoes replacing the bacon.

Gone are any connotations of the musty past of wide-lapeled suits and formal 1960s dinners. I am hooked on my Benedicts, even on a regular Sunday morning when I'm out with the kids and haven't even the slightest hint of a headache. Creamy eggs, tangy hollandaise, and the chewy English muffin base are a sublime combination sure to kick off your morning with a smile.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Egg Trick

I was reminded of this old trick when making up a batch of deviled eggs for our Memorial Day cookout. The best way to keep your eggs from splitting open while boiling is to make a tiny hole where trapped air inside can leak out. Just pierce the shell at the flat-end of the egg with a needle or pin, pushing it in far enough to get through the membrane inside.

As an experiment, while boiling my eight eggs this weekend, I pierced the ends of four and left four untouched. I lowered all eight very carefully with a spoon into the boiling water. Two of the non-pierced eggs cracked almost wide open. None of the pierced eggs did. Proof enough for me.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Margarita Matters

It's Memorial Day weekend, and that noise you hear is me and The Wife arguing once again about now to make a proper margarita. We are compatible in so many ways, from books to movies to television to our generally cranky dispositions, but on the subject of margaritas we are the Hatfields and McCoys. She likes them frozen and made from a mix, and I like them the right way.

A proper margarita is, like a martini or a manhattan, a classic cocktail that combines multiple liquors into a single drink and elevates the blend far beyond the sum of its parts. Mathematics has its Golden Ratio (a+b is to a as a is to b). The Golden Ratio in margarita mixology is simpler: 3 to 2 to 1. That is, three parts tequila to 2 parts triple sec to 1 part lime juice. No sugar required. Just combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker along with a scoop of ice, shake briskly a few times, and strain into a glass. Garnish with a bright wedge of lime.

At the other extreme is the frozen margarita made from a prepackaged mix, which has all the charm and elegance of Spring Break at Daytona Beach. Gone is the fresh lime juice, gone is the triple sec (so, no blending of liquors). In their place you get citric acid and high-fructose corn syrup and green food coloring. It's palatable only as a frozen margarita--mixed with ice and slushed up in a blender--and even then it is to the real thing what Miracle Whip is to fresh, homemade mayonnaise.

Robb Walsh has engagingly captured the history of the margarita in his articles for The Houston Press, including the origin of the frozen margarita, which he calls a drink made for "imbibers on training wheels." The concoction was popularized by restauranteurs such as Mariano Martinez of Mariano's Mexican Cuisine in Dallas, who discarded the blenders for soft-serve ice cream machines that allowed them to churn out drinks in bulk that weren't diluted by too much ice. But, a margarita is high in alcohol content and won't freeze in the machines. The solution? Increase the sugar content. Given enough sugar in the mix, you can freeze even generous quantities of tequila.

The result was a margarita boom in the 1970s and 1980s. Tex-Mex restaurants built out their bars and added chips & salsa and other cocktail-friendly snacks. Tequila sales in the U.S. rose 1500% between 1975 and 1995. Jimmy Buffett recorded "Margaritaville" in 1977, and the song leaves no doubt where his drinks land on the spectrum ("there's booze in the blender . . . that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.")

The quality of a margarita will be in direct proportion to the quality of the ingredients. If you are going to mix up a pitcher with a prepackaged mix, then Montezuma Tequila or some other low-rent brand will do: you won't be tasting the tequila any way amid all that overwhelming sugary pap. If you are going to make it the right way, shell out a little bit extra for a good tequila. If you really want to travel in style, don't use plain old triple-sec but Cointreau or another premium orange liqueur instead. At 30 bucks a bottle Cointreau is pretty pricey, but you don't use much in a margarita, and it adds a lot of character.

We'll be going head-to-head at our cookout this weekend, frozen pap vs. proper margaritas, and I'll be the vocal champion for the old, classic recipe. If past history is any indication, the blender will be busy all afternoon and the old shaker won't see much action. But, I'll be enjoying myself either way.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


I just have to stop for a minute and rave about Ximena Maier's Madrid-based blog Lobstersquad. As food blogs go, it's well written and always interesting. But the absolute best thing are her original drawings that decorate the site. She's a professional illustrator, and each picture is a colorful delight that makes me want to break out some pencils and paints and learn how to draw. And the name comes from Woody Allen's Annie Hall to boot . . .

Sign me up for the Lobstersquad!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lowcountry Nibbles - May 21st

The Charleston City Paper's food columnist Jeff Allen has launched a new blog hosted by the periodical. I'm a regular reader of his writing in the magazine, and I did wonder wonder whether with his weekly print gig he'd be able to find enough new material for the blog, but he's been knocking out posts fairly consistently now for a couple of weeks.

Louis Olsteen--formerly of Louis' in downtown Charleston--has heard the siren call and is heading to Vegas. One of his ventures will be called "Louis's Fish Camp," which I assume will be modeled on his current outlet up on Pawley's Island. We wish him all the best, but one does wonder about the pedgiree of Osteen's fish camp fare. I remember "The Old Mill Stream" up in Greenville, SC, having styrofoam plates with fried catfish and french fries and cole slaw, and I remember the massive bear in the chain-link cage outside to whom you could feed a handful of stale hushpuppies for a quater. But I don't remember "Tuna Burger with a Ginger Soy Mustard Glaze on a Brioche Roll" or "Baja Fish Tacos" being on the menu. It's been a while, though . . .
Fred Neuville, chef at Rue de Jean and Coast, is stepping down to open his own restaurant on John's Island.
The Lee Brothers cleaned up at the James Beard Awards, with their Lee Brother's Southern Cookbook winning Cookbook of the Year. Mike Lata of FIG lost out to Scott Peacock from Decatur, GA's Watershed, but the voting was probably rigged . . .

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Frogmore Stew

Shrimp season is underway, and what better way to celebrate than with a big pot of Frogmore Stew?

Frogmore used to be a small town on St. Helena Island near Beaufort, South Carolina, though the Post Office officially abandoned the name in the 1980s. (The name itself is likely derived from Frogmore Estate, a 33-acre plot of private gardens adjoining Windsor Castle in England.) The name lives on today as the classic Lowcountry South Carolina dish.

Richard Gay of the Gay Seafood Company claims to have invented Frogmore Stew back in the 1960s, putting out copies of the recipe at his seafood market and selling all the necessary ingredients. For all I know, he may be telling the truth.

Why it's called a stew I have no idea. It's nothing like Brunswick Stew, another Southern delicacy, which is, indeed, very stewy. The alternate name for Frogmore Stew, "Lowcountry Boil", is much more descriptive, since there's no liquid or sauce left once you've finished cooking the "stew". But, doesn't "Frogmore Stew" have a much nicer ring to it?

And, no, there are no frogs involved.

Everyone has a little bit different recipe for Frogmore Stew, but I prefer to keep it simple: just sausage, corn, and shrimp. The version I cooked up a the beach last weekend went something like this:
3 lbs. shrimp, unshelled
1 lb. smoked beef sausage, sliced into 1-inch pieces
6 ears of sweet corn, husked and cut into thirds
1 Tbsp Old Bay seasoning (don't overdo it here)
The cooking is simple: bring about a gallon and a half of water to a boil and get your kitchen timer ready. Add the sausage and Old Bay seasoning and boil for 5 minutes. Then, add the sweet corn and boil another 5 minutes. Then, add the shrimp and boil 3 more minutes. Drain, put in a big bowl, and serve with cocktail sauce and good crusty bread.
Some recipes call for adding potatoes, but I prefer to boil those separately and toss with a little butter and dill before serving--no need to spice up the potatoes with the Old Bay seasoning.
Of course, some have gotten seduced away from the simplest form of the dish. The Lee Brothers' recipe for Frogmore Stew, for example, is a gussied up version involving onions, crab, Yukon Gold potatoes, plum tomatoes, andouille sausage, serrano chiles and a bunch of other stuff we can hardly spell down here in the Lowcountry. I'm sure it's pretty good, but I'm not sure good fresh, local shrimp needs such adornment.
Boil it up, serve it in a big bowl, and go ahead and put a roll of paper towels right on the table. Your guests will thank you for it.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


We spent last weekend at Sunset Beach just up on the North Carolina border, which means time to crab. We baited the old crab traps as in years before, but the catch was much lighter this time around.

Up at Bill's Seafood over on the mainland, the counter man said their catches were way down, too--with their suppliers bringing in as few as 20 per day.

I only stayed for a long weekend, and we managed to catch only 6 crabs in that time--hardly enough for more than a handful of crab cakes. So, I left the cleaned meat for my parents, who were staying on the rest of the week. Hopefully they managed to take enough to make a decent meal.

I snuck a few pinches of that wonderful white meat on the sly, though--sweet and delicious.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Scenes from Domestic Life (Part 2)

I opened my kitchen cabinet the other day, and this tableaux was so striking that I had to snap a picture. Notice the box in the upper right.

I'm just not sure why we can't seem to lose any weight around here . . .

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Free Pizza for a Year

A few days ago I began a post that started: "Have I mentioned South of Philly Pizzaeria before? It's a fairly new place out here on the West Ashley side of town (in the Bi-Lo Shopping Center off Bee's Ferry Road)."
The answer is that, no, I haven't mentioned it before, and "fairly new" isn't really all that fair any more since as of this Saturday (May 4th), South of Philly will have been in operation for a full year.
The restaurant has only a couple of tables inside, so it's much more of a take-out and delivery place. They have great cheesesteak sandwiches, but our new favorite is the simplest pizza of all--a large cheese. Only $10 bucks or so: how could we avoid ordering one at least once a week? It's our stand-by option for those nights when I'm running late at work and nobody feels like cooking. I've actually caught The Wife asking, "Do you think you'll have to work late tonight?" with a hopeful, expectant air . . .

South of Philly is definitely a contender for best pizza in town, and they are right up there with Philly's in Summerville for best cheesesteak. On May 4th they are celebrating their anniversary with free pizza, cheesy "bread thingies", and a bunch of give-a-way drawings, including free pizza for a year. "Restrictions Apply", the flyer says, but it doesn't say what that means. Surely one per day isn't too much to expect?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Spring Salad with Local Eggs

What do you do with a dozen fresh, free-range chicken eggs and red spring onions you pick up at the farmer's market? Boil the eggs, slice the onions thin, and make a colorful salad. Boston lettuce, diced red peppers, and a honey mustard vinagrette top it off.

For the vinegrette: Combine 1 Tbsp honey, 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard, 1 tsp. white vinegar, 1 Tbsp olive oil, and a little salt and pepper in a small plastic container with a tight lid, shaking well before serving. The red onions and red peppers give such a fantastic sweetness that is the perfect complement to the rich eggs. Yum.

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