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.

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