Monday, June 30, 2008

Moving House

I'm in the middle of setting up shop at a new location for Al Forno over at the Charleston City Paper blogsite. There are still a few kinks to work out, but I'm going to see how it goes. The new URL is as follows:

I'll probably keep posting in parallel for a little while here until I figure out the best way to move forward with two sites.

Update (8/3/08): After playing around with it for a month, it makes more sense for me to stay right here on Blogspot rather than moving Al Forno over the City Paper site. Instead, I'll start contributing posts to the Eat blog. So watch for those, too!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Eat Local" Jumps the Shark

Oh, yes. I saw it coming. Eating local is going mainstream. This coming Tuesday, Wal-Mart and the South Carolina Department of Agriculture will formally launch a partnership to promote "Certified SC Grown" produce in Wal-Mart stores across the state, kicking it off with a press conference at the Airport Wal-Mart in North Charleston

Speaking at the event will be Ashley Rawl of W. P. Rawl & Sons up in Pelion, SC. The press release for the event describes Rawl as a "local farmer" (though he seems to wear a few hats and sometimes has to also serve as the Director of Marketing). Rawl & Sons products include pre-washed, chopped, and packaged kale, collards, turnip greens and mustard greens grown on their small family farm (only 2,500 acres or so of fields) where the family and a few hundred close friends ship some 35 tractor trailer loads a day from their packing facilities.

Eating local just gets easier and easier!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka

Local distiller Firefly from out on Wadmalaw Island seems to be hitting on all cylinders these days. Its latest production, Sweet Tea Vodka, is the hot pour around town and has local bartenders getting creative with new ways to mix it up.

Down at McCrady's they're serving it in a "Charleston", a take on the Manhattan that combines the sweet tea vodka with Grand Marnier and brandied cherry syrup. It's sweet but tasty, and boy does it pack a punch. Who needs New York, anyway?

Peach and coffee vodkas are on the way next from Firefly, so watch for a stream of creative new cocktails coming from the Peninsula's bartenders.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Rise of Humble Cuisine

Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle has a great piece about the results of the James Beard Awards and what they indicate about trends in the restaurant world. He sums it up as a shift of focus to chefs from smaller, neighborhood restaurants and takes it as a sign that "as a dining nation we are growing up":

Winning doesn't necessarily mean glitzy surroundings, high-profile names and chic locations; it's about how the people behind the stove translate their passion to diners.

I agree wholeheartedly, though I might give it a slightly different spin: "fine-dining fatigue." Diners are getting a little bit tired of the same old run-of-the-mill Wagyu beef and D'Artagnan duck and Kurobuta pork with inventive gastriques and playful vegetable sides. I'm sticking to my guns and still predicting that we're about to see a return to the good-ole-days of the grande cuisine, but until then chefs (like Best Chef Southeast winner Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill) who have taken the low and slow road of humble, high-quality downhome cooking will see their stars continue to rise.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Lowcountry Nibbles: June 13th

Awards and Notices

Robert Stehling of the Hominy Grill took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast, beating out some serious Georgia competition and Charleston's Mike Lata from FIG, too. McCrady's Sean Brock came up just short on the Rising Star, but the three nominations and one win for Charleston are a huge confirmation of the city's growing stature as a culinary city.


Circa 1886 is holding the "Charleston's Choice ice cream contest." Charlestonians are being asked to create a flavor that is most representative of the city. The winning combination will earn its creator a free dinner for four at Circa 1886, and it will be featured on the restaurant's menu during the month of August. Submit entries here.

Charleston Magazine and The Charleston Food + Wine Festival are holding a design contest for the poster for the 2009 festival. The winning design will "reflect Charleston's rich culinary history and exciting food scene," and the winner designer will take home $1,000 in cash, a selection of local retail items . . . and an ampersand!

Openings & Closings

The city of Orangeburg will get a shot at fine dining when Four Moons Restaurant opens near the Orangeburg Mall on June 25th. The menu will feature "Adventurous American Cuisine" and a 500-label wine list, along with a separate tapas menu featuring items like lamb carpaccio, blue cheese mousse, and "corn dogs" made of grouper, tuna, and shrimp. Executive Chef Charles Zeran comes from Glendorn Lodge, a Relais & Chateux resort in Bradford, PA, and professes a passion for molecular gastronomy. Yes, I did say Orangeburg.

Ken Vedrinski of Sienna is opening Trattoria Lucca on Bogard Street downtown, which will offer affordable Italian cuisine with late-night hours.

Miss Ellie's Island Soul has opened on Daniel Island in the spot formerly occupied by Baker's Cafe. They serve an old-school diner style breakfasts, and the lunch menu features sandwiches and "blue plate specials" like fried chicken, chicken pot pie, and fried whiting.

Luna Rossa, the Mt. P wood-fired pizza joint, has closed after 30 years of business. Word is the spot will be transformed into "Abe's Oyster Bar and Saloon".

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Beard Awards in Near-Real-Time

Jeff Allen is up in New York City covering the James Beard Awards (or at least eating his way through Manhattan). Check out the latest over at the Eat blog, and let's root for the hometown boys--Mike Lata of FIG and Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill, both up for Best Chef - Southeast, and Sean Brock of McCrady's, up for the national Rising Star award.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

She-Crab Pointers?

I'm undertaking a little project to delve into the subject of She-Crab Soup, one of Charleston's indisputed culinary classics. I'm well underway on my sampling tour of the city's restaurants, but there are hundreds of candidates to choose from, and I'd hate to miss out on a really good bowl.

So, I could use a little help. What restaurants do you think serve the best She-Crab Soup in town?

Feel free to pass along any other tips, memories, preferences, or anecdotes that would help, too.

And what better month than June for a nice steamy bowl of cream-based soup?

Friday, June 06, 2008

Carolina Pilau

These days, as I've been looking more and more into the old-school classics of Lowcountry cooking, I find myself eating pilau a lot. In Charleston, that's usually pronounced "per-low" or "per-loo", but it is related historically to the Middle Eastern rice dishes that are more frequently called "pilaf" outside of Charleston. Made incorrectly, pilau can be a dry, boring rice dish. Put together just right, it's a tender, steamy delicacy. I can't say I've completely mastered the pilau yet, but I'm getting closer.

For this recipe, I started with the version from John Martin Taylor's Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking, which I've found to be one of the best sources for classic Lowcountry recipes. One thing was noticably missing from Taylor's version, though: bacon. Bacon shows up in almost all of the 19th century pilau recipes from South Carolina, so I added in a slice or two once I hit the step where you sautee the vegetables (after all, bacon is essentially just an extension of the vegetable food group, right?)

Here's how it goes:

1. Cover a whole chicken (or the parts from one chicken) with water (about 2 quarts), bring to a boil, and simmer for a half hour.

2. Remove chicken from the stock and reserve the stock. Allow chicken to cool, then remove the meat from the bones.

3. Melt a bunch of butter in a dutch oven or similarly large pan. Don't be scared--used a whole stick.

4. Add a diced onion, 2-3 ribs worth of diced celery, and 2 slices worth of minced bacon. Cook till the vegetables are just starting to brown. (I snapped the photo below just before remembering I needed to add the bacon!)

5. Toss in a diced tomato along with salt and pepper and some fresh thyme (about a tablespoon if it's fresh, a teaspoon if you only have dried). Add two cups of rice and the chicken and stir till well coated in the butter. I prefer to use Carolina Gold rice for this dish, though you could use plain old long grain rice, too--it just won't have quite the dense, chewy texture of the original.

6. Add 4 cups of the reserved chicken stock. The ratio of rice to liquid is important here, so measure!

7. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat till the liquid is just simmering (medium low on my electric stove). Cover and cook undisturbed thirty minutes.

When it's done, remove the lid, fluff the grains of rice with a fork, and serve. It's rich and filling and a classic of the Lowcountry.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Margarita Matters (Revisited Part B)

So, one day after my post on the Golden Ratio for margaritas, I open up the newly-arrived July issue of Saveur and see that Robb Walsh has an article in it on great Lone Star State margarita joints. And, he provides his formula for the "classic shaken margarita." (Recipe here.)

Ordinarily I would shrug off any competing ratios (for what can beat the elegant simplicity of 3 to 2 to 1?), but this is Robb Walsh we're talking about--a masterful chronicler not only of the history of the margarita but also of Texas barbecue. I mean, what would you do if you'd just published a long treatise on quantum mechanics and found out the next day that Max Planck had just published his own article on the same topic in a competing journal? (Okay, Wife, you can stop doing that whole making-an-L-with-my-fingers-on-my-forehead thing already.)

So, even though it was ten o'clock on a work night I felt in the interest of science I had to give it a try. The margarita recipe, that is.

Walsh's ratio lacks elegance: 4 parts tequila to 1-1/2 parts lime juice to 1 part Cointreau and 1/2 part simple syrup. Parts, in his case, is ounces. So, if you were to try to make it more elegant, you could do 8 to 3 to 2 to 1, which is still complicated as heck. Good luck remembering that one when shaking up the third round.

I do have to give him one thing: I think the addition of simple syrup actually works in a margarita made with Cointreau, which lacks a little of the sweetness of Triple Sec.

But I do have a bone to pick. If you follow Walsh's recipe step by step, you'll start off with four (4!) ounces of tequila in your shaker, which seems like an awful lot for a weeknight. But, in the interest of science, one does want to follow to formula to the letter . . . and then you get to the last line it says, "pour into 2 small ice-filled tumblers." Now, since when did you ever hear of cocktail recipes that make two servings? That tomfoolery may have worked on the coeds down at UT Austin, Walshy, but I'm not falling for it!

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Margarita Matters (Revisited)

It may still be Spring elsewhere, but it is full on Summer here in Charleston. The mercury got up in the 90s this past weekend and the neighborhood pool was packed. And that can mean only one thing . . . Margarita time!

Last Memorial Day I expounded on my theory about the Margarita's Golden Ratio, and I've been trying to validate that through rigorous empirical research. Lots and lots of rigorous empircal research. (Hey, somebody's got to do it!)

So far, my formula still holds up: 3 to 2 to 1. That's three parts tequila to two parts triple sec to 1 part lime juice. No sugar or blender required. Just shake vigorously with ice and pour over the rocks.

This time around I invested in a bottle of Cointreau to take the place of the triple sec, and I think it improves things nicely.

Bring on the summer heat. I'm ready.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Monday, June 02, 2008

Radish You Were Here

I had dinner at FIG Saturday night. For an appetizer, I ordered the local radishes with Vermont butter and fleur de sel. This was one I hadn't tried before, and I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting--some sort of dressed salad kind of thing, I guess. Instead, the plate came out with food in three sections: a small pile of pink radishes on the left--cleaned and sliced in half but otherwise completely raw and unprepared in any way--along with an egg-shaped scoop of yellow butter in the middle and a small pile of coarse, flaky salt on the right. Hmm, I thought. I surveyed the plate with a sinking heart. Looks like someone forgot to put the thing together.

I looked enviously over at The Wife to my right, who was busy tucking away an insanely delicious-looking warm potato dumpling concoction with a creamy sauce and bits of green onion and herbs all over it, and then to my friend on the left who was forking into two of the largest stone crab claws I've ever seen. I put on a brave face, smeared a radish half with some of the butter, and dabbed it in the salt and . . .

It was good. Unbeliveably good. Crisp and spicy radish with the creamy artisinal butter and the zip of the salt. In fact, it's hard to think of what cooking or marinating or other preparation could have possibly added to the combination.

I guess one could make the argument that this isn't really cooking: it's just someone shopping for you. But I don't care. It's sort of like those rubes who look at Abstract Expressionist art and say, "hell, my ten year old could paint that!" Yes, he probably could. But did he paint it? Would he ever think to if he didn't have a Jackson Pollock version to imitate?

Now, coming fast on the heels of my having a phenomenal "Spring Radish Puree" soup at Soif a few weeks ago, I am in danger of developing a full-on radish obsession. Now if I could just get Mike Lata to spill the beans and tell me where he gets those local radishes . . .

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Lowcountry Nibbles: June 1st

Awards & Notices

The Charleston Food + Wine Festival made Forbes Traveler's list of Best U.S Wine & Food Festivals. Not bad for an event that's only three years old. (Maybe now they'll finally be able to afford that ampersand.)

Slightly North of Broad was just inducted into the Nation's Restaurant News' Fine Dining Hall of Fame.

Chefs on the Move

Charles Arena is moving from the Boat House at Breach Inlet to the Library Restaurant at The Vendue Inn.

David Szlam, formerly of the departed Cordavi, has taken on the chef's spot at Uno Mas.

Chefs on the Road

Mike Lata from Fig will be the featured chef at Blackberry Farm in Walland, TN, June 22nd to June 24th.

Marc Collins of Circa 1886 is traveling up to Hartford on June 6th to be one of eight guest chefs in the Connecticut Culinary Masters Classic fundraiser.

Openings & Closings

Caviar & Bananas, a "gourmet market and cafe" has opened at 51 George St. downtown and offers gourmet groceries (including charcuterie, cheese, and sushi) as well as a range of prepared foods for eating in or taking out.

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