Sunday, May 31, 2009

Adventures in Pig Country

I've been doing a lot of work up in the Raleigh-Durham area, which means a lot of dull four-and-a-half hour drives up I-95. But, as it turns out, my handy electronic barbecue restaurant finder also has the capability for recommending driving routes between two cities (who knew?). It told me that I could make the trip to Durham up U.S. 41 rather than the Interstate, which not only saves a few minutes but is far more scenic.

This has led to some good barbecue, including a little detour over to Wilber's in Goldsboro a few weeks ago and, on my last trip, at stop at Shuler's in Latta.

Wilber's is perhaps the quintessential Eastern NC barbecue joint, one of the few left that actually cooks solely with wood (Wilber Shirley uses oak). The interior looks the way most restaurants looked when I was a kid: brown paneling and red checkered tablecloths. The place is big, too, with two broad dining rooms that seat up to 300 people.

I had a barbecue plate with chopped pork, a finely-minced coleslaw, potato salad, and golden brown hushpuppies, and it was wicked good. I didn't have my camera with me on that trip, but I did get a t-shirt:

As much of a legend as Wilber's is, I have to say that, in my book, Schuler's of Latta is equally worth a stop on a long drive through the Carolina swamps.

It's in a big log cabin building off the side of Highway 38, an all-you-can-eat buffet that's open (like so many SC BBQ joints) just Thursday through Saturday. The chopped pork was good, but for me the star were the ribs--thick, meaty, and very smoky. I can't say for sure, but I think that Shuler's cooks over charcoal (an assumption based upon the fact that there were a bunch of huge sacks of charcoal stacked up out front). In any event, it's good barbecue, and the side dishes (several dozen of them to choose from) will guarantee you leave with a groaning belly.

Along the way, I uncovered a business I never new existed before: Hog Slat.

That's right, Hog Slat (singular).

I had no idea what this business was, but the name intrigued me, and I passed by several different outlets on my circuitous route back from Goldsboro to Charleston. Hog Slat, later research revealed, is the "world leader in swine production solutions." Which is a relief, even though I didn't realize we had swine production problems. As it turns out, a "hog slat" is used on the floor of pig nurseries--a sort of reinforced concrete floor with slits in it, which I can only assume is so that the, er, unwanted materials, pass down through the floor to be carried out to somewhere else. Which is about as much about large-scale hog farming as I need to know.

I've also passed by several billboards for the Nahunta Pork Center in Pikeville, which claims to have "The Country's Largest Pork Retail Display." Now this is the kind of thing that it's hard to pass up, but I was pressed for time on my last few trips. I'll be heading back up in a week or two, so lookout, Pikeville, here I come. I'll make sure to pack a cooler.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Summer of Caipirinhas

I had dinner down at Shine the other day, and one of their specialty drinks is the Caipirinha, which is supposedly the national drink of Brazil. Shine's version won me over, and it's taken a high place on my list--right up there with the mojito and a (proper) margarita--of the best drinks for summer.

Cachaca is a fermented beverage made from the juice of sugar cane juice. It's similar to rum, but rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar cane processing, rather than from sugar cane juice itself.

Shine uses Cachaca 51, the best selling brand of Brazilian cachaca, and adds Clements Orange Liqueur, which uses rum as its base (rather than brandy, which is used by Grand Marnier, or neutral spirits, which are used in most triple secs). The orange liqueur is Shine's added touch: the traditional Caipirinhas recipe just has lime and sugar.

I happened to be fresh out of Cachaca in my home liquor cabinet, but I improvised with some dark rum and it was still a great drink. Shine uses brown sugar for theirs, but white sugar is more traditional. I tried it both ways and think both are good.

Here are the basics:

Cut a lime into slices and place in a glass. Pour in 1 heaping teaspoon of sugar (or perhaps a bit more) and muddle until the lime is throughly mooshed and the sugar is all dissolved:

Add two ounces of whatever liquor you're using--cachaca if you got it, but rum or vodka are common substitutes--add crushed ice and stir.

If you want to goose it up a little like Shine does, add a splash of your favorite orange liqueur. This is a great, refreshing summertime drink, and it prevents scurvy, too. Now I just need to get my hands on a real bottle of cachaca . . .

Friday, May 29, 2009

Strawberry Basil Mojito

So, my visit to the Boone Hall U-Pick strawberry patch coincidend with a trip to the fabulous H&L Market in North Charleston, where I picked up a massive bag of basil for something like a dollar and seventy-five cents. That much basil seems destined for only one thing: a big batch of pesto. But, before then, I might as well use it to put a little dent in my strawberry stockpile.

This recipe is an attempt to recreate a splendid drink that I discovered for the first time out at The Lettered Olive on the Isle of Palms. It's a fine twist on the traditional mojito, and the strawberry and basil provide a nice sweet-minty interplay.

You make it pretty much the same way you would a mojito, but substitute basil for the mint and toss in 2 or 3 sliced strawberries. Just be sure you start with a proper mojito recipe!):

4 - 6 large, fresh basil leaves
2 - 3 strawberries, sliced
1 T sugar
3 T rum
Juice of 1 lime
2 T of club soda

Put the basil and sugar in a glass and muddle vigorously until the basil is starting to disintegrate and is melding into the sugar. Add the strawberries and mush with the muddle until blended with the basil and sugar. Put the mixture into a cocktail shaker and pour in the rum, lime juice, and club soda. Add ice, then shake until well blended. Pour into a rocks glass, Add ice and shake until well blended. Pour into a rocks glass, top with a splash of club soda, garnish with a lime, and enjoy.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sharpen up the filet knife, Sarah . . .

Stingrays win 4-2, taking a 2-1 lead in the series. It's starting to look like king salmon for the guvner--though I hear he wants to sell it to pay down state debt rather than eating it . . .

She-Crab Soup & Shrimp and Grits for Alaska

The Alaska Aces are in town tonight for game three of the Kelly Cup finals against the South Carolina Stingrays. SC Governor Mark Sanford and his Alaskan counterpart, Sarah Palin, have a little wager on the outcome: he'll deliver Palin some she-crab soup and shrimp-and-grits from Tristan if the Aces win, and she'll pony up king salmon if the Stingrays come out on top.

Nothing against salmon, but this somehow doesn't seem like a fair trade. Maybe that Palin's wilier than she looks.

Right now the series is tied 1-1 . . .

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Strawberries, Strawberries, Strawberries

I hit the Boone Hall Farm U-Pick strawberry patch over the weekend with The Eight-Year-Old, The Three-Year-Old, and The-Eight-Year-Old's-Friend. Three free jump castles are only part of the draw. We spent about ten minutes picking berries and those little fingers--even The Three-Year-Old's--are surprisingly nimble. I'd barely had time to turn around before we had four buckets groaning with fresh red berries.

I spent the rest of the weekend trying to figure out what to do with all the bounty. Strawberry waffles, strawberry-basil mojitos, strawberry sorbet--and I still had a massive bag left, starting to show those signs of darkening and turning to mush. So, I sliced the rest and macerated them with sugar and put them in the freezer.

If I invite you over for dinner anytime in the next three months, don't be surprised if the dessert menu features strawberries . . .

Monday, May 25, 2009


John T. Edge's third installment of his splendid United Tastes series for The New York Times came out last week, and it's devoted to the story of David Tran and his Tuong Ot Sriracha sauce, or as I now prefer to call it, "rooster sauce."

Inspired, I picked up a bottle of Sriracha over the weekend (at H&L Market, which had an entire endcapped stacked with cases of the green-capped bottles). The stuff is pretty darn hot, but it has a delightfully complex flavor, with sweet, garlicky undertones than shine through the initial fiery burst of peppers. You can see why every one from Jean-Georges Vongerichten to Korean taco truck operators have glommed onto the stuff.

Tran's story is interesting enough on its own merits, but it really is an all-American story, harking back more than a century to the many immigrant entrepreneurs who brought flavors of their birth countries to a new shore and adapted them to a new market and, in the process, changed the way Americans ate. It makes one wonder what "mainstream" American food will look like three or four decades down the road. If the success of sriracha is any indication, I predict it will look very, very different than it does today.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Finally . . . to Market, to Market

It's been a busy Spring, but I was FINALLY able to make it down to the Marion Square market for the first time this year. Carrots, green beans, stone ground grits, and some gorgeous radishes from Rita's Roots, which I gave the butter and salt treatment. Good stuff.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Go, Shrimp-Eaters!

In case there's any doubt over the prominence of shrimp in Charleston's historic food culture, consider that over a century ago the city's baseball team bore the proud nickname of "The Shrimp-Eaters." And note, as well, that we put a 9-2 hurtin' on the Charlotte Hornets, the lingering resentment over which may have played a factor in the Queen City's nefarious plot to steal our cuisine by luring Johnson & Wales away from us. (Better luck next time--Mike Lata just brought home our second consecutive Best Chef Southeast James Beard award; Charlotte didn't even score a nomination!)

I turned up this piece doing some research on shrimp in the 19th century. A (very) cursory search hasn't uncovered up anything more on the Charleston Shrimp-Eater's ball club, but I know there's a story out there.

And, I plan on lobbying Mike Veeck to officially rename the Charleston Riverdogs the Charleston Shrimp-Eaters out of respect for the city's culinary and sporting heritage. I've got nothing against the name Riverdogs, but it is sort of generic. watch for the petition drive, coming soon . . .

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Thrill Ride

Not too long ago, while dining at The Bucanneer downtown, I took The Eight Year Old to the restroom and discovered a stunning thing: the XLerator.

I thought when I bought my blender--the infamous Black & Decker CrushMaster--that I had found the most macho of non-woodworking electonic appliances. Boy was I wrong,

The XLerator is hands-down the most powerful and loudest hand dryer on the planet. Wash your hands, shake free the excess water, and punch the button on the XLerator. The bathroom is filled with the rushing roar of a fighter jet at takeoff, and your hands are blasted with an F5 tornado of hot air so powerful that the moisture is whisked away in a matter of seconds. You'll leave the restroom with ringing ears, but your hands will be real dry.

The Eight Year Old's conclusion: "That's AWESOME!"

One might say that the XLerator is to handdryers what the Hummer is to sports utility vehicles (the original Hummer, not the wussy H3)--extreme, testosterone laden, and completely over the top.

But, as it turns out, the XLerator is actually marketed as a green appliance--which explains its presence at a self-avowedly green restaurant like the Bucaneer. Not only do you avoid all those paper towels, but the one quick, massive blast of air supposedly uses less electricity than the old traditional model, which puffs warm air gently over your hands while you twist and rub them for a good sixty seconds before getting impatient and leaving the restroom with damp hands.

The electricity savings sounds plausible enough at first brush, but I bet there's one factor the manufacturers didn't consider. During our 45-minute dinner The Eight Year Old managed to come up with excuses to go back to the bathroom THREE more times. I tried telling him that it was a bathroom not a thrill ride, but the young are remakably obtuse in such matters.

So, I figure the go-greeners are now seeing a 4X increase in handdryer usage, which pretty much cancels out any energy savings. But, it was a valiant try.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

My Favorite Food Books

I must admit that, despite spending far, far too many of my waking hours thinking about food, cooking food, and eating said food, I have never been a big fan of cookbooks.

I don't mind the occasional recipe here and there, but I never want to pick up a book with 200 recipes and flip through them looking for something interesting. My food book curiosity is more in the realm of narrative and history, of reading about food and where it came from.

Many of the food-oriented people I know have shelves brimming with cookbooks of every stripe and flavor, from geographic- and ethnic-centric to restaurant-focused and diet-focused manuals. Not me. My food books fit nicely on a single shelf. I may check cookbooks out of the library, but rarely would I plunk down dollars twenty five for one.

Here is, in no particular order, my (current) list of my favorite five food books from my (small) food bookshelf:

The Tummy Trilogy ( American Fried, Alice Let's Eat, and Third Helpings) Calvin Trillin is an American treasure, and a complete rarity among foodwriters. He writes passionately and honestly about good food, but completely deflates the overwhelming pretension and silliness that plagues most food writing. To read a food piece by Trillin is to get hungry, to want to hop in your car and drive all night in search of genuine boudin or to track down the original Buffalo chicken wing. To hell with La Maison de La Casa House: bring on Arthur Bryant's!

The Man Who Ate Everything, by Jeffrey Steingarten. Steingarten's writing persona is brilliant: a passionate, compulsive bumbler who lurches his way through one culinary investigation after another. He throws himself headlong into his pursuits and never fails to both amuse and educate.

The Taste of America, by John L. Hess and Karen Hess. A delightful polemic, first published in 1976, that skewers the state of American cooking and dining in the 1970s. It may be a quarter century old, but the book is still relevant today not only because of the broad ranging history of American food it provides but also because the central tenants of what makes for good eating--and what makes for gussied-up food charlatanry--are as relevant now as they ever have been.

Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, by John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed with William McKinney. This barbecue book is what every book on barbecue should aim to be: well-researched, wide-ranging, funny, lavishly-illustrated, and just downright enjoyable. Sure, there are recipes, but they don't overdo it. Who really needs four thousand recipes for barbecue sauce? A mere half dozen will do. Between the authoritative history of barbecue in the Tarheel state to the in-depth interviews with the state's legendary pitmasters, Holy Smoke not only entertains but also leaves you a lot smarter and hungrier than when you picked it up.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain. I'm a little leery of the gonzoesque nature of Bourdain's original book, having OD'ed on Hunter S. Thompson quite a while ago, but something about Bourdain's writing still manages to hook me. The sheer lack of romanticism is part of the appeal, as is the underlying love for food and the restaurant life that shows through every page. Best of all is the energy. In writing about food and cooking, Anthony Bourdain makes you want to be there and live the life, and that's the hallmark not just of great food writing but great writing in general.

All great books, and all great writing and storytelling, too.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Margarita Time Again

It's May, which, in these parts, at least, means it sure as heck feels a lot like summer. And that means . . . margaritas!

I shelled out big bucks for a bottle of good tequilla and Cointreau this time around, and I couldn't be happier.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Holy crap . . . I cured salmon!

I got Michael Ruhlman's and Brian Polcyn's Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing as a Christmas gift, and I've been sort of dipping my toe slowly into the murky waters of the craft of salting and curing meats (as a dyed in the wool barbecue nut, I've had the smoking part down for a while).

About a week ago, I took a crack at curing salmon. I had totally not planned this ahead of time, so I didn't have any fresh fennel on hand, so I skipped Ruhlman's lead recipe (Fennel-Cured Salmon) and went with one of his alternates, a pastrami-style seasoning that includes a lot of black pepper and coriander.

Here's what I did:

Cracked and toasted the spices, then rubbed them along with a bunch of brown and white sugar and kosher salt all over the slab of Salmon:

Then, covered it with Saran Wrap and weighted it down with a hefty can of tomatoes:

Then, into the refrigerator for 48 hours. I turned it a few times and spooned the liquid (which it started to give up pretty quickly) and bits of brine over the fish.

Then, out of the pan, rinsed off all the brine, and wrapped it in waxed paper.
The results were quote remarkable--a rich, chewy texture and great flavors from all the spices. I simply sliced it as thin as I could with sharp, sharp knife and ate it by itself--just a little nibble each day while I was making dinner.

Ruhlman says it will last three weeks in the refrigerator. I don't know: mine was gone in about five days.

I just made a small bit--probably no more than half a pound--since I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out. Next time, I'm going to do a full filet.

Next up, after seeing some tantalizing pictures on Ruhlman's blog, I'm probably going to try my hand at a little duck prosciutto. Ted's Butcherblock always has some great duck breast on hand . . .

Friday, May 01, 2009

Sugar High

Oh good grief. It's articles like these that make me think we've completely lost our moorings.

Something bizarre has happened when we feel self-righteous and good about ourselves for choosing products that have good old fashioned cane sugar instead of corn syrup. I can forgive a little nostalgia for the taste of old-school cane sugar Coca-Cola (especially when served in glass bottles of 10 ounces or less). But--really--"all natural sugar" as a plus?

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