Monthly Archives: October 2015

Let’s Eat Sweets, Y’all

If you were to peruse my social media feeds, you’d see pretty quick that I follow a lot of chefs. Back in the summer I happened to see a re-tweet from one of those chefs: a contest to win 2 tickets to an event in Ridgeland, Mississippi called Sweetest Chefs of the South, put together by Let’s Eat Y’all. I had seen that it was coming, but as intriguing as it seemed, I couldn’t figure out how I would swing a trip like that in the middle of the week. But just for fun, I retweeted it, too – and won the tickets! So I started re-figuring.
Female pastry chefs from all over the South were the focus of the evening: Mississippi, Florida ,Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia and Alabama were all represented. Among those were two who were already on my radar, Whitney Miller and Martie Duncan.
Whitney is a native Mississippian from Poplarville and was the first winner of Gordon Ramsay’s MasterChef competition. The treat at her table was Mississippi Mud Pie, but I assure you: it wasn’t your grandma’s version. Her take began with a Mason jar lid filled with buttery graham cracker crumbs, topped with a brownie, garnished with a dollop of cream cheese mixed with whipped cream, and finished with pecans. The brownie was chocolaty and rich; in her demo she revealed that secret: real baking chocolate (not just cocoa powder) and a little shot of coffee. I’ve served desserts in Mason jars before, but never in the lid. Something new to try.

Whitney and fam makin' mud pies.

Whitney and fam makin’ mud pies.

Whitney and I had crossed paths before, but this would be my first time to meet Martie Duncan. As an addict of the Food Network show, The Next Food Network Star, I felt like I knew Martie pretty well just from watching season 8. Still, I was a wee bit star-struck. But not so star-struck that I couldn’t bust up there and introduce myself, and we discovered pretty quickly that she’s just a good ol’ girl from Alabama. In her demo she showed us how to make an extremely versatile pastry dough called Pate a Choux, which she used to make the bite-sized cream puffs that held her One Bite Banana Pudding. When I quizzed The Wife on the way home, she declared this her favorite of the evening.

Martie and Me

Martie and Me

One of my favorites (there were several) was the S’mores Macaron from Stephanie Little, a private chef from Baton Rouge. Actually, Stephanie is from Oxford but works in the shadow of LSU; as a Rebel in Bulldog country, myself, I could relate. The cookie part of the macaron served as the graham crackers, with a touch of fresh-ground cinnamon to give a deeper flavor. For the Hershey Bar element, half the cookie was dipped in chocolate. And somehow (chef magic) she gave the marshmallow filling a smoky campfire flavor by infusing a special tea into the mix.

I want s'more of these macarons.  (Sorry.)

I want s’more of these macarons. (Sorry.)

Felicia Suzanne Willet (Felicia Suzanne’s of Memphis) made Butter Rolls with Brandy Peaches and Whiskey Anglaise. At one of the pharmacies I’ve worked in, we had a regular customer who rarely visited without mentioning his desire for butter rolls. I continually encouraged him to bring some to me, and I’m still waiting. It’s unlikely his had Anglaise sauce drizzled on them, but I was thrilled to finally get one.

Buttah rolls

Buttah rolls

Jen Adelsheimer (Broad Street Bakery, Jackson) had a table full of sweet stuff. Salted Peanut Butter Cheesecake, King Cake, Blackberry Peach Fruit Trifle, and a couple of other things I couldn’t pronounce. Corey Ellison (The Fairview Inn, Jackson) had tiny little peanut butter tortes with raspberries and lemon curd. Jacqueline Ladnier (French Kiss Pastries, Ocean Springs) brought Strawberry Cream Cheese Bavarian Cake. Head spinning yet from the sugar? Mine was.

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Nealy Frentz (LOLA in Covington, LA) featured Hummingbird Cake. As I walked to her table, the host of the event walked by and told me (with a mischievous look) I wouldn’t like it. Personally, I think he was probably trying to trick me into leaving him the leftovers. As it turned out, Chef Nealy had made a pretty little hummingbird nest out of coconut on top. Nice digs for the hummingbird, but coconut and me, we don’t agree. But I’m pretty sure The Wife and The Host happily enjoyed my share.
A couple of lemon-related desserts really caught my attention. The Lemon Ice Box Pie from Erin Swanson (Restaurant R’evolution, New Orleans) was unlike any lemon ice box pie Granny ever made, topped with meringue sticks, blueberries, and cubes of limoncello gelee. Blueberries were also the garnish of choice for Jamie Foster (The Manship, Jackson), on her Lemon Panna Cotta with Blueberry Coulis, another favorite.

Yes, this is lemon ice box pie.

Yes, this is lemon ice box pie.

Peaches were the fruit du jour. Mary Jennifer Russell (Sugaree’s Bakery, New Albany) diverted from her famous cakes and brought us a Peach Pie Parfait. Danielle Smathers (Restaurant 356, Atlanta) made peach cakes: layers of peach pound cake filled with peach jam, topped with cream cheese frosting and dusted with fennel pollen. Just knowing I had eaten something dusted with fennel pollen (and liked it) made for an especially memorable dish.

Peaches and Pollen

Peaches and Pollen

Finally, we made it to Von Larson’s station (Von’s Restaurant and Grill, Bayou La Batre, AL). Her dessert was simple: bread pudding with vanilla cream. I’ve had a fair amount of bread pudding in my life, and it can be hit and miss. Hers was definitely a hit, the kind that leaves you a bit dizzy from the richness but still ravenous for another bite or three.
To wash everything down, I picked up an iced “Ray au Lait” coffee drink from the Mississippi Cold Drip Coffee and Tea Company. (Not surprisingly, recommended by Ray.) It didn’t exactly cut the sweet, but it did help keep me awake for the trip back to Starkville.

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Due to our work schedule that day, the Sweetest Chefs of the South had another name that night: dinner. Perhaps not the best plan for everyday dining, but when among pastry chefs, a baker’s dozen of deliciousness suited us just fine.

Martie Duncan's Banana Pudding in One Bite

Martie Duncan’s Banana Pudding in One Bite

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Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2014, the Final Chapter: Comfort Food

If there’s one thing I like about attending the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium every year, it’s the nine meals we get to eat between meetings. Oh – and the snacks. Don’t get me wrong; the between-meal lectures are off the charts. The combo factor is what keeps me coming back. But if it were just these nine meals (and the snacks) I’d probably keep coming.
We began our first full day of the 2014 Symposium with Royal Cup coffee and a brown bag breakfast prepared by Cheryl and Griffith Day of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia. The bag was heavy with apple spice crumb cake and a sweet potato and sausage hand pie, a nice complement of sweet and savory. The hand pie made me sorry I don’t get to Savannah more often, but glad that we live near Vardaman – the sweet potato capital of the world. The apple cake was the kind of good that makes you want just one more bite, then just one more bite, and so on till you’re miserable or it’s gone or both. I ate all mine and a little bit of The Wife’s, since she listens when her tummy tells her it’s full, and I … well, I listen less.

Brown Bag Breakfast from Back in the Day Bakery

Brown Bag Breakfast from Back in the Day Bakery

The noon meal that day was called the Nashville Steam Table Lunch in Black and White. For reasons I’m not sure can be fully explained, Nashville has become famous for meat-and-three style lunch spots, or as those of use who indulge in that sort of thing like to call it: comfort food. Kahlil Arnold of Arnold’s Country Kitchen and Sophia Vaughn of Silver Sands Soul Food were our guest comforters that day. Kahlil brought squash casserole, corn-crowned green beans, collard greens and banana pudding. The squash had a little bit of sweetness in it that I could really appreciate. The banana pudding had a lotta bit of sweetness that I also really appreciated. Sophia started us off as we waited in line with little discs of hot-water cornbread, then we got helpings of bitty baby lima beans, macaroni and cheese, and black-eyed peas. So it wasn’t really meat-and-three I guess, but I was plenty delighted with my pudding-and-six, with a side of cornbread, thank you very much.

Comfort food can be a little messy - but don't worry, I cleaned the plate.

Comfort food can be a little messy – but don’t worry, I cleaned the plate.

The Friday night dinner at the symposium is the traditional catfish feed at Taylor Grocery, featuring Simmons Farm-Raised Catfish. The meal itself changes very little from year to year, and for that we are thankful. What varies are the small plates served in front of the restaurant that whet our appetites. In previous years we have had all manner of things at these outposts, but this year it was all about Delecata. The Delecata cut is what Simmons calls a “prime cut” of catfish: skinless, boneless, hand-filleted and deep-skinned. Others have called it “the filet mignon of the pond.” Charles Phan of The Slanted Door (and more) in San Francisco gave us a riff on a catfish spring roll – Mississippi catfish with a California spin. Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner (and more) in Raleigh, NC, took that prime cut, brined it, seared it, glazed it somehow with smoked ham hock, put it over creamed turnip greens, topped it with roasted tomato relish, and garnished it with cornbread crumbs. This is not your Aunt Ruth’s filet mignon.

Somewhere under that other goodness is some catfish.

Somewhere under that other goodness is some catfish.

On Saturday night it was the Lodge Cast Iron Beans, Greens and Cornbread feed. We like our cornbread at the SFA, can you tell? “Make Cornbread, Not War” – that’s what the hat says. Beans and greens may sound simple, but I’ll let you decide. Our cardboard trays were loaded with four variations on the theme, all from Georgians. From Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol (Atlanta): Charros, Turnip Greens and Green Chile Cornbread. Duane Nutter of One Flew South (also Atlanta) gave us Gulf Drum and White Bean Stew with Shrimp Acaraje’ (a black-eyed pea fritter.) Whitney Otawka (the one Athens representative) of Cinco y Diez, featured the Brazilian side of things with Carne Seca (a dried beef), Linguica (a sausage) and Lengua (yep – it’s tongue) with Feijoada (Brazilian stew) Sauce. Kevin Gillespie, chef at Atlanta’s Gunshow (the restaurant, not the firearms sale), had Heirloom Bean and Fatback Soup with Puffy Cornbread, probably my favorite cornbread of the night. We puffy people like puffy food, I guess.

Four beans, four breads, four goodness' sake.

Four beans, four breads, four goodness’ sake.

Dessert that night and a surprise afternoon snack came to us all the way from New York City. The Big Gay Ice Cream truck took a tour through a handful of Southern cities on it’s way to Oxford, where they passed out their special soft-serve, dipped in unique things like Nilla wafer crumbs and Wasabi pea dust. Our collective sweet teeth were satisfied in the evening with a choice of Coconut Ice Cream with Amarena Cherry Swirl or Dirty Banana with Crushed Nilla Wafers and Dulce de Leche. You know which one I got firsts and seconds of. “Just say no” to coconut. But yes, I dig homemade banana ice cream.

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Our final brunch was preceded by the usually unusual blend of the arts. While we ate Corbin Evan’s Bacon-Egg-Cheese Bread Pudding, we listened to Repast, an oratorio commissioned just for the symposium, focusing on Booker Wright, a waiter at Lusco’s in Greenwood back in the 60’s. Following that, logically, we ate the Greenwood Steak and Shrimp Brunch, led by Stevens Flagg, David Crews and Taylor Bowen Ricketts, all of whom do food right in their own way in the Delta. If you’ve ever been to Lusco’s or Giardina’s, you might recognize the flavors: Gulf Shrimp in Butter Sauce, Drenched Salad, Fried Onion Rings, Spinach and Oyster Madeleine, Baked Potatoes, Roasted Black Pepper-Crusted Rib Eyes, and Lemon Pie. Both the oratorio and the meal were a fitting tribute to Mr. Wright and the menu he used to sing.
It’s over. Sigh. Time to start saving dollars and calories for next year.

Delta Dinner

Delta Dinner

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Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2014, Part Two: Arepas and Underbellies

About a year ago I went to Houston, Texas for a seminar. Not long after that I went to Oxford for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. Ironically (or not?) the same chef showed up in both places. This is the story of that. And a little more.
My first night on the first trip to Houston I went with friends to Underbelly restaurant, the creation of Chef Chris Shepherd. I was slightly confused later as I read in the SFA’s weekly digest that a series of audio food documentaries (aka oral histories) had recently been done, also called the Underbelly of Houston. Lots of bellies here. I wondered if there was a link, and in a way, there was.
When I was in the midst of figuring out where I wanted to eat out in Houston, two different local residents (who have no ties to each other save the fact that they know me) recommended Underbelly – the restaurant. I was intrigued by what I discovered. Chef Chris describes his cuisine as Creole, defined as “the merging of diverse cultures with local ingredients.” Naturally, this kind of thing happens often in port cities, and Houston is the largest port city in the South. But he didn’t just say, “I want to do something Sichuan tonight” and pull out a Chinese cookbook – he found Cori Xiong and Heng Chen, the couple that owns Mala Sichuan Bistro, and learned from them. I’m told he also did the same thing in a number of other ethnic restaurants, and even encourages his restaurant patrons to check out some of these places before they come back to Underbelly.

Chef Chris plating at the Powerhouse

Chef Chris plating at the Powerhouse

At the Symposium each year, there is a big lunch on Saturday with a guest chef. This year’s lunch was given the moniker “Tabasco Dim Sum Luncheon” and Chef Chris led the way. I’ve never been to a dim sum restaurant (one more for the bucket list), but I’ve seen one on TV. Often the small portions of food are brought around on a cart, and the diner can pick and choose from several different options. This is basically how it was done at the luncheon, all the way down to the extravagantly decorated grocery carts. (Yes, there was a cart parade.)

Shopping cart bling

Shopping cart bling

At Underbelly (the restaurant – try to keep up) there is a full-on butcher shop where they make their own charcuterie, but this is not your Uncle Sal from Sicily’s salami. Some of the things we tried in Oxford were pho-spiced bresaola, paneer summer sausage, Sichuan saucisson sec, Vietnamese pickled pork sausage, whipped Gochujang lardo – and that all came with lard biscuits. Sadly, the biscuits were about the only things I could readily identify.

Charcuterie and pickles...and a biscuit!

Charcuterie and pickles…and a biscuit!

The charcuterie plate was waiting for us when we sat at the table. There were also pickles: daikon, red beans, soy green beans, mustard greens and carrots. The rest came in a controlled flurry in the wildly colorful carts. Salt Snapper Fried Rice. Sweet and Spicy Tabasco-glazed Ham Ribs. Korean Goat and Dumplings. The goat dish is on the menu at Underbelly, also, and by popular demand is one of a rare few that have not rotated off. This was not my first time to eat goat, but it was certainly the version with the most flavor.

Got goat?

Got goat?

But wait. There’s more.
Fried chicken with Tabasco-spiked Gulf Coast XO sauce, the chef’s version of a Chinese seafood sauce. Also from that genre, broccoli with caramelized fish sauce. Garlic cucumbers appeared about now, then fried bologna steam buns with Tabasco-infused Mayo. This was certainly not your Uncle Bob from Big Creek’s bologna sandwich. But it was good. Along the way were cold Sichuan noodles and eggplant with fig miso.

Bologna has come a long way, baby.

Bologna has come a long way, baby.

My favorite of the dozen plus courses was the char siu buckboard bacon with shrimp chow mein. I didn’t really recognize this as bacon, to be quite honest, and there is a reason. Typical bacon is made from pork belly. Buckboard bacon is from the butt or loin. And char siu is a Cantonese method of making barbecue pork. Every bite I ate seemed to get better and better.
Are we seeing the merging of diverse cultures yet, the real underbelly? Asian cheese in the summer sausage – you won’t find that at the Hickory Farms kiosk. Mustard greens I know, but pickled? Fried bologna bao? This was the kind of meal not to be entered with any preconceived notions, other than “Whatever that is in the takeout container is bound to be good.” And who doesn’t love a parade?

Bucket o' buckboard bacon

Bucket o’ buckboard bacon

Backtrack to breakfast, same day: another international meal to prepare us for the fusion to come. An arepa is a Venezuelan sandwich – a grilled cornmeal patty, sliced in half and stuffed with goodies. I had heard of them, but not served this way, and certainly not for breakfast. Lis Hernandez is the one who brought them to us, all the way from her shop in Atlanta: Arepa Mia.
The main arepa was the one she calls the Pernil – slow-roasted pork with caramelized onions. There were squeeze bottles on the table that looked as if they contained extreme green guacamole – cilantro sauce and guasacaca sauce. The two were similar, both with lots of cilantro, but the guasacaca had oil, vinegar and garlic while the other had mayo and jalapeno. For the vegetarians and the curiously hungry (that would be me) she offered another version with roasted butternut squash, eggplant, black beans, and caramelized onion. It didn’t make me want to be a vegetarian – the other one was roasted pork, for goodness’ sake – but it certainly left the garden gate open.

Condiment Coozies?

Condiment Coozies?

As I reflect (mouth watering) on these two meals, I have a couple of questions. It’s been a year and I haven’t eaten anything from Chris Shepherd – what did I do wrong? And would it be unfair to dream of a bowl game in Atlanta just for an arepa?

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Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2014, Part One: Deep Thoughts and Red Hots

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Each autumn for the past five years I have spent a glorious weekend in Oxford, and it had nothing to do with football.  Attending the annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium has become one of my favorite weekends of the year.  I save both vacation time and funds to make sure The Wife and I can go.  Lots of others do, too, which is why the tickets sold out in three minutes last year.  (Shake that off, Taylor Swift.)
I am always amazed by the chefs that cook and the speakers that illumine, and every year it seems I get a better picture of how food permeates everything we do.  Each symposium has a theme such as The Global South, Women at Work, The Cultivated South, and of course: Barbecue.  Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we were asked the question, “Who is welcome at the Welcome Table?”  Once again I came away not just full of the best efforts of some of the South’s star chefs, but also with an appreciation of food’s interplay with history.
When I think of civil rights, the names that come to my mind right away are Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, James Meredith, and Rosa Parks; all justifiably so.  But what about Anne Moody and Joan Trumpauer?  The Royal Seven or the Greensboro Four?  These and many more played a major role in bringing the Civil Rights Act to fruition, and all worked through the avenue of food.  Do a little digging on these names and you will find that each of them were involved in sit-ins at segregated restaurants, including the Woolworth’s lunch counter in our own Jackson.  Food mattered.
The complete story of how and why restaurants and food played into the civil rights timeline is a fascinating and important one, perhaps better told by others who have done more research than attendance at a weekend symposium.   But before I get to the meals, I will share one thing I learned: the plate of civil rights is filled with more than just two dishes, more than just two colors of food, so to speak.  In some areas we (in American society) have moved away from the divided plate where foods don’t touch each other, but in others there is still room to learn and to grow.  And food still matters.
Our first meal of the weekend was one I was greatly looking forward to.  Crook’s Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is somewhat unique. Since opening in 1982, it has only had two chefs.  Bill Neal was the first, and among other accomplishments was the one responsible for establishing it as the birthplace of shrimp and grits.  I, for one, am very thankful for shrimp and grits.  When that Bill passed away in 1991, he was succeeded by another, Chef Bill Smith, who continues to carry on the legacy of elevating traditional Southern dishes and local ingredients.
I first met Bill Smith at the SFA symposium in 2010.  At every meal there are large tables set, and no place cards that tell you where to sit.  I didn’t know a soul when I got there, so I met new people every time we ate, and Bill happened to be at one of those tables.  At the time, I didn’t know what Crook’s Corner was, and certainly didn’t know that he was a chef.  All I knew was that he was on the SFA board of directors, that he could often be spotted wearing a baseball cap, and that he was a genuinely likable guy.
Since then I have seen him at four subsequent meetings, gotten to know him just a little bit better, and have put Crook’s Corner in the upper echelons of my bucket list.  But since I rarely get to Chapel Hill, I was pretty excited that Bill and his crew would be feeding us that first night.
The cooks that share the kitchen at Crook’s Corner are from Mexico, and have become an important part of Bill’s life as well as the cuisine that emerges from his kitchen.  We were privileged to share in what was called a Nuevo North Carolina Supper, a family meal served family style.
The first dish was Coctel de Camaron, which translates to Shrimp Cocktail, but was really more like shrimp salsa.  Imagine a thick tomato-based salsa, plenty with peeled shrimp and chunks of avocado, sprinkled with cilantro, and (I’m pretty sure) spiked with something citrusy.  I wouldn’t let the nice lady take it away until I’d eaten seconds.  Maybe thirds.

Next on the table were country ham and chile tamales.  When I read this on the menu, I expected chunks of ham in the masa, but alas, they were not there.  Upon further study of the menu I learned that it was broth from drippings of country ham baked in Coca-Cola that had moistened the masa.  Lots of cultures mingling here, and the result was a tasty tamale.
The main course was Pork Shanks Braised with Hominy and Corn.  There was all sorts of good stuff floating around in this bowl, after the shanks had been braised with tomatillos for several hours.  Following that was a simple mango salad – chunks of mango, lime juice and lots of cayenne pepper.  To cool the tongue we got a tub of orange juice sorbet studded with Red Hots.  Yes, that’s Red Hots, the candy.  In sorbet.  I dipped my share and more out of that tub, and I could use a bowlful right now if you don’t mind.

Four Corners of Yum

Four Corners of Yum

I saw Bill the next day and told him the meal was not just fabulous food – it was also fun.  He replied that he was glad to hear it and added: “I’m tired of serious dinners.”  If non-serious dinners mean eating food like that again, I’m with him.

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