Posts Tagged With: blue smoke

SFA 2016, The Final Chapter

[This is fifth and final post reflecting on the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium of 2016.  As this posts, we are just a few days away from the 2017 Symposium.  And I.  Am.  So.  Ready.]

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It’s always a little bittersweet as the weekend of the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium comes to a close. Mostly bitter, I guess, because The Wife and I always wish we had another day or three there before getting back to reality. But also sweet – there are desserts involved.
This year’s theme was corn, and it even showed up in the small bites. In fact, some of the edible highlights of the weekend happen in the margins. (Yes – in between all the amazing multiple course meals, there are snacks!)
Truth be told, the bittersweetness starts at registration, because we know it’s going to fly from there. Then they feed us, so we forgive or forget – one or the other. This time it was a corn dog from Chef Kelly English. Corn dogs are simple to pick up, easy to eat, but not so easy to make. At least that’s my experience at home – my one experience. All that to say I can appreciate a good corn dog in my old age.
A Madeleine, so I’m told, is a little French butter cake that seems more like a cookie in the shape of a shell. One website described them as “often decorated with coconut”, which is probably the reason I don’t have them very often. And now I’ve been spoiled, because Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois (Blue Smoke, NYC) made his out of cornbread and gave me warm Steen’s cane syrup mixed with butter to dip it in. Since the cookie is French and the syrup is Cajun, I think it was a match made heavenly in my mouth.
To wash things down, for the first time ever perhaps, we had a choice of fun sodas. I’m not saying we’ve ever gone thirsty – don’t forget the cedar tea, the corncob tea, the nitro coffee, etc. – but sodas are not usually part of the mix. Cannonborough Beverage Company of Charleston takes seasonal fresh fruits and herbs to make their sodas. That’s right: seasonal soda. We got to try Grapefruit Elderflower and Ginger Beer. I am eager to try their Raspberry Mint and Sorghum Thyme.

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The next evening, as we enjoyed another presentation, we had a Corncuit. Give it a minute and you can probably figure this one out. Cornbread. Biscuit. Corncuit. This one was created by Chef Vishwesh Bhatt of Snackbar in Oxford. It was savory with a touch of sweet, shaped something like a parallelogram, and seemed to have a light glaze. Then the coup de gravy was a little tub of sorghum-curry leaf ghee to dip it in. Had there been a basketful, I would have probably made a fool of myself.

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Of course, another reason they did not pass around baskets of corncuits is because dinner was coming shortly: The Saturday night Lodge Cast Iron Four Sisters Supper. According to our guide, “In Native American agricultural tradition, corn, beans, and squash are the Three Sisters.” All grow together, benefitting each other. Our supper was put together by four sisters, “because, sometimes, three isn’t enough.”
This meal always has a touch of home cookin’, and we saw that again this year. Dora Charles, chef and cookbook author from Savannah, Georgia, gave us butterbeans and okra, along with a crooked neck squash casserole. Helen Turner, pitmaster from Helen’s Bar-B-Q in Brownsville, Tennessee provided the Brownsville-style pork shoulder. These were the anchors – the bookends, so to speak. And solid anchors they were. Then things got twisty.

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Cassidee Dabney of Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee had two wildly different dishes. The first was Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans (a black bean thought to have been carried along said trail) with Smoked Venison and Wild Mint Pickled Onions. I’ve done similar combinations at home, but the pickled onions really cut through the creamy beans in this dish. The second dish was Crispy Hickory King Cornmeal Mush with Hominy, Pepper Jam, Dill Yogurt and Hazelnuts. This one reminded The Wife and me of Shafoot, a similar dish we had in the Middle East made with spongy bread and yogurt.
The other cornbread concoction emerged from the creative cooking of Cheetie Kumar of Raleigh (Garland restaurant): Indian Spiced Cornbread in a little square atop Wilted Greens, Charred Onion Compote and Paneer, with Butternut Squash Achaar (Indian pickles) on the side. This was yet another take on fusion of Southern and fill-in-the-blank food, and it was one of my favorites of the evening.
Sunday’s good-bye lunch has evolved over the years, and for the past two symposia we have been given a “Traveler’s Meal” as the last session ended. It’s a box lunch, but no less fabulous than the others. Chef Jean-Paul (Blue Smoke) was responsible for the smoky and tender beef jerky. Alex Raij (Txikito, NYC) introduced us to Gilda (not Radner) – a little skewer of anchovy, guindilla pepper (a favorite in the Basque region of Spain), and olives. A staple of Southern picnics, Cold Fried Chicken was cornmeal-crusted, crunchy and courtesy of Kelly English and Camron Razavi (Restaurant Iris, Memphis). For a little more corn, John Currence (City Grocery, Oxford) came up with a Sweet Corn Elote Salad. I love Mexican street corn, and this was a neat take on that concept that I intend to adapt early and often. The sweet of this bittersweet last meal was a sweet potato cookie from Chef Edouardo Jordan (Salare, Seattle). This was a hearty cookie – big and thick and chewy. And it had a kick, unusual for a cookie but welcome nonetheless.

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The SFA Symposium is not all about the food we eat while we’re there. We’ve met fascinating folks from all over the South and beyond, as you can tell, from Seattle to NYC. And even corn is a fascinating subject to spend a weekend contemplating.

But I’m glad we get to eat.

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Breaking Breakfast Barriers at the SFA (2016)

[This is Part the Second of my throwback series, reminiscing about last year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium as I prepare for the 2017 iteration.]

The Wife and I just returned from this year’s Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  I have decided that this once-a-year weekend full of food tasting, food knowledge, and a touch of food frivolity is akin to college football season: when it’s over, we just kinda’ live for the next one to start.  This year’s theme was “Corn as Symbol, Sustenance, and Syrupy Problem.”  I had no idea how much there was to know about corn.  This new hat I’m wearing – Corn Expert (check out my authority here) – is liable to keep me pretty busy.
Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, so let’s start there.  Our first morning began with Royal Cup Coffee out of Birmingham.  The Wife likes to get the fancy stuff, like lattes and cappuccinos.  I’m not averse to waiting for pour-overs when I have the time, but my favorite beverage from the Royal Cup truck is the nitrogen-infused cold brew.  I’ve lauded this coffee a number of times before – it’s cold (but not iced) and it’s strong (but not bitter).  And somehow, miraculously, it needs no cream or sugar.  But wait – there’s more!
This time I learned a little more about how it’s made.  With Royal Cup’s “tap” the coffee is infused with the nitrogen as it is dispensed, which helps keep the nitrogen from over-interacting with the coffee in the tank.  And instead of carrying around giant nitrogen tanks, they have a machine that generates the nitrogen from the ambient air.  It’s true that I mostly care about how great the coffee is, but my inner nerd did find that fascinating.  Now, on to the eats.
Breakfast number one was performed (because it’s art, people) by Chef Edouardo Jordan of Salare restaurant in Seattle, Washington.  Yes, we know that is not in the South, but this gathering draws folks from all over.  He’s actually from Florida (which by some accounts is not in the South, either, but I’ll leave that for a later debate), and the menu at Salare lists the American South as one of the influences.  Case in point: one of the first things you’ll see on the menu is Pork Trotters served with Collard Greens.  Chef Jordan was also listed as one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs of 2016.  So his Washington license plates didn’t really cause a stir, and no one asked him to produce a birth certificate.
There were no pig’s feet to be seen in our breakfast, but it was nevertheless unique: Okra Stew with Whole Duck Confit, Berbere, Egg and Cornbread.  One of the hallmarks of the SFA is to break down barriers, so that we can understand each other more fully, more fairly.  Other folks do that, too – we just do it over amazing meals.  This one helped break down the barrier of what someone “should” have for breakfast.  “Egg” was the only thing I recognized from previous morning meals – never had okra, duck, or cornbread that early.  Berbere is an Ethiopian spice blend, and I’ve been to Ethiopia several times, which – oddly enough – probably means that it’s the only other component of this dish I may have eaten for the morning repast.  Barrier broken: okra stew for breakfast is a winner.

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These are a few of my favorite things…

At a corn conference, how do you top the idea of serving cornbread for the first meal of the day?  How about corn granola and a corn pot pie?  That’s not exactly what Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois of Blue Smoke restaurant in NYC called them, though.  The Roster of Eats and Drinks for Day Two listed them as Andouille Breakfast Pot Pie and Corn Granola Custard Parfait.  The pie did have an egg hidden amongst the corn and sausage, tucked under a beautiful crust, therefore: breakfast.  The custard had a bottom layer of fruit and was topped with the corn granola – imagine your favorite crunchy, nutty granola, then add crunchy kernels of corn.  Who would have thought the words “corn” and “parfait” would go together?  Or “egg” and “pot pie”?  And for breakfast to boot?  Not me, for sure.  But I won’t forget them, and would order them at any opportunity.

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Breakfast on Day Three is always tough.  It’s the next-to-last meal of the weekend.  Mere hours from its consumption and we’ll be counting the days till next fall.  It would be sadder if the food wasn’t so wonderful.  Chef Jeremiah Bacon from The Macintosh in Charleston, South Carolina, keenly kept to the theme of “You’re giving us WHAT for breakfast?” with his Tabasco Clam Quiche.  My primary experience with clams is of the fried variety, so I truly did not know what to expect.  Tabasco I can deal with – I don’t always put hot sauce on my eggs, but it’s a familiar concept.  And if you Google “breakfast quiche” the hits are legion.  Clams, though.  Clams not crisped with fried batter, or stewed in chowder.  Again, however, my trepidation was for naught.  Chef Bacon did us right and brought a little Charleston sunshine to our last day in Oxford.

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One might say, who would want (fill-in-the-blank with okra, duck, corn or clams) for breakfast?  Once upon a time I may have leaned in that direction.  But somebody had to be the first to eat shrimp and grits in the morning, be it a citizen of South Carolina’s low country, or of Mozambique (the true origin of that dish, per culinary historian and symposium speaker Michael Twitty.)  As a matter of fact, somebody had to be the first to eat a fried egg in the morning or decide that milk on corn flakes was a good idea.
So let’s raise a glass of nitrogen-infused cold-brewed Aztec organic coffee to the chefs who broke down those barriers and broadened our breakfast horizons.  Cheers.

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