Posts Tagged With: boiled peanuts

Giving Lunch Its Due

(The 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is just days away.  Lunch is a big deal there, and the one described below was perfectly suited to last year’s El Sur Latino focus.)

I think lunch in the good ol’ USA gets a bum rap.  In some countries, lunch is the biggest meal of the day.  There, if you’re going to get invited to a meal, it’s usually lunch.  There are courses sometimes.  And maybe tea afterwards.  And the best places are the ones that encourage naps after all that, as the good Lord intended.  (Otherwise why would we be sleepy after lunch?)

Meanwhile, in the 8 to 5-ish workweek here in America, if you get an hour to eat lunch (never mind the time it takes you to get to a restaurant and back) you’re pretty lucky.  Some get a half hour, and many eat at their desks or standing up while continuing to work.  Sunday lunch is about as close as many of us get to a leisurely noonday meal, save perhaps the occasional holiday feast.  

That’s one of the reasons I so enjoy the lunches at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  There, lunch is celebrated.  The skills of the chef are extolled.  The tables are decorated to the nth degree.  The servers are given standing o’s.  And the eaters partake of multiple dishes that yesterday we didn’t know we loved.  These lunches are so big they require a sponsor.  

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Just an average lunch setup at the SFA…

Our first lunch of the weekend, brought to us by Springer Mountain Farms, featured Chef Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria Del Sol.  I was first introduced to this group of restaurants a few years ago in the Atlanta metro area – they have since expanded into Nashville.  Chef Eddie has developed a menu there that blends the flavors and traditions of his home, Monterrey, Mexico, and the American South.  I think I can say with 97% certainty that it was in one of his restaurants that I enjoyed my first barbecue taco, which he calls The Memphis: chopped smoked pork with a spicy jalapeño coleslaw and tequila BBQ sauce.  Since then I have had many, but Chef Eddie’s was my gateway barbecue taco.  

This SFA lunch was also given a name.  (Do you name your lunches?  No?  See what I mean?  No respect.)  He called it, “Five Stops on a Journey from Monterrey.”  The first stop on the journey was waiting for us on the tables: Cajun boiled peanuts with chile de arbol, a blend of flavors from Georgia, Louisiana and Mexico.  Boiled peanuts are a snack that I didn’t appreciate till I’d been overseas a few years and someone sent a pack to a friend of mine.  All of a sudden I became the expert in the room.

Next we were served a red chile pork tamale, inspired by his travels through Texas as a musician, where he learned, “just about everything goes with tamales.”  Apparently, even armadillo.  We were not served armadillo that day.  But I was intrigued by the story he told of the crawfish tamale with the etouffee sauce.  Tamales are another food I didn’t appreciate until adulthood – perhaps because as a youngster, I’d never seen one that didn’t emerge from a can.  Now that I’ve made them myself, it’s a whole new world of masa and more.  

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The next plate to come out was refried pinto bean tostadas with Doe’s Salad.  I haven’t been to Doe’s yet (I know, I know…it’s time to change that), so I haven’t had the salad.  But apparently their style of salad is similar to what is served in the ports of western Mexico, dressed with lemon and oil.  I was stunned at the brightness of flavor this salad brought to a refried bean tostada.  And somehow, some way, they also tasted buttery – it must have been the beans.  This was one of my favorite bites of the weekend, and from an informal poll (so informal you could call it eavesdropping, I guess) many others agreed with me.  

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Another favorite bite was his Chicken Pot Pie with a side of turnip greens. How many times have you heard about a taqueria with amazing turnip greens? These turnip greens are served at Taqueria del Sol and were featured in Garden and Gun magazine as one of 100 Southern Foods You Absolutely Must Eat Before You Die.  (I carry that list when I travle.  Now make that 14 down, 86 to go.)  TDS greens have onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, chicken stock (no pork in these), and more chile de arbol.  Side note: my uber-powerful search engine tells me this pepper is also known as a bird’s beak chile or rat-tail chile, but I bet those names won’t be on the placard at the grocery.  

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Okay, back to the pot pie.  I grew up with chicken pot pie – the kind that started as a frozen block which could be used as a weapon, then after an interminable wait (those were the days before microwaves) were delivered with lava-hot insides to unsuspecting children.  This one was very, very different.  The secret, says Chef Eddie, was in roasting the chicken before putting it in the sauce.  And that sauce; it was so rich it almost had a sweet taste – I couldn’t get enough.  But what set this pot pie apart from any and all others I have ever enjoyed was the “crust”.  All this deliciousness came in a bowl made from a tortilla.  It was not crispy like a taco salad shell, but just hard enough to hold the filling.  Now I’m spoiled forever.  

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Dessert was one more blend of Mexico and the South: chocolate chimichanga with tequila-Grand Marnier cream sauce.  The dark chocolate filling and that drizzle of cream were made for each other, a want-to-lick-the-plate kind of experience.  (I settled for a serious plate-scraping with my fork.  There were lots of cameras around.)

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If you find yourself in Atlanta (and who doesn’t, eventually?), I suggest you find yourself at a Taqueria del Sol.  

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Dinner With the SFA

Winner, winner, chicken dinner! That’s what I felt like shouting after all three dinners at the 2015 Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. But I didn’t. That would have been slightly inappropriate and surely would have embarrassed The Wife. Wouldn’t have surprised her, but would have embarrassed her. And come to think of it, there was hardly a chicken to be found.

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On the first night, after the always fantastic foodways-focused taping of Thacker Mountain Radio, we sat down for a six-course dinner from Rob Newton, a Brooklyn, NY chef with Arkansas roots. At this dinner (as he does at his restaurant Nightingale 9) he took Southern standards and gave them an Asian spin.
A few things recognizable to most Southerners were waiting for us on the table: boiled peanuts in a Mason jar, slices of country ham, pickles. On the same plate: spiced duck breast and rolled rice sticks. This sort of snack would be served along with bia hois, a unique Vietnamese beer – much like bowls of pretzels and nuts at a local bar.

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The next course was a little cup of pho bo, aka the national dish of Vietnam. This soup can be really simple, as was ours (rich beef broth with herbs), or it might have rice noodles, beef strips, chicken, vegetables, etc. In Vietnam it is often a breakfast dish, but I don’t think anybody was worried.
Post-pho we received a little take-out container full of grits congee. Congee, in the simplest terms, is a rice porridge; our version was Southernized with grits standing in for the rice. Field peas gave a little texture, butternut squash provided some sweet bites, chicken and chanterelles provided the umami – and the crispy chicken skin was the perfect garnish.

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Then the salad, unlike any salad I’ve ever seen. When it was brought to the table, all we could see was a plate-sized piece of grilled rice paper covering a hidden bounty underneath. We shattered the rice paper to find pumpkin seeds, green papaya, herbs, fried shallots, and sorghum grains. Sorghum: that’s molasses, right? Yes, but wait! There’s more! In Asia it can be used as the base for spirits and aged vinegars or cooked, as it was in this salad.

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The main course was grilled quail stuffed with a Vietnamese-style boudin sausage, served with duck hearts, peanuts and baby collards over shaved slices of green tomato. Duck hearts I had only seen on Chopped; they reminded me of liver, perhaps a little more dense. The green tomato gave just enough brightness to offset the rich, dark flavor of the grilled quail. I could have eaten at least another serving of this. (Quail are small, remember. Quail are small.)

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Dessert was street style pineapple: fresh chunks of pineapple on a stick, with a sour coconut milk for dipping (The Wife represented on that one), plus Vietnamese chocolate, and a little tiny bag of spicy salt to sprinkle on the fruit. This was not my first time to combine chocolate with pineapple, but the spicy salt was a nice diversion from the norm.

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The following night we were back, as usual, to a Taylor Grocery catfish feast. No big changes to the fare Taylor provides – and that’s the way I like it. What differs from year to year are the catfish samplings outside – aka the Degustation. Chef Katie Button (Asheville, NC, our home away from home) took the Simmons Delacata cut and came up with a Chow-Chow Delacata Ceviche, served in crunchy little cones. Chef Justin Devillier (New Orleans) made Delacata Andouille Dogs with Turtle Chili. I think I’ve had ceviche twice in my life, and both times were at these meetings – any other place I may have passed it by, but I try most everything here. On the other hand, I’ve had lots of hot dogs, made with a myriad of meats. Never had a catfish dog. Never had turtle chili – only soup. It was a good night for firsts and seconds.
The final dinner was certainly right up my alley: the Lodge Cast Iron “Blank and Grits” Feed. I love grits in every form; this was grits heaven. Chef David Carrier (St.Simon’s Island, Georgia) started us with Deviled Shrimp and Grits Eggs. The yolks were “infused” with grits and the eggs were topped with a tasso and shrimp remoulade. My shrimp and grits world was turned upside down. The next world-turner was the Krill and Grits Tart from Kim Floresca (Chapel Hill, North Carolina). I confess: I didn’t know what a krill was until I saw the movie Finding Nemo, and here I was eating crispy fried krill in (and on) a quiche-like grits tart. Slightly more familiar was the Crab Cream Grits (Ricky Moore, Durham, North Carolina) and the Yellow Corn Grits with Squash and Grit Crumbs. One of my favorite bites was the Crispy Rice Grits with a side of Greens: think hush puppy sized, super crispy on the outside, tender inside. Think yum.

Dessert that night was not grits-related, but it was served out of cast-iron skillets, so it still fit the theme. Seersucker Candy of Nashville sent three of their handmade candy spheres: Muzzle Loaders (salted bourbon caramel), Cherry Bombs (pickled cherry cordials), and Lemon Drops (lemon drop-ish crunchy outside, lemon curd-ish creamy inside). I was sitting way too close to that table. It’s a good thing grits are filling and I didn’t have bigger pockets. These should definitely be on your bucket list; in fact, I suggest ordering a bucketful.

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From duck hearts to Delecata, congee to Cherry Bombs, and oh my goodness that black pepper pastry filled with spicy green tomato jam, my taste buds have once again made memories. Thanks, SFA.

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