Posts Tagged With: Txikito

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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A Tale of Two Suppers

[Part the Fourth of this whirlwind series looking back at Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2016, with the 2017 celebration in my sights.]

It has recently occurred to me that we human beings tend to eat by themes. In large part, restaurants set their menus by themes. Italian, Mexican, Thai, Southern, etc. Even in the home you can see it: pizza night, taco night, greens-and-peas-and-cornbread night. The idea doesn’t really stand out until you find places that shake up our thinking. For example, I ran across a place in Birmingham last week called Wasabi Juan’s Sushi Burritos. I kid a lot, but this place is for real. In Dothan, Alabama I found a place that featured hibachi and yogurt, another with Indian food and barbecue. I guess this is what those in the biz call “fusion”.
Suppertime at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium can certainly be classified as fusion of many sorts. Our opening meal on Thursday night was branded the Brunswick Stew Welcome Supper with Rainbows, Unicorns and Pie. Though many were involved in the meal in one way or another, the coordinator extraordinaire was Nancie McDermott of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Nancie is a terribly nice lady I met last year who happens to be a prolific cookbook author and cooking teacher, among other gifts I’m quite sure. When we arrived at the table, a bounty was already awaiting us: deviled eggs with cilantro and curry, watermelon rind pickles, Erika Council’s cornmeal cream biscuits with country ham, Bill Neal’s pimento cheese, and spiced pecans. It was a veritable picnic on the grounds, except these grounds had been taken over by a herd of unicorns.

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The hot part of the meal was Brunswick Stew with hominy, creamed corn and edamame. Remember that this weekend was all about corn? And remember I said there was fusion? Thus the edamame. I’ve never had Brunswick stew with relishes, either, but we had pico de gallo, curried apple chutney, and John Martin Taylor’s chow-chow – and saltines, of course. Fusion. On the side were Virginia Willis’s Sweet Potato Spoonbread (one of hundreds of names of corn-based bread) and Eugene Walter’s Hoecakes with butter and Muddy Pond Sorghum. Hot stew with cornbread and syrup on the side? Yessir, anytime. For dessert it was Bill Smith Sr.’s Sweet Potato Pie (deliciously spiced, I must add) and Sweet Corn Custard Pie with Bourbon Whipped Cream.

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Now that you’ve got an idea of what the table held – barely – let me backtrack a little and ponder aloud on the fusion idea as a whole. Towards the end of our meal, Nancie was brought out from the tent kitchen – still in her apron – to talk to us about how the meal came to be, and what she said really resonated with me. Because I didn’t have the good sense to record the moment, I’ll paraphrase. She said that when it comes to food, cooking, or iconic dishes like Brunswick Stew or barbecue, we say there are “rules” – but really there aren’t. One eater may like the stew from the annual volunteer fire department fund raiser, while the other may prefer her grandmother’s recipe. Was it odd that Nancie’s stew (for that night anyway) had edamame in it? Compared to traditional recipes, yes – it wasn’t “normal”. It was still good, and it still had the familiar flavors of most other Brunswick stews I have come upon. But my first with edamame.

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Sadly, I couldn’t get out to Starkville, Mississippi’s Oktoc Country Store this year, but in previous years I have bought their stew by the gallon, with nary a soybean (aka edamame) to be found. It is consistently hearty and I measure all other Brunswick stews on the Oktoc stick. I came across a similar dilemma in my years in North Carolina when it came to Western North Carolina barbecue (tomato-based sauce, usually shoulder) or Eastern style (whole hog with vinegar sauce). What is best? What is “right”? What is “normal”? The answer is “D: All of the Above.” It’s all good to somebody.
Food can be a divider, as we have studied in previous symposia, but it’s much more fun when it brings us together to a level table, regardless of how the bowl in the center is filled or who filled it. This meal, with friends and well-behaved unicorns all around, was a great introduction to our corn-centric weekend.
Friday night dinner at the SFA has come to be a fusion of tradition and experimentation. The annual fried catfish dinner at Taylor Grocery – complete with fries, hush puppies and slaw – was somehow even more satisfying than usual. The bonus bites on these nights are the chefs that transform Simmons Catfish Delacata cuts into some pretty amazing creations. Chef Alex Raij of Txikito in NYC created a Delacata catfish empanada infused with the flavors of Spain and the Basque regions that her restaurants celebrate. Jeremiah Bacon of The Macintosh in Charleston, South Carolina, used that same Mississippi catfish to create Delacata Mortadella Sandwiches. I need to tell you that I had a vision of what Mortadella was supposed to be, and I didn’t have high expectations. My experience with traditional Mortadella, though limited, was not especially positive. Perhaps I need to try your Italian grandmother’s Mortadella and re-evaluate. My wish for you, though, is to one day try this catfish-infused version. These perfectly round slices were pan-fried, dabbed with tartar sauce, and served on a little slider bun. They were incredible. I seriously considered making a meal of them and skipping the catfish inside. I didn’t consider it very long, but I considered it, and that says a lot.

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I confess I did not test the sushi burrito, the hibachi chef’s yogurt, or the Indian barbecue, but I absolutely appreciate their willingness to go there. Somebody had to be the first to say, “Instead of throwing away these watermelon rinds, let’s pickle them.”

Why not edamame in my stew, or Mississippi catfish in my Spanish empanada?

Why not, indeed.

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