Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Twist

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A Night to Remember – Supper at Sumter

In the middle of a week riddled with the specter of  dangerous Hurricane Irene and the reality of a 5.9 earthquake felt along the East Coast (including Charleston), the fate of last night’s Ultimate Critics Dinner seemed as shaky as Ft. Sumter’s dark days dating back to its April 1861 Union occupation and subsequent Confederate take-over.

Painstakingly planned by the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival staff and board, and mightily supported by local chefs and the Charleston community, the first ever after-hours gourmet supper and fundraiser was in peril of weather-related postponement right up to the final hours before its “ultimate” impeccable and delightful debut.

The evening featured the food of five chefs (Marc Collins of Circa 1886, Mike Lata of FIG, Jacques Larson of Wild Olive, Sean Brock of McCrady’s/Husk, Ken Vedrinski of Trattoria Lucca, and Emily Cookson of Charleston Grill) to be paired with wines selected by “ultimate” sommelier, Clint Sloan of McCrady’s. “Ultimate” Host Mickey Bakst of Charleston Grill kept the crowd informed and entertained. All of the above were the highest scoring winners of a best-chef/F & B survey completed weeks ago by a panelist of food writers and critics (myself included, it should be noted). Considering the extreme logistical complexities and cooking limitations presented by cooking in the middle of a large port/harbor in an antiquated antebellum fort with virtually no electricity, what they accomplished was nothing short of a coup.  Bravo, bravo, bravo to all involved!

The Spirit of the Lowcountry, a mostly open-air boat, ferried 130 eager guests across the harbor from the South Carolina Aquarium, where re-enactors in period dress greeted all who came their way. A hush seemed to descend upon the entire audience as we approached the historic fort. Dolphins frolicked in the water just ahead, as the vast expanse of the Atlantic waved just beyond and the proximity of Morris Island, James Island and Sullivan’s Island – where so much Civil War bloodshed occured – closed in tighter and tighter, until finally the fort which looms so large from the peninsula seemed suddenly fragile and exposed, yet somehow all the bolder for the bravery it and its inhabitants enduring for four long, embattled years.   

Refreshed with the exceptional first-course appetizers provided by Marc Collins, including a mouth-popping salmon jerky drizzled with creme fraiche and fresh herbs and “Leftover Libations,” a potent brew of bourbon and fresh peach infused syrup, guests descended to greet the night – the first ever of its kind at Ft. Sumter.

A post-thunderstorm brilliant sky of puffy white clouds and waning afternoon sun set the stage for sparkling wine and Pickled Brown Shrimp, Vermillion Snapper Roe & Heirloom Roe, prepared by a straw hat-capped “incognito” Mike Lata (pictured right)  and his staff on the upper level of the fort, overlooking breath-taking, 360 degree views of the harbor and ocean. The vinegar bite of the sweet shrimp seemed to cut the sharp breezes, while the crunch of the pickled vegetables and smooth butter lettuce cooled the last breaths of the late afternoon August heat.

Several courses would follow, each expertly paired with wine. Clint Sloan greeted guests at all of the tables explaining the logic of the pairings, while chefs intermittingly described the extensive thought and research they put into their original dishes, all of which had been inspired by the mid-19th century and authentic Charleston dishes/ingredients from that period. 

For example, Jacques Larson’s toothsome and satisfying Carolina Rabbit with Barley, Mepkin Abbey Mushrooms, Balsamic and Black Truffles (pictured right), reflected the heavy consumption of both game and barley by Charlestonians of the time and also focused on local mushrooms, foraged and consumed as they have in days past and increasingly do now in our local restaurants. Larson jokingly conceded that black truffles and balsamic vinegar would likely not be on the menu then, but he felt that guests deserved a little something extra special to help justify their $300 (each) passage to this special fund-raising event.

The delicious food just kept coming. My cheerful table-mates and I couldn’t help but notice that each dish seemed to trump the last, but maybe it had something to do with the wine. I think there was magic in the air, too. It was mystical, taking a breath and a moment between bites and sips to look up at what had become a star-filled, cool evening and scan the remnants of this formerly formidable fortress and imagine the voices that once echoed here, the feelings that were felt here; love, fear, pride, hunger, and what must have been, at times, panic. The pathos of war was palpably embraced by the late summer night and the humbled walls of the historic fort. Yet, all around there was joy and an irrepressible sense of community. Witnessing Charleston’s amazing chefs help each other plate their respective dishes and laugh in genuine fraternity was a heart-warming sight to see. It was a night to remember, indeed.

As I prepared to put my head on my pillow before I retired last night, all of these emotions kept washing over me which was a sweet lullaby for someone who loves Charleston, history, and delcious food as much as I do. The final note before slumber, though was the memory of Ken Vedrinski’s Lightly Cured & Smoked Grilled “Deckle” of Kobe Beef, Warm Lobster, Peanut Potato Salad, and Barolo Vinaigrette. The fork-tender beef held the smoke of the grill that was buffeted with something silky and so smooth, quite probably olive oil. A background of acid in the vinaigrette, firm/tender buttery new potatoes, and swaths of lobster – it matched the night in every ounce of its perfection.

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FOODIE’S NOTE: Tickets for the world-class BB&T Charleston Wine and Food Festival go on sale next week for next spring’s festival.  For more information and to order your tickets, go to www.charlestonwineandfood.com

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Should Be World Famous Pig at Moose’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Famous” has lost its meaning of late in the haze of “reality” t.v. and constant celebrity seeking in everyone from pet poodles’ parents to crooning toddlers with mediocre talent who manage to find their moment of  “fame” on You Tube and the internet. Recently,  a friend of a friend even asked me if I was famous, to which I replied, “If you have to ask, you probably know the answer”.  

Fortunately, a barbecue aficianado friend of mine didn’t tell me about the “famous” part of Moose’s Famous BBQ monicker, when he lured me up into the outer reaches of North Charleston/Moncks’ Corner to sample the pig at Moose’s. I probably would have written it off as hype, especially since it’s the first time I’ve heard of the place after eleven years of living in greater Charleston. But, I trusted his word on ‘cue, having proven his pork muster in the past. 

Moose’s Famous BBQ is not to be missed. I dare say it is the best pig I’ve ever sampled in these parts. Owner Mark Moose, a native of Gastonia, NC, has been “cooking since high school,” spreading his love of barbecue all over the South including pork and beef smoking junkets in NC, GA, KY, and SC. Moose’s has been open for five years on a sleepy stretch of Highway 17 A, where it sits, like the best of most barbecue places, mostly unadorned and very easy to miss. Unless, you sniff for the smoke.

Hickory all but billows from the two, hickory wood-fired pits behind the friendly, grey building. Inside, framed puzzles form the pictures into the country soul of the place and a steaming buffet table whets the appetite of all who enter with unrestrained yet unintended cruelty. Forget about diets here. They are simply not going to happen.  A prominent sign reads “If you can’t smell the smoke, the BBQ’s a joke”.

No joke here, save Moose, wielding his knife merrily about as he prepares to personally cut the crusty, moist, 12-hour smoked brisket to order for all who pass through the buffet line. “What would you like, hon?” he asks with soul-warming sincerity. The skinny sliced brisket, complete with a crusty, black, caramelized crust gets dressed (if you take Moose’s suggestion, and I suggest you do) with an airy, tomato puree, or a “sweet red sauce,” as he calls it. It’s a beautiful interpretation of a NC tomato/vinegar sauce and smacks to the high heavens of sweet/tart flavor to further enhance the pink, smokiness of the beef.

For “pulled” pork, Moose plunges his gloved “paw” (he’s got big hands) into the moist, 12-hour smoked Boston butt where it falls effortlessly in pink, tan and brown, unctuous shreds, like a shower of ‘cue goodness,  onto your plate. This is best paired with Moose’s “old slave sauce”, a steaming bath of rendered pork fat so heavily peppered and seasoned with enough mystery spices he jokes it will render your butt hairless. It took him “years” to get the recipe from a friend, and you’ll want to thank him personally for doing it. 

Most ‘cue joints (even the “famous” ones) serve up a side or two of mac ‘n cheese, slaw, beans, and the like, but Moose throws in heart-breakingly delicious casseroles – his specialty (unless you count the sauces and the smoked meats). He puts his personal touch and love into the sweet potato and hash brown casserole (a gooey marriage of hash brown and oodles of cheese), both of which are served daily. On alternating days, try the Brunswick stew, squash casserole, and red rice casserole. The whisper thin strands of yellow squash that weave their way through cheese-whipped custard in the squash casserole are like a Southern souffle. Sheer decadence! The hush puppies, nutty nuggets of savory doughnuts and ham-studded baked beans, alongside anything your Styrofoam plate (the health department mandates a fresh plate at each pass) can handle at Moose’s will make it your new favorite ‘cue stomping grounds.

If not officially famous yet, perhaps Moose’s soon will be. It certainly deserves fame, accolades and all of that,  but I’d hate to risk taking the country bloom off this already perfect ‘cue rose.  There is a web site and a new Summerville location looming in the near future and he wants to set up as many as 10 stores in greater Charleston in the coming months/years.

Moose is THE place in Charleston to get your pig on.  All you can eat lunch plates are just $10.50 (plus tax) and dinner a modest $11.50 (plus tax). It’s spotless, friendly, and the parking is easy. Get it while you can!

Moose’s Famous BBQ

1440 South Live Oak Drive, Moncks Corner, SC 29461

(843) 899-4999

Thursday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. – 3 p.m.

NOTE: NO CREDIT CARDS! Cash only.

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Grace is Good, Very Good

Sherry Laced She Crab Soup and Shrimp Remoulade Salad

Most people get excited about Spoleto, Charleston's annual and very International arts festival, for the promise of Mozart and ballet. While that's all very well and good, I get excited about Spoleto because its advent also marks the time for one of Charleston's most delicious dining events - Grace Episcopal Church Tea Room. The two, it just so happens, are operational at the exact same time during a two-week run that begins and ends with Spoleto. Both are happening now.Consummately Southern, the church's main hall and gardens glitter with all chintz, hydrangea, bow ties and smiles a' plenty from the church ladies. An elderly man sporting seersucker plays uplifting live tunes from a piano in a corner of the large room. It's just too much fun, and all proceeds are distributed to local charities selected by the church, which recently underwent extensive renovations, leaving her more stunningly beautiful than ever.The abbreviated menu is very Huguenot- inspired and many of the recipes come directly from the family recipe boxes of old Charleston families and members of the church. Vat upon vat of the steaming, rich, crab-laden She crab soup (one of the best sellers) is produced daily by the all-volunteer kitchen. The soup ($6.00) is served with a small paper liner (to prevent staining the table, indeed) and a cruet of sherry. There is also a fabulous, chunky okra soup and generously herbed tomato soup on this year's menu.The shrimp remoulade ($8, pictured) is very generously portioned and mild, with pink, sweet shrimp barely bound with a mustard-mayonnaise dressing and served with a mound of grated, fresh carrots and cucumbers. This, along with the almond, curry chicken salad is offered with the choice of crackers or a croissant. There are also several sandwiches available, including a diminutive ham biscuit ($4) filled with salty, aged ham on a fresh buttermilk biscuit slathered with a Dijon butter poppy seed spread.The breath-taking dessert tray at Grace

 

But, let’s get down to what Grace is best known for – the huge, beautiful dessert trays that are ushered throughout the dining room by delicate ladies before eager eyes. It reaches most people’s table (as it did ours), just as you’re finishing lunch. A lady and gentleman describe each dessert and you make your choice. It sounds easy enough, but it’s a grueling decision! Everything is dressed with freshly whipped cream and mint and one is as beautiful as the next ($4 each). The Huguenot Torte, a crunchy, sweet meringue concoction is an especially warranted indulgence that I personally look forward to every year, but really, all desserts are exceptional.

Lunch comes with your choice of iced tea (seasoned well with fresh mint and lemon), coffee, hot tea, milk and water. Now, if only they were open all year-round! You have until next Saturday to check it out if you’re in Charleston.  I highly recommend that you do.
Grace Episcopal Church Tea Room
98 Wentworth Street
Charleston, SC 29401
Take-Out: (843) 723-8587
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Bringing Home the Beard Bacon

For a writer, there are many notable firsts.

The first published work, the first published book, the first royalty check, the first regional award, and then, for a food writer there is la creme de la creme, a coveted James Beard Award. Commonly and aptly described as The Oscars of the food world, this annual event lauds the best of the best in the world of wine and food including writers, chefs, cookbook authors, journalists, media, food TV personalities/programming, and producers of food. It is, to say the very least, a big deal to win a “Beard”.

Me, all buffed and polished for the James Beard Awards

So, even though I haven’t yet experienced my Beard big first, a nomination (or, dare I name it?) an award, I decided it was time to go to New York and experience the awards ceremony myself. Added mental justifications included the facts that Charleston-based chef, Craig Deihl of Cypress, was a nominee for Best Chef Southeast and my friend Laurie McNeill, most serendipitously, was scheduled to be in town at the same time. Thus, despite a looming deadline, I could not find a single excuse not to go. But, what to expect?

I didn’t have a clue, but I knew I had to get a fancy dress and do my best to have a grand time without making a Champagne-laced fool of myself. So, on the day of the awards (this past Monday), I went off to a spa and spent much of the morning doing the whole manicure, pedicure and facial gig, later napped, and got dressed. These efforts, at least according to initial passerby’s commentary, seemed to have paid off. The man who took this picture (above) told me that I was “beautiful” and should not be working, but instead, be married to a very rich man and passing my days eating bon bons and drinking Champagne. Bring it! These were most welcome words, indeed, given that I’m 46 years old and, just hours ago, my face had been described as “congested” and my upper lip as “hairy” by my well-intended but painfully blunt facialist. A smiling man, drooling frozen yogurt down his lurching chin as he passed, added ironic fuel to my rather weak, but growing confidence fire. Next, it was off to the awards and The Lincoln Center!

The Charleston Contingent

A full hour before the show even began, there was a sea of black tuxedos, pretty faces, and television cameras clogging the entrance. Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse were both being interviewed. Alas, I saw not a familiar friend face in the crowd. Inside, it was more of the same, until I saw a group of friends and colleagues that a nearby columnist deemed “The Charleston Contingent”. Another apt description!

From left to right: Angel Postell, Colleen Deihl, Craig Deihl, Randi Weinstein

 Cypress executive chef and Best Chef Southeast nominee Craig Deihl was there, beaming with palpable joy and nervous anticipation, his lovely wife, Colleen, by his side. With them, were long-time friends and colleagues and Charleston Wine and Food Festival VIP’s, Angel Postell and Randi Weinstein, both radiant and cheering Craig on with the rest of us. (Later, I would run into many of the leading members of HMGI, the restaurant group that owns Cypress and who came to town to support their affable and talented main-man chef).

Eventually, the doors to the auditorium opened and the crowd of approximately 2,000 foodies slowly found their seats. For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit the description of the actual ceremony to my three strongest impressions: 1) Beautifully produced and orchestrated, 2) Emotionally moving, and 3) Too long, totalling a total of three hours. The details in the planning, particularly in the many videos produced for certain honorees, were mesmerizing. Many of the speeches showcased a heart-warming sense of pride, passion, humility, and a sense of unity among the chefs present. One of the most moving (and, also the longest) speeches was by Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Kevin Zraly, who kicked it off with (count ’em!) nine push-ups and ended it with a moving ode to the 72 friends and colleagues he (and the world) lost at Windows on the World on 9/11. Alas, Chef Deihl did not have an opportunity to take the stage, as Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill, NC took home the Southeast chef’s prize, graciously praising her fellow Southeast nominees as she did so.

After the official ceremonies concluded (and a little bit before for some of the hungry masses), the crowd disseminated through table upon table heaping with delices bearing the edible “Ultimate Melting Pot” theme of the evening.  Champagne, wine, and whiskey were freely poured to help wash it all down. Even though the entire place was generously peppered with culinary

Let Sleeping Pigs Lie!

luminaries like Jacques Pepin and foodie rock stars like Bobby Flay, unbelievably, it was two pigs that stole the show.  

 These porcine darlings (pictured right), mascots for Whistle Pig Straight Rye Whiskey from Shoreham, VT, were tucked somewhere between the live banjo music and Dom Perignon, oblivious to all the fawning and snapshots, that is, until they started smelling all the food that was passing under their sleepy little snouts.  Then, they really put on a show, prancing and preening for all to see. Bet they slept well that night, dreaming of rutting and rooting their way through The Big Apple. I don’t know, but I’m guessing, this was a New York first for these pigs that will not soon be forgotten.

Congratulations to all of the nominees and honorees for this year’s James Beard Award! You earned it. I think there should be a best-bacon honorable mention in honor of these pigs. They, along with so many other things, made this first a memorable and enjoyable one. All foodies should put the James Beard Awards on their must do-list. Speaking of must- do’s here are two that I discovered while I was in the city:

Best New

Epicerie Boulud

1900 Broadway (@64th Street)

New York, New York 10023

212-595-9606

www.danielnyc.com

The latest addition to multi-decorated chef, multi-awarded James Beard winner,  Daniel Boulud’s international restaurant empire, this charming, delicious emporium  glitters with Gallic goodness. Serving breakfasts of exquisite patisseries, lunches of gourmet sandwiches/soups, artisinal cheeses, and housemade charcuterie, the “epicerie” is designed to become an oyster and wine hot spot for the late night crowd as well. You’ll never see a more beautiful eclair this side of Paris or eat a fresher, sweeter oyster, anywhere. Chef Boulud and his staff hosted a lively after-party here (just across the street from The Lincoln Center) that was full to the brim with more culinary greats and authors, including Ruth Reichl and Jacques Pepin.

Best Least Expected Find:

Caffe Cielo

881 Eighth Avenue (between 52 & 53 Streets)

New York, New York 10019

212-246-9555

www.caffecielonyc.com

Smack dab in the middle of the theater district, my friend Laurie and I discovered this while we were looking for a suitable spot for a night cap. Quiet at first, the place slowly morphed into a huge and lively neighborhood destination, complete with live music and television celebrity regulars. The best part of all, though, is the familial-driven hospitality  and the fabulous Northern Italian food served here. Mozzarella and pasta are made in house. Cielo hosts a popular pre-matinee theater luncheon on Wednesday afternoons.

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