Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Twist

charleston

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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Pleasant Tart Surprises

Callie’s Pimento, Pepper Bacon & Fresh Basil Pockets

Last Friday, I was working feverishly and happily on Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah, when I got an email from my Tart Love editor, Madge. Having submitted the manuscript months ago, I was surprised to learn that she needed two more original recipes and some chapter fronts, and pronto, as the book is getting set for final edits, design and printing.

At first I was frustrated, since this would mean pulling back from the Food Lovers’ writing pace, but after thinking about it a bit, I was delighted. This would mean a weekend of  pastry fun and creativity. Madge wanted pie pockets – one sweet, one savory – since there are some white space issues she’s working out with the design. 
So, off I went to the farmers’ market on Saturday for inspiration, and voila, this is what I came up with for my last two recipes for this book I’ve so loved writing. It feels extra personal somehow. The recipe that follows is for some easy, delicious pimento pie pockets. I also found some gorgeous early seasonal strawberries and rhubarbs which becamse Strawberry, Rhubarb and Rosemary Pocket Pies. You’ll find those sweet/tart beauties  in the book when it comes out in October. Hopefully the following recipe will sate your pocket pie appetite for now. These are perfect for entertaining all year round! Happy Cooking!
Recipe adapted from Tart Love – Sassy, Sweet and Savory (Gibbes Smith, Oct., 2011)
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
A Tart for All Seasons
Callie’s is a top quality, chunky, spicy, sweet pimento cheese that is hand produced in Charleston, SC. It’s the best pimento cheese you can find and better than any I can make. Because it’s a snap to purchase online at www.calliesbiscuits.com, I recommend using this brand whenever pimento cheese is needed. Fresh basil and pepper bacon are folded into these impossible to resist pie pockets. My neighbor’s unusually polite little girls, Margaret and Elizabeth, uncharacteristically snatched these off their mother’s plate when I delivered them for tasting, declaring: “Miss Holly, you are the best ‘cooker’ ever!” Bet your friends will same the same about you when you serve these baked, not fried, pie pockets.
Callie’s Pimento, Bacon & Fresh Basil Pockets
(Makes approximately 16 pockets)
Equipment Needed: 4″ round pastry cutter (or small, round plate), parchment paper
For the pastry:
2 1/2 cups White Lily All Purpose Flour
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
2 sticks (1 cup) AA grade unsalted butter
About 3 tablespoons ice cold water
1 egg wash – yolk,  pinch salt, splash water, blended together
To garnish the pocket tops: 16 tiny fresh basil leaves and 16 Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings
For the filling:
4 slices pepper bacon, browned, drained and coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups Callie’s Old Southern Style Pimento Cheese (www.calliesbiscuits.com) or substitute a preferred brand or recipe
2 tablespoons fresh basil cut into thin strips
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon All Purpose flour
Begin by preparing the pastry. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a plastic blade, pulse together the flour and the salt. Cut the very cold butter into 1/4″ cubes and add to the bowl. Pulse 40 – 50 times until the butter becomes the size of small peas. With the processor running, gradually drizzle the cold water into the mixture until the pastry just starts to come together in a very loose, unruly ball. Turn the pastry out onto a lightly floured board, quickly form into a 2″ thick disc with your hands,  wrap tightly in plastic wrap or parchment paper and chill for at least one hour or overnight.
Prepare the filling. Brown off the bacon and drain on paper towels. Coarsely chop. Combine the bacon, pimento cheese, basil, ground black pepper and flour in a medium sized bowl, folding gently. Cover and chill for at least one hour or overnight.
At least one hour before you plan to serve the pockets (Note: These can be rolled and filled and chilled overnight, tightly wrapped with plastic wrap before baking), roll out the dough into a 1/4″ thick circle on a lightly floured surface. Cut the pastry into 4″ rounds. Arrange the rounds neatly on a baking sheet and chill for at least 20 minutes. To fill the pockets, place 1 heaping teaspoon of the filling on the right side of the circle. Pull the top gently over the filling, guiding the top pastry to meet the naked pastry border. Seal gently with your fingertips and press the border gently with the tines of a fork to seal. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and placed the filled pockets in neat, well-spaced rows on the baking sheet. Chill for at least 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375F. Just before baking, brush the top of each pocket with the egg wash. Cut three short slits in the top of each pocket with a paring knife. Top each with one of the small basil leaves, brush these with a dot of egg wash, and drizzle each with a few broken shavings of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake in the center of the preheated oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown and puffy. Serve warm with more fresh basil for garnish, if desired.
You’ll have them eating from your hand!!!  
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A Rite of Passage

About one month ago, I had a dream. In it, I was walking through my favorite place to be on a Saturday morning, The Charleston Farmers Market. I could smell the bread, the jasmine, the sizzling doughnuts, and practically taste my first strawberry of the season. Then, I awoke to the nightmarish reality that I had longer yet to wait. It’s been a naughty and long winter in Charleston, so the arrival of this year’s market seemed an agonizingly long time coming.

The nightmare ended this morning with the opening of the very first market of the season. I got there just as the open air market “doors” opened, eager to indulge in what is always a veritable celebration of spring, a true rite of passage to mark the beginning of the Lowcountry’s long and verdant growing season.

I scrambled to Thackery Farms booth first, just to spy their always luscious displays of organic goodness (pictured) before it got dissassembled. Baby fennel, tiny, crisp radishes, baby cabbages, poppies, and sweet onions, all shimmered with beauty and freshness.

Old friends and familiar faces bounced cheerfully through the eager crowd. I found long tapered spears of asparagus, milky clusters of Mepkin Abbey’s velvetty oyster mushrooms, and yes, that very first taste of the very first local strawberry.  The sweet juiciness that trickled down my chin, reminded me of the joyful continuity and generosity of farmers and of Mother Nature. They do so much to salve the wounds of a world, of late, so full of chaos. Thank goodness for them.

The Charleston Farmers’ Market – Marion Square, downtown Charleston.

Saturdays, 8 a.m. – 2 p.m., April – December

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Woodland’s Still Wonderful

Local Bibb Lettuce Salad with Smoked Bacon, Blue Cheese, Toasted Cashews and Buttermilk Dressing

As far back as I can remember, Woodland’s Inn has had an extreme knack for finding stellar kitchen talent. From Ken Vedrinski to Scott Crawford to Nate Whiting, Woodland’s always has put an elegant and delicious spin on classical cooking. The inn’s latest executive chef, Andrew Chadwick, is no exception.

However, unlike in days past, he’s been given the green light to oversee not just the more formal Dining Room and catering, but also the Pines Bar and Cafe, a more casually priced “all day dining” (it’s actually only open from 2:30 – 9:30 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday), and an almost identical menu for The Dining Room’s lunch service (11 a.m. – 2 p.m., Wednesday – Saturday). Very smart thinking, I say, on the part of new owner Johnny Linton, overseer of one of only six North American retainers of the Forbes’ Five Star and AAA’s Five Diamond rating for both food and lodging.  It’s high time that Woodland’s lighten up just a tad, especially in the price department which seemed especially prohibitive during the dark, dark days of the great recession.
While the Pines Cafe and Bar, located just off the main dining room,  makes for a nice alternative for a late afternoon bite or less extravagant dinner, for lunch, my money says go to The Dining Room. The lunch menu is exactly the same and even a little bit lighter on the wallet; all served in the sunny, airy, elegant confines of the floral and wood splashed dining room.
That’s what I did yesterday, and, despite multiple reports from friends that the restaurant had slipped, I found that not to be the case at all.  If anything, the room feels a bit more spacious, and the service staff less rigid. They could still loosen up just a bit. The ultra hushed tones and kind, but slightly affected, frosty formality took away from the experience, making it feel more like a visit to a morgue than a friendly table. However, you have to love a server that addresses you as “my lady” and all service interaction was professional and informed in the areas of both food and wine.
Lunch began with a basket of heaven-sent bread, including warm, crumbly and irresistable fig and toasted hazelnut biscuits with two different flavored butters. The biscuits begged for the sweetness of the honey and pecan butter, while the soft, chewy, warm sourdough practically screamed for the straightforward fresh, soft butter. The basket left the table all but empty, setting the indulgent tempo for the remainder of the meal. Peach tea came unsweetened with a choice of sweeteners and a generous wedge of fresh orange for squeezing and had me reaching for more – especially with those warm little biscuits.
Chadwick’s penchant for garden fresh, local produce was especially evident in the first courses. The buttery, pale lime and milk colored Bibb lettuce salad (pictured, $9) were beautiful, velvetty, and unblemished.  Each leaf was gently stacked upon the other and drizzled with chunks of salty, seared bacon, toasted, slightly sweet cashews,  and a very mild, round blue cheeses. Delicate dollops of a gorgeous buttermilk dressing providing the loving, finishing touches to this 100% perfect salad.  A frothy, steaming hot  puree of roasted tomatoes and cream were ladled, table-side over a bed of crunchy sourdough croutons and a chiffonade of fresh basil in the lovely tomato bisque ($9).
This Boston girl loves lobster and often dreams of the lobster rolls of the summer Maine vacations of my youth. The Dining Room’s lunchtime take ( Maine lobster BLT,$19), on the classic is an unfettered winner which features chunks of sweet lobster and a dusting of bacon barely cloaked in mayonnaise and fresh herbs sandwiched between Texas-sized brioche toasts. The grilled lamb burger ($16) afforded a sweet taste of spring in the fragrant, grilled lamb coated with a layer of very smooth, fresh, feta. Both came served with fresh-from-the-fryer fries, christened with the extra flavor and crunch that only duck fat can deliver.
The restaurant also offers a three-course “business lunch” ($21) that currently includes Woodland’s classic caesar salad, pecan crusted chicken with Parmesan potato puree and a sundried cherry jus, and a dessert “announced by your server”. I’m happy to announce that The Woodland’s Inn is on track with its record for fine food and wine and is offering both at a more varied price point than ever, making it a more realistic and ever-delicious dining option for those possessing haute taste and more modest budgets.
The Dining Room at Woodland’s Inn
125 Parsons Road, Summerville
(843) 308-2115
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