I’ve lived a lot of places. Boston, New York, Chicago, Wyoming, Paris, Southern France, Minneapolis, to name a few. But, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve lived in Charleston (fifteen years) and never as long as in a single house as the one I currently call home (ten years).
Now two weeks away from a move to a new house in Charleston (hence my extended blog absence – apologies), I’m finding myself in an increasingly reflective and nostalgic state about how and when Charleston became my adopted, long-term home, and how and when the house I’m currently living in became a cherished home.
Charleston’s easiest. It was literally love at first sight and she’s never given me even an inch of slack to break her spell. The poetry of the architecture and landscape interwoven with the beauty and pain of her history leave me completely spellbound to this day and almost certainly will until the day I die.
This house is another story. I wasn’t even officially looking for a house when she found me. Her rigid Georgian lines (on the front exterior) and masculine-looking brick didn’t initially appeal to my senses. This house was originally built for and lived in by individual families, but by the time I came across her, she had endured several years of single male professionals’ occupancy, and bore the neglect of nesting apathy. All white and “vanilla,” with a knotty, twisted and overgrown garden, she needed love and tending. She needed living.
Once Tann Mann and I moved in, we set about doing just that. The garden got a face lift, the walls got color, the windows were adorned with curtains. The brand new refrigerator, once likely home to forgotten, spoiled milk, Jell-0, and stale bread, was now fully stocked with food to create recipes and feed friends. The brand new oven was christened with pot roasts and meat loaves. I became familiar with her sounds and midnight creaks, accrued over nearly eighty years of living. Tann Mann found his favorite spots, and made them his own, especially his bird’s-eye perch at the top of the steep stairs or very near me working in the kitchen. Eventually, Chutney Cat found us and slunk her way into our lives and our hearts.
Lasting friendships with endearing neighbors that became as beloved as family formed. Memories were made. A best friend married the love of her life in the garden. I fell in love with the love of mine over long talks and deep laughs in the very same garden. Christmas trees were selected and decorated and placed in the front living room window – the decidedly best spot for viewing from within and from the street. Kids plodded through the ‘hood en masse every Halloween. Neighborhood pets were born and some sadly died….all live in my mind and heart forever. Especially Angus, Scarlett, Ivy, Rebel, Sister, Houston, Bucky and Blue. Speaking of Blue, one day out of the clear blue, then-neighbor Bill Murray showed up on my doorstep, patted Tann Mann on the head, and most endearlingly asked me to dinner, where he proceeded to tell me I was beautiful and sang “Me and Bobby McGee” in a French accent. Quel amazing night!
Did all of this make it home? Absolutely, all of this did. But, what really made it home for me was my kitchen.
Long gone was the vanilla white, about five years ago replaced with sage and sun yellow, to reflect the sunlight that beamed into the windows and warmed the honey-hued oak floors. Ten years into its life, my oven wears the patina of what seems like a thousand tarts and the stove a lifetime of recipes for my cookbooks and meals for me, my friends and family. I love my kitchen. If I could take her with me, I would. Today, I’ll be packing up large chunks of her into boxes sealed with tape to be sent off to my new house and my beautiful new kitchen. But, there are things bigger than boxes that can contain much more. My kitchen and this old house, my home, will reside forever in my heart. There is room for a new home, but saying goodbye to this one will be very hard.
Thank you for joining me here over the years. I look forward to taking you on many cooking and writing journeys in my new place.
2014 – Charleston’s Year of Low Cost Deliciousness
Most of last year Charleston was showered with a small storm of low cost, casual eateries many of them sprouting up along Upper King Street, and to a lesser extent, downtown, and points west and east. Perhaps it’s because these little guys now outnumber the big, formal, high price point guys by a lot, that I found myself drawn to them more than any other category of restaurant in the past twelve months. Memories of a butter tender, ultra fresh zucchini blossom, lightly breaded and filled with lemon-seasoned ricotta one spring evening at Indaco compete with the recall clamor of a delectable milk poached pork loin at the utterly adorable and French Chez Nous. But, to follow is a list of the places that were so spectacular and relaxed that I found myself returning again and again.
I know it’s not sexy and it’s not hip and I’m certain you’ll never read about this in any national magazine about Charleston’s smoking hot food scene. To those in the know (and that’s largely a James Island-based clan), they’re onto the gutsy, Italian American goodness you can find here – lunch and dinner. I’m almost hesitant to give this preferred secret destination away, but the staff here deserves high praise. A glorious, three-meat, slightly sweet, slightly acidic Bolegnese wraps its way into every bite of the ultra cheese lasagna that comes with an oregano-smacked house-made vinaigrette and a crunchy, cold house salad. The service staff practically sings with affability and good service.
This place is sexy – and sleek. Fantastic oysters with clean, bright sauces are shucked at the bar and the fried local fish platter is another local secret. If you get bored (and you won’t) check out the oyster chandeliers that adorn the high ceilings.
Like Chez Nous, Brasserie Gigi gave Charleston a warm gustatory Gallic hug this year with authentic, casual brasserie fare. Where Chez Nous feels more like a gem you might find in a small French village, Gigi feels more like Paris. Though Executive Chef Frank McMahon is Irish, his training is classical French and I contend he’s one of Charleston’s best. You can especially taste it in his rendition of calamari – light, airy, tender and served with a fluffy saffron aioli. For reasons I cannot understand, it’s only served on the Happy Hour menu, Saturday through Sunday, 4 to 7 p.m.
Craig Deihl’s spent years behind the scenes at Cypress mastering the complex crafts of curing, smoking, charcuterie and pate and this year he proudly brought it to the fore at a a brand new store front that carries it all, and puts some of it on fresh bread adorned with gorgeous condiments to produce some of the best sandwiches around. I love the Italian and the the minty pea salad.
It’s hard to resist the ease of the drive away from the bustle of downtown’s increasingly congested traffic and the ease of parking at this hot spot at the corner of King and I Streets. More than any other restaurant around, this has been my reliable destination whenever I need a slice of urban sophistication, relaxed neighborhood feel-good service, and some fryer fresh, crunchy, fried chicken. Broiled oysters and all salads, especially the stacked iceberg lettuce with lip-smacking buttermilk dressing never disappoint. Come hungry and finish it off with a soft serve ice cream and a confetti of colorful sprinkles.
For fantastic, casual dining at reasonable prices, also consider these personal favorites from 2014 and likely for years to come:
Wishing you all a wonderful, healthy, happy and delicious 2015!
A Few of My Favorite Things
It’s hard to believe Christmas is already less than two weeks away and that holiday shopping season is well underway in its typical mid-December fervor. A friend of mine was opining yesterday on Facebook about her growing apathy towards the whole commercial side of the holidays, and I have to agree with her. At times, the task of finding and giving affordable and meaningful gifts to the loved ones in our lives can seem daunting and overwhelming – especially with so many different things to buy and from so many different online and retail sources. Especially as we get older and more seasoned by the season, the more important it becomes to find a meaningful gift for each person on your list. So, in a hopeful effort to streamline and simplify your shopping tasks for the Charleston-loving, foodie/chef in your life, I’ve compiled a short list of some of my favorite things that are sure to please. These are certainly all things I would be happy to receive and to give and each and every one of them are homegrown right here in Charleston.
Middleton Made Knives
I’ve been admiring bladesmith Quintin Middleton’s hand-crafted, high carbon steel knives for years. Equal parts utilitarian and art, each knife is customized to order and meet the needs of the home or professional chef who will be putting it to use. Not surprisingly, his tiny little business has morphed into a fast-growing enterprise and his beautiful knives can be found locally at Southern Season and Charleston Cooks! The price range is not for the timid of budget (sets and knives range from $100 – $820), but these are the kinds of knives that, when properfly maintained, will literally last a lifetime and deliver year after year of cooking joy. It’s too late to customize an order for Christmas and the holidays, but $100 gift certificates are available now at middletonmadeknives.com.
Callie’s Charleston Biscuits
Another Charleston homegrown business, this one started in owner Carrie Morey mother’s kichen when mom Callie White was building her wildly successful catering business twenty years ago. Carrie picked up the rolling pin and the recipes where her mother left off and has grown the business into a nationally distributed brand. Still, the buttery, flaky southern staples, each and every one of them, taste as if they were just mixed and cut in the kitchen next door. The brand list now includes a seven-fold product line; my personal favorites include the impossibly chunky and simply authentic pimento cheese and bacon and cocktail ham biscuits. But, why stop there? Just in time for the holidays, Callie’s has packaged a Christmas Kit ‘n Caboodle bundle which includes both of the aforementioned treats, cheese and chive biscuits and Fat & Juicy Bloody Mary Mix – all you really need to get through your holiday entertaining and early morning Christmas Day munchies for $79.95. This nifty package and all other products are available to order now at calliesbiscuits.com. Delivery dates can be set to fit your schedule.
Speaking of biscuits, did anyone say Big Fat Nasty?
In recent years, Charleston’s beloved Hominy Grill has reached national acclaim for its soulful, southern fare so perfectly executed in the hands of Chef/Owner and James Beard winner Robert Stehling. Of late, most seem to know “Hominy” from television and other reports on its staggering fried chicken, biscuit and gravy sandwich – The Big Fat Nasty. But, I love it and always have loved it, for anything on the menu. Everything is astounding, whether you’re going for breakfast, lunch, dinner or the now epically popular weekend brunches. Try the vegetable plate or the shrimp and grits (the best in town, hands down) and at night, if you’re lucky, the corn pone and friend chicken will be on the menu. Chase it all with buttermilk pie or the darkest, smoothest richest chocolate pudding you’ll ever sample this side of heaven – both served with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. No visit to Charleston is complete without a visit to Hominy Grill. Why not get your loved one started with a $10 gift certificate (or buy a few!), one of HG’s signature, heavy-bottomed coffee mugs ($10.95) or a recipe book full of some of their most cherished memories ($12.95). All available now at hominygrill.com.
This suggested shopping list will be continued in the coming days with more ideas for your Charleston foodie’s shopping list just in time for the last safe mailing dates of the season. Until then, happy shopping, happy holidays, and remember to take the time to stop and savor Charleston’s magnificent holiday finery or a dashing, majestic winter sunset – gloriously gratis and wrapped with a big, fat, beautiful Lowcountry bow.
Oyster and Parsnip Bisque Recipe and Cookbook Giveaway
It’s not an original concept, staying home for the holidays, but for myriad circumstances involving work and family related travel, surgery and more, Thanksgiving and Christmas at home have eluded me for a couple of years. As much as I love seeing family and friends afar, nothing beats staying home and enjoying holiday cheer and unhurried cooking (my all time favorite thing!) with friends and family near. No missed flights, no crazy weather, and best of all, nuzzling with the pets by a fire gazing at a fragrant, beautiful tree. After several particularly busy weeks of travel, I’m delighted to be home for good to savor the scents, sounds, flavors and sentiments of the season.
This year, I’ll be making a dinner for a small group of friends which we will enjoy Christmas day. I’ll likely prepare a standing beef rib roast with a pungent horseradish cream sauce and some kind of gratin – potato or creamed spinach. To get things started, I’m definitely planning on using the celebrated mollusks of cold weather seaons – oysters. They’re revered here in the Lowcountry and Charleston and take many luscious forms – scalloped, grantinee, broiled and my favorite, soups and chowders. Though in the past I’ve made more rustic oyster chowders, this year I think I’ll take a page from my new book, The French Cook – Soups & Stews. The oyster and parsnip bisque recipe (to follow) is simply elegant and so easy to prepare ahead. Just add the cream at the very end and you’re off to a silky start to a lovely holiday meal.
(Credits: Gibbs Smith Publisher and Photography by Chia Chong)
Oyster and Parsnip Bisque
(Makes 8 to 10 servings)
Parsnips and oysters may sound like odd bisque-fellows, but they actually make a lot of sense. Panais, like turnips, are sweet, lovely root vegetables frequently used in French kitchens. Their sweetness plays beautifully with the oysters, and the starch in the parsnips gives a velvety texture to this heavenly bisque. If making this soup ahead, hold off and add the oysters and cream just before serving. Willapoint oysters, readily available in their brine in the refrigerator section of most fish counters at the grocery, are firm and meaty. Use the freshest raw oysters you can find, and don’t discard the brine except into the soup pot. It is one of the flavor keys to the bisque.
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 leek, trimmed to 1 inch above the white root, halved vertically, well rinsed and finely chopped
2 medium shallots, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
2 medium parsnips, peeled, quartered vertically, and finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup dry vermouth, plus 1 tablespoon optional
1⁄2 cup good-quality Chardonnay
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups good-quality, low sodium boxed seafood/fish stock
1 cup finely chopped oyster or chanterelle mushrooms, tough feet removed
3 (8-ounce packages) Willapoint Oysters (3 cups)
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
In a 5 1⁄ 2-quart Dutch oven or similarly sized pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the leek, shallots, parsnips, and thyme and season with salt and pepper. Stir to coat. Cook over medium heat, stirring several times, for 15 minutes; until all the vegetables have softened (do not let them color). Add the 1⁄ 2 cup vermouth, increase heat to medium-high, and cook down to a glaze, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the Chardonnay and cook down to a glaze, 1 to 2 minutes. Scatter the flour evenly over the pot and stir to combine. Whisk in the fish stock, and bring to a boil over high heat.
Reduce to medium/medium-low and cook uncovered for 15 minutes, skimming off any initial foam/scum that rises to the top.
Purée until frothy smooth with a blender or food processor. Return to the pot. Add the mushrooms, oysters, and cream. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, reduce to medium, and cook through for 5 to 8 minutes, until the oysters are firm and opaque. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed. Finish with 1 tablespoon of vermouth, if desired, and fresh thyme. Serve very hot.
Cookbook Giveaway and New Website Design
In the spirit of giving, I want to share a signed copy of The French Cook – Soups & Stews with one of you this holiday season. Please write a comment on the blog about why you would like a copy, who you might want to give it to, or just what you enjoy about this splendid time of the year. I will select and announce a random winner on December 17 and mail it just in time for Christmas.
Also, please feel free to chime in on your thoughts on my just launched new website design by Charleston PR & Design. Cheryl and Bill Smithem worked very hard to make it very user friendly, mobile compatible, and the layout looks more like a photo and content-rich magazine style than it looked before. I’d love to hear you thoughts.
Until the next time, wishing you love, joy, health and happiness!
Boxcar Betty’s Fried Chicken Sandwiches vs. Chick-fil-A
Initially, it may not seem fair to draw parallels between seven month-old newcomer Boxcar Betty’s and beloved southern fried chicken sandwich and decades-old restaurant chain, Chick-fil-A. However, both restaurants’ staples are fried chicken sandwiches, Boxcar Betty’s is located just a few blocks away from one of Chick-fil-A’s restaurants on Savannah Highway, and both draw legions of dedicated fans, particularly during their mutually packed midday lunch services. And, as Boxcar Betty’s co-owner Ian MacBryde told me, he and business partner Roth Scott built their business model on Chick-fil-A’s “excellent service” (and Five Guy’s and Chipotle’s specialized menus).
Early out of the gate, Boxcar Betty’s is displaying serious pluck with chicken breasts that spend no more than 24 hours in an (undisclosed) brine blend that renders them impossibly tender and flavorful before they even hit the fryer. Sourced from a free range, hormone and antibiotic free, SC-based chicken farm, they’re already off to a running start. Battered and fried to order and served on daily, morning bread deliveries from local bakery Pane Di Vita, they’re hitting them out of the park. Add on styling, sassy and well-paired house-made condiments like pimiento cheese, bacon jam, maple bacon, and pickled green tomatoes, they’re hoisting the unmatched fried chicken sandwiches prize – for prices dangerously close to their relatively mass-produced colleagues down the street (most around or under $7).
In addition to the sandwiches, BB’s offers an imaginative array of salads (especially the impressive Chopped Fried Chicken Salad topped with a series of inventive yet appropriate finishes, and lightly cloaked in a pert Agave buttermilk dressing) and awesome stuffed mushroom caps.
Oh, and they’re open on Sundays.
Boxcar Betty’s Fried Chicken Sandwiches
1922 Savannah Highway
Charleston, SC 29405
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Note: Evening hours planned to stretch to 9 p.m. after the New Year in 2015). Website: www.boxcarbetty.com
PS – Remember to look for my new website design coming soon – with updated fonts, layout and photography.