Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Twist

mike lata

The Season of Root Vegetables in More Ways than One

Rutabaga Gratin Recipe and Simmergreat Product Endorsement/Discount

Always something of a rebel, I grew up loving foods most people don’t like or at least think they don’t like just because it seems like nobody else does. For me, these rebel roots translate to an enduring love of root vegetables – including turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas. Being winter and very early spring vegetables, I always start thinking about them in February, which is when I bought my last rutabaga. It survived a move and a couple months of waiting on my counter before I finally put it into the delicious recipe that follows.  Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about how root vegetables, especially parsnips and turnips, are becoming hot in culinary circles.  For added proof of the trend, I ran into James Beard awarded superstar and local chef Mike Lata at Harris Teeter several weeks ago with a bunch of parsnips in his hands, that he intended to put to use in a pasta dish.

As if that wasn’t enough inspiration, I have a pound of fresh spring potatoes in my pantry, so I decided to do as the Swedes do, and pair the rutabaga with some potatoes and cream. But, rather than puree them, I layered very thin slices in a gratin and bound them with Half & Half infused with lots of fresh thyme, black pepper, mascarpone, sour cream, butter and a nutty Parmesan finish. The results were fabulous – sweet, creamy, nutty, crunchy, smooth bites of root vegetable goodness, just in time for spring and Mother’s Day.

(Note: It’s very important to cut through both the outer skin of the tough, waxy rutabaga, as well as the inner skin, which is about 1/4″ thick. Discard these and then proceed to slice the rutabaga whisper thin, so thin you can practically see through them.)

Well-Thyme Rutabaga and Potato Gratin

(Yields about 8 servings)

Well-Thymed Rutabaga and Potato Gratin

Well-Thymed Rutabaga and Potato Gratin

Equipment needed:  One 5-quart, shallow gratin or casserole dish (about 2″ deep, one foot long, and 8″ wide)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter to coat the pan

For the cream mixture:

1 1/2 cups Half & Half

1/2 cup whole sour cream

1/2 cup mascarpone

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed (leave whole)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground fresh black pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Vegetables:

1 large rutabaga, peeled, quartered and very thinly sliced (about six cups)

2 medium-sized Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, halved and very thinly sliced (about 2 cups)

Topping:

1/4 cup grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese

Fresh thyme sprigs for garnish

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375F. Spread the 1 tablespoon of butter evenly along the sides and bottoms of the gratin dish. Combine the Half & Half, sour cream, mascarpone, garlic, thyme, seasonings and remaining tablespoon butter in a medium sauce pan. Whisk together over medium heat-low. Bring up to a gentle simmer and cook to infuse the flavors for five minutes. Remove from the heat. Discard the garlic cloves. Whisk in the Dijon. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.  Arrange half of the sliced rutabaga in a tight, overlapping single layer in the bottom of the gratin dish. Add a second layer of tight, overlapping sliced potatoes. Cover with half of the cream mixture, distributing evenly.  Top with the remaining cream mixture, spreading with a spatula to distribute evenly. Press the top lightly with your fingertips to “tighten” the layers. Sprinkle a dusting of salt and pepper over the top. Cover with foil and bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil. Sprinkle evenly with the Parmesan Reggiano and bake anther 45 to 50 minutes, or until the top layer is golden and slightly crunchy and the rutabaga yield easily to a knife when pierce. Rest 5 minutes before serving. Garnish with a few fresh thyme sprigs. Delicious with roast chicken or pork, or a salad for a meatless meal.

New Product Endorsement – Simmergreat

If you’ve ever cooked with me, or taken one of my classes, you know that great knives and great pans aside, I’m not much of a gadget girl when it comes to cooking. However, I recently discovered a truly great product that made me wish I’d known about it back when I was simmering all of those soups and daubes for The French Cook – Soups & Stews last year. During that time, I struggled getting a steady simmer rate on my aging, moody gas stovetop. Simmergrate is an ingenious contraption that sits above your low gas flame and magically tempers your pot to a steady simmer. All you have to do is put it over the flame, place the pot (any pot) on top, set your burner to low and voila, you’ve got an unwavering simmer. I used this when I was simmering the cream for the recipe above. I didn’t touch the dial once, and no scorching, boiled over cream. It’s still on my stove where it will remain for many future uses, whether it be roasting peppers, making sauces, and more. It even works on a gas grill. I’m a fan and I think you will be, too. Perfect for home cooks, professional chefs and anyone who enjoys cooking. Perfect for Mother’s Day, too. If you visit Simmergreat and make a purchase,  once it is in your cart, click on the coupon code and type in “holly” and you get a 10% discount on your total purchase. Happy simmering!

Simmergreat is made from indestructable ductile iron and provides excellent thermal heat distribution to enable perfect simmering every time.

Simmergreat is made from indestructable ductile iron and provides excellent thermal heat distribution to enable perfect simmering every time.

Don’t forget to visit www.simmergreat.com.

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A Year of Comfort Foods and Old-Fashioned Southern Goodness

In many ways, 2011 was a truly calamitous and difficult year, a year many of us would rather forget. Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, war, and the ongoing drudgery of the economy seemed to bombard the world with relentless, reckless cruelty and destruction.

This had to have had  a powerful effect on our collective humanity consciousness. I feel like levels of compassion, kindness, and simple goodness were higher than I’ve sensed in a long time, and a lot of that was expressed through the many restaurant kitchens and meals I enjoyed this past year. Let’s face it – there was a lot on my plate in 2011 and a lot of mandatory eating in both Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA as I was researching Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah and the upcoming Savannah Chef’s Table.

Time and again, my palate kept going back to simple things. The stuff  that really wowed me was not necessarily “haute”, but down-home, done really, really right. Think fried chicken and panna cotta, burgers and pimento,  crispy, crunch salads, pickles and fried pig skin, and you’re sort of on the same track I’ve been following all year here in the south. I call the style “Southern rustica” and I’m thrilled that chefs like Sean Brock, Mike Lata, Craig Deihl and so many other are bringing it home, again and at last. Local, national, and international chefs heard our collective call for comfort and answered with a potent brew of meticulously sourced produce/products, prepared with simplicity and precision, and a generous dash of love.

I’ve been thinking about some of my favorite dishes that I’ve eaten this  year, and the dishes that follow below are the ones that I’m still thinking about, in some cases, many months later. That’s some powerful goodness.  Thank you to all who helped make that happen!

Panna Cotta

What is it about this cooked cream that almost immediately transports me to that cocoon of safety and comfort that was my childhood? It seems like it was everywhere this year and that is a good thing. I don’t have a photo of the creamy, just right panna cotta layered with silky butterscotch and a mountain of whipped cream that I enjoyed at Husk, just a few short weeks ago, but it’s one of the best things I had all year. A close second was this slightly more elegant version I had at sister restaurant, McCrady’s.

McCrady's Bay Leaf Panna Cotta with Pomegranate and Vanilla

The panna cotta barely quivered, just as it should, and was infused with the subtlety of bay leaf. Crunchy bites of freeze dried white chocolate and ruby red, tart/sweet pomegranate seeds were exquisite, and talk about beautiful to look at.

Simply Salads and Crab Cakes

EVO in Park Circle, North Charleston is nationally celebrated for their amazing, wood-fired pizzas, but their salads, always composed of the freshest ingredients from local purveyors and idyllically dressed, are some of the best around. This white melon beauty, dressed ever so slightly with ribbons of salty, savory prosciutto, fruity, extra virgin olive oil and a dash of freshly ground black pepper, was a late summer menu special that remains perfectly fresh in my mind some six months later.

EVO's Summer Melon Salad with Prosciutto and Olive Oil - Simply Perfect!

Another memorable salad moment was enjoyed on the sunny, back porch of The Starland Cafe on a hot, hot August day in Savannah, GA. This colorfully painted Victorian house on the south side of town is widely recognized for its veggie/vegan magic, and The Kitchen Sink salad, dressed in a succulent Tomato Oil Infused Buttermilk, miraculously marries ingredients as diverse as red grapes, artichoke hearts, asparagus, golden raisins, red onion, green apple, crunchy noodles, fire roasted tomatoes and more into a unified, heaping bowl of garden fresh deliciousness.

Just because, I’ve indulged in Michelle Weaver’s of Charleston Grill fame quite-possibly very-best-in-the-world crab cake on several occasions this past year. Binding-free chunks of sweet lump crab with a crackling, crunchy, caramelized sear and a puddle of a silky beurre blanc, fresh herbs and candy sweet tomatoes are all great reasons to give this beauty a try!

Charleston Grill's Best-in-the-World Crab Cake

 

Crazy for Fried Chicken

Though I was born in ‘Bama, I was deprived of real-deal fried chicken until I moved to Charleston 11 years ago. Its prevalence and perfection in these parts is one of the reasons why I personally thank God I live here at least 12 times a year, and that usually happens after I’ve visited Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, or Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah. One as succulent as the other, both are custom made to order, have a light, yielding but toothsome crunch, and are deeply seasoned down to the very last bite.

This year, Husk and The Glass Onion, started doing their own versions of the stuff. I haven’t sampled either yet, but the crispy fried chicken leg at The Glass Onion is always delicious and one of the best things I ate this year. Perched on a generous bed of whipped mashed potatoes and sauteed turnip greens, it’s as good as fried and served piping hot from the pan with a zippy sauce that changes with the day and what’s available.

Crspy Chicken at The Glass Onion

Brandade Puffs and Alabama Barbecue Sauce

Brandade, a virtual French peasant food composed of salt cod and potatoes, takes on a new, rustic, elegant twist at The Macintosh, one of Charleston’s newest and best restaurants.  In the hands of super talented executive chef Jeremiah Bacon, the brandade is formed into individual little balls and puffed into ethereal lightness, breaded and fried. Served with a creamy, vinegar rich sauce, it’s another one of the best things I had the pleasure of eating this year.

The Macintosh takes Brandade to new heights!

Big Surprise!

Some of the best things in life are surprises, and that includes finding exquisite food at a time and a place you weren’t really expecting it.  That happened to me this year in a big way at the brand new Butcher & Bee. Predominantly a sandwich shop with a hyper fresh and local angle situated well uptown, I visited on a sleepy, lazy Sunday for what turned out to be the best meal I had all year, and with two of the best dishes in ONE place. The artist in the kitchen? Chef/Partner Stuart Tracy, and does he ever know and love his cooking stuff.

The burger, a softly packed patty of grass-fed beef is sandwiched between oven-fresh brioche they bake in house (along with many other types of bread) and topped with an oozing layer of gorgeous pimento cheese and an inch of cold, crunchy, tangy pickles. It is insanely delicious. I think it’s the best burger I’ve ever had in my life.

Burger of the Year at Butcher & Bee

As if all that  weren’t enough, the ketchup is made in-house!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before the burger, I enjoyed a gorgeous plate of nutty, roasted Brussel sprouts graced with a  bit of bacon, crispy, tart Granny Smith apple slices, browned butter, a dusting of salty peanuts and a sweet/spicy vinegar.

Butcher & Bee does Sprouts Right.

 

 

Dessert was a cream puff dream. C’mon! Talk about comfort done right.

It’s been a wonderful year for food and friends. Thank goodness, they’re always there for us, even when the rest of the world gets crazy. Wishing you a healthy, happy and delicious 2012!

Book Give-Away – Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah

What were your favorite food finds in 2011? I’d love to hear about them in the comment section here. The most compelling entry, submitted before the end of New Year’s Day, January 1, 2012, will receive a signed copy of my just released new book. The winner will be notified on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good luck!

Food Favorites in order of appearance in this blog post:

www.huskrestaurant.com

www.mccradysrestaurant.com

www.evopizza.com

www.yelp.com/biz/starland-cafe-savannah

www.charlestongrill.com

www.yelp.com/biz/martha-lous-kitchen-charleston

www.ilovetheglassonion.com

www.themacintoshcharleston.com

www.butcherandbee.com

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Macintosh Polished to Perfection

Nothing makes me happier to see talent and hard work finally get their due. For a decade in New York and another near decade subsequently in Charleston, Jeremiah Bacon has been quietly and diligently honing his craft and defining his style. Locally, first at Carolina’s, where he made a deserved splash, but it wasn’t big enough to turn the James Beard heads in New York, as the respective splashes of local super chef talents Mike Lata (FIG), Sean Brock (Husk and McCrady’s) and Robert Stehling (Hominy Grill) have in recent years. Then, Bacon took over the reins at OAK, where once again, he carved a niche in the steak kitchen, etching it with his extreme dedication to locally-sourced product and pristine classic French technique. Tongues started wagging in deserved praise. But, it wasn’t until the opening of The Macintosh six weeks ago, that Bacon finally donned his ultimate culinary crown, his very own restaurant baby where he can truly stretch his personal chef legs and showcase his immense talent.

Bravo to The Macintosh’s Managing Partner Steve Palmer for recognizing Bacon’s huge talent and helping create this spotlight under which he can shine. As Executive Chef, Jeremiah Bacon orchestrates a small army of hand-picked talent (many coming over from his days at Carolina’s) in a kitchen-in-the-round that operates like a well-conducted orchestra. It’s all visible from the dining room, a beautiful blend of rustic, antique wood tables and copper and mirrors, the latter elements providing just the right urban edge to render Macintosh equal parts rustic and equal parts urban.  It’s the perfect balance mixture of visual and mood candy on this block of increasingly hip and sophisticated Upper King Street.

Though The Macintosh serves a more steak and seafood-intensive dinner and late night menu (also slightly more pricey with entrees running from $19-$28), I visited for Sunday brunch, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sundays.

Grouper Brandade with Alabama White Sauce

At 1:30 p.m., the house was packed, with a lively, mostly young and local crowd, clamoring for the Bloody Mary bar, Bottomless Mimosa’s, and, of course, Bacon’s stick-to-your-ribs fare with a go-ever-so-lightly, classical touch that is the soul of his culinary style. For example, the grouper brandade ($8), pictured above. Typically a rustic French dish prepared with salt cod and potatoes and served in a gratin dish, the Johns Island native puts a local twist on the matter, using local, fresh grouper (which is briefly brined in salt), purees until chunky smooth and folds it into the lightest, whipped potatoes. These get rolled into chunky balls, lightly rolled in breading, and are fried to order. The result, especially when dipped in the creamy, vinegar-laced, slightly garlicky Alabama white sauce, is absolute flavor and texture nirvana. And, like so many things at The Macintosh, they come served in precious, fire-engine red, miniature Le Creuset Dutch ovens.

Bacon’s “Mac Attack” ($13), which features his signature bone marrow bread pudding, pork belly, and a quivering poached fresh egg, heaping plates of fried chicken served with waffles ($12), and sizzling plates of Bacon’s (also) signature Pecorino truffle frites ($5) were being plated and served literally left and right.  All looked and smelled divine, but my appetite was leaning towards lighter, so I ordered the Sauteed Scallops with Cauliflower Puree, Arugula and Brown Butter Meuniere ($13).

Sauteed Scallop at The Macintosh

Pure beauty, this dish is Bacon’s style personified: restrained perfection with major over-tones of his classical training swirled with youthful whimsy and homegrown roots. The scallop, sweet, milky and massive, was so fresh it could not have been off the local boat for more than a few hours. The gorgeous seared, caramelized crust yielded sensuously to pressure from my fork to an opaque cushion of crustacean deliciousness. The cauliflower base, simply roasted and ultra-aerated with a bit of cream, was practically as light as a souffle, but bore the deep, rich flavors of autumn. A flash saute of green in the peppery arugula and a swath of nutty brown beurre Meuniere sealed the entire dish with huge aplomb.

It’s impossible not to draw parallels between Sean Brock and Jeremiah Bacon. Both young, both Southerner’s, both humble, passionate, talented and extremely hard-working, both overseeing two kitchens and restaurants, and both backed by successful restaurant groups with proven track records, their paths have been similar. Like Brock, I do believe it’s Bacon’s time to shine and he’s found his ultimate polish at The Macintosh.

The Macintosh

479-B King Street (near the corner of Ann Street)

Charleston, SC 29403

(843) 789-4299

www.themacintoshcharleston.com

 

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