Category Archives: regional treats

James Beard’s Scalloped Potatoes and Celery Root

Yeah, I know. Though technically it was less than two months ago, Thanksgiving already feels like a faint memory from months gone by. So I won’t dwell on details of that day’s feast that we enjoyed here at my house. The ginger-and-orange brined turkey that I grilled over mesquite-enhanced charcoal out in the garage. The mashed potatoes with fried sage. Stuffing with chanterelle mushrooms. All I’ll say is that it was, as usual, one of my very favorite meals of the year. And for days after, my garage smelled enticingly of mesquite-grilled turkey….. I am SO doing that again next year!

One other item on the dinner table that night was particularly well received. It took the already-beloved scalloped potatoes to a whole new level with the addition of celery root. The recipe came from the recently-reissued James Beard’s American Cookery, a book that I have in its original 1972 form, one that’s been a standard go-to reference for many years. Beard’s larger-than-life culinary persona blended with his proud Northwest roots has long drawn me to his books for ideas, inspiration, perspective. He’s made me wish–in Hors d’Oeuvre and Canapés–that I could traipse back in time to one of those 1940s cocktail parties in New York where cocktails were made by the pitcher and delicate canapes were decked out with chilled veal and dainty shrimp with chopped egg. And long for one chance to picnic James Beard style à la Treasury of Outdoor Cooking, with wicker hamper that turns out lobster newburgh, a thermos of chilled martinis, bermuda onion sandwiches and strawberries in kirsch. Lord but that man lived the good life!! And he shared plenty of good food, fond memories and inspiring menu plans along the way…..

The new edition of Beard’s signature cookbook is fully true to the original, all content’s the same aside from a new cover design and the addition of a brief foreword by Tom Colicchio. When it came to picking a recipe with which to break in the newly released version, I landed on this one in part because I was surprised by his note about celery root having a Northwest connection. Of all the ingredients I’ve come to association with my Northwest home, celery root has never been one of them. But as an intro to this recipe, he says “This is a purely Pacific Northwest dish… We never really liked scalloped potatoes in the classic style, and when celery root was at its peak we often had this combination instead.”

My first introduction to the knobby, ugly, deliciously nutty vegetable was during my culinary training in France and I became an instant fan. So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use Thanksgiving as an excuse to try this recipe.

True to much of Beard’s style, it’s a simple preparation. His recipes may occasionally rely on rich, exotic or expensive ingredients but they’re rarely fussy. For this tasty side dish,  first butter an oblong baking dish (I used my 9 by 13 Le Creuset baker). Thinly slice trimmed celery root and russet potatoes. Layer them with more dots of butter, sprinkles of salt and pepper. Pour beef broth over (I used vegetable broth to accommodate my vegetarian sister), cover with foil and bake. When all the goods are tender, off with the foil, on with a generous sprinkling of Emmenthal or similar cheese (such as Gruyère) to bake just until melted. It’s an easy recipe that boasts pure flavors that meld together beautifully. Pure Beard, all the way.

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A Great Get-Away: Portland

Much as I like to think I’m an organized person, inevitably there are trips when I realize too late something that I failed to pack. Usually remedying the problem just takes a trip to the drug store for some toothpaste, or relying on the room’s alarm clock rather than my favorite travel version. But last weekend when I unpacked at the hip and wonderful Hotel Modera in Portland, as I was hanging up the cute tops I’d brought for dinnertime outings, I realized a more significant omission: the pants I’d planned to wear them with. And no, the casual blue cords I wore on the train just wouldn’t cut it.

Off to Nordstrom we went, where I scored a great skirt that filled the bill, plus a couple sets of fun tights to go with it.

So despite the fact that I don’t seem to have born with that love-to-shop gene that many women have, I ended up doing some prime tax-free shopping while in town. The extent of shopping I do while in Portland is usually inspired by  the great spirits available. Previous trips it’s included Aviation gin or one of the amazing eaux de vie from Clear Creek Distillery. This trip was no different, I also picked up a bottle of Ransom Old Tom gin at a downtown liquor store.

Instead of the shopping, what’s been drawing me to Portland most in the past few years has been work-related events. Preparing for and attending the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Teaching a class at In Good Taste. Doing a bit of promo for a cookbook, like my recent Gourmet Game Night event at Cafe Nell.

But last week’s trip was intentionally different. No work, all play. Finally a tourist in this city I so adore. At oh-dark-thirty the morning after Thanksgiving, my husband and I boarded the Amtrak Cascades train down to the Rose City. And we packed those couple days with great meals, meeting with friends, exploring the city in a relaxed fashion.

Little surprise that meals served as the foundation of our itinerary. Friday, after dropping our bags at the hotel, we walked across downtown to have lunch at Kenny & Zuke’s. I had once popped in here a couple of years ago, to pick up a bagel for the train trip home, but never sat down to try their famous housemade pastrami. Lunch was well worth the 30 minute wait, I tried the reuben made with that pastrami (instead of the traditional corned beef). It was outstanding, as was the simple potato salad alongside, light and flavorful, not drowning in mayo. Bob loved his PLT (pastrami-lettuce-tomato) sandwich, which showed off the pastrami even better.

Our post-lunch stroll took us through the Pearl District, where we found the Museum of Contemporary Craft, one of the new things I got to do on this visit. The small museum currently has a very cool exhibit featuring creative interpretations of “the book,” not to mention a really great gift shop with wonderful arty items. Our museum entry was gratis, thanks to the coupon in the Portland Perks booklet we were given when we checked into the hotel. There’s a special promotion going on now through December 20 at a couple dozen hotels in the area, with a 2-night stay you’re given the coupon book–to spur some of that tax-free shopping!–along with (believe it or not) a $50 bill to get you started. Details on the offer are here.

Dinner was a treat, a long-overdue trip back to Nostrana where Cathy Whims and David West have created a warm and welcoming room for enjoying comforting food that showcases Northwest ingredients with Italian sensibilities. Given that bounty of chanterelles the Northwest is experiencing this year, we tried the chanterelle trio: with farro and borlotti beans, in a leek sformato and baked with Scarmoza cheese in the wood-fired oven. All delicious. I recall in the pre-Nostrana days the degree of research and experimenting Cathy was doing to perfect her pizza prowess, so we couldn’t let pass a taste of her margherita pizza. I’d like to do that “Bewitched” wrinkle-wiggle of my nose to make one appear on my desk right now….. Outstanding grilled leg of lamb with tapenade and celery root gratin, scallops with rapini, a very delicate and rich lasagne verde, the entrees all shined. With little room left for dessert, we sated ourselves with the butterscotch budino (pudding) and a small scoop of vanilla gelato with Faith Willinger’s Tuscan chocolate sauce. Perfetto.

Saturday’s meals took us to Pok Pok for lunch and Paley’s Place for dinner. What’s not to love about Pok Pok? Aside from perhaps the chilly wait outside this time of year. But it made warming up at our table in near the bar that much more delightful. We skipped the beloved chicken wings, instead opting for some items new to me: muu sateh, Carlton Farms pork marinated in turmeric and coconut milk then grilled; the Northern Thai herbal salad; wide rice noodles with Chinese broccoli, pork and egg. So flavorful, bright, delicious. I’ve loved every meal I’ve had at Pok Pok.

Dinner was a little step back in time, I hadn’t been to Paley’s Place in ages, over ten years. I love the setting, the cozy house-turned restaurant on a quiet corner in the Northwest of Portland. Vitaly and Kim Paley have been taking great care of Portland diners for over 15 years, unstuffy and personable, focused on regional products cooked with a light hand, letting the ingredients shine. Carrot soup, local oysters, a sampler of charcuterie started off our meal with friends. I set with a classic for my main course, Paley’s rabbit ravioli served with chanterelles, bacon and butternut squash. Both husbands had the seared tuna, the fourth opted for beef tartare.

Oh, and carless in Portland? No troubles at all. We took a free MAX ride from the train station to the hotel, no more than 2 blocks to walk at either end. Dinner at Nostrana and lunch at Pok Pok made me think the Tri-Met system plans routes around the city’s top restaurants: no transfers needed from downtown and we landed no more than a block from either. (Major plug here for the Google Maps app I’ve got on my Blackberry, not only a great map tool but the “directions” option includes public transit, with reliable bus numbers and departure times…. LOVE IT!) The Portland Streetcar took us directly to the corner where Paley’s Place is found.

The only problem with this great weekend in Portland was that it was simply too short. But we’ll return before long to hit places we missed on this trip, like dinner at Country Cat, a stroll through the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, cocktails at Beaker & Flask. And maybe some more of that shopping!!

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Baked Eggs with Chanterelles and Caramelized Onions

It must be a bumper-crop year for chanterelle mushrooms here in the Northwest. My local grocery store, the wonderful West Seattle Thriftway, has had a consistent supply of lovely chanterelles for $8.99 per pound, one of the lowest prices I recall seeing for the beauties in recent years. And I’ve heard other friends chattering about high supply and low prices in recent weeks. It’s been a treat to pick up a few handfuls on recent shopping trips, adding them to braised kale to go alongside some roast pork, or scrambling them up with some eggs for a decadent breakfast.

Here’s a recipe from my Wild Mushrooms cookbook that can be used with any number of different types of mushrooms, tender chanterelles a particularly good choice. This recipe makes a wonderful brunch centerpiece (easy to double to serve 8), but also adapts well as a light supper on a blustery day (like today!) served with a salad (maybe adding sliced pear and toasted hazelnuts) and toast for dipping into the delicious eggy goodness.

Baked Eggs with Chanterelles and Caramelized Onions

A simple and savory way to start the day, this dish uses a nest of wild mushrooms and caramelized onions in which to bake individual eggs. To save time in the morning, you could prepare the caramelized onion-mushroom mixture the night before and refrigerate, covered.

 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3/4 pound wild mushrooms, brushed clean, trimmed, and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs
1/4 cup crème fraîche or whipping cream
Toast, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Generously butter four 4-ounce ramekins.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté gently, stirring occasionally, until the onion is quite tender and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until the onion is nicely caramelized and the mushrooms are tender and any liquid they give off has evaporated, stirring often, 20 to 25 minutes longer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. 

Spoon the onion-mushroom mixture into the prepared ramekins, drawing up the edges slightly to make a nest for the egg. Break an egg into each ramekin and spoon 1 tablespoon of the cream over each egg, then season the tops lightly with salt and pepper. Put the ramekins in a baking dish, pour boiling water into the dish to come about halfway up the sides of the ramekins, and bake until the egg whites are set and the yolks are still soft, about 15 minutes. Carefully lift the ramekins from the water and dry off the bottoms of the dishes, then set them on individual plates. Serve right away, with toast alongside

Makes 4 servings

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Europe Adventure 2010: France and Italy

Home again, home again jiggity jog…… What a trip that was, three weeks so full and enriching and reviving that it felt like we were gone for two months. So I suppose we got our money’s worth. And our time’s worth. But it’s great to be home. Another sign of a good trip!! Great restaurants and stunning countryside, inspiring history and phenomenal markets — but in the end it’s hard to beat the comfort of being back in your own bed.

The view from our friends' home in the village of Pergo in southern Tuscany

Planes, trains and automobiles. Five different flights got us from Seattle to Rome, then from Paris back home again. Trains of varying speeds and spiffyness took us from Rome to the Tuscan countryside, from Florence to Nice (via Milan), then from the byways of Alsace into Paris. And in five days of car rental I motored over 800 kilometers from Nice to Arles, around the Camargue, through Burgundy and eventually dropped our Renault off at the Strasbourg airport where Alsatian friends picked us up.

Classic Alsatian flowers and architecture and charm in the town of Riquewihr

We went. We saw. We conquered museums, markets, meals, and miles and miles of countryside drives and city walks.

With nearly 1000 photos to organize and nearly as many experiences and impressions to try to capture, it may be a while before a cogent recap of this trip gets posted. If ever that really happens. But some off-the-cuff highlights and random thoughts.

a)  The color of the season in Paris is PURPLE in all its delicious shades: eggplant, cassis, violet, grape. Coats, sweaters, shoes, purses. And anyone who knows me knows that the last thing I pay attention to is fashion, so this had to be a pretty obvious one……

b) Pop-up music/performances abound in Europe. In Arezzo it was a small stage set in a town square with ballerinas practicing for an event of some kind, as we sat nearby on a restaurant patio having lunch. Sitting at a cafe in Paris near the Palais Royal, we were serenaded by a string octet performing beautiful classical pieces. On the Pont des Arts near the Louvre, it was an American high school band doing their thing. An all-time favorite Paris memory is being on the metro and a guy jumps on and starts singing Blue Skies, one of my very favorite songs. I will never tire of unexpected art of this fashion.

An impropmptu (and wonderful) concert, serenading our cafe lunch near Palais Royal

 

c) As might be predicted, our vistas when driving around the Tuscany countryside for a couple of days rarely lacked for an olive tree or two (or two hundred). The region surely lives up to its reputation for locally-made olive oil. But this was a surprise: I asked our friends about those lush fields of hip-high, vivid green plants with broad leaves. Would you believe that Tuscany is also a big producer of tobacco? Could have fooled me! And we saw lots of fields of it in our time there.

One of a few black & white shots I took inspired by a photo exhibit we'd just been to in Paris

d) In Florence we did go to the primo museums that every tourist really should visit: the Uffizi (with many special pieces of art, the highlight for us Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”) and l’Accademia (David). In Paris we skipped the Louvre and the Grand Palais, opting instead for the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation‘s exhibit of black and white photos by Harry Callahan (which inspired a handful of b&w shots following the visit) and the Musée National Eugene Delacroix in the home-studio the artist lived in literally around the corner from the hotel where I always stay in Paris (never having known the museum was even there).

e) I’d bet that a gelato a day can do as much for our well-being as any apple could. I didn’t quite get a daily dose but did indulge when I could. One friend directed me to the lemon gelato at Gelateria Carabe in Florence, another to the rich

Amazing artisinal gelato in Florence

 treats of Vestri also in Florence (I tried pistachio and vanilla there).  To be honest, though? Best gelato I had on the trip was at Amorino in Paris. Twice.

f) When in Rome, do as the Romans. And when in the Black Forest, eat a piece of Black Forest Cake!! A fun surprise addition to our itinerary was one day driving to, and through parts of, the Black Forest in Germany. I knew of course that Alsace is on the German border, but didn’t realize my friends’ home was so close as just 25 km or so from Germany. One day we headed that way and got a tiny taste of lovely German countryside, surprisingly distinct from the Alsatian countryside so nearby. I couldn’t NOT try the traditional chocolate-cherry-whipped cream cake while there. Very simple and quite delightful. Look really forward to going back and exploring the region more.

 

The real deal: Black Forest Cake, in the Black Forest!

Heavens. So many more pictures!! And so many more stories they evoke. But they’ll have to wait for another time. Hope you enjoyed this little sampling.

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Just Wild About Harry’s

I have got to make a point of getting to Vessel sometime in the next week or so. Just got an email reminder that they’re celebrating one of the most venerable drinking establishment in the world–Harry’s Bar–with signature items from their menu (beef carpaccio was created there, so the legend goes) and the quintessential Harry’s libation: the Bellini.

A trip my husband and I took to Italy in 2007 included two major pilgrimages for me. One to the Via Tribunali in Naples (the street after which this Via Tribunali was named) and the other to Harry’s Bar in Venice. The trip came PB (pre-blog) but I briefly recapped the excitement of cocktails and pizza on my then e-newsletter.

My very first trip to Venice had been back in 1985. It was an amazing, inspiring, eye-opening couple of months traveling eastward as far as Istanbul after a semester of study-abroad in Dijon, France. My girlfriend and I had a budget in the roughly $10-a-day range, stayed in cheap-o pensiones and spending as little as possible on food and other indulgences. “Quanto costa una camera per sta sera?” I’d ask into the payphone at each subsequent train station, checking affordability of a room from a listing found in the Let’s Go Europe book. We got berated by a waiter in some restaurant in Venice, having ordered a pizza that we wanted to share; he made it clear pizza’s were NOT to share, instead we had to each order our own.

But budget or no, it didn’t keep our Venice visit from being magical. Rich is every single traveler who gets to cross the myriad bridges arched over the canals. Getting lost in the small twisty lanes that dead-end to yet another canal. Squinting your eyes in Piazza San Marco and pretending it’s 100 years ago. We watched the sleek, romantic gondolas slip past with a sigh.

That few days did, however, leave me with one lingering desire. One that my husband had heard me repeat a few times over the years when the subject of travel to Venice came up in conversation. My wish was to return some day to the glorious city with two things: a man and a credit card. About 22 years after that first visit, I got my wish. Funny thing is, after all that, we never did invest in the iconic gondola ride. Better ways–it ends up–to spend one’s money in Venice!

On that first trip, Harry’s Bar wasn’t even on my radar. Didn’t register as something to dream longingly about for a future visit. But over the years, I did hear and read about the place, its history, the colorful and iconic characters that passed through that glass-paneled doorway. Though I swear that wasn’t the ONLY reason we chose to book a cruise that began and ended in Venice, it sure was a lovely side benefit of the decision. And it meant I got to Harry’s twice, once on each end of the trip.

Hear about a place like Harry’s Bar for long enough and the image becomes grand, your imagination painting an ever more vivid picture. Lavish decor, sweeping spaces, elegant entryway, shiny and perfect. Alas, winding through Venice, finally coming to the Calle Vallaresso and walking toward its end at the Grand Canal, a small simple door with “Harry’s” etched in the glass panel is all that greets you. But it’s enough. Trust me, it’s enough! (I had very much the same impression when I first visited the original Paris location of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school back in 1984. It sounded like such a majestic, important place, I imagined the school to be in a sort of palace with a sweeping drive, grand columns, high doorway into a marbled, polished interior. Instead I was met with a simple blue awning over a nondescript doorway on a somewhat anonymous street. But still my joy at being there, attending an afternoon cooking demonstration and breathing the same air that Julia Child did some decades before: it was priceless.)

So there we were, slipping into one of the dozen or so tables in the bar, actually at Harry’s. Just as Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Orson Welles, Peggy Guggenheim and many others had been. I didn’t care how simple the decor, underwhelming the physical nature of the place. It was a moment to enjoy, feeling generations of characters sitting alongside me.

But I wasn’t about to order a Bellini. For one thing, I never much enjoy a fruity drink. And for another, I hate ordering what everyone else is ordering. I tried to squint while sitting in Harry’s and imagine I was there 60 years earlier with locals and arty expats and nary a tourist in site. But it didn’t quite work. Took so much squinting that my eyes were effectively closed. Truth is, by my count a good 75% or more folks come in, order one very expensive Bellini and head off for one of those even more expensive gondola rides. I opted instead for a Negroni. Gin, Campari, sweet vermouth. Italian, though not from Venice. Far more my speed. Had a couple for good measure. And to justify more people-watching and daydreaming and just reveling in being in such a historic watering-hole.

One item marked “done” off the great life list of culinary to-does. Two when you count that pizza in Naples!

Here’s to a lifelong pursuit of a delicious lift list fulfillment.

Cheers.

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A Feast of Shrimp, South Carolina Style

I think a new tactic I’ll employ whenever travelling to a new place for the first time will be getting a pedicure on the first day there. That’s how we found out about the secret location for getting our shrimp fix while in South Carolina last month. Warm weather, beaches, sandals, sunshine meant a prime time for getting our toes all primped up. So Sunday morning we were hanging out at the local mani/pedi destination, in one of the fancy outdoor mall areas of Mt Pleasant just outside Charleston. Piggly Wiggly in the same complex became a frequent stop, this mall quickly became part of our routine during our brief stint as locals.

So there we were soaking our toes and four women were just finishing up, sounded like prelude to wedding celebrations later in the week. We exchanged a couple quick hellos. I guess it was pretty clear we weren’t from around there (lily white skin a dead give-away I suppose), they asked where we were visiting from. Our new friend heard “Seattle” and immediately asked if we’d come to town for Bambi’s party. Or maybe it was Buffy, or Trixie? Whatever it was, it wasn’t a name I hear often attached to any Seattleites I know. We nodded ‘nope’ but secretly wondered about crashing a fellow native’s shin-dig down there in South Carolina….. But then down to business. “Where can we get some local shrimp in the area?” we asked. Shem Creek, she told us. She explained that’s the area where all the shrimp boats pull in and dock when they’re not out shrimping. “Get your shrimp at Wendy’s,” she said. “It’s right behind the Rack.” Shem. Wendy’s. Rack. Got it.

Kathy and I headed back to the house to dazzle our husbands with our twinkly fingers and toes, then we all head off for our first of two lunches at Poe’s Tavern. We’d be regulars in a heartbeat if we lived anywhere near here. And we will be every time we make a return visit. Then off in search of shrimp. Took a while, but we had nothing but time (ahhhhhhh, vacation!). Google maps messed us up a bit, sending us to a hospital complex just off the highway. Only off by about four miles…… We finally found Shem Creek Inn, which lead us to some shrimp boats, a quick chat with a cook at a tourist restaurant who was catching a smoke out back, and before long we were standing in front of a funky local restaurant called The Wreck (not the Rack), with Wando Shrimp (not Wendy’s) alongside.

Both The Wreck and Wando were closed, but still we’d struck pay dirt. Because to the other side of The Wreck was Magwood & Sons. Purveyors of shrimp. Though they were out that afternoon. We chatted with head honcho Jay, who promised to call when next the boat came in. Which he did on Tuesday, very early in the morning. A few hours later, we were standing in the shop and he was scooping up 5 pounds of just-landed shrimp from the bin. While we were standing there chatting with Jay, I realized we’d come in the back door and were standing in the business part of the business, while most customers come in the other door and order at the counter. I sheepishly apologized, he said “that’s okay, I know you guys,” like we were longtime friends. Gotta love that about the South! As he was filling the old-school scale hanging from the ceiling, I scanned the shop noticing not much else going one. Shining stainless steel tables for cleaning. Refrigeration. The big tub full of shrimp. “Do you sell anything besides shrimp?” I asked him. “You bet!” he said. “Ice.”

Back to the house with the shrimp. As good fortune would have it, Tuesday is also farmers market day in Mt. Pleasant, but not until later in the afternoon. First, we had an early afternoon date with Nathalie Dupree at her really charming historic home in downtown Charleston, talking about food and cooking and Charleston and her work telling the story of Southern cuisine for a number of years. Great fun. And it’s where we learned the wisdom of “you can’t catch a pig from a horse,” which came in the course of discussing barbecue. And why it’s pig barbecue in the Carolinas and beef barbecue in Texas. Cowboys like to be on horses, galloping around and whooping and roping things. Cows are much more amenable to that scenario than are pigs. Which I guess explains why they’re not called Pigboys. But I digress.

 

Back over the lovely Arthur Ravenel bridge spanning the Cooper River to Mount Pleasant (a quick 10-15 minute drive) and the farmers market. It’s run by the city of Mt. Pleasant in a lovely, new-looking permanent structure. Lively and dynamic, lots of lovely produce, great locally made products like pickles and cheese, peanuts fresh, boiled and deep-fried (you eat them shell and all!). It was a fun and delightful taste of the region, and a great way to stock up for dinner.

 

The kitchen was soon a-flurry with activity. Green beans being trimmed, garlic cloves peeled, tomatoes and sweet onions sliced, ears of corn being shucked, amazing little creamer potatoes being scrubbed. Cocktails being made. Pimiento cheese being snacked on. All we were missing was the soundtrack from Big Chill. It had already been a wonderful day, and we were in for a pretty spectacular evening.

As is true of most regional/seasonal food, it’s usually time to stand back and apply the “less is more” principle. So the shrimp just got steamed very simply with sliced garlic, the green tops from the onions, herbs from Nathalie’s garden, lemon halves. Our salad was simple sliced cucumber, tomatoes, sweet onions with blue cheese scattered over and a balsamic vinaigrette. Corn, green beans and potatoes simply steamed. OOOOHHHH. And how could I forget?!?! Garlic bread! Old-school. Lots of butter with lots of minced garlic, some chives and other herbs. Slathered on big slabs of “French bread” (you know the kind, softer big loaves than any classic baguette). We were in HEAVEN.

 

Everything was ready. We piled onto the deck, had a good hour or so of sunlight left, glasses filled with chilled beverages of choice. All was right with our world! And it was an amazing dinner. Lots of moans and groans, more than a few comments akin to “a meal to remember.” A blessed highlight of vacation!

The leftovers were pretty remarkable too. Yes, we’d bought TOO MUCH shrimp. So it got peeled after dinner and tucked away for tomorrow. All the shrimp shells went into a pot and simmered for the rest of the evening. And it was a long evening of playing games and sipping cocktails (Kathy invented the Charleston 75 in honor of the experience!!! Ooooh those were good). So those shrimp shells had ample opportunity to exude all their wonderful flavor into the water. Which after being strained, we reduced even further to a thick near-glaze.

For Wednesday’s lunch I chopped up the remaining shrimp, diced some of the sweet onion and whipped the living daylights out of an egg yolk and some olive oil to make mayonnaise. A drizzle of that shrimp stock reduction, pinches of salt and pepper. I have to say that was one of the most delicious shrimp salads I’d ever had. Made only more delicious by spooning it on top of a piece of cold garlic bread. Much as I might like to think I could recreate that shrimp salad another day, it was truly a product of that moment in time. That combination of Mt Pleasant ingredients, that group of friends, that series of events and experiences that lead up to the simple lunch that was satisfying down to my jauntily-painted toes.

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A Taste of South Carolina

For a couple of months there, mid May couldn’t arrive soon enough. I’m truly thankful that this year’s been such a full and busy one work-wise, but the load was almost too much, lots of irons in the fire, lots of deadlines on my to-do list. Maybe I’d bitten off a bit more than I could chew. May 15 became the light at the end of the tunnel, the carrot toward 

Endless acres of Spanish moss hanging from trees; this at the Middleton Place plantation.

 which I was running so hard! So after turning in a huge amount of work in the weeks leading up to mid May–the last email of recipes for the 2010 volumes of Celebrated Chefs cookbooks going off late in the day of the 14th–off we went. To South Carolina. A state I and my five travel-mates had never stepped foot in before. With no expectations of that week beyond a change of scenery, a chance to clear the head and relax a bit, the pay-off was huge. We stayed up late playing games, slept in, curled up in chairs to read, explored Charleston, watched the Thin Man, got our toes in the sand, talked and laughed and ate very well together. It could not have been a more perfect vacation (well, aside from getting caught in a deluge of rain one afternoon, soaked to the bones; but hey, we’re from Seattle and at least we don’t melt). And I’ve got a list going of things yet to see and do, things to fuel another trip to the region.   

Ambling around Charleston on our horse-drawn carriage

We didn’t stay in Charleston proper, though visited the city a few different days that week. Our home base was the house of a friend who’d put a week’s rental up for an auction last year. (One of the best auction purchases we’ve been part of in recent years!). Having a house made all the difference, flake out on the couch, grab a snack any time of day or night, pull out the grill to cook up some steaks, a well-stocked kitchen for cooking dinner–and making cocktails, I might add! We were on the lovely and relaxing Isle of Palms a mere 20 minute drive from Charleston. Best of both worlds, if you ask me. Makes me long for more vacations that come with the kind of place you feel becomes “home” after a couple of days. You know, “your” chair for reading, rhythms of who’s up first to make the coffee and who’s likely to clean things up after dinner. It was awesome.   

One of the “must-dos” on our Charleston list was taking a horse-drawn carriage ride around town. And sure, it’s touristy. But like a trip up the Space Needle, it’s something everyone’s got to do! Just the kind of thing, in particular, on a first-time visit to a city. Gives you some great perspective, history, a little local color. I’d highly recommend that to anyone visiting Charleston. We had a great guide narrating the hour-long trip, but the carriage was drawn by a new-recruit of a horse who had a little trouble walking a straight line. Loved hearing stories about the houses (medallions on an outside wall indicated which fire company the house was insured with way back when; only that company would bother to try putting the fire out should your house have become victim to flames) and the city. Of course a little contemporary reference to their governor and his Appalachian exploits, that got a good laugh. As did reference to one of the city’s oldest trees and whether, in fact, Strom Thurmond himself had planted the seedling. They do have some colorful politicians in South Carolina!   

A stunning display by one of the denizens of Middleton Place plantation

Palm trees. Shrimp, often seen in the company of grits. Local Palmetto Ale. Pimiento cheese. Sweet onions and boiled peanuts. Miles and miles of sandy beaches. Zilch (the game; not the nothingness the name implies). These things consumed much of our attention that week. And a great week it was.   

I’ll be honest. We all agreed that the best meal we had was the Tuesday night dinner we cooked at home. Early that morning we’d gotten a call from our shrimp guy (it didn’t take long to cozy up to one of the local shrimp purveyors in Mt Pleasant) saying the boat had just come in and fresh shrimp were read for the sellin’. And it happened to be farmers market day as well, we hit the stalls that afternoon and did a pretty good job covering bases to ensure not only a great meal that night, but some mighty find snacking for a day or two. That dinner deserves its own post, which will follow soon-ish.   

But we did eat out pretty well too! Fresh off the airplane, four of us drove into town for dinner at Hominy Grill. Classic. Much of the menu’s on the chalkboard posted on the wall, much of that listing the night’s side dishes, which range from grits and collard greens to macaroni & cheese and red field peas. We tried a number of them (LOVED those red field peas, cooked up with some stock and bacon of course), thumbs up all around for the crab and egg salad, shrimp & grits and pimento cheese with beet-boiled eggs. This is the only place we tried boiled peanuts all week and to be perfectly honest, it was not an enchanting introduction. Must be an acquired taste, or maybe one you just need to grow up with. The nuts were soft and starchy, 

Shrimp corndogs at Amen Street

not a whole lot of flavor; blind-folded I’d have likely never guessed “peanut.” I much prefer them roasted, even the fried-in-the-shell version we got at the farmers market a few days later (you eat them whole, shell and all, nice and crunchy!).   

We loved, too, Poe’s Tavern on Sullivan Island, enough that we went back twice!! Edgar Allen Poe was stationed at nearby Fort Moultrie around 1828 and based his story The Gold Bug on his time here. Great burgers, my favorite the Gold Bug Plus, with pimiento cheese, roasted garlic blue cheese, and jalapeno jack cheese. Hand-cut fries, great bacon-blue cheese coleslaw, tasty tacos too. Highly recommendable! And the women’s restroom is plastered floor to ceiling with pages from Poe stories, should you need any reading material while you’re in there…..   

Another favorite was Amen Street in downtown Charleston. Lunch there one day was great fun, fueling us for an afternoon to wandering King Street to check out antique shops. We’d read about their shrimp corn dogs, started with a couple orders of them, very fun. Nice hot mustard dip, lightly coated shrimp, tasty. I’d have liked a bit more corn dog-like coating, some cornmeal in the batter, but small quibble. So hard to choose lunch but I opted for the fried green tomato BLT. Just perfect! It was a great lunch spot in a bustling part of town. One of a great many tasty spots in Charleston. We opted to take dessert just a couple blocks away at Baked. Wonderful bakery, lots of delicious indulgences from old-fashioned layer cakes to great little Parisian macaroons.   

The “big” dinner out we chose McCrady’s, just a shrimp’s throw from Baked. Chef Sean Brock had just a couple of weeks

Entrance to McCrady's on a small side alley downtown.

 earlier won the James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast. In fact he was the third Charleston chef in a row to earn that award, the last two honorees were Mike Lata from Fig (didn’t get there, next time!) and Robert Steling from  Hominy Grill (downhome fun, we’d go back for sure). Just to confirm the culinary chops of this South Carolina city! We opted for the night’s tasting menu, to get the full spectrum of a first-timer’s experience. I’d read a bit about chef Brock and the restaurant before leaving, but hadn’t picked up on his penchant for modern, rather high-tech cuisine! So the “scallop with rhubarb, celery and cilantro ice” that lead off the menu wasn’t a scallop as we’re familiar with them, instead a reformed scallop, puree of the shellfish having been cast in a thin square that was the base for the complementary ingredients. It was a fun and engaging presentation, though we all wished that the scallop part had retained a bit more of its sweet, rich scallop flavor. A bit of its character was lost in the modern interpretation. But the rest of the menu was a big hit: grouper with zucchini and bonito, pork belly with farro and green garlic, sweetbreads with lobster legs and artichokes, plus a few other courses. We sipped a bottle of Champagne with the early courses, one I’d never had before. And one that really caught my attention with complex layers of flavors that were perfectly balanced, lush and delicious! Chartogne-Taillet. If you see it anywhere, get it and have a sip for me! Then tell me where you found it…… 

Oh, I could go on and on and on about our trip. Tell you about our drive out to Middleton Place for a taste of antebellum plantation life. Or wax lyrical about the few hours spent on the beach one day. I just walked and walked and walked barefoot right at the water line, waves petering out just as they crested over my ankles.  Or the fun we had getting to know the local Piggly Wiggly where we stocked up on essentials for our shelves back at the house. Maybe more of that will come up in future discussions. Along with that chronicle of the amazing farmers-market shrimp feast we had one night!  

Until then, here’s capping this chronicle off with a snapshot of the closest we got to an alligator on the trip, at Middleton Place. Close enough!!! 

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