Metro Atlanta Urban Farm {Shrimp & Grits with Bacon, Corn, Asparagus and Chardonnay}

This week has been a bit of a whirlwind.  For someone who is happily content to exist within a 3-mile radius, I have traveled outside my usual stomping grounds on more than one occasion in the last seven days.

And I’m exhausted.

But also enlightened and inspired.

On September 20, I had the privilege of attending a communal dinner at the Metro Atlanta Urban Garden.  Sponsored by Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi’s Giving through Growing program, members of the Farm’s staff welcomed community members to dine with them in celebration of the amazing work being done there. 

Tucked away along a busy stretch of urban road in College Park, GA is this almost-five-acre working farm, complete with a Victorian-era farm house, caretaker’s cottage and original red barn, which serves as the support for their lovely greenhouse made from reclaimed windows.  They are certified naturally grown, and they produce all of their own soil and compost on site. The farm is situated on a 300-foot deep well, from which they draw all of the water for irrigation.  In the midst of a concrete jungle, there is this beautiful agricultural oasis.  It’s like a different time and place.

This is Bobby Wilson , President of the American Community Gardening Association, and co-founder of the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm.  He was kind enough to give us a tour, and  teach us a thing or two about community gardens and what a true gift they are to the people who have the opportunity to be involved with them.  His passion for his work was evident as he talked about the therapeutic benefits of gardening, the way it brings people together, and the joy of reaping the fruits of your labor month after month.

In this current position, as well as in a former role as the Program Director for The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension/Atlanta Urban Gardening Program, Bobby has offered gardening instruction and support to some three hundred gardens located at public housing complexes, shelters, schools, churches and elder care facilities in metro Atlanta.  He has also been instrumental in securing the partnership with Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, which resulted in an $8000 grant that allowed them to double the size of their community garden and install a drip irrigation system.  It has also allowed them to donate a portion of the food grown in the community garden to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Candice Kumai serves as the National Ambassador for Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi’s Giving through Growing program.  She was in attendance on Thursday, cooking up good things from the garden and working with the representatives from Mondavi to promote the good work being done at community gardens all around the country.   According to the Giving through Growing website:

Beyond supporting our own winery garden which was planted to produce fruits and vegetables for the Stockton San Joaquin Emergency Food Bank, Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi has granted $8,000 to five other gardens across the U.S. to undertake whatever is needed to produce more food –whether that’s building additional planter beds, improving watering systems, recruiting volunteers, or buying more fruit trees and vegetable seeds. All of the additional produce raised through this project will be donated to local food banks.

It was a great party, celebrating a great program, and I felt so privileged to have been invited to attend.  People who work in the garden, people who benefit from the garden and people who support the garden all came together to celebrate and dine together.  It was a true testament to the role that gardens can play in benefiting and growing a community.  And knowing that a portion of the evening’s dinner was grown right on the property made it even more special.

On Sunday, I introduced a friend of mine to one of my favorite places to shop for produce, outside of my own garden or my local farmer’s market (which is, sadly, closed for the season). For people in the Atlanta area, Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market is a great affordable alternative for fresh, local (sometimes, sometimes not so local) produce and meats.  While I was there, I picked up some sweet white corn, tiny pencil-thin asparagus (which I realize is out of season here, but I just can’t resist those tender green stalks when I see them all lined up.  Even if they came all the way from Peru), and some wild-caught Georgia shrimp.  I still had some stone-ground grits in my freezer from Rockin’ S Farms, so I thought a Georgia shrimp and grits dish would be nice.  I made a quick sauce using some of the Woodbridge Chardonnay that I received as a gift at the Farm celebration the other night.

Shrimp and Grits with Bacon, Corn, Asparagus and Chardonnay

prep time: 15 minutes

cook time: 15 minutes

serves: 6-8

Ingredients

  • 2 slices thick-cut bacon
  • 1 lb. wild-caught Georgia shrimp, peeled and de-veined
  • 2 ears corn, kernels cut from cob
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces (you could easily sub some swiss chard or kale here if you want to keep this truly seasonal).
  • 3 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups stone ground grits, cooked according to package directions
  • 2 oz. Manchego cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup chardonnay, divided
  • salt and pepper to taste

  1. Begin by cooking the bacon over medium-low heat, allowing the fat to cook out and the bacon to crisp up slowly.
  2. Remove the bacon from the pan, and pour the fat off into a heat-proof container.  Crumble the bacon and set aside.
  3. Add a tablespoon of the bacon fat back to the pan, along with a tablespoon of butter.
  4. Increase the heat to medium and add the diced onion.  Saute until translucent.
  5. Add the corn and the minced garlic.  Saute until corn starts to brown slightly.
  6. Pour 1/2 a cup of chardonnay into the pan and add a tablespoon of butter, whisking to combine.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Remove from heat and add the asparagus.  Cover and set aside – the asparagus will cook in the residual steam.
  8. Cook the grits according the package instructions (I do mine in liberally salted water, but you could also use chicken or vegetable stock).  At the end of the cooking time, remove from heat and add a tablespoon of butter and the manchego cheese.
  9. Heat an iron skillet over medium-high heat.  Add a tablespoon of the reserved bacon grease.  Season the cleaned shrimp with salt and pepper.  Cook in batches, approximately 1 1/2 minutes per side.  Deglaze the pan with the remaining chardonnay and add the shrimp back in.
  10. To serve, place about a cup of the cooked grits in the bottom of a bowl, then spoon the corn and asparagus mixture over the top, then place the shrimp on top of that.  Garnish with crumbled bacon and additional manchego cheese if desired.
  11. Enjoy!

If you have a chance, I encourage you to visit the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, or another community garden in your area. There’s a community garden finder tool on the Giving through Growing website.  I think you’ll be surprised just how many of these communal gardens there are.  There may even be one in your neighborhood.  Get involved, and plant a row to donate to your local food pantry.  If you’re interested in starting a community garden, Bobby and the folks at the American Community Gardening Association can help with that, too.

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Yellow Valleys, Amber Waves and Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

I hope you’ll bear with me to the end of this post – it’s kind of long.  In fact, it’s probably two posts in one; but, they’re two posts that really do have something in common, so I ask for your patience as I tie together the loose ends.  It’s all about making and sharing memories with family.  And corn.  Lots and lots of corn.

Back at the beginning of July, our family set off on a National Lampoon-style, semi-cross-country road trip.  For years, my mom has been talking about looking at some acreage in Wyoming, and this summer we decided to do something about it.  We rented a fancy space-age mini-van and loaded it up for a seven-day, nine-state, 3200-mile round trip tour.  With two small children in tow, that is no small feat.

And it really was a road trip in the truest sense – we spent at least seven hours (and sometimes as many as 11) every day driving, and spent no more than one night in any one place.  I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but I have to admit that it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken.

Armed with a myriad of DVDs for the kids, and satellite radio for the adults we set off down the road.  We were subjected to multiple viewings of Cars 2 and Dora the Explorer’s Hic-Boom-Ohhh episode.  When it was “mom’s turn” we listened to the Sirius Bluegrass station as a respite.  To keep the kids occupied while the DVD player was “resting”, we had them look for Dora’s yellow valley and quiet forest.  With miles and miles of corn fields to look at, that yellow valley wasn’t too hard to find.

On the first night on our way out to Wyoming, we stopped in St. Louis.  We ate at a local wood-fired pizza joint called Twin Oak, where we enjoyed some tasty pies and local brews.

Stingray touch pool at the St. Louis Zoo

The next morning we took the boys to the St. Louis Zoo for a couple of hours before hitting the road. We tried to do at least one fun, kid-friendly thing every day.  It cut down on the monotony of the car ride, and it let the boys get some energy out of their systems before being cooped up for hours on end.  It was a pretty good strategy.

Lincon, NE Train Depot

Our second night was spent in Lincoln, NE, where we ate at Lazlo’s in the Haymarket District.  The food was good, the beer, brewed right next door, was excellent and the service was impeccable.  The boys enjoyed getting to run around the old train depot after dinner, and we even found a little local ice cream shop for dessert.

Steam-powered carousel at the Pioneer Village

The next morning, on our way to Cheyenne, WY, we stopped at a place called Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village in Minden, NE.  It’s a little off the beaten path (like you feel like you’re driving through about a million miles of GMO corn and cattle feed lots to get there), but it was completely worth the detour.  From cars to trains to airplanes to tractors to boats, there was something of interest for everyone.  I think the adults liked this one as much as the kids (if not more).

In Cheyenne, we watched some gunslingers shoot it out and ate a place called The Albany Restaurant and Bar which was recommended by a woman at the Cheyenne Train Depot.

The next morning it was on to Laramie, WY to look at some land (and lots and lots of wild horses and Pronghorn).  In Laramie we had lunch at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery where I had a perfectly cooked Filet Mignon and a spicy Mexican Chili Ale.

After Laramie, it was time to head back east.  We took a slightly different route home, driving through Colorado and Kansas (surrounded by purple mountains and amber waves of wheat, not to mention gigantic wind farms) on the return trip.  It was July 4th, and we stopped in Burlington, CO for lunch.  There, we had a chance to take a ride on the Historic Kit Carson Co. Carousel.  Yes, that’s actually a picture of me up there.

We spent the night of the 4th in Topeka, KS, where the highlight of our stay was getting to watch fireworks from our 4th-floor hotel room with the lights off.

The 5th was spent driving the rest of the way through Kansas, all of Missouri, and portions of Kentucky and Tennessee.  We stopped off at a Civil War Battlefield in Lexington, MO, and wound up spending the night in Clarkesville, TN (which just happens to be conveniently located close to another Civil War battle sight, much to my husband’s delight).

In Clarkesville we ate at a little hole-in-the-wall place called Brunies Bar and Grill.  When we first walked in we were a little reluctant (the atmosphere is definitely of the college dive bar variety), but the live music and the fact that we were hungry and it was late sold us.  They specialized in German food, so we opted for the bratwurst and schnitzel sandwiches (at the server’s suggestion) and the German potato salad.  We were pleasantly surprised by the food, and the music was really good – a win all around.

On the morning of the day we headed home, we took a little detour to visit Fort Donelson, significant because it was the site of the first Union victory in the South.  My husband is a big American Civil War history buff, so these last two days were sort of devoted to him.  The kids really enjoyed getting to see the big cannons, and my mom and I just liked being outside with the family (despite the 100+ degree temperatures).

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As vacations go, it will go down in my book as one of the most interesting I’ve taken.  Not only was it fun to spend time with my family experiencing things and places that were new for all of us; it was also fascinating to see our country’s industrial agriculture system at work.  I’ve never seen so much corn and soy growing in my life.  We even joked a couple of times about stopping off and pulling a couple of ears of corn to have with dinner when we got to our evening destination.

Of course, when you see things like this along the way, you realize that most of that corn is probably not destined for our dinner table – at least not in the traditional sense.  Most likely, the corn we saw growing is more of a commodity crop, slated to be turned into livestock feed, fuel, or sweetener and filler for the processed food industry.  We might have been sorely disappointed had we actually stopped and picked a couple of ears for dinner.  For more information on corn as a commodity crop, I suggest watching King Corn – it’s a relatively unbiased and eye opening look at “Americas most-productive, most-subsidized grain.”

After seeing all that corn in the heartland, I had a hankering for some good ol’ creamed corn when I got home.  Our sad little row of corn in our backyard garden had about given up the ghost after a week of record temperatures and little rain, but I managed to salvage a few poorly developed ears to add to the mix.  The rest came from our local Saturday-morning Farmers Market.

The recipe is my paternal Grandmother’s, and it came to me by way of my dad’s sisters.  My mom and I had been talking a while back about how much we loved Grandma Helen’s creamed corn, and wondering how we could replicate it.  The thing that made it special was the combination of  lots of black pepper and the fact that it wasn’t at all sweet.  I decided to email my Aunt to see if she had the recipe.  Here’s her response:

Of all the people to ask – the one who can’t boil water.  I can see her making it now.  My memory of her at the stove stirring.  She did it on top of the stove in that big cast iron skillet, think she started out with a small amount of water and then made a thickening with milk and flour.  I remember pepper, almost a stick of butter and when she got it to the consistency she wanted, put it in the oven and baked it until done.  Seems like it had to bake for quite a while because all the liquid had to cook down.  Remember her stirring it while in the oven, trying to keep it from sticking too much.  My job was to clean that nasty skillet. I will send your message to N {my other aunt}.  Since she and M {my cousin} love to do corn for their holiday meals, she might remember more.  I really don’t think it was written down anywhere – just something she learned.

My other Aunt’s response followed soon after:

Ok..am trying to send this from wee phone at home…I do have a recipe written that says mama’ s cream corn! It calls for 8 to 10 ears. Two tablespoons flour…less if young…stir in 1 cup milk, 1 cup water, 1 stick butter and salt, pepper to taste….cook about one hour at 325…..with your directions Niki will do it! That lil girl is a Real chef. I didn’t write the steps but just having ingredients helps…Off to babysit…love u.

First, it cracks me up that they still think of me as a “lil girl”.  Second, I love the fact that we can collaborate and share family recipes via the internet.  Passing these things on and keeping them alive is so important to me.  None of us live close to each other, so the idea that we can just hop on the computer and pass this knowledge on to one another is amazing. It certainly doesn’t replace standing next to each other at the stove, but it ranks a close second.

And now I get to share it with all of you.

Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

prep time: 5 minutes

cook time: 1 hour

yield: 8 servings

  • 8-10 ears corn (preferably a less-sweet heirloom variety)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 Tablespoons flour (less if the corn is young)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • salt and pepper to taste (lots of black pepper)
  1. Preheat oven to 325F
  2. Begin by cutting the corn off the cob and scraping the cob to get all the milky liquid and starch
  3. In a large skillet (preferably cast iron, but I used a stainless steel one because it was the only one I had that was big enough), melt the butter and whisk in the flour.  Cook flour for a couple of minutes, just to make sure it doesn’t taste of raw flour.
  4. Add the corn and stir to coat with the butter/flour mixture.
  5. Add the milk and water.
  6. Add the salt and pepper (I added about a teaspoon of salt, and 30-40 turns of my pepper grinder)
  7. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil and begins to thicken.
  8. Place in your preheated oven and let cook for about an hour, stirring periodically to make sure it’s not sticking.
  9. Enjoy!
 

Of PBR, Moonshine and Cracker Queens

A couple of years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of working with and getting to know a local writer.  A colorful character with a storied past, Lauretta is one of the most joyful people I’ve ever met.  We found kinship in our southern roots and in our love of Dolly.  Even after we’d both moved on to other places of employment, we kept in touch. Last year, I attended one of her Down Home Writing School sessions (and learned so much about the writing process) and have longed ever since to have the courage to share my heart the way she shares hers.

Vintage typewriter on display at The Hive – the setting for The Down Home Writing School last September

She’s fearless and full of kindness and happiness. She’s The Cracker Queen.

Her book, aptly titled The Cracker Queen: A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life, tells a universal story of triumph over adversity – with a dash of moonshine and Munchkins from the land of Oz thrown in for good measure.  If you’re wondering what a Cracker Queen is, this is the definition in Lauretta’s own words:

The Cracker Queen is a strong, authentic Southern woman.  She is the anti-Southern belle.  She has a raucous sense of humor and can open up a can of whup-ass as needed.  She holds her head, and her cigarette, up high.  She curses, laughs inappropriately, and raises t-total hell when the line is crossed.  You might find her waiting tables or working the third shift at the factory.  The Cracker Queen knows loss and hurt; these things have made her beautiful, resourceful and, above all, real.

This is the kind of book you can get comfy with. It might make you laugh and cry at the same time – it’s cathartic like that.

A couple of months ago, Lauretta asked me to develop a recipe that she could include in her newsletter.  I was, admittedly, a little intimidated.  She has quite the following, and I wanted to make sure I did the Cracker Queen theme justice.  Her only stipulations were that it be easy to make and not include meat or seafood.  A bit later, she messaged me to say that maybe it could be a fun drink or cocktail (with or without alcohol).  Well, that sealed the deal right then and there.

My own early memories of summer in the South include pulling tabs off cans of cheap beer for Daddy (and sneaking sips on my way back from the cooler) and pouring Tennessee whiskey over ice for Grandaddy.  I loved the distinct sound as the pressure was released from the beer can and the way the foam bubbled up out of the key-hole shaped opening.  And there was something warm and comforting in the sweet scent of the amber liquid as it flowed down over the ice in the glass.

Times have changed for sure.  Back then, we’d take road trips and Daddy would stop off at the gas station and buy two or three tall-boys to drink in the car.  If my grandparents were going out for dinner (and taking me with them), Grandaddy would pour his whiskey-rocks into a Tervis tumbler (the old-school kind with the fishing lure sandwiched between the layers).  I’d sit between him and Grandma on the front seat of the Lincoln Town Car, and he’d hold that drink on his knee as he drove into town.  We’d listen to 8-track tapes of Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis and sing along at the top of our lungs.  Sometimes we’d stop off at the filling station at the end of the dirt road and he’d send me in to buy a pack of Camel filters for him.

Lordy, it’s a wonder I survived childhood.

The shot glass in this picture is from my grandparents’ collection. I’m not sure you can even find a 1 oz. jigger anymore.

I don’t recommend that you have your kids mix this drink for you, or that you take it in a go-cup as you mosey down the road.  Because, hello? Irresponsible.  Not to mention illegal and dangerous.  No.  What I do recommend, though,  is that you mix it up for your next get-together, or just to cool off with on a hot day. This is an ass-kickin’ cocktail masquerading as a pretty pink girly drink.  Like any self-respecting Cracker Queen, it’s a little sweet, a little sour, and it packs a punch when it needs to.

The Cracker Queen Cocktail
yields: 1 pint

Igredients

  • 1 oz. of moonshine
  • 2 oz. of rhubarb simple syrup (recipe below; if rhubarb is out of season, you can use Grenadine in place of the rhubarb syrup)
  • juice of half of a lemon
  • dash of rhubarb bitters
  • ice for shaking
  • 1 12-oz. can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer
  • lemon slices for garnish
  1. Combine the moonshine, simple syrup, lemon juice, bitters and ice in a cocktail shaker (or pint-sized mason jar).
  2. Cover and shake to combine and chill.
  3. Strain into a clean glass (I like to use another pint jar, but that’s just me).
  4. Top with the PBR. It might foam quite a bit because of the sugar in the syrup, so I will sometimes pour the beer over the back of a spoon to direct it down the side of the glass – this helps to avoid a giant head on the beer.
  5. Stir to combine.
  6. Garnish with a slice of lemon.

Rhubarb-ginger simple syrup

  • 2-3 stalks of rhubarb, cut into 1-inch pieces (you need enough for about a cup of rhubarb)
  • 1 thumb-sized finger of fresh ginger, sliced (you don’t have to peel it or anything)
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 cup of water
  1. Combine everything in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
  2. Reduce to a simmer and let cook for 5-10 minutes, or until the liquid turns pink and the rhubarb softens/breaks down.
  3. Strain into a seal-able container and refrigerate.
  4. Should keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.

Student | Teacher | Cook: {Viking Cooking School and Fried Chicken}

On Saturday morning, I was a student.

I had been invited by the General Manager of our local Viking store to come take a complimentary class and write about it.  I chose Saturday’s class from their menu of choices for one reason and one reason only: fried chicken.

The title of the class was Southern Specialties from the Hit Movie The Help.  The class included instruction in making macaroni and cheese, slow-cooked greens, biscuits, cornbread and fried chicken.

Fried Chicken.

My dark, closeted secret: I’m a southern girl who can’t fry chicken. I’m surprised I found a husband.

I knew this would be the ultimate test of a cooking school and its Chef Instructor.  If they could teach me to successfully fry chicken, it would be a miracle.

To be fair, it wasn’t just about the chicken.  I mean, I’ve made my fair share of macaroni and cheese, greens and biscuits and cornbread, so these things weren’t really new to me. That’s not to say that I didn’t learn a thing or two, though.

For instance – to add flavor to your cooked pasta, add whole garlic cloves to the pasta water.  Simple, but I probably would never have thought to do something like that.  Chef said that sometimes he adds other herbs and spices too – whatever tickles your fancy.  Genius.

These classes are for cooks of all skill levels.  We began with some basic knife skills, learning the proper way to hold a knife and how to mince garlic and properly dice an onion. We learned how to strip greens from their stems and clean them in a sink-full of water.  We learned how to make the lightest, fluffiest drop-style biscuits I’ve ever had.

I still prefer a rolled biscuit, because that’s what I grew up with, but these were really remarkable.

And the chicken.  That ever-elusive Sunday dinner staple.  That’s what I went to conquer.

The chicken had marinated overnight in a mixture of buttermilk, salt, pepper, and garlic.  Chef had members of the class put together a mixture of all-purpose flour, baking powder, cornstarch, salt, pepper, cayenne and paprika.  Then we each took a turn dredging the marinated chicken in the flour mixture.  The key, he said, to crispy fried chicken was to allow the chicken to rest after the flour dredge, and making sure that the oil is the right temperature.

We pan-fried the chicken in a cast-iron skillet using vegetable shortening. I was admittedly not thrilled about using hydrogenated vegetable shortening, but as Chef said, this isn’t exactly health food.  We didn’t use a deep-fry thermometer, relying solely on Chef’s knowledge of “what the bubbles should look like” to tell us whether the oil was at the right temperature.  I got a pretty good feel for what we were looking for – small, relatively fast moving bubbles concentrated around the outside of the chicken pieces.  If they slowed down, or became too small, the oil was too cool – if they got bigger and faster, it was too hot.  The key is to not cook it too fast – you don’t want the outside to get brown before the inside is done. Too slow, though, and you end up with a greasy mess.

After watching and participating in three batches of fried chicken, I felt pretty good about what I’d learned.

I tell you what – food that you’ve had a hand in making tastes pretty darn good.  And food that’s part of a group effort?  Tastes even better.  When we saw the feast that we’d prepared, the five of us and Chef, we were pretty proud.

And when we bellied up to the bar to enjoy the fruits of our labor?  Silence.  Not a sound save that of forks and knives on plates.  And the occasional satisfied “hmm…”  This was good food.  And the chicken?  Some of the best I’ve had.  This is the kind of food you want to share with people, even a group of strangers.  We were wives, mothers, husbands, friends.  Most of us were from the south, but one of us hailed from New York.  Some of us cooked regularly for our families, others rarely set foot in the kitchen.  But we all were there to learn.  And we all looked forward to sharing what we learned with friends and family.

I headed home satisfied.  I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some buttermilk and chicken.  I was going to fry up a mess of chicken for Sunday dinner the next day, come hell or high water.

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On Sunday morning, as I stood in my kitchen, I was a teacher.

My six-year-old son stood next to me on a stepstool, carefully pouring pre-measured ingredients into a mixing bowl.  We were making pancakes.

He had requested them for breakfast the minute I stumbled out of bed, and in a sleep-induced moment of parental neglect, I shot back “are you going to make them?”

Mother of the year, right here.

He looked at me and replied, “but I don’t know how.”

A few minutes later, after I’d had a moment to collect myself (and had fortified myself with some strong black coffee), I asked him if he’d like to help me make the pancakes.  His face lit up like a candle, and he rushed to the kitchen to get started.  He was impatient as I gathered ingredients – flour, oats, baking powder, sugar, baking soda, vanilla from the pantry; sour cream, milk, eggs from the fridge.  By the time I had everything laid out on the counter, measuring tools included, he was practically jumping out of his skin.  I carefully measured each ingredient, handing the cups and spoons over to him so that he could put everything in the mixing bowl.  I then let him whisk it all together.  It was a messy process, but he was so proud of his accomplishment.

He asked if he could help me ladle the pancakes onto the griddle, but when he felt the heat radiating from the surface of the appliance, he became reticent.  He stood back and watched as I measured them out into neat little rounds, and again as I flipped the first batch.  After that he was off to conquer imaginary bad guys, quickly moving on to the next thing on his to-do list for the day.  I was left to finish the pancakes on my own.

Even though it was the same pancake recipe that I’ve made for years, it somehow tasted better because of his hand in the process.  And I felt good about including him, passing on some of my love of cooking to him.

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On Sunday afternoon, I was a cook.  I took the things I’d learned in class the day before, and I applied them to my home kitchen.  I had put the chicken in to marinate the night before, so it was all ready to go by Sunday afternoon.

I opted to fry in a mixture of expeller-pressed coconut oil and non-hydrogenated palm kernel oil.  I realize that this is not health food, but I just couldn’t bring myself to use hydrogenated shortening.  As you can see in the photo above, I had some issues with the oil foaming during the frying process.  This did not seem to inhibit a successful outcome, however.

It was crispy on the outside and moist and flavorful on the inside.  The coconut oil added a bit of extra flavor, but not enough to really be distracting.  If you didn’t know that it was there, I don’t think you could identify it as coconut.  It’s just a hint of sweetness in the background.  It played nicely against the heat from the cayenne and black pepper.

And I can now say that I have successfully learned how to fry chicken, thanks to Chef Shea and the Viking Cooking School.

As confident as I am in the kitchen, there is always something new to learn.  I hope I never forget that.

As much as I enjoy being in the kitchen, it should never be at the expense of my family.  I hope I never forget that.

As much as  I love to cook, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much if I didn’t have people I cared about to share it with.  I hope I never forget that.

Southern Fried Chicken (adapted from Viking Cooking Schools’ recipe – my notes in italics)

prep time: 10 minutes

marinade time: 24 hours

cook time: 20-30 minutes

yield: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 cup buttermilk (I used low-fat because it’s all I could find – they suggest full-fat)
  • 1 tablespoon garlic salt (I used two cloves fresh garlic, minced)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 (4-lb) fryer (preferably skin-on) cut into 8 pieces (I used a pre-portioned griller pack from the grocery store that contained 4 legs and two breast halves, which I then cut in half again to make 4 small breast pieces)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, or to taste (I used the full 2 teaspoons, and it wasn’t too spicy for my kids)
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • healthy pinch of kosher salt
  • 24 ounces vegetable shortening (such as Crisco®) for frying (I used 12 ounces of coconut oil and 12 ounces of palm kernel oil)
  1. For the chicken: whisk together the buttermilk, garlic, salt and pepper.  Place the chicken pieces in the buttermilk mixture and completely submerge.  Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours.
  2. Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, cayenne, paprika, black pepper and salt; place in a large plastic bag.  Lift a piece of the chicken out of the buttermilk mixture, allowing the excess buttermilk to drain off. Add one piece of chicken at the time to the bag, and shake to thoroughly coat.  Place on a wire rack set over a baking sheet to rest until ready to fry.  Continue with the remaining pieces of chicken.
  3. Spoon the shortening into a large, deep cast-iron skillet or dutch oven.  Place over medium-high heat until the melted shortening regiserts 350F on a deep-fry thermometer.  The fat should come halfway up the sides of the pan. (Note: an even oil temperature is key to the success of this recipe; a deep-fry thermometer should be kept in the pot at all times. Make sure the temperature never drops below 325F or rises above 365F during the cooking process. As I stated – we did not use a thermometer, but I do recommend it the first few times you try this recipe).
  4. Once the fat has come to 350F, fry the chicken in batches, skin side down, until golden brown and cooked through, about 6 to 8 minutes. (Note: do not overcrowd the pan, or the chicken will not cook evenly).  Turn and fry until golden brown on the second side, about 6 to 8 minutes more.  Between batches, use a skimmer to remove all crispy bits floating in the oil.  (Note: if chicken is brown but not quite cooked through, place in a 350F oven to finish the cooking process, about 5 to 10 minutes).  Cook white meat to an internal temperature of 165F, and dark meat to an internal temperature of 175F.
  5. Enjoy!

Disclaimer:  I was invited to take this class for free.  The opinions in this post are my own.  Click here to see a selection of cooking classes offered through Viking Cooking School Atlanta.

Let Them Eat Brioche

This recipe may seem a little ill-timed, since tonight marks the end of the Carnival season and tomorrow is the beginning of Lent.  If you’re making any sort of Lenten resolutions, you probably won’t be baking this any time in the next forty days.  However, it was too good not to share, so I thought I’d go ahead and put it out there for you debaucherous souls who might want to give it a go.

Given that today is Mardi Gras, I wanted to treat the family to some traditional gumbo and a Gateau des Roi.  I didn’t grow up eating King Cake, or really observing Mardi Gras at all.  As such, I have no reference for what makes a good King Cake.  As an adult, I’ve seen a number of different (shortcut) variations, including cinnamon roll-based cakes and crescent roll based cakes.  While I knew that these recipes that used processed and pre-packaged ingredients were probably not the most traditional versions, they did give me a basic idea of what a King Cake entails – rich buttery dough, stuffed with a sweet filling and topped with a sugary glaze

With some digging, I discovered that traditional King Cake consists of rich brioche bread, filled with cinnamon, almond paste or cream cheese and glazed with simple icing sugar glaze.  They are often sprinkled with purple, green and yellow sanding sugar to reflect the colors of Mardi Gras.  I figured if I could find a good brioche recipe, the rest would be a piece of cake (ha-ha).

For the brioche recipe, I turned to a trusted and reliable source: Michael Ruhlman.  The tagline on Ruhlman’s website is “translating the Chef’s craft for every kitchen,” and he does a skillful job doing just that.  His recipes are well tested, and you can be assured that you will find success if you follow his instructions.  I knew that any brioche recipe I found on his site would be delightful.  When I saw that it called for five whole eggs and twelve ounces of butter (that’s three whole sticks), I figured it could not disappoint.

Since I followed his recipe almost to the letter, I’ll suggest that you click on over to his site if you want to make it.  I did substitute freshly ground hard white wheat flour for the bread flour that he suggests and I used honey granules in place of the sugar.  I also shortened the second rise, choosing to let the dough rise in a warm oven for one hour instead of in the refrigerator overnight.

To make the brioche into a King Cake, I made a cream cheese filling, combining eight ounces of cream cheese, 1/2 cup of honey granules, one large egg, three tablespoons of flour and the zest of one lemon.  I beat this all together until it was smooth.  After the dough had risen the first time (and doubled in volume – this took approximately three hours at room temperature), I punched it down and rolled it out into a long, thin rectangle.  I spread the filling evenly onto the rectangle and folded the dough over onto itself, pinching the edges to seal the filling inside.  I then formed it into a ring and placed it in a greased tube pan.  I covered it with plastic wrap, and let it rise in a warm oven (preheated to 150F, then turned off) for about an hour.

To bake it off, I preheated the oven to 350F, baked the cake for 20 minutes uncovered, then 25 minutes tented with parchment paper (to keep it from getting too brown).  Once it was fully baked, I removed it from the oven, turned it out onto a cooling rack and allowed it to cool completely.

For the glaze, I combined 2 cups of powdered sugar with a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream, stirring to combine.  I added a 1/2 a teaspoon of pure vanilla extract, then glazed the cake once it had cooled completely.

Even if you don’t make a king cake, I highly recommend this brioche recipe – it practically melts in your mouth it’s so buttery.  I can imagine using it for breakfast in french toast, or making a decadent croque-monsieur (or even more decadent croque-madame) with it.  In this instance, stuffed (albeit unevenly) with slightly sweet cream cheese and smothered with creamy vanilla glaze, it was the perfect way to top off our family Fat Tuesday celebration.

Now, what to do with the leftovers tomorrow?

Why I Love Southern Food; A{nother} Hash Recipe; And a Giveaway Winner(!)

Lordy, Southern food has been in the news a lot lately.  From Paula Deen to Trisha Yearwood to Hugh Acheson, there’s been a lot of talk about what southern cooking really is. I know I’ve written about it before, but I thought it warranted a bit more discussion.  I mean, I’m a southerner, and I cook, so I guess you could say I’m a southern cook.  I grew up watching other southerners cook, both men and women, and I’ve learned a thing or two from each of them.  Mostly what I know is that, for the most part, southern food is simple.  It’s based on seasonal foods that come from the land, and it’s highly flavorful.

I love the tradition of southern food.  I love that it’s based on an agrarian lifestyle, one where food is grown within a community and consumed within that same community.  And while the fats of choice in southern cooking have traditionally been animal fats in the form of lard, butter and tallow, I’m okay with that too.  There are more and more studies every day that show that fats from pastured animals are actually good for us in moderation.

Moderation is also a common thread in southern cooking (and eating).  I can remember being at my grandparents’ house in Mississippi when I was young.  Supper was often a simple bowl of white beans spooned over cornbread.  Or a plate of garden vegetables to accompany a few fried fish that had come from the lake earlier that day.  And yes, the fish were fried (probably in Crisco, because that was all the rage those days), but they were small and the majority of the meal was made up of vegetables in the form of green beans, tomatoes, green onions and peppers.

To this day, this is how I prefer to eat.  A little bit of protein, accompanied by some farm fresh vegetables.  In my mind, this is the epitome of southern food.  Simple, fresh, seasonal.

Even when those seasonal vegetables might not be my favorite, I’m making an effort to learn to like them.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a rutabaga hash that I’d made for breakfast one morning.  In that post, I mentioned that I’ve never really been a fan of rutabagas (also known as turnips) because of their bitter, earthy flavor.  The problem is that they are in my CSA bag every week.  And I am beyond grateful to have the resource of a local farm that brings me farm fresh vegetables on a weekly basis, so I’m not about to complain.  So I just have to make every effort to embrace the rutabaga

This time, I shredded them using the large shredding blade on my food processor.  Then I salted them and let them  sit for five minutes or so.  The salt drew out a lot of the liquid, which also removed much of the bitterness. I placed them in a clean kitchen towel and twisted it tightly to squeeze out as much of the liquid as  I could.

Then I sauteed them in some clarified butter with some kale and pulled pork.  The earlier version of rutabaga hash was good, but it wasn’t great.  The cubes never got good and crispy the way I like, they just kind of got soft and mushy and wet.  They tasted alright, but I felt like they needed a little tweaking.  The shredded version?  Crispy, brown, tender, flavorful – really great.

I served it over some heirloom pencil-cob grits and topped it all with a couple of poached eggs.  It was a quintessential southern dinner – local, seasonal and fresh. 

Pork, Rutabaga and Kale Hash

prep time: 10 minutes

cook time: 15 minutes

serves: 2

Ingredients

  • 3 small rutabagas, shredded
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup kale, shredded
  • 1/2 cup pulled pork (could also use pot roast, corned beef, or leave out meat altogether)
  • 2 teaspoons clarified butter

  1. Place shredded rutabagas in a stainless steel bowl, and toss with 1 teaspoon salt.  Let sit for five minutes to draw out the water.
  2. Place on a clean kitchen towel, pull ends of towel up to create a little pouch.  Twist tightly to squeeze out as much water as you can.
  3. Heat an iron skillet over medium heat.
  4. Add clarified butter  to pan and melt.
  5. Add the kale, pork and rutabagas.  Cook over medium heat, stirring periodically until crispy and brown.
  6. Taste for seasoning – add salt and pepper as necessary.
  7. Enjoy!

If you, like me, are not a fan of the humble turnip, give this method a try.  The salting and draining really mellows out the flavor, and it helps in the crisping process.

And finally, for the announcement you’ve all been waiting for, the Whole Foods gift card giveaway winner.

There were 32 entries into the contest.  I wrote them all down in the order in which I received them, and then I went to random.org to choose a winner. 

Congratulations, Natalie!  Email me your address at lifeinrecipes[at]gmail[dot]com and I’ll arrange to have the gift card mailed to you. You’ll be making over your pantry in no time.

Thank you to Harry’s Farmers Market Alpharetta for partnering with me on this generous giveaway!

Unexpected Beauty And a Recipe For Apple Cake

There are places in this world that have become embedded in my soul.  Something about the history and atmosphere and architecture and general overall there-ness touches me and leaves a mark that can’t be erased.  They aren’t always grand or spectacular; sometimes – rather often actually –  they’re quiet and small and simple.

Christ Church, Frederica is one of those places.  An historic church in the Christ Church Parish of St. Simons Island, nestled among giant live oaks and old crepe myrtles festooned with spanish moss, there is something magical about the gothic-style building and the cemetery grounds surrounding it.  It’s quiet, peaceful, simple.  You can feel the weight of history there.

We stopped here on our way back from touring a golf course.  It was almost an afterthought – not a scheduled stop on our route.  In fact, we were late getting back because so many of us couldn’t tear ourselves away.  Our tour guide spoke to the abundance of churches on St. Simons Island, saying that he believed you couldn’t visit a place of such beauty and not believe in the existence of a higher power.  You feel that here.

When you walk through the weathered wooden gate, surrounded by moss-covered red brick, you are struck by the serenity of the place.  There are cars going by on the road just behind you, but somehow you are sheltered from all of that.  The light filtered through the trees falls just so, dancing haphazardly in the breeze.There is unexpected beauty here – dried brown leaves on the roof of the entry gate, dappled sunlight through moss-covered trees, gray-green shingles and heavy wooden beams.  Even the hint of a yellow leaf through the dried fronds of a fallen fern, with the bokeh created by the light coming through the trees above, takes my breath away.

As you walk among the tombs and gravestones, there are little tokens left by visitors.  Some might even make you chuckle quietly to yourself.  Rachel and I joked that Bo and Luke were laid to rest here.  Irreverent?  Maybe – but I don’t think we were the first to think it.

There are small surprises around every turn.  These soft pink camellias were nearly hidden from view behind a large oak heavily draped in moss.  Had I not been looking for treasures, I might not have spotted them.  Sometimes I think my camera seeks out these little gems – like it’s leading me to capture fleeting beauty.

The interior of the church is just as lovely as the surrounding landscape.  Every stained glass window is unique and the exposed-beam ceiling and warm-wood pews are a testament to the workmanship that must have gone into the construction of the building.  This is a church that is well loved and well used.  And it is still an active Episcopal church, with daily morning and evening prayer, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday Holy Eucharist services.As with many churches, The Episcopal Churchwomen of Christ Church put together a cookbook of their best loved recipes.  Being a lover of church cookbooks, I couldn’t resist purchasing one while I was there.  In many ways it is a typical church cookbook, with scads of casseroles, gelatin-based salads and more variations on brownies and pound cakes than you might think possible.  There are some hidden gems, though – I especially like the chapter at the end titled “Men Cook, Restaurants, Olde Time”.  There you’ll find a “Cure for Dysentery or Diarrhea” alongside “Martha Washington’s Boston Cream Pie.”


In determining which recipe to make first from the Christ Church cookbook, I knew I wanted something rather simple that would reflect the unexpected beauty found on the grounds and in the building.  I adapted this apple cake from a recipe for “Apple Dapple Cake” by Mary Jane Flint, but I changed quite a few things along the way.  The original sounds delicious, and it certainly inspired the cake you see above. But, if you want the original recipe, you’ll have to order a copy of the cookbook for yourself (all proceeds from the sale of the books go to help charitable organizations on St. Simons Island and worldwide).

Oatmeal Apple Cake
prep time: 10 minutes
bake time: 45 minutes
serves: 12-14

Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 tsp soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup apple butter
  • 1 stick butter, melted
  • 3 eggs
  • 4 cups apples, chopped
  1. Grease and flour a 10×18 inch pan and preheat your oven to 350F
  2. Whisk together dry ingredients
  3. Stir together the sugar, apple butter, butter and eggs
  4. Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients
  5. Fold in the chopped apples
  6. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  7. Serve plain or topped with unsweetened cream, creme fraiche or yogurt.

I’ve actually eaten this for breakfast every morning this week.  With a cup of hot black coffee, it’s just what I want to start my day with.  Mildly sweet, moist, full of autumn apple flavor – it’s reminiscent of baked oatmeal, but all grown up.  There’s something really lovely about it – it’s beautiful in its simplicity.  Unexpectedly so.

Father, we thank you for this meal, for our lives, for other people, for beautiful things, for goodness, and for You.
Amen
~Christ Church Cookbook

The Story of post-Thanksgiving Gumbo

There has been a tradition in our family for a number of years now of making gumbo with our leftover turkey on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  I’m not sure exactly when it started, but Thanksgiving just isn’t Thanksgiving until we’ve made gumbo.

My aunt even brings her own container to take it home in when she comes to visit.  This year she was unable to join us, but we were thinking of her while we made it.  If we could ship it long distances, it would be on its way to Florida as I type.

I claim a pretty mixed-bag of southern roots.  I was born in Mississippi and  raised in Georgia (spending large portions of my childhood summers in the Mississippi countryside).  My mother was born in Texas and grew up between Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.  Her mother was born and raised in Louisiana, and her father was born and raised in Mississippi.  My father’s people are strictly Mississippi as far as I know (although now we’re all scattered throughout the US).  Needless to say, my heritage is southern, through and through.
This particular recipe hearkens back to my Louisiana decedents.  It is a pretty even mixture of the Cajun and Creole versions as it uses both a brown roux and file powder as thickeners, and it has a tomato base.  Sometimes we add shrimp, sometimes not (this version is completely sans seafood), but we always add andouille sausage for extra flavor – this year we’re using my house-made andouille and fresh turkey stock.
Turkey neck, backbones and carcass simmering away with celery, onion and carrot to make a lovely dark turkey stock.
You can throw in pretty much anything you might have on hand, meat-wise.  One year we added wild duck to the mix because my cousin had bagged a few on a recent hunting trip.  When we are in Florida for the holiday (although it has been admittedly too long since we’ve gotten down there for Thanksgiving), we add lots of seafood.  If you’ve got venison, toss it in there.  The beauty of gumbo is that it’s a perfect vehicle for using up various bits of leftovers you might have lying around the fridge and freezer.
Now, I like okra in my gumbo, but my mother does not.  As she will be enjoying the final product with us, we will not be adding okra to this pot.  However, please feel free to add it to yours – it can only make it better (in my oh-so humble opinion).
The bones of this recipe are adapted from David Rosengarten’s Dean and Deluca cookbook.  If you’re familiar with Mr. Rosengarten, you know he is quite the food historian; therefore, I trust his recipes for their authenticity and their consistency. The adaptations here are that I use turkey stock in place of seafood stock or clam juice, and I use turkey in place of the crawfish he suggests.  Otherwise, I follow his recipe pretty closely.
Spicy Red File-Thickened Gumbo
with Turkey and Andouille
prep time: 20 minutes
cook time: 4 hours
serves: 8-10
Ingredients
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup flour
1/4 cup minced garlic
2 cups minced onion
2 cups minced celery
1 cup minced green bell pepper
1 cup minced red bell pepper
1 cup minced scallions or green onions
2 quarts plus 1 cup turkey stock
two 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 cloves
1/2 teaspoon Louisiana hot sauce, or to taste
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1-2 pounds andouille sausage, cut in 1/4-inch slices
1-2 pounds cooked turkey meat
1-2 tablespoons file powder
cooked rice as an accompaniment

Heat stock in a large stock-pot.

Flour and oil, before they have become a dark roux

In a large skillet, make roux by combining oil and flour.  Stir constantly with a flat wooden spoon or a roux whisk over medium-low heat until mixture turns a redish-brown color.  If you think it is getting too brown or about to burn, immediately remove it from the heat.

Dark, reddish brown roux

Add chopped garlic, onions, peppers, celery and green onion to the roux to stop the cooking.

Add the roux to the hot stock and whisk to combine.  Add the tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme, oregano, cayenne and cloves.  Now add the sausage and the turkey.

Let simmer over low heat for 3 hours or more.

Serve over boiled rice.  Add hot-sauce, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of file powder to individual bowls.  Do not add file powder to gumbo while it is cooking, as it will result in a stringy-textured end product.

I recommend this as a different way to use up that leftover turkey you’ve got taking up space in your fridge.  You’ll probably still have some left for turkey sandwiches, but this will give new life to what might otherwise be considered boring Thanksgiving leftovers.

Enjoy!

Southern Culinary Traditions At the King and Prince: Shrimp and Grits

A week or so ago, I packed a bag, grabbed my camera and laptop, and climbed in a car with my good friend, Rachel.  We drove five hours south of Atlanta to St. Simons Island, Georgia for three nights and two days at the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort.  Rachel and I have traveled together many times over the years, and I can honestly say this was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.

The historic building at The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort

It was a bit of a working vacation, as we had both been invited to attend a FAM trip focusing on the resort and their efforts to incorporate local and regional cuisine into their dining experiences.  If you’re unfamiliar (ha!) with the term, FAM is short for “familiarization,” and these trips are often offered to travel writers and agents as a way for them to educate themselves about an area.  Obviously I am neither a travel writer nor a travel agent, but since this trip focused on Southern Culinary Traditions, they were also looking for writers who focused more on food.   This is the first sponsored trip that I’ve been invited on, and I am admittedly a little ambiguous about them.  Since I don’t have a reference point, it’s hard to say whether this trip was typical; however I was very impressed by the fact that, even though the trip was sponsored by the King and Prince, we were exposed to a myriad of local vendors, growers, producers and attractions.  It really felt like an educational opportunity, and in that sense it was an extremely enriching experience.  This is the first in a series of posts focusing on what I learned over the course of three days.

The view from my room at The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort

The King and Prince is a historic hotel, opened in 1935 as a seaside dance club.  It has seen many iterations over the years, including serving as a naval coast-watching and training facility during World War II.  In its current state, it is an elegant resort with multiple dining options, five swimming pools and it boasts the distinction of being the only beach-front hotel in St. Simons Island.

The interior of my room at the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort

The rooms are spacious and  comfortably appointed.  Each room has a Keurig coffee maker, mini-refrigerator, free wi-fi, flat screen television and either one king or two queen beds.  My room had a small balcony overlooking the pool and the beach and ocean beyond.  There are a number of premium rooms available, as well as villas and resort residences.

The lobby of the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort

When we arrived at the King and Prince on Sunday, we were greeted by a light-filled lobby, a friendly reception agent and the hotel’s publicist, Leigh Cort.  We had time that afternoon to get settled in our rooms and then it was off on the Lighthouse Trolley for an excursion to the old Coast Guard Station and Maritime Museum.  St. Simons Island has a storied past spanning the prehistoric and historic eras and rife with interesting tidbits related to Native Americans, Spanish explorers, Revolutionary war battles, rice and cotton plantations, Gullah Geechee culture, and German U-boats.  The Coastal Georgia Historical Society offers a number of different programs related to the history and culture of St. Simons.

Cheeses from Flat Creek Lodge, Georgia pecans, Savannah Bee Company Honey

Upon our return to the hotel, we were treated to cocktails courtesy of 13th Colony Distillery, and an assortment of cheeses from Flat Creek Lodge Dairy.  The hotel’s Director of Food and Beverage, Vinny D’Agostino, is making a concerted effort to incorporate local and regional products into his various menus, and these are just a couple of the vendors with whom he’s been working.  Although he’s only been with The King and Prince for a short while, he’s making significant changes to their Food and Beverage Program, using wild-caught seafood, most of it from local and regional waters; incorporating prohibition-era cocktails utilizing spirits from 13th Colony; Featuring Georgia vineyards on the Wine Menu; working with the Georgia Olive Growers Association to get the word out about their product; and partnering with a variety of other growers and producers to round out his offerings.

Southern Gin, Plantation Vodka, Southern Corn Whiskey from 13th Colony Distillery

For dinner, we dined on shrimp and grits.  The hotel’s chefs did a cooking demonstration in the Solarium, and they were kind enough to share the recipe with everyone so that we could try it at home.

Table set for dinner in the hotel's Solarium

Dinner itself was lovely, both the food and the company.  Although it was our first night together as a group, the conversation flowed as easily as the food.  I’m sure some of that could be attributed to the abundant cocktails and wine, but I also think it has a lot to do with the setting and the simple act of breaking bread together.  Food is the great equalizer (we all have to eat), and when you enjoy a meal together, you’re sharing more than just the food – you’re sharing stories and experiences that might not otherwise be revealed in a different setting.  The fact that this trip centered on food gave us all an opportunity to get to know each other in a comfortable setting over delicious cuisine.  Again, the wine and spirits didn’t hurt matters at all.

Shrimp and Grits in a Tasso Cream Sauce

My first experience with Shrimp and Grits was at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina back in the mid-nineties.  Since then I’ve tried a number of different variations on the same theme, but have not, until now,  encountered Shrimp and Grits to rival those at Crook’s.  The version that Vinny and his team presented to us on Sunday night might just have surpassed them.  The combination of cajun spices, tasso ham, whole kernel corn, stone ground grits, sweet white Georgia shrimp, and a rich cream sauce came together to create a well balanced combination of flavors and textures.

Homemade version of the King and Prince's Shrimp and Grits

It was so good that I recreated it for my family when I got home.  We will make it back down to St. Simons Island and The King and Prince sometime in the near future, I feel certain of that. In the meantime, I can share the culinary souvenirs that I brought back and spread the word about this quaint little island and all that it has to offer.

Ingredients for Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp & Grits (adapted from King and Prince Shrimp & Grits in a Tasso Cream Sauce)
prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
serves: 4-6

Ingredients

  • 1 pound wild Georgia white shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/2 cup tasso ham (I couldn’t find tasso, so I used 4 sliced of uncured peppered bacon instead)
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions
  • 1 cup whole-kernel white corn
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1 cup asiago cheese, divided
  • 4-6 servings of stone-ground grits, prepared according to package directions

  1. Prepare grits according to package instructions.  For more flavor, replace the cooking water with chicken stock.
  2. Chop meat (either tasso ham or bacon) into small pieces and saute in a large skillet over medium heat until crispy and all of the fat has rendered out.
  3. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the pan and add the green onions.  Saute until wilted
  4. Add the corn, tomatoes, garlic, cayenne and thyme.  Stir to heat through.
  5. Add the shrimp and saute until just cooked through
  6. Add 3/4 cup of the half-and-half and 3/4 cup of the cheese.  Stir to combine and remove from the heat.
  7. Add the remaining half-and-half and cheese to the grits and stir to combine.  Taste both the shrimp mixture and the grits for seasoning.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Serve shrimp mixture spooned over grits.  Garnish with additional green onions and cheese.
  9. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: While our accommodations and food were provided by the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, I was not compensated for the trip and the opinions in this post are mine.  I was under no obligation to write about my experience, but I felt compelled given how much I enjoyed my stay.  Thank you to our hosts and to the residents of St. Simons Island for a truly memorable time.

Soda Crackers for Days

Do you know Martha Hall Foose?   I don’t, not personally at least, but I wish I did.  She seems like the kind of woman I’d want for a friend.  Warm, welcoming, funny, full of stories to delight your soul and your senses.  Plus, we’re both from Mississippi, and that’s an automatic bond in and of itself.  Us Mississippi gals have to stick together.

I was thrilled to be offered a review copy of her latest cookbook, A Southerly Course, in which she shares recipes and stories of life in the South.  As I flipped through the pages, I was struck by the sense of ease and comfort that seeps from the pages.  Her words are effortless and her recipes are inspiring.  She offers passages that are juicy, concise in their construction, yet rich in meaning:

Peeking beneath the table’s pall in the mythic South to see how its patent qualities of deep involvement with family, observance of ritual, and celebration of eccentricity play out around Southern food today has been quite a trip.  It has taken me on an inner journey as well.  My ambition to understand this mythologizing to which we Southerners are prone has had me up nights in the kitchen.  The myths themselves seem to begin with stories told around tables.

There’s a sense of front porch simplicity, of Sunday dinners on the farm, of family traditions passed down through generations.  She writes of a life with which I’m familiar, of hardship masked by the fortitude and grace of the people of this region.  My people.  Her people.  If you’re from the South, or even if you’re not (maybe even especially if you’re not), I highly recommend this book.  Even if you never attempt one of the recipes, you’ll delight in the stories behind them, and in the insight into this strange and rich subculture of America.

I really, really, really wanted to try the Skillet Fried Corn recipe.  When I first got the book, I flipped through the various sections, and the book just sort of naturally fell open to this page.  For years, my mother and I have romanticized my paternal Grandmother’s fried corn.  It’s what many people have come to call creamed corn, but it’s a far cry from what we know today as creamed corn.  I can picture it now, golden kernels of corn, dotted with a surplus of black pepper, fried in bacon grease.  The “cream” came from scraping the milk from the cob after you’d cut the kernels off.  Ms. Foose’s recipe is the closest I’ve come to something similar.  Hers calls for butter in addition to the bacon grease, and garlic (which I’m pretty sure my Grandmother never used), but otherwise it’s close.  Unfortunately, corn season has passed in these parts, so it will have to wait until next summer.

As it turns out, the first recipe I decided to test was used more as a guideline than as a formula.  I needed a soda cracker recipe, and hers was the first I came to.  I followed her ratios, but the ingredients are mine.  It was nice to find a simple, straightforward recipe for a cracker in a modern cookbook, though.  I think so many of us have come to rely on store bought crackers that we forget that they can be made at home.  And perhaps they should – there’s something personal about serving guests crackers that didn’t come from a sleeve in a cardboard box.  Plus, you can store them in adorable mason jars – there’s not much cuter than that.

Sage Cornmeal Soda Crackers
adapted from A Southerly Course by Martha Hall Foose
prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
yields: 180 crackers

  • 3 1/2 cups stone-ground white cornmeal
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
  • 3/4 cup expeller-pressed (non-hydrogenated) vegetable shortening
  • 2 cups whole milk
  1. Preheat oven to 375F
  2. Combine dry ingredients
  3. Cut shortening into dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until it resembles course meal
  4. Make a well in the center and add the milk
  5. Stir to combine and knead to form a stiff dough.  If it’s too wet, add some more flour or cornmeal
  6. Turn dough out onto a well floured surface and roll to a 1/8-inch thickness
  7. Use a pizza cutter or knife to cut into one-inch squares.  Prick with a fork and sprinkle with sea salt
  8. Transfer to a baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown and crisp.
  9. Allow to cool before serving.

They were crisp and light, if a little dry.  As I recall, though, that’s a feature of soda crackers.  The cornmeal gave them some texture, and the sage was subtle but still noticeable.  They paired very nicely with a sweet potato bisque that I served for dinner.  I think they would also be good smeared with goat cheese and topped with tomato jam.  I was pleasantly surprised when the recipe yielded almost 180 crackers – Ms. Foose’s version says it only makes 60.  Not sure why the discrepancy, but I’m certainly not complaining.  We’ll have soda crackers for days.