Monday, March 31, 2014

Charleston Again

It was three years ago that I made my first visit to this historic city in the low country.  On that trip, Miss Chef was mostly occupied with a professional conference, and I did most of my exploring alone.  This time, we took advantage of a hole in our schedules to enjoy a weekend away together.

The highlight came early, on Friday evening.  After checking in at our hotel, we quickly changed and drove in to dine at McCrady’s on East Bay Street.


Miss Chef has become a bit of a fan of Sean Brock, the young chef who has made a big name for himself in this city of big-name chefs.  Like Miss Chef, he is focused on local foods, but he goes even further than finding and supporting regional producers.  He has delved into the history of South Carolina foodways and the ordinary people who lived off the land, from plantation slaves to hardscrabble mountain farmers.  He’s been featured on several episodes of the PBS series “The Mind of a Chef.”

The first minute of this video clip illustrates perfectly how much research this guy has put into his food.

He even made a trip to West Africa to learn how slaves imported and adapted techniques and ingredients from their homelands.

McCrady’s is the fine dining side of Brock’s restaurant business (his other restaurant, Husk, is more casual, but we couldn’t get reservations!)  So, although inspired by the most basic of ingredients, the dishes here are among the most sophisticated we have ever eaten.

Miss Chef and I agreed to go all out and have the chef’s tasting menu, which consisted of nine courses, preceded by an undisclosed number of “snacks.”   We didn’t keep track, but I think there were three or four of these small bites to entertain ourselves.  This one was so simple and so tasty—it’s a thin, crispy breadstick dipped in honey, drizzled with fennel pollen and garnished with rosemary flowers.

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Simple flavors mixed brilliantly together.  We are now eagerly awaiting the soft purple blooms of our own rosemary plants…

We didn’t take pictures of every dish, but I’ll share the ones we thought were particularly beautiful.  Here’s the best photo of the menu we could get (click to biggerize).

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So, on with our meal…the first course, a salad of green strawberries and cucumbers, with a beautiful lovage flower as garnish.


I think edible flowers will be a new collaboration between my garden and Miss Chef’s plates!

Lightly smoked trout with brassicas—cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale and the like—and two sauces, one of fermented cabbage and one of meyer lemon.

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The dark cabbage sauce had such a rich, smoky flavor that we asked the server how it was made.  And he knew!  The service was pitch perfect, very well steeped in the philosophy and knowledgeable about the ingredients and techniques, all without seeming patronizing or superior.

The oddly named “Charleston ice cream” was introduced as the one dish that would never be removed from the menu, as it is a distillation of Brock’s credo of local food reflecting the history of place.  While I won’t go into details, it is based on the rice described in the video above that created the wealth of the area, and set Charleston on its path in history.


It also makes a spectacular photo on its black plate.

The sweetbreads with red grits and a green lovage foam didn’t photograph nearly as well.



The duck course was plated in a very delicate style.  The servings may look small, but remember how many courses we’re in the midst of.



The last photo we took was of one of the dessert courses, the “carrot crémeux,” set on a shortbread crumble and interspersed with flavored meringue (I can’t remember the flavor, either ginger or coriander is my guess).


And I also learned that begonia flowers are edible!  All these years growing food on my front stoop, and I didn’t even know it.

Miss Chef and I both agreed this meal was probably in the top two or three we’ve had.  And if you’ve been following our culinary adventures, you know that’s saying something.

Of course, we still had a day and a half to work off some of those calories, because historic Charleston is a city best experienced on foot.  Other than some shopping on King Street and a stroll past Rainbow Row, we had no particular destination in mind, and just wandered down whichever street seemed most interesting.





There’s not much scale here, but I swear this was a Hobbit door!







Miss Chef took lots of pictures of the ornate and unique wrought-iron gates that give the historic homes their particular charm.

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I managed to get in the way once…

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When he’s not shingling our shed or building us bookshelves, Miss Chef’s brother is a professional welder, so she wanted to share some inspiration with him.

That evening we stopped by The Gin Joint again for a couple of cocktails and bar snacks.  Miss Chef’s favorite, the Gin-Gin Mule, was no longer on the menu, but there was no problem ordering it by name.  It came in a most charming copper cup and included a delicious candied ginger flourish.

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For my second drink, I ordered a bartender’s special—there is a list of adjectives on the menu, from which you can choose any two. I chose “sweet” and “fizzy”—“Let’s girly it up!” I told the server.


I forgot to take a picture until I was halfway done…oops!  Can you see the unique, single ice cube?  It’s almost as tall as the glass!

Sunday we did have a particular destination in mind as our last experience before heading home.



There was more than sealife here.



Swimming fish are frustratingly difficult to photograph well, but once in a while you find one that’s sort of chilling out.



A view of Cooper Bridge from the terrace.



I recognize this bird, but can’t remember its name!



This fellow was the total opposite of the last pelican I photographed---he stood stock-still and slowly moved his head for a variety of poses!



We really did see more fish than birds…Miss Chef took this one in the large central tank with the sharks and other jaw-droppingly huge fish.

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And that was our brief tour of Charleston.  Soon enough it was time to go home, reunite with the girls and cover up the garden for what I’m hoping was our last freeze of the year.   This evening as I put the various coverings away, I thought I spotted some giant weeds popping up in the lettuces…


Silly me!  Those are the radishes I planted!  First seedlings of the year, just in time for April Fool’s Day!  Glad I wasn’t fool enough to start weeding.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Garden’s In!

Spring has been announcing itself for weeks around here.  The daffodils have been blooming for almost a month, and more recently, the hyacinths made their dramatic appearance.  I took this picture about three weeks ago.



Now, if you know anything about me at all, you know that warm weather and blooming plants mean I’ve been itching to get my hands in the dirt, and early spring seeds planted.  This year I’ve been even more impatient to get things growing since I attended a workshop at our local library on companion planting.  This was presented by a county employee and a master composter (I didn’t know there was such a thing!), and they had tons of interesting, practical information.  As a result, I was inspired to completely reconsider my usual planting habits and actually sit down and draw up a plan—to scale, even.

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You can tell by the dirt smears that I waited until after planting to scan it.  The idea behind this plan is to spread out crops to avoid disease and insect infestations, and interplant with others that discourage pests, provide compatible nutrients or shade, or attract beneficial insects. 

So instead of nagging Miss Chef to clean out and replant her overgrown herb bed, I’ve included oregano, dill, thyme, rosemary, sage and lavender right into the garden.  Most of these, along with fennel, have the tiny multiple flower clusters that attract pollinators; some encourage pests to eat them instead of your crops. 

I also planted radishes in among the lettuce, because they discourage pests, and placed them  in the afternoon shade provided by the growing peas.  Carrots and onions are interplanted among the broccoli because they won’t take much space and can be fitted easily between the broad-leaved monsters; also onions are supposed to discourage carrot rust flies, which apparently cause “root maggots.”  I’ve had some trouble with worms of some kind chewing the tops of my carrot roots into mush, so maybe this will help.

As you can see, I also have left a broad blank space right down the middle.  Since companion planting encourages more dense growth, it will be impossible to walk in among my plants (which you should avoid anyway, as it compacts the soil).  It’s been a few years since I first considered putting a path in, which would create two planting areas which can be reached from there or the outside edges.  It seemed this was the year to put it in place.

Which is what this picture was about.

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We have a ton of paving bricks left over from our ambitious plans when we first moved in.  It was Miss Chef’s idea to put them to use by using them for my path.  It was my idea to put about four layers of landscaping cloth beneath them, to prevent them from acting as a cozy shelter for my hated garden nemesis, Bermuda grass.  It was not my idea to spend frustrating hours digging a trench and painstakingly laying out the bricks one by one, while trying to keep them even to each other and level overall.  The cloth underneath kept bunching and twisting, the bricks had to be hauled from behind the shed in the wheelbarrow, and even the most even, smooth looking dirt made the bricks lie all wonky.

I started this on a Sunday about two weeks ago, and ran out of energy and sunlight by the time I was barely halfway through.  Thanks to daylight savings, I was able to make small progress the next day after work, but then it began to rain…and rain.  And then we went out of town the next weekend, putting me two weeks behind my mental schedule.

So you can imagine my determination to finish the path and get my already-purchased seeds and seedlings in the ground.  Fortunately, this Saturday promised beautiful, temperate weather.  Unfortunately, my plans for an early start and a full day of focused work were sabotaged by a brunch invitation we really couldn’t turn down.

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Look, when a bunch of chefs get together for an impromptu meal, it’s worth making time in your schedule.  I provided the cheese that’s just above the salad to the right, a yummy brie-like farmstead cheese made locally.  As is almost everything on the table—greens, goat cheese, bread, jam.  Even the eggs were laid by hens not more than 100 feet from our table.

Miss Chef’s contribution was bloody Marys with quail egg garnish!

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See how distracting this can be?  Have you forgotten about my neglected garden bed already??

I hadn’t, so by 2:00 we were headed back home.  I slipped on my trusty garden gloves, started hauling bricks, and proceeded to once again give them a piece of my mind.  I got just irritated enough to get the dang path finished up, for better or for worse.  It still looks wonky in places, but the plan was that the 14 cubic feet of compost I’d purchased two weeks ago would help raise the soil level and support the second layer of bricks.  (The green sprouts along the edges are the garlic crop I put in last fall; they should mature in June.)

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This was the first part I was actually looking forward to, opening those bags and spreading the black, nutrient-rich compost.  Our favorite goat farmer was dealing with health issues last year, so I didn’t want to impose on her for another share of the wonderful composted manure I’d gotten from her before.  And it wasn’t until my workshop that I learned that my generous layer of leaf mulch wasn’t enough; I need two inches of compost to keep the soil happy.  So I bit the bullet and made the monetary investment necessary to keep building good dirt in my bed.

I had to do more than just spread the compost, however.  It all had to be dug into the bed.  By hand.  So the fun compost part got a lot less fun real fast.  I was already sore from hauling bricks, and generally out of shape anyway, so I did take a lot of breaks.  I had brought McKenna outside and put her on the line, and during one of my breaks, I lifted her up in the low crotch of a tree.

She did start climbing up to the right after I recorded this, but I grabbed her line and made her come back down before she got too high.  I didn’t have time for a cat rescue mission. 

As the late afternoon wore on, my breaks got shorter and simpler.  The sun was setting, my muscles were aching, and I wasn’t sure which would run out first—my energy or the light.  Somehow, miraculously, in spite of telling myself multiple times that I’d have to finish tomorrow, I managed to turn the last spadeful of soil before it got too dark.

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Now the newly enriched dirt looked gorgeous, but the encroaching darkness meant I was going to have to do the actual planting on Sunday.  Unlike this day, the forecast called for colder temperatures and 90% chance of rain by the afternoon.  I promised myself I’d get it done, even if it meant I was out there digging holes in my rain jacket.

As it turned out, Sunday morning was actually comfortable, in the upper fifties, if a bit overcast.  I started out in a thin long-sleeved t-shirt. By the time Miss Chef helped me dig in the pea trellises and lay out the seedlings, the first sprinkles arrived and I was cold enough to appreciate the extra layer of that rain jacket I’d sworn by.  The sprinkles were short-lived, but by the time I had all the seedlings in—broccoli, lettuce, fennel, onions and herbs—and was planting carrot and radish seeds, the temperature had dropped by 10 degrees, and the blustery rain was making it hard to delicately scatter the tiny grains evenly.

However, as I’d promised myself, I got everything in.  And I’m a little stunned by how good it looks.

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Did you notice the new addition in that picture?  That Sunday two weeks ago, while I was cursing at bricks, Miss Chef was busy in the shed, using wood left over from the bookshelf project to build me a second, sturdier trellis. The original one is about on its last legs, and may require some serious surgery to serve again next year, but in the meantime  I’m very excited about potentially doubling my pea harvest!

I’m also a little stunned by the variety I’ve crammed into this bed.  Garlic, peas, lettuce, radishes, fennel, onions, carrots, oregano, thyme, rosemary, lavender, sage and dill—as well as parsley growing up in the tiny overgrown bed you can see in the background.  As the spring crops fade out, I’ll have to find room for beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers and basil…all I’ve figured out thus far is beans; we’ll have to see how everything grows in.

In the meantime, I’ve realized that I neglected to deploy the crushed leaves I held back last year to use as mulch.  Maybe a thin layer will make it a little harder for those darn birds that have invaded to eat my precious worms and carrot seeds.  So I guess it’s back on with the rain jacket…gardening is a job never finished.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Party, Party, Work

Normally when I find myself with a head-spinning social calendar, it’s around the holidays.  Spring is usually a time for folks to emerge slowly from winter hibernation and gradually shake loose their sense of isolation.  Not this year.  It seems that now is the time to take advantage of a typically empty schedule and fill it up!

Back in February, Miss Chef had to change the original date on her underground dinner because of Charlotte’s restaurant week. We couldn’t change the date of our Mardi Gras party though, so only a week after she’d stuffed the fridge with leftovers, she was at it again.  She cut her culinary teeth in Mobile, Alabama, so she was planning a really authentic Cajun/Creole menu—chicken and andouille gumbo, crawfish étouffé over white fish, shrimp and grits, collard greens.  One of the guests just happened to be a pastry chef, and Miss Chef asked her to bring the requisite king cake.

Having just a week to recover from the previous feast, it wasn’t until the morning of the party that we were able to begin pulling it all together.  We went to the farmers’ market in search of ingredients…oddly, we couldn’t find any kind of greens at all, but she did nab the last of this gorgeous red snapper, caught off the NC coast.  I don’t even like fish, but this was so beautiful and fresh, I just had to document it.

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While Miss Chef and a friend worked on the menu, Miss Chef’s brother and I cleaned house and decorated.

Oh, did I not mention that Miss Chef’s brother was here?  She asked him to come up for a week and play handyman, to get some nagging projects and repairs done around the house.



She told her friends they’d get to meet her “redneck brother,” though you can see he’s kind of a softy.  He had Rosie tooling around in his truck, too.  Both of the animals felt a little deprived after he left.

Anyway, back to the party preparations.  It had been almost nine years since we’d packed up our Mardi Gras supplies and moved them up here, so I had lots of fun rediscovering all the shiny treats.  We must have 15 pounds of beads, for starters.

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We also had banners, flags, ribbon, a mask, jewelry, and tons of plastic cups from the parades we attended for five years.

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I thought the mailbox looked a little drunk.

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Now, let’s talk about that king cake.  It’s not really a king cake.  The morning of the party, our pastry chef friend texted that she was feeling ill and wouldn’t be able to come.  So, remembering an ersatz recipe I’d used for a classroom reward, I picked up some Pillsbury cinnamon roll dough on my supermarket run.  The included glaze is separated and dyed the appropriate colors—except that purple proved a little difficult.  Well, at least it looked gaudy enough to hold its own on that table!

In spite of the deliciousness of the menu, I have to admit the looks didn’t live up to the taste.

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Going clockwise from upper left, that’s gumbo in the crockpot, sautéd brussels sprouts, shrimp and grits with Creole sauce, grilled vegetables, collard greens, crawfish étouffé, rice and a fresh salad.  Oh, and a guest in the back being very polite and resisting the urge to dive right in!

For some reason, we didn’t manage to take any other pictures after our guests arrived.  It might have something to do with the fact that everyone brought an adult beverage to share, or that we spent a fair amount outside in the dark, gathered around the fire pit.  Whatever the reason, we had a refreshingly phone-free evening.

And by the end, even the cat was wearing beads.

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And seemed fuzzier than usual…hmmm.

But wait!  Don’t go away, because there’s another party!  We had a single weekend off, and then we were packing our bags for Myrtle Beach.  Miss Chef’s most inspiring mentor moved down there this January to take over and expand the culinary school at Horry GeorgetownTechnical College.  The weekend of the 16th, the local chapter of a culinary association was hosting a gala dinner to raise money for the program, and Chef Bonaparte invited Miss Chef and another chef from Charlotte to come down and assist.  He just wanted to make sure he had reliable help that could follow his vision, since he was so new to the rest of the faculty.

We arrived a couple days early, and Mrs. Bonaparte showed me around Myrtle Beach while the chefs spent two days prepping.  Miss Chef and I had never visited the area, and luckily Saturday was gorgeous, with highs near 70 and lots of sun.  We took the dogs down to the beach for a walk in the sea breeze, and I discovered there’s a lot more washed up here than on the shores of Jekyll Island.


This little guy turned out to be dead, but he still looked really cool.  Later in the day, we went to the Marsh Walk in Murrell’s Inlet, where I captured some haughty-acting pelicans.

This fellow couldn’t be bothered to wake up.



It took forever to get a shot of this one’s face, as it kept turning its head away whenever we pulled out a camera.  But persistence paid off.



We did hit the boardwalk on a rainy, rainy Sunday afternoon, but after a browse through the Gay Dolphin, an historic souvenir store (or as I called them, tchotchke stores) and a quick lunch, we were off running errands for the chefs.  Finally we returned home to doll up for the Gala…which I had learned only after our drive down was a black tie event.  I had brought pants.  Oh well, I wore my damn pants.  I’m a chef’s wife, I make my own rules.

Here’s the outside of the menu.


And the menu itself. (Click to embiggen.)


The hors d’oeuvres were carried around on trays by the students while we sipped prosecco and browsed the enormous selection of items on offer for a silent auction. There was a lot of art, some jewelry and accessories, some sports memorabilia and equipment, and a whole lot of gift certificates for local stores and restaurants.  No, I didn’t bid on anything.

Since the other chef’s wife started feeling light-headed, we managed to get into the dining room before most of the other guests, and I took the opportunity to grab a few pictures.  The theme was obvious, from the menu and centerpieces…


…to the room décor.


Those dark display posters are actually giant recreations of classic rock album covers.  I was pleased that we were seated right in front of the one I found most impressive for its faithful recreation of the original.

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That’s me on the right—I don’t post photos of myself very often!

During the meal there was another, live, auction, complete with a family of professional auctioneers including two guys with black cowboy hats and ascot-style ties.  Along with the food, wine and glittery guests, it was quite an entertaining evening.

In fact, it was so entertaining, I only photographed one dish, the dessert.



As an epilogue, remember that picture of Miss Chef’s brother cutting a hole in the wall under our bar?  He was installing this.


We hardly ever use this bar, in spite of having a nice set of director-style chairs with covers custom-made by my mother.  We had thought that we’d be entertaining a lot, and our guests would sit themselves at the bar with a glass of wine, but the fact is, most of the time the food is done by the time they arrive, and the bar is usually full of crap, so not very inviting.

So Miss Chef and her brother built this.



The idea is to fill it with a some of Miss Chef’s more impressive looking cookbooks, and some serving dishes and other kitchen stuff that can come out of our crowded cabinets.  As you can see, it’s been a haphazard decoration project so far.  Maybe if we stop going to parties, we can focus some attention here.

Though, to be honest, the chances are slim.  Besides, I have this other project halfway finished outside, and the clock is ticking on this one.  I want to get seeds in the dirt this weekend!