Bienvenue, Bourbon!

For most of my drinking adult life, I’ve been a vodka man. Mostly in martinis. Mostly Cosmopolitans á la Sex and the City. I may occasionally dabble in tequila or rum, but rarely beyond that basic trifecta. That is, until I tasted handcrafted cocktails with bourbon. Good bourbon. Mint Julep. Old Fashioned.

The thought of drinking bourbon, before I tried it, always conjured images of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, or Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was a Southern gentleman’s drink and was often enjoyed neat, a concept that, for someone who drinks alcohol with juice and shaken well over ice seemed a bit daunting.

But, to everything there is a season. And since my return from Charleston in early May, I’ve given Maker’s Mark a shot. I’ve had it in Old Fashioned cocktails, or with water and a king ice cube. I chalked this initial experimentation up as supporting the Kentucky economy, and I make a point to share that with my friend, Stacy, who was born and bred in The Bluegrass State. And for the recent Belmont Stakes, bourbon was the beverage du jour. But this time, it was something new.

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As a testament to the power of advertising, I first learned of Knob Creek just last week as a result of seeing a sponsored ad emerge in my Facebook feed. That link took me to the company’s website, which is very engaging, and explains the way in which their small-batch 120 proof whiskey is made. I was also intrigued by the fact their Single Barrel Reserve variety is aged for nine years. I’m sure to most seasoned drinkers of this liquor, nine years is not very long in comparison to other fine liquors aged decades to perfection. But, to me, this sounded pretty good.

A quick trip to a local wine superstore yielded a bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve. It’s price was in the high $30s, which seemed reasonable for something aged as it was. And, how apropos was it that we were going to give this a try while cheering on California Chrome at the Belmont Stakes on television. It was time for a taste test.

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The fragrant brew has the coloring of liquid caramel. Taking in its bouquet, it is oak sprinkled with sugar, it offers a  complex layer of flavors that coats the tongue, and burns very little. As it sits on the tongue, vanilla and a hint of smoke creep in, and I couldn’t help but imagine sitting on the piazza of one of the beautiful homes we saw on our recent trip to Charleston. Regardless of setting, I was amazed I was able to take in a liquor neat without grimacing.

As we watched the Belmont Stakes, I tried Knob Creek with water and a king ice cube. The same cocktail also pleased my palate later that evening as we watched, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Watching a film set against the folk music scene of the early 1960s seemed an appropriate reason to have another sample of this liquid oaken glory.

And, because I don’t mind a sweet cocktail now and then, I would discover that replacing water with ginger ale produces a smooth, rich mixture that removes the sting of a summer afternoon, slows life down to a pace now only a memory, and conjures images of a simpler time. This is, for me, is the experience of Knob Creek.

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Hoppin’ John

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The black-eyed pea has an earthy, nutty taste that is different, in my opinion, from, say, a pinto bean or other similar type of bean. Growing up, though not necessarily an annually observed tradition, I was aware of the belief that eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day would bring prosperity. While it isn’t January 1, we do enjoy some spice in our food, so when I came across a recipe for “Hoppin’ John” in the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, it sounded like a great accompaniment to Harlem Meat Loaf (that I also found in the same book).

When it was time to serve this spicy side dish, I was unsure whether it was supposed to be a soup or a side, as mine appeared to be a bit more the former. The sauce had bold flavor (with Tabasco, that is always assured), and the black eyed peas (having soaked for over 4 hours earlier in the day) held a perfect texture. The long-grain rice I added, however, was a bit on the crunchy side. The only thing to which I can attribute this is my impatience, that yearning for a finished product, that occasionally clouds my judgment in the kitchen. This time, I don’t think I let the water get to the boiling point it needed to, and, as a result, the rice didn’t have a chance to cook fully.

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The other element that made the sauce’s flavor complex was the use of pork stock I made earlier in the day, instead of plain water, to use as a base for the Hoppin’ John. I’m sure that made the difference in terms of flavor, adding an underlying complexity that was supplemented with Worcestershire and Tabasco.

On the heels of a praline failure caused by my own discounting of the directions, I am not very conscious about following directions. I know I should always be, but I’m now convinced. My hope for my next post is that it’s about something that cooks to perfection and looks beautiful on the plate. And that it’s only crunchy if it’s supposed to be.

The Praline Problem

I should have known better.

My craving for the rich, buttery flavor of a pecan praline overcame me this Memorial Day weekend. I pulled out The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook and found a recipe that looked deceptively simple. Just a few basic ingredients – light brown sugar, chopped pecans, butter – they sounded like something I could whip up in an afternoon. As I performed my mise en place, I was already imagining to whom I might present some of the bronze discs after they set up in the Seeking Southern kitchen

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Now, at this point, it’s important to note I’m the type of guy that starts a project and then reads directions half-way through when something doesn’t seem to fit or work. In cooking, I always read the recipe. That’s true. But I also think I’m an experienced (enough) cook to make adjustments as I see fit. As I started my praline preparations, I thought it was okay to overlook the recipe’s required use of a candy thermometer to ensure the mixture reached a certain temperature. Bah, I thought. I can tell when the batter’s ready. (This source of this over-confidence is unknown, noting I have never made candy before, and in my head, I considered a praline more of a really sweet cookie than candy anyway.)

You know where this is going.

Once I had assessed the batter was ready for drizzling onto parchment to let it set into beautiful round mounds, I did just that. I ladled the warm buttery syrup onto large sheets of greased parchment. The smell filled my small kitchen and I even cheated to taste some of the batter with a spoon. Surely the finished product would be just the like the ones I purchased in the City Market of Charleston earlier this month.

I placed the parchments covered in circles of syrup on my dining table and left them to set up. Checking periodically, they still seemed gooey and didn’t appear to want to release themselves from the comfort of their parchment foundation. I waited. Then, I waited some more. I took one of the parchments and placed it in the refrigerator. It’s a warm, humid day, I thought. I’m sure the weather has something to do with it. I waited  some more, then assessed the, what should be, I thought, a brilliant sweet reward from the refrigerator. The syrup was still in its sad state, only the syrupy discs had begun to blend together into something that looked like brittle.

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I was perturbed for a moment, but then knew it was my own fault. I re-read the recipe and the words “candy thermometer” jumped off the page. It seemed to carry so much more weight reading it a second time. I inherited high expectations of one’s own cooking from my mother, so the perfectionist in me was frustrated. But after I accepted responsibility for not following directions, I reflected on the spirit of Seeking Southern. The act of seeking involves discovery, and in turn, may result in learning from one’s own mistakes.

What I learned as a result of the Praline Problem is that if the recipe calls for me to use a candy thermometer, I will use one. And I also learned that even if they don’t set up as expected, you can still scrape the gooey richness off the parchment with a spoon and it tastes just as good.

Conquering Cornbread

I enjoyed cornbread many times growing up in California. Most often, it was served with a steaming bowl of homemade chili. And on cool afternoons as the coastal fog moved in from Monterey toward Salinas, where we lived, the gentle heat of the chili  merged with the earthy texture of the cornbread to offer a sense of warmth and comfort. But, if I remember correctly, the cornbread was made from a mix.

In the Seeking Southern kitchen, I thought it would be a fun exercise to make cornbread from scratch (which also gave me a reason to use one of my new Lodge cast iron skillets).

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At the heart of the cornbread batter is ground cornmeal, a coarse powder that gives off the scent of a desert tribe’s mortar and pestle, of a steaming yellow tortilla. Also for this recipe, I used a cage-free egg, and Carolina flake salt. Butter and buttermilk rounded out the core ingredients.

And then, there was lard.

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I can remember my grandmother, Mildred, who was from Missouri, always cooking with lard. She had a small metal container she kept by the stove, and in it she would drain bacon grease and other meat fats. Then, when she needed to fry something, such as potatoes, she would put a small pat of the white substance into a hot pan, yielding a zesty sizzle.

The recipe for this cornbread called for lard. My first challenge was to find it in the grocery store. I learned it can be found near the vegetable oil and shortening, and it comes in 1-pound blocks. I carved off a small wedge and, after preheating the oven, I greased the bottom and sides of the cast iron skillet with the lard, and then had a little extra left over. The skillet heated in the oven as I mixed the dry ingredients first, then the wet. The rich scent of buttermilk filled the kitchen as it was rapidly whisked with one egg by hand.

Once the greased skillet was warm and the lard had melted into a clear liquid, I pulled the skillet out of the oven, and slowly poured the batter into the pan. There it was. That sizzle! The sound of science and alchemy, the smell of corn and a hint of bacon filled the room. A crunchy crust began to form before I returned the skillet to the oven for the cornbread to bake.

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At first glance, I thought I could have used a little less lard. But once the cornbread came out of the oven, the sizzling subdued to a whisper, and the top was firm with a light crunch. The cornmeal made the bread a brilliant yellow with specs of orange. The crust had separated from the side of the skillet, making it easy to slice into wedges and serve.

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Just before the cornbread came out of the oven, I creamed together some molasses and butter that had been brought to room temperature. After slicing the warm cornbread, fresh out of the oven, I spooned a small dollop of the dark cream onto the wedge, and it covered the bread in a bronze glaze.

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The steam rose off the glistening wedge as I took a bite of my labor. The hearty crumbs of the cornmeal were underscored by the rich whole buttermilk, and the whole thing was accented by the deep and slightly bitter molasses butter, the high note, a familiar sweetness. It was evening as I tried to capture the remaining sunlight. I ended up eating two wedges of this sweet and savory bread, pairing it with a small glass of chilled ice tea. I had not even considered making an entrée or side dish.

It was cornbread. From scratch. With lard.

And that, for dinner, was enough.

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Sweet Tea: A Convert’s Tale

The first time I tasted sweetened iced tea, “Sweet Tea” as it is referred to in the South, I was at a Shoney’s restaurant in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Being from California and having just arrived in Florida, I was unaccustomed to the follow-up question: “Sweetened or unsweetened?” My friends encouraged me to try Sweet Tea, acknowledging its position as “The House Wine of the South,” a quote from the film Steel Magnolias. And so I replied to the server’s question with an affirmative, “Sweetened.”

A large deep red plastic cup, scratched and chipped on its edges, arrived at the table moments later. Filled with a rich brown liquid, beads of icy sweat dripped down the side of the cup. I slowly lifted the cup to my lips, imagining the cool refreshment I was about to enjoy on such a warm June morning. I pulled in liquid from the straw and allowed the flavor to register on my tongue.

It was weak in flavor. It was gritty, as if kitchen staff had dumped a pound of sugar into the cup and failed to stir it. The tea was chewy and as I moved the straw around in a circular motion, I saw a flurry of granules in the tea that made it look like a just-shaken snow globe missing a reindeer, a Rockette.

It would be nearly 20 years later before I would try another Sweet Tea, this time in Charleston, South Carolina. And it was there I realized Sweet Tea, when made right and with quality ingredients, delivers all of its divine intentions – a refreshing, soothing elixir for any warm summer’s afternoon. With hints of mint and lemon infused into the beverage, it elevates the crunchy, gritty, mass-produced Sweet Tea to its rightful place, and I discovered in my own kitchen that it really can be “the house wine of the south.”

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The “sweet” in sweet tea is where I was initially confused. I wondered how to get sweet flavor without the gritty texture of granulated sugar. Inspired by The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-Be Southerners, I began my quest for the perfect Sweet Tea by creating a simple syrup of sugar, water, and muddled mint leaves. Once the sugar melted in the water over low heat, I removed the saucepan from the stove, and let the mint steep in the syrup for about 30 minutes. After straining the leaves out of the syrup, I ended up with a glistening green syrup that was sweet, refreshing, and distinctly minty.

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I researched various approaches to making Sweet Tea online (and there are many), and when determining which brand of tea to try, I landed on Luzianne. Its distinctively Southern name drew me in, and after giving it a try, its bold flavor delivered.

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While the bag steeped in just-boiled water, I sliced a lemon into wedges and gathered the prettiest of the mint leaves to prepare the garnish for my beverage.

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To create the consummate Southern Sweet Tea experience, I placed ice in two Mason jars, poured in a small amount of the mint-infused simple syrup, and filled the jar half-way with brewed tea, still hot from the kettle. I topped off each jar with cold water. I squeezed a lemon or two into the jar, stirred the blend, and placed a mint leaf or two on top for decoration.

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This was a beverage worthy of its cinematic description. It had bold flavor without bitterness. It brought a refreshing high note of mint that meandered into a low note of citrus, faint and pleasing. Beads of sweat began to emerge around the jar’s edge, reminding me I wasn’t the only one perspiring on a warm Spring afternoon.

With my first taste of this classic beverage, without any grit in texture or bitterness in flavor, I was finally a believer.

 

Seeking Southern: Celebrating Southern Cooking and Eating

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For the past few months, as I successfully completed and defended my thesis for the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at University of Central Florida, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s next for me. I rarely give myself time to celebrate one milestone before I’m thinking about the next project, and this was no exception. When I thought about the other things in my life that I’m really passionate about, food and drink are at the top of the list. Food has become such a big part of my life, particularly when I travel. I also love to cook and looked forward to having more time once school was done to do more cooking for friends and family. This got me thinking about food writing.

Fast forward to the day after graduation when I climbed in the car and headed to Charleston, South Carolina for a road trip. This was my first trip to Charleston and one that I was looking forward to. It’s charm and history caught my attention from the moment we arrived and checked in to the Meeting Street Inn. But it was the food that captured my soul. Savory duck with a slight citrus sweetness at Circa 1886. Buffalo pig ear lettuce wraps at Husk. Maple Bacon doughnuts at Glazed Gourmet Doughnuts. Hushpuppies at South End Brewery. It could have been the atmosphere, but there was no denying the flavor. I was caught up in it all.

I came across a wonderful shop on East Bay Street, Charleston Cooks, that is not only a kitchen supply store, but a culinary classroom as well. While my schedule didn’t allow me to take a class there (this time), I got caught up in their selection of Southern cookbooks and ingredients sprinkled around the well-stocked store. I stopped there not once, but twice, in a three day period, walking away with spices and a budding collection of Southern cuisine cookbooks. Strolling through the Charleston City Market, I picked up other local delicacies like benne wafers and boiled peanuts, along with gullah seasonings to try on meat and vegetables.

Combining my interest in writing about and photographing food, with this revitalized captivation with Southern cooking, it all came to me over the weekend. I will write a food blog that celebrates Southern cooking and eating. I will call it Seeking Southern. And so this exciting exploration begins! I hope you’ll join me on the journey and check back often to see what’s cooking.

Read more about what I have planned for this site.

Follow my new Seeking Southern Facebook page.

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