King Cake–Just in Time for Mardi Gras

The “King Cake,” like many traditions surrounding Mardi Gras, makes its first appearance after the Feast of the Epiphany at the end of the Feast of Christmas.  And for many New Orleanians, THE king cake is the one made by McKenzie’s Bakery.  Sadly, for those purists, McKenzie’s closed forever in the late 1990s.  But that doesn’t stop every Tom, Dick, and Harry from claiming THEY have the original McKenzie’s king cake recipe.

So as a public service to those for whom Mardi Gras sans McKenzie’s king cake is a tragic nightmare, I am printing below my sister, Sara’s, “original” recipe.  Enjoy and Happy Mardi Gras!

The traditional king cake, decked out in Mardi Gras colors of purple, green, and gold.

New Orleans King Cake

Cake:

2 Pkgs of Active Dry Yeast
1/2-Cup Warm Water
1-Cup of Heavy Cream
1-Cup Sugar
1-Cup Butter (not margarine) Melted
1-tsp Salt
1 Grated rind of Lemon
6 Eggs beaten (be careful not to over beat)
6-7 Tbs. Of Orange Juice
8-9 Cups of Sifted Flour
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Icing:

Confectioner’s Sugar and Water enough to make a paste.
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Colored Sugar:

Add 1 Cup of sugar to 3 separate plastic storage bags.
Add 3 drops of food coloring of desired color.

Knead until sugar is consistent color.

Add more Food coloring to darken color to desired shade
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Cooking Directions:

In Water combine yeast and water in small bowl, stirring until dissolved and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the milk, sugar and butter stirring until dissolved.

Add the salt, grated rind, eggs, orange juice, and yeast mixture blend thoroughly.

Beat in 3 cups of flour to make a smooth batter. Knead in 5-6 cups of flour until smooth (It will be sticky).

Round into a ball and place and place in a warm buttered bowl, turning to coat top.

Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a towel and let rise until doubled.

Punch down the dough and divide in half.

Roll each piece into a rope and form into rings and pinch ends together.

Cover and let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bake 40 minutes.

Remove from oven and move to cooling rack and paint with icing (just enough to help colored sugar to stick; do not coat King Cake with icing)

Immediately upon frosting add colored sugar and pat into the icing forming a thin crust on to of Cake.

Place plastic baby in the underside of cake when cooled.  (No plastic baby; no problem.  Do like the grade school cafeterias, afraid of choking hazards, and use a red bean instead.)

Rawr!

For the Love of Pork Fat (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Render My Own Lard)

As previously announced on Facebook and Twitter, I recently rendered lard for the first time. Here’s an inside look at how that whole thing went down.

It all started on recent a Wednesday afternoon when I visited the Decatur Farmers’ Market in Decatur, Georgia. Among other things, I was looking for a replacement for the lard supplier I had found in Birmingham but lost when I moved away. I had been told Tink’s Grass Fed Beef would be there, but as it turns out, Tink raises pastured pork as well. So naturally, I asked about lard.

“No, Tink’s doesn’t render lard,” I was told, but for $5 they could provide me the fat needed to do it myself if I would come to the Saturday market. I readily agreed and showed up on Saturday hoping to score the goods.

Sure enough, the fat had been put on the truck and off my contact went to retrieve it for me. When she returned, I was presented with a large plastic bag of frozen fat weighing at least 10 pounds. I was simultaneously thrilled and intimidated. But for $5, I could afford to screw this up so I soldiered on—with a 10-pound lump of frozen pork fat in my trunk.

When I got home, I placed the lump in my refrigerator and set to work trying to figure out how this mass was to be turned into the white, soft, odorless fabulousness so often imitated by vegetable shortenings but never quite matched and certainly not replaced.

In my search, I found this link to a site called, “A Little Bit of Spain in Iowa,” which provided tantalizingly simple instructions for lard-making using a Crockpot, of all things.  Included were beautiful pictures showing exactly what I was to do. The lard pictured looked like what I wanted in an end result, so I figured I’d try it for myself, after buying just a few supplies.

The goal: finished lard in a lovely glass jar.

Newly purchased cheesecloth and ladle in hand, I followed the author’s instructions as closely as possible with the following results. (N.B. Our gentle reader should now take a moment to familiarize him- or herself with the instructions at the link above. That is so I don’t have to type as much and yet can refer to the article freely whilst pointing out where those self-same instructions may have gone off the rails ever so slightly.)

First, as to the choice of equipment, I was working with a regular, old, Rival Crockpot that was one of the first models to feature a removable crock (circa 1999). Nothing fancy; just low and high.

Exhibit "A": The Crockpot

So I didn’t really get where the “Valerie,” referred to in the first paragraph of the instructions, was coming from advising that unless the Crockpot was “high-end,” low wasn’t low enough and just to “use a stockpot on the stove’s lowest setting.”

In fact, I used both the low setting on the Crockpot and the lowest burner on my late ’80s gas stove, and the gas stove was definitely hotter and harder to control.

This was the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. Still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot.

Pictured here, is the lowest I was able to get the flame on the gas stove. It was still far hotter than the low setting on the Crockpot. The fat in the Crockpot was on for 16-hours, by contrast, and still wouldn’t burn—no matter how hard I tried—which brings me to my next few points.

Nowhere in the instructions does the author address how much fat she is rendering, but still confidently assures us of process completion in (it appears) just a few hours. This is totally misleading!

Time to completion is (I hypothecate) likely dependent on the quantity of fat to be rendered.  In my case, I rendered for 8 hours on Day One; got tired and put the lid on the removable crock, placed it in the refrigerator, took it out the following day, and rendered for another 8 hours before “finishing.”

It seemed to go faster once the volume was reduced (but that is by no means a scientific observation).  At no point did the “cracklings” get crispy as described, however, which brings me to my next observation.

The closest to crispy (not very) I was able to attain in 16 hours.

The author discusses the possibility of a “piggie” odor in the finished lard but attributes the off-flavor to “burning” the cracklings. I believe that attribution is only partly true. In other words, the reason I believe my fat never crisped into cracklings (and therefore did not burn) and the reason I didn’t have any piggie odor to my lard is the same—Tink’s did a great job in giving me very little meat and skin with the fat.

What little protein there was, I trimmed away and rendered separately as an experiment.

All that remained after removing the pure fat.

Sure enough, the lard separately rendered from fat and protein did have a strong piggie scent.

Browned protein and fat cracklings.

The purer fat did not.

The purer fat also did not produce cracklings, which I now believe must contain a good percentage of protein to crisp and brown or to “burn” if allowed to cook further.  Or maybe my cracklings sans protein did not burn because of my next observation.

At no point are we instructed to stir, fold, or otherwise turn the contents of the crock. I did it anyway, for better or worse, because it seemed the fat along edges and bottom was definitely turning brown while the fat in the center remained raw and unchanged. Maybe this is why I didn’t get the “separation” of fat from cracklings or the crisping she described, but after a few hours, I wasn’t seeing that happen anyway so I erred on the side of not causing a fire (I guess).

Lard oil beginning to render from fat. (NOTE: The edges browning while the fat at the center looks uncooked.)

Now, for what went right. As an initial matter, using the Crockpot is a stroke of genius. A virtually odorless process that was totally controllable, the end result of rendering in the Crockpot was just was as article described.

The crock also seemed to make it easier to manipulate the fat than any oven-based method I’d read about, as it sat open and reachable right on the countertop, and yet was still gentler-heating than my stove-top experiment. In fact, it was a happy compromise of the benefits of both traditional methods. And when I got tired of rendering, I put on the glass lid and stuck the crock in the refrigerator so I could restart it the next day.

Also, grinding the fat as the author suggests seems to have facilitated a more even release of oil. Because I found the instructions online (including the suggestion to ask the farmer to grind the fat for better results) only after I’d already received the fat, I hadn’t asked Tink’s for pre-ground fatback. But perhaps that was better anyway. Grinding it myself gave me a chance to trim off the protein beforehand, and grinding wasn’t such a big deal using the little chopping attachment to my Cuisinart stick blender and would have been even less of a big deal in a real food processor.

Step 1: Fat strips ready to be diced.
Step 2: Diced fat ready to be ground.

 

 

 

Step 3: Ground fat. NOTE: I only filled the bowl about half full. Any more prevented an even grind and actually took longer.

After reading the instructions, I naively assumed lard making was simply a matter of heat-for-a-few-hours-strain-pour-chill. Not so!  I was totally unprepared for the huge chunk of time rendering this amount was going to take out of two days.  

Oil being strained through double layered cheese cloth over the colander.

But, at the end of the (second) day, I got a gallon of really high quality lard for my $5 and am happy to have one half gallon of lard in the fridge and another in the freezer. In the final analysis, I will definitely render my own lard again—but hopefully not for another year or so.

"Hot" lard oil on the left; solid, cooled lard on the right.

Rawr!

The Original Pancake House–Did You Know How Good This Place Is (at least the one on LaVista Road in Atlanta)?

The Original Pancake House. If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven by, like, 53 of these and never once stopped. Well, I’m here to tell you, my friend: quit doing that!

One reason I’ve never stopped, other than the low-carb diet since 2003, is my apparently whack belief that one pancake/waffle/denny’s/shoney’s establishment is more or less like another. And usually, that has been the case. But The Original Pancake House on LaVista Road NE in Atlanta (or OPH(L) for short), may be the exception to the rule.

My first visit to OPH(L) was during a mid-morning peak time one recent Saturday; the next was a “shoot-a-canon-through-it” mid-morning weekday. Both times I sat at the bar. Both times I placed the same order: two eggs over easy, sausage, three pancakes with sugar-free syrup, coffee, and water.

(You can infer from this that I enjoyed the first breakfast so well that I just wanted a repeat, and not that the menu was in any way not pages and pages of deliciousness described. It certainly was the former.)

Whereas most “diner” eggs are greasy and/or over-cooked, OPH(L)’s over easy was textbook with a perfectly soft, not overly runny interior. (Frankly, I wish I could make them as well.) Whereas most “diner” sausage is a dried-out, crusty, rubbery puck, OPH(L)’s was tender yet cooked through, perfectly-seasoned, and moist with what seemed like actual pork fat. Mmmmm.

Now I come to the pancakes served with authentic—wait for it—butter. These were probably among the very best examples I have ever tried. They were not oversweet, dry, chewy, loose, wet, lumpy, or any other bad thing. In fact they were cakes of steamy, firm, buttery pure love.

Now granted, being a Louisiana dinosaur, I happen to think the pinnacle of pancake syrup is Steen’s Cane Syrup, a kind of Cajun blackstrap molasses. So I’m admittedly no maple syrup connoisseur. But to my taste, even the sugar-free syrup they served (I forget the brand) was actually indistinguishable from real maple syrup in taste and texture.

What’s more the coffee was fresh, strong, and bottomless, and the service was reasonably attentive and welcoming. Sitting there at the bar was like a trip back to a simpler time when people enjoyed a little gossip with their brunch. Apparently, that hasn’t changed much along with the now-retro 1950’s décor.

All-in-all, I found the Original Pancake House to be a great way to spend both the morning and about $10 a head.

Rawr!

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Top Spice Thai & Malaysian–Nan in Midtown Has a Little Competition from North Druid Hills

Along with pork, another favorite of mine is Thai food—especially if there’s pork in there. Before now, Thai in Atlanta meant just one thing to me: Nan in Midtown. But now I not so sure. You see, there’s another Thai in town. A small chain of just two restaurants called, Top Spice. And you know what? They’ve won all those great reviews fair and square.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Nan rocks! First of all, it’s one of the prettiest restaurants around. But the décor isn’t the only thing working for Nan. The kitchen cooks as good as it looks, featuring text book examples of coconut soup and various curries and top shelf, prime ingredients in their translations of traditional dishes.

All of their dishes are incredibly fresh and the elegant portions, while not overlarge, are satisfying. To finish, just about any of the desserts are to die for—but be sure to try the Three Flavors Homemade Ice Creams.

And for the PGA fan, there is a photo gallery of pro golfers near the entrance that are a who’s who of rich and famous diners. Apparently, the owners have some kind of Vijay Sing connection. So if you want to eat where some of the top PGA players hang out when they are passing through Atlanta, be sure to try Nan.

If there is any issue with Nan, it is the fine dining ding to your wallet prior to departure. And that valet parking is really the only way to enter. So what’s the budget-minded or the self-park-er to do for good Thai? The answer clearly is Top Spice.

Located in the renovated Toco Hills strip shopping center and with a second location at Akers Mill, Top Spice is a legitimate alternative to Nan for most occasions. I visited the Toco Hills location for lunch and dinner.

At Top Spice, even the top shelf drinks are reasonably priced. I enjoyed a generous Grey Goose vodka at my evening meal for around $8.

I started with Fresh Basil Rolls on each occasion and found them very fresh and containing a reasonable balance of protein to rice noodles. And the accompanying plum sauce with chopped peanuts is excellent as a dip or a between course snack—Kidding! (Not really).

Soft Shell Crab--Thai-style

My first entrée was from the Thai menu. I ordered the Soft Shell Crab dish at the recommendation of my waiter, and it was awesome! The crabs were (again) very fresh medium-sized blue points and you get two of them. The crabs were properly cleaned of fat and gills, lightly-crusted, deep-fried, and served in green curry with small but juicy shrimp and tender-crisp asparagus.

Although the crabs were quite filling, I took a bullet for the team and ordered dessert. The very helpful waiter explained that two of the desserts were made in-house—the Kaya Pencake and the Sticky Rice with Mango and both were especially good. I went Sticky Rice and was not disappointed.

Thai Sticky Rice

On the plate was a beautiful presentation of a molded warm rice cake topped with a smattering of toasted blond sesame seeds, a fan of expertly sliced mango, and a small ramekin of warm “coconut syrup” that tasted like my idea of sweetened condensed milk if it were made with coconut cream instead of dairy.

The combination was intoxicating. Each bite of rice dipped in sauce was heaven. And amazingly, the rice and syrup stayed warm until the end. Oh, yes, I did finish it! And I took my time savoring each lovely grain.

For lunch, the budget-minded need fear not at Top Spice, for there are lunch specials which are all of the quality of the dinner menu but at a fraction of the price. This menu includes such dishes as Pad Thai. I enjoyed the Nam Sod from the regular salad menu, however.

The only complaint I have about Top Spice’s interpretation of this classic dish is their handling of the raw cabbage side which they serve quartered and almost unimpenetrably solid, like a cabbage brick. I have enjoyed cabbage served as more of a cup containing the minced pork mixture in the past, which I eat like a salad.

Otherwise, this is probably the best Nam Sod I have ever had. Very balanced and not overly sweet, it is spicy without blowing your head off with chili. If you are into this dish, you definitely should give it a try here.

Oh, and despite its location, Top Spice is beautiful too. Dress is casual to business casual, and the atmosphere is elegantly relaxed. In 2007, Top Spice apparently got a lot great press and was awarded Best of City search and rated by Zagat.

In the final analysis, whether you want high-end or really high-quality but not so fussy, Atlanta has Thai covered. For the big spending golf/Thai fan, there’s beautiful Nan. But if you want great Thai without the sticker shock or if you just enjoy Malaysian, Top Spice is the clear winner.

Rawr!
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Farm Burger–The Best Thing to Happen to the Hamburger in (at Least) 35 Years

In 1976, when I was a wee hatchling, I had an abdominal surgery that required me to live for a week on the contents of I.V. bags and an apparently limitless supply of neon green Jello. Once healed, I was allowed to pick my favorite food to end this weeklong abstinence. (Kind of like the opposite of a prisoner’s last meal.) All-American, patriotic kid that I was, I chose the hospital hamburger and fries.

Now, if you’re probably thinking, “ugh,” I certainly don’t blame you. But let me tell you, that hamburger was the best, most succulent, sweetest, flavorful, fresh ground bit of heaven I have ever experienced on a bun—until now.

Farm Burger on West Ponce de Leon in Decatur, Georgia, has opened my eyes to what flavor a lowly burger is still capable of. The measures they have taken to ensure your burger enjoyment are total extraordinary and involve taking the Chipotle concept of using locally-sourced meats and produce to the next level. In short, they raise their own grass-fed beef, pastured pork and chicken, and fabulous vegetables on farms in nearby Athens.

That’s right. Most, if not all, of their meat is sourced from an affiliated farm, Moonshine Meats, while the veggies grow up on the nearby Full Moon Cooperative.

The first time I visited Farm Burger, I was struck by its cool, unpretentiousness and the overcrowded parking lot. The restaurant shares a building with dry cleaners, so after a certain point in the evening, all the parking is for the burger joint. And that’s what it is—newer, cleaner, and hipper perhaps, but still retaining that comfortable, familiar burger-joint-hangout vibe.

Upon entering, you are supposed to line up on the left next to stacked cases housing a very interesting beer selection and review the paper menu found in baskets along the wall and the chalk board describing the specials. You can order at the front or skip the line and take your seat at the friendly bar.

The basic burger costs $6 and is available with a wide variety of toppings and sides making possible several thousand different burger combinations. The toppings range in cost from “free” to $2 extra if you go really exotic. (I was unclear if the listed price was per topping or would allow you to choose as many as you want from the list. The free stuff is so interesting, I haven’t felt the need to find out yet.) All rings and fries are real and made in-house. Go figure!

There are also lunch and daily combos and special “blackboard burgers” available every day. You could also choose from their snack menu, which looks awfully yummy in an odd sort of way. And for dessert are ice cream floats, including one of my favs, a Young’s Chocolate Stout float. (Beer and ice cream, I know. But it really works.) Farm Burger also offers an alternative veggie burger, but why? why? why would you do it?!

My first burger there was pretty simple—medium with iceberg, red onions, house pickles, and FB sauce—hand cut fries on the side and a Young’s Chocolate Stout. [Intake of breath] *sigh* Fabulous.

I had begun to doubt the world’s ability to bring me a burger like this. I had begun to believe I would never again experience the crispy, slightly smoky exterior with perfectly cooked, moist, flavorful, grassy sweet interior of a proper ground beef patty sandwich ever again.

The vegetables too were crisply fresh, without blemish, and proportionally-sized, and the bun was buttery toasted. Most importantly, perhaps, the dressing atop the burger enhanced and did nothing to diminish my enjoyment of the meat, which is clearly the star of the show. The fresh fries obviously cooked in fresh oil served admirably to create an interval between bites of burger helping me appreciate the next bite even more.

On my next trip, we sat outside on the front patio, enjoying the beautiful evening, and watching the dry cleaner’s customer’s pick-up at the drive-thu. Strangely, the setting did nothing to detract from our enjoyment of the meal.

I started with beer-battered onion rings with smoked paprika mayo, and got the daily combo burger which came with fries. The rings were outstanding. Beer-battered in the tempura-style, they were light, crispy, non-greasy, and perfectly complemented by the mayo. My companions got fried okra which was similarly battered and properly fried but served not as “rings.” Each piece was cut longitudinally, instead, allowing us to experience the okra spear in a totally new way.

The burgers did not disappoint either. Mine came with aged, smoked Gouda, caramelized onion, bacon, lettuce, and spicy mustard. Once again, ummmmm.

In short, it seems this burger can do no wrong. It has the power to cure the sick, help the lame to walk, bring home the bacon, and fry it up on a pan, whether dressed simply or done up in the most modern fashion. Like the perfect wingman, the sides complement without competing. I will be back to Farm Burger so many times, they’ll have to name a booth after me.

Rawr!
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Coffee Rani on Lee Lane is my go-to coffee, salad, breakfast, brunch place on the North Shore

Wherever I am, I tend to work sans office. No office generally means I work from either my home office, my hotel, or a coffee shop. Luckily, when I travel to Covington, Louisiana, there are several coffee options that don’t involve a certain company from Seattle (not that there’s anything wrong with them). My favorite is Coffee Rani located on charming Lee Lane.

I have eaten here at least three times since arriving a week or so ago and each time have been gratified by the quality of the food and the large, pleasant sunny environment that doesn’t leave you reeking of java. And the coffee’s pretty good too—although, the staff usually doesn’t know how to make an Americano. But no worries! Just order a cappuccino, instead, which they do very well.

The first time I ate lunch, I tried the Magazine featuring chopped egg, bacon, almonds, cabbage, cheddar-provo and topped with a lovely chicken salad, tomatoes, and cucumbers with blue cheese. Awesome and awesomely filling! The egg was fluffy and well-cooked, the bacon not overly-salty or underly-meaty, and all-in-all the salad was very, very filling.

Even so, after several more hours of work, I found room for the red velvet brownie. The very tempting pastries here are not made in-house. But the cashier was kind enough to steer me toward the items delivered that day when I asked her for a recommendation. The brownie is a combination of red velvet cake batter and brownie batter, topped with cream cheese icing, and it is large, moist, and good. Very good.

The next time I was there, I had the Soprano. This also-very-filling salad is described as pesto grilled chicken, tomatoes, marinated artichoke hearts, marinated mushrooms, olive salad, feta, creamy parmesan topped with a cheese tweel. What was served, however, was even better than described with two variations: I detected no pesto on the chicken (boring and hardly ever done properly anyway), but the tweel turned out to be cheese and pesto grilled black-brown.

That tweel is right up there with the most surprisingly good things I’ve eaten. A moment more on the grill, however, and I fear the basil would have burned and the effect ruined. As it was, however, the browned pesto brought just the right amount of crunch and tang to the apparently-tapas-inspired-salad party. In my mind, A+ for creativity/lucky mistake and execution/happy accident.

Today, I arrived early for lunch and found they were still serving breakfast. One bacon, egg, and cheddar-provo croissant and single cappuccino fairly dry, please. On top of the very good coffee with a nice solid foam was served a massive breakfast sandwich. (There’s no skimping on the portions here, for sure.)

There must have been three fluffy scrambled eggs in there as the whole sandwich was at least four or five inches in diameter and the egg layer was folded. The bacon was mercifully not overcooked and neither were the eggs. Although the cheese was shredded and unmelted bits were observable through the croissant hole, the heat of the sandwich rendered the part under the top half nice and gooey. I even enjoyed the red grape and sliced orange garnish.

In the final analysis, although the service at Coffee Rani can be young and inexperienced at times, the kitchen is really very good, the portions are fresh, large, and filling (as they don’t skimp on protein or fat), and the coffee and pastry are pretty nice too. That pistachio cake is calling my name.

Rawr!
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Real Bacon is the Real Breakfast of Real Champions

Those of you familiar with this blog should be well aware of my serious obsession with pork. ‘Cause if pork were a person, I’d sip a pina colada with it!

So the other day at the Rosewood Market, the local real food market in Columbia, S.C., when I saw a certain nondescript package in the freezer section, I nearly jumped for joy. I held back on the jumping though for fear of frightening the other shoppers, but only just barely.

What the nondescript package contained was the most magical and elusive substance I have ever encountered—real bacon. I don’t mean the crap that passes as bacon in most refrigerator sections of even the finest grocery stores. (I’m looking at you, Whole Foods!) I mean Caw Caw Creek Farm’s pasture-raised, salt and sugar cured, untrimmed, thick-sliced, beautiful, life-changing, forever bacon. And it was good. Very good.

To prepare, I spared no expense. First, I thawed overnight in the refrigerator.

Then, I lovingly placed two (no more, no less) strips on a small jelly roll pan (with 3/4″ sides). The sides on this pan are very important for reserving the 1/2 cup of oil that will render out of the bacon. Yes, folks, that’s a full 1/4 cup of delicious oil per slice you can save to make everything else you cook incredible too. (This bacon just gives and gives. It’s a giver.)

Meanwhile, I heated the oven to 425 degrees. I placed the pan containing the bacon in the oven for about 10 minutes or until the meat is browned, the fat is slightly tinged with color, and the whole situation is just about floating.

After carefully removing the pan (so as not to slosh the hot oil) and allowing it to cool, I removed the bacon slices and experienced a flavor and texture that is the stuff of legend. Meaty, melty, comforting, and filling—this was simply the single best food I have ever experienced. Simply bacon.

I’m not sure I can go back to the undersized, over-trimmed, chemically-manipulated stuff I’ve called bacon before this. From now on, I believe I shall refer to this vastly inferior product as “breakfast meat” or “bacon-like product.” If a waiter is confused, that’s his bad luck. Whatever he brings me will suck anyway.

Bon appetite!

Myrtle Beach and the Deep Blue Sea

About two hours almost due East of Columbia, S.C., is Myrtle Beach, a lovely seaside resort town resting beside the green Atlantic Ocean. I recently had my first opportunity to visit there but could only stay for a couple of days. Nonetheless, my esteemed hostess found the time to introduce me to a few of the seafood delights of Eastern seaboard and, one, not so delightful.

Our first stop was a porch facing a marina along Murrells Inlet belonging to a restaurant called Drunken Jack’s. This place is one of about five restaurants hugging the waterway. They all looked pretty good but my friend wanted me to eat at this one and one other—a combo place called Divine Fish House that included an outdoor raw bar named Wahoo’s.

I don’t know what the inside of the restaurant looks like because from our seat we had an excellent view of Goat Island (so-called because of the herd of goats inhabiting the place), were serenaded by the co-habitating peacocks, and even got a front-row seat of some guy having trouble backing his cabin cruiser into a slip just below. Given that, the décor of another kitchy seaside beach restaurant just didn’t seem to warrant a trip inside. Besides they brought my order right out to me.

The first thing I learned was South Carolina had recently become a “free-pour” state with regard to liquor orders. This is a big deal as, in the past, it seems, all liquor served in bars was required to be delivered in those tiny mini-bar bottles. So if you ordered a mixed drink with six different liquors, you got six different bottles. You can see how that might add up.

Now, South Carolina is normal-er so you can buy your mixed drink 1 1/2 ounces at a time. Or if my experience at Drunken Jack’s is any indication, maybe just a smidgen more than 1 1/2 ounces….  Anyway, because we were planning on moving along at some point, we ordered only appetizers from the limited porch menu. I had the fried softshell crab with butter sauce.

Although the crab had a little more visible fat than I care for, it was unbelievably fabulous. It was the kind of crab I used to fish out of the water myself.  Ah, memories. Oh, and the lemon butter I wanted to drink as a vodka chaser!  But back to our story: the next stop was Wahoo’s.

Now one thing not many people know about Foodiesaurus is that of all the food in all the world, there is just one thing she has met so far that she totally cannot stand to eat (although she respects those who do) and that is raw oysters. So it was the special steamed mussels for me this round.

These mussels weren’t the absolute best I’ve ever had but they were right up there with the best—that is, those at a Belgian place I loved in Houston and those at two different Italian restaurants in Birmingham (one of which is owned by a perennial James Beard nominee). The traditional white wine and garlic treatment was just what I was looking for, and the crostini were crunchy and nicely toasted.

All-in-all, the Murrells Inlet crowd was way ahead of expectations.

Before leaving the shore, however, I decided to sample local seafood once more at a place called < a href=”http://www.sarajs.com/” target=”_blank”>Sara J’s.  At least I think it was local.  In all fairness, this restaurant bills itself as a “family-friendly” place so it makes no claim of grandeur.  Even still, I was disappointed.

The soft-shelled crab with horseradish marmalade sounded far more interesting than it was—notwithstanding the fact they did clean it free of fat unlike Drunken Jack’s. Likewise, the shrimp scampi was bland and tasteless. Even the hushpuppies were overly dense and free of any of the interesting bits of onion and bell pepper that are mandatory in Louisiana.

On one hand, my evaluation may seem unfair given the fact my standard of comparison on the hushpuppies is Louisiana. On the other hand, I didn’t like their soft-shelled crabs in a head-to-head comparison with a restaurant located a stone’s throw away.

I think the execution of Sara J’s restaurant was likely proper, I just think whoever developed these recipes failed to take advantage of the abundant and fabulous natural resources that give this area its reputation for amazing seafood.  Or possibly, everything I ate had been precooked or from frozen.  Either way, it is unfortunate then that “family-friendly” seems to have become a euphemism for tasteless and weak.

Although the restaurant appeared clean and neat and the service was friendly, the food was subpar by design, if not by execution. I consider that a major fail.

Bon Appetite!
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DRUNKEN JACK’S/WAHOO’S—

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SARA J’S—

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Martin Wine Cellar–Still Awesome After All These Years

If you’re like me, every so often you enjoy a spot of wine. Or three. So a few years ago, when I last lived in the Greater New Orleans area, a favorite hangout of mine was Martin Wine Cellar.

Not only does Martin Wine Cellar offer a dazzling array of wine and liquor with knowledgeable staff to go along with it, they also are one of the best places I’ve found in the GNO for salads, sandwiches, and deli items. The sandwiches, in particular, are innovative, exceptionally fresh, and combine ingredients in a way more reminiscent of Hippy lunch counters than a New Orleans deli. And it is good.

On a recent return to my old haunt, I found it much the same as I remembered only possibly better.  I enjoyed a walk down memory lane with the Californian, which is oven roasted, turkey, havarti cheese, avocado, sprouts, cucumbers, tomato, Creole mustard and mayo on wheat or pita. I opted for wheat with a side of Zapp’s Cajun Crawtaters because you only live once and life without Crawtaters isn’t worth living.

Back in the day, when I worked down the street, my lunch alternated between this favorite and my all-time most favoritest sammich in da whole wide world—the Eric (may be a fictitious name) featuring rare roast beef, Creole mustard, and pate. Mmmmm. But as Martin took this delicacy off of the menu many years ago and because I’m sure I remember its actual name, I doubted anyone remembered how to make it and so allowed the aforementioned Crawtaters to soothe my broken heart instead.

My niece enjoyed the chicken tenders and fries from the kids menu. She is a particularly slender 9-year-old, so there was some debate about whether we should select the three or five unit basket. Arguing she had “nothing” for breakfast, I was convinced to go five-piece. She later relayed that the definition of “nothing” does not include a “small” bowl of cereal. So I enjoyed at least one of the delicious, meaty portions of real, tender white chicken breast myself along with what seemed to be house cut french fries. The other we took home with the fries.

After lunch we strolled aisle after aisle of domestic and imported wine, selecting a bordeaux with good reviews for my later enjoyment and a bottle of “Who Dat?” cab for my brother-in-law, a big Saint’s fan. All-in-all a great day enjoying an old favorite that has, if anything, improved with age.

Bon Appetite!

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Grandma Genevieve’s Strawberry Shortcake

During my brief sojourn to the Motherland a few weeks ago, I happened upon a truck advertising authentic Ponchatoula strawberries. While I have no quarrel with strawberries from Alabama in principle, I’ve never tasted any as sweet and with such well-balanced acid as those from the Mississippi River’s alluvial plain. Naturally, I bought half a flat (about 6 pints) first and planned what I would do with them later.

Then it finally occurred to me to do something I’d wanted to for more than 17 years—obtain and manufacture my Grandmother’s very rustic strawberry shortcake recipe. I’ve never tasted anything like it anywhere, and for me, it is the preeminent version of the Spring classic. Everything else is, in my opinion, just the ruination of perfectly wonderful strawberries.

Determined to share the love while attempting to reconstruct our heritage in produce, I commandeered my nieces for some of the less hazardous preparation tasks. And so we began by rinsing and removing the tops from the excellently sweet and ripe (though unfortunately small) late season berries.

At the same time, I began preparing three refrigerated pie crusts according to the directions. The first time I used preprepared crusts, I went for the ubiquitous Pillsbury but thought it had too distinctive a “Pillsbury” aftertaste.  Recently, I made it again and used this kind, which was much better:

Now admittedly this was a concession. The real recipe provides the following instructions, however, for the purist: Combine 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 cup Crisco or lard, and one egg with enough water to form a soft dough. Make three balls, roll each out and bake flat until light brown tile. (I would recommend a 400-degree oven for 9 to 11 minutes.) Cool.

Either way, you will note the crust is rolled out to a circle with a diameter of about 14 inches. Cosmetic perfection is optional as all but one of these crusts will be totally covered with mashed strawberries.  Also, do NOT prick the crust before baking.  I have found bubbles are not only okay but are preferred.

While the three crusts are baking, you will want to begin work on the strawberry filling. To accomplish this component, my Grandmother used to laboriously mash the rinsed and topped berries with a fork in a bowl, one small quantity at a time. 

When my very brilliant nine-year-old niece, Ellie, tried that method, however, she sprayed strawberry juice all over the place and the front of her shirt and it took for-ev-er. I wasn’t any better at it. But because she had so much time to think, Ellie actually suggested an improvement to the method that produced a superior mash, eliminated mess, saved time, and was a heck of a lot more fun—we bagged ’em in a gallon sized Ziploc freezer back and whacked ’em with a rolling pin.

The only danger appeared to be bursting the sealed bag like a balloon as the berries were smashed. Therefore, from time-to-time, we “burped” the bag to keep air to a minimum. Mission accomplished. Thank you, Ellie!

To the strawberry mash, we added 1/4 cup of granulated sugar. If the strawberries are already sweet enough, however, it seems this step may be omitted. But we kept with tradition in this instance and it didn’t seem to hurt the taste any.

By now, surely, the pie crusts have been removed from the oven and are cooling, so it must be time for the (sort of) pastry cream. Grandma’s recipe for the pastry cream omits the flour typically used and calls for using evaporated milk and water. I dumped that bit and came up with the following: Beat in a small saucepan 4 egg yolks until lemon colored. To the egg yolks, whisk in 1-3/4 cups heavy whipping cream, 3/4 cup half-and-half, 2 tsp vanilla, and 2 cups of sugar and cook over medium-high heat until the mixture begins to form foamy bubbles and coats the back of a spoon. Do NOT boil!

To assemble, get a big heavy bowl, preferably one made of glazed stoneware. Place the first crust on the bottom of the bowl.

If the crust is too large for the bowl, just gently break it into large pieces and evenly distribute them. Top with a little less than half of the strawberry mixture. Follow the strawberries with a second crust. Again, piecing it together is fine, if the crust is too large. Distribute the rest of the strawberry mixture over this crust and top with the third crust.

Because I wanted mine to look nice and because it didn’t fit, I trimmed the edge of the crust with kitchen shears until it sat level in the bowl on top of the fruit.

Then I poured about half of the pastry cream over the top of the layers, letting it run down the inside of the bowl to touch the layers below. The remainder of the cream was reserved for serving. I then allowed the bowl to sit for about an hour before serving to soften the crusts just a little.

To serve, I cut down through the layers of the “cake” and spooned it into individual bowls. The remaining pastry cream was ladled over each.

The result was pure love. It was just as I remembered it tasting and everyone who has tried it since has commented on the fabulous contrasts between the sweet berries and the savory crust, and between the crunchy pie crusts and the silky cream. Nice.

So if you’ve got a mess of fresh strawberries available to you this Memorial Day weekend, why not try this gloriously easy and amazingly delicious pastry?

Bon Appetite!