When you think of haute cuisine, various rare, exquisite foods come to mind. Rice is probably not one of them. This staple, which you can buy for a buck a bag at your local grocery store, is rarely associated with gourmet food. But when it comes to Carolina Gold rice, you'll discover an entirely different story.
Let's start with a brief, and rather vague, history lesson. The intense debate over the rice's origins is quite telling of its historical significance. Carolina rice first showed up in the colonies in the late 1600s — some say imported from Africa or even Asia — and quickly became a crop in the Carolinas. Some believe that cross-breeding of the rice with Italian grain led to the creation of what we know today as Carolina Gold rice: a variety whose unique starch qualities make it extremely versatile — it can produce sticky, creamy, or separate grain dishes, depending on how it's cooked. Regardless of where it came from, Carolina Gold enabled America to dominate world markets and the fields of the Lowcountry shone gold — both in terms of the bright hue of the grain and the riches it brought to Charles Towne.
Then came the Civil War and the Depression, and the delicate rice lost ground to newer varieties, until it went virtually extinct. But in the 1980s, a Savannah eye surgeon and plantation owner named Richard Schulz swooped in to save the rice, and by 1986 he'd produced enough to sell. More than a decade later, in 1998 Columbia-based Anson Mills began growing the rice sustainably and is now the largest grower of Carolina Gold rice in the country. Glenn Roberts, owner of Anson Mills and president of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, likes to do things the old-fashioned way — the rice is hand-harvested, pounded, and polished, and totally organic. If you'd like to try your hand at the rice, you can find it at Whole Foods, but be aware: it's about six times the price of your typical Piggly Wiggly variety. But if you decide to leave it to the experts, you won't have trouble finding it in the finest kitchens. Carolina Gold is now considered an elite ingredient for a new generation of chefs in the Lowcountry and beyond — and they'll tell you it's worth every penny.
at The Sanctuary
Kiawah Island. One Sanctuary Drive.
Pan-seared local grouper with yellow squash cake, benne green bean salad, and smoked tomato cream. ($32)
Local shrimp gumbo with Carolina Gold rice. ($8)
Roasted corn and she-crab bisque with sweet crab dumpling. ($9)
Eggs Jasmine Porch: Two poached eggs, country ham, herb rice philpy, sundried tomato bearnaise. ($16)
The Sanctuary at Kiawah is Anson Mills' biggest client, according to Roberts. And Jasmine Porch, a casual (by Kiawah standards) Lowcountry-themed restaurant at the resort, keeps it coming, with four dishes on their current menu utilizing the rice. Banquet Chef Ben Randow, at the helm when the restaurant opened in 2004, remembers how even then the rice was hard to come by. Anson Mills limited The Sanctuary's purchases — otherwise they might wipe out the still-growing farm. Four years later, however, quantity isn't an issue, allowing Nathan Thurston, now the chef de cuisine at Jasmine Porch, to sprinkle the rice throughout his menu; he goes through 25 pounds a week.
Of the four dishes on the current menu, the rice is most emphasized in a modern spin on a Johnny-cake. Carolina Gold is blended with yellow squash and potatoes to make a cake, then piled with a crisp benne green bean salad and a piece of black grouper caught off the Charleston Bump, and finished with a dollop of sweet truffled squash purée. The distinctive flavor of the rice works well with the squash, complementing rather than competing with its sweetness.
Other dishes featuring the rice include Eggs Jasmine Porch, a beautifully Southern take on Eggs Benedict; a shrimp gumbo garnished with the rice; and a she-crab bisque, in which the rice is puréed to give the soup a greater depth of flavor.
As an exclusive resort that strives to offer the very best to their guests, the chefs at The Sanctuary value the quality of Anson Mills' products. "Cooking is our passion as chefs, and Anson Mills' rice is an extension of that," Randow says. "They're these big grit and rice geeks, and they appreciate that we take it so seriously."
Daniel Island. 901 Island Park Drive.
Local flounder with hedgehog mushrooms, preserved tomatoes, Carolina Gold rice wafer, and guanciale ($22)
Out on Daniel Island, a short drive from the peninsula, Ken Vedrinski at Sienna is known for creating world-class modern Italian cuisine. He compares Carolina Gold rice to arborio rice from Italy, which is why he likes to keep it in his kitchen. The menu changes daily, but we were lucky enough to visit on a day when the rice was featured in a very unique dish that turned out to be one of the more impressive that we tried.
Vedrinski cooks the rice like a risotto until it's almost overcooked, then presses it until it becomes a thin, crispy, wafery crust. He sears a small cut of local flounder then places it over a handful of tiny hedgehog mushrooms sautéed in 50-year-old balsamic vinegar. It's topped with the rice wafer, then a dollop of rich spiced preserved tomatoes, and a small piece of guanciale — bacon from the cheeks of the pork — which adds a nice smoky crispiness. The variety of textures in the dish is outstanding. The intense crunch of the rice wafer and its buttery, almost popcorn-like flavor complements the flaky tenderness of the flounder and the softness of the savory mushrooms, all topped with the spicy flavor of the tomato paste. Delizioso.
Downtown. 12 Anson St.
Local chicken three Southern ways: barbecued breast, fried leg, and braised thigh with collard greens, Carolina Gold rice pilau, and green tomato marmalade ($23)
Nestled in the heart of downtown Charleston's tourist district, just around the corner from the horse stables, is Anson, a light, airy restaurant specializing in Lowcountry cuisine. Chef Kevin Johnson creates a trio of chicken paired with various traditional sides. "Chicken's chicken," he says, "so we just decided to have fun with it." The playful plate presents the three pieces all in a neat row: a small fried leg sits atop a pile of collards; a breast, pan roasted and glazed with a mustard barbecue, is garnished with a green tomato marmalade; and a slow-cooked thigh is paired with the Carolina Gold rice.
It's an adaptation of okra pilau, according to Johnson, a traditional dish harkening back to one-pot meals prepared by slaves. The free-range local chicken boasts a flavorful, crispy crust and tender meat. The rice is soft and gets mixed with stewed tomatoes and okra, with a slight Cajun kick. The rice works well as the base of this tasty dish that will satisfy anyone craving an authentic Lowcountry meal.
Downtown. 149 Wentworth St.
Rainbow trout with a Carolina Gold rice cake, Meyer lemon jam, toasted almonds, collards, and pimiento sauce ($24)
Tucked behind the historic Wentworth Mansion, Circa 1886 makes it a point to use old Southern ingredients on its menu. Chef Marc Collins keeps it fresh, making sure to avoid cross-utilization of ingredients, but the rice is usually featured in at least one dish.
Collins keeps the rice quite natural, mixing it with a light havarti-dill cheese, which gels the rice together and adds to its creaminess; he then tosses it in flour and sears it in a pan, giving it a pleasantly thin shell. He tops this with local trout, lightly dusted in almonds, and then thinly-cut strings of collard greens and sweet Meyer lemon jam. It's surrounded by a pool of roasted pepper coulis, lending a sweetness that's mirrored in the small dollop of jam.
Collins praises the rice's historical significance, naming that as the biggest reason that he showcases the rice on the menu so regularly, though he strives to keep it updated for today's tastes.