Friday, October 14, 2016

Lowcountry Bodega maps out your meals, but will it save your soul?

Cooking by Numbers

Posted by Stephanie Barna on Fri, Oct 14, 2016 at 1:10 PM

Lowcountry Bodega sets up at the James Island’s Sunday Brunch Farmer’s Market - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • Lowcountry Bodega sets up at the James Island’s Sunday Brunch Farmer’s Market

Cooking’s not the problem. It’s the planning. The grocery shopping. The monotony of family favorites and easy dinners. The rotten vegetables abandoned in the crisper preventing you from heading to the store for a hopeful new batch of produce. The never-ending cycle of breakfast, lunch, and dinner plus two snacks a day. It’s enough to send a girl to the sushi counter at Harris Teeter for a day-old California roll (for the kids) or to my pantry for a can of beans and some rice (for me).

A few weeks ago, inundated with discounted offers for Blue Apron, I threw in the dishtowel and ordered up a subscription. I figured why not? Maybe it would inject my repertoire with some new dishes and give me a break from the boredom of planning and shopping for food. I had resisted mainly because Blue Apron lacked a local or regional food option. But who cares when you can spend $50 on a month of food without having to shop once, right? (My Blue Apron, with a discount for joining, was $39.92 for two dinners for four people for the first week and then $69.92 for two dinners for four for second week.)

But before my first Blue Apron box arrived in the mail, I stumbled upon Lowcountry Bodega, a local meal kit option, at James Island’s Sunday Brunch Farmer’s Market. What’s that you say? I can get a triple-cut WadmaHog pork chop from farmer Tank Jackson of Holy City Hogs (without having to see it butchered) along with a spicy pre-made gazpacho using shishitos from Rooting Down Farms and an end-of-summer succotash with squash, string beans, and fregola? I’m in.

We purchased three $16 meal kits (enough to feed six people easily) and invited some extra family members over to share the meal. That evening, I unpacked my treasures and discovered everything I needed to pull the meal together along with instructions on cooking the proteins, preparing the vegetables, and even plating the food.

LCB provides step-by-step instructions with each kit - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • LCB provides step-by-step instructions with each kit

The chops were massive and beautiful. Pure heritage pork — three big ones were definitely enough to feed the extended family. We threw the meat on the grill and then dished up bowls of the pre-made gazpacho, a spicy and fresh kick off to the dinner that everyone appreciated. Cooking the vegetable dish proved to be the biggest challenge, mainly because I’m not used to following directions when I cook.

My approach to cooking is more about what’s almost gone bad in my fridge and less about Alice Waters’ what’s-fresh-in-the-fields ideal. Some nights, all goes as planned, and we have a vibrant pasta primavera or a succulent braised pork loin with fresh veggies on the side and some rice and pan gravy (the closest thing to a sauce I make). Most likely, though, we’re stir-frying up stray limp vegetables with as much ginger and garlic as we can muster to mask the taste of the old veggie drawer. Still, no matter what I’m throwing together for dinner, cooking has become automatic — smashing garlic, chopping veggies, stirring pots is my evening therapy.

LCB's pre-packaged ingredients - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • LCB's pre-packaged ingredients

Following someone else’s directions for dinner makes me uncomfortable and a little annoyed — why should I do it that way? Are you sure I should use all this butter, it seems like an awful lot? A pile of puree? Really, do I have to put my pork chop on a swirl of dill, carrot, and sorghum mush? Seems so ridiculously fancy.

But that’s how Lowcountry Bodega differs from a meal kit like Blue Apron. This is restaurant quality fare — something you’d probably be able to eat and afford once a week. The LCB guys are chefs, having worked in kitchens like Fat Hen and 167 Raw, so they’re helping you put together a fancy meal in as few steps as possible. They’ve parboiled the fregola so you don’t have to spend 20 minutes simmering it on the stove, they’ve made a compound garlic butter for seasoning your succotash, they’ve even prepared a peach-lemon verbena mostarda for topping your pork chop. They take the extra step so you don’t have to (as if I would).

After our full LCB meal that Sunday, which impressed us with its breadth and quality, a Blue Apron box showed up on Wednesday with two nights of meals, recipes I had preselected on their website. I went with the hoisin beef and vegetable stir-fry and the pan-fried Francese-style chicken. The beautifully branded and thermally cooled box landed on the porch and after unpacking and unpacking and unpacking (there’s a lot of packaging), we ended up with a whole bunch of adorable little bottles labeled with their pre-measured ingredients (rice vinegar, hoisin, dijon mustard, parmesan cheese). Unfortunately, I have most of these things in my pantry along with a host of other ingredients they shipped my way: eggs, flour, tomatoes, lemons, rice, potatoes. Hell, I usually even have some sort of semi-wilted all-purpose green in my fridge that could take the place of arugula. I felt kind of stupid having these things sent to me. It’s like when I order toilet paper from Amazon. Could you be any lazier as a human being?

I gamely tackled the first recipe — hoisin steak stir-fry. I literally make one stir-fry every week, mainly because my kids freaking love stir-fried rice, I have a ridiculously fancy rice cooker that can make rice at 10 cups a clip and keep it warm all week, and I always have something, even if it’s an egg, that can jazz things up. I thought I’d see what Blue Apron’s recipe offered that might have escaped my on-the-fly approach to stir-frying.

Looking at Blue Apron’s beautiful step-by-step recipe, my daughter balked and pleaded with me to make my stir-fry because the Blue Apron one looked bad and boring and sucky and she didn’t want to eat that one. Ugh. So I pretty much abandoned the recipe and cooked like I normally do and everyone was happy. I never got around to cooking that second meal because life interrupted my plans, so the chicken eventually went bad, and then I received my second shipment of two dinners, which also sort of wallowed ignored in the refrigerator until I got around to making the shrimp and grits that nobody ended up eating, so I fed it to my chickens. A note on that shrimp, even though they weren’t local, they were sourced sustainably from the Gulf and didn’t come from some sludge pond in Thailand. But still, my Blue Apron experience was a dismal failure — through no fault of the service and I swiftly canceled before another box could taunt me with my shortcomings as a functioning adult.

Blue Apron's stir-fry recipe - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • Blue Apron's stir-fry recipe

While I may not be well suited to the glamorous pre-ordered meal kit life, I will head back to Lowcountry Bodega again. Mainly because it’s on my terms. I can buy it that morning at the farmers market or not. The service is also a good value for local heritage pork and vegetables. If I’m going to spend premium dough on local fare, I might as well let these guys help me treat it better than I would on my own because there’s a lot of shame in letting beautiful local produce and meat rot in the fridge. And we all know how I fare on that end of things.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

This meat-eater is just a big fat guilt-ridden hypocrite

Blood on My Hands

Posted by Stephanie Barna on Mon, Sep 19, 2016 at 12:46 PM

Chefs help butcher a heritage breed hog at last year's Blood on the River Lowcountry Boucherie - KINSEY GIDICK FILE
  • Kinsey Gidick file
  • Chefs help butcher a heritage breed hog at last year's Blood on the River Lowcountry Boucherie
I should go. But I just can’t. I know I’m supposed to be connected to my food and humanely honor the animals that give their lives for our sustenance, but I just can’t deal with this boucherie thing. On Oct. 23, hog farmer Tank Jackson will host the third Blood on the River: A Lowcountry Boucherie, where animals will be butchered, bled, and broken down into a delicious meal for attendees.

I get it, slaughtering animals is a necessity if we’re going to eat them. But if it was left up to me to wring the chicken’s neck for dinner, we’d be stuck eating a pile of foraged dandelion greens.

I was that cliché of a teenager. Disgusted by all the bones, tendons, fat, and skin, I couldn’t wrap my spiral-permed head around the idea of killing a cute little chicken and THEN EATING IT. But my mom was an excellent cook, and I couldn’t wrap my head around making myself a salad while everyone else got to eat steak and those deliciously tender pork chops it’s taken me 20 years to master how to cook.

So what do you do as a petulant teenage girl with outrage in her heart and a hankering for mom’s delicious chicken noodle soup? Go fowl free? Uh, no. You listen to your mom when she tells you to get over it. She had to watch her mother kill chickens in the backyard and even help pluck them. I was lucky, she told me, because my food came all clean and packaged. I didn’t have to face the gruesome reality of watching my dinner get the axe. It seemed logical at the time.

But as an adult, about halfway through Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma (oy, that feed lot chapter!), I became all too aware of the inhumane practices of factory farms. The sensitive teenager inside me cried out about the horror of it all. That chicken package might be clean but the process of how it got there sure isn’t. I never finished reading the book, but I did try to watch Food Inc. which provides a gruesome look inside a pig slaughterhouse. After I abandoned the film, I felt even worse as a human being because I knew I would never give up eating meat. Pot roast on Sunday was just too wonderful a thing. But I figured I could give up factory farms and raise my kids to be aware of the inhumane practices of the feed lot where healthy animals are made sick by crowded conditions and pumped full of antibiotics in order to stay alive long enough to get slaughtered.

Good luck with that.

What are you supposed to do when the grocery store puts bacon on sale for five-for-two (Harris Teeter seriously had that sale recently)? Just walk by? I’m not perfect people, but I am wracked with guilt when I do give Smithfield my money. And I feel like a giant hypocrite for avoiding this Blood on the River event. Liberal guilt is a terrible thing.

By all accounts, Tank’s boucherie event is fascinating; wonderful even. Chefs, farmers, butchers, and interested parties gather ’round, and one lucky guy is chosen to shoot the pig in the head — ostensibly putting him down quickly. Unfortunately, last year the shot wasn’t all that precise and the little pig was left squealing until a second bullet finished him off.

I’m not sure I could stand by and witness such a scene, even though I know I should because Michael Pollan would want me to.

While I wholeheartedly embrace locavorism and raising heritage pork, when it comes down to it, I need someone to butcher it for me and provide it in a package that clearly does not resemble the animal it once was. Last year, my farmer friend Jeff Allen gifted me a suckling pig, which I was thrilled about — that is, until I got it home and realized it looked JUST LIKE A LITTLE PIGLET. Fortunately, my brother was around to deal with it. In the end, I took a few bites and felt a tad queasy — images of pink piglets flashing through my head — and stuffed my face with vegetables instead.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Who else is obsessed with Short Grain’s signature rice bowl?

Ode to the O.G.

Posted by Stephanie Barna on Tue, Sep 6, 2016 at 8:40 AM

The O.G. in all its glory - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • The O.G. in all its glory
The O.G. is a stealth dish. If you've ever had one, you know what I'm talking about. A couple days after your first bite, a craving for Short Grain's creative riff on chirashi will sneak up on you like a ninja, taking you hostage and not letting go until you can get your hands on another one.

It starts with the rice, perfectly seasoned and the shortest short grain around. Shuai Wang, who owns Short Grain with his wife Corrie, says this rice is key to everything. He orders it special, and his purveyor says he is the only one in Charleston using it. "It's a premium brand from California," said Shuai the other night over rice bowls at FIG. "We polish it a couple of times to remove the starch and soak it so it cooks evenly." Once cooked in his induction Zojirushi rice cooker, the grains are seasoned with a mixture of sushi vinegar, salt, sugar, and kombu. "We don't cut corners on quality."

That rice forms the basis for all of Short Grain's dishes, which range from the karaage don to the local veggie poke to whatever inspired Shuai that day at the market. In Japan, they say people choose their sushi restaurants based on the rice, and after being wooed by Short Grain's impeccable grains, I can understand this obsession.

Ah, but the rice is just one component of the O.G. Shuai sources the freshest fish he can find from Abundant Seafood's Mark Marhefka — my most recent bowl featured slivers of beeliner. Wasabi and ginger provide familiar flavors while house-made puffed rice adds tons of crunch. Ponzu punches it up with its combination of salty, sweet, and tart. Spicy mayo layers on a velvety heat. The masago throws in some pop. Pickled cucumbers and ginger cuts through the heat. And a liberal sprinkling of furikake seasoning brings it all together for a happy party in your mouth.
The Short Grain scrum — don't let them eat all the O.G.'s! - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • The Short Grain scrum — don't let them eat all the O.G.'s!
Are you obsessed yet? No matter where I encounter Shuai and Corrie's tiny food trailer (it's really not much of a truck), the long line always makes me worried that by the time I get to place my order, Corrie will have already chalked a line through the O.G. and I'll be unable to get my fix.

Many times you will see the dreaded line through the O.G. - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • Many times you will see the dreaded line through the O.G.
In the short year and a half that the Short Grain truck has been on the streets of Charleston, they have accumulated plenty of obsessive fans, including Jason Stanhope, executive chef at FIG. "We first met Jason at the ramen popup at the Daily last January," remembers Shuai, as he digs into a bowl of Carolina rice middlins smothered in an obscene amount of uni, caviar, and egg yolks that Stanhope has made in his honor. "He came back the next day with the entire FIG crew, and he was helping us wash dishes and he brought us gifts of crab and truffles. We were like, what are you doing? We're just serving eggs and noodles!"

Stanhope vividly remembers his first time eating Short Grain's food. "Oh, the uni rolls. I really loved the zucchini fritters. The okonomiyaki. The batter was so good."

For the James Beard award-winning chef, it's the rice that connects him and Shuai to each other and his own Japanese heritage. Stanhope's Japanese-American grandfather was sent to an internment camp during World War II. "Shuai is clearly a panda, and my spirit animal," he jokes. When Shuai and Corrie show up at his restaurant, Stanhope loves creating his own rice bowl riffs, so it only made sense to meet them at FIG and see one of Charleston's best chefs pay homage to the O.G.

In preparation, Stanhope had called around town procuring the perfect products for our rice bowls from friends in other kitchens. "We have such a respect for rice in our kitchen and it bonds us to people who care about rice," he says, as he lays down a bowl of rice with wasabi, ginger, and slices of fresh fish. As I gobble it up, I begin to think that maybe Jason and Shuai ought to team up for a Japanese restaurant. Can you imagine?
Shuai Wang has some impressive fans who make him fancy rice bowls - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • Shuai Wang has some impressive fans who make him fancy rice bowls
With people like Stanhope chasing the O.G. dragon around town, it's no surprise that Andrew Knowlton at Bon Appétit found his way to the Short Grain window in the True Value parking lot and scarfed down, in his words, "the onigiri (those triangular rice cakes), here stuffed with everything from spicy local yellowfin tuna to pickled green tomatoes." Short Grain made Knowlton's list of the 50 best new restaurants, no small feat for a food truck in a country packed with competition.

What it comes down to, as always, is the love. Shuai and Corrie relocated to Charleston from New York because they were in love with each other but worn out and bitter, working their tails off in New York for little reward. "I started hating the city," says Shuai, who moved to Queens from China at the age of 9. He and Corrie met while working at the same restaurant. She was a writer from Buffalo, waiting tables to pay the bills. After their restaurant gig ended, they started traveling to find a new place to live, somewhere far away from the smelly streets and overpriced real estate of New York City. "Charleston was like vacation-land," says Corrie, a novelist who sold her first young adult book to Disney, set to be published next spring. "And everyone really is friendly."
  • Stephanie Barna
The two moved to town, looked at pretty much every single possible space available, and then took a friend's suggestion to start with a food truck. They bought one, without negotiating, and Short Grain was born. They've been learning on the job, making mistakes and adjustments along the way, just as any entrepreneur does. "We workshopped that original menu so hard," says Corrie, "but now it changes almost daily."

"Yeah," agrees Shuai, "at first we were trying to fit the palate of Charleston but then we said, screw it, and just started pleasing ourselves."

Seems to have worked out just fine. Now, when can I get another one of those O.G.s?

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A spirited debut for BevCon

An industry event with promise begins in Charleston

Posted by Stephanie Barna on Tue, Aug 30, 2016 at 11:39 AM

It's not often that inaugural events get a thumbs up all around. Usually, at any event there's plenty of grumbling, complaining, gossiping, and kvetching about everything from lines and glassware (or lack thereof) to quality of programming and attendee. I know, because I'm usually one of the ones criticizing. 

Last week's first ever BevCon, an industry event that brought together bartenders, writers, PR professionals, distillers, winemakers, coffee roasters, breweries, and drinkers for a spirited convention, seems to have done the impossible and pleased everyone. The yearlong planning effort by founder Angel Postell (full disclosure: I did contract work with her PR firm for a year) and an impressive advisory council, made up of a contingent of knowledgeable professionals in their respective fields, resulted in a well-organized, well-run convention that got raves from the local venues (who usually bitch about being either fleeced by organizers or left out in the cold) as well as the 60 presenters and 250 attendees who praised the quality of seminars and events. 

In case you missed it, here's a quick recap in pictures:

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Monday, August 22, 2016

What does the McCrady's reinvention portend?

Prepare to Get Brock'd

Posted by Stephanie Barna on Mon, Aug 22, 2016 at 8:36 AM

Sean Brock pours some broth over a pile of calf's head meat - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • Sean Brock pours some broth over a pile of calf's head meat
“We just got punched in the face by the classics” — so said one of my dining companions at the conclusion of our meal at the new McCrady’s Tavern just the other night.

That dining companion happened to be Dan Latimer, a founding brother of the Charleston Brown Water Society and a former employee of the Neighborhood Dining Group, which owns McCrady’s, Husk, and Minero. I had asked him to come along so I could pick his brain about the path of Sean Brock, a chef who’s been on the bleeding edge of culinary trends for the last decade or so. As the manager of Husk and then the operations manager for NDG, Latimer has spent plenty of time working alongside Brock to have some insight on the Beard-award winning chef. What does this reinvention of McCrady’s portend? What can we glean from Brock’s latest foray into tavern fare? And what about the new McCrady’s, which promises tasting menus from the man himself?

Since Husk opened in 2010, McCrady’s had been left in the very capable hands of first Chef de Cuisine Jeremiah Langhorne, who’s since opened the critical darling The Dabney in D.C., and then Daniel Heinze, who recently left McCrady’s to pursue a new path, ostensibly far away from tavern fare. The talent at McCrady’s freed Brock up to open a Husk in Nashville, two Mineros, and plans to open even more Husks in Savannah and Greenville.

Unfortunately, I missed joining Latimer and some of McCrady’s faithful friends for the last reservation on the night of July 30, when, at the conclusion of their meal, the dining room was emptied of its furniture, and renovations commenced the next day. By all accounts it was a dazzling experience as Brock and team relived the heady days of 2006 molecular gastronomy. (Listen to Hanna Raskin and Robert Moss over at the Post and Courier podcast The Winnow for some insight into that last meal.)

I remember vividly the McCrady’s of 2006 and can’t say I was feeling all that nostalgic for it. My son might have a different perspective, though. As a mere lad, he was an early acolyte of Brock, who won him over at an event when he squeezed a bottle of liquid that transformed into a squiggly pile of noodles as it hit a bowl of hot chicken stock. From there, Jack — at the tender age of 8 — escorted me and my mother to the restaurant for a birthday tasting menu. 

A few years later, to mark his entree into teenager-dom, he once again requested a tasting menu at McCrady’s and dined with my father, who had also been dazzled by Brock’s theatrical flair. At one dinner, Brock delivered our table a round of wicked hot salt rocks with some fresh fish and instructions to sear it on the rock — carefully — before dunking it in a sauce and eating it. When Brock was in the kitchen, McCrady’s was always interesting and fun, like the time he served a fish dish on a plate of smoking hay and liquid nitrogen. Back then, I saw Brock as a chef who always swung for the fences. Some dishes might not be home runs, but he was always going for it and you had to respect that.

Over the years, Charleston has been witness to Brock’s maturation as a chef. He went from being somewhat of a punk who refused to ever serve shrimp and grits at his restaurant to being a culinary history nut who not only serves shrimp and grits but is hellbent on perfecting it. (I had his masa version at Minero the other day and am happy to see him still riffing on this timeless partnership of shellfish and corn grains.)

So what is he doing now? Why shut down McCrady’s and completely reinvent it? What does it mean when a chef who runs in the rarefied world of Rene Redzepis and David Changs decides to dismantle the flagship?

Well, it means we all stop what we’re doing and check it out. On Wednesday night, it was a veritable who’s who of the local food scene inside McCrady’s Tavern, from a Beard Award-wining chef to a local food editor and plenty of F&Bers in between.

The space itself has been miraculously transformed simply by removing the wooden booths that had been built into the brick arches of the old building. The once-staid dining room seems huge and lively now. Rock music plays in the background, and waiters wear white coats with blue jeans.

The menu is dedicated to throwback decadence: calf’s head soup, Oysters McCrady (a riff on Oysters Rockefeller), foie gras and chicken liver parfait with onion toast, escargot stuffed marrow bone (!), beef tartare with onion puffs.

“This is the kind of stuff you see served on silver platters,” said Latimer. But instead, the food gets a Brockian twist — the chicken liver parfait comes in a can looking like cat food — right down to the little slick of jelly on top of the meat. Tater tots are the vehicle delivery system for paddlefish caviar. Funyun-like onion puffs provide the same service to a classic pile of beef tartare. Brock's fingerprints (and sense of humor) are all over every menu item.  

Can you spot the can o' chicken liver parfait - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • Can you spot the can o' chicken liver parfait

"Sean gets to travel a lot," noted Latimer, "and I noticed when traveling with him that when chefs go out in other cities, they're tired of the casual trend — the same restaurant, different city — and instead they're seeking out classic places like steakhouses."   

Does that mean the casual dining trend is over? A victim of the same kind of homogeneity that turned TGI Fridays from an exciting New York singles bar into a chain of mediocre family restaurants? (Read this Jezebel story now for a great look at restaurant trends and the inevitability of becoming uncool: "Please Explain to Me How the Current Reclaimed Wood Craze isn't the Same as TGI Friday's").

Latimer thinks it's finished. "Charleston used to be at least five to 10 years behind everybody else, but we're getting [this] now because we're saturated with the same type of restaurant." Restaurateurs are moving to town and bringing us more of what we already have rather than anything new.

"We can't be Disney Charleston," said Latimer after maybe one too many glasses of wine. "We need to be Epcot Charleston." This sounded brilliant at the time. Do you want B'rer Rabbit's Splash Mountain or Chiquita Banana's Living with the Land ride? Er, well. Maybe that metaphor doesn't hold up. 

Another point from Latimer: "Watch Top Chef and cooking competitions and they're always saying more acid, more salt. Well, you can only do so much with acid and salt. Now we're getting back to fat for flavor."

And there was plenty of fat on display, from the plump french fries and the cheesy burger (stuffed with bearnaise) to the buttery onion toast and the escargots stuffed marrow bone. It was a rich meal that definitely punched us in the face.   

The escargot are stuffed down the center of the marrow bone - STEPHANIE BARNA
  • Stephanie Barna
  • The escargot are stuffed down the center of the marrow bone

Perhaps the most important element of the McCrady's reboot isn't what's on the menu at the Tavern but what will be on the menu at the new McCrady's. The new space will take over the old Minero with seating for 22. Brock says he will be the one in charge of the menu, which seems to say that Brock is ready to stay in the kitchen for a while and do what he does best — blow minds with his food. 

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