Monday, November 17, 2008

Low Country Cooking Class

Recently I posted about how much I like to cook Cajun and Creole food. For my latest cooking class/dinner/party, I decided to tackle Cajun's cousin Low Country food, cuisine that's indigenous to the South Carolina coastal plain from Pawley's Island in the north, down to Savannah in the south. I haven't spent much time in this area, but as a Southerner, I have an innate feel for the basics of the cuisine.

Our menu was:

To keep this post from becoming book length, I'm going to give an overview here and deal with each dish on its own in subsequent posts. You can follow the links in the menu above to the article on each dish. And see the post entitled Grits 101 for the basics on grits.

The first thing to know about these dishes and recipes is that they are my own. I've tasted many versions of each of these dishes and these are my versions, informed by my sensibilities and the ingredients available to me in my locale. That is to say that I am treading on some sacred ground here: I'm not a native Sandlapper and I know that your grandmother makes the best version of each of these dishes. People have started small land wars over the "correct" version of shrimp and grits, for goodness sake. I have no wish to be involved in your little wars, so I make no claims about these dishes other than you will enjoy each and every one of them.

My shrimp and grits is made with very coarse grits from Anson Mills in Columbia SC. The all critical sauce for the grits is made from shrimp, shallots, green onions, Surry sausage, garlic, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, loads of fresh thyme, fresh parsley, lemon juice, white wine, and sweet butter. Sure, this is not how your grandmother makes it, but I love it.

I make my pilau in quasi-risotto style; well, maybe I should stop beating around the bush. I make it jambalaya style. I start with a mirepoix of onions, celery, and poblano peppers sautéed with Surry sausage, garlic, fresh thyme, and crushed red pepper flakes. To this I add Carolina Gold rice, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and chicken stock, stirring and adding more stock until the rice is done. I know others insist on having separate grains of rice; that's just not for me. Here's Randy chopping onions for the pilau.

Smothered Quail is what we would call in my family Fried Quail. This is my favorite way of eating both rabbit and pork chops. I dredge the quail in seasoned flour and brown all sides, then remove the quail from the pan, and make a light brown roux from the drippings and additional oil as necessary. Then I add water to make a gravy and put the quail back in and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes. Onions and pork products always help the gravy; yesterday we used Surry sausage. I seasoned with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and fresh thyme.

I can't eat anything cooked in gravy like this without rice (hence the pilau) and a big pile of greens. My preference is turnip greens (which we call turnip salad), but in the market on Saturday, we had nothing but collards, which also suit me fine. At the restaurant, we chiffonade collards, blanch them, and sauté them quickly in olive oil and garlic. But that just won't do for a good Southern dinner which requires long slow cooking of the greens with smoked pork products.

We ended the meal with a glorious bread pudding, puffed up to almost four inches in height. Here you can see Tim whisking the custard before we added the stale bread to soak. Into the mix went caramel, white chocolate, pecans, and the guts of a vanilla bean. Quipped one of the jokers in attendance, "A vanilla bean is what we use when we run out of vanilla extract!"

You've seen the photos of some of the husbands in the class at work, but none of the wives. And what were the ladies doing during our class? What they do best: playing the role of technical advisor from the back row! It wasn't really so, but I managed to catch them chatting while the guys were whacking and stirring things.

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