Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Southern Fried Road Trip (Part 4)

This next leg of our trip was the most exciting for me.  Ever since I had read 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' back in highschool, I have dreamed of visiting Savannah, GA.  Romantic, ethereal, mysterious, friendly, beautiful Savannah!  A place where you can rely on the kindness of strangers and words flow from peoples mouths as smoothly as silk.  After ten years or so of visiting Savannah in my mind, I was finally going for real!  From the moment I found out, I immediately began practicing my Southern drawl, (which I might add, is pretty terrible) while promising Zac that I wouldn't use my wonderfully charming accent in public.

After fueling up our car and ourselves, we left Atlanta and were headed for Savannah.

When we arrived at our B&B, Park Avenue Manor, I immediately felt giddy.  We were truly staying in an old southern manor.  Decorated from top to bottom just the way I had imagined it would be.  We were greeted by the owner, with Sherry and homemade brownies, that we were told would be available to us 24 hours a day.  Seriously??  If a hankering hit mid night, I could hop out of bed to sip sherry in the salon by the fire?  How much better could this get?!

As dinnertime rolled around, the B&B owner sent us off to a great pub, with a fantastic beer list, called the Crystal Beer Parlor.  We were on a roll eating only brown things, so why stop now?  A hamburger with onion rings and fried shrimp with handmade potato chips and beer it was!  Zac alleges that our server offered roasted veggies as one of the sides for my meal but, to this day, I still think he imagined it. 

As last call was announced, I started to notice that people seemed to transferring their drinks into plastic cups.  Feeling like I was about to ask a pretty stupid question, I shyly asked the bartender if people were actually taking their beer to go.  He answered with a laugh, that they were and that it is legal to walk the streets of Savannah with alcohol in hand, "as long as you are within 50 feet of a pub, and in Savannah, you are always 50 feet from a pub!"  To go cups of beer in hand, Zac and I made our way back to our B&B for a nightcap of Sherry and brownies.

Flowery sundresses and takeout cups of beer.  In my next life, I'm coming back as a Southern Belle.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Charcutepalooza! (A Year of Meat)

My friend James and I have recently decided to team up and take part in Charcutepalooza: a year dedicated to the art of curing and eating our own meat (twelve recipes in twelve months).  Sadly, we were just shy of a week late for the deadline to become "official" participants, but we're hoping that Cathy Barrow, let's call her "the head honcho," of Mrs Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen and co-founder Kim Foster of The Yummy Mummy can find it in their hearts to let us join, once we prove our dedication to the cause, of course.  Even if we aren't able to officially join in, we'll be happily plowing, unofficially, through the contest.  In the end we'll be winners in our own hearts.  That's really all that matters after all is said and done, right?

Since we dropped the ball on beginning alongside the throngs of meat-y fanatics out there, we missed the first cure which was duck prosciutto.  We will however, be catching up on that once the temperature begins to rise and we have an appropriately tempered basement to hang our meat in.

Enough chitter-chatter.  Let's get down to the business of the first challenge.  The Salt Cure - Bacon!

I'm going to let James kick this one off with his two cents:

J: This was not the first time I’d made bacon.  In fact, I almost didn’t buy the book (Charcuterie: The Art of Salting, Smoking and Curing by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn) because I thought "I’ll just go to Chapters, take a high res picture of the bacon page and bam! – save myself $40." Camera-phone focused and ready, I had a change of heart.  The Black Hoof had something to do with this.  I’d spent a rainy November night waiting for a table and sat down to a taste explosion, a taste-meat-explosion.  If they could do it, and I could (probably) make bacon, then why not buy the whole book? No reason not to.

The first batch of bacon was christened ‘Christmas Bacon’, and became small gifts of porcine appreciation to friends and family.  Christmas breakfast had never been so bacon-y. A total success, and not a trace of botulism (I agonized over accidentally poisoning someone for the whole week.)  A few rounds of curing and smoking later and here we are, unofficial contestants in Charcutepalooza.

I won’t go into detail about the method, go buy the book.  I will add some things though:
  1. Smoking the cured belly to the correct internal temperature is far superior to roasting it off in the oven (no, I haven’t tried the oven method, why would I?)
  2. Don’t fear botulism, especially if you’re using pink salt. (note: pink salt is dyed pink in some places and not in others.  It’s just salt mixed with sodium nitrate.) 
  3. Your bacon will be the best you’ve ever had, fact!
Now for our requisite bacon photos:

R: After much discussion among friends we decided that our freshly cured bacon would be transformed into the wicked-ist, most awesome-ist Club Sandwich we'd ever had.  Ever since that decision was made, we both found ourselves dreaming about our first creation, literally.  I dreamed that we made chicken soup from the smoked bones left over from our chicken and James was dreaming about fresh cut french fries to accompany our Club.  After some discussion, we decided that it would be best to keep things simple on our first go and just stick to the sandwich.  Not to worry, I'm sure we'll quickly complicate things, as we often do.

On Saturday morning, during an impromptu snow squall, James and I were off to the markets (St.Lawrence and Brickworks) to pick out the rest of our ingredients (our bacon was finished curing and ready to be smoked).

Here are the items that were to become our "Best Club Ever" (later to be dubbed "The 12hr Club" due to the time it took us to shop for, create, and shoot it):
  • Pork Belly, that was at home finishing it's cure and waiting to be smoked, which was, of course, to become our bacon-y hero, from Wayne's Meat (Hagersville, ON)
  • Chicken, which we would season and smoke, from Clement Poultry (Newcastle, ON).
  • Hydroponically grown Ontario lettuce and tomatoes. 
  • After tasting a sample, we couldn't resist picking up some Eweda, a semi hard aged sheep cheese, from Best Baa Farm (Fergus, ON).
  • Homemade aioli made from farm fresh eggs that we picked up from The Sunrise Egg Farm (Wallenstein, ON).
  • Freshly baked whole wheat bread from Celena's Bakery (Toronto, ON).  James had insisted on us needing "bread shaped bread" for our sandwiches, so we hit three bakeries before he dubbed a traditional loaf shaped loaf, from Celena's, to be worthy of our sandwich.
  • Pickles from Jamie Kennedy's Gilead Cafe (Toronto, ON).  Which Zac would arrive with just in time to eat.

It was finally time to dig ourselves a path and fire up the smoker!

J: The chicken was smoked for about 2hrs. at 275ºF in a Webber Smokey Mountain (WSM) over lump charcoal and Jack Daniels whiskey barrel pellets. The rub is my secret recipe, but these Cedar Grilling guys are king in the barbecue ring.  Try their rub, it's good too. 

After making our aioli, which left us with egg whites that we didn't want to waste, I proposed that we make meringues.  I’d always thought about making meringues but never attempted it – I’m not much for baking.  Reena taking the reigns of measure made them quite a bit more ‘consistent.’  Our mid-meringue addition consisted of a quick shopping trip to pick up orange and peppermint extract. Add a bit of shaved dark chocolate and we’re talkin’ mint-chocolate chip ice cream and Terry’s Chocolate Orange meringues!

Seeing as our recipe is rather simple, we've decided to spice it up a bit and go with more of an illustrated version:

Our first challenge was a success and we can't wait to get our hands salty with the next one!
All of our challenges will be posted on the 15th of the month, so check in then to follow us on our adventure in Charcutapalooza-land.

We'd like to extend a special thanks to the fine people of Multi-national CONGLOMOCOR for requesting that our sandwich become their "official corporate executive club-style sandwich" – the Conglomoclub.  At the President's request, that version will be sans-tomatoes and if desired, the diner may order it ‘with tomatoes.’ No big deal.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Southern Fried Road Trip (Part 3)

A friend of ours, who had lived in Atlanta, GA for a bit, recommend that we try Fat Matt's Rib Shack.  Actually I'm pretty sure he insisted that it was THE place for great BBQ.  So we went.  And it was delightful.  After taking a quick glimpse at the menu board we decided on: one chopped pork sandwich, one rib sandwich, mac and cheese with both and one giant sweet tea for me.  Oh and a piece of pecan pie.  Oh, that pecan pie.... Yet again, we found ourselves polishing off our plates and licking our fingers clean.  The bbq sauce is just too good to waste by wiping it onto a napkin!  Fat Matt's definitely did not disappoint.

I've been noticing more and more, that for me, part of what makes food taste so great is the atmosphere.  Fat Matt's had lots of it.  Big bright signs, a touch of neon, truly friendly staff and a shop filled to the brim with happy customers busy licking sauce from every finger.  The clientele consisted of everyone from students to truckers to fancy ladies with their designer bags and their hair freshly did.  It was truly fantastic.  If we hadn't been on our way to Savannah, I could have stayed all day.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Southern Fried Road Trip (Part 2)

This is the day we ate four southern-sized meals in twelve hours.  As painful on my intestinal tract as these twelve hours were, it was honestly one of the best food days of my life.  The day had come for us to finally meet some proper Carolina BBQ, as well as that good 'ol Southern soul food.  This was pretty much the only part of our trip that we had actually planned out but it was also bit of a Hail Mary play.  We had learned about our two main destinations from Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt series, that had aired back in 2006.  He had touted them as the best bbq and fried chicken in the south.  It's been a bad couple of years in the states, so we weren't sure if these places would still be around.  We decided to take a gamble all in the name of great food discovery and a bit of adventure. 

We woke and went down to check out the "continental breakfast" at our hotel.  Expecting some packaged croissants and a bad coffee, we were surprised to find a buffet of greasy delights.  We enjoyed fresh baked biscuits topped with sausage patties and gravy.  The best part of the buffet was the bowl of fruit in the corner that had obviously not been touched since the last Canadians were in town and was slowly rotting.

Next up Carolina Smoke House in Cashiers, North Carolina.
As we drove for hours, up and up and up one of the windiest, most lovely tree-lined roads, deeper and deeper into the middle of nowhere, we were literally giddy with anticipation of our first mouthful.  Driving with the windows down we got intermittent whiffs of smokey pits filled with meat.  The anticipation was almost too much to bear.  When we pulled up in front of the restaurant, we were greeted by the sight of a group of bikers.  Thinking that we had pulled into a bit of a backwoods biker hangout, I left my vintage Louis bag in the trunk, so as not to appear too flashy.  We walked in and grabbed a table right beside four ladies right out of "The Real Housewives of..." - decked out with Louis bags (I suspect from the actual Louis store) and UGGS... ha!  I guess pit-smoked BBQ is the Holt's Cafe of Cashiers, NC.

On to the food...  Here is where I fell in looooove with sweet tea, and learned two things:
  1. Beverages only come in one size: gargantuan.  I actually needed two hands to lift the glass to my mouth. 
  2. Refills are always included (and expected!) and you are always offered a to-go cup, just in case the first 20 litres of liquid wasn't enough to satisfy your thirst.  But when in Rome, I say bring on the refills!  I probably drank enough sweet tea to drown a horse.
And now, the most important part of our journey.  The meat.  Zac ordered the chopped pork sandwich and I had ribs.  Both of them came with fries, coleslaw and texas toast.  The meat was fall-off-the-bone tender (well, the chopped pork didn't have bones, but you get it...) and had the most amazingly smokey flavour.  As I raised a rib to my mouth the smell of the smoker filled my nose, and when I bit in, my mouth was filled with a beautifully smokey sweetness, as the meat practically dissolved on my tongue.  I was in love.

Now here's the problem with our plan: it turned out that the two places we most desperately wanted to hit were only an hours drive apart.  There was no chance of us picking only one, so knowing that we would be having a second lunch in about an hour, we planned on eating enough to just get a solid taste for BBQ and leave room for a second course of soul food.  As you can see, we pretty much polished off our plates.  Oops.

Second Lunch was Shirley's Sole Food Cafe in Toccoa, Georgia.
Shirley's definitely jumps to the top of my list as far as favorite things we did during our road trip.  With to-go cups of sweet tea in hand, we packed ourselves back into the car and headed for Georgia.  As I mentioned before, this is one of the two destinations we actually had planned to hit and this was the restaurant we deemed least likely to pan out.  At least the Smoke House has a website that seemed to be up to date.  Heading to Shirley's was a bigger gamble, but we couldn't resist giving it a go.  After an hour's drive, we reached Toccoa, GA. and with baited breath we kept our eyes pealed for Shirley's.  As our GPS loudly proclaimed "arriving at destination on right" our hearts quickly sank when Shirley's didn't appear.  We continued to drive through the sad and dilapidated downtown, and just as we were about to give up, Shirly's appeared at the bottom of a hill.  It looked pretty deserted and the conversation turned to positive sounding banter about how the ride was fun anyway and we'd already had a great meal at the last place, yada yada.  We pulled over to take a look inside and when I tried the door, it was locked.  Suddenly, I saw someone inside and he was walking towards the door.  He was a very soft-spoken, very shy man with an incredibly thick southern accent.  From what I could understand, they were closed for the day because they were preparing meals for a fundraiser that was being held that night.  I began to walk away but he opened the door and asked if we were hungry and wanted to eat.  I excitedly, and somewhat quizzically said "yes?"  He went back inside to talk to Shirley, and came back shortly to invite us inside.  Over the moon doesn't even describe how thrilled I was.  Shirley explained that they were having a fundraiser that evening where people would be able to buy a pre-packed meal for $7 and all the money was being donated to a local shelter.  She happily sold us one (we politely declined a second.  After all, this was our second lunch in an hour).  We thanked her profusely as I exclaimed "we drove all the way from Toronto just to try your chicken!"  Takeout containers in hand we headed outside (so they could continue prepping) and plopped ourselves down in the parking lot to break into the goods.

Inside was one half of a roasted chicken, beans, coleslaw, a couple slices of Wonderbread, applesauce and a nice big cup of sweet tea.  As thrilled as we were to have been so lucky, when we opened the container, we were disappointed to discover that the chicken was roasted and not fried (we went to Shirley's specifically for the fried chicken), but were still beyond excited that we had an amazing stroke of luck and Shirley had opened her doors to feed us.  One taste of that chicken and all of our disappointment disappeared.  Here we were, trying to be all classy with our plastic forks in the parking lot, but one bite of that chicken had us quickly ditching our utensils so we could devour the meal as quickly as possible.  I'm pretty sure that we didn't even speak until the chicken had been picked clean.  BEST chicken of my life!  I'm seriously not exaggerating.  I still dream about it.  So Second Lunch, that we had decided we would just get a taste of, disappeared much like lunch number one.  When Zac reached for the wonder bread, I nearly lost it.  I couldn't believe that he was even considering eating it.  Turns out, he's a pretty clever gent.  One thing that was missing from our meal was napkins and it turns out that Wonderbread makes a pretty great substitute.

I wish I had had more time to chat with Shirley but she was really busy preparing all the meals for that evening.  I was so grateful that she had let us in and fed us that I didn't dare take up any more of her time.  Someday,  I'll have to go back to shoot a portrait of Shirley and try her fried chicken.

Dinner that night, which we barely managed to drag ourselves to, was at Greenwood's Restaurant in Roswell, Georgia.  Now this was an absolute gem of a find that we literally stumbled across. Everything is made in-house from scratch with local, organic, seasonal ingredients.  Everything that touched my tongue was almost too good to be true.  The fried chicken is made to order and has the kind of incredibly crunchy and sophisticated batter that I thought only existed in my dreams.  Even the sides were beyond words.  Zac and I spent the entire evening trying to figure out how they make the sweet potatoes... we're pretty sure one of the tricks is vanilla, but honestly, we'd never tasted sweet potatoes like these!  Oh! and the cheese grits... swoon.  Sadly, there are two things I regret about this trip and they both came about because of Greenwood's.  The first is not having had a piece of pie and the second is forgetting the leftovers in the hotel room fridge the next morning (this I'm pretty sure I'll never forgive myself for).
I would have to say that if you are in the Atlanta, GA area, Greenwoods is an absolute must.  A word of advice.  Go on an empty stomach.  Actually, don't eat for three days prior.  Get the fried chicken and share it between at least two people, and for the love of god, at least get the pie and take it home for later!

We rolled ourselves back to our hotel, bloated and over-satisfied, where we swore that we would never eat again.  After we brushed our teeth, I sneaked into our little fridge, where we had stowed away our leftovers, ate a mouthful of sweet potato and a piece of the crispy chicken skin, then crawled into bed to dream about the food I would eat the next day.