The Gleeful Gourmand: February 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Husk - A Southern Food Revival

Last weekend we had the privilege of traveling down to Charleston, South Carolina to participate in one of my oldest and dearest friend's weddings. It's hard to put into words the rush of joy and emotion I felt watching Kerri get married. I'm not typically a cry-at-weddings type of gal, but this time was different. Helping Kerri get ready on her wedding day, and seeing how stunning and joyful she looked had me turning on the waterworks just about every 5 minutes. I think there's something different about witnessing the wedding of a friend you've known since Kindergarten. Along with our other good friend, Liz, we've been through just about every up and down you can imagine. Watching her radiate so much joy was truly wonderful.

Of course, you can't talk about Charleston without talking about food (and I have to interject that the food at both the rehearsal dinner and the wedding was phenomenal). The city is commonly referred to as a "food destination town," and it delivers. My husband and I have had a love affair with Charleston and its food scene for many years now, but this time I was determined to check off one restaurant from my culinary bucket list: Husk.

If you don't know about Husk, here's a quick run-down: Husk is led by culinary superstar Sean Brock (Virginia native!), who has devoted his career to showcasing Southern food done right. He is also devoted to bringing the freshest ingredients from all over the South, and his modus operandi is that if a product shows up in his kitchen that isn't from the South, and isn't fresh, it doesn't get served. He typically uses the whole food approach too, which means that at places like Husk there's a lot of on-premise pickling, preserving, and smoking going on. Plus, the restaurant is set up in an old house in the heart of downtown that dates back to the early 19th century.

Sounds amazing, right? Well, about 3 1/2 weeks before we were supposed to arrive, I finally called to make reservations for dinner. Booked solid. I have never been so disappointed, and while I knew this place was hot, I didn't think it was so hot that at 3 1/2 weeks out I couldn't get a table. We decided to have dinner instead at McCrady's, Sean Brock's other restaurant in Charleston, and a place I had been to before. In fact, that was the restaurant that led to me starting this blog, so I was very happy to go there as a substitute. And man, did it deliver. I had the best duck I had ever had in my entire life, and discovered that their pastry chef had worked at Noma (recently named the best restaurant in the world) for 6 months. Noma! I was food geeking out.

The next day my husband and I decided to get up early and walk around downtown Charleston. We didn't have plans for lunch, but we had some time to kill. Why not check out Husk and just see what the wait was? The wait was 45 minutes, and we immediately put our names in and set up shop on the restaurant's front porch swing. We weren't the only ones with that idea though - we watched a steady line of people go in and out as they decided whether it was worth the wait.

It was worth the wait.

Our lunch menu - it changes daily at Husk.

The restaurant is cool and beautiful inside: light and airy with a huge chalkboard at the bottom of the main stairs detailing where all the products used that day hailed from. Upon sitting down we were brought a basket of freshly made buttermilk rolls with benne (a sesame seed common to Charleston) sprinkled on top and honey pork butter. Yes, honey pork butter. Next, we shared an appetizer of Fried Green Tomatoes with pimento cheese. They were so delicious, perfectly and lightly fried with little to no grease. For my lunch I had the Pork Melt which boasted cheddar cheese, house-made pickles and mustard, and fried potatoes. I'm having trouble describing how utterly amazing this sandwich was, but all I can say is that it had a pork chop that was perfectly sized (not too big, not too small), and was so perfectly cooked that it practically melted in your mouth. The flavors were perfectly married, and each mouthful was a joy. Buck had the Shrimp and Grits (with Fennel, Leeks, Sweet Corn, Pancetta, and Smoked Tomato) and he declared it the best he had ever had. We skipped dessert because we were too full, but dining at Husk was something I'll never forget. I think what I loved most about the food was that you could tell that every inch of our meals was constructed with thoughtfulness and passion - and that was just lunch! Husk is also getting ready to open a new location in Nashville.

I can't end this blog without talking about one last piece of food heaven I experienced in Charleston. After the wedding we headed out with a big group of my old high school friends to a bar on King Street, but after learning that their kitchen was closed, we found ourselves at a new bar/diner called The Rarebit. There I had something I'd always wanted to try: Chicken and Waffles. It blew me away. The buttermilk waffle was light and fluffy, and the fried chicken was crispy, salty and tender. I drank their Champagne Cocktail with it, and decided that this was the quintessential southern food experience. Two culinary bucket list items crossed off in one weekend!

The only thing I forgot on all of these outings was my camera. But who needs pictures? Take a vacation, head down South and discover all the amazing food Charleston has to offer. I can't wait to go back.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Fight Spring Fever With This Stew

And so we come to February, which is technically the middle of winter here in the South. There are holidays to be enjoyed (Mardi Gras and Valentine's fall in the same week this year!) so there's not a lack of festivity to be had when it comes to food. And yet..

There is the slump. At least for me. I get to this time of year and the foodie in me who wants to try her best to make interesting and delicious meals for her family just flounders. Out rolls the spaghetti, again, and again. Here comes taco night. Didn't we just have taco night? Oh look, a pot of chili. How very unoriginal. I think my problem with this time of the year is the lack of really fresh, good vegetables. There's only so much kale I can take, and everything in the produce aisle just looks so sad and lackluster. I know there's a world of wintertime vegetables that I haven't discovered, but this is the time of the year when I also get run-down and tired, and no, I don't want to use my brain to figure out how to use them in new dishes, and no, I don't want to start making Quinoa because I just read about how our newfound love of it is making Bolivian farmers fantastically impoverished because they can no longer afford their own grain.

But I digress.

Here in Virginia, with the weather always so wacky, we get these terrible frigid cold snaps, and then we get one or two really warm days that roll in like a wanton, lying lover who puts ideas in your head. Bad ideas like the freshest strawberries bursting with flavor, blueberries so tart and yet so sweet, tomatoes so flavorful it makes you want to weep. They're bad ideas because even though we live in the South, we're still a few months away from that bounty. As much as I love diving into hearty wintertime peasant dishes like cassoulet, with the first breeze of a warm rain comes the whisper of springtime food, and before I can stop myself I'm dreaming of summer.

So what to do? If you've found yourself in the same predicament, I offer you the following recipe from the October edition of Better Homes and Garden Magazine: Pork and Poblano Stew. I love many things about this dish, but the first thing I love are the flavors. You've got chili powder coating the pork and the poblano pepper, but it's not so spicy that your cheeks flame and your eyes water. Then you have the bright and cheerful notes of the orange juice and zest, and finally the cinnamon making the smell so heavenly and the taste warm and well-rounded. I also love that it's a one-pot dish, and it takes hardly any time at all to make. I also love that I feel like I can make this year-round and it would be just as good, no matter what the season. So take that, winter dreariness! Even my 5-year-old loves this stew. I've served it with Buttermilk Cornbread, but I really like it with Parker House yeast rolls. This stew is my weapon of choice to stave off serious spring fever.

This stew is the mayor of flavor town.

Pork and Poblano Stew

1 1/4 lb. pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 tsp. chili powder
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 fresh poblano chile pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 large sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, cut into thin wedges
1 14 oz. can fire-roasted tomatoes with garlic, undrained
1 14 oz. can reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tsp. finely shredded orange peel

1. Toss pork with chili powder to coat. In a large saucepan heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook pork about 4 minutes or until browned. Use a slotted spoon to remove pieces, set aside.

2. Add remaining oil to the saucepan. Add peppers and onion. Cook over medium-high heat until just tender, about 5 minutes.

3. Add tomatoes, broth, and cinnamon. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer, covered over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add pork and orange juice. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Stir in orange peel. Remove cinnamon stick before serving.

Yields 4 servings.