Dinner Party: Southern Classics

Rob and I wanted to share some of the great southern food we have experienced on our road trips and so we sent out an open invite to fans of Happy Mouth via our Facebook page. We have done this once before and it was a great success and this time was no different. Seems people who enjoy good food and travel just naturally fit together.

Tonight’s menu did not come together until the very last minute. Here’s the menu we arrived at:

Southern Classics menu:
Lee Brother’s Pimento Cheese Dip with Stoned Wheat Crackers
Bonefish Grill’s Bang Bang Shrimp
Dr. Pepper-Braised Rib Tips in on Cheesy Grits
Green Beans sauteed with Onion, Bacon and Pecans
Homesick Texan’s Hatch Chili Pepper and Apple Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream

We wanted to share our new-found love of grits and what better to serve on grits than rib tips. Oh, but try and find these little scrumptious morsels in Ottawa. A call out to several area butchers was fruitless. They simply do not cut pork that way here. Then Rob got the brilliant idea to try T&T, an Asian grocer, and we lucked out. So, rib tips in hand we decided to serve rib tips braised in a Dr. Pepper BBQ sauce over cheesy grits. Southern sides present a bit of a problem because they tend to serve two or three starches and meat. Rob managed to find some inspiration on the web and come up with something greener and crunchier to serve but still with an eye to the south, green beans sauteed with bacon and pecans.

The evening began around 4 pm when our guest began to arrive. Rob prepared sazeracs as a starter cocktail while guests nibbled on pimento cheese dip and crackers and I prepared bang bang shrimp. The sazerac is a New Orleans institution and bars, establishments, restaurants and foodies argue over who makes the best one, same as they do over the po’boy sandwich,or almost any famous New Orleans dish. The first time we visited NOLA we were informed that Clancy’s had the best sazerac. Clancy’s closes (smartly) during the heat of a New Orleans summer, so we didn’t have one. This past trip I was determined and so I ordered one at the Rib Room.

Making a sazerac is a ritual. The glass is chilled with ice. The ice is dumped out and the glass is seasoned with a swirl of absinthe which then too is dumped out. In another glass, a sugar cube is muddled with Peychaud bitters. Whiskey is added and then that is strained into the seasoned glass and a twist of lemon is tossed in. Peychaud bitters are apparently essential but are utterly unavailable in Canada. We substituted angostura bitters which are a bit more spicy. The drink is a softened slightly sweet whiskey with a hint of lemon, cinnamon and clove. Our sazeracs didn’t taste as I remembered them in the Big Easy, but part of that may have been the missing French Quarter view.

With our drinks we served a couple of appetizers, pimento cheese and bang band shrimp. Pimento cheese is a simple and thrifty dip that can also be used as a spread for sandwiches. It’s essentially a mixture of roasted red peppers, mayonnaise, cream cheese and sharp cheddar, along with some chile flakes and salt and pepper to taste. It’s very good with come simple crackers.

Our other app, bang bang shrimp is an intriguing Southern take on an Asian dish. It’s a cornstarch battered, deep-fried shrimp in a spicy, sweet chili sauce with the mandatory Southern addition of mayonnaise. It’s all tossed together and served as toothpick food. We’ve had this as the centerpiece of an main meal at Myrtle Beach’s excellent Mr. Fish.

For the Rib tips, we didn’t really follow a recipe, but here’s the basic blow-by-blow description:

  • Dredge the tips (we used about 4 pounds of these) in seasoned flour (add your favourite BBQ rub and black pepper, the rub is salty enough) and brown tips all sides in a hot braising pot with a couple tablespoons of oil. Do this in batches until complete. Set aside in a bowl.
  • In the pot with the leftover oil, sauté a chopped onion. When translucent, add about a litre of Dr. Pepper (not DIET Dr. Pepper), about 1/2  a bottle of your favourite non-smoky BBQ sauce and a teaspoon each of dried thyme, oregano, pepper, chili powder and about 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper. Stir, bring to a boil, add the rib tips (they should be almost covered by the liquid), reduce heat and simmer for 3 hours. The cartilage in the rib tips will dissolve into the liquid and thicken it, and you’ll be left with tangy, sweet, saucy morsels that are perfect to sit upon rice, potatoes or in this case, beautiful, creamy, cheesy grits.

And then we come to the raison d’être of the evening’s meal – to introduce frost-bitten Canadians to a true treasured staple of the South, grits. Most Canadian’s who have tried grits, have tried bad grits, usually lukewarm, unseasoned, clumpy grits at a breakfast buffet when they were vacationing in Florida. Those grits are to real grits like a McRib is real BBQ.

Dessert on this crisp fall evening was the Homesick Texan’s Hatch Chile Pepper and Apple cobbler, with vanilla ice cream. I’ve made this before and it is  sweet and spicy and different. Once again, an essential ingredient was unavailable to us. Hatch chillies are grown in New Mexico and are the most famous chili in the Southern US. We substituted poblano peppers, which are nice and provide a little green zing. The only problem using poblanos is that the heat level is unreliable. They can be mild to medium in heat.

All in all the recreations worked and we had a great evening entertaining our friends, reminiscing about our travels, and despite several major and minor kitchen disasters, including a pitcher of boiling water for iced tea exploding and the resultant flow shutting down our electric starters on the gas stove (blow dryer to the rescue!) and a broken wine glass, and forgetting the awesome, flaky, cheesy biscuits in the microwave, the night was a great success. Thanks to Barry, Terry, Brad and Carole!


SmoQue Shack

Rob and I have pondered over the years what kind of restaurant WE would open. We identified real BBQ as the one thing Ottawa was much in need of. Our joint would feature real competition-style smoked ribs from a variety of styles, pulled pork, authentic BBQ sides, checkered oil cloth covered tables, cold beer out of an ice chest, and a large stage for bands. Of course it was all a pipe dream. Opening a restaurant is a labour of love and passion that requires a dedication of time and energy that would leave no time for weekend warriors bashing pucks or entertaining crowds in a band.

Authentic BBQ is here and residing in the heart of Ottawa’s downtown core, nestled in the Byward Market on York Street. The SmoQue Shack is open for business. Rob and I ventured over this past rainy Friday, early, just before 6 pm, as it is hard to get a seat without a reservation and you can only get one for a party of 5 or more. We were seated and as expected there was a line up at the door when we left a little over an hour later. The Shack is warmly lit with wooden tables, comfy armless chairs and an attractive distressed concrete floor. Flatties on the wall feature football and sports wrap up shows.

Our friendly server brings us Beau’s and a Waupoos while we check out the menu. Rob and I have traveled extensively throughout BBQ country and are quite familiar with the different styles and what constitutes good BBQ. If you think the ribs at Baton Rouge are AWESOME, stop reading now or get yourself to the SmoQue Shack and get schooled.

That said, we ordered some bench mark items to truly understand if the Shack was up to our standards, as set by our travels: Memphis-style St. Louis style pork ribs, corn bread, beans, potato salad and cole slaw. We ordered a half rack each, 2 corn bread, and the individual portions of the other sides, not the sharing size. The sizes are quite generous and more than enough for two. We had leftovers packed up.

The ribs are smoked over Quebec maple charcoal and Ontario applewood then lightly glazed with a chipotle-honey sauce. They are mildly zingy and nicely sweet. The meat pulls away from the bone with a light tug. Tender. Perfect. For the unschooled, fall off the bone ribs (as I call them “Baton Rouge ribs”) have usually been boiled, dropped in a bucket of sauce and then slapped on a grill for grill marks upon your order. Real southern BBQ ribs are smoked long and slow, should leave a bite mark in the meat, display a rosy smoke ring, and are a true tribute to the animal and the chef.

Our next benchmark for true BBQ is the sides. Sides should not be an afterthought. They are not extras or freebies. They are as important as the meat. Cornbread is a real tell. The Shack’s corn bread is fresh, moist but not oily or crumbly, with a hint of sweet. It needs no butter to revive it. Very traditional. Definitely earns an A. I generally eat a spoonful of any particular joint’s beans and then leave them unless they are exceptional. There are many styles of BBQ beans and personal taste does come into play. If the beans are just spicy with no sweet or just beans and tomato sauce, I won’t waste valuable calories on them. I prefer sweet, smoky beans. The beans at the Shack rank up there with our BEST EVER  found at Famous Dave’s in Tucson, Arizona. Since these are just down the street I am gonna have to give that honour over to the Shack, where the beans are sweet and made smoky with chunks of bacon and brisket. I ate every bean.

As with the other sides, the potato salad and slaw were obviously carefully considered additions to the menu at the Smoque Shack.  The potato salad has big chunks, a nice zing from the mustard-vinegar based dressing, fresh peas and is not overdressed.  The slaw (tangy not creamy, the Shack offers both), dressed with a cider vinaigrette, unusual and quite nice, is a fresh, crunchy addition to our meal. The one “freebie”, a white roll which comes with the meat is also well considered. Art-Is-In provides the yeasty, airy rolls which reminded us a bit of the ones we had at Marlowe’s in Memphis, Tennessee, before they were deep fried and reached a whole other level of deliciousness.

Dessert was Pascale’s chocolate chili bacon ice cream. How can you pass that up? Pascale’s chocolate is creamy and excellent in chocolate flavour. The chili heat is just barely there and the bacon adds a nice porky salt. My only comment would be that the bacon is hard to chew completely and you are left with it in your mouth for a bit. Crisping it up more or even candying it would make it even better, but yes I would definitely eat this ice cream again. The generous portion comes with an excellent chocolate cookie.

We entered the SmoQue Shack with high expectations and left with happy mouth. The Shack is serving great, authentic BBQ, practically in our own backyard. Our only observations regarding authenticity were twofold: Tofu on the menu? Really? I asked a vegetarian friend about this and she said “Seriously, why?” You can’t please everyone and you shouldn’t try. Tofu does not not belong in a BBQ joint, just as pork ribs don’t belong at a PETA rally. The second thing: the Shack has a nice, clean, casual vibe with no flies, flypaper or sketchy corners visible. Okay, maybe that’s not authentic but it’s not a bad thing either.

Addendum from Rob: I’ve just returned from dinner with a friend at the SmoQue Shack. I was determined to try some different menu items this time, so I selected the beef ribs and the red beans and rice. The beef ribs are among the best I’ve ever had, including even those big meaty Texas beef ribs straight from cattle country. Slow smoked and presented with a perfect sauce that compliments the rich and flavourful beef, these ribs were seriously substantial. I had the 1/4 rack which was the perfect size – two oversize ribs with ample meat clinging to the large bones. The red beans and rice were of the drier, Caribbean variety (as opposed to the saucy version you’d get in Louisiana or Mississippi) and were very tasty.

The SmoQue Shack has preserved its first impression as the real deal through my second visit, rounding out more of the terrific menu offerings. Looking forward to going back. It’s going to be a mission to complete the menu at some point.





Lentils and Rice (Mujadarrah)

“Rice is great when you’re hungry and want 2000 of something.”     –Mitch Hedberg

 I have never been a big fan of rice. It’s boring, filler-food used to hold up tastier food. Then I discovered lentils and rice at a tiny corner market when we moved to Ottawa.

My sister and I would often visit Ayoub’s, a corner store that made a wide selection of Middle Eastern food, spending pocket change not on chocolate bars and chips, but crispy pakoras, cheesy garlic flatbreads and lentils and rice – all made in-house. Unfortunately, Ayoub’s burned down a few years back.

Lentils and rice is just that: a combination of lentils, rice, onions and a mixture of spices that turns it into yummy comfort food. Lentils and rice, or mujadarrah, is a perfect side and puts boring old rice to shame. It still works under things like curries and is even better cold out of the fridge the next day.

I might be overstepping, but I’ve found that any rice can be used for lentils and rice. It’s a perfect use for that free white rice that comes with Chinese food delivery no one ever eats, basmati, brown rice, Minute Rice or even old dried out rice left out on the counter all night in the rice cooker because you each thought the other one was going to put it away. No matter what type of rice you use, it works and it always turns out tasty. Best of all, the ingredients are the cheapest around.

Rice (3 rice cooker scoops will make a nice big batch. Otherwise, as much rice as you would normally cook up for dinner)
1-2 Cans lentils (green ones preferably as they hold their shape)
2 Medium white onions finely diced
1 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. Black pepper
1 tsp. Cumin
Splash lemon juice
1/4 cup Olive oil

Cook rice in advance.

  1. Coat a large frying pan or wok with 1/4 cup olive oil, and heat up.
  2. Add onions to the oil, moving them around occasionally until they are on the edge of nicely browned and about to turn black. They should be fried up enough that you would eat them right out of the pan should it be socially acceptable. Save a few onion bits for garnishing later if you’d like.
  3. Deglaze with a splash of lemon juice, about 2 tablespoons or one “whoosh” around the pan with a squeeze bottle of Real Lemon.
  4. Add salt, pepper and cumin to the bubbling onions.
  5. Add rice to pan and toss it around to coat it in the oil, onions and spices.
  6. Add lentils to the mixture and combine.
  7. Serve with a blob of sour cream or Greek-style yogurt on top and additional fried onion bits if desired.

Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.

There are plenty of variations to be found on mujadarrah online, including ones with different spices and bigger fried onion pieces. I’ve seen it referred to as the “mac and cheese” of the Middle East – and just like mac and cheese, every family has their own way of doing it. Try it, and come up with your own.

Best Ever Mushroom Soup

I’ve made this rustic soup for many years now as the autumn season draws to a close and the evenings make me want to cocoon inside by the fire. This quick soup can be made with chicken stock or with vegetable for an entirely vegetarian meal. Buy pre-sliced mushrooms and a baguette for a fast weekday dinner. If you love cream of mushroom soup, I doubt you will find a tastier one.

Cream of Mushroom Soup
Adapted from Harrowsmith Magazine

2 lbs. mushrooms, sliced
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons Butter
6 tablespoons Flour
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups cream
2 cups skim milk

1. Melt butter in a stock pot. Saute mushrooms, onions, and garlic for about 5 minutes.

2. Remove vegetables with slotted spoon and set aside, leaving behind the butter and liquid.

3. Put flour into a bowl and slowly whisk a little of the melted butter liquid from the pot into the flour to form a paste and then a little more to make it fluid. Add the flour mixture back to pot and whisk to mix over medium heat. This will prevent the flour from clumping.

4. Add thyme, pepper and soy sauce. Cook, stirring for 3 minutes. Slowly stir in stock, then cream and milk. Cook until mixture is thickened and heated through. Return vegetables to pot. Serve with crusty bread or baguette and a salad.

Click HERE for a printable version of this recipe.


Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

As the joke goes, there are only two seasons in Ottawa: Winter and construction season. It’s kind of like that for me – Tomato season and “not tomato season”. During tomato season, I have them for breakfast, sliced on toasted bread, sometimes with cucumber and a little salt and pepper. For lunch and dinner in salads, and quite frankly any other way I can get them. Heirlooms, big ol’ beefsteak tomatoes and regular vine-ripened red tomatoes all float my boat in a big way.

Sure, your local supermarket sells something they call tomatoes all year ’round. Raised in hothouses, bred for uniformity, heartiness for shipping, and colour, and cross-bred in labs with chunks of styrofoam and flavour inhibitors, these are tomatoes like the cheese sauce on Seven-Eleven Nachos is cheese.

With local tomatoes at their peak flavour, we thought we’d do a sampling of recipes this week that highlight them in various forms.

The first was a Roasted Tomato and Garlic Soup from Gourmet Magazine. It was full of bright, fresh tomato flavour and went very well with good bread from Art-is-in Bakery.

The second was a delicious appetizer of Roasted Heirloom Tomatoes with Fontina and Thyme from Closet Cooking, out of which we made a dinner. Fresh cherry tomatoes, mixed with herbs, garlic and oil, then roasted in the oven. When they were done, they were covered with a layer of shredded fontina cheese and put under the broiler until bubbly. Again this was served with a nice baguette. The richness of the fontina was a great backdrop for the sweet, sweet roasted cherry tomatoes.

Lastly, it wouldn’t seem right to finish off a week of tomatoes without making a pasta sauce. This dish was inspired by Scott Conant’s Spaghetti with Tomato Sauce – A “too simple to be THAT good” dish, served at his Scarpetta restaurants.

It involves blanching and peeling ripe tomatoes, crushing them into a pot, with an onion sliced in half, some minced basil and oregano as well as a large pinch of chili flakes, and simmering them down for a couple hours. In a separate pot I poached some local vegetables in olive oil  — mushrooms, red pepper and garlic, slowly for 2 hours.  When the oil was deeply flavoured with the vegetables, I added a 1/3 cup of the oil to the tomato sauce.

I also made an executive decision to dump the strained, poached vegetables into the sauce. The peppers added sweetness, the mushrooms added an earthy meatiness and the garlic dissolved and blended into the mixture.

I brushed the flavoured oil on thin slices of Art-is-in baguette with a sprinkle of salt, pepper and a light dusting of freshly grated Parmesan cheese to crisp in a 375 degree oven for 10 minutes. The rest of the oil has been set aside for salad dressings and cooking over the next couple days.

There’s no recipe here. I winged it and so should you. I used enough tomatoes for pasta for 4 – I figured 2-3 medium tomatoes per person. We served this pasta with a Caprese salad, made with Bufala mozarella, fresh basil and heirloom tomatoes with salt, pepper and a drizzle each of olive oil and basalmic vinegar.

It’s important to note, when we substitute vegetable broth for chicken broth in the soup recipe, all three meals are entirely vegetarian. All three also have rich, meaty flavours due to the prime ripe tomatoes and the way they’re cooked. There’s leftover pasta sauce in the freezer, to be brought out mid-winter when I need a taste of Summer-becoming Fall.