Tag Archives: pimento cheese

Gullah & More Backyard Eatin’

Gullah culture survived on Hilton Head from the end of the Civil War period to the 1960’s when it started to deteriorate. A bridge from the main land to this barrier island brought the outside in. Developers followed and Gullah peoples, who once owned 1/3 of the Island given to them by Union troops, now own less than 1000 acres.

Originating in West Africa, Gullah people were enslaved and brought to South Carolina by the British, where they were ideally suited to work the island’s rice, indigo, sugar cane and sea cotton crops as they had some immunity to the diseases that ravaged the area as well as knowledge about herbs and medicines to treat yellow fever and malaria. There are no grand plantation homes on Hilton Head as British plantation owners preferred to live in a less plagued environment.

Union troops descended during the Civil War. 1700 of them are buried on Hilton Head. Escaped slaves were considered property and spoils of war. Contrabands. They were paid to work, and children were educated, but they were not exactly freedmen until the emancipation proclamation issued by President Lincoln, January 1, 1863.

Hilton Head offers a tour of Gullah lands and culture. It was very disheartening to see how little of this rich culture survives. In our lifetime it has all but disappeared. Gullahs survived as a hunting, farming and fishing community for 100  years before modern development overtook them. Still, today, some of their language and food culture persists.

Our tour guide and driver Irvin is Gullah. We chose this particular tour because of him. Irvin, one of 13 kids and a Viet Nam veteran, is living history. He remembers when you could look from the coastal waters clear across to the Atlantic. When he is gone pretty much so will anyone who remembers the old ways. His family for the most part has held on to their Gullah lands. They own a good chunk of Spanish Wells. As he drove past golf cottages, manicured medians, retirement villas, he painted a vivid picture of his boyhood and what used to be there. There is nothing left to see but a few delightful homes his relatives own, their gardens and their kitschy yards filled with doodads and portraits of Jesus and the like. Offensive enough to newcomers that they were asked to please fence them in.

After we get back to the bus depot, the Basket Man, Micheal Smalls, is sitting in the shade weaving sweetgrass baskets.  “Sweetgrass is a fine bladed, sweet vanilla fragranced perennial grass that grows behind coastal sand dunes in moist soils.” says Wikipedia. Coils of dried sweetgrass are sewn together with palmetto threads. Beautifully crafted, the baskets are a much sought after Low Country art form. Basket Man says it takes him about three days to complete one piece. I had noticed the baskets in the gift shop before the tour left. I had to have one. It was a treat to get off of the bus and find the artist there.

After saying goodbye to Irvin, we head once again to the Low Country Backyard for a lateish lunch. We so enjoyed our dinner last evening we decided to hit it up again as their sammy menu was so appealing. So many items look great on this creative menu, available all day. We opt to order and split a Nancy’s Tomato Sandwich and a Shrimp Burger. We have a choice of two sides and go with Mom’s Macaroni Salad and Collards. Ice tea, half and half (half sweet, half unsweet for the win) for me and Diet Coke for the man. Moonshine is legal in South Carolina and the Low Country  Backyard has a good selection but we opt out as we would like to get to DC at some point.

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The tomato sandwich comes lightly toasted on excellent white bread. Made with perfect, ripe, juicy South Carolina tomatoes, mayo and iceberg lettuce, this is the perfect hot day lunch. The macaroni salad is unremarkable except for pieces of green olive which are quite nice.

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Collard greens are often overcooked or too greasy with pork fat. Backyard’s collards are the BEST EVER collards. Perfectly cooked, not over stewed, lightly sweet and sour. The Shrimp Burger will absolutely make you forget that beef burgers were ever a thing. A patty of chopped, seasoned shrimp served up in a soft, eggy bun topped with more of those South Carolina tomatoes, mayo, lettuce and butter pickle, this is a world class sammy.

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The pickles are homemade and remarkable in that they are the perfect balance of salty and sweet. They come on the side but Rob slipped them onto the burger.

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Lunch is a nice size, leaving room to share the home made Banana Pudding we regretfully skipped last evening. Sweet, creamy pudding with chunks of just ripe banana on a shortbread cookie base and a dollop of lightly sweet whipped cream. Perfect. Now a swim and some afternoon sun.

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I wanna go back for dinner, but they will think I’m a stalker.

As it turns out it is a lovely evening to sit pool/oceanside and The Porch restaurant in the hotel, independently operated, has decent food. We order a pitcher of peach sangria made with peachshine and cava and fruit purees. Icy cold and perfect for watching the sun set. We order a few apps to chill with before deciding on dinner.

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The house made pickle is creative and spicy with chilies. The pickle has a varied veg mix, including cauliflower, chiogga beet, asparagus, grape, carrots and a pepper.

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The hot out of the oven, served in a well seasoned cast iron pan, corn bread was perfectly sweet and the spicy pimiento cheese was a nice foil.

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Since we ate leisurely watching the sun and sea, we were not overly hungry so we ordered the half rack of ribs. Slowed cooked for 8 hours, they were very decent BBQ. Came with a spicy and a sweet bbq sauce as well as a honey mustard. The bourbon beans had neither bourbon nor were they home made, Libby’s I suspect but none-the-less tasty, as I prefer a sweeter bean. Coleslaw was decent and the soft, hot rolls were excellent.

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Tomorrow we start our trek north to Charleston.

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RT2014: Hilton Head Island, SC

Today is a lazy day. Sleep in, grab a leisurely hotel breakfast, gas up and hit the road for Hilton Head, a mere one hour drive away. We cross over the sky high Talmadge Memorial Bridge into South Carolina. Not much to see at first, scrub, strip clubs, swamps and a few ibis. Very rural. Soon pretty, small bungalows pop up beside run down trailers and farm equipment. We enter a scenic byway which becomes a dappled drive on a country two-laner. Tall pines, live oaks, banks of horsetail ferns, palmettos, mailboxes, rail fences and American flags line the road. This very pleasant drive turns to beautifully manicured medians and stores and services housed in tidy little one story homogenous buildings as we get closer to the resort areas of Hilton Head. When we arrive at our home for the next two nights, they are not quite ready so we grab a drink at the Tiki Hut. It’s close to 90 degrees. We spend the rest of the afternoon in leisure, swimming, reading and drinking coconut-pineapple mojitos.

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Dinner tonight is at the aptly named Low Country Backyard. We are seated outside at the bar in what looks like someone’s backyard. Very homey.

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Staff is pleasant and helpful. Kim, who is looking after us is knowledgeable about the local beers. I’m trying the Blonde Bottletree, a white that is less citrusy than Blue Moon and Rob is having the Palmetto, a full-on lager.

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We have a warm, gentle breeze at our backs and a live musician cranking out Neil Diamond, Buffalo Springfield, Lobo and the ubiquitous Margaritaville. All very pleasant. The menu is creative and everything is home made to order. We try two apps, Blue May Crab Dip and the Pimento cheese. Both come with crisp corn chips and soft pita wedges. The melty, cheesy crab dip is delicate and tasty, while the pimiento lacks much needed heat and is made with both cheddar and cream cheeses instead of just cheddar. It’s decent enough especially when spiced up with a little hot sauce.

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I’m having the Shrimp and Grits. I can’t wait until we get to Myrtle beach where I know I will have some fine shrimp and grits at Mr. Fish. Low Country Backyard’s grits are white grits, impossible to find in Ottawa. They are creamy and well seasoned. The shrimp are sautèed in an applewood bacon cream sauce which I find a tad salty and served up on top. This classic also has a few coins of a very good smoked sausage tossed in.

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Rob has ordered the Potato Chip Meatloaf. It is accompanied by his choice of sides, a delicious coleslaw with apples and raisins and a rather dry piece of corn bread. Unfortunately, corn bread is one of those things that stales fast and must be served hot out of the oven. If you don’t turn it over fast enough, don’t serve it. Portions are not huge but they are substantial. The meatloaf is made with beef, pork and potato chip crumbs instead of bread crumbs, and then glazed with a home-made BBQ sauce. The potato chips aren’t noticeable but we’re sure they amp up the calorie count. It was very good meatloaf, however.

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No room for that delicious looking home made banana pudding. We finish up our local beers and listen to the kids playing the home made games in the Backyard.

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Road to Savannah

We wake to another fine, sunny Georgia day ready to hit the road for Savannah. Breakfast will be at the Flying Biscuit in Midtown. The front door of The Biscuit displays a rainbow flag. I have come to see that the pride flag on an establishment represents a friendly, inclusive place. It reminds me of the time when a traveler marked a cat on a nearby fence post to indicate that the home beyond was hospitable.

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And so it is. The hostess greets us like we are already friends, worried about where we parked. She does not want us to get “booted”. We settle into a cheery four top and order coffee and fresh squeezed OJ, and two orders of their Southern Biscuit Benedict.

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The Benny comes out quickly. A very well made biscuit topped with two poached eggs, pimiento cheese sauce, fresh basil, two slices of turkey bacon and a side of grits.

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This is a creative, tasty meal, with one notable exception. Turkey bacon is just wrong. It tastes of fake, chemical smoke. Why use turkey bacon? Most people choose it as a healthy option, but with a biscuit, pimiento cheese, two eggs and grits, yer all in anyways so give me real bacon…or at least the option.

That said, this Benny is very good. The biscuit base is perfect. The eggs are nicely poached so that when you break into that runny yolk it soaks into that delicious biscuit. Pimiento cheese? It’s a Southern thing. Cheddar cheese shreds are mixed with mayo, pimiento and hot sauce. Makes a great dip for crackers or spread it on toasted Wonder bread, slap some iceberg lettuce on it and you have a seriously awesome trailer park sammy. The Flying Biscuit’s pimento cheese has a nice little heat. Altogether it creates a good marriage of flavours. Talking Heads and The Romantics on the soundtrack made this a great breakfast stop.

We climb back into Moby and fire up the tech, Stella and our rootsie Americana soundtrack. We are breaking one of our rules today. We are headed to Savannah via the interstate for several reasons. The other route does not take us through Macon and try as we might, nobody on any forum could tell us of any places of interest to visit off of the interstate and basically it would add an hour to the trip with no benefit. So we decide to just get on into Savannah and start soaking it in. Some rules are meant for breaking. I am however imagining Sherman’s troops making this journey on foot and horseback sans interstate.

As we wend our way towards Savannah, we can’t help but notice how trash-free Georgia freeways are, except for the countless tire treads discarded like so many toe nail clippings. Aside from that fact, the drive is much like the 401 without the magnificent rock faces. We have been warned by previous travelers to watch for speed traps. We are using cruise control but note that the speed limits fluctuate between 55, 65 and 70 miles per hour with little notice. That’s how they get ya. Shortly we enter the dusty, grimy outskirts of Macon an hour into the drive and it’s really just a pit stop for us. We had intended to visit the Allman Brothers museum but it is closed Mondays, and most days.

As we continue on, we pass town after town beckoning to us with  golden arches and Waffle House in block letters stretched to the heavens. I can’t pass a Waffle House without giggling and thinking of Jeff Garlin and Garlin’s infectious giggle. (Not PC).

A lot of the highway we are traveling is being repaired. The surface is concrete. Looks like a lot more work than blacktop. Workers are out there in the hot sun leveling each stretch of about 15 feet by hand. Soon we are nearing Savannah and the scenery changes to more farmland, cotton and a dried corn crop. Hand made signs and towering billboards announcing fresh peaches, peach jam, peach salsa and peach bread call you off the highway. Mmmm…a sun ripened still warm Georgia peach. Yes we will.

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We stopped at a little road side kiosk manned by a teenage boy. He directed us to the peaches that in his opinion were the best. We selected two golden, lightly fuzzy, sweet, juicy, fruits that yielded to the bite without being mushy. Pure sunshine. Messy and perfect.

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We are all checked into The Bohemian in Savannah, rested up and thinking about dinner. Lady and Sons, Paula Deen’s resto is just a short walk up the street. We decide to check it out, ’cause the lady CAN cook y’all. Lady and Sons is in a quaint antique brick building, with a retail store attached to flog her wares.

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This resto in no way resembles the place she opened as a young widow. Now an enterprise, run like an army unit and three stories high, it has an elevator and staff communicating on walkie talkies. I hate it instantly.

The first thing we walk by on the way to the second checkpoint is a small buffet. I am buffet phobic. Just on a germ front alone. I have a full on hate for this place now. We check in with the second station and then head into Paula World to shop while we wait for our table.

We are called about 15 minutes later (on time for our 7 pm res) and seated on the first floor. Apparently my silent prayers not to get on the elevator with the party of 14 were heard. Our waiter brings huge glasses of ice water and lemon. Much appreciated. You sure work up a thirst in the south. I order a peach julep and Rob chooses a hefweizen. While we wait, the bread course comes. A hoe cake, much like a corn pancake, and an angel biscuit with cheese. Angel biscuits are made with yeast instead of soda. It was light, flaky and delicious. I am starting to warm up to the place a bit. No, wait! My cocktail arrives and it is horrible. Bitter. Very bad choice.

Apps are ordered. Paula’s famous pepper shrimp and fried green tomatoes. I am determined to hate this place but…these are both really excellent. The tomatoes are well fried, not greasy. They have a nice spot of pepper jelly on top and are served with diced pickled onion. Really nice.

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The pepper shrimp are swimming in a light sauce with a bit of butter and a ton of lemon and some pepper. Garlic butter toasts are served on the side. This app was surprisingly simple but well prepared and very good.

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Mains arrive next. We both chose the grouper fillet with BBQ peach sauce. A good piece of fish finished with a lightly sweet sauce  that does not overpower the mild fish. The grouper comes with a salad of asparagus and fresh corn, and creamy, cheesy deep fried, light as air, well seasoned grit cakes.

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This is probably blasphemy but we did not even look at the dessert menu. Sorry Paula. I’m sure it was quite excellent as was most of the food we sampled. Time to head into a lovely Savannah sunset and prepare for tomorrow. Think we will do a hop on hop off tour and then head to Tybee Island for some crab.

 

 

 

The South Rises!

I love the Southern USA. In the west, the desert is gorgeous and the food has a spicy, Mexican inspired kick. But when people talk about Southern food, they’re talking about the South East — Louisiana, Mississipi, the Carolinas, Georgia, and on and on. Fried chicken, BBQ, gumbo, biscuits and gravy, catfish — all not that good for you, but all completely, utterly delicious.

Every year we do a monster road trip. We’ve done the South West, the US West coast, the South East and last year, along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Chicago. Maureen doesn’t know this, but I picked the last route just to cover some of the same Southern ground we ‘ve done on previous trips because I pine for Southern food.

When we heard that Chris Lord, formerly of the Whalesbone Oyster House and, most recently, of Wellington Gastropub opened his new restaurant, UNION 613, on Somerset St. and it specialized in Southern-inspired dishes, we had to check for ourselves. Its location on Somerset Street has suffered from high turnover in recent years having been at least four different eateries in recent memory. We certainly hope that the latest tenant breaks the pattern. We loved tonight’s visit. The menu made good on the promise of a refined  (but only slightly) take on southern classics, most of which were represented in some form or another. Fried greed tomatoes, pimento cheese, muffuletas, fried chicken, mac salad, grits, biscuits and gravy, fried catfish, ribs and cornbread all made appearances.

After sipping on sazeracs and splitting an appetizer of fried green tomatoes, that came with a bibb salad with a peppery ranch dressing and pimento cheese, Maureen had the fried chicken (what they called “yard bird”) with a side of chile-lemon green beans and cheddar-roasted garlic grits. I had a pork chop with a peach BBQ  sauce, with a shrimp-boil macaroni salad, and we split a small cast-iron pan of hot cornbread with bourbon brown butter.

The appetizer was delicious enough to make me forget my documenting duties, so no pics here. Maureen’s chicken was crisp and well-seasoned and juicy on the inside. It was served with a vinegary hot sauce that complimented it well. Her green beans were bright from the lemon with a little spice. They were very good, but we both found the lemon a little over-assertive.

As for the grits — we LOVE grits, and we’ve written many times here that Canadians don’t “get” grits, mostly because they don’t have the opportunity to eat really-well-prepared grits. Union 613’s grits were tasty, cheesy and comforting, but they weren’t really grits, which come from coarsely ground and boiled hominy, blended with other delicious complementary flavours. The restaurant decided to eschew this course and served whole hominy, cooked with cheese and roasted garlic. It was comforting, and cheesy, but folks looking to find out what is so special about grits won’t find out here either.

My pork chop was juicy, perfectly cooked and the chunky, peach BBQ sauce was an excellent addition. My macaroni salad, cooked and spiced with shrimp boil seasoning was absolutely killer. It was the hit of the table. The cornbread was soft, fresh, rich and luscious.

Our table sampled all three of the desserts offered on the menu (there were four of us) and all were inventive and unique.

Now I have to determine how long a waiting period I need to suffer through before I don’t seem too desperate to go back. Maybe a day? Two? Union 613 absolutely satisfied my jones for good Southern food. Having it here in Ottawa makes it even more special. There’s something to be said for eating fried catfish purchased from a roadside shack right on the bayou, but there’s also something to be said for a taste of the South a 5-minute drive from home.

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:
Sazerac
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!