Monday, September 17, 2007
Passport Not Required
Except for a more prominent sign indicating its unassuming presence (look on the other side of the road as you're approaching The Terrace theatre shopping center on Maybank Highway), El Bohio is lacking for absolutely nothing. The food is modestly priced (entrees range from $4.50 to $10.50) and packed with the plantain and black-bean flavors of Cuba, service is pleasant (though sometimes slow), and the humble, beachy mood of the place works in spot-on tandem with the entirely happy El Bohio experience.
Considering that it was the brainchild of a first generation Cuban-American, raised on the kitchen creations of her Cuban parents in Cuban-cultured Miami, this should really come as no surprise. Owner Vanessa Luis Harris, a Johnson and Wales University grad, and her husband Alex state her story and their mission on the back of the single-page, laminated menu: "We chose (the name) El Bohio (pronounced El Bo-ee-oo) because it translates to a simple, humble, peasant home with sand floors and thatched roofing. I want to serve you foods that (are) eaten in these traditional Cuban homes."
Except for its sand-free floors, El Bohio accomplishes all this and more, right down to the semi-circle thatched roofs that decorate the diminutive space and the cigar boxes on every table where they do creative double-time as condiment and salt and pepper shaker containers. An antique oak bar is the fanciest thing about the place, but rather than "jumping out" it seems right at home and makes for a perfect perch to dig into one of the restaurant's fine sandwiches - which happen to be prepared with dough that's purchased from a Cuban bakery in Miami and baked on the premises - and a cold brew. It's so incredibly Cuban and deliciously homey, it's easy to believe that even Fidel himself would give El Bohio his stamp of approval.
I most certainly do, and though I like everything about the place, I'm especially fond of the endearing little Papas Rellenes ($3.50) which sounds infinitely less sexy in English, a language which ineptly deems them "Beef Stuffed Potato Balls". Like luck, they come in three's, but are so fabulously palatable I was yearning for easily five times that amount. An appetizer of the highest order, the potato balls are formed with real (no powdered variety here), fluffy mashed potatoes with a spicy, ground beef and gravy center. They're enveloped with a crunchy, breadcrumb coating, deep fried and served with El Bohio's ubiquitous dipping sauce which has a glorious, garlicky kick rounded out with oil and a splash of vinegar and a hit of lime.
The sandwiches are some of the best I've sampled in Charleston - bar none. That's due in large part to the superb bread and the superb fillings, the heart and soul of any exceptional sandwich. Pork and turkey fillings are real (again!) not the processed and pressed versions that are rampant in even the least suspected places, and roasted, with love, in-house. The Cuban sandwich ($6.75) and Medio Dia ("Mid-day", $6.75) were edible testimonies to Cuban goodness, both punctuated with salty pickles and pungent mustard and more of that that fabulous dipping sauce which is appropriately called the "house mojo".
Sandwiches come with a bevy of side choices including black beans, sweet or savory plantains, rice, a tomato and onion salad and, of course, French fries. Scratch the latter alternative, which you can get anywhere, and opt for the satisfying, firm-yet-yielding goodness of the black beans, splashed with a lime and sauteed onion background or bite into a crunchy, starchy savory plantain chip.
If a tastier, more pleasant prelude or chaser to a viewing of an artsy, Indie-type film across the street at The Terrace exists, I don't know of it. But, then, El Bohio provides plenty of reasons to stop by any old time the mood for good food and a good time strikes.
1977 Maybank Highway, James Island
Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sat., noon- 9 p.m.
Culinary Cost-Cutting 101
When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.
It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.
The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like couponmom.com) which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.
Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like couponmom.com with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site (harristeeter.com) , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.
The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!
My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"
Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.
One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals
With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.
In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).
For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.
Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!
Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!
Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.
Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!
Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.
Chicken never tasted so good for so little.