Tuesday, May 11, 2010
On the Road Again in the Upstate
With visions of "Sou-eee" and rampant swine running through my head, I set off with my driver (he called me "Miss Daisy") on the three hour trek from the Lowcountry of Charleston to the highlands of Chester, situated just south of Charlotte and Rock Hill. It occurred to us on the way up, that we better reserve lodging, as there was no way of knowing how hard hit the Chester hotels might be with the porcine-themed event. The Chamber of Commerce recommended a B & B called "An Inn on York Street." I called, a British woman answered, and the reservations were made.
We arrived to find a gorgeous, white 19th century building (and former sanatorium)with a sweeping, deep lawn and a virtual forest of pecan trees. Innkeeper Sandie Woodier greeted us with a warm hug and a welcome. After she showed us (and my little dog Tann Mann) to the room, she recommended The Summit as the place to go to eat. Off we went into the bowels of this beautiful former mill town to sup on New York Strip, baked potatoes, salad and the gentile graces of the staff.
A good night's sleep (thankfully minus any crazy ghosts) on the inn's gargantuan European beds fitted with lux linens, and the pig-calling day was upon me. Sandie, who's happily married to a fruit distributor known as The Berry King of Manchester, sated our hunger with a breakfast of stewed, spiced plums with sour cream, open-faced avocado and bacon sandwiches, blueberry pockets, and fresh orange juice and coffee topped with frilly, lace British bonnets. Off to the hog calling and signing it was then, just 1/2 mile away in the center of this tiny town with big charm.
Upon arrival,I was whole-heartily greeted by one of the festival organizers and leader of the local 4-H pack to prep the Sweet Onion and Corn Chowder and Butter Bean Bruschetta featured in Southern Farmers Market Cookbook. As I cooked, I met the armada of young folks who eventually helped me lug the books and all of the food up the hill for the tasting and signing. Rap music pulsed in the background as we set up. I introduced myself and the books and talked a bit about both as the small group of about twenty persons tasted away. One of my 4H camp declared that the soup tasted like pizza, which made me smile. I suggested it might have something to do with the thyme seasoning in the soup. He assured me he would make it at home, which also made me smile. Some twenty books signed and a trip back down to the hill later, and I was on my way. The only regret was that I had missed the hog calling contest which had occurred earlier that morning and had involved no pigs, but only people calling them.
After wrapping things up at the Inn, it was on to Greenville, which proved to be a verdant, exquisite city, complete with a waterfall and Reedy River running through it. We ate dinner at a new restaurant, The Nantucket, at the new Marriott situated in the heart of the small town in the heart of its annual Artisphere art festival. People were everywhere and the energy level was high.
The Cook's Station, a beautifully appointed cooking school and gourmet retail shop downtown, was my destination the following morning. The folks here did a fine job whipping up Crave's tapenade and hummus and Baked's brownies, both featured in Charleston Chef's Table for the book signing that afternoon. Folks flocked around to eat the food, as I sat downwind of a very smokey barbecue pit and smiled and signed. I got the strong sense that people were more interested in the food than the books, but I none the less sold a good amount of books and met a lot of nice folks from all over.
Just goes to show you, you never, ever know what to expect. On the way home, I discovered one of the Upstate's best kept secrets. Sphinx's fried chicken. A gas station and retail store chain, it serves some of the crispiest, freshest, most flavorful chicken on the Upstate side of South Carolina.
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.