Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Gotta' Getcha' Geechee

It is tragic that a region built on rice and the Gullah foods and customs born of Africa's "Rice Coast" has so little to show for it in our present-day culture, particularly our restaurant food culture. The language, once so prominently ringing through the streets of Charleston and the marshes of Lowcountry barrier islands, has dwindled to an ebbing murmur of days past. The food, characterized by rice, lima beans and other native African ingredients is still around, but mostly dapples restaurant menus as opposed to fully showcasing them, unless you count (once again) "soul food" restaurants.

Alluette's Cafe is the latest ode to local soul food, but owner Alluette Jones-Smalls throws a surprising twist into the usual soul food equation. Alluette's is "holistic" serving "fresh, local organic produce and dry goods when available". In addition, as the menu states, all meats are "free of hormones, nitrates, artificial color and sulfites." Rice and soy milk are the restaurant's accepted substitutes for dairy. There is one more thing. Alluette's does not serve or cook with pork.

What? No pig in a soul food joint? How can this be, you might ask. I asked Alluette myself when I entered the recently opened restaurant on a sunny afternoon; the light casting a pink hue on the coral, cinder-block walls like a sunset on winter marsh grasses. Her resisitance to cooking with pork (and pairing certain foods) does go back to religion, but not because she's Muslim as I'd clumsily implied in my awkward query. It has to do with the teachings of the book of Leviticus from the Old Testament of the bible. She told me so. I researched it after returning home from a soulful and savory lunch here and learned that eating pork and other divided-hoofed animals that do not chew their cud is listed as off-limits in Chapter 11 for various reasons that essentielly relate to respecting the body, spirituality and God.

Whatever your beliefs (or Alluette's) on such matters, there is no doubt that she is committed to preparing body-friendly foods and has been granted the talent (along with executive chef Absalom Thomas) to make it taste divine. Originally from Mount Pleasant, Jones-Smalls recently sold a successful restaurant on St. Helena island near Beaufort to set up shop in this understated setting situated smack dab in the middle of the up-and-coming Midtown area of the peninsula, because, as she told me, "Charleston is where I need to be right now."

She's re-roosted in a big way. The restaurant is far from fancy. The small is space dominated with an eclectic array of mis-matched tables and chairs and a huge blackboard posting the days specials for breakfast, lunch and dinner; all this flanked by a rundown looking courtyard with a tattered link fence. Still, it's attractive, clean, absolutely homey, appropriate and intelligent. Regarding the latter, I'd far rather see a small, family run business sink their funds into the food as opposed to the sometimes suffocating overhead of fancier digs.

That's what Alluette's does. The investment is in the food, the preparation and the startling friendly and sincere staff, beginning with Alluette's firm handshake, hello and introduction she offers her guests upon arrival. When she's not doing that, she's standing behind a small window in a small kitchen whisking and stirring myriad pots and bowls, seemingly sprinkling them with the pixie dust of Geechee culinary magic. The food is so clean and pure tasting, you don't even miss the pig, even in the collards which seemed infused with a blend of seasonings you might otherwise taste in dill pickles.

But, there's no telling, at least not from Alluette. She doesn't share her recipes, according to our maternally warm server. That includes the magical mystery tea ($1.80 per glass) that is blended with a series of fresh fruit juices (no sugar added!) and served over plenty of ice. I thought I sensed a mix of mango, papaya and apricot in just the right amount blended into my delicious brew that just kept coming whenever I said the word and even when I didn't.

Alluette buys her vegetables locally from Joseph Fields and also is loyal to St. Helena Island purveyor, Barefoot Farms. The freshness of Lowcountry produce burst through every ounce of the fresh baby lima bean soup ($4.50, cup) and the tomato-based fish stew ($5, cup). I particularly appreciated the former which, in its clean, savory broth and 100% lima bean purity, was quintessentiel simplicity seasoned only with salt and a dash of cayenne pepper provided on the table. Only talented chefs with devotion to fresh produce can make something so simple and pure taste so good without getting heavy-handed. Put this one on your must-order list. The fish stew's high notes were in the veggies - threads of spinach, chunks of carrots, sweet tomatoes - all brought together with fresh bites of basil.

"Baked Chicken" ($9.95) with one side (the aforementioned collards) seems like an overly-humble misnomer for this juicy, wholesome rendition of thyme-seasoned perfection. This just spoke to my heart and made me think of easier, simpler times. The feel-good, taste-delicious mood carried over to the Angus steak sandwich special (8.95), layered with 1/4" thick slices of pure beef, tangy cheddar cheese, a warm, caramelized red onion, and slivers of yellow peppers on a chewy, toasted baguette. This was served with a small cup of a tangy/sweet, crunchy slaw peppered with celery seed and a crisp, cold pickle.

Unlike a lot of soul food restaurants where food (though delicious) can feel heavy, I left Alluette's Cafe feeling light and satisfied. My belly was comfortably full and my soul was happy. I felt like I had made a solid investment in time well-spent. Speaking of time, keep in mind that it's not hurried, and at times may feel a little slow if you're not accustomed to food being cooked to order as it is here. Be patient. You'll be glad you did.

Brand new, Alluette's is still working out the kinks on little things (like a non-functioning credit card machine the day I was there), but gets almost everything right. In the future, the restaurant plans to offer cooking classes and serve alcohol. For now, settle into some of that tea and have a good ole' holistic Geechee good time. I'm planning to head back for breakfast. I can't wait to dig into "Hey Y'all"...Savory Sardines with Caramelized Onions and Olive Oil served over Local Stone Ground Hominy Grits ($5.50). Doesn't that just sound Geechee delicious?

Alluette's Cafe
80 Reid Street, downtown
(843) 577-6926

Mon., B/L, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tues., B/L/D, 8 a.m.-9 p.m .
Wed.-Sat., B/L/D/Late night bites, 8 a.m.- 2 a.m.
Sun., Brunch, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Live Music sometimes offered on Friday and Saturday evenings, 10:30 p.m. - 2 a.m.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Break Away from the Everyday

One of the risks inherent in living in or near a popular international tourist destination and virtual playground like Charleston is to begin taking it for granted as "just home." Home in the not-so-positive sense that this is where you work, this is where you pay bills, and this is where you experience stress. From this perspective, it's easy to start thinking about taking a vacation elsewhere to "get away from it all." While an away-from-home vacation can be just what the doctor ordered, there are many nearby destinations that do just the same thing and for far less money. One such place, as I was recently reminded, is Jasmine Porch restaurant at The Sanctuary hotel on Kiawah Island.

Less than $20 will buy you a first-class lunch or breakfast (dinner 's a bit pricier; entrees range from $22-$39) at this prestigious hotel, which just recently was awarded five stars by Mobil Travel Guide making it one of just 41 U.S. lodgings to wear the same coveted lodging crown. And, instead of dealing with pesky air travel or other myriad travel-related nightmares, getting there is half the fun. The 45-minute drive from downtown affords the most luscious, pristine marsh vistas and Lowcountry scenery this side of paradise. You'll feel your troubles literally melt away as the sweeping serenity of nature infuses your soul and somehow makes everything seem just as it should be.

The sentiment follows you into the palatial, early 20th century-style villa as you feast your eyes upon its museum-worthy art collection and manor-born style. Just a few feet inside lies the unsuspecting culinary wonder called Jasmine Porch. Billed as a "casual dining experience," The Sanctuary's "Southern style" restaurant is so much more. Yes, it's markedly more relaxed than the hotel's significantly pricier, signature Ocean Room restaurant, but dining here still feels sumptuous and indulgent; a little slice of heaven on a plate with commanding ocean and pool views, to boot.

Now nearly four years old, the hotel and Jasmine Porch (as the five star status implies), provide ample proof that they are in full stride. Always impressive, the restaurant, her staff, and the food, just keep getting better. The most recently appointed Chef de Cuisine, Nathan Thurston, a North Carolina native and graduate of Johnson and Wales, puts restrained, yet playful polish into sophisticated yet down-home Southern style dishes like his chopped Southern Cobb salad ($15) and pulled pork sandwich ($9) which features golden barbecue, country bun, Napa slaw and a blue cheese spread.

Lunch here begins with a basket brimming with flat bread and sweet potato biscuits with a deft dash of cinnamon. A pert, aged yellow-cheddar housemade pimiento cheese and soft creamery butter are served on smart-looking rectangular plates that give a sophisticated edge to Jasmine Porch's otherwise soft, rounded Southern decor. An endless array of Charleston brick-framed arches embrace the restaurant and her brigade of ocean-view windows while generously padded, round, deep wicker armchairs provide a soft cushion for a home-away-from-home gentle landing. One whole wall is host to the restaurant's extensive wine selection, overseen by certified Sommelier Garth Herr.

Since I was lucky enough to be spending the weekend at The Sanctuary, I took three opportunities - two for breakfast and one for lunch - to sample the goods at Jasmine Porch. Everything was splendid on each occasion. The Breakfast Buffet ($20 adults, $11 children under 12) includes fresh fruit, housemade pastries and breads, an omelet station, sausage, eggs, French toast, smoked salmon and almost everything else you can think of, making it one heck of a deal for big eaters of all things good and great. I settled for a flaky, warm biscuit topped with an earthy tasso gravy, cubes of cool pineapple and a fluffy, made-to-order egg white omelet just bursting with fresh, local shrimp, crab, spinach and Swiss cheese.

Another morning, I merrily savored two pan-fried eggs, long-aged, savory country ham, and two mounds of marvelous creamy Anson Mills grits - all plated beautifully (like everything I sampled here) with the additional allure of a royal purple fresh orchid. My server, who had most effectively served myself and a larger party for lunch the previous day, continued his run of some of the best, most accomodating, most sincere and most adept service I've ever experienced.

Lunch felt a little more festive than the sedate, almost meditative breakfast experiences. The room bubbled with positive, yet quiet, energy from a host of happy diners. Our lunch began with a sampling of something the chef was "working on" for his new, seasonal menu - an out-of-this-world oxtail ravioli with nuggets of sweet corn and a light snowfall of grated fresh horseradish root in a gorgeous broth layered with flavor. Rave reviews were shared for the braised beef sliders with a blue cheese slaw, she-crab bisque, a beautifully constructed iceberg lettuce salad with bacon and blue cheese and the impeccable German chocolate cake. A new menu, reflecting seasonal produce and featuring a toasted lobster salad wrap ($15), black angus burger ($11) and crispy salmon and spinach salad ($15) among other things is in the works for imminent release. Expect nothing less than excellence.

That is, afterall, precisely what Jasmine Porch consistently delivers. Do yourself a favor and keep that in mind next time you need a little break from it all.

Jasmine Porch
One Sanctuary Beach Drive
Kiawah Island
(843) 768-6330

Open daily.
Breakfast, 6:30 - 10:15 a.m.
Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Dinner, 5:30-10 p.m.
Sunday Jazz Brunch Buffet: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Reservations highly recommended.

Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

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.