Thursday, April 30, 2009

See Southern Living's May Issue - On Stands Now

Southern Living Magazine generously devotes three pages to my new book, Southern Farmers Market Cookbook (Gibbs Smith), in this month's (May) issue. You'll find it in the South Carolina People & Places section. Check it out and see why it's important to "buy local, buy right." Look for the book at major bookstores and around town (including the Charleston Farmers Market) after June 1. It can be "viewed" and/or pre-ordered now at and

Here's a seasonal recipe from the book to whet your appetite for the glorious, local bounties of May. In this case, strawberries. In a week or two, it will be high time for blueberries, which would make a fine substitute for the strawberries in this salad.

Spinach and Mesclun Salad with Fresh Strawberries and Sweet-Hot Pecans
(Serves 6)

The earliest yield of Southern spring harvests include sweet, plump, ripe strawberries and tender leaves of spinach, mesclun, and baby lettuces. Paired with sugar and paprika-coated pecans pulled hot from the sauté pan, a pert vinaigrette and the clean bite of mint, these spring produce belles are as beautiful, yet demure, as can be. If you come across a mellow, soft local cheese, it would be lovely scattered across the top before serving.

14 large strawberries, halved (vertically)
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

For the vinaigrette:

1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon local honey
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup pecan halves
1 tablespoon sugar
Dash of paprika
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 cups fresh spinach
4 cups mesclun
8 leaves fresh mint

Up to 1 hour before serving, combine the strawberries in a small bowl with the balsamic vinegar. Toss and marinate for at least 30 minutes, but no more than 1 hour. Strain the berries, reserving the juices; place berries in the refrigerator until ready to use.
For the vinaigrette, combine the strained juices from the berries with the shallot, mustard, honey, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Gradually incorporate 1/2 cup of the olive oil, whisking well to emulsify. Taste and verify seasonings.
Meantime, in a small sauté pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the pecans, sugar, paprika, salt and pepper. Toss and watch, toasting until the nuts turn a light golden brown. Drain on a paper towel.
To serve, toss the spinach, mesclun, minute leaves and a bit of salt and freshly ground pepper together in a large bowl with a light dressing of the vinaigrette (you probably will only need about half – save the rest for later). Serve on individual plates or on a large platter garnished with the marinated strawberries and warm pecans.

Recipe from Southern Farmers Market Cookbook by Holly Herrick (Gibbs Smith, June, 2009)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

No Lunch, Free or Otherwise, at The Atlantic Room

Some days just beg for a leisurely midday indulgence. The crystalline, cool, sunny days of spring in Charleston can be a potent force in bringing on such a craving. These forces, along with business requirements on Kiawah Island yesterday, collided in such an overwhelming wave of indulgence justification, I decided to top off the morning with lunch at The Atlantic Room at The Ocean Course Clubhouse, dubbed "Kiawah's Premier Seafood Restaurant."

Decidedly in the mood for something exotic and oceanic, like the Mediterranean sea bass with asparagus, grape tomato, leek, rocket citrus-rosemary vinaigrette and three onion soubise ($16) I had read about on the restaurant's web site, my anticipation and mood mounted with every twist and turn of the long (nearly 7 miles) and scenic road that runs from The Sanctuary to the clubhouse's gorgeous front door.

The entire setting is so perfectly beautiful and peaceful, it seems surreal. White dunes and grasses wrap around the early twentieth century style mini-manse of a clubhouse while the surf crashes all around. Mega-manse private homes, many of them with similar architectural, shingle-clad styles, dot the higher ground like jewels of the super-rich to whom they must belong. It's easy to get swept away and dream you're one of them, at least for a day.

The Atlantic Room, with relatively pricey lunch-time rates ($10-$18) and prime ocean views, seemed like just the place to play this particular dream game. Alas, it was not to be. I was informed upon arriving at the empty (albeit sumptuous) dining room that lunch is not being served at the restaurant "this season," but instead is offered in the neighboring Ryder Cup Bar. My spirits dimmed slightly as the anticipatory edges of my dream lunch started to fray, but I figured I'd still be able to select from The Atlantic Room's menu even if I had to eat it in a bar with a bunch of rowdy bankers and a distracting flat-screen television.

Wrong again! As the menu proved, this is a soup, salad, sandwich and sushi room only - with more of those blindingly beautiful views. Resigned to have a good time, I settled into a glass of Chardonnay and the "bagger burger" ($15). A great burger it was, too. Composed of perfectly cooked-to-temperature ground Black Angus beef and topped with savory pepper bacon, gooey smoked cheddar, a garden-full of fresh Bermuda onion, tomato and crisp lettuce, it was served with a mound of lukewarm fries and hot onion rings.

Though lunch at the Ryder Cup Bar was good, there are times that demand something more than a good sandwich. This was one of them.If the web site hadn't promised lunch at The Atlantic Room, I probably would have stayed at The Sanctuary and supped at Jasmine Porch.

It just goes to prove, don't believe everything you read. One should expect more from a resort of Kiawah's caliber. At a minimum, restaurant menu/hours information should be accurate. If it was just a few days out of sync, no problem. But, when I politely suggested to my young server that someone at corporate should be told, she apologetically explained that they had been told about it several times but nothing had been done about it to date.

I'll have to wait a while for this kind of mood to strike again and venture out to sample the enticing-looking Atlantic Room for dinner, but next time I'll call first. For now, I'm going to go downstairs and rejoin the masses while I consume the left-over half of the Ryder burger in the relatively humble confines of my real life living room. I wonder if it will taste as good? I'm betting not.

The Atlantic Room/The Ryder Cup Bar
The Ocean Course Clubhouse
Kiawah Island Golf Resort
Call (843) 266-4085 to make reservations at The Atlantic Room (or to confirm hours!)

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Other Ali Baba

Revered for world-class tennis and peaceful island living, Daniel Island has a less than stellar restaurant track record, the now past-tense Sienna excluded from the brief list of previous players. Many so-so restaurants have fallen by the wayside over the years, and the relative few remaining don't offer sufficiently compelling culinary reasons to visit unless you are hungry and happen to be in the immediate area. (Note: I should add that I have not yet visited Eddie's Bistro and have heard good things about it. More on that another day).

The recent opening of Ali Baba Mediterranean Deli has changed DI's fairly bleak restaurant history, hopefully for good. I happened to be out there last week to enjoy some of said world- class tennis. I arrived early for a mid-day match, and decided to by-pass the pricey food court to sample Ali Baba's goods. My stomach was already rumbling as I entered the spacious restaurant/deli. This sensation intensified as I spied the seemingly endless deli case, replete with baba gahnnoug, jasmin chicken salad, tzatziki, tabouli, and much more. A busy band of notably attractive cooks and servers worked the open kitchen space just beyond, which relentlessly bombarded my senses with wafts of exotic spices and visions of roasting gyro meats.

It seems I'm not the only one that's taken notice. At barely 11:30 a.m., the place was filling up faster than a filling station during a 70's era fuel shortage. After a short wait, I placed my order at the counter and was handed a number to post at my table, which would later and correctly identify me as the recipient. Decision making was difficult, to say the least. The menu is expansive, including warm platters, samplers, specialty dishes, kebobs and paninis, and each one looks and sounds as good as the next. I settled for the shawerma hummus ($7.99) and was glad I did.

It was an absolute taste bud stunner, redolent with the sprite flavors of the Middle East. It, like seemingly everything here, is backed with the authenticity delivered to the table and the kitchen through Jordan natives and owners Samir and Yasmin Elzabidi. A generous pool of silky, slightly pungent hummus formed a most appetizing bed for a nest of shredded beef (chicken is also available) shrouded in the tangy bite of lemon, kiss of cardamon and "Lebanese" spices. An ample dose of fresh parsley and tiny diced fresh onions brought additional gustatory life to a dish already bursting with it.

This dish alone is worth returning for again and again, and I assure you, I will, tennis or no. It will be difficult to break out of the delicious mold of the shawerma hummus and sample some of Ali Baba's many more options, but based upon the visual and olfactory impressiveness of the many dishes I saw delivered to neighboring tables, I will have to force myself to do it.

Ali Baba also offers an extensive catering menu for those interested in having the restaurant's goodness delivered.

Ali Baba Mediterranean Deli
186 Seven Farms Drive, Suite 500
Daniel Island
(843) 377-8666

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A New "Blu" View

Given the dearth of water view restaurants in this town (see "Dinner with a View" post below), it was with great anticipation that I ventured out with a pal to The Edge of America to experience the newly re-vamped Folly Beach Holiday Inn and its brand new ocean view restaurant & bar, Blu.

Visually, the rewards proved to be impressive. All the aesthetics, from the dinning room decor to food presentation to the surf-pounding view were stunning. Our server was enthusiastic but bland; professional but boring. His lack of animation didn't fit the setting, but maybe he was having a slightly off day. Based upon the good, but at times lack-luster food, chef Jonathan Hagins, who came to Charleston via Hilton Head, may have been, too.

It is only fair to point out that Blu's brand new - nary a month old. It's also accurate and fair to say that there are many good things about the restaurant. I was disappointed because I wanted the food to match this gorgeous, much improved setting with the added, rare bonus of an ocean view. Perhaps it will get there. The chef shows much promise both in the diversity of the menu, which includes a hefty portion of real (not pretend) local produce and seafood, whimsical variations on international and southern food themes, and a nice assortment of small plates from the "sharing menu" and the smaller entree part of the menu. Prices are also surprisingly modest for the premier setting. Items on the sharing menu range from just $7 to $10 and the entrees range from $16 to $25.

However, execution was off at times, particularly in the seasoning department. It reared its tasteless head in the roasted beets ($), which were beautifully roasted and presented. The tang of goat cheese helped to show-off the beets' earthy sweetness, but the promised sea salt was undetectable to my palate. It was sorely needed, so too a splash of acid. It was a similar story for the highly recommended shrimp bruschetta ($8), which more closely resembled a pesto and tomato soup. It was chunky and very liquid, not really a typical bruschetta topper. The shrimp served with it were bona fide local and delicious. Salt and lemon would have made this dish nearly as delicious as the view. Zippy and moist mini-blue sliders ($9) served in fresh, soft potato buns and topped with sweet, caramelized onions and points of blue cheese were flawless and an utterly fresh-from-the-sea fillet of pan-seared grouper ($9) was another local seafood gem that was handled with extreme care by the kitchen. Served with a pungent green tomato marmalade, it was a real winner.

Take time to soak in the view at Blu. The sophisticated yet relaxed dining room is awash in the colors of sea foam, ranging from sage to azure. Waves of gossamer curtains embossed with wavy patterns recall the flutter of a cool sea breeze. Seating is ample and comfortable, complete with well-padded banquettes in the softened, round edges of the room. Don't miss the precious clay art murals of colorful fish playing and peeking from the crevices of a coral reef on your right upon entering the restaurant space.

Parking is easy and free, just like the effect Blu's views have on the soul.

Blu Restaurant & Bar
Folly Beach Holiday Inn
1 Center Street, Folly Beach
(843) 588-6659

Farmer's Market Frenzy

Wow, what a first day for the farmer's market season. Saturday's opening day for the Charleston market on Marion Square was an unprecedented doozy. In a decade, I've never seen so much traffic at the market on any day of the year. I was unable to get there until noon. By then, most booth's were already sold out or nearly sold out. Karen Kennerty of Kennerty Farms had two bags of fresh greens left - all the asparagus and everything else had sold out by mid-morning, she reported with a beaming smile. Obviously, the appeal of supporting local farmers and locally produced foods is blooming. Perhaps the gorgeous weather had something to do with it, as well.

Food vendors offering gyro's, crepes, omelets, pasta, (local) open-faced grilled sandwiches, miniature pies, and an increasingly gourmet cache of goodies were clogged to the extreme and waits were long for lunch. I had to settle for a hot dog from the only relatively lonely vendor at the place. At least it was a good hot dog.

Hope the farmers load up for this Saturday's market, which opens at 8 a.m. and closes at 2 p.m. I, for one, plan to get there early!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dinner and a View

Early spring in Charleston stirs up (along with a hefty dose of pollen) a hefty appetite for some of the city's unparalleled views, and the closer to nature the better. Since Charleston is surrounded by water, dappled with sunlight and rippling with pale green marsh grasses during this most comely of seasons, water-side dining seems like the perfect pick. But, unless you live on the edge of it or have a friend who does, your options are limited. Then, there is California Dreaming.

I know, I know. This twenty-year-old restaurant stalwart isn't likely to be at the top of any gourmand's list for five-star dining and it's probably never going to get a nod from the James Beard House. However, there are lots of things to like about it, and the brightest star on that list has to be the circle-in-the-round water views which can be savored from literally any of the many seats in the spacious house. It's exquisite. The Ashley snaking to the north, the Cooper River bridge on the horizon, the colorful glitter of the peninsula, the bustle of maritime activity on the river, and an open view of the harbor that extends well past Fort Sumter are all there for the taking along with what's almost always a good meal for a fair price.

A fairly straightforward meat and potatoes joint, California Dreaming proves time and again it can deliver in the steak department. The New York Strip ($22.95) I ordered on a recent trip was cooked perfectly to order, seasoned through and through and frankly, was one of the best renditions you can find around town within that price range. Baked potatoes, which come loaded if you choose, are always soft and fluffy, just begging to soak up seasonings, butter, sour cream and whatever else additionally calories you dare pile on. That same $22.95 will buy you another side, which usually ends up being the restaurant's popular house salad. As with the potato, I ask them to hold the eggs, bacon and cheese for which the salad's celebrated, but are not welcomed by my waistline defenses. Even without the extras, it's a pleasant addition to the meal.

The service staff is young and sometimes erratic but usually friendly and efficient. In the roughly ten times I've dined here in as many years, every single time the place has been packed. It brings in a diverse crowd of seniors, families, romantic couples, and tourists and can be loud. But, one cast of your eyes and your mind upon the nearly surreal beauty of the view blocks it all out so you can really enjoy your meal, the moment, and Charleston's knock-out beauty.

For a dusk-time nightcap, why not visit another tried and true, if slightly corny, Charleston tradition just across the waterway at the Holiday Inn's Harborview Restaurant. It just received an interior design update, but the view, elevated several stories higher than California Dreaming's, remains its good old celestial self. Pair that with one of the affable bartenders' cocktails and you'll swear you're in heaven. And, you just might be right.

California Dreaming Restaurant
1 Ashley Point Drive, Charleston
(843) 766-1644

Holiday Inn Riverview - Harborview Restaurant
301 Savannah Highway, West Ashley
(843) 725-4138

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mediterranean Invasion

It's coming to me in shades of chickpeas and lamb - the heady, delicious and fattening year I lived in Hoboken, NJ and worked in Manhattan at the corner of 34th Street and Park Avenue. At home, I was assaulted with Italian deliciousness in the form of simply adorned pizza pies and at work, the seducers came in the form of exotic scents wafting from the Indian and Mediterranean restaurants that populated Lexington Avenue. On any given morning, they would ruthlessly taunt me until I inevitably and hungrily succumbed to their temptations by lunch time. It was the year that I fell in love with Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food and now, some twenty years later, my passion and hunger for the stuff borders on scarily obsessive.

So, when a friend told me about a new, month-old place called Ali Baba in Mount Pleasant, I practically cantered over, simultaneously learning that there is another new restaurant with a similar name (Ali Baba Mediterranean Deli & Catering) on Daniel Island. Oh, happy day! Until now, I had to satisfy my Middle Eastern cravings with the scant (but oh so good!) local offerings from Pita King's schwarma to Charlie's made-to-order falafel. I'll get to the "other" Ali Baba soon enough, but for now, am happy to report that the Mt. Pleasant version, while not necessarily Sheik-worthy, is good, pleasant and kind to the budget.

Owned and run by two guys from Jerusalem, the place is simply adorned with slightly wobbly tables and, strangely enough, Egyptian-motif wall coverings. Like the Lexington Avenue of yore, the air is perfumed with cloves, mint, lemon, lamb, cumin and more, which seeped into my appetite veins like a long-forgotten drug. A large sign stating "Family, Love" seemed ill-placed at first, but that impression quickly faded away with the familial mood of our good-natured server and the eclectic, unpretentious tempo of the crowd that practically filled the room by the time our dinner was done. Our server was the only person working the growing crowd, so she became harried and even broke a delicate sweat on her brow, but managed to get everything to the table within good speed and with a smile.

Ali Baba needs to work on their wine offerings. They are limited to just two and neither are well-suited to most Western palates, including mine.

Aside from some erroneous menu descriptions - most notably rice that tasted and looked like saffron rice that the menu repeatedly refers to as "curried rice" - Ali Baba hit the right notes in the food department. In particular, the kitchen shows real talent in marrying and balancing a series of challenging spice combinations in a number of dishes. For example, the kalaya ($9.99) takes on cloves - a potential flavor killer if used in excess - which the kitchen idyllically balances with the tang of lemon and the fragrance of lamb. A crispy "Jerusalem" salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and smooth tahini is served alongside. The kofta kabab dinner ($10.99) is a satisfying plate of diminutive, smoky ground lamb patties served over a large bed of airy, saffron-infused rice. Don't miss the appetizer combination plate ($6.99) of falafel (a much more cardamon/cumin-rich version than Charlie's but still very good), silky smooth hummus and baba ganoush (although we inexplicably received the restaurant's mint-rich tabouli instead).

Ali Baba Mediterranean Food
920 Houston Northcutt Boulevard, #A2
Mount Pleasant, SC
(In the Harris Teeter Shopping Center next to Starbucks)
(843) 388-0683

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 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 with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site ( , 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.