Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Saturday Night Special at the Fox Swamp

As reliable as blueberries in June and corn in July, Ryan Kacenjar can be found roaming the aisles of the Charleston Farmers Market early every Saturday morning. Clad in his chef's jacket with notepad in hand and creativity in mind, the Swamp Fox Restaurant Chef de Cuisine seeks out just the right stuff for the Farmers Market Dinner. He prepares these dinners every Saturday night during farmers market season at the restaurant, which is situated in the Francis Marion Hotel, a stone's throw from the farmers market itself.

I ran into him last Saturday, a full year since I first found out about his market inspired menu, and found him fawning over Kennerty Farm heirloom carrots, his eyes bright, his smile wide, and his enthusiasm infectious. "I love shopping at and cooking from the market," Kacenjar said. I mentioned to him that I've been meaning to sample his market fare, and decided that it would be the perfect dinner event to share with some out of town guests I was hosting for the weekend. So, we made reservations right there at the market and anticipated the meal for most of the day.

The restaurant looks like you might expect; a kind of half-way house between a hotel guest breakfast buffet and a casual evening dining space. Clean and attractive, however, it also boasts very pleasant live jazz piano music on Friday and Saturday evenings. Our service was very efficient and our waitress was friendly and professional.

True to form, the four course ($29 each) market menu showcased many of the same gems we'd spied at the market that morning. The first course soup prepared with roasted, pureed red beets from Owl's Nest Farm was stunning in its simplicity and perfect execution. The lightly seasoned broth tasted purely of the sweetness of red beets and was brilliant in color. Chef Kacenjar topped it with thin slices of roasted yellow beets, house cured Atlantic Salmon and a dollop of Tiverton Farm garlic chive creme fraiche. Kacenjar's butter and honey enriched corn bread was served hot in mini-cast iron skillets and was an idyllic foil to the idyllic soup.

The "house" pimento cheese was served too cold to really taste and had a decidedly non-farmers market, mass-produced look to it, but it got some tasty local flavor injection from Raychelle's Fresh Pickle Works pickled vegetable garnishes.

The dinner was completed with thick, marinated then seared wedges of roasted River Run Farm beef served with the carrots the chef had been raving about that morning, and orbs of sweet, delicious potatoes and butter-tender roasted eggplant. Dessert ended a delightful evening with rich slices of pound cake baked with sweet/tart Owl's Nest Plums and Shuler Farm nectarines sandwiching a fluffy vanilla bean Chiboust.

All in all, good stuff and definitely worth a Saturday night special visit. Kacenjar's palpable enthusiasm for his hard work adds an extra sweetness to the pot for no extra fee, and then, there is that lovely piano music and views of beautiful Marion Square. The regular menu is also available and it includes a version of chicken 'n dumplings that would put some grandmothers' cooking to shame.

Swamp Fox Restaurant & Bar
The Francis Marion Hotel
337 King Street, downtown Charleston

(843) 724-8888
Reservations are requested.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Embracing Seasonal Inspiration and Recipe Liberation

It's ironic that I write cookbooks and recipes for a living. That's because I don't really believe in them, at least not as a set of rules, but rather as a template for cooking. I'm adamant about that. It's not really cooking when you're burying your nose in a flour-covered book by your cutting board. That's following directions. Real cooking, and the fun and the art of cooking, is free-flow creation. The first step towards getting there is understanding basic formulas/ratios and technique. The "big picture", as I call it, first came together for me at Le Cordon Bleu. But, there are other sources for home cooks to learn these instrumentals whether it be cookbooks (my new favorite is Ratio by Michael Ruhlman) or local cooking classes. I'm constantly urging anyone who asks to go there, because that's when the fun really begins.

For me, the most inspiring source for recipe creation and cooking is the weekly farmers market here in Charleston. Last Saturday morning, I had the pleasure of leading a group of 11 students through stands rife with ripe blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn and all the delicious fresh gems of a hot South Carolina June.

I felt like the pied piper leading my merry little band of curious cooks to find the perkiest produce to make into a meal once we returned to Charleston Cooks! for the actual class. We put our heads together at each stop, deciding what we each liked and wanted to prepare. We came back with blueberries, blackberries, lemon cucumbers, baby heirloom tomatoes, a bundle of fresh basil, spring onions, artisinal four cheese ravioli, fresh corn, patty pan squash, flounder, goat cheese, and squash blossoms. Thankfully, my able assistants Emily and Season (don't you just love that name?) were on hand to help us carry it all.

Back at the school, it was time to get cooking. We grouped the products together in little piles for each dish I envisioned as I was driving back to the school. The menu ended up being a blackberry/blueberry pie with fresh whipped cream, Corn, Bacon and Green Onion Chowder, Flash Cooked Tomato Basil Sauce for the ravioli, Chevre-Stuffed Squash Blossoms, Pickled Lemon Cucumbers, and Sauteed Flounder with Patty Pan Squash. Everyone of my motley crew, which ranged in age from 14 to 60+ and who came from all over, got into the act. Each one was so excited to cook with what we had found at the market. This is part of what makes farmers market shopping so thrilling. You do the shopping and make the decisions and then you have the joy of cooking and then eating it! By the end of the two-hour class, we all got to experience that together. And, I think the students got one step closer to more enjoyable, more delicious cooking.

As you travel down a similar path, consider using your local farmers market as your culinary muse. Pick only what's freshest and seasonal and also something you like. Sometimes, consider picking something new, too. Then, think about what products make sense in a flavor/texture marriage. Plug in your imagination and as much technique as you possess and you're pretty much ready to roll.

Happy Cooking!

Charleston Cooks!
194 East Bay Street
Charleston, SC
(843) 722-1212

Charleston Farmers Market
Marion Square, downtown
Charleston, SC
Saturdays, 8 a.m. - 2 p.m., April - December

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.