Thursday, April 30, 2015

Middleton Place & Gardens: A National Landmark

To visit Charleston is to step into a world that harkens back to the antebellum South. They call this land the Lowcountry, where one finds life moving at a slower pace, the people laid back and speaking with a hospitable and endearing Southern drawl. One of the main highlights of stepping into this rich historical tapestry is by visiting some of the area’s beautiful antebellum plantations, which were a staple of the economy, culture and lifestyle of the pre-Civil War South. Along the Ashley River Road National Scenic Byway, an 11-mile section of road with sunlight sifting in golden strands through Spanish moss hanging from massive live oaks, provides the perfect setting for three spectacular plantations: Middleton Place, Magnolia Plantation, and Drayton Hall, with Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens on the other side of the river.

The prettiest of them all is Middleton Place. This former plantation is home to America's oldest landscaped gardens, begun in 1741 by Henry Middleton, second president of the First Continental Congress. From camellias to roses, blooms of all seasons form floral allées along terraced lawns and gardens around a pair of ornamental lakes that are shaped like butterfly wings, in addition to panoramic marshland views featuring the magnificent 900-year-old Middleton Oak. As for the house, a large part of the three-building residential complex was destroyed during the Civil War, but the "South flanker" that contained the gentlemen's guest quarters was restored, and now serves as a house museum, displaying impressive English silver, furniture, original paintings, and historic documents, including an early silk copy of the Declaration of Independence. 

In the stableyards, historic interpreters use authentic tools to demonstrate spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, and other skills from the plantation era. Heritage-breed farm animals, such as water buffalo and cashmere goats, are housed here, along with peacocks. A gorgeous walk during the height of Spring, a spectacular array of flowers bloom everywhere on the plantation, making Middleton, according to the Garden Club of America, one of the "most interesting and important gardens in the U.S." If all this leaves you feeling peckish, head over to the cozy Middleton Place Restaurant for excellent Lowcountry specialties, based on original recipes by renowned Southern Chef Edna Lewis who was the resident chef for several years.  

“Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”
– Lady Bird Johnson -

Middleton Plantation Reflection Pond with swans

Garden path overlooking the pond

Flowers in one of the 'Secret Gardens'

A quiet garden bench overlooking the reflecting pond

Garden path leading to the Camellia Allées

A camellia in full bloom

'The Four Seasons' sculpture nestled in the secret gardens

The 900 year old Middleton Oak off the formal gardens and overlooking the Ashley River

Moss covered oaks line the banks off the Ashley

A picturesque wood garden gate

Horse and carriage ambling through the 'greensward'

Middleton Plantation House viewed from the gardens

The Plantation Chapel

The Mill Pond behind the Chapel

One of the resident peacocks in full show, in the Middleton stable yard 

Giving us a full showing, the peacock gave us a view from the backside too!

Protective of their area, the goose was attempting to stare me into retreat

A very sleepy Guinea Hog, which was a common breed on southern plantations until they were replaced by modern breeds — nowadays, they're a rare heritage breed

The candle and soap-making area of the plantation, where both free and enslaved workers spent much of their days

Chickens were also raised at Middleton

Coopers fashioned barrels for storage and shipment of rice which was the main crop of the Plantation, as shown by resident Cooper Doug Nesbit

Arthur-the-cat, who likes to lounge around the cooper, chewing on rice sheathes

The Blacksmith Shop

Harold, a cashmere goat

Horses were used to plough the fields

"Eliza's House", a circa 1870 two-family dwelling for the enslaved at Middleton Place, both before and after the Civil War

Carriage tours take guests around the plantation

A herd of Gulf Coast sheep keep the grass well trimmed

Middleton Place viewed from the side

View of the restored Middleton Place from the right side

Another gorgeous peacock strutting through the gardens

The restaurant at Middleton Place, which was once a guest house, serves low county lunch every day, and candlelit dinners in the evening based on original recipes by acclaimed chef Edna Lewis

The tranquil outdoor garden terrace of the restaurant

Middleton Place Pecan Pie
Serves 6-8
Recipe courtesy of Chef Edna Lewis, Middleton Place

1 cup lard
2 tbsp butter
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp cold water

1 cup corn syrup
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans
Whipped cream, chopped nuts and mint, for garnish

In a large bowl, place the lard and butter. Add the flour and salt and rub together with fingers to form small balls. Add the cold water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing the flour mixture in between each tablespoon. Only add enough water until dough comes together in one large ball.

Spread some flour on a piece of waxed paper and place the dough on it. Sprinkle some more flour on top of the dough and proceed to roll out the dough until desired thickness, about 1/8 inch thick. Fold the dough over once to make a half moon and again to make it a quarter moon. Remove the dough from the waxed paper and place into a 9-inch pie pan. Unfold the dough so that it covers the entire pan. Press dough gently into pan. Using a fork, crimp the edges of the dough along the edge of the pie pan and cut away excess dough with a pairing knife. Set the pie shell aside.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a bowl, combine the corn syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla, and eggs. Mix with a whisk until well incorporated. Place the pecans in the pie shell and pour mixture over nuts. Be careful not to overflow the shell. Bake the pie for 45 minutes. The pie should be firm and golden brown. Let pie cool before cutting. Pie may be garnished with whipped cream, nuts and mint.

Middleton Place Corn Pudding
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Chef Edna Lewis, Middleton Place

2 cups yellow corn
2 whole eggs
3/4 qt heavy cream
1/4 tsp nutmeg
pinch of salt and pepper

Place yellow corn in a greased casserole pan. Mix all other ingredients together. Pour mixture over corn and bake for 45 minutes at 350°F or until golden brown.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Southern Plantations: A Journey Back in Time

Plantations were an important aspect of the history of the American South, particularly the antebellum — pre-American Civil War — South. Vestiges of classic colonial architecture hint at this bygone era. Plantations were a staple of the economy, culture and lifestyle of the pre-Civil War South. Grand avenues of stately oak trees create picturesque, moss-draped canopies. Scenery unfolds with the seasons, from scarlet-colored camellias at Christmas to cornflower blue sky in summer months, the landscape at these bucolic enclaves is a rich tapestry of natural beauty. Considered one of the finest examples of Georgian-Palladian architecture in North America, Drayton Hall is certainly one of the Lowcountry’s greatest architectural treasures. Built between 1738 and 1742 for John Drayton, it's the oldest unrestored plantation house in the U.S., and has survived centuries of war, earthquakes, hurricanes, and modern-day urban sprawl.

Untouched by fad or fashion, the house museum stands as an example of meticulous preservation and has neither running water nor electricity. As one of the most successful planters of the period, John Drayton surrounded himself with the most fashionable goods acquired from travels around the world. The surviving furniture, ceramics and glassware exist as they originally stood and exhibit the lengths that Drayton went to furnish his house with imported objects that befitted his status and lifestyle and, just as important, were in keeping with the latest protocol of British society.

Throughout his lifetime, Drayton owned over 100 different plantations totalling about 76,000 acres across South Carolina and Georgia where scores of enslaved Africans, Native Americans and their descendants grew rice and indigo for exportation to Europe and reared cattle and pigs for shipment to the Caribbean sugar islands. The legacy of this slave society survives today in the form of Drayton’s home, its landscape, and surviving collections, and is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and is part of the Ashley River Historic District on the National Register.

Drayton Hall, considered the finest example of Georgian Palladian architecture in North America

A pedimented chimney piece in the main downstairs living room of the house, carved in the tectonic manner popularized by William Kent

Fireplace pediment with hand carved details

The upstairs ballroom with beautiful detailing ceiling and shuttered windows

The original old kitchen in the lower level of Drayton Hall

An infrastructure of supports have been installed to help stabilize the historic plantation,
thanks to private donations totalling $5-million!

The picturesque pond on the plantation is home to alligators, one of which is popping his head up

A spectacular oak with hanging moss is one of the quintessential images of 'the south'

When photographed in about 1890, Drayton Hall's two flanker buildings were still existing

Enslaved Communities on General Thomas Drayton Family Plantations, a sprawling empire which ran from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida to Texas

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Husk: Chef Sean Brock's Lowcountry Cuisine

Husk Restaurant has been among the most celebrated restaurants in town, ever since it first opened its doors in late 2010, for its respect for good Southern cooking, settling comfortably into Charleston’s rich food scene with a dedication to Southern ingredients that’s unmatched anywhere in the city. “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door,” Husk’s James Beard Award-winning chef, Sean Brock, has famously proclaimed. As he explains, the resulting cuisine "is not about rediscovering Southern cooking, but exploring the reality of Southern food." Every single item on Husk’s menu comes from below the Mason-Dixon Line, from the salt to the olive oil, from the rare heirloom beans to the seafood. Centrally located in historic downtown Charleston in a beautifully restored circa-1893 Queen Anne home, Husk is more simple and straightforward than Brock’s flagship McCrady’s, where the kitchen is full of high-tech toys and modernist ingredients. At Husk, Brock transforms the essence of Southern food. Led by Brock and Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes, a Lowcountry native, the kitchen reinterprets the bounty of the surrounding area, exploring an ingredient-driven cuisine that begins in the rediscovery of heirloom products and redefines what it means to cook and eat in Charleston. Chef Sean Brock puts the focus on the artisans and ingredients of the modern south. Menu changes daily with a commitment to procuring only from within the south.

Chef Sean Brock

Brock and Grimes grow much of their own produce on the restaurant’s garden, and concentrate on heirloom grains and vegetables that once flourished in the region, but were lost to 20th-century industrial agriculture. Then they take what is fresh and available today, or even this hour, and transform it into an evolving menu. Seasonal bounty comes in waves, however, and what they can’t use immediately is preserved, pickled, smoked, and saved. The menu flourishes with Lowcountry ingredients, where Brock puts his fanatically sourced products in daily-changing menus that feature incredible versions of classics, like his shrimp and grits made with smoked sausage, roasted tomatoes and fennel topped with fried pigs’ ears; or a fried chicken cooked in four types of fat — butter, chicken fat, bacon fat and country ham fat, and Brock’s fried chicken, which undergoes constant experimentation in pursuit of perfection. 

The modern interior of Husk

Husk's daily changing menu of southern low country cuisine, where every ingredient comes from below the Mason-Dixon Line, focuses on heirloom grains and vegetables that once flourished in the region

One very smart looking Ketel One Vodka Martini

A 'Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch' from a recipe from the Charleston Preservation Society, made with California brandy, Jamaican rum, peach brandy, Black tea, lemon juice and raw sugar

Linen wrapped hot dinner rolls topped with benne seeds and salt

Bacon-infused butter

An appetizer of Cheddar Pimento Cheese on house made Benne Crackers with pickle relish and crisp country ham

Fried South Carolina Soft Shelled Crab with sugar snap and charred ramp vinaigrette, spring onions, Virginia peanuts and cilantro

Tennessee Flat Iron Steak with crispy creamer potatoes, South Carolina snap beans and spinach, seer onions, bacon and spring garlic butter

Cornmeal Dusted Catfish with Florida sweet corn creamed with green garlic, fried cabbage, roasted fennel and peppers

Sean Brock's Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread with Allan Benton’s smokehouse bacon

Brock shares his admiration for the purveyors and ingredients he cherishes by highlighting their names on a huge board in the foyer of Husk

Chef Sean Brock's 'Heritage' cookbook

Husk's Cornbread
Serves 8
Recipe courtesy of chef Sean Brock

2 cups coarse yellow Anson Mills cornmeal
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons fresh lard or bacon fat, melted but not hot 
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
Large pinch of salt

Heat the oven to 450°F. Place a 10-inch cast-iron pan in the oven to get hot. In a medium bowl, combine the cornmeal, salt, baking soda and baking powder. In another bowl, combine 4 tablespoons of the lard, egg and buttermilk, then stir the wet ingredients into the dry until smooth. Move the pan from the oven to the stove top, over high heat. Add the remaining lard to the pan and swirl to coat. Pour in the batter — it should sizzle vigorously. Distribute the batter evenly and place into the oven. Cook for 15 to 18 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the centre comes out clean.

Shrimp and Grits With Roasted Tomato, Fennel & Sausage
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of chef Sean Brock

For the Roasted Tomato: 
8 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tbsp olive oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

For the Fennel:
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed and fronds reserved
2-3 cups vegetable broth or water
1 tbsp butter
kosher salt & white pepper

For the Grits:
1 cup coarse corn grits, soaked overnight if necessary 
kosher salt
1 fresh bay leaf
1 1⁄2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp cream cheese
white pepper
1⁄2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1⁄2 tsp hot sauce

For the Shrimp:
1 tbsp olive oil
20 large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 cup smoked sausage, cooked and crumbled 
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
hot sauce
kosher salt
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 450°F. In a bowl, combine the tomato, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and toss well. Arrange the tomato halves, cut side up, on a parchment lined baking sheet and roast until they collapse and are lightly browned, about 25 to 30 minutes, then set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the fennel, half the reserved fronds, and enough water or broth just to cover. Add butter and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a low simmer and cook until fork tender, 8 to 10 minutes, then transfer to a plate, discard cooked fronds, but reserve the cooking liquid.

Meanwhile, prepare the grits according to the package directions, seasoning with salt and adding a bay leaf halfway through cooking. Once cooked, mix the grits with butter, cream cheese, pepper, lemon juice, and hot sauce.

Prepare the shrimp about 15 minutes before the grits are done by heating a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat, add oil, and sear shrimp 1 minute per side. Add the fennel, sausage, roasted tomatoes, and 1 1/2 cups of the reserved fennel cooking liquid. Bring to a simmer, stir in lemon juice, hot sauce, salt and chopped parsley — add more fennel cooking liquid if it seem too dry.

To serve, divide the grits among four shallow soup plates, top with shrimp mixture, and garnish with uncooked fennel fronds.

The Husk Cheeseburger
Serves 10
Recipe courtesy of chef Sean Brock

Special Sauce:
1 3/4 cups mayonnaise, preferably Duke's
1 1/4 cups yellow mustard
5 tbsp ketchup
1/2 cup Bread-and-Butter pickles, drained and cut into 1/8-inch dice
1/4 cup pickled jalapeños, drained and cut into 1/8-inch dice
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp hot sauce
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tbsp pepper vinegar, preferably Texas Pete brand

1 3-pound fresh boneless chuck roast
12 oz fresh flank steak
3 oz bacon, preferably Benton's
3 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature
10 burger buns, preferably potato rolls
1 cup white onion, shaved
20 slices American cheese
50 Bread-and-Butter pickles

For the sauce, combine all of the ingredients in a large container and stir together to blend well. Cover and refrigerate. Tightly covered, the sauce will keep for up to 5 days in the refrigerator.

For the cheeseburgers, grind the chuck, flank steak and bacon through a meat grinder fitted with the large die into a bowl. Mix gently to combine.
Then run half of the mixture through the small die. Mix the two together.
Portion the meat mixture into twenty 3-ounce patties, about 1/2-inch thick — each burger gets 2 patties. If not cooking right away, arrange on a baking sheet, cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The patties can be refrigerated for up to 1 day. Remove from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you’re ready to cook; it’s important that the patties are not ice-cold when they hit the hot pan.

Generously butter the tops and bottoms of the buns. Toast on a griddle until nice and golden brown, and set aside. Heat two 12-inch cast-iron skillets until as hot as possible. Divide the patties between the two hot pans. When the patties are nice and charred, about 2 minutes, flip them over and cook for 2 minutes more for medium. Place the onion slices on 10 of the patties. Place a slice of the cheese on all of the patties and allow it to melt, about 30 seconds. Stack the non-onion patties on top of the onion patties. Remove from the heat.

To serve, smear both sides of the buns with special sauce and place 5 pickles on the bottom half of each bun. Add the burger patties and top with the top halves of the buns and serve at once.