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Learning the art of Lowcountry cooking at Charleston Cooks
The beguiling city of Charleston, South Carolina, boasts a multitude of charms, not the least of which are its unique brand of hospitality and its signature Lowcountry cooking. While the pastel historic buildings and the profusion of crape myrtles draw the attention of typical visitors, foodies find themselves under the spell of the chef-instructors at a cooking school (and kitchen shop) aptly called Charleston Cooks! Here they are tutored in the nuances of the local cuisine, whose name derives from the South Carolina Lowcountry—the marshy coastal area along the state’s Atlantic shoreline.
Showcasing Charleston’s late summer bounty and its reputation for gracious casual entertaining, the two chefs are teaching a class called "Sunday Luncheon on the Porch." The recipes contain many local ingredients and plenty of tradition. "The summer is hot and humid, so our recipes are light and fresh," says Danielle. Just reading the selections—including a tall, icy cocktail—is an antidote to summer heat, and a lazy afternoon on the porch sounds ideal.
The class begins with the salads. "If you start with the cocktail, nothing would get done," Danielle jokes. "So we’ll do that last." Emily tosses together Pickled Shrimp Salad, a "grown-up shrimp cocktail." Fresh dill and a tangy marinade complement the sweet smoothness of lightly poached shrimp, which will be added just before serving to avoid "cooking" it in the marinade.
Pickled Shrimp Salad
- 8 ounces green beans, ends trimmed, cut in half crosswise
- 1-1/2 pounds peeled and deveined shrimp
- 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
- 2 to 3 shallots, minced
- 1/4 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup capers
- 2 tablespoons caper juice
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon celery seed
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
- 1/2 pint grape tomatoes, halved
- 1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
- Salt and ground black pepper
Fill large saucepan two-thirds full of water. Salt generously; bring to gentle boil.
Fill large bowl with half cold water and half ice. Gently drop green beans into boiling water; cook 30 seconds. Using skimmer or slotted spoon, remove beans; submerge in ice bath.
Gently drop shrimp into boiling water; cook 1 1⁄2 minutes or until opaque. Remove and submerge in ice bath. Remove beans and shrimp from ice bath; pat dry.
In large bowl, whisk together vinegar, shallots, dill, capers, caper juice, lemon juice, garlic, sugar, celery seed, and red pepper. Add olive oil a little at a time, whisking until well combined. Fold beans, shrimp, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, and onion into vinegar-oil dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.Make-ahead tip: If not immediately using, follow recipe except reserve shrimp and beans until just before serving.
The second recipe piques everyone’s interest: Grilled Watermelon and Arugula Salad. Grilled watermelon—who knew? Danielle refers to the wedges of super-sweet summer fruit as "watermelon steaks." Grilling them caramelizes their sugars to harmonize with the spicy arugula and creamy, pungent blue cheese.
Grilled Watermelon and Arugula Salad
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup white wine or champagne vinegar
- 1/4 cup olive oil or canola oil
- 1 tablespoon snipped fresh thyme
- Salt and ground black pepper
- 12 to 16 (1-inch-thick) wedges ripe watermelon
- Olive oil or canola oil
- 3 cups arugula
- 3/4 cup (3 ounces) crumbled blue cheese, divided in half
- 1/3 cup roasted, salted pistachio nuts
In bowl combine shallot and vinegar. Let stand 10 minutes. Whisk in 1⁄4 cup oil and thyme until well mixed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Lightly brush watermelon wedges with additional oil; sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. For charcoal grill, grill watermelon wedges, uncovered, directly over medium-hot coals 1 to 2 minutes or until lightly charred, turning once halfway through grilling. (For gas grill, preheat grill. Reduce heat to medium-high. Place watermelon wedges on grill rack over heat. Cover; grill as above.) Transfer to plate; reserve juices.
In medium bowl combine arugula and half the cheese. Add reserved juices from watermelon to dressing. Whisk to combine. Add half of dressing to arugula mixture; toss gently to coat.
Divide arugula mixture among salad plates. Top each with 2 watermelon wedges. Drizzle with additional dressing. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and nuts. Makes 6 to 8 salads.
The class prepares tender, crumbly Blue Cheese Pecan Wafers to serve alongside the Grilled Watermelon and Arugula Salad. Rolling the dough into a log and freezing before slicing gives the wafers elegant uniformity when they are baked.
Blue Cheese Pecan Wafers
- 3/4 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1/2 cup crumbed blue cheese (2 ounces)
- Bottled hot pepper sauce
In a medium bowl stir together the pecans, flour, salt and pepper. Using a wooden spoon, stir butter and blue cheese into flour mixture until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in hot pepper sauce. Shape dough into a ball; knead until smooth. Divide dough in half.
On parchment or waxed paper, shape each dough half into a 7-inch long log.* Wrap in the parchment paper. Freeze for 30 minutes or until firm.
Cut each log into slices, about 1/4-inch thick. Place slices about 1-inch apart on silicone baking mat (Silpat®)-lined baking sheets. Bake in a 350° F oven for 10 to 12 minutes or until edges are turning brown. Transfer to wire racks to cool. Makes about 4 dozen.
* To get perfectly round and uniformly sized wafers, fold the parchment paper over the dough in half, with the seam facing you. Using a dough scraper or your hands, push the dough against the back side of the parchment paper until it is in the shape of a log. Continue pushing and shaping until the log is the desired size, and is uniformly round.
Make-ahead:To store, cool wafers completely. Place in a covered container and refrigerate for up to 1 week, or freeze for up to 1 month. Thaw frozen wafers in the refrigerator before serving.
"The corn is beautiful here in summer," Emily says. "To make our Corn Fritters, we use corn in several ways—first, we cut kernels straight from the cob, then we use the back of a paring knife to get the ‘milk’ from the cob. That’s the sweetest part of the corn." Stone-ground grits (made from milled corn) give the fritters crunchiness. Danielle cautions against serving a creamy dip with the fritters. "Instead, balance their sweetness with the acidity of a fresh tomato relish," she says.
- 3 large ears of corn, husks and silks removed
- 1/3 cup stone ground grits
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 teaspoon bottled hot pepper sauce
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- Canola oil
- Coarse salt
- Tomato Relish (optional)
Cut corn kernels off the cob and scrape the cob to extract the corn milk* (you should have about 2 1/2 cups corn kernels). In a small bowl stir together the grits, flour, and baking powder.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg and milk until combined. Stir in the flour mixture, corn, corn milk, hot pepper sauce, and green onions.
Pour enough canola oil into a large nonstick skillet just to cover the bottom of the pan, and heat over medium heat until hot. Drop batter into hot skillet by rounded tablespoons (4 or 5 at a time). Cook over medium heat about 2 minutes on each side or until fritters are golden brown. Remove from skillet and pat off excess oil with paper towels.
Keep fritters warm in a 200°F oven while frying remaining fritters. Lightly sprinkle coarse salt over fritters. Serve warm with Tomato Relish, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings (24 fritters).
Tomato Relish: In a medium bowl combine 1 cup chopped tomato, 1 teaspoon each olive oil and vinegar, and 1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives, and salt and pepper to taste.
*Tips: Use the back of a paring knife to scrape the corn cob to extract the corn milk. This is often the best part of the corn, and ensures that you get all of the juice from the corn.
The batter will be thin and runny at first, but will firm up as soon as you drop it into the hot skillet. Use caution, as the batter may pop and sizzle while cooking!
For dessert, individual pound cakes are topped with summer-ripe peaches macerated in peach liqueur and served with bourbon-laced whipped cream. Sour cream in the cake batter adds extra moistness.
Pound Cakes with Peaches
- 6 peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
- 1/3 cup peach schnapps
- 3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
- 1/2 cup whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
- 1 to 2 tablespoons bourbon
- 3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup dairy sour cream
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
In a medium bowl mix peach slices with peach schnapps and brown sugar; set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer beat whipping cream until frothy. Add the powdered sugar and bourbon, and beat until soft peaks form. Keep chilled while making cake.
For Pound cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease and flour 2-1/2 inch muffin cups; set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer beat butter until creamy. Gradually beat in granulated sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and baking soda.
Gradually add the flour mixture to the creamed mixture, alternating with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Beat on low speed just until blended after each addition. Stir in the vanilla.
Pour batter into prepared muffin cups. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, and then invert cakes onto a plate. Serve warm or cooled topped with peaches and bourbon cream. Makes 12 to 14 individual pound cakes.
Now about that cocktail. Patrick Emerson, wine and beverage director for Charleston Cooks! and its affiliate area restaurants, has created a potent porch-sipping drink steeped in history. "We combine vodka, iced tea, lemonade, and Madeira, the sweet wine so popular in the 19th century, with mint-infused simple syrup. It’s a modern nod to the mint julep." It’s a good thing the best was saved for last.
The Charleston Cocktail
Patrick Emerson uses locally produced FireFly vodka (fireflyvodka.com) infused with wine from muscadine grapes, a regional varietal.
- 1-1/2 ounces premium vodka
- 1/2 ounce Madeira
- 2 ounces unsweetened brewed iced tea
- 2 ounces lemonade
- Few splashes Mint Simple Syrup*
- Ice cubes
- Crushed ice
- Mint sprig
- Seedless green grapes
Shake vodka, Madeira, iced tea, lemonade, and Mint Simple Syrup in cocktail shaker with ice cubes. Pour over crushed ice in tall glass. Garnish with mint sprig and grapes. Makes 1 cocktail.
*Mint Simple Syrup: In small saucepan combine 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add 1 tablespoon bruised mint leaves. Cool to room temperature; strain. Makes 1-1/2 cups.
Charleston Cooks! Maverick Kitchen Store features a selection of kitchen items to make everything learned in classes easy to do at home. There’s an extensive collection of regional cookbooks as well. The store is open seven days a week.
Charleston Cooks! is located at 194 East Bay Street in downtown Charleston. For class schedules and prices, call 843/722-1212 or go to mavericksouthernkitchens.com; follow the link to Charleston Cooks!
You’ll be graciously welcomed in Charleston, which is known as the nation’s "Most Mannerly City." And if a dose of civility and hospitality isn’t enough to draw you to this coastal city, the gentle year-round climate, distinct architecture, and casual elegance will. A walk along Museum Mile (Meeting Street) showcases the city’s past with six museums, including the Gibbes Museum of Art, plus nine historical residences. Members of the Charleston Fine Art Dealers Association (cfada.com) offer gallery collections that range from extraordinary John J. Audubon folios to contemporary portraits. The Upper King Design District mixes home decor and boutiques with hip restaurants for an all-day shop-a-thon. The surrounding Lowcountry islands specialize in relaxation—resorts, golf, and beaches abound.