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When in Richmond: Halligan Bar & Grill

 

Once upon a time, by which I mean last week, we took a journey to the south land to visit my cousin Jessie and celebrate her recent graduation from Appalachian State University (yay Jessie!). Of course, never ones to avoid turning anything at all into a national eating holiday, we decided to take the opportunity to find the best food in North Carolina, or any other state we might be passing through at mealtimes. During our brief road trip, we hit up chicken and biscuits, maryland crabcakes, old fashioned milkshakes, coconut cake, peach cobbler, chocolate pie, and NC barbecue 5 times in 4 days. And you know what that means! Turn up the bluegrass and pour yourself a tall glass of sweet tea… it’s road food time!

 

Firetruck

 

Our journey begins in Richmond, VA. Looking for nothing more than a pretty-decent place to eat that was pretty-decently close to I-95 and also not McDonalds, we stumbled upon Halligan Bar and Grill, an unsuspecting restaurant which hides away what is, in our opinion, the best barbecue in the entire south – better than anything we had even in North Carolina. An homage to all things firefighter, Halligan has a bar made out of half a firetruck (sliced the long way, obviously) and badges, license plates and inspirational posters decorating every inch of wall space. But the decor is only commentary to food that can only be described as indescribable.

 

Plate of barbecue

 

Smoky pulled pork and chicken fall apart with every motion of your fork, and their sweet, vinegary sauce warms your throat as only proper southern cooking can do. Sandwiches are served on buttery buns, and coleslaw (the natural accompaniment) is peppery and fresh. On the side, homemade baked beans are thick and smoky and hushpuppies are soft and crisp. Moist, tender, herb-studded cornbread is served with sweet and savory chipotle-honey butter (with visible, hand-chopped chipotle peppers, of course) and is perfect for mopping up absolutely everything. A perfect welcome to the south, everything we had at Halligan Bar and Grill was beyond worth both the calories and the trip.

 

I made a smiley face out of barbecue sauce

 

 

Amazingly, we only found this because the other place we were going to go to was closed. Nothing in richmond is open on mondays :P

 

We’re writing up more good, strong and messy American cooking in every free moment of the next few days so we cordially invite you to get fat with us over the next few posts. Stay tuned ;)

 

Bumper sticker just outside Haligan

A Better Beignet

It doesn’t take more than a trip to a carnival (or really an imagination) to know how great fried dough is, but a really great beignet can take one of the world’s best street foods to a whole new level. Last year we went to New Orleans and visited Café du Monde, the French Quarter’s premier beignet shop, but we found it to be a bit over-hyped. Like, no question they were worth every Calorie, but fried dough generally is.

 

This beignet could model, couldn't it?

 

When we began to formulate our version of Tiana’s “man-catching beignets” for Francesca’s birthday party, we knew we had to take it to the next level. Our recipe is inspired by a Buttermilk Beignet recipe we found on epicurious.

 

 

This one particularly struck our fancy because buttermilk gives so many Southern treats moisture with just a touch of tanginess. They’re quite easy to make (much much much easier than we expected) so we should warn you:  it will take a lot of willpower not to make this sometimes food every day.

 


Everybody’s Irish: Cookery Continued

 

As a cooking instructor, I love Ballymaloe for their genius educational philosophy, for their respect for the environment, and for the care they put into each aspect of a meal. But, as we all know, none of that means much if the food isn’t good.

 

A small sampling of the beautiful selection of food that was prepared during our demonstration

 

But of course, the food at Ballymaloe is incredible. The recipes were cleverly divided into clusters, each centered on a core ingredient. For example, Rory created many dishes based on Irish Smoked Salmon.

First, he paired it with sweet cucumber salad, potato wafers (fresh chips), and horseradish cream…

 

 

…then he made a Salmon Roulade with cream cheese and dill…

 

Smoked salmon is rolled around herbed cream cheese filling. These are just two of the beautiful ways this recipe can be plated.

 

…and finally a beautiful Salmon-Trout Pâté.

 

Smoked salmon is placed in a ramekin, filled with a beautiful salmon-troute mousse, and then beautifully turned out onto a plate.

 

For our main course, he made a breathtaking Pork en Croute (tenderloin in puff pastry) with Duxelle (mushroom) stuffing. He served this with a simple but delicious brambley apple sauce and gratin dauphinoise, a spectacular and versatile potato gratin which is cooked almost completely in cream and milk in a saucepan and then baked for only 10-15 minutes. It was just amazing. I can’t wait to make it myself!

 

Left: Rory slices open a pork tenderloin, and Right: stuffs it with duxelle mushroom stuffing.

 

Dessert was the most spectacular part of the meal. Here, Rory used ice cream as his core ingredient. He made several, including chocolate, cappuccino, coffee, vanilla and praline flavors. And being a genius food stylist as well as chef, he came up with endless plating styles!

 

Instead of investing in an ice cream maker, Ballymaloe advises making a mousse and then freezing it. That way, you get the airyness of ice cream made in a machine, without unnecessary kitchen gadgets!

 

He made parfaits with hot chocolate sauce, an ice cream bombe made with coffee, chocolate and praline ice cream…

 

Frozen chocolate mousse bombe is topped with pastry cream and little chocolate-filled chocolate cups. Basically death by chocolate, Irish style.

 

… and cappuccino ice cream served with chocolate curls in beautiful coffee cups…

 

Coffee cups are filled with coffee ice cream and topped with beautiful chocolate curls.

 

… but the best things he made, without a doubt, were the iced chocolate oranges. This recipe is simple brilliance at its finest. He simply hollowed an orange, filled it with mousse, froze it and garnished with orange flavored cream and a tiny bay leaf. So beautiful, so delicious.

 

 

In three short hours, Rory even taught us how to delicately make tiny chocolate cases. It takes a lot of patience, but other than that all you need is cupcake wrappers, melted chocolate (50-70% cocoa) at room temperature and a spoon. You carefully spread the chocolate along the sides of the paper, taking great caution to spread the chocolate evenly in a thin layer. Refrigerate for at least an hour and then gently peel the paper away.

 

Rory fills a cupcake wrapper with chocolate to make adorable little cups that you can make at home!

 

Expect some to crumble your hand – Rory says a few always will, its just the nature of this delicious beast – but it is thoroughly worth the effort. Here they are, filled with amazing chocolate ice cream!

 

Clockwise from top left: An assistent tops chocolate filled cups with beautiful pastry cream; she then covers them with cocoa powder; others are flattened on top for an equally fantastic look.

 

Just writing about Ballymaloe, I long to return. I’ll leave you with some other images of my day. Pictured first is the herb garden, of which Susan, a member of Darina’s cheery staff, gave me a lovely private tour as the sun was setting. The focal point of the meticulous garden is the Myrtle bush, in honor of Darina’s mother-in-law, Myrtle, the original Ballymaloe maverick. She was Alice Waters before Alice Waters was. She opened a Ballymaloe’s acclaimed restaurant a little less than 50 years ago and she insisted on changing the menu daily based on what was fresh and seasonal, which was unheard of back in 1964.

 

Left: the myrtle bush dedicated to Myrtle Allen, Darina's mother-in-law. Right: a bush in the Ballymaloe gardens.

 

Most of these recipes can be found in the glorious food bible, Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course. Reading the book isn’t of course, as cool as being one of those lucky people who gets to spend three months in Ballymaloe heaven, but it’s a treasure of delicious, manageable recipes, and it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite cookbooks. Please check it out, and let us know if you decide to try anything!

 

Images of the beautiful shell house in the Ballymaloe garden.

 

Beyond Brown Bread: Ballymaloe Cookery School

Before we left for Ireland a few weeks ago, a foodie friend told me about Ballymaloe Cookery School in the tiny town of Shanagarry a short distance from the coast in County Cork. I thought it would be great way to spend an afternoon, never really expecting to have an inspirational day. But every once in a while you come across an experience that gives you perfect joy, and that is the kind of the journey I had recently at Ballymaloe.

Ingredients set out for a cookery class

Ireland is known for ancient castles, for mysterious stone circles dotting the Celtic countryside, and for lush green hills with sheep and picturesque houses.

What you think when you think Ireland

But recently, Ireland has become packed with exciting restaurants and chefs promoting local, seasonal, and organic versions of traditional Irish cuisine. Yes, mushy peas still unfortunately grace pub menus, but you’re just as likely to find fresh salmon smoked by a local artisan or prawns caught just hours earlier wrapped in phyllo dough.

Smoked Salmon with Potato Wafers and Horseradish Cream

Mark generously offered to drive 2½ hours from our beautiful seaside house in Dingle,  so I could take an afternoon class.

Francesca and Isabella run on the beach

Fortunately there was a wonderful zoo near the school, so Mark, Isabella and Francesca were happy to let me leave.

 

Yes this is Ireland. No it's not typical.

I had my preconceived notions of what a “cookery” school would be. We’d learn the secrets of brown bread and black pudding, and there would something with bacon in it for sure! I’d leave feeling saying was a pleasant few hours…

Dead wrong.  Not even a little right.

Oranges filled with mousse ice cream.

As we pulled into the narrow old gates to the Ballymaloe estate, and I entered the school, I knew instantly that I just entered Irish gastro-heaven. The aroma from lunch students just finished wafted so intoxicatingly. A beautiful clay bowl of floating flowers and a sumptuous basket of delicious fresh foccacia baked with superb black olives welcomed visitors.

 

Beautiful flowers in a bowl

Darina Allen along with her brilliant brother Rory founded Ballymaloe in 1983. Since then, they have created a nationwide movement from their sprawling estate in the Irish countryside; 400 acres of organic vegetable and herb gardens, cottages, and cow pastures. They are collectively the Alice Waters of Ireland (in fact Rory helped Waters at Chez Panisse in the ’70s).

Rory puts the finishing touches on a chocolate mousse cake.

At Ballymaloe, there is a love for the all aspects of a great meal, going beyond ingredients and encompassing the earth, the community (Darina founded the first modern day farmers markets in Ireland), and even the seasons. Darina and Rory bring respect, passion and infectious joy not only to the food, but also to each person they teach. You see so many happy people at Ballymaloe, despite the long hours they work, because they see cooking as an opportunity to share the gospel of great food.

Cooking together

I’m not sure many chefs or schools in the United States can boast that virtually all the ingredients are local, organic fresh and self-sustaining as much as we all believe these ideals. It helps that Ballymaloe devotes more than 100 acres, a quarter of their land, to organic gardening. There are 50 varieties of tomatoes, and every herb and root vegetable imaginable. The neighbors provide, the hens, ducks and additional produce when theirs runs out, and the fish in caught in the nearby village of Ballycotton. Students not only get to experience this first hand, but learn to prepare food that is very well seasoned, beautiful and utterly delicious. The earth, says Darina, is an essential component of great food. She’s been preaching this for decades, long before Whole Foods made it fashionable. On day one, for example, students are introduced to Eileen and Kay, the head gardeners, and Darina herself (who describes herself as an eccentric, grey-haired hippie woman on a mission) shows them a barrow full of rich soil. After running her hands through it, she tells them, “Remember, this is where it all starts, in the good earth, and if you don’t have clean fertile soil, you won’t have good food or pure food.”  Then they get their first recipe; how to make compost!

It's amazing how Ireland has a knack for looking beautiful even in the middle of winter.

Their teaching method is very clever. The professional students watch a three-hour demonstration every afternoon, which is the class I took. Afterwards, there is a tasting so they know what how each dish should taste and students get ideas for presentation. The next morning, they cook the same exact menu and at lunchtime everyone (students and instructors) has a family meal and enjoys the fruits of their hard work.

Beautiful table set for a family-style meal after classes

Perhaps the real reason I fell so in love with this place is that their philosophy about food is so similar to my own. No foams, weird vapors or dumb food combinations. I can’t stand it when chefs offer things like fried watermelon with wilted dandelion greens. (I’m serious. I had this once at a restaurant considered one of the best in the country. It was of, course, dreadful). The food prepared here is innovative, delicious and beautiful, but doesn’t involve Herculean effort to prepare. And of course, it was perfectly seasoned. A great chef knows that the above all else, the food must be well seasoned or it won’t taste good. It seems obvious, but this makes the difference between a good meal and a great one.

This sea salt is, perhaps, the best in the world.

The demo featured more than 20 great, clever and versatile recipes featuring fish, meats, vegetable dishes and desserts with ingredients that were perfectly fresh and beautifully presented. Stay tuned for the highlights!

Sugar High: A Mini Anecdote

I love my family for only taking foodie vacations, but after a while the calories will catch up to you. So I was actually a little relieved when my high school friends and I settled on New Hampshire for our post-grad bonding trip, rather than what would have inevitably become an expensive and calorific gastronomic tour of Quebec. We brought The Chef along to chaperone (cook), but I thought we were planning to spend our days on our feet hiking, swimming or at least antiquing. And we did…

mostly.

What I failed to realize, was that the house we rented, on a strict college student’s budget, was a whole hour from Mount Washington, but a mere seven minutes away from the biggest budget basher known to mankind: the world’s longest candy counter.

It’s very dangerous to let me loose in a store like Chutters. With whole bins of cappuccino jelly beans, peach-apricot fruit slices, cognac cordials, chocolate-covered pretzel balls and chocolate-covered gummy bears (tasteless in one sense, so tasty in another) I was like a kid in a… never mind.

Candy here is stored in big jars, and sold by the pound, but I was assured that a pound of candy was a lot, so I set a budget in my mind, and set out filling my bag with what was, to my mind, a very reasonable amount of candy. I took a break from candy buying to take pictures, and 1/2 an hour later joined my friends at the checkout counter. All four of them spent exactly what they planned to… I rang up to almost twice as much.

I call this a mini anecdote, but really it’s the story of my life.

The End.

Lazy Days in Chestertown

 

We are still in the middle of cornfields, which, oddly, I love. My husband, Mark, and I always describe ourselves as the Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert pair from the 1960s oldie-but-goodie television show, “Green Acres” (remember that?). For those of you too young to know this gem, Oliver opens with:

Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin’ is the life for me.
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.

To which his wife, Lisa, responds:

New York is where I’d rather stay.
I get allergic smelling hay.
I just adore a penthouse view.
Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue….

These lyrics sum up our differences on urban life, but when I’m in Chestertown on the Eastern shore of Maryland and we make a right on to Route 290 and head into the cornfields, this feeling of complete relaxation comes over me. I also somehow stop worrying about things like whether we’ll have a leaky roof when we get home, or whether I forgot to pay the gas bill (which, come to think of it, I probably did!).

 

Part of the joy of coming here is staying with our favorite American innkeepers. We love Tracy and Jim Stone of The Inn at Mitchell House in nearby Tolchester. Their house is immaculate but has that wonderful old house smell.

Tracy makes the most scrumptious and hearty country breakfasts, such as homemade waffles with local blueberries and thick French toast with strawberries and perfectly crisp bacon. They are truly living an envious country life, with a balance of wit and hard work.  I often wish I could be Tracy mowing all 12 acres singlehandedly, or Jim who enjoys fixing the tree swing for the millionth time after working all day as captain of a skipjack at the Echo Hill Outdoor School in nearby Worton.

We love going to the Dixon Furniture auction in Crumpton on Wednesdays, eating delicious crab dishes, playing croquet, and buying trinkets at Twigs and Teacups in town. But I what I really like the most about Maryland’s Eastern Shore is that I don’t feel like I have to do anything and that clears my head to do some of the things I love, like looking through my favorite magazines. We have piles of The New Yorker, Bon Appetit and Saveur on – I hate to admit it – the staircase leading to the second floor at home. I sometimes clear the deck for company and they get shoved in a lonely pile in the attic. I feel defeated every time I see them; the only time I can justify this kind of pure joy is here in Chestertown.

 

I also started a new indulgence when I opened the Fig Cooking School – Cookbooks.  I love taking brightly colored stickies and marking pages of recipe inspirations for classes. The girls always run to get a glimpse of a newly acquired cookbook before it gets “mom-afied” – the point in a book’s life where it has so many post-its, the page perimeters looks like they’ve grown feathers. Over the course of the week, Mitchell House becomes my Mom-ification workshop.

The girls and Mark are ready to be picked up from kayaking. I’m sure they’re feeling baked from the sun and ready for lunch at the Fish Whistle, a great local place that overlooks the Chesapeake Bay. I’ll be back soon… In the meantime, enjoy these end-of-summer images from our trip.

 

 

 

 

This Week In Pictures

I had such good intentions of doing a Wordless Wednesday post, but I realized too late that I’m incapable of doing anything wordlessly and on top of that, without my noticing, Wednesday turned into Thursday, and my plans were foiled. But I have a great many pictures to share with you, and they deserve an explanation anyway. Once a year or so my family has to take a vacation to a place with open fields, cows, fresh air, fireflies(!) and farms, or we’ll just go insane. There are a few different places we’ve tried but few work their magic quite the same way as Chestertown, MD. The difference between us in Connecticut and us in Maryland is immediate and extreme – Isabella even let me take a picture or two of her! My fantasy is to one day move down here, buy an old farmhouse and divide my days equally between cooking, exploring cornfields and catching fireflies in glass jars (with my children of course). It’s a very realistic dream.
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We can’t cook down here, so we take pictures instead. Here are some scenes from our life this week. This post will be wordless starting… now.

Fig Travels: Nashville and Fried Chicken

You haven’t been to Nashville if you can’t come home raving about your favorite “meat ‘n’ three” spot. The hometown of Country Music is also the birthplace and epicenter of this heavenly rich comfort food package. A meat ‘n’ three consists of one meat, fish or poultry dish and three “vegetables,” (i.e. baked beans, cole slaw, candied sweet potatoes, squash casserole, mashed potatoes, fried okra and, yes, macaroni and cheese). Nothing in the world is more comforting or more delicious and as for calories, with food this good, honestly, who’s counting?

 

Ask 20 Nashvillians their favorite place to have this uniquely southern meal, and you’ll get just as many different answers, but The Loveless Café was, hands down, our favorite. The biscuits served with all natural homemade jam, and fried chicken that blew us away. You have to taste it to believe it, and fortunately, we’ve included our own perfected version of their fried chicken below so you can!

 

Locals and tourists have been coming to Loveless from miles around for more than 50 years, ever since Annie Loveless first started serving her unusually light and tasty biscuits. An anointed “keeper,” most recently Carol Fay Ellison who sadly passed away in April, guards the secret recipe. No biscuit comes close to being as flavorful and airy as a Loveless Biscuit, and our (perhaps impossible) dream is to one day recreate the taste in our own test kitchen. And after devouring our little pieces of heaven with peach and blackberry jam, our immense platter of golden fried-to-perfection chicken arived. Thank goodness we ordered it family style because we just couldn’t stop eating.

Here is our version of this classic southern comfort food inspired by the Loveless Café’s own cookbook. But first, please keep in mind that there are some essential ingredients and tools that are important to assemble if you want to make your chicken truly special. We are just as health conscious as many of our readers, but we believe in cultural food immersion, and that means eating like the locals. After the jump you’ll find a breakdown of what you may need to make these and many other first-rate southern dishes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fig Travels: The Deep South

I’ve traveled to France, the Mecca of haute cuisine, many times and I didn’t think there could never be another regional food that would ever satisfy me as much as a perfectly cooked steak au poivre and a good glass of Bordeaux wine. Our road food trip to the Deep South was probably one of the last places I thought my stubborn belief system would be rattled, but I’ve been humbled.

French cuisine is still of course dear to me, but now I know how utterly fantastic, and complicated, real southern food is. Down-to-earth Southern fried chicken is not simple at all: we’re still perfecting the art of duplicating the texture, taste, and even the color. In fact, we could cook a le creuset filled with beef bourguignon faster. The same goes for so many other southern treasures we sampled. The biscuits from The Loveless Café in Nashville, TN are so buttery, rich and yet airy, they rival the best croissants anywhere. We’re not sure they can be replicated, although we’ll let you know if we succeed.

Clockwise from top left: Fried Okra, Nashville, TN; Sign at Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House, Lynchburg, TN; Basket of cornbread, Lynchburg, TN.

 

On our southern food odyssey, we also learned that barbeque ribs and pulled pork as we previously knew them, are oversimplified. The variations and interpretation of great barbecue are almost endless. Some places even offer barbecue nachos. Even in the epicenter of barbeque, they are still reinventing it every year at the annual Memphis in May barbeque world championship. The same is true for Cajun cooking; the possibilities and interpretations of local favorites – etoufee, gumbo, bisque and the countless versions of “blonde” and “dark” rouxs – would stun your taste buds.

Clockwise from top left: Crawfish pie, Breaux Bridge, LA; Bicycle street scene, New Orleans, LA; Beignet Machine at Cafe du Monde, New Orleans, LA; Francesca enjoying a beignet, New Orleans, LA.

Non-natives usually think of chicken and pork dishes first, but the variety of southern seafood dishes also blew us away. The catfish from the Mississippi Delta is succulently sweet and juicy, but our favorite local seafood specialty turned out to be oysters; we had oysters fried, raw and even, charbroiled. Oysters Rockefeller was invented it the Deep South but you haven’t had an oyster, really, until you’ve had one on the grill.

It is hard to figure out just what make southern food so mouth-watering and addictive, but one thing I noticed is that Southern cooks are not afraid of abundant flavor and seasoning. We never needed the salt and pepper shakers. There were unexpected ingredients along the way too, like Jack Daniels in fudge pie or copious amounts of turmeric in some of the ribs. But whatever the surprising ingredient was, it was always perfectly balanced.

Clockwise from top left: Rice at Rendezvous, Memphis, TN; Barbeque sauce at Blues City Cafe, Memphis, TN; Ribs at Blues City Cafe, Memphis, TN.

 

For the next few posts, prepare yourself a nice glass of sweet tea – we’re going to chronicle our travels, and along the way, we will give you the recipes to create some of these southern gems for yourself.

Sweet Tea

6-7 Bags Orange Pekoe Tea (If you can find Luzianne brand at your grocery store, use that. It’s a perfect blend of Orange Pekoe and Black Pekoe. Here in New England it’s hard to find, so we use Twinings’s which is delicious too.)
3/4 Cup Sugar
11 1/2 cups of water
Ice

  1. Put 1 1/2 cups of water in a small pan and bring to boil
  2. With water still boiling add tea bags and let gently boil for 1 minute
  3. Turn off stove and remove tea from heat
  4. Add sugar to a large pitcher
  5. Pour one cup of water into tea concentrate to cool it down slightly (otherwise the sugar will burn)
  6. Pour tea into pitcher over sugar and stir until all sugar is dissolved
  7. Add remaining 9 cups of water and stir well.
  8. Put ice in glasses, pour in tea and enjoy.
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