Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On The Road To Southern Comfort

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
March 2009

You already know I will drive just about anywhere for a great meal. Actually though, I guess it’s only fair to say, I will let My Favorite Husband chauffeur me just about anywhere for a great meal. MFH refers to it as “driving Miss Cora.” And even when he is weary from his own travels and professes to not care much about what he eats, these excursions are often his idea, and he most definitely eats once he’s there.

That’s what happened last week. MFH knew I had wanted to go to Birmingham for quite some time to eat at Highlands Bar & Grill, so he suggested we hit the road and he would take me on a big circle drive through a few mid-south states for some good eats, including Highlands Bar & Grill. Of course you know what I said – “Uh, just let me grab my good black pants and my toothbrush and I’ll meet you in the car!”

As much as I love to search out new places with great food and meet new people, I don’t always look forward to the inevitable question “Where are you from?” It makes me feel like I am giving a geography lesson, by way of explanation. We say “Illinois.” They say, “Oh, Chicago.” We say, “No, Southern Illinois.” They look confused. We say, “Illinois is a very long state and we live 300 miles south of Chicago.” They look more confused. We say, “Near the southern tip of the state, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi River.” They scratch their heads. We say, “About two hours southeast of St. Louis.” They say, “Huh? Isn’t St. Louis in Missouri?” You know the routine, don’t you?

On this particular trip though, I wasn’t concerned about explaining where I was from to the people we met. When we drive south, I’m headed back to my second home, a place I know and love. I’m definitely in my comfort zone, when I can say Southern Illinois and see their look of recognition and acceptance. After all, we are kissing cousins to the southern states that surround us, even if we are not officially recognized as part of the family. We speak y’all, we tell stories, we laugh easily, and we share a love for the same foods, like fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, grits, greens, cornbread and peach cobbler. You can even find sweet tea in most of our restaurants – it’s like the secret Southern handshake.

So off we went, down the road to our first stop in Memphis. MFH wanted to take his friend, Bob, and his wife, Val, to dinner. Bob has been the guy responsible for making MFH’s work schedule flow smoothly for the past several years, and that deserves a big thank you.

Our food tour started off when we met Bob and Val at Texas de Brazil in Memphis. I’m not sure if it’s the parade of handsome gauchos swooping down on your table with swords, or the variety and amount of perfectly seasoned and grilled meats they slice onto your plate from those swords – but they obviously know about meat in Brazil. There is also a salad bar the size of Texas, with selections like sushi, smoked salmon, black beans with rice, and generous pieces of shaved Parmesan and Manchego cheese, and about a million other traditional and exotic salad makings. And, as if that wasn’t enough, we still couldn’t pass up just one piece of the seven-layer Chocolate Mousse Cake for dessert – with four forks, of course! Definitely worth a trip!

The next day we were back on the road to Oxford MS, where, I wanted to indulge my second addiction, books! Square Books has been on my list to visit for a long time. It’s an incredible independent bookstore specializing in the works of Southern writers, like Oxford’s own native son, William Faulkner. I enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the stacks, shelves and tables full of books, and left with enough to have made a significant contribution to the economy of north Mississippi.

Lunch was at Ajax Diner, also on the square, and although they are known for their meat-and-three plate lunches, I spied the Oyster Po’ Boy and couldn’t resist. MFH had Corn Chowder and a sandwich – I don’t know what kind exactly, I was busy eating oysters! The restaurant was southern-college-town-charming, the service was good, and the tea was sweet. And any day I get to eat oysters, I am happy.

Back in the bookmobile . . . ahem . . . car, we took a spin through the Ole Miss campus before setting out to Birmingham. Stories of football and tailgating are legendary at Ole Miss, and I’m a true believer now – that football stadium rivals anything I’ve ever seen! I can only imagine what the tailgating must be like – and I’ve made a note-to-self to never turn down an invitation to see for myself.

On to Birmingham, where we checked into the Hotel Highland, located in the Five Points area. It was late when we arrived, so we tucked ourselves in for an evening of reading and Internet surfing – my third and fourth addictions! I won’t even say where we ate a quick dinner, lest I tarnish my image as a well-heeled-world-class-food-lover. Sometimes, as MFH says, it’s just food.

The next day, we discovered Tria Market and Restaurant, which is actually in Homewood, but just over the hill from our hotel, less than ten minutes away. Tria is one part upscale gourmet/cheese/deli/meat market and one part casual restaurant. MFH chose a Chicken Salad Melt, which I made note of this time before I dug into my Oyster Po’ Boy on French Baguette with Sauce Remoulade. The oyster sandwich was sweet, briny, crispy, abundant perfection!

That brings us to dinner at Highlands Bar & Grill, our primary destination and the reason for our drive across five states. I’ve been a fan of chef Frank Stitt and his food philosophy since I first read an essay about him by my favorite author, Pat Conroy. Never at a loss for words, Conroy waxes poetic on his friend’s abilities as a chef, and his truly innovative Southern cuisine. Since then, I’ve purchased both of his cookbooks and enjoyed reading and cooking from them.

When I dined at Highlands Bar & Grill last week and actually got to meet Frank Stitt, I told him I was inspired by Conroy’s essay declaring him to be “one of the best chefs in America” to which he replied, “Pat has been known to exaggerate.” Having now enjoyed my first, but not my last, dinner in Stitt’s restaurant, I know it was no exaggeration! Oh! But wait, I didn’t even tell you about the dinner yet.

Our 7 p.m. reservation was to be for a table in the bar, but when we arrived we were taken to a table for two, looking out on the streets of Five Points lined with twinkle-lighted trees. Our server, MG, was prompt, friendly and very helpful as we deliberated over our food and wine selections.

So guess what I ordered for my first course? Right! Grilled Apalachicola Oysters prepared Old Mobile Style! MFH had the Lobster and Crabmeat Tower with layers of avocado, roasted peppers and lime mayonnaise – beautiful and delicious. But those oysters! They were amazing – the pinnacle of oyster perfection. Really. Honestly. To die for!

But wait! There’s more. MFH’s main course – the Veal Tenderloin and Sweetbreads with Ragout of Mushrooms and Leeks with Sherry – was recommended by the charming southern gentleman dining at the table next to us, who was, coincidentally, also on an eating tour of several southern cities. Someone whose advice was compelling and very trustworthy! MFH actually ate sweetbreads and his plate was clean enough to go back in the cupboard when he finished. Just food indeed, huh!

I resisted ordering more oysters and chose another southern favorite that is almost impossible to find in the rivers of Southern Illinois – Black Grouper with Fingerling Potatoes, Rosemary and Slab Bacon. I love grouper and this lovely, thick piece of fish, crispy brown on the edges, and moist and tender inside did not disappoint. How could dinner ever get better than this?

Here’s how – dessert! MFH ordered the Chocolate Dome Cake with Strawberry Coulis, another visual marvel that was oh-so-chocolaty good, good, good. I know because I tasted it. I chose what was listed as Frank’s Favorite, and was delighted with layers of light-as-a-feather cake with zabaglione filling and meringue on top. I ate the whole thing, all by myself!

Since he opened Highlands Bar and Grill in 1982, Frank Stitt has opened three more restaurants and continued to develop the connections between the foods of his southern roots and the classic preparations of French, Italian and Mediterranean cuisines he loves.

Just last week, he was nominated again for the James Beard Award for Best Chef, and Highlands Bar & Grill was nominated for Best Restaurant – that’s in America. In the culinary world, these awards are the Oscars. So Frank, I don’t think Pat Conroy was exaggerating and I am in his debt for his outstanding recommendation! I’ll be back as soon as I can to dine again at Highlands Bar & Grill, and to check out his other three restaurants. Until then, I’ll read and re-read my new, personally autographed copies of his two cookbooks.

Our last stop was in Nashville, but we still found room for a little more good eats. MFH took me to one his favorite pilot-on-a-layover restaurants, Demo’s in downtown Nashville. The menu presented a challenge because they offer a little bit of everything your mama made, so it was difficult to choose. I ended up with delicious baked chicken and some baked spinach that was so good, I’m still thinking about it and trying to decide how they made it. I didn’t even notice what MFH ordered, he eats there all the time, and so he was on his own.

On our way out of town the next day, I really wanted some good ol’ barbecue, so we stopped at Jack’s Barbecue on our way back up the Interstate. You know you’ve made a good choice when the parking lot is full and hardly anyone looks up from his plate when you walk into the place. The pork shoulder was wonderful and so was the macaroni and cheese. But, for me, the turnip greens were outstanding! They were so good that I bought a pint to bring home, along with a pound of pork shoulder and a whole chicken. The perfect meal to round out our circle of good Southern eats!

Home again, I am reminded that it is not just geography that defines the South, Southerners or Southern food. Being Southern is a state of mind more than any particular state. I find great comfort in all things southern, my home in Southern Illinois, and the food. It’s always about the food!

The recipes this month are like many that tempted us on our recent trip. They come from friends and family, and from hundreds of Southern Living magazines through the years. Southern Living is the indispensable homemaker’s and gardener’s source book for all things Southern, and is full of wonderful recipes every month.

1 egg
1 c. milk
3 1/2 c. flour
1 qt. sliced dill pickles
vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, beat egg and add milk. Put the flour in a Ziploc bag and add salt and pepper. Dip drained pickles in egg mixture and then shake in flour to coat well. Deep fry in hot oil until they float in the oil and turn golden brown.

4 slices bacon
1/2 c. chopped onion
1/2 c. finely chopped green pepper
1 16-oz. diced tomatoes, and liquid
6 c. water
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. uncooked regular grits

Cook bacon slices in skillet until crisp. Drain bacon; crumble and set aside. Pour off drippings, reserving 1 tbsp. in skillet. Saute onion and green pepper in drippings; stir in tomatoes. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Bring water and salt to a boil; add grits. Cook; stirring frequently, until grits are thickened. Remove from heat; stir in tomato mixture. Spoon into serving dish; sprinkle bacon on top. Makes 8 servings.


Whole green tomatoes
Salt & pepper
Oil for frying

Slice the tomatoes into 1/4-in. slices. Sprinkle tomato slices with salt and pepper and dredge in cornmeal to coat. Fry tomato slices in hot oil until browned on both sides. Toast two slices of bread for each sandwich. Spread each slice of bread with generously with mayonnaise. Place lettuce slices and bacon pieces on one piece of toasted bread, top with fried green tomato slices, and top with second piece of toasted bread.

2 1/4 c. self-rising flour
1 c. half-and-half

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a bowl, combine flour and cream until just blended. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead 4 or 5 times. Roll dough out to 1/2-in. thick. Use a 2-in. biscuit cutter to cut biscuits from dough – do not twist the biscuit cutter while pressing down or the biscuits will not rise as high. Place biscuits on and ungreased baking sheet and bake until lightly browned - about 10-12 minutes. Serve hot with butter and honey.

1 Vidalia onion, finely chopped
1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 c. grated mozzarella cheese
2/3 c. mayonnaise

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, mix all the ingredients until blended. Spoon mixture into a baking dish and bake until bubbly. Serve with Ritz crackers.


1/2 c. corn oil
8 oz. cream-style corn
1 c. sour cream
1 c. cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 eggs
cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease mini-muffin pans with cooking spray. Stir together all the ingredients and spoon into prepared mini-muffin pans. Bake until light golden brown, about 15-20 mins. Makes 24 mini-muffins.
Note: Can also be baked in larger muffin pans or in a cast-iron skillet that has been oiled and preheated in oven before adding cornbread batter.

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