Monday, July 17, 2006

A Taste of Charleston - Shrimp & Grits, Sweet Tea, Hush Puppies & Peaches in Season

I took a trip recently to Charleston, South Carolina to visit my friend, Jen who was brave enough to live up here in Boston for a few years before heading back down south. Let me just tell you that the food in Charleston is outstanding and is worth the trip just for a bite into a fresh, juicy peach or a plate of shrimp and grits and some sweet tea. The cuisine in Charleston is referred to as "low country" - local fresh flavors with a mixture of African, European, Caribbean and Native American influences.

There are now direct flights from Boston to Charleston which makes for an easy, fun trip. I highly recommend a visit, particularly in the Spring when it just can't get warm enough fast enough after the long, grueling New England winter.

We started off our foodventure by heading straight from the airport to one of Charleston's favorites, Hominy Grill. As in many southern dining establishments, you are immediately asked if you would like some Sweet Tea (sweetened iced tea) instead of water. When in Rome... I can see why Southerner's poo poo any attempt at Northerners to make iced tea. We just don't make it nearly as good. In our defense, we're not in the practice of making it or drinking it every day like they are. The southern version is sweet but not too sweet and the perfect antidote to the heavy duty heat down there.

The Hominy Grill is charming. Homey and welcoming. A large chalkboard advertises the specials which feature items rarely seen up North. I ordered the Fried Shrimp with Hush Puppies and Cole Slaw. I didn't even know what a Hush Puppy was but I was determined to find out. Jen told me it was a fried cornbread kind of thing so I figured how could I go wrong. The shrimp were delicious which I would expect coming from one of the biggest shrimping towns in the country. They were very lightly fried. Not your typical batter either. Not oily at all. I could have eaten hundred of them. The Hush Puppies were great as well. Cornmeal is the hero of this treat, spiked with a little jalapeno and accompanied with a tartar sauce for dipping. Even the rice was fantastic. It had what I believe to be spicy andouille sausage in it. It was de-lish, y'all. Clearly I would order this dish again.

Jen ordered a Fried Green Tomato BLT - again not something you would see on a menu in Boston. The fried green tomatoes were lightly fried. I thought the sandwich was great but Jen, a more discriminating fried green tomato eater, thought the slices were a bit too thick. The pickled okra on the side was another new one I hadn't tried. Pretty tasty.

Well that was only lunch so we were pretty full and opted to skip dessert and save our appetites for what we knew would be many other food opportunities to come. I spent the afternoon hitting the shopping scene in Charleston before needing a break and a snack. Jen had given me the heads-up that there was a place called cupcakes specializing in - guess what - cupcakes. Since I've written about many other cupcake spots in New York and Boston, I figured I needed to hit this one. It's so good it warrants a separate blog entry which you can read about by clicking here.

That evening Jen suggested we try a diner near her house. I figured, great, I love diner food. But this was NOTHING like any other diner I had ever been to. As you can see from the white board listing out side dish and dessert options, this was a truly southern affair. Boulevard Diner is a no-frills joint with a line out the door. And for good reason. The food here is sensational. Comfort food at its finest. As I reviewed all the options, I had a slight anxiety attack. There were so many things I wanted to try I couldn't make a decision. The poor waitress came by at least 3 times before I could put a stake in the ground and pick something. I opted for the Fried Chicken (pictured at top of page) knowing this is yet another thing that southerners kick northerners butts at and also knowing that Jen was going to order the other dish that was on the top of my list, Shrimp and Grits. The fried chicken was sooo crispy and flavorful. I was in heaven. How DO they do it? Buttermilk is the answer I believe. It keeps the chicken really, really moist. I ordered the Speckled Butterbeans as my side because I had never had them. With the mashed potatoes and fried pickle on the side (another first), this made for the perfect meal.

The Shrimp and Grits Jen ordered truly rank in the Top 5 most delicious things I have ever eaten. Wow. Why grits has never caught on up here is beyond me. It's tragic frankly. They are so heavenly. Clearly they are not low-cal but what are you going to do. They are creamy, buttery and cheesy. A forkful of shrimp and grits and you will be a fan for life. I know I am. Bought some grits and brought them back home to try and recreate the heaven I had. They came out very well. My sister became addicted and took the leftovers home. Always a good sign.

While I was in Charleston, I also had the pleasure of going to the Farmers Market, one of my favorite things to do. Once again, you see a lot of things down there you won't see up here and the things that we do have are in season WAY earlier.
Peaches are clearly the hero of the Charleston Farmers Market. Did you know South Carolina grows more peaches than Georgia which most people assume is the top grower? It's kind of like Boston being more windy than the windy city itself, Chicago. There were so many varieties and the smell of each was more intoxicating than the next. Even though I knew they might get a little bumped around on the trip home, I had to take some with me. I knew it would be worth it. I packed up a mix of nectarines and peaches. Each required a napkin or else a lot of juice dripping down your chin.

One thing that really caught my eye were the Fresh Boiled Peanuts. They taste nothing like the peanuts you buy in the store. They are actually soft, more like a cooked bean. The ones I tried were boiled in salt but they also boil them in spices. They were very unusual tasting. Took me a minute to get used to the texture since I am programmed to think of peanuts as crunchy. You can picture a farmer in a straw hat, overalls and suspenders rocking on his porch eating these one after another. Highly addictive. Some other unusual items I saw were okra and green tomatoes. But everything we saw was at the peak of ripeness, not a bad fruit or vegetable to be seen.

Want to learn more about Charleston? Visit the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau website.

Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Ave
Charleston, SC

Boulevard Diner
409 Coleman Blvd
Charleston, SC


Anonymous Madeira Mama said...

Such great sounding food and the fresh fruits (mainly peaches) and veggies are a shopper's dream.

9:08 PM  
Blogger mini-me said...

I used to go to school in the south, and I am so craving shrimp and grits, hush puppies...and sweet tea. Though sweet tea is somewhat easier to make and I've attempted creating my own :)

4:13 PM  
Blogger jensmith said...

So glad you trekked to Chucktown to indulge in all our fresh and fried treasures! I still crave lobster rolls, so I'll bring grits when I head north for some lahbstah to enjoy on Crane's or Singing Beach ;-)

10:51 AM  

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