(Leftover) Barbecue and Sheep Milk Fresca Quesadillas

I was at the farmers’ market at Pepper Place on Saturday, wanting tomatoes and peaches and hesitating about buying anything with all the leftovers still in my fridge from our 4th of July family dinner.

Then Ana Kelly, owner of Dayspring Dairy suggested quesadillas made with our leftover Full Moon Bar-B-Que pulled chicken and sliced pork. “Try the Poblano Lime Fresca,” she said. “You can use that.”

So I did.

I bought a package of the fresh cheese (as well as some tomatoes and peaches). I stopped by the grocery for some flour tortillas, and we were set.

I made a salsa of peaches and tomatoes and serrano peppers with a few squeezes of fresh lime and some salt and pepper. I added a little mint from my kitchen garden because I didn’t want to go back to the store for cilantro. Cilantro would have been better. And I longed for one of those oblong red onions from BDA Farm, but maybe next time.

I heated up our Full Moon ‘que (both the chicken and the pork). Next, I generously slathered the Dayspring Dairy sheep milk fresca onto the tortillas, added a little leftover corn (cut from the cob and mixed with some finely chopped serrano), piled on the barbecued meats and cooked the quesadillas on the stovetop.

We served them with some angel hair slaw, dressed simply with fresh lime juice and salt and pepper. I put that fresh peach-tomato salsa on top.

Delicious.

And as a little something extra, here’s a link to a great Alabama NewsCenter story about Dayspring Dairy.

Automatic Hit

It’s easy to think of Automatic Seafood & Oysters as a singular kind of place:  It looks and feels like nothing else in Birmingham, and the menu is filled with adventurous approaches to familiar (and perhaps unfamiliar) foods. But what really makes it special are a few important partnerships:  between local and regional suppliers and the kitchen, between the servers and the customers who have crowded into the dining rooms since the place opened and between the husband and wife team who put it all together.

Adam Evans and Suzanne Humphries Evans work side by side—he with his acclaimed kitchen skills and her with her design expertise and warm hospitality—to celebrate clean, fresh flavors with friendly, gracious service in a space that is hip and modern and respectful of the past.

I wrote about Automatic for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story and see a cool video here.

Automatic Seafood & Oysters opened in April in a 1940s warehouse that once was the home of the Automatic Sprinkler Company. But the buzz about its chef-owner began long before that.

Adam spent time in the kitchens of some of America’s most celebrated restaurants, from La Petite Grocery in New Orleans to Craft in New York City. Before moving back to his home state, Adam was the executive chef at Ford Fry’s The Optimist in Atlanta when the restaurant was named Esquire’s Restaurant of the Year and made Bon Appetit’s Top Ten Best New Restaurants. He then helped Jonathan Waxman open Brezza Cucina, also in Atlanta.

The shell- and finfish at Automatic are sourced primarily from the Gulf of Mexico, but Adam pulls from other coastlines, too. Most of what’s on the menu is familiar, but the combinations or preparation might be a surprise. Consider roasted scallops with oxtail marmalade or snapper crudo with pickled ginger, crispy skin and lime or duck fat-poached swordfish with sunchokes and pancetta vinaigrette. Some of the fishes are unusual—things like fresh-caught sardines and seasonal bycatch like hake, which Adam prepares blackened with blue crab, watercress, potato puree and green garlic butter.

“What the Gulf of Mexico has to offer is way beyond snapper and grouper,” Adam says. “There are a lot of different species that aren’t maybe common to see but are equally as delicious. It’s especially important for me to try and utilize the bycatch products, the things that they’re not targeting when they’re fishing for snapper and grouper (but) that they’re pulling in. … It’s a great opportunity for me to highlight different species from the Gulf that you don’t normally see on restaurant menus.

“There’s a local guy in Birmingham who is a commercial spear fisherman. So he’s been going to the Gulf for years. … I just recently received some fish that he harvested, and it’s really interesting to see the quality that he’s bringing. It’s unlike the other fish that I get because of … the way he’s harvesting it. You really see the difference.”

These fish – snapper and grouper; triggerfish and amberjack; cobia; and the invasive, nonnative lionfish – are listed as “spear-caught” on the menu and often are used in a raw preparation “so people can get a sense of the quality that they’re eating,” Adam says.

The long, sleek oyster bar at Automatic is a focal point in the restaurant; as many as eight different kinds of oysters are piled high on ice. You’ll likely find Mo Boykins there. He started at Automatic as a dishwasher but told Adam he wanted to do more. Now he’s the restaurant’s main oyster shucker, as entertaining and engaging as Jose Medina Camacho and his team of friendly bartenders nearby who are creating craft cocktails like Springtime in Mexico with Lunazul blanco tequila, Vida mezcal, Herbsaint, cucumber, mint and lime.

Automatic’s team is not just in the restaurant. Adam is committed to supporting farmers of all kinds – from oyster farmers in the Gulf to traditional growers closer to home. He says he’s delighted with the product he’s getting from regional oyster farms like Alabama’s Murder Point and Point aux Pins and with local farmers markets like the one at Pepper Place.

The 39-year-old chef has wanted to own a restaurant in Birmingham since he read Frank Stitt’s Southern Table cookbook.

“I remember reading Frank’s book and thinking, ‘This guy’s from Cullman. He’s a great chef; he’s been around. I want to do the same thing.’ I’ve always thought about coming here and doing this, and it just became time.

Suzanne, co-owner and project designer of the restaurant, is in the dining room most every night. It’s a different kind of role for her, but she says it’s the best job she’s ever had:  “And I wouldn’t even call it a ‘job.’  “It’s really a pleasure every night to have a restaurant full of friends and family and a lot of folks that we’ve never met before.”

She was introduced to Adam one evening when she was dining at The Optimist and he was the executive chef there.

As far as the restaurant’s design, she says, “We took a lot of cues from the structure itself and the timeframe in which it was built. We took the 1950 Americana aesthetic and applied it as well. We wanted to create a space that felt classic but not in a re-creation … just maybe like it had been here for a while.”

She worked with local artisan Grant Trick, of Design Industry, on the restaurant’s custom booths and barstools with sleek, reflective channel upholstery. “We looked at antique wooden speedboats. We looked at classic cars. We looked at advertisements of fishing and boating and leisure from that time period” for the channeling and color combinations, she says.

Adam and Suzanne will celebrate their first anniversary soon, and Automatic has been a huge part of the whole of their married life. They’ve worked on the restaurant for the past two years, and they share an immense appreciation for each other.

Suzanne has never worked in restaurants, Adam points out. “And she has stepped up and has been there for every service and been there for every guest. … It’s amazing to have her out there (while) I’m in the kitchen. It’s really comforting for me. … It’s been great.”

Suzanne puts it this way:  “I’m proud of him. I’m proud that we are able to do this every day, that he gets to do what he loves. I know it’s really his story and I’m lucky enough to be a part of it. … He’s so talented, but he’s so humble; that’s a wonderful combination in a human being. And so if I can help to … tell that story and share it, then I’m happy to.”

Automatic Seafood & Oysters

2824 5thAve. S.

Birmingham, AL 35233 (in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood)

205-580-1600

Open every day for dinner

Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m.

Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.

www.automaticseafood.com

Prost! Brät Brot is Back!

The biergarten has become a gartenbar, but those awesome pretzels remain.

was popular from the start. The Magic City’s first German biergarten opened about a year ago to rave reviews and consistent crowds but then took a cold-weather hiatus to make a few changes.

It reopened on April 23 and very quickly became popular again.

I visited Brät Brot for Alabama Newscenter. You can read the entire story here and find out just what to order.

The large, carved limestone bar remains a stunning focal point in this open, airy space that was once Plant Odyssey. You’ll still find plenty of German beers on tap as well as local brews, but now there also are draft craft cocktails, a nice selection of wines, European-style mixed drinks and specialty liqueurs.

Angela Schmidt, Brät Brot’s new executive chef, says there’s a cozier atmosphere here now and an updated menu. Schmidt has been part of the local restaurant community for nearly two decades. She spent her formative years in the kitchens of some of Birmingham’s top restaurants. As an entrepreneur, she founded Chef U, an interactive, in-home dining experience.  She is a founding member, and the first president, of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International. And she has a German pedigree; her great-great-great grandfather was from Bremen.

Reimagining Brät Brot from beer garden to garden bar allows Schmidt and her staff to put the emphasis on much more than beer. The food, especially, is exciting.

Most of the dishes are divided into small and medium a la carte portions. There’s a meatball slider with lemon caper sauce on a King’s Hawaiian roll; a fishcake sandwich is made with fresh salmon and topped with shaved pickled cucumber and remoulade; a Bavarian chef salat with mortadella and butterkäse, red onion, cornichons, cucumbers and red peppers on iceberg with creamy Dijon dressing; and the BirmingHamburger with bacon, butterkäse, pickled red onion, lettuce and tomatoes and haus pickles.

There are four large boards that are meant for sharing.  The snack board has a giant pretzel, beer cheese, apple butter, summer sausage, butterkäse, dill-pickled vegetables and fruit. The larger German board features bratwurst, Hungarian sausage, cheddarwurst, a pretzel, Bavarian potato salad, chow-chow, beer cheese, pickled veggies, sauerkraut, yogurt-dill cucumbers and haus mustards. Then there’s the Kummerspeck, which Schmidt says translates to “emotional over-eating” and features s’mores, apple strudel, black forest cake roll and vanilla ice cream.

Even a casual look at the Brät Brot menu reveals a Southern twist on a German theme.

It felt like a natural approach, Schmidt says, because there are pockets of German culture throughout the South. “For instance, Kentucky has a large concentration of German immigrants. … Central Texas has a lot of German immigrants as well. … So we have woven in Southern ingredients; our beer cheese is kind of like a pimento cheese. We have a Southern chow-chow on the menu. We tried to … broaden the concept to kind of take in all of these influences just to make something that’s more local, more … Southern and approachable.”

Brät Brot (by the way, Brot rhymes with goat and it translates loosely to “sausage bread”) is owned by David Carrigan, who also owns Carrigan’s Public House on Morris Avenue in downtown Birmingham. Like Carrigan’s, Brät Brot is designed to be a place for gathering, a place for fun in a lighthearted atmosphere.

Brat Brot has filled a niche in the awesome Birmingham food scene by offering delicious food and great drinks, German and otherwise, that are both familiar and excitingly unusual, Schmidt says. “And we’re doing that in a unique setting. Brät Brot is a gathering spot. It’s comfortable.”

Brät Brot Gartenbar

2910 6thAve. S.

Birmingham, AL 35233 (near Birmingham’s Lakeview area)

205-440-2910

www.bratbrot.com

Tuesday through Thursday: 4 to 11 p.m.

Friday: 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.

Saturday: 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.

More Than Just Sweet Treats at Big Spoon Creamery

The small-batch, artisanal ice cream at Big Spoon Creamery is every bit as awesome as people say.

It’s deliciously inventive with quality ingredients:  goat cheese with strawberry-hibiscus jam, fresh mint chip with Valrhona chocolate chips. Many of these ingredients are locally sourced, supporting area makers and farmers like Stone Hollow Farmstead (where they get the goat cheese) and Terra Preta Farm (where they get mint).

But this ice cream, ultimately, is a way for the husband-and-wife team of Ryan and Geri-Martha O’Hara to connect with people and support their community.

“When we started the company,” Ryan says, “it was based on two big passions for us:  ice cream and people. We feel like ice cream is sort of our vehicle, a platform, to be able to impact the people around us in a positive way.”

I sat down with Geri-Martha and Ryan recently for a story for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read it here.

Their cart to truck to brick-and-mortar enterprise actually began with a foldout table and a deep freeze the couple hauled to the front yard of their Bluff Park home for a pop-up event that saw lines down the driveway. When a neighbor, who worked at Southern Living, walked over and tasted their ice cream, she was impressed enough to write an article for the magazine’s website. That jumpstarted a dream that now includes two stores and employs about 35 people year round and 55 during the summer season.

The O’Haras founded their company in 2014 with $500. They had just gotten married and bought and furnished a house. That didn’t leave much starting capital. They poured their profits into the business (which they named Big Spoon because, as a kid, Ryan grew up enjoying ice cream and hand-mixed milkshakes in his grandmother’s kitchen; he would always ask for the biggest spoon in the drawer).

In 2016, they went from an old-school ice cream cart to a truck they named Bessie. Parking Bessie at The Market at Pepper Place was their next great idea. “Pepper Place was our launching pad,” Geri-Martha says. “So many people get exposed to your product and learn about you. And so it was just an incredible growing tool for us, for us to really grow organically.”

They opened their first storefront—a light-filled, modern interpretation of a classic ice cream shop—in Avondale at the MAKEbhm building in April of 2017. This past February, they opened a second location in Homewood’s Edgewood neighborhood.

The truck and cart still make rounds for special events.

Both Ryan and Geri-Martha have career backgrounds in fine dining. Geri-Martha was a pastry chef at Bottega where she made desserts for all four of Stitt’s restaurants. Before that, she spent some time in New York where she interned with a couple of star pastry chefs:  Dominique Ansel (creator of the Cronut) and James Beard Foundation Award-winner Michael Laiskonis. Ryan began at Bottega as a line cook and worked his way up to sous chef at Chez Fonfon before the couple started Big Spoon.

This high level of training—in creative dishes and in service—influences everything they do.

Geri-Martha’s fully equipped pastry chef’s kitchen turns out a seasonal menu that also changes from month to month as it relies on fresh and made-from-scratch ingredients for the ice cream and the sundae sauces and add-ins like brittles, cookies, cakes and jams.

Geri-Martha can—and will—make just about any cake or other dessert into an ice cream. She created an Italian cassata cake ice cream based on the dessert served at Bottega. For a short time in the springtime, there’s the ultra-seasonal honeysuckle ice cream with blackberry jam. “It’s one of the most special, unique flavors we’ve ever done,” Geri-Martha says. “The milk really stretches the flavor of the honeysuckle, so you get all the beautiful notes of the honeysuckle. It’s just so amazing. And then you get the tart of the blackberry. And it’s so beautiful. Oh, I can’t wait! As soon as we see some blooms, we’ll be out there picking. It’s probably my most favorite flavor!”

The O’Hara’s are making great ice cream, but they also are focusing on people:  their staff, their customers and their community.

“We have the most incredible people that work with us,” Geri-Martha adds. “I’m so proud of them, and it’s an honor to work beside them every day and to … grow them and help them get to where they want to go.”

“When people come here, they don’t come here by accident,” Ryan adds. “They come here with high expectations just like any great restaurant or establishment … they don’t come here just for a cup of ice cream. They’re coming for an experience, whether it’s date night or it’s Sunday after church with the family or a special occasion. And so it’s on us to deliver that and give them an awesome experience.”

This graciously served ice cream has become a way for the O’Haras to directly connect with the communities around them.

“Currently, we partner with two different nonprofit ministries that do awesome work in our communities,” Ryan says. “We give a portion of our profits to The WellHouse, which fights human trafficking. The other one is Christian Service Missions, not even half a mile down the street from our Avondale shop, and they do incredible work with food and housing and practical needs for the underprivileged in our city.”

Geri-Martha and Ryan already are reaching out to organizations near the new location in Homewood. “We’re going to partner with The Exceptional Foundation,” Ryan says. “And we just did a give-back night … with The Bell Center. We want to be intentional with some of the success we’ve had and channel that into making an impact.

“In any community we’re in—whether it’s Avondale, Birmingham as a whole, the Homewood community—we want to be a pillar of our community and be a positive impact … not just a great ice cream shop. We want to be doing great things for our community.”

Big Spoon Creamery

www.bigspooncreamery.com

Avondale

4000 3rdAve. S. (in the MAKEbhm building)

Birmingham, AL 35222

(205) 703-4712

Homewood

927 Oxmoor Road

Homewood, AL 35209

(205) 637-0823

Hours at both locations: Sunday-Thursday noon to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday noon to 10 p.m.

Dine Out and Make a Difference

On Thursday, April 25, your dining dollars will make a big difference to a lot of people—if you’re eating at the right places.

Dining Out For Life will involve more than 30 local restaurants that are committed to making our community better, including Bottega Café, Crestwood Coffee Co., El Barrio Restaurante Y Bar, 5 Point Public Oyster House, Slice Pizza & Brew (in Lakeview and Vestavia), Ted’s Restaurant, Bistro V, MELT Avondale, Yo’ Mama’s Restaurant, Birmingham Breadworks, Chez Lulu and Chez Fonfon. They are teaming up with AIDS Alabama to bring awareness about HIV in our community as well as raise funds for AIDS Alabama’s HIV services, prevention initiatives and housing programs.

Dining Out for Life is an international event that has been taking place for more than 20 years. Birmingham is celebrating its 10th year of participation.

My friend Caroline Bundy, director of development for AIDS Alabama, says:  “It’s pretty amazing the way this event has grown over the years. Though Dining Out For Life takes place in 60 cities in the U.S. and Canada, all the money that is raised here in Birmingham stays here, helping people living with HIV and their families in our community.”

Each participating restaurant has committed to contributing at least 25 percent of the day’s food and beverage sales from breakfast, lunch and/or dinner. Many are contributing more.

Some of the first to sign up this year included Fig Tree Café (35% of lunch and dinner sales), Avondale Common House & Distillery (35% of lunch and dinner sales) and Bamboo on 2nd (35% of dinner sales) as well as Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila (25% of lunch, dinner and all-day catering sales), Vecchia Pizzeria & Mercato (25% of lunch, dinner and all-day catering sales) and Big Bad Breakfast (25% of breakfast and lunch sales).

For a complete list of restaurants and when they are serving, go here.

“Every year, over 30 restaurants participate,” Caroline told me. “Over the past 10 years, more than $350,000 has been raised to support the programs of AIDS Alabama. These funds enable us to provide critical programs and services that include housing, supportive services, HIV testing and prevention education efforts to thousands of Alabamians.”

AIDS Alabama devotes energy and resources statewide to helping those with HIV/AIDS live healthy, independent lives. The organization works to prevent the spread of HIV and to meet the needs of Alabama’s HIV-positive population, providing safe, affordable housing to low-income people living with HIV and their family members. Additionally, AIDS Alabama’s prevention education and outreach efforts provide free and confidential HIV screening,

Currently, more than 13,000 Alabamians are living with HIV/AIDS, and per the Centers for Disease Control, Birmingham ranks 17th in the nation for the number of new HIV diagnoses. Though there have been many medical advances that make HIV manageable as a chronic disease, HIV rates in the South remain high and within epidemic proportions—making AIDS Alabama’s prevention, transportation, mental health, and housing services vital.

All Kinds of Goodness at Ashley Mac’s

Lots of people want to make a living doing what they love. Ashley McMakin made that dream a reality with her Ashley Mac’s cafés, catering and gourmet-to-go business. It all started with her hobby of cooking for those she loves.

McMakin grew up in a large, food-loving family, and she learned to cook alongside her mother and grandmother. “I remember making the desserts when I was 12,” she says.

After graduating from the University of Alabama, where she majored in marketing and advertising, she began cooking for friends and family, thinking it would be a nice hobby until she had children. Her husband, Andy, an accountant, realized the hobby could become a business. “People really love your food,” he told her. “It would be a shame to stop it.”

Ashley Mac’s started as a catering company in the couple’s Homewood kitchen in 2005; it was called A Taste of Birmingham back then. And McMakin sold strawberry cake at a booth at Pepper Place Market the first few years. Today, there are four Ashley Mac’s cafés around Birmingham, and the company employs more than 100 people.

I sat down with McMakin for a story for Alabama NewsCenter.

You can read the entire piece here.

Ashley Mac’s offers modern interpretations of traditional Southern recipes that call for fresh, simple ingredients–whether you eat at an Ashley Mac’s cafe, pick something out of the grab-and-go freezers, order and pick up a fresh family dinner for four or hire the company for catering.

McMakin has grown her business right along with her family, and she often shares her inspirational, working-mom story with others.

“Every time we put in a store we’ve had another kid,” she says. “So we have four kids right now. We went through infertility for several years when we were trying to start Ashley Mac’s, and looking back, I’m just grateful that that was God’s timing. I really don’t think there would be an Ashley Mac’s if I had gotten pregnant right away.

McMakin was pregnant when she and her husband opened their Cahaba Heights store. “Opening that first store, I had to take a step back and really trust people, which is a big learning curve for a business owner, to learn how to delegate,” she says.

“When we opened our second location (in Inverness), we had our second son, through fertility treatments again. And then we were opening our third store in Riverchase, and we adopted our little girl from China. Then last Christmas, we were about to open our Homewood location, and, by some divine circumstances, we ended up with our foster son. He’s 17 and will be with us for two-and-a-half years.”

One reason for Ashley Mac’s success is that McMakin knows what her customers need because she is one of them – a busy mom who wants to put good, healthy food on the dinner table each night.

“A lot of the things we do were born out of … what I need,” she says, laughing. “Many of the things that are on our menu came out of something I’ll make for dinner.”

There is a certain element of goodness at Ashley Mac’s that goes far beyond the highly popular strawberry cake.

“We’ve kind of set ourselves apart by being grace-centered … trying to be gracious with our employees and our customers,” McMakin says. “… Just treating (our employees) with the respect that every person deserves and giving them a chance to work their way up and to invest in how they’re learning and in them personally as well, which is how we ended up with our foster son, through a former employee. We’re just grateful that we not only get to employ them but do life with them.”

Charleston Charm

I took a quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina a few weeks ago—so quick, in fact, that I was very limited in what I could do. So it was two days of food and drinks and then some solitude in my very favorite place.

I usually spend some time shopping on King Street. I also love to take my running shoes and head to The Battery via the waterfront path by Rainbow Row. I walk through the French Quarter and go to the Market to buy souvenirs from the Historic Charleston Foundation store (silver rice seed bead bracelets, anyone?). I didn’t have time for that on this trip.

But even a short trip is enough to remind me how much I love this city. Charleston is beautiful this time of year (I couldn’t help but notice that they don’t trim their crepe myrtles downtown). It’s also fun and delicious and full of great energy. And folks in Charleston have Southern hospitality down pat. Of course.

No wonder it’s one of the top tourist destinations in the entire country.

Some of the highlights of my short trip included:

Raw oysters and royal reds at The Ordinary (544 King Street). This fancy oyster hall is in a beautiful historic building that used to house a bank. The restaurant belongs to James Beard Award-winning chef Mike Lata (Best Chef Southeast 2009) and business partner Adam Nemirow, the same team behind FIG (another personal favorite place). My daughter Allison knew I was going to The Ordinary that evening, and she called ahead and ordered an assortment of South Carolina raw oysters that included Roddy Rocks and Single Ladies and Sea Clouds and long, thin Capers Blades. I skipped the cocktail sauce in favor of the ginger mignonette. A glass of cold Les Gras Moutons Muscadet was perfect, too.  I loved my dish of charcoal-grilled royal red shrimp over polenta with shrimp nage.

The next day, I took a scenic two-mile walk through old neighborhoods to eat lunch at Nana’s Seafood & Soul with its classic Gullah-Geechie dishes and fresh seafood. Someone told me that the rapper 2 Chainz had eaten there the week before. That turned out not to be true, but Waka Flocka Flame had been in a few months earlier for the shrimp and lobster boats and fried crab legs. I enjoyed the crab mac and cheese and spicy garlic shrimp very much.

A late-night drink and snack at Babas on Cannon (11 Cannon Street) was the perfect way to end our day. This cozy, all-day, old-world café serves coffee and house-made pastries in the morning and sandwiches and salads in the afternoon. During the evenings, you’ll find apértivo service with carefully chosen wines, creative cocktails and delicious snacks (try the brioche grilled cheese with a giant cheese crisp on top). This cafe has a Birmingham connection, too:  It belongs to Frank Stitt’s daughter, Marie, and her husband, Edward Crouse.

Breakfast the next day was French press coffee and a fresh, warm flaky almond croissant from Christophe Artisan Chocolatier and Patissier.

I took my breakfast to one of my very favorite places—the garden cemetery at The Unitarian Church in Charleston (4 Archdale Street).  Founded in 1787, this is one of the oldest Unitarian Churches in the United States and the oldest one in the South.  There is a monument outside to honor the slaves who actually built this church—making even the very bricks that form the walls.

The cemetery is a beautifully wild place with plants—some 200 years old—growing from the plots. It’s incredibly peaceful. You can get to it off King Street; there’s a gate sort of hidden down near and across the street from the Billy Reid store.  Go down an alley and find yourself in another world. If the church is open, you’ll want to go in. The people there are so welcoming, and they love to share details of their beautiful church with visitors.

Finally, before we head home, we always go back to Christophe for a ham and Brie sandwich for the road. These are exactly like what you’ll find at little bakeries and corner stores all over France. And chocolates. We always get an assortment of Christophe’s extraordinary chocolates. No trip to Charleston is complete without these.

Celebrating an Unsung Hero of Birmingham’s Food Scene

I had the absolute honor of helping out with Alabama NewsCenter‘s awesome coverage of food-related stories to celebrate Black History Month and the contributions of African-American cooks and chefs to our state’s rich food scene (current and past).

One of my favorite pieces was about Juliette Flenoury, a name we all should know.

My editor Bob Blalock made the story I submitted way better when he invited local restauranteur Becky Satterfield (Satterfield’s restaurant and El ZunZun) to Alabama NewsCenter’s studio to narrate a video about her friend Juliette.

You can read the entire piece here and see that video, too.

Juliette grew up in Birmingham’s historic Fountain Heights neighborhood, and as a child she cooked alongside her mother. Before she was even a teenager, Flenoury was honing her skills, baking cookies and gathering fans among friends and family.

She began her first food-industry job working at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Birmingham. By day, she worked as a cashier, and at night, she cooked foods for the daily menu at the cafeteria in the bus terminal.

Juliette left the bus station job to cook at the Mountain Brook Club, where she remained for 43 years.

She says, “After cooking passionately for most of my life, I am best known for my corn pones, fried chicken, cornbread dressing, chicken potpies, greens and many other selections of Southern cuisine.”

Those corn pones, especially, are delicious little works of art, and watching her make them is art in motion. I was lucky enough to see this for myself one day at Becky’s home. Becky had invited her fellow members of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’ Escoffier to meet Juliette and watch her cook. (We also enjoyed some amazing collards and black-eyed peas.)

Juliette retired from the Mountain Brook Club several years ago. She has spent some of her time since retirement cooking for family and friends; making gift baskets; listening to gospel music; taking care of elderly neighbors; and volunteering for Christian Service Mission when that organization needed her help cooking for the homeless and for student interns visiting Birmingham from various colleges.

Here’s Juliette’s recipe for her famous corn pones. Enjoy!

Juliette Flenoury’s Corn Pone Recipe

Preheat convection oven to 450 F

INGREDIENTS

5 lbs. Martha White (plain) cornmeal

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

1 cup salt of your choice (Juliette keeps everything old-school with regular Morton Salt)

4 cups of melted Crisco shortening at 450 degrees F

4 gallons of boiling water to pour into mix

Another gallon and a half of boiling water for the dipping spoon

INSTRUCTIONS

Spray four half-sheet pans with cooking spray and put into hot oven for 10 minutes (be careful not to let them stay in longer than that because they get too smoky). Then pull them out to use for panning the pones. This helps create a little caramelization.

Use a large commercial-grade metal kitchen spoon for mixing and shaping the pones.

Mix all dry ingredients first in a very large stainless steel mixing bowl (industrial/commercial grade).

Pour hot, melted Crisco into the cornmeal, stir quickly and incorporate well.

Pour boiling water, four cups at a time, until you have the right consistency. (The video will help with this part.) You might not need all of the water you prepared for this recipe, but have it on hand just in case.

Stir vigorously, and be reminded that this batter is very dense; at times, it will be hard to stir but needs to be fully incorporated.

Build a ridge on the side of the bowl nearest yourself, and smooth it off.  Start scraping your spoon toward yourself as the cornmeal mixture kind of curls inside the spoon. Take it and turn your spoon to the left, tap it to release the pone. Repeat this the same way every time. All pones should be right next to each other and uniform. (A little extra hot water should be added via the large kitchen spoon at intervals to keep hydration level correct. Smooth out, pat it down, back and forth, then scrape to roll the pone into the spoon. Also, halfway through this recipe, you will need to change out your dipping water with fresh boiling hot water to keep the temperature up for the conduction through your spoon so the pones will curl uniformly within the spoon and so the spoon will stay clean.)

Put pones in the preheated convection oven and bake for 45 minutes at 450 F. Check halfway through, and rotate the pan. The pones should be brown on the top ridge and the rounded sides to give you the crunch you desire.

This recipe, straight from Juliette’s time in the Mountain Brook Club kitchen, and in her own words, makes a lot of corn pones—several dozen, in fact.

Central has Become Essential to Montgomery’s Downtown Food Scene

In downtown Montgomery, steps from the reclaimed riverfront and right in the middle of an important past, a restaurant called Central is delighting guests with inventive dishes and gracious hospitality.

Central is named for the old central warehouse area, now a hip and happening entertainment district of restaurants, hotels, bars and museums. Common Bond Brewers is nearby, and Riverfront Park is an exciting venue for boat rides, concerts, Montgomery Biscuits Minor League Baseball games and more.

Montgomery has transformed its downtown, and people have come.

For six years now, Central has been a delicious reason to visit. With sophisticated dining in a cool, historic space, Central has become essential to our capital city’s food scene.

I went there recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

Executive chef Jason McGarry says Central offers “Southern, casual, upscale dining” in a unique building that really lets the food shine.

“We have a great, knowledgeable staff,” he adds. “It’s not so white-tablecloth-stuffy that you feel like you have to sit a certain way. You can come in here and have a great time and eat some awesome food and just relax.”

The large, main dining room has an exciting view of a high-energy open kitchen. The restaurant makes great use of the good bones in this 1890s grocery warehouse with its huge, hand-hewn beams. There’s no art on the beautiful, exposed brick walls—only flickering gas lanterns and giant foxed mirrors to reflect what was originally there.

An old iron rail cart in the middle of the room marries form and function with flowers and tasteful décor on top and baskets of fresh napkins below. Cozy booths, intimate two-tops and long family-style tables offer lots of dining options. The bar is its own cool space with plenty of seating; televisions here are hidden from the rest of the restaurant under a clever, slatted awning.

Flavors are complex, and dishes are pretty here.

McGarry serves sorghum-glazed pork belly with Wickles pickles and kimchi sprouts. Savory short rib agnolotti features celery root puree, brown butter, pickled shallots and foie gras demi glace. A salad of charred radicchio is dressed with pomegranate seeds, creamy burrata, blood orange and pork belly.

Lunch offerings at Central range from the Southerner (aged cheddar pimento cheese, bacon and fried bologna on sourdough bread) to a simple burrata and tomato flatbread smoky from the wood-fired oven.  Fried green tomatoes are topped with Texas caviar and pimento cheese queso. A classic steakhouse wedge salad features candied pecans and a house-made bleu cheese dressing.

During dinner service, numerous plates of the slow-cooked short ribs come out of the kitchen. On this night, they are served with smoked Gouda grits, balsamic pearl onions, butternut squash and bacon-fried Brussels spouts with a Burgundy sauce.

McGarry says he has seen Central’s traffic grow dramatically in the past year. Lunch, especially, has gotten busy since The Legacy Museum opened. Downtown hotels like the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa in the convention center bring lots of out-of-state visitors during the week; locals frequent the restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights; McGarry loves sharing Central with all of them.

“We get to throw a party every night,” he says. “We’re hosting guests every night. That’s the main thing for us.”

Sunday Dinner: Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew

I’ve looked forward all week to an afternoon of cooking. It’s cold and gray outside, and I wanted to make something warm and comforting. A from-scratch stew–rich and deeply savory–is about as comforting as it gets. This recipe from the New York Times Cooking website is an exercise in the meditative process of quality time spent with a cast-iron Dutch oven and a long, wooden spoon. It is as satisfying, in some ways, as the end result.

Here’s what I did differently:  I substituted pancetta for the salt pork–1/3 of a pound–and I added it back in with the mushrooms. Also, I used Maille Old Style mustard instead of Pommery. And I used only 2 tablespoons of that instead of 4.

Regina Schrambling brought this recipe for Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew to the Times in 2001–after the World Trade Center attacks. I remember cooking many dishes like this stew in my own kitchen. I cooked almost constantly in those dark, scary days, taking portions to neighbors next door, inviting friends for impromptu dinners. It was how I coped and how I showed love to those I love the most.

As Schrambling pointed out:  “… long before there were antidepressants, there was stew.”

Amen to that.

Dijon and Cognac Beef Stew

INGREDIENTS

¼ pound salt pork, diced

1 large onion, finely diced

3 shallots, chopped

2 to 4 tablespoons butter, as needed

2 pounds beef chuck, in 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons flour

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons butter, as needed

½ cup Cognac

2 cups beef stock

½ cup Dijon mustard

4 tablespoons Pommery mustard

4 large carrots, peeled and cut into half-moon slices

½ pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered

¼ cup red wine

PREPARATION

Place salt pork in a Dutch oven or a large heavy kettle over low heat, and cook until fat is rendered. Remove solid pieces with a slotted spoon, and discard. Raise heat, and add onion and shallots. Cook until softened but not browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a large bowl.

If necessary, add 2 tablespoons butter to the pan to augment fat. Dust beef cubes with flour, and season with salt and pepper. Shake off excess flour, and place half the cubes in the pan. Cook over medium-high heat until well browned, almost crusty, on all sides, then transfer to a bowl with onions. Repeat with remaining beef.

Add Cognac to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and the crust comes loose. Add stock, Dijon mustard and 1 tablespoon Pommery mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Add carrots, and continue simmering for 30 minutes, or until slices are tender. As they cook, heat 2 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté mushrooms until browned and tender.

Stir mushrooms into the stew along with remaining mustard and red wine. Simmer 5 minutes, then taste, and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.