Saturday, January 2, 2016

My new Favorite Restaurant: Publico


Once upon a time, Neil and I ate out all the time.  We weren't parents then.  Yes, parenthood has a tendency to curtail a lot of that spontaneous eating out.  But needless to say, I'll take my baby girl over a good steak any day!  

You all may remember how long time culinary citizen Garibaldi's suddenly closed up shop.  I think with something like a whopping 24 hour notice to their employees. I know I was shocked when I heard.  Just a few months before, Neil had taken our daughter there for a daddy-daughter date night and made a fan out of her. Then, they were gone. 

If you have been paying attention, that building has been under construction lately.  Lots of activity over there and then the sign went up.  Publico. Hmmm!  What could it be? What will it be like?  What can we expect? 

Neil and I decided to head over there on New Year's Eve for lunch.  He had already stopped in one day last week for a beer and tried their bacon-wrapped jalapenos and was impressed. He told me about the menu, which I pulled up online and out the door we went.

Neil is in a happy place

Publico's menu features a large selection of specialty tacos with an emphasis on Asian flavors.  Example? How about a Bahn Mi taco: crisp pork belly, jalapeno, cucumber, carrot & daikon.  Or, what about a Pad Thai taco or Avocado Crunch? Wait, there's more!  How does a burger made from ground chuck, brisket and short rib grab you?  Of course, you may opt for a Carne Asada puffy taco (remember that episode of "Beat Bobby Flay"?) or a Korean influenced tostada?

Neil and I opted for their special, which is 5 tacos and 2 sides. Our plan was to share so we could get a good sampling of the menu.  

Isn't that beautiful?
We chose the Plum Chicken, Sambal Fish, Cilantro-Lime Shrimp, Classic Carnitos and Bahn Mi taco.  For sides, we chose the Mexican street corn and edamame.  Simply put, this food was awesome.  Man, I don't even know where to begin...

Plum Chicken Taco
 I think the Plum Chicken was my favorite. The chicken is nicely seasoned and the plum sauce gives it a little something extra, without adding too much sweetness. It's dressed with a bok choy slaw, the plum sauce and black beans.  

Sambal Fish Taco
Neil's vote goes to the Sambal Fish, which I am a fan of too.  The fish is tempura fried: nice and light. The sambal aioli is awesome and the pickled red onion and kim chi give this taco crunch and tang.  

Bahn Mi Taco
I liked the Bahn Mi a lot but think it may need a little more zip to it; perhaps just a little more of the red pepper aioli. But, I loved the crispy pork belly and crunchy vegetables. 

Classic Carnitos Taco
The Classic Carnitos was also high on our list.  Smoky, pulled pork with jalapeno, guac, pico...delicious.  My least favorite was the shrimp. I expected more flavor from the cilantro and lime but found it rather bland.  But, of course, I am a shrimp snob.  I would order this again, but think I'd add more chipotle crema to jack up the flavor.  

Cilantro Lime Shrimp Taco
The sides are notable too: the Mexican street corn is out of this world.  The corn was smoky, tender and spiced with chile and cheese. We are both big fans of edamame but Publico serves it with Ponzu sauce, which we had never had before.  You dip the pod in the ponzu and then pop the beans out of the pod, you know, the same way we eat boiled peanuts. I had just never thought of or seen anyone serve with ponzu.  I like it!

Ok, I know this post is long, but there's a lot to say!  Publico is just cool.  They took out the windows that overlook Greene Street and replaced them with roll up doors.  (Anyone remember Hannah Jane's?) The walls are clad in recovered wood, food is served on flat, stainless plates, like pizza pans. If you choose to sit at the bar that separates the dining room from the actual bar, note the purse hooks, A/C and USB outlets.

 Someone is quite talented at chalkboard penmanship.  I always marvel at does someone not only write so artistically that big and with a stick of chalk?  We had the pleasure of having the owner, Mike, stop by our table and talk. He's new to Columbia and excited about being here.  He shared with us his experience in the restaurant business from Houston to Nashville and now here he is in Columbia. He's interested in local sourcing and creating a quality upscale casual environment. Matt was our server and he was fantastic: answered all my goofy questions without rolling his eyes (at least not in front of me!) and he really knew the menu. He and the bartender Lilly, both came by our table to check on us and we talked about the menu, their favorites, our favorites.  

The Carnage
We loved our experience at Publico and can't wait to go back.  In fact, we've already decided what we're going to try on our next trip.  Highly recommend that you check out this new addition to our culinary scene.  Mangia!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Gift of Good Grits

Yes, it's happened again.  A major, unintended hiatus from writing. Since my mom got hurt in August, our whole family has been spinning in various directions at various speeds. Thankfully, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and here I am at the computer; writing.

I have known my friend Elizabeth Miller since the 6th grade.  While I don't see her all that often, we stay in contact via Facebook. She does tons of volunteer work with the homeless. She has a humongous heart. Recently, she sent me a message and mentioned that she was also now working for our local Congaree Milling Company.  She was planning to stop by my house and leave me a "care package."  Yahoo!  Locally milled grits and a reason to write!

She delivered.  I came home one day to find Congaree Millings' yellow quick grits, fine white cornmeal and blue corn polenta.  

Oh, my head began to spin.  All the delicious possibilities!  What to make first?  Now, being a Southern girl who enjoys the creek more than the beach, I've caught and cooked more than my fair share of shrimp.  Therefore, I've tasted and created many, many versions of shrimp and grits.  I could turn into Bubba Blue here.  

But, I pinned a simple one on Pinterest and have been dying to make it.  You see where this is headed.  

First, I headed to Aldi for cheese.  If you aren't an Aldi fan, you need to just walk in their door and you'll become one.  Dairy products are an amazing deal at this place.  With my gouda and fresh corn in hand, I proceeded to the checkout to drop about $3.00. Then, I produced one of my favorite versions of shrimp and grits, to date.  

Ummm, gouda and lots of it!
Shrimp all seasoned and ready for action

Bubble, bubble, butter ain't no trouble

Get in my belly!
A work of art.  Which we quickly devoured.
Seriously good recipe, friends. And, so incredibly easy that you can easily whip this up on a weeknight.  Don't let yourself get into that rut of a mindset that seafood has to be a complicated ordeal that is reserved for special occasions. It's good for you and it's easy to prepare!  Stock up on shrimp, salmon, tuna, whatever and cook.  

And, I highly recommend Congaree Milling Co.'s grits.  I met the owner, Ken DuBard, at the Soda City Market and told him how excited I was about the sampler package I'd gotten from Elizabeth.  He gave me a tip...since his products are organic, after opening the package, store the rest in the freezer.  To Elizabeth, all I can say is THANK YOU!  What a wonderful gift and inspiration to get me into the kitchen and now here on the page. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Mission: NOT Impossible

Of all the cuisines, Mexican is one of my all-time favorites.  I love queso and chips as much as the next guy, but for me the ultimate Mexican dish is tamales.  And they are hard to come by. Not many restaurants serve them and it’s even harder to find a person who makes them.  I know. For years, I’ve wanted to learn to make them. I’ve always been told that they are soooooo hard to make.  They are soooooo complicated. They are such a project that someone’s grandmother might make them for a very special occasion. So, I’ve merely dreamed and aspired to become a tamale cook for a very long time.  

I came across an old 1980’s Mexican cookbook that a friend was throwing out.  I scooped it up and there it was.  A tamale recipe.  I read it over and over again because I just couldn’t grasp what was so difficult about what I was reading.  And then it happened.  I bought a Boston butt and I made tamales.

I don’t know what I’ve been waiting on. I let others convince me that this was some insurmountable task. But here’s the news flash…it is not difficult to make tamales.  At all.  It takes some time, but it’s not hard. And, they were fabulous!

I started with a Boston butt; trim excess fat and cut into pieces
Stewing on the stovetop for about an hour

Guajillo chiles are the base for the sauce
Gorgeous color!  Homemade enchilada sauce
I love that happy little corn man
You spread the masa on the corn husk with your fingers
Add a little filling
Fold sides over filling and pointed end under
Steam bath for about an hour
My finished product

OMG!  My tamales were fantastic, if I do say so myself!  The sauce has out-of-this-world flavor.  It’s so simple to make. You soak the chiles in hot water to soften them up, then remove seeds and puree them with the soaking liquid. Then you cook the puree with some garlic, flour, vinegar, cumin and oregano. Nothing difficult about that. The pork is stewed with some garlic, onion, bay leaf and peppercorns. After it’s cooked, you shred it, mix with sauce and refrigerate overnight.  Nothing hard about that. 

You also save the pork broth for the masa. Refrigerate that overnight so you can skim the fat off before mixing up the masa.  The next day, you simply mix the masa with warm broth, shortening, and baking powder until it becomes a soft, wet dough.  You soak your corn husks in hot water for about an hour to make them pliable. Then, it’s just a matter of spreading out some masa, add some filling and fold.  They steam for about an hour and then you are ready to dig in. The masa was so soft and tender and flavorful. This is key because even in restaurants I’ve had tamales with dried out masa and it ruined the whole dish. The pork was tender and that sauce, oh the sauce!   

And none of this was hard to do!  It takes some time, but anything worth doing is worth the time. My parents came to dinner and we all fell in love with the tamales.  So much so that later that  week, I made another batch.  A double batch!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Astronaut Crazy

You may be aware that my sister lives in Houston. Specifically, the Clear Lake area of Houston.  Know what's in Clear Lake?  NASA.  The Johnson Space Center. I mean, it's like 10 minutes from her house.  I think that's really cool. Every time I'm there, I find myself picturing the astronauts of "the day" (Armstrong, Lovell, Aldrin) cruising the palm lined NASA Road 1 in their spiffy little 'vettes and Spitfires. Livin' the celebrity life in a big huge way.

The first week of August, the little one and I flew to Houston for her to attend engineering camp at NASA. She and my niece had the ultimate summer day camp experience and I got a week of quiet reading time, days at the pool, lunch breaks with my sister.  It was really awesome. I asked Katherine one day, "surely there is a neighborhood around here that was built for the astronauts back in the 50's or so, right?"  Yes. Yes, there is.  It's called El Lago and I had to see it.

We rode over one day to "stalk" the old astro's houses.  I'm sure the people who currently live in El Lago are totally used to it.  Here are some photos:

Neil Armstrong lived here

Jim Lovell & Buzz Aldrin lived here; not at the same time however!
Ed White (1st American to walk in space) lived here; right next to Armstrong's old house
Fred Haise (Apollo 13) lived in this little cutie
This one is pretty special. Ron McNair, Lake City, SC native who perished in the Challenger explosion in 1986. I was home sick from school that day & saw the whole thing on TV.

So, after my extraterrestrial real estate tour, it was only fitting for us to have lunch at a little joint known as "Frenchie's."  

Not much to look at, but don't let that fool you!
This is one of those old school Italian restaurants whose decor is original, I'd say circa 1950. You walk in and there are dudes sitting at small tables by the door just chatting in Italian. You order from a man at the counter who then calls out the order to the kitchen via microphone, and then you select a table in the dining room. And, here's the thing. This was/is the astronaut hang-out.  There are autographed photos, posters, memorabilia EVERYWHERE. The place is only about 2 minutes from the space center (the JSC, the locals call it) and it's the bom-diggity of old, not-changin'-our-ways restaurant. 

Katherine thinks to herself "oh, I'm not really that hungry. I'll just order something light, like a sandwich."  She opts for the muffaletta. Sandwich, yes.  Light, just what the not-so-hungry lady wants, not so much!  Check out this bad boy...

As my husband would say, if I threw this at you, I'd knock you off your bicycle!
 It was huge but delicious!  The bread was homemade and fresh. The meats were yummy and the olive salad was better than any other muffaletta I've ever had.

But what about me?  I was feeling pressured from the specials menu, to the regular menu, not knowing the procedures (it's like your first experience at the Beacon) so I just blurted out "I'll have the spaghetti marinara!"  Now, folks, I think the last time I ordered spaghetti in a restaurant I was probably 5 years old.  But what caught my eye was "capers and olives." I'd sell my soul to the devil for capers and olives.  Holy Moly, people!  This was by far, the best spaghetti I've ever eaten. The sauce was fresh, bright red with fresh tomatoes, loaded with capers and Italian olives.  But the real surprise that hit it all home was that the sauce had this spicy undertone that caught up on you.  It was magnificent.
I can hardly look at this. My mouth is watering.
 So, lesson here?   If you go to Houston, downtown is cool and all, but you must go to Clear Lake to see all the coolness surrounding the Space Center.  Plus, it's on the water; you can get great, fresh seafood anytime. Stalk the old astronaut's neighborhood and get some damn good grub too. And don't forget, Galveston is only about a half hour away, so you can get some beach time too!  No shark attacks there this summer. :-)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Heat-wave Antipasti

It's summertime. This is the South. It's hot. It's damn not.  It's always damn not.  But, the last few weeks, we've endured several days with 100+ temps.  These are the days that I remember one of my mom's famous anecdotes...The only thing that separates Columbia from hell is a screened door. 

We drove up to the Upstate the other day for a couple reasons: 1) it's cooler up there and 2) peaches. After scoring giant peaches from Inman, a gallon of blueberries and the most beautiful tomatoes I've seen in a long time, we returned home around dinnertime. I determined that it was just too late to start cooking, so I told my mom and dad to give me 30 minutes and then come on over.

This is what I came up with.  I think it turned out pretty darn beautiful, if I do say so myself. 

Seriously, look at these tomatoes!

My kind of antipasti platter
Olive oil and herbs for our bread
So, we dined on prosciutto & cantaloupe, pepperoncini, black olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, Castelvetrano olives, hearts of palm, Caprese salad, cheese, olive oil and French bread. Not one single BTU was used to create this spread, so we could enjoy our meal in nicely air-conditioned comfort!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Quick weeknight dessert

I have become almost obsessed with not wasting food, including leftovers.  Once upon a time, I couldn't have cared less about leftovers but Neil has gradually made me see the light. If I don't want to heat them up and have them again, I'll find a way to turn them into something else. Once a French baguette begins to harden, I throw it into the food processor and make bread crumbs. These keep really well in the freezer, BTW.  If making Neil's favorite key lime pie, I freeze the leftover egg whites for something else later. Leftover pork chops?  I make "house" fried rice out of them...and whatever else I can find in my fridge.

Recently, we had purchased some of those cute mini-croissants from the bakery.  These little guys are the perfect sandwich size for my daughter.  But, we had a few left in the container and they were just staring at me every time I walked into the kitchen.  A few days had gone by and I realized it was time to change them into something else.  After a bit of thought, I opted for a simple bread pudding.

I just tore the croissants into pieces. I placed them into an 8" baking dish and drizzled about 1 Tbs melted butter over.  Next, I mixed 2 beaten eggs, 1 cup milk, about 1/3 cup sugar, 1/2 tsp cinnamon and 1/2 tsp vanilla.  I sprinkled some raisins over the bread, then poured the egg mixture over.  You'll want to press down on the bread a bit so it soaks up the egg mixture. Bake at 350 for about 40 minutes until the top springs back when tapped.

Neil and Vivi went crazy over this.  It was ridiculously easy to put together and it baked while we had our chicken enchiladas for dinner.  And, no croissants went to waste!


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