5 tips for building a BLT sandwich that hits the spot

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In the summer South, a fresh “mater” sandwich is an annual seasonal rite of passage. How that sandwich is assembled is completely up to the consumer (though the ingredients are obviously not open to debate for anyone with the idea it must be done only one way), enabling foodies to get quite creative in finding the perfect recipe.

My favorite way to enjoy a tomato sandwich is the BLT, or bacon, lettuce and tomato, which goes a step further than its simpler “mater” cousin. Just a plain BLT always does the trick for me, but it really hits the spot when I take a little extra care to enhance the sandwich.

On a recent summer day, I made Molly and me a couple of BLTs for lunch, and I spent some time experimenting to jazz up our meal. The whole experience—making the food and then really enjoying it—got me thinking about the keys to perfecting such a longtime regional food staple.

Here’s a five-item, must-do checklist for making your own great BLT.

1. PICK LOCAL TOMATOES: For “mater” sandwich and BLT purists, there may be no more important choice than using a fresh, local tomato picked from the garden. If you don’t have a garden or know someone who does, consider your options at a local farmer’s market. A fresh tomato free of preservatives and pesticides will absolutely be more flavorful and much juicier. Our go-to tomato source in summer is a small network of home gardeners that are family members and neighbors. Once you have the right tomatoes, sprinkle the cut slices with a little salt and pepper to really make them pop. That’s what my grandpa always did, and I understand why every time I take a bite.

2. CHOOSE FRESH GREENS: The L in BLT stands for lettuce, but that’s not a requirement. You can go with another green, or no green at all if that’s not your thing. (Folks who like true “mater”-only sandwiches go with mayo and fresh white bread only, not needing the bacon or the lettuce to be complete.) Nice fresh spinach leaves are my favorite because of their flavor, their crunch and their lack of extra moisture. When you have a juicy tomato, you don’t really need other “wet” ingredients to find the right sandwich balance.

3. SEASON AND CRISP THAT BACON: Normally, a little pepper is nice, but I recently went farther with a light sprinkling of pepper and a slight caramelizing process with brown sugar. The result was a sweet and savory bacon that had even more flavor. Whatever you do, even if it’s no seasoning at all (after all, it’s bacon, right?), you’ve got to establish a crunch. My mama’s right: limp, chewy bacon is never good. If you end up with bacon that troubles you in the crisping attempt, try a few minutes on aluminum foil in the toaster oven, or slide each piece onto a toothpick and bake it in the oven. (That last one’s a trick we learned at a bed-and-breakfast inn in eastern North Carolina.)

4. GET SAUCY: Duke’s mayonnaise might be the most preferred choice of “mater” and BLT sandwich aficionados. That’s a fine standby that’s been delighting home chefs for decades, and for many foodies this is where you can stop reading this step and go on to the next. But we also live in the aioli and specialty-mayo age. How many times have you read a restaurant menu and seen the word aioli or something akin to “chipotle mayo”? There’s so much you can do to jazz up a sauce to slather on a sandwich. Recently, I decided to create a sweeter mayo, so I combined two teaspoons of Duke’s with a teaspoon of local honey. The result was an even fancier sandwich.

5. MAKE A SOLID BREAD SELECTION: I know many tomato lovers who prefer plain white bread for their “mater” sandwiches. Again, that’s an OK choice, but the BLT begs for a more solid selection. You need something that can hold up against the juiciness of the tomato, the greens, your sauce selection and that crunchy bacon. (As Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper would argue, it’s all about the moisture barrier between the juicy vegetables and the bread.) If I’m using white sandwich bread, I like to lightly toast the slices or even grill them in a pan on the stovetop for a little more heft. To go a step further, consider selecting an even heartier bread, such as potato, brioche or ciabatta.

Finally and most important to always remember when you’re cooking at home, this is your #FoodieScore, and your taste will guide your ingredients and your results.

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5 Easy Tips for Stellar Homemade Shrimp & Grits

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I discovered the glorious flavors of Shrimp & Grits as a teenage foodie who often visited Charleston, S.C. Many places in the city (and throughout the South) serve the dish, and several make it very well, but every version is different. Some restaurants serve the shrimp aboard cheese grits. Others top the bowl with a seafood gravy. Chefs even add bacon, sausage and other flavors to their renditions.

 

As I began cooking more as a bachelor in my 20s, I started experimenting with Shrimp & Grits in my own kitchen. It’s a dish that really lends itself well to creativity, which is a must when I’m cooking. As I’ve shared before on this blog, a hard-and-fast recipe is not my friend, and that’s why I’m not a baker by nature.

There are so many ways to do Shrimp & Grits well, so you really must figure out what you like best. Here are five quick tips to help you concoct your own Shrimp & Grits. You just might decide your way is your favorite.

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1 – Pick the right shrimp and the right grits for you.

Some folks will want to get fresh-from-the-sea shrimp, where available, and some kind of locally ground grits. Me? I actually prefer quick-cook grits (you can dress them up, big time) and frozen shrimp (for the flexibility of making them whenever you like). The way I see it from experience, you can poorly execute fancy and expensive ingredients, or you can hit a home run with simple ingredients.

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2 – Season the shrimp first.

You should cook your shrimp in a separate sauce pan from your grits and any other toppings (you’ll add the shrimp simply to the top of each bowl of grits before serving), and seasoning is a must. The most tongue-popping flavor in the whole dish should come from your seasoned shrimp. I like to use a half a lemon, a ½ teaspoon of paprika and a ¼ teaspoon of salt for each two servings. Add them to the pan and stir around your shrimp for while-cooking marination, over medium heat. As a rule of thumb for me, I like to prepare about 10 shrimp for each serving of Shrimp & Grits, cooking them just until they get light pink all over.

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3 – Use milk or cream in the grits.

But start with water. I’ve found that for each serving, I like to start with a ½ cup of grits and 2 cups of water, and cook on medium heat. The grits cook more quickly and without scalding in water. Then add the creamy ingredient later. I like about ¼ cup of cream or milk for each serving. You will really taste the difference when you add this step. So much more flavor than water alone. The other value in adding the milk or cream later is that as the grits cook and thicken, the creamy ingredient will help thin them back out a bit before serving. You don’t want to serve watery grits, but you also don’t want them to get sticky. The cream, especially, helps keep that from happening.

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4 – Whisk, don’t stir, your grits.

Like the milk or cream, using a whisk has a major impact on the texture and creamy nature of your bowl of grits. If you stir with a spoon, the mixing process just isn’t the same.

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5 – Add flavoring ingredient(s).

We like cooked beef sausage, chopped into smaller pieces and sautéed in a separate sauce pan, and then a topping of a little grated cheese. Bacon is also a great topping (because who doesn’t love bacon?). These types of ingredients add a little extra flavor without overpowering the shrimp, and they add a little something nice to the presentation as well.

Protein-Packed Smashed Avocado

Let’s just get right down to the point on what this dish is and what it isn’t. Smashed Avocado is an incredibly flavorful, unique and flexible option for a fresh and light breakfast, brunch or small meal option. It’s not something everyone will enjoy because of the ingredients or methods of cooking. But I will warn you that you’re missing out if you don’t at least consider it by reading through this post.

We recently experienced Smashed Avocado for the first time at The Collins Quarter, an Australia-influenced restaurant in downtown Savannah, Ga. Molly’s already an avocado fan, and Collins bills “smashed” as its signature dish. While their version was no doubt fancier and created with more culinary expertise, the plate we created at home was just as good in many ways.

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One of the best things about this dish is that you can mix and match so many of the ingredients. Collins served its Smashed Avocado on toast; we decided to use English muffins. The restaurant served its dish with a side of fancy greens and veggies; we used a simple mix of tomatoes and green peppers and added a little bit of bacon for flavor and crunch. You can switch up many of the parts as long as you have the basic elements of bread, avocado and egg.

That egg is traditionally poached for this dish, and I considered going another route since I had never previously poached an egg. I decided to expand my horizons and learn a new skill, and poaching an egg was much easier than I expected. Basically, I cracked the egg into a small glass dish less than the size of a coffee mug and then slid that egg straight into a pot of simmering (bubbly, but never boiling) water. The egg white eventually begins to cook around a yolk that stays somewhat soft. I used a sturdy metal slotted spoon to remove the egg to check its doneness and once the outside felt firm, I took it out of the water.

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On one half of each of the two toasted, open-faced English muffins, I spread the insides of a well-ripened avocado that I had only lightly salted (some recipes suggest you also add lemon juice in the smashing mix), and then I topped it with one poached egg. That was topped with a little crispy bacon, then a small sprinkle of shredded cheese, and finally diced tomatoes and green peppers.

That’s all there is to it for a dish that seems fancy but really doesn’t even require a formal list of ingredients or cooking steps to complete. Regardless, I will list the ingredients to offer a clearer picture. Remember: You can change many of these to meet your tastes.

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Ingredients

(yields serving for two)

2 English muffins, split into two halves

2 eggs (poached)

1 ripe avocado (skin should be dark and relatively soft)

Any additional toppings and seasonings you desire

 

Molly’s Take: This dish wowed my tastebuds at the Collins Quarter, so when Matthew suggested we try our own version at home, I was totally up for it. Poaching the egg was far easier than we thought, and the smashed avocado spread on an English muffin, even better in my opinion than on toast. I loved the addition of bacon, as it gave the dish a saltier taste and a great meat option. Smashed Avocado is easy and light, yet filling and packed with great ingredients that taste amazing, fit together well, and energize you for the day ahead. Want my advice? Go for it! 

Matthew’s Take: My affinity for this dish surprised me from all angles. I enjoy avocado and guacamole in several iterations, but I didn’t think Smashed Avocado on bread with a poached egg would be so good. A lightly salted avocado, smashed on bread and topped with the egg and veggies was such a flavor experience. It was so good that I wanted another one when I finished mine. If you’ve never poached a simple egg, you’ve got to try it. Not only was the combination of these ingredients full of flavor, altogether the dish was light and didn’t give me the heavy feeling that a traditional Southern breakfast of eggs, bacon/sausage/livermush and toast can cause if you eat a large portion. This one gets a perfect A+ score for flavor, a B for presentation (it is smashed avocado, after all) and an A- for cost, as the ingredients aren’t difficult to locate or particularly expensive, but outside of eggs the items aren’t necessarily staples in every kitchen.

Restaurant-Quality Vermont Burgers With Maple-Mustard Glaze

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We’re big fans of dipping sauces, and this burger recipe uses a glaze that would also make a delicious dipping sauce for fries, chicken nuggets and tenders and anything else you like to submerge in a tasty topping. The sauce, along with the stellar burger seasoning mixture, also makes for a restaurant-quality sandwich all of your friends will want. And we know because after we tested the recipe and posted it to social media we received inquiries about its contents, solely based on pictures of the finished product. So, without further foodie blabber, here’s how you make it. We cooked indoors this time, but these would make fantastic grilled burgers for summer.

Ingredients

Burger

1 pound ground meat (we made 1/2-pound burgers for two of us, and you can modify for your serving size)

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 teaspoon mustard (recipe calls for ground dry mustard, we used regular store-brand condiment mustard out of the bottle and it tasted great)

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt (tread lightly to not over-season depending on how much meat you have)

1 teaspoon pepper (tread lightly to not over-season)  cheeseGlaze

2 tablespoons of mustard (recipe calls for ground dry again, and again we used mustard straight out of the condiment bottle)

1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons of maple syrup (recipe calls for pure maple syrup, but to save money we used maple-flavored store-brand syrup and it tasted great)  bunsToppings

King’s Hawaiian sandwich buns (recipe calls for pretzel buns, but those are hard to find in our small town and rural county)

bacon

cheddar cheese

lettuce (if you want to get fancy, the recipe calls for baby arugula)

chopped onion

Step one: Mix your burger patty ingredients, incorporating the onion, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper into your meat.

Step two: Dash a light coating of oil in your pan, and place your burger patties in the pan.

Step three: Cook your bacon. We actually chose to bake the bacon in the oven for this recipe, and it turned out great. More grease also appeared to cook off of the bacon.

Step four: Mix your glaze ingredients and taste to ensure you like it before you baste your burgers.

Step five: Once you turn your burgers (the only time you’ll need to turn them if your meat is fresh and not frozen), baste the sweet-tangy glaze on top. Keep basting lightly as they cook until you remove from the pan.

Step six: Toast your burger buns to prepare for making your sandwiches. Sometimes we prefer to not toast a bun if the bread is particularly fresh and room-temperature because it actually has a better consistency and more flavor for the sandwich.

Step seven: When the patties are almost fully cooked, top with a slice of cheddar cheese and let it melt just enough before removing the burgers from the pan (or grill, if you’re cooking outdoors). Bacon

Step eight: Top your burgers with the onion, lettuce and bacon. Serve.

Molly’s Take: I loved these burgers, mostly for their amazing flavor created both by what you put IN the burger and what you put ON the burger. The maple-mustard glaze is so good, we’ve used it since to dip chicken fingers in. I love how it reminds me of honey mustard, too. I’ve not had better burgers in most restaurants, and it definitely was of equal quality with some of the burgers we’ve had in fancier burger-centric restaurants, like our local Newt’s Pub Burgers. All in all, this recipe makes a delicous, absolutely delectable burger with so many flavors to excite your tastebuds from the first bite to the last.

Matthew’s Take: I’m a barbecue sauce kind of guy most of the time if I’m going to top a burger with anything other than mayo. But this maple-mustard glaze is a major winner for me. It’s like a different kind of honey mustard and, when combined with the bacon, the soft King’s Hawaiian bun and the burger seasoned in this recipe, every flavor works to perfection, both individually and in concert together. It’s not an incredibly cheap recipe, because you need a decent number of ingredients to pull it off, but we were able to offset some of the more expensive items (the pure maple syrup and the dry mustard) without sacrificing the quality of the sandwich. It looks like something you would see in a restaurant, and it tastes like something you would eat in a restaurant. I give the Vermont Burger with Maple-Mustard Glaze an A+ for taste, an A+ for presentation and an A for price flexibility. If you use regular buns instead of King’s Hawaiian or the prescribed pretzel buns, you can save even more money at the grocery store.