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.

Foodie Travels: Eating Through a Weekend in Atlanta, Ga.

Atlanta may not be the first city that comes to mind if I ask you to name Southern metropolitan areas that serve up legendary food. But on our tour of the major cities in the South in the past two years, the Georgia capital just might have produced the most memorable lineup from top to bottom.

When we visited town for a weekend last year, we arrived with three restaurant destinations in mind. And those were the three we visited. We still have a handful we’d like to try when we’re back in town, but there were no disappointments among the stops we made.

Per our usual foodie travel plan, we visited one featured restaurant each day during the three-day trip, supplementing those meals with free hotel breakfasts and a cheap third meal. Here’s our experience and what we suggest if you find yourself in Atlanta.

 

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Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles

How can you not be attracted to a restaurant that bears the name of the “empress of soul,” Gladys Knight? How can the words “chicken and waffles” not further propel you to seek out a place that promises a menu of delicious soul food?

Well, unfortunately one answer is all of the news about a corruption investigation among Knight’s family, which has prompted some periods of closing in the restaurant’s Atlanta-area locations. Knight has even filed a suit to have her name removed from the restaurants altogether.

But before all of that was in the news, the downtown location was our first Atlanta foodie stop on a Friday night, and we left full of Southern favorites and surprises. Molly enjoyed the shrimp and grits, which she’s now sampled among the most Southern cities on the map— Charleston, S.C., New Orleans, La., and Atlanta, Ga. I had the signature chicken and waffles plate, which offered a simplicity that felt very true to the dish’s roots. It was almost a Waffle House-style waffle, alongside several bone-in chicken wings that were juicy inside and crispy outside.

The jewel in this eatery’s crown was our dessert: quite possibly the best cheesecake of any variety that we’ve ever eaten. Our slice of sweet potato cheesecake was a heavenly combination of light yet rich, flavorful yet not over the top.

If you visit Gladys Knight, as the Travel Channel and other food TV media have done, expect a crowd at peak times; it’s a pretty popular joint. And consider parking elsewhere in town and walking here. The parking situation wasn’t ideal, and we unfortunately ended up paying to park in a lot right next door.

On my dollar sign price scale ($ is cheap, $$ is moderate and $$$ is expensive), this one gets $$.

Online: 529 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, Ga.

 

Varsity burger

The Varsity

What’ll ya have? That’s been the catchphrase at The Varsity for nearly 90 years. Known as the world’s largest drive-in restaurant, this place offers you plenty to think about before you answer that question.

We visited on a Saturday night alongside five other family members in two cars. This place draws a major crowd at most hours on the weekend, but there was plenty of parking to be had.

Expect to stand in line at the counter for a bit if the joint’s hopping, but that’s OK because you’ll have more time to decide on your order if you’re a newbie. We ended up sampling a variety of items, including cheeseburgers, hot dogs, fries, onion rings and the Varsity Orange, the shop’s signature drink (along with the Frosted Orange shake).

The food is good and exactly what you’d expect of a drive-in style diner in the South. I’d venture to say the food’s also less greasy than some spots you’ll visit, and that significantly improves the experience.

You can’t miss The Varsity if you’re driving on Interstate 85 right through downtown Atlanta. When you spot it, remember there are plenty of reasons to stop in for a meal.

The Varsity gets $ on the price scale.

Online: 61 North Avenue, Atlanta, Ga.

 

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Daddy D’z: The Bar-B-Que Joint

We Ain’t Pretty But We’re Good.

Remember what your mama told ya. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

Those are among the statements on Daddy D’z website. And once you see this iconic Atlanta barbecue joint, you’ll understand why.

On a Sunday afternoon, we decided to make this restaurant our lunch stop. We planned to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. historical sites nearby, so we took advantage of free parking at the MLK center, about a mile away, and walked to the eatery.

That would be a fine choice if it’s not a 95-degree June day in Atlanta, Ga. I don’t suggest our route unless it’s a cooler time of year.

As we neared the restaurant, sweating profusely and tired from the heat-bathed trek, it looked almost like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Seemingly abandoned buildings were all we saw. It appeared plants were growing out of the structure that seemed on the map like it should be the location of this “famed” barbecue restaurant.

As we rounded the corner from the back, we saw the “Daddy D’z” sign and a full parking lot of cars. The inside was full of people, too, and that meant we had to sit on the outside porch, with fans and no central air-conditioning to cool us.

But we persevered through the heat and my insistence that I needed more drink and my lunch as soon as possible. And we’re glad we did. I had a plate of the best ribs I’ve had in my travels through the South.

I’m not the only proponent of the ribs either. They’ve been praised via the Food Network, among some of the best ribs celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez has ever eaten.

All of the Deep South barbecue favorites are here, and they come with sides of macaroni and cheese and some of the best soul food Atlanta or anywhere can dish up.

If you judge by appearances, you may not want to stop your car and walk inside. That would be a major mistake in foodie judgement on your part. If Daddy D’z fits into your travel plans, you should give it a try and let me know your verdict.

Daddy D’z gets $$ on the price scale.

Online: 264 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta, Ga.