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.

Crispy Down-Home Fried Chicken

When Matthew said he wanted to make fried chicken inspired by Winston-Salem restaurant Sweet Potatoes‘ original recipe, my head starting filling with my own visions of what fried chicken means for a southern kitchen. My mom never made fried chicken, at least not the kind that actually comes with a bone inside it. So my frame of reference for fried chicken was limited to fast-food experiences (Bojangles, KFC, Popeye’s) and what I read in books. Yes, books. In my imagination, fried chicken is the kind Minny Jackson teaches Celia Foote how to make in “The Help” – the kind soaked overnight in buttermilk, seasoned with simple ingredients, then fried in a huge vat full of Crisco, which, as Minny points out, is just as vital for a southern cook as our mayonnaise.

Sweet Potatoes’ recipe follows much the same pattern. We used chicken legs and soaked them for at least 6 hours in the buttermilk mixture. Then, we “dredged” the chicken in a flour mixture and popped it in the pan, which was full of hot oil. When our chicken was finally done frying (we used a meat thermometer to be sure), we sure did enjoy it with our homemade biscuits, seasoned green beans, and a sweet potato hash Matthew came up with on the spur of the moment. It was a feast worthy of any southern kitchen, and it certainly lived up to the best of my imagination.

Here’s the recipe we used, which we tweaked for our own tastes. Feel free to change as needed, add your own sides, and enjoy!

Ingredients:

1 1/2 lbs. chicken

Oil for frying

(Buttermilk mixture)

1/2 quart buttermilk

1 tbsp. salt

1/2 tsp. garlic salt

1/2 tsp. thyme

1/2 tbsp. pepper

 

(Flour mixture)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tbsp. cornstarch

Directions:

1. Combine buttermilk, salt, garlic, thyme and pepper. Add the chicken. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

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2. Heat the oil (about 1 inch deep) on medium-high in a large cast-iron pan.

3. Combine flour and cornstarch in a bowl. (The original recipe called for adding a tablespoon of chicken or seafood seasoning to the flour mixture. We didn’t, so it’s optional.)

4. Dredge the chicken in the flour+cornstarch mixture and coat it thoroughly.

5. Add the chicken to the pan and brown on one side for 10 minutes.

6. Turn the chicken over and keep frying until it is done, turning when necessary. Chicken is done when a thermometer (in the thickest part) reads 165 degrees.

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7. Remove from the pan and place the chicken on a plate covered with paper towels or another material for removing some of the grease. Serve and enjoy!

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Matthew’s take: Just watch chef Stephanie Tyson fry chicken and talk about her method. I believe your mouth will be watering afterward, just like mine was (unless you don’t like chicken altogether). This fried chicken was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside when we enjoyed it fresh from the pan. When I took a couple of pieces to work for lunch a couple of days later, I was amazed that it was even more flavorful and even better. The buttermilk soak makes all the difference in the flavor. The time you fry and the rotation of the chicken as it cooks inside and fries outside is the key to getting a combination of a nice, golden brown colorful appearance and the delicious taste of meaty chicken on the inside. I would recommend this recipe against any fried chicken prescription out there. Knowing the story of the chef who passed down the recipe certainly makes a difference as well. (And so does the memory of eating in her delightfully Southern, North Carolina restaurant.)

Molly’s take: This chicken, as I said, lived up to my expectations. Soaking it in the buttermilk really makes the meat tender and flavorful. It is perfect when prepared and cooked this way. The frying took longer than I imagined, but I didn’t have enough oil in the pan and my burner was on too low. So that’s why I suggest turning it up to medium-high heat and frying in at least an inch of oil. Once it was done, it was delicious! Crispy outer covering with a tender, juicy inside. We can’t wait to try it again!

 

Foodie Travels: Sweet Potatoes, Winston-Salem, N.C.

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When a line forms at a restaurant’s doors before it opens, that’s a good sign. When an artist asks if he can photograph your food for a series he’s doing for the restaurant’s wall decor, that’s another good sign. When your waitress advises you how you can work the menu to get the best sampling to please your tastebuds, that’s ultimately a good sign.

Prior to a recent quick weekend trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., Molly discovered this restaurant with a food name and a tempting menu full of Southern delights. Let me be the one to tell you that everything we read and saw and dreamed of in regards to this place came true. Sweet Potatoes is the stuff of legend in this northwestern corner of North Carolina’s Triad region, about two hours from Charlotte. The first indicator of that fame? The place was full within 15 minutes of opening when we experienced our first brunch during our recent visit.

After being the first ones through the door, we were seated by the corner window with the accompaniment of a pleasing playlist of jazz flowing through the air. Sweet Potatoes has a story behind its name, and the food by that same name is the inspiration behind many of the dishes on the menu. Following a very hospitable consultation with our suggestive but not insistent menu expert (waitress), Molly and I both settled on sweet potato-inclusive main courses. She had the “Un-French” Toast with a sweet potato base and a delicious strawberry sauce, and I had the Chicken and Sweet Potato Pancakes, a glorious local take on the Southern favorite, Chicken and Waffles.

That left us wondering about several other almost-chosen menu items, including a Three-Cheese Macaroni and Country Ham Souffle. No problem. Our waitress suggested the modestly priced savory dish as an appetizer to share, and that’s just what we did. The creaminess of the macaroni and cheese was boosted by the high-flavor taste of the ham, and it was one of the most tasty opening dishes I’ve experienced in all my foodie travels. And it was just enough to be an opening course.

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On to the main dishes. Molly’s “Un-French” Toast had a deep sweet potato flavor and gooey interior, countered by a slightly crispy outer crust, and supplemented by a surprisingly but perfectly paired taste of strawberries and their juices.

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My pancakes were light, fluffy and had the spice and sweet of a piece of sweet potato pie, while the fried chicken tenders (read more about the chef’s delicious chicken coating here) had the best seasoning taste I believe either of us have ever had in a fried piece of chicken.

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Along with the delicious Southern culinary experience, there’s an artsy feel on all sides and senses at Sweet Potatoes. Combined with the jazz, your eyes get a sample of local art and photos from the nearby performing arts scene. Both are ideal fits for a restaurant that sits in the heart of Winston-Salem’s Trade Street art district.

During our brunch, a number of folks continued to wait outside, hoping for a seat. Some ultimately went elsewhere, while others stayed put, obviously knowing the delayed entry would be worth the wait. I was quite possibly as excited about trying this restaurant as any I’ve ever scouted online. And it was every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

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A few final tips for your visit: Arrive early. Arrive hungry. Put down your phone while you’re there. This is one of those places that every one of your senses must experience in full effect.

 

Sweet Potatoes

529 North Trade Street, Winston-Salem, N.C.

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Foodie Travels: Bantam Chef, Chesnee, SC

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Back in June, we decided to take a Gaffney/Chesnee foodie adventure. Part of my side of the family is from Union, South Carolina, so I’ve spent some time in the area traveling through. We found a restaurant decorated in 1950s memorabilia – an Elvis Presley mannequin, a 1950 Studebaker, tons of model cars, license plates, and classic black and white tile floors. It’s called the Bantam Chef and its burgers and offerings are well known in the area.

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I had heard of it because the owner’s brother owns a second Bantam Chef in Union, where my grandparents and dad used to eat when he was younger. They usually got food to go. I had never been to either restaurant location. So for me, it was a bit of a homage to my grandparents’ love for the hometown establishment.

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Matthew tried the Studebaker Cheeseburger and I tried a regular cheeseburger. And their fries were to die for! Here’s Matthew’s review of the burger at Bantam Chef. 🙂

Molly’s Three-Ingredient Homemade Biscuits

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Matthew’s grandma Quinn made delicious homemade biscuits. He can remember her spending long periods of time before meals mixing the ingredients by hand, cutting out the biscuits and baking them in the oven. Her biscuits were small, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Homemade biscuits, like many other treats, do not exist in today’s kitchen.

Many people just aren’t interested in taking the time to make things like biscuits. They’d rather stop at the local fast food chicken joint and grab a box to go with dinner.

Not so at our house. Molly makes delicious biscuits that rival what you’d find at a Cracker Barrel or your favorite country restaurant. And they’re not THAT difficult to make. They don’t take that long to bake either.

Molly’s side of the family and my side of the family both have a history of cooking and baking. If your family does, too, or if you’d like to add a simple homemade touch to breakfast or dinner, try out this recipe.

Ingredients

2 cups self-rising flour

1/2 cup shortening

3/4 cup milk (some people use buttermilk; we prefer regular)

Step one:

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees, and blend your flour and shortening with two forks, with your bare hands or, the easiest route, in an electric stand mixer.

Step two:

Stir/blend in your milk.

Step three:

Form your biscuits and place on an ungreased pan.

Step four:

Bake for 10 minutes, or until golden brown.

Yield: Makes 9 average-sized biscuits.

Matthew’s Take: I love homemade biscuits, and I can eat them with any meal with many accompaniments. They’re delicious at breakfast with jelly on them. They’re delicious with lunch, or dinner with a meat and veggies meal. They’re delicious for dessert with an apple butter, a jelly, or even with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce on top. Molly’s biscuits are as good as any homemade biscuits I’ve ever eaten. They’re soft throughout, without being doughy inside or out. I look forward to the times when she makes these biscuits because I know they’re not the hardest thing to make and they are so versatile. They get an A+ for taste, an A+ for cost because the ingredients aren’t expensive and last for a while if you don’t make biscuits every day, and they get an A for presentation because what Southerner doesn’t get excited about a homemade biscuit?

Molly’s Take: I made these biscuits for a long time before I realized that the recipe should yield 9 regular-sized biscuits. I used to make six biscuits out of this one recipe! But you can (and should) make 9-10. This is my favorite way to make biscuits, because it’s simple, they cook into a beautiful golden brown color, and they taste like home. There’s just something better about a homemade biscuit. The other great thing about these is that they really are cheap to make. One bag of self-rising flour, a huge can of shortening and a gallon of milk (all purchased at your local Aldi, of course) will last you for a while, through many rounds of biscuit-making, and won’t cost that much. This is my best recipe for biscuits. And I’m sharing it with you!

The Slug Burger: A Mississippi Tradition

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Two cheeseburger cookbooks sit on the counter in our kitchen, each with a slew of burger recipes. Recently, we found a section on burgers from different states. We zeroed in on Mississippi, fascinated by the name “slugburger.” One reason we were so interested is that slugburgers have ties to the Depression-era practice of stretching out meat by adding in other ingredients. That reminded Molly of her grandmother, Loma “Banny” Watts, who used to make what she called “breadie burgers,” a combination of burger, egg and bread. Born in 1910, Banny grew up in that time period in Alabama.

So we decided to try out the slugburger from nearby Mississippi. Here’s our recipe! Hope you enjoy.

Ingredients

1 pound ground meat (we used ground turkey)

1/2 cup cornmeal (you can also use soy meal, grits or another filler)

Flour to coat burgers

Salt

Vegetable oil

Desired burger toppings

Sandwich buns

Step one:

Thoroughly mix meat with cornmeal or other filler substance and a pinch of salt.

MEAT

Step two:

Patty out burgers and coat with flour for frying.

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Step three:

Place burgers in the pan and fry until meat is brown and crispy on the outside. Because of the consistency, the meat will still be softer on the inside when done.

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Step four:

Drain grease from burgers, place on buns and top with onions, pickles and mustard.

The original slugburgers included those toppings, but you can modify the recipe to fit your taste.

ONIONS

Recipe yields about 8 slugburgers.

Matthew’s Take: The slugburger’s connection to our family and the Depression era made it an attractive recipe from the start for me. My grandpa Lee worked in a local diner owned by Windy Powell as a young man, and I imagine they employed some of the same tactics to get the most food out of the cheapest amount of ingredients. When we found this recipe, I searched the Internet for specific takes on it and found what appeared to be the most authentic version in Corinth, Miss. After making the slugburger, I was amazed at how similar it is to a livermush sandwich, a delicacy in the county where we live. Livermush is a meat-cornmeal mixture that crisps as it fries. The resemblance of the two concoctions is striking. I give the slugburger an A for taste and an A for price. But I give it a C for presentation because, let’s face it, fried meat isn’t pretty, even when topped with onions and colorful green pickles.

Molly’s Take: The slugburger reminded me of a livermush sandwich, too, most notably because of its consistency. It’s a very different kind of burger, because it’s flatter and crispier than a typical burger. But I loved that combination on a soft bun with mustard, pickle and onion. Those ingredients seemed to just fit. I’d definitely love for us to make it again, although Banny’s original recipe for breadie burgers (which we hope to post soon!) is still my favorite alternative burger. Making something like this in the same way people did almost a hundred years ago was awesome, because we weren’t just making a burger; we were making a connection to history and those people who had to work so hard to live. We’re blessed today that getting a burger is as easy as going to McDonald’s. I can’t imagine it being so difficult to find meat that you had to stretch it out with other things you had at home. So I loved trying out this burger, because traditions like this, and the history behind them, ought to be remembered. And in the South, food is definitely one of our biggest traditions.

Check out this video for more on the slugburger and its history.

Trail of the Slugburger from Southern Foodways on Vimeo.