Sunday, June 20, 2010

Foxfire Ranch

With the mercury edging precariously close to 100 degrees, and the humidity at a level that I consider thick, I admit that I was flat-out dreading Mark's outdoor gig last Sunday night. Fortunately my curiosity about Foxfire Ranch
motivated me to put my piles of curly hair up on top of my head and don the obligatory cool sundress to trek north on highway 7, a little past Betty Davis BBQ, to the ranch. The drive was scenic and I was already starting to feel a good vibe when I saw hand painted signs directing me in off the main roads to the ranch, which sits on a vast property of rolling hills, dotted with cattle and horses. I turned into the ranch, down the driveway, past a picture-perfect house and out towards an extraordinary barn-type structure. Cost of entry was $10 to see the band. I am not sure if it was the refreshing thunderstorm that I drove through or the well architected and ventilated framework, but upon exiting my air conditioned car and entering the open air building, I found it downright pleasant. The building is massive with a high pitched roof and three open sides, providing views of the pasture land.I no sooner had entered the building, awed by the space, when Miss Annie, the host and owner, hollered a welcome at me and gave me a big hug; mind you I have never met her before tonight. That vibe was just getting stronger. She danced around behind the counter, intent on fixing me a plate of BBQ that judging from the size of the smokers, could feed the Rebel football team. The smell was intoxicating, at least to this meat lover! A few minutes later she delivered my plate, asking if I wanted cornbread for my greens. Of course, I answered...although I had no idea how those 2 things went together; I thought maybe I could cut the cornbread in half and sandwich the greens between...Regardless with a cold Bud Light in hand (since the ranch is over the county line they can sell beer on Sundays) (For my yankee friends, I will at some point attempt to explain some of the local alcohol laws, but for immediate purposes, know that you cannot buy alcohol anywhere even in restaurants on Sundays in my county. I won't say that is the reason for my drive out to Foxfire, but it certainly didn't hurt the cause.), I found a seat on one of the 20 or so picnic tables and assessed my plate. It appeared to be your standard issue BBQ with one exception... spaghetti. I was fascinated. If you have read any of my earlier posts, you will know that Mark is an Italian pasta snob, but to me, this type of spaghetti is pure comfort food. It is reminiscent of church fund raisers. Smothered in a sweet sauce and full of ground hamburg, it clearly would not win any bolognese contests, but yet I devoured it, enjoying every bite. After a while it hit me that the flavor was very much like my Mom's beloved American Chop Suey. As you might suspect, Mark passed on the spaghetti, and shook his head at my enjoyment of it, muttering "met" under his breath. The beans were sweet and laden with sausage and the BBQ pork was tender and lightly sauced so you could taste the flavor of the meat. I ate my greens and cornbread separately and it was not until later when my friend Steve, eating next to me, held up his cornbread and exclaimed two simple words, "Pot Licker" as if professing a brilliant invention, that I finalized realized the tie between the corn bread and the greens; I was supposed to sop up the tasty juices from the greens with the cornbread.

The band went on at 5pm, set up on a stage at one end, framed by the early evening blue sky. The crowd which was wonderfully eclectic, consisted of local hill country blues-loving folks and a healthy contingent of college aged, Frisbee playing, cooler carrying types. Miss Annie encouraged people onto the dance floor for much of the night and at one point, a patron's dog, reluctant to leave his owner, joined in the fun.

To me, Sunday nights in the summer are special. The nights are long. The heat is high. We are forced to slow down, enjoy our friends and family and eat good food. Time seems to be on a different schedule out at Foxfire, one that encourages us to enjoy life, to laugh and to dance, while it matters. I promise you this, the BBQ, the music, Miss Annie and most importantly the vibe, are all worth dragging a group of your friends out to Foxfire Ranch for a Sunday night treat.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

City Grocery and 208 in Oxford, MS

The rules are clear, you are not a real southerner unless you are born here and even then it can be questionable unless your kin were also born here. Knowing these rules, I still could not help but feel like a southerner when I arrived at my work cocktail party at the City Grocery upstairs bar, in my blue and white seersucker jacket. My friends squealed with delight at my adoption of such a southern fashion, despite the fact that I continued to tell them I have owned the jacket since my New Hamphshire days. The party was great and I basked in the southern glow for quite sometime. At one point I made my way to the beautifully appointed hors d'oeuvres table where my friend Liz, who like me is no salad picking eater, was enthusiastically enjoying a pimento cheese sandwich. Having just read an article in Garden and Gun Magazine about the tradition of pimento cheese, which much like deviled eggs and potato salad, everyone has their own rendition and all claim their mama's is the best, I strolled up and asked Liz how she liked the "Pih-Men-Toh (Long "O") Cheez" sandwich. Liz immediately groaned, as did everyone around us, and proclaimed that she was taking back my southern rights. For those of you Yankees reading this, she went on to explain that it is "Pih-Mentah Chee-uz" or something like that. So much for all that southern glow. Prior to living in Mississippi, I had never heard of Pimento Cheese, but recently I have come to appreciate this southern dish, made generally with shredded cheddar and monterey jack cheese, mayonnaise, pimentos and then your favorite secret ingredient which may range from cream cheese to onion and garlic. Typically it is served on crackers as an appetizer or in a sandwich. I have been on a bit of a binge recently and had an amazing version at The Main Attraction in Water Valley, MS on a croissant and at Big Bad Breakfast as an add-on to my egg and andouille breakfast sandwich (pictured).

Following the party at City Grocery, a group of us walked around the corner to 208 for a late dinner. We were fortunate to land a table in the packed dining room and settled in with a great zinfandel. Our table was near the somewhat open kitchen and a few minutes into our stay, I waved hello to my good friend and chef, John. John has been with 208 for a few months now and in looking a the menu, he has done a wonderful job of respecting the restaurant's integrity while adding his own signature items. Our favorite Oxford waitress, Erica, quickly arrived with an unnecessary, but completely appreciated amuse-bouche from the chef and this is where I will begin to publicly profess my adoration for John. If you have read any of my previous blogs, you will know that I have a thing for liver. Perhaps it was my mom's delicious chicken livers and onions she made in the electric fry pan growing up, or the foie gras that Mark introduced me to for the first time in San Francisco at Farallon Restaurant. Regardless of the origin, I am a glutton for liver in all of its forms and proceeded to dive into the salty, smooth, airy chicken liver pate on crostini, licking my fingers as I finished my share, praying it was not over. I am here to tell you that it is the best pate I have ever experienced and my only complaint is that it is not on the menu...yet. Also served were fresh anchovies, atop sauteed spinach and onions. I kept referring to the delicious little fish incorrectly as sardines as I have previously only seen the cured version and this was a fantastic new treat.

I hesitated when ordering as I really wanted the locally raised quail, but also was draw
n to the fresh sounding fish special, served in a putanesca sauce (fitting since this dish was known in Italy as harlot's pasta as women of the night placed the dish in their windows to attract customers). Solving the problem, our waitress suggested an appetizer serving of the quail followed by the fish for my meal. The quail was seasoned, seared stovetop and finished in the oven creating a crispy and juicy bird. I made the mistake of offering to share my dish, but despite doling out leg quarters to my friends, I still found a good deal of meat on the little fowl. The quail was served on a bed of locally grown patty pan squash, which were served al dente and benefited from the salty juices of the quail.

The putanesca sauce was very fresh and included plenty of tomatoes, the lamb looked beautiful (pictured), but by far, the winner of the night was the pasta bolognese (pictured). Doug and Jane appreciate a good bolognese and I could almost sense this was a quest to find a great local version.
Despite the fact that Oxford, Mississippi is home to a 2010 James Beard winning chef, where culinary delights reign, good Italian f
are is difficult to find, that is, since L&M closed over two years ago. I never made it to L&M as it closed before I moved here, but I know the legend. People refer to it almost in whispers and then proceed to shake their heads in disbelief that such a culinary institution is gone. It reminds me of how people in Portsmouth, New Hamphshire refer to the famed Blue Strawberry Restaurant. Both Doug and Jane dig into their meals and in somewhat shocked voices, ooh and ahhh over the dish. They compare notes. They eat some more. They make the rest of the table taste the bolognese and then in a moment of sheer delight, Doug raises his fork and loudly declares that this is the best bolognese he has had since L&M and equally good if not better than a version he had at Mario Batali's restaurant. I giggle and give him a moment to settle down before I fill him in on the secret...John Stokes was a chef at L&M and he is back, now as the head chef here at 208!

Unfortunately Mark was unable to join me for these eating experiences as he had a gig at Proud Larry's with Kenny Brown. He looked amazing on-stage. Recently he lost some weight, which is not easy to do here in Oxford and he proudly announced that his treat for losing more weight will be a pair of seersucker jeans. I kid you not.

208 Oxford on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Yocona in Exile, Abbeville, MS

Combine the beauty of a brown-bag restaurant with a filet that cuts like butter, add a balsamic, molasses, butter reduction to the steak and you have a perfect night at Yocona in Exile. The new establishment has been fittingly renamed due to its relocation following a devastating fire that destroyed the original structure. The village of Abbeville was actually hit last month with a tragically powerful tornado, and as we drive to the restaurant to meet friends, we pass nature's destruction and are reminded of our blessings in life. Known for its steak, I recently had the opportunity to visit Yocona with a semi-vegetarian and finally had the chance to see a dish other than the filet.

I started with the lettuce soup, "a light vegetarian soup of sweet onions, arugula & romaine, finished with a coriander cream." A slightly bitter, creamy soup arrived, very different than what I expected, yet interesting. As usual I ordered the filet, cooked rare, and substituted a baked sweet potato, alongside sugar snap peas. The steak was cooked to perfection or should I say, hardly cooked to perfection and topped with their famous sauce. Despite my efforts to replicate this reduction, I have never been able to recreate the balsamic, butter and molasses concoction. Chef Rob, also the Thacker Mountain Radio sound engineer, nailed the salted pepper crust on the filet. The herbed butter, which topped the sweet potato, would make anything taste better and can easily be eaten straight-up (trust me)!

Randy, my friend visiting from Oregon, ordered a Penne dish. The pasta was "tossed with a sauce of green tomatoes & crushed red pepper, finished with fresh basil & parmesan." The green tomatoes were a nice tart change from your typical red sauce and while native to the south, I have not experienced them in any way other than fried, until now. Randy enjoyed the sauce so much that he thought it could use a larger "sauce-to-penne ratio." The Vorhies supplied the Rombauer Zinfandel, which accompanied the steak with its bold, fruity notes and became my new favorite zin.

This sparked an amusing, yet mystifying discussion about pasta, often heard around the dinner table at Mark's Italian house-hold in Providence, Rhode Island. Apparently, his family, particularly his niece Elise, feel very strongly that the shape of a pasta dictates how a dish tastes. In fact for them there is even a pasta hierarchy. They fondly refer to us anglo-saxon Americans as "Met" short for "Meticano" as in "it is so "met" to eat bow-tie salad." Bow-ties seem to be at the very bottom of the list followed by angel hair, elbows and spaghetti and any other shapes not native to Italy, like the wagon wheel and radiators. Ziti "rigate", which means "with lines" is tolerable, but without lines, is not good. Penne rigate is on their righteous list, which makes me question the validity of the whole hierarchy; isn't the difference between ziti and penne simply the the angle on which they are cut?

We finished the meal with two slices of key-lime pie for the table. The tangy, sweet pie was served in a moist graham cracker crust and although it hit all the right notes, it was almost overshadowed by the coffee. While I know that decaf coffee should be illegal because of the toxic process of removing the caffeine and because by ordering it at night I become one of those boring grown-ups who will proceed to tell you how they cannot tolerate caffeine after 4pm, I ordered anyhow. This decaf, however was sexy. Served table-side in a french press, it was full-bodied and layered reminding me of how this simple technology still reigns in the coffee maker kingdom.