Dan and Stephen, our hosts (Penguins on t.v. in background)
Monday: Escarole and Sausage Soup, Toasted Baguette
Tuesday: Turkish-Spice Chicken with Hot Green Relish, Radishes Poached in Chicken Stock and Butter, Pita, cucumber,lettuce
Wednesday: Spinach-Bacon Frittata, Slow-cooked Zucchini with Tarragon
Thursday: Princeton Reunion, NYC
Tom and Cecily’s Place, Dewees Island. L-R: Tom, Janet, Mauri, Bill, Larry, Lezlie, Cecily, Drew, Janet
Friday: Dinner at Tom and Cicely Pettus’ home on Dewee’s Island, SC
Saturday: Brunch at Sweetwater Café
Dinner at Husk
Sunday: Brunch at Sweetwater Café, Dinner at Eli’s Table
Monday: Brunch at 83 Queen
Dinner, drinks, Penguins at Henry’s Bar and Restaurant
Tuesday: Brunch at Sweetwater Café
We ended Sunday night with another drink at the hotel bar. Supererogatory is not a strong enough word for that last drink. It was a bridge too far, the last straw, and the tenth life of a cat all rolled into one. But the day before that last drink and the two days before that were some of the finest I have spent on this planet. And, hey, I’m alive to write about it – so why complain?
[This post is an abbreviated recounting of a week in my very fortunate life. It is also, perforce, a travelogue, since I was in New York City and then Charleston, SC. And it contains more notes on travel and friendship and music and gardens and nature than it does comments on food. I will share two favorite dishes (at the very bottom of the post), fit for recuperating from our week of travel and gourmandizing (or, you may add, from reading this elongated post): a simple omelet and our own spinach scumble – a noble accompaniment to eggs with an ignoble name.
I’ve broken the post up into three sections – New York City, Dewees Island, and Charleston, SC, the three places we visited last week. If you are planning a trip to any of them, please consider taking me along.
New York City
Roomates, 10 Patton: Dan, Chris and Bill
Twenty or so years ago, when our wives, weary at the prospect of another 2 or 3 days on campus at a Princeton reunion rebelled, we convened a reunion dinner in New York with our closest classmates. Because of my friendship with Chris – which started at Camp Rosary when we were 12 and continued at Central Catholic and then Princeton and steadily through our adult lives, we have had the privilege of flying to New York and other places via private jet, from time to time. The pleasure, measured against the longeurs and inconvenience of commercial air travel, never pales. So on Thursday, Chris, Ann and I (without Beez who was tied up with work) flew to Teterboro Airport, from whence we were taken by Harry, the semi-pro soccer star and limo driver, to The West Palm Restaurant to meet with our old room-mates and class-mates from Princeton.
As I have mentioned, I am a lucky fellow in many ways and one is that Dan, Chris’s and my former room-mate, is a gourmand. Dan, whose portrait, along with that of his son, Stephen, is to the right of the front entrance at The Palm West, just below Matt Damon’s, is a much-loved and frequent patron of that fine establishment. Dan had purchased several bottles of a superior Riesling and the wine merchant explained that if “you are not going to drink it by itself, you might consider serving it with roast chicken in an earthy mushroom sauce”. So the chef at The Palm cooked two superb chickens with morels for the dinner, which began with several shellfish platters, some cocktails, various and voluminous reminiscences, copious laughter and then the wonderful (truly addictive) wine, chicken, steaks, salmon, etc. We finished with tasty churros which young Stephen had thoughtfully purchased from a restaurant across the street and with which he surprised us at dinner’s end.
It was a beautiful, sentimental, satisfying night, and Anne and Chris and I flew home to Pittsburgh. Chris to return to work the next day, Anne to prepare for a trip to visit her children and grandchildren in London, and I to rise very early for a trip to Charleston, South Carolina and the Spoleto festival, with our close friends, Lindsey and Mauri. (And their wonderful friend, Janet , and relatives Lezlie and husband Larry – and, when her scheduled allowed, Larry and Lezlie’s daughter, Amanda. We were a good mix. Janet, Mauri and Barbara were clearly in charge, and Janet laughs at Lindsey’s and Bill’s jokes, which makes them happy. Larry’s given name is Lafayette – after the General – and he has more than a touch of the late 18th and early 19th centuries about him, in his speech habits, his need to fill in the details and sketch the horizons and broad vistas of subjects historic, architectural and military, and his eclectic, near-encyclopaedic knowledge of, well, you name it. He is usefully edited and taken with a grain of salt by Leslie and Amanda.
View from Tom and Cecily’s Porch across marsh to Atlantic
We drove from Charleston to the Isle of Palms to catch the ferry to Dewees Island where Tom (another Princeton classmate) and Cecily have a place on this pristine jungle, home to a hundred families, a couple thousand egrets, herons and other birds, a few alligators and views of marshland and the Atlantic shore that most people never get to see outside the pages of National Geographic. There are no cars or commercial establishments on Dewees. Cecily is committed to living simply and keeping the environment as clean and natural as possible. And Tom is committed to Cecily. And I am jealous of the whole set-up.
After a fairly serious ride by golf cart (5 par 5s, I would estimate) to their beautiful home, we all caught up over drinks and then Tom and Cecily served us barbecued ribs, coleslaw and key lime pie. The sauce for the ribs was a vinegary tomato sauce which cut through the moist, sticky denseness of the pig, and may have changed my approach to ribs forever. The slaw was a mustardy, vinegary concoction, with green pickle relish mixed in –another good foil for the ribs. The dinner was simple and delicious – a perfect complement to this bit of paradise where Tom and Cecily have staked a wise claim.
I was struck by how fortunate we all are – though it is true, of course, that much study and hard work have gone into getting there – Tom is a gerontologist and Cecily a corporate counsel.
Charleston and the Spoleto Festival
Charleston, Private Garden
It is possible but not, I think, wise, to give you all the details of our Charleston vacation. Here are some highlights, beginning with the city itself.
Charleston is a city of gardens – gardens behind slant-topped brick walls, gardens behind ornate, wrought-iron fences, gardens glimpsed, or sometimes only sensed, down long driveways or through narrow, fenced walkways running along the sides of homes and, above all, gardens extensive, beautifully laid-out and tended and made for walking, reading, napping, dining, and living in. I have seen nothing like the gardens of Charleston, in their ubiquity, anywhere else in the world. And, for that matter, I have seen nothing more beautiful than this charming city of handsome low-slung buildings of brick, wooden frame, stone and stucco in pastel and natural shades, with the lush, colorful flora that a nearly year-long growing season blesses it with.
Another Private Garden
The Spoleto Festival itself is a celebration of music, dance, drama, cinema, gardens (we took a tour), architecture, etc. at venues spread around the city. We could sample only a few events, but Mauri and Janet chose wisely and we were introduced to The St. Lawrence String Quartet and their witty leader and athletic violinist, Jeff Nutall. They led a chamber music concert that featured a natural countertenor, Anthony Roth-Costanzo (another Princeton grad) whose unearthly voice and dramatic presentation nailed two Handel pieces. The concert concluded with a rabidly romantic piece by Cesar Frank played with dyspeptic grimaces by the pianist and mad movements of violin bows. The music literally pulled Nutall off his chair and onto his feet. We saw a wonderful piece by The Manual Theater of Chicago, a strange comic opera, jazz by The Bohemian Trio and heard a glorious concert by the powerfully-voiced Rene Marie. (I would travel anywhere to see Roth-Costanzo and Rene Marie – two of the great voices on the planet)
Oh – and we stayed at a beautiful hotel – The Belmond – and we ate excellent food and drank excellent drink and laughed until we cried. Here are some of the restaurants we would recommend
Sweetwater Café – 137 Market Street. This joint is open for breakfast and lunch and we could stumble to it out the back entrance of the Belmond. I’d stick with scrambled or fried or poached eggs. The chefs have a unique method of cooking an omelet which will, one prays, go to the grave with them. The grits are good, served very hot and with a hint of crust on the surface. The water is good and that, if you’ve been drinking the night before (and fasting for Mass), is perhaps the most important thing in a breakfast spot. Remember – it’s the whole experience, dummy, not just the food. Our waiter on Sunday spoke of being “on the town last night, like a 20 year old,” and he looked it and that reminded me of the Pontalbo Café in New Orleans, with its ex-cons, drug addicts and various deviants who serve forth their good food with the sympathy of fellow revelers nursing a solid hangover.
Enough, you might say, for one trip. No person deserves more pleasure. But, deserved or not, we had the great fortune of dining at Husk, one of the original farm-to-table restaurants and one of the best. Husk (76 Queen Street, is housed in an elegant, wooden-framed structure, with impossibly high ceilings and windows. I had roasted oysters and then a perfectly cooked chicken with a sauce that was Southern and just a bit too sweet for me (though I ate it all). But I also got to sample a wonderful red snapper, a tasty fried catfish, and a meaty wreckfish.
After the Rene Marie concert, we dined at Eli’s Table (129 Meeting Street)– a fine meal with raucous humor and good friends. The best dish I tasted was the Fried Green Tomato Napoleon, which had a tangy dried tomato sauce accompaniment. My own appetizer of Figs and Prosciutto Crostini was good but, as many Southern dishes are, a tad sweet for my taste. I also had some Charleston ‘Red Rice Risotto,’ which was not risotto at all but a very tasty, tomato-sauced and spicy boiled rice – like the “Spanish Rice” my mother served when we were kids, but even better. It ranked just behind the Napoleon as the dish of the day. We ended the night with that more than supererogatory drink at the hotel bar.
Our gang – minus Amanda – at Henry’s
Speaking of drinks – the hotel bar at the Belmond is a nice, and busy watering hole and Henry’s Bar and Restaurant (54 N. Market) is a fine place to drink and eat and watch the Penguins take the Sharks in game 1.
College of Charleston
We visited other joints, walked across the beautiful campus of the College of Charleston and . . . well, between us, I’d plan to get to Charleston in the near future before it is wiped out by rising oceans or Walmart or urban planning.
Classic Omelet – French Style (Adapted from Jacques Pépin)
There are many ways to cook an omelet, with fillings in the egg, with fillings inserted into the eggs after they have begun to firm, flat or flipped over once, or rolled – but this is the best way. You will enjoy what the French have worked hard to achieve – the perfect taste of egg, moist, not burnt, speaking of sidewalk cafés and Paris. A confession: I’m not sure I’ve ever cooked this perfectly. But I’ve come close enough that Beez and I prefer this simple, elegant dish to the overstuffed-exploding pouches of scorched egg that pass for an omelet in most of this country.
3 large eggs, 1 tsp of salt, black pepper, 2 Tbs butter (this feeds one or two people)
Non-stick pan of about 10” diameter. (It is possible for a well-trained chef to cook an omelet on copper or perhaps even stainless without having it stick – but trust me, it is not possible for you.)
Crack the eggs and beat with the salt and pepper to thoroughly mix the yolks and the whites.
Warm a serving platter or plate in the oven.
After the platter is warmed, melt the butter in the pan over high heat* and swirl it to thoroughly coat the sides.
*If you have a super stove or a very high BTU burner, Medium-High will do, unless you are very skilled with a fork and pan – this baby is going to cook quickly.
When the butter foams, add the eggs and immediately begin to shake the pan with one hand and stir the eggs quickly with a fork held flat against the pan’s bottom with the other hand. Your goal is to scrape egg from the sides and bottom of the pan and break it up into small curds. In about 15 seconds, if your heat is at the right level, you will have just firm, pretty moist eggs and you will now tilt the pan by lifting it at the handle so that the loose eggs gather at the lower edge. You will also have a cooked film of egg covering the rest of the pan’s bottom. With the fork, loosen this film and fold it over, from the handle edge so that it partly covers the moist egg.
Now – brace yourself – thump the lower end of the handle lightly with your fork hand – this will push the omelet against the lower edge of the pan and it will begin to curl back on itself. With the fork, fold this lower edge tower the center of the omelet, completely covering the filling. You will now have a sort of oval shape with pointed ends.
Grab the warmed platter, bang the pan on a cutting board or other usable surface (you’re trying to loosen the omelet from the pan – cheat with the fork, if need be). Now reverse your grip on the handle so that you are able to invert the pan and turn the omelet out onto the platter with the smooth (non-seamed side) up. Dress it with herbs or mushrooms or, better yet, leave it plain with maybe some chopped parsley on top and serve it immediately.
EXTRA: Spinach – Tomato – Feta Scumble
This is perfect dish to serve alongside, or atop the omelet you’ve just cooked. We invented this dish one day to accompany a frittata which looked lonely. In the fridge we had spinach and feta and on the counter with had cherry tomatoes and shallots.
4 0r 5 0z. (about two handfuls) Cherry Tomatoes halved or quartered
1 or 2 Shallots minced
2 Tablespoons of butter
A bag of spinach for each person. (About 8 or 9 oz. for two)
Melt some butter in a skillet over medium and when hot add the tomatoes and shallots and cook until the red color begins to bleed into the pan and the shallots are soft. Now add the spinach and cook until it wilts, turning with tongs to mix with the tomatoes and shallots. Add the feta and turn to mix, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.