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Thursday, May 26, 2005 06:40 am

appetite 5-26-05

Collard greens, a descendant of the cabbage family, are a Low Country staple

I just returned from a vacation to South Carolina, a lush land of beaches, antebellum homes, and Low Country cooking.

The term “Low Country” refers to the area just north of Georgetown, S.C., which continues to the Florida border and encompasses the Sea Islands, low flat areas (“low country”) surrounded by water, east of the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. The area includes Beaufort, Charleston, Hilton Head, St. Helena, Savannah, Sapelo Island, and Cumberland Island.

Because the bounty of local seafood, fresh fruit, and vegetables is the inspiration for many menus, I dined on crab and shrimp prepared in all ways, from legs and cakes to soups and salads. But it’s the Low Country dishes I will always remember.

South Carolina cooks serve foods that have their genesis in the cuisine of the state’s earliest settlers: collard greens, cornbread, sweet potatoes, barbecue, okra, peanuts, and peaches. I tried them all (but I still don’t understand the affection for boiled peanuts, which are too salty, in my opinion) and researched what gives these home-style Southern foods the title of Low Country cuisine.

The Palmetto State claims a rich heritage of food, boasting contributions from Native Americans, Africans, and settlers from several countries. The Low Country style of cooking combines local Carolina ingredients with influences from England, France, Spain, and Barbados. One common ingredient in Low Country cooking is “butt fat” — hog fat — which is used to flavor many dishes, such as butter beans and okra.

During visits to Hilton Head and Savannah, I dined at The Lady and Sons restaurant, owned by Paula Deen, celebrity chef, cookbook author, and host of Paula’s Home Cookingon the Food Network; and at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster Bar on Wilmington Island near Savannah, a new restaurant co-owned by Deen and her brother, Earl W. “Bubba” Hiers Jr. At Uncle Bubba’s, the house specialty is oysters chargrilled over an oak fire.

I talked with Hiers at his restaurant and asked him to explain Low Country cooking. “It’s Southern-style cooking,” he says. “It’s not fancy. It’s everyday dishes.” Maybe so, but most of us don’t use butter, eggs, and hog fat in our typical meals. But, of course, that’s what made everything at both restaurants taste so good.

At Deen’s restaurant, we sampled a buffet of sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, collard greens, tomato pie, squash casserole, mashed potatoes, seafood pasta, cornbread, johnnycakes, and peach cobbler. Each dish was an explosion of flavor and could have been a meal in itself. Even the collard greens had an interesting, fresh taste. At Uncle Bubba’s, we tried crab-cake sandwiches. It was all delicious but certainly not low-fat, a fact I pointed out to Hiers.

Echoing a comment he and Deen have each made many times on Deen’s television show, Hiers defended the calorie-laden cuisine: “We’re your cook — we ain’t your doctor.”

Southern flavor

Try bringing a taste of Low Country cooking to your kitchen by
preparing these recipes.

Squash Casserole
(served at The Lady and Sons restaurant)

2 cups cooked, mashed yellow squash
2 cups Ritz cracker crumbs
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup shredded cheese (e.g., Cheddar or Swiss)
1 cup onion, chopped
Two eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
Pinch of sugar
6 tablespoons butter

Place squash in a large bowl. Add the next four ingredients and stir well. Stir in remaining ingredients and pour mixture into a greased 1-quart casserole. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.

— Courtesy of the Low Country Delightscookbook, by Maxine Pinson and Malyssa Pinson.

Savanna Red Rice

Two medium onions, diced
Two medium green peppers, diced
Bacon drippings
2 cups cooked rice
Six to eight tomatoes, peeled, chopped, and cooked
1 cup tomato sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
4 strips bacon, fried crisp and crumbled
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Brown the first two ingredients in the drippings. In a large mixing bowl, combine onions and peppers with the next five ingredients. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Pour mixture into a greased casserole dish and sprinkle with cheese. Bake for 30 minutes or until rice is dry enough to separate. (You may add a pound of cooked shrimp, ground beef, or ham for a classic Low Country one-dish meal.)

— Courtesy of Mrs. Wilke’s Boarding House restaurant, Savannah, Ga.

Who’s the best?

Think you have the best chili in town? Put it to the test.

The Sangamon County Fair Chili Cookoff is looking for entries. The event, sanctioned by the International Chili Society, will be held June 18 at the county fairgrounds in New Berlin. Winners will be chosen in red chili, chili verde, and salsa categories.

First-place winners in the three categories will represent Sangamon County later this year in the 2005 world championship.

For more information, call event chairman Bob Hall at 217-824-8343.

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