Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Great Way To Spend An Afternoon In Charleston

When one lives in "vacation land" it seems like there are always dates circled on the calendar that represent visits from friends and family. In fact, we planned for that reality when we moved to Charleston by searching for and purchasing a home with a guest room. We enjoy serving as hosts and planning agendas for our visitors, going so far as to even query them before their appointed time to make sure that we "customize" the itinerary to match their interests. Oh sure, we have our favorite activities and locations, but for the most part when you visit Hotel de' Hammond you get a customized vacation.

One attraction that always seems to receive consideration is the South Carolina Aquarium located on the Charleston Harbor. Not only is the location one of the most picturesque in the city residing in the shadow of the Cooper River Bridge and across the Harbor from the USS Yorktown but the aquarium is very well done, has something for everybody, is interactive and when the temperature and humidity soars, it is AIR CONDITIONED. What is remarkable though is that I never get tired of visiting the aquarium, actually every time that I visit I discover something new. In a way, I am like my grandfather. He lived in the mountains of West Virginia near the Cass Scenic Railroad and he never tired of taking house guests, grandchildren and company to Cass to "ride the train."

For you to understand the value of the attraction I have to elaborate on the design and flow of the exhibits. Your visit begins with a breathtaking view of the blue water of the Charleston Harbor and as you enter the Great Hall, you are provided with a very impressive first impression thanks to the two story windows overlooking the harbor and the 15,000 gallon circular Carolina Seas tank, home to colorful fish representative of those found living among the natural reefs found just off shore of Charleston.

From the Great Hall you embark on a journey that takes you from the Mountain Forests of the upstate of South Carolina, through the Piedmont areas, to the coastal marshes and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way you will enjoy a walk through spectacular rock formations and waterfalls carved out of the rocks where you will see river otters, birds, fresh water trout and snakes. As you progress towards the coast, you will enjoy the coastal plains and lowcountry habitat catching a glimpse of shore birds, crabs, and even an albino alligator in a swamp. Watch out while you are in the swamp though, a nasty simulated thunderstorm arrives periodically.

Next you glide into the salt marsh, in an exhibit designed to make you feel as if you are kayaking along on a coastal tidal creek. Of course you aren't the only one gliding in the salt marsh, you are joined by a tankful of stingrays. Who knows, you may even get the opportunity to feed the rays during your walk through. The salt marsh and coastal exhibits provide our visitors with a chance to see up close and personal the marine habitats of several species of seafood that they may be lucky enough to enjoy on the dinner table at some point during their visit to the Land of Palm Trees.

As exciting and rewarding as your tour has been up to this point, I have got to say, "you ain't seen nothin' yet." As you enter the Ocean Gallery you will have your breath taken away by the two-story 385,000 gallon saltwater tank serving as home to sharks, baracuda, loggerhead turtles, tuna, and dolphin as well as other fish species that reside among the reefs off the coast of Charleston. The massive two-story nature of the tank allows the exhibit to depict deep water reefs and also allows for visitors to view the tank from two different levels of the Ocean Gallery. Auditorium style risers and benches allow for you to sit and gaze as if you are under the sea in a glass submarine. Few experiences have the ability to calm my type A personality like twenty-minutes in the Ocean Gallery.

Of course the South Carolina Aquarium is more than meets the eye and in addition to being a tremendous tourist attraction the Aquarium is a leader within the Lowcountry community through their conservation efforts promoting and providing education, research and advocacy for a sustainable seafood initiative that has successfully partnered with area restaurants to promote the use of local seafood in a way that insures the sustainability of the precious natural resource. However, conservation efforts and initiatives are not the only way that the South Carolina Aquarium serves to protect the interests of the sea. The aquarium is home to a full service Sea Turtle Hospital, that works to nurse rescued sea turtles for their eventual release back into the depths of the ocean. You can even schedule tours of the state of the art hospital facility. If you are interested in learning more about the sea turtle hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium check out this link.

One day I plan to become a volunteer at the South Carolina Aquarium and provide some sort of repayment to the animals, fish and turtles that provide me with such a wonderful experience to share with our guests. Until then though, if you come to visit, chances are you will make it to the South Carolina Aquarium at some point during your visit.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Husk: The New Standard In Southern Cuisine

I've been sitting on this piece for nearly two-months, thinking, planning, conceptualizing only to cast it aside and start over again. I didn't want to just do another foodie blogger type review of my visit to Husk. Instead, I really wanted to come up with an article that would not only introduce the reader to the restaurant and chef, Sean Brock, but even more than that I wanted to pen a work that would help to explain what all of this fuss is about regarding "new Southern cuisine" and it's emergence in Charleston, South Carolina.

For years Southern cooks were somewhat stereotyped and the cuisine was thought to be all about butter, lard, bacon, ham-hocks and sugar. But over the past several years, that perception has changed thanks to culinary pioneers like Brock. As recent as ten-years ago due to the popularity of syndicated food network shows featuring southern cooks the buzzwords that everybody used when talking about good old homestyle Southern food were butter, gravy, pan-fried and custard. Today, there are new buzzwords, like locavore and lardcore showing up in magazines and publications dedicated to gourmet cooking. Media giants like the Huffington Post, CNN, Fox News and Bloomberg are now raving about "the new southern cuisine" and red-hot young chefs like Sean Brock are in high demand. Yet many people who haven't been lucky enough to visit foodie meccas like Charleston may still think that Paula Deen's Restaurant is the holy grail of southern cooking.

Just one visit to Husk and you will begin to understand what Brock is talking about when he says "this new cuisine is not about rediscovering Southern cooking, but exploring the reality of Southern food." The web page for Husk describes the dining experience at Husk as "casual as it is chic, evoking a way of life centered on seasonality and the grand traditions of Charleston life—one lived at a slower pace, preferably with a cocktail and a wide porch in the late afternoon." And for the four of us, that is exactly how our lunch went on the upper piazza at Husk overlooking Queen Street on a late April afternoon.

In a recent interview with Charlie Rose on Bloomberg, Brock explains that originally Southern cuisine was formed around the concept of "what was in the pantry." The chef goes on to explain that this bountiful harvest of crops from the Southern fields was impacted by the mosaic of cultural influences in early Charleston, with the English, Native American, French-Huegenot and the African Americans resulting in a period that he considers "the most beautiful" era of food in America. And as if applying mathematical theory to the design and programming of computer software, you can see the fusion of this philosophy and Brock's culinary skills by perusing the menu at Husk, which by the way, changes almost hourly depending upon what is coming through the kitchen doors.

As I mentioned earlier, I don't intend for this to be interpreted as a standard restaurant review because for us, that casual lunch spent with "best friends" from childhood in a sunny corner of the front porch at Husk was about much more than fine food and dining. Although the Husk Cheeseburger, the fried green tomatoes and baked grits with mushrooms and cheese was worthy of a robust review. Interestingly enough the actual menu from the day that we visited Husk is available in the menu archives section of the web page by clicking here (this feature on the Husk website shows the genius of Brock et al.)

If you are lucky enough to live in The Land of Palm Trees or if planning a visit to the Lowcountry, you don't want to miss the experience of Husk. But do plan ahead, it is not a walk-up spur of the moment type of place. I urge you to make reservations, for instance, the day we visited I overheard a lady at an adjacent table saying she had waited 2 hours for the opportunity to experience the "reality of southern food."

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Summer Goodness From The Kitchen Garden

It is absolutely blissful to be able to stroll into my rather smallish backyard and emerge with an armful of fresh produce. Yesterday afternoon, in between Beryl's rain bands, while we hung out at the pool with some friends a spur of the moment Memorial Day cookout was contrived. It was more of a suggestion, "hey why don't you guys bring your stuff, we will put it with our stuff and feast," but it turned out to be a great idea. The mound of summer squash had been accumulating in the vegetable basket that resides on our kitchen counter so I decided to empty the basket and raid the pantry and refrigerator to "create" some goodness. I hurriedly checked the internet for a squash casserole recipe that would meet two requirements, it must be quick (we were headed to the neighbors house in about an hour) and since a trip to the grocery store was not happening the ingredient list had to match our provisions. Well, I found a couple of possibilities but it just wasn't exactly what I had in mind, so as I often do, I went into "modification mode." And what resulted was, well, I think pretty darn good.

So, I wanted to share with you. I regret that I didn't take the time to snap a picture of the tureen as it emerged all hot and bubbly from the oven, I told you we were in a real hurry as I could still hear the dish bubbling as I placed the dish into the back of the car for the short drive. I could have provided a picture of the empty casserole afterwards, but other than providing an affirmative exclamation point, it just wouldn't add much to the post.

The story here just isn't another cooking piece, nor is it to convey the benefits of square foot gardening, although both topics are satisfied by my contribution to this blog today. Nope, the story ends with an impromptu gathering of families around a large formal southern style dining room table in a tastefully and smartly decorated southern dining room enjoying a spontaneous and very informal holiday supper, on paper plates. Ahhh, summertime! And the livin' is EEEEEEEEZZZZZZY!

Summer Squash Medley
1 zucchini squash
1 pat-a-pan squash
1 yellow summer squash
3 eggs beaten
1/2 cup milk
1 cup Italian seasoned bread crumbs
2 cups stuffing mix
1 cup grated parm/romano cheese
1/2 onion
1/2 stick of butter cut into 1/4 inch slabs
bacon grease
salt and pepper

1- Slice Onion and seperate into rings, prep squash into 1/2 inch slices
2- Simmer onion and squash in a large skillet in bacon grease until tender (don't over cook)
3- Place squash and onions into large bowl and add the rest of the ingredients, saving the beaten eggs for last.
4- Gently toss to mix and place the mixture into an adequately sized glass casserole dish
5- Sprinkle extra bread crumbs and grated parm/romano on top
6- Bake at 375 for 40 minutes
7- Remove from oven, cover with foil and allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before serving

Monday, May 28, 2012

Lest We Forget

I hope that somewhere in the midst of grilled foods, potato salad, cold beer and back yard corn-hole tournaments you will take the time today to remember our fallen military heroes. The Memorial Day Holiday, is a true American Classic providing us with the opportunity to not only honor and memorialize those who gave the supreme sacrifice for the freedoms that we enjoy, but also a time to remember loved ones and family members who no longer are with us.

Of course, for many, the holiday ushers in the Summer Season and the easy livin' that goes along with Summer. In fact, in many areas of the country Summer is defined as the period of time from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Not here in the Lowcountry, our summer starts earlier and lasts much later. Although, the beach traffic does "crank up" significantly during this weekend.

Here in The Land of Palm Trees today we will dodge rain-bands associated with the landfall of Tropical Storm Beryl as well as pausing to reflect on those who we love and miss beyond belief. The day serves as a reminder that freedom is not free. While you enjoy a classic American holiday enjoy another American Classic from Elvis.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

I Wonder

This is the 12th Mother's Day that I have woke up without a Mom to call and wish Happy Mother's Day. I this piece will warm your heart as it did mine when I wrote it.

Hmmm, I wonder… Tonight on the eve of Mother’s Day I have spent some time remembering my mother reflecting on my childhood and the time spent growing up in that little ranch style stone house back in West Virginia. I have found myself wondering, a lot. Life sure was different in rural West Virginia back in 1972 for a certain skinny red-headed nine year old boy named Doug. Mother’s Day in 1972 occurred on Sunday, May 14th. ( I didn’t remember that, I googled it) I wonder about Saturday evening, May 13th in 1972. I so wish I could remember but I honestly can’t, so I will have to imagine; but that’s fine, because based upon my memories life was pretty simple back then. I have to believe that the evening started with baths and showers for everybody in the house. Nightly baths were regularity in our house back in the day.

Every evening sometime after sundown, my parents would shower, put on their pajamas and head for the living room to watch television. The Saturday night lineup would usually start with The Lawrence Welk Show and sometimes Hee-Haw followed by The Love Boat and finally Fantasy Island. As I said earlier, times were different then, most homes only had one television and the entire family would gather in one room for the evening and watch the tube together. There were no IPads or smart phones, nobody had to constantly check their Facebook news feed or tweet important updates, it was just the family that was all we knew.
Those Saturday nights were special indeed. In addition to the television watching there were other Saturday night rituals in our house. Like some sort of bedtime snack, maybe a bowl of cereal or popcorn and sometimes ICE CREAM. In many ways I was a mama’s boy, back in the day that was common. Most young boys were closer to their mother; after all, they spent more of their day with their mothers. As my older brother and sister always liked to point out, I was the baby of the family. So, expectedly I would end up on the loveseat next to my mom while my father reclined on the couch, usually snoring halfway through The Love Boat, waking up every so often only to insist “I’m not sleeping”. But not mom and I, no sir, we were sailing off to exotic locations with Captain Stubing and the Cruise Director Julie, on The Love Boat. Usually by the time that “da plane” was descending onto Fantasy Island my mother had coaxed me into “fixing her hair” for her. I was destined to become a hair stylist by the time I was eight-years old, thank goodness for my uncle the pharmacist who rescued me from my destined occupation. But seriously, my mother loved to have her hair brushed and she would sit on the floor for hours whilst I brushed, teased and styled her hair. She was a hard worker, extremely responsive to the needs of her family and household and while we had a good life, as I look back I realize that my mother didn’t have many pleasures or luxuries to comfort her so I am glad that she enjoyed her regular living room floor coiffure.

While my father continued to snore during Fantasy Island, by now he was well past periodically waking up and insisting that he wasn’t asleep, my mom would always say how much she would love to go to Hawaii some day. To which I would promptly reply that one day “I am going to live in Hawaii mom, and you can come live with me.” She always knowingly smiled, obviously realizing that it was nice to dream about such things. And so, I continue to sit here and wonder… Happy Mother’s Day Mom, Aloha.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Just A Simple Saturday In Vacation Land

The best kinds of Saturdays in The Land of Palm Trees are the ones where you start the day with a clean slate and no firm plans. These are the Saturdays that start with sleeping in until the morning sunshine leaking through the plantation shutters gently wake you up and a fresh brewed cup of Starbucks brings you into the world on the back patio listening to the sea gulls squawk over head.

It was an enjoyable morning to spend working in the kitchen gardens. I harvested some romaine lettuce and cultivated around my peppers and tomato plants. My gardens are doing sooooo good this year, I just hope that the harvest is as bountiful as the early growth of vines and plants. I was so inspired by my garden that we headed down to the Summerville Farmer's Market, to browse and see what kind of goodies we could "harvest" from the market. I am very impressed with this years version of the market, so many more vendors this year, and their offering is pleasantly expanded. New this year, the King of Pops gourmet popsicles (I had a bannana pudding popsicle and Michelle tried the Strawberry/Lemonade), the Cookie Chick, delectable cupcakes, tomato pies, fresh local shrimp, local seafood, along with some new wood artists, and awesome brownie vendors. More on the market and some of the specialty vendors to come throughout the summer.

Even though a slight threat of isolated thunderstorms is mentioned in the Lowcountry forecast, we are headed to the pool for a few hours and then a little "porch" party with fellow blogger, Charleston Treasures, Lisa and "the mister." That's how we roll here in the land of easy livin'. Hope you have a rewarding and relaxing Cinco de Mayo. Find an Irish pub to go to and celebrate with some green beer.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Any Excuse For A Party

I love holidays, especially the traditional ones. By traditional, I mean New Years, Easter, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition, there are other "days" throughout the year that are fairly mainstream days of note as well, such as Valentines Day, Halloween and St. Patty's Day. Not to mention other days of commemorative importance including Veteran's Day, Mother's Day and Father's Day. Then of course, there are the "personal" holidays, like birthdays, anniversaries and such. For various reasons, I enjoy them all. I guess when you get down to it, hardly a month goes by where a fellow can't find a reason to celebrate something. Of course, I didn't even touch on the "no other reason than an excuse for a party" days, like Super Bowl Sunday and of course Cinco de Mayo. I have never gotten to caught up in the whole Cinco de Mayo craze, although I love mexican food and the adult beverages that accompany it.

Recently, my son and I visited the Huger Street location of Taco Boy which in my opinion is one of the most fun eateries around town.

I think you can see why!

And I noticed the staff was in full preparation mode for the high day in Mexican culture coming up on May 5th(loads of pineapple infusing into the golden elixir of fun).

It got me to thinking about the celebration, and what it really means, other than a day for the Mexican beer and Tequilla manufacturers to boost their marketing and sales efforts to capture additional market share. I did a little research, as in a Google search,and discovered there is some significance to the day other than lime slices stuffed in the neck of a beer bottle or pineapple infused tequilla. Little did I know that this day has a link to the American Civil War, albeit indirectly, and I was really surprised to know that honest Abe Lincoln in a weird sort of way has a hand in a celebration involving an intoxicating worm tainted liquor and beef and bean burritos.

At any rate, here it is 2 days prior to "the big day" and I am wondering, do you have your party spot picked out yet? I have to believe that when "no other reason than an excuse for a party" type holidays occur on a Saturday that the party increases significantly. That coupled with the EXTREME larger than normal full moon predicted for Friday and Saturday should make for an "interesting" crop of Facebook pictures being uploaded over the weekend. I will probably shy away from any public congregational areas associated with Cinco de Mayo this weekend, maybe it would be a good weekend to hit an Irish Pub, like Tommy Condons or Madra Rua since you couldn't get close to either during St. Patty's Day, hopefully all the green beer guzzlers will be chewing on agave worms and enjoying Nachos Grande and there should be plenty of seats at the pub.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Heavenly Scents of Spring

From time to time in this old blog about life where the livin’ is easy I allude to the sobering fact that amongst all of the frivolity of easy livin’ in “vacation land” resides the reality of life, as it involves jobs, tuition payments and the daily travails of raising boys into young men. The past 4 days have been everything BUT easy livin’ around here. When one of your children suffers an illness of any type, it adds a certain type of stress to your life, but when that illness involves ambulance rides and visits to Children’s hospitals the effect on a parent can best be described as a gut wrenching vice that wrings the optimism and encouragement right out of your heart. By the grace of God, it doesn’t appear that our son’s health issues involve anything extremely serious and we are hopeful that the initial reports are confirmed by ongoing tests, but I am reminded that these are times that try men’s souls.

To say that I was ready for a bit of a respite in the form of a walk around the golf course early this morning is an understatement. I was feeling adventurous so I even took my golf clubs with me. There are few places in this world that I enjoy in the early morning hours than a golf course, walking, by myself. The sights and sounds of the golf course are unique in the early hours of the day. The birds, water fowl, and squirrels are much more active in the mornings. It’s hard to explain to somebody who hasn’t spent a lot of time on a golf course but the rhythmic droning of a mowing machine in the distance blended along with the calls of the brightest colored little blue birds and the occasional squall from a sea gull provides a relaxing background conducive to getting lost within the moment. If all of this weren’t enough, the month of May in Charleston, South Carolina is a magical time of the year when the air is heavy laden with the unmistakable fragrance of confederate jasmine.

The smell of confederate jasmine is one which you will never forget, the treat that it supplies to your senses embodies the romance and ambience of the old South every bit as well as the sight of Spanish moss hanging from a live oak tree. This morning, on the golf course, the spell cast by the sweet smelling jasmine can best be described as intoxicating. I was so relaxed by the experience that I didn’t even mind the occasional errant drive off of the tee, or the splash of a golf ball in a lagoon or even the big beady eyes on that log sticking up out of the water, huh? What? Oh my, that’s not a log and it’s no longer sticking up out of the water, it just disappeared as I walked to within five foot of the reptile looking him right in the eyes as he lazily disappeared under water.

Jasmine is as much a part of the history of Charleston and the old South as uniforms of blue and grey, or stories of cannon balls and muskets dating back to colonial times. In fact, Civil War era author, Mary Boykin Chestnut most often remembered for her published diary of the Civil War where she described the war from her perspective within the upper-class circles of Southern planter society, describes the South Carolina countryside in the spring as being “laden with opopanaz, violets, jasmine, crab apple blossoms, roses. Araby the blest never was sweeter perfume.”

Quite honestly, confederate jasmine is everywhere in Charleston, not just on golf courses. I even have my very own confederate jasmine starting to spread along the fence in my back yard, all part of the plan for my back yard oasis inspired by the wonderful gardens of downtown Charleston. I wish that this blog provided me with the ability to send a sample fragrance to you, but if you have ever been blessed with the experience of smelling jasmine in the southern air during Spring, all you really have to do is close your eyes and remember.