A return to a simpler way of life

August 21, 2002|By Cindy Wolf | Cindy Wolf,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I first fell in love with cooking in Charleston, S.C. My father's job with a national restaurant chain moved our family to many regions of the country and ultimately landed us in Charleston, the major port in the South Carolina Low Country. Amid palmetto trees and plentiful creeks, I found my place in the kitchen, and it was only natural that Low Country cuisine became the food of my heart.

While I had inherited my father's zeal for the restaurant business, I never pictured myself in the kitchen. But when I was 19 and had just arrived in Charleston, my father encouraged me to apply for a job at Silks, the original restaurant at the Planter's Inn.

It was love at first sight. Walking into Silks, I was immediately drawn to the open kitchen with its gleaming copper pots; Italian emerald-green tile; shining stainless-steel equipment; and rotisseries crowded with whole roasting pheasants, snails and wild mushrooms. This kitchen underscored the utter beauty of food, in all states of preparation, and I wanted to be part of it. Silks introduced me to a whole new approach to cooking - the pristine equipment, the finest ingredients and the most talented, enthusiastic mentors inspired my passion for food and only the highest standards of cuisine.

But it wasn't Silks that sparked my affection for Low Country cooking. In 1984, Low Country cooking was almost exclusively the food of the home. Restaurants may have served a dish or two that hinted at the Low Country tradition, but Low Country cooking had to be experienced in everyday life, not ordered from a leather-bound menu.

The Low Country is the lush, subtropical coastal land of South Carolina that extends from the ocean to about 90 miles inland. The tradition of Low Country cooking started as far back as the late 1600s, with the mixing of French and English settlers and West Africans in Charleston. When they merged cultural cuisines and used the fresh, local ingredients introduced to them by Native Americans, Low Country cooking was born.

So it was in everyday Charleston life that I learned Low Country cooking: watching friends' mothers and grandmothers stir steaming pots of collard greens and hopping John; smelling the sweet, comforting aroma of braised pork on a cool winter day; attending backyard oyster roasts in early autumn; and buying fresh crowder peas, butter beans and okra at the outdoor market.

I can't forget shrimping at 4 a.m. in the tidewaters and my mother's sauteing our fresh catch in butter and serving it over steaming grits (it was breakfast, of course). My connection with Low Country cooking is a connection with the true history of America - it's tradition, family and home.

As a chef of Low Country cooking, I feel like a historian of sorts, clinging to authentic recipes and time-honored techniques, such as making buttermilk biscuits with lard, scraping sweet corn from the cob for spoon bread and buying grits from a family mill in South Carolina.

My classical French training at the Culinary Institute of America is perfectly compatible with Low Country cuisine. Aside from the obvious French influence in South Carolina, French cooking and Low Country cooking use the same approach to methodology: slow, careful preparation of the purest ingredients using timeless technique.

For example, perlau is a Low Country version of the French pilau, a classic rice preparation. A perlau is simply a pilau enhanced by local, seasonal produce and seafood. When I create my seafood perlau - crowded with shrimp, clams, mussels and grouper; flavored with a rich seafood stock, a touch of white wine and chopped, ripe tomato - I step hundreds of years into the past, cooking like a true Charlestonian Huguenot!

Low Country cooking is more a philosophy than a method: Start with the freshest, purest ingredients and prepare them with time-honored techniques. A Low Country meal starts at the local market for the finest seasonal ingredients.

There is no mystery to it: Fresh, local food simply tastes better (aside from being more healthful). Readily available mid-Atlantic ingredients like peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, corn and beans are typical in Low Country dishes.

Low Country recipes are usually simple and sensible - this timeless approach to cooking realizes that uncomplicated, savory ingredients, combined to offer balanced flavors and textures, result in the most successful dishes. Natural ingredients, traditional inspiration and sensible experimentation take us back to cooking the way our great-grandmothers did.

Low Country cooking is cooking from the heart. It's as comforting to prepare as it is to eat. It is a return to the simpler, richer, slower way of life - a welcome respite for today's world.

Chef Cindy Wolf is co-owner and executive chef of Charleston restaurant and Petit Louis Bistro in Baltimore.

Creamy Grits

Serves 6

4 cups whole milk

2 ounces butter

2 tablespoons kosher salt

1 cup grits (see note)

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