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Taste the reason why James Beard wins awards

Recently we went on a couple of trips — one to Tennessee to visit relatives and another to Charleston for their Spoleto Festival. It serendipitously became a pilgrimage to James Beard award-winning restaurants. If you are wondering who James Beard is and why these awards are so important, let me give you a little background.

James Beard is a central figure in the story of the establishment of a gourmet American food identity. He was an eccentric personality who brought French cooking to the American middle and upper classes in the 1950s. Many consider him the father of American-style gourmet cooking. His legacy lives in 20 books, numerous writings, his own foundation, and his foundation’s annual Beard awards in various culinary genres.

The James Beard awards were established in 1990 and are often called “The Oscars of Food.” They are held on the first weekend in June and honor the finest chefs, restaurants, journalists, cookbook authors, restaurant designers, and electronic media professionals in the country. More than 600 culinary professionals are involved in the voting process. Recipients receive a bronze medallion etched with the image of the late James Beard as well as a certificate from the foundation, but no cash prizes.

Alabama’s own Frank Stitt in Birmingham won the best chef of the Southeast in 2001. All of you who read this column know I love his restaurants, The Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega and Fonfon.

We decided to visit Oxford, Miss., on our way to Tennessee and eat at City Grocery, which we had heard about as a destination in Oxford, as well as visit Faulkner’s home Rowan Oak, the Square Bookstore (where I picked up a signed edition of John Grisham’s latest) and Ole Miss. It just so happened chef John Currence had just won the Best Chef for the South. We had a very good meal starting with fresh scallops with a mustard sauce followed by a delicious rabbit ragu with pickled ramps over a bed of whole wheat noodles. Dessert was not that wonderful, just a dried up oatmeal cookie over ice cream. The waitress told us it was really good. Sometimes you just need to listen to your own head!! Currence has three other restaurants in Oxford, and one of note is called the “BBB” for Big Bad Breakfast. Well, we had IT – a big, good breakfast and the country ham was wonderful and the grits melted in your mouth. They had cream in them. We could not eat for the rest of the day.

The following week we went to Charleston, S.C., for Spoleto. We used to visit there every year when we lived in Wilmington, N.C. Going back was such fun. The new bridge over the Cooper River is terrific looking and not as scary to drive over as the old much narrower bridge. Our daughter in law, who is from South Carolina, recommended we try “Fig” while in Charleston. Fig is short for FOOD IS GOOD! Just so happens the chef, Mike Lata, had also just won the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast. We headed out from our lodging after checking in, to walk down Meeting Street to the restaurant. We checked the address – it’s next door! The appetizer, a grass-fed beef Bolognese with ricotta gnocchi was the highlight of that meal. The entrees of salmon and sweetbreads were less thrilling.

The next evening found us at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul for a concert by the Westminster Choir. As we entered a lady had fallen and was bleeding profusely from a head wound. Ushers were directing the crowd around her. My husband stopped to help and ended up getting blood all over his white pants! (Which I had to work with for several days to get out.) We did get to use the lady’s tickets, which were much better than ours—-right up front! The choir was fantastic.

We have been eating at McCrady’s for years. And the meal there turned out to be our best of the trio! We started with a soup of potatoes and ramps. The entrée was a slow braised grass-fed beef steak with truffled kohlrabi puree that melted in your mouth. The chef at McCrady’s, Sean Brock, did not win the James Beard Award but he was nominated as best rising chef both in ‘08 and ‘09. We gave him high marks. Our meal was also somewhat less expensive since you could purchase a three- course meal for a set price and we liked that menu. Paying less makes you feel better about your meal anyway! A good meal always depends on your mood, your choice of entrée, and the company you are with. Even a great chef cannot make you enjoy the meal.

And what are ramps? And why are they on the menus of two of these restaurants? The answer to the second question I don’t know. The first: ramps, allium tricoccum, are known as wild leeks, although the taste is a combination of onion and garlic. They are celebrated in the spring when they appear by several festivals in Appalachia and Quebec. The plant has broad, smooth leaves with deep purple tints on the lower stem and a scallion like bulb. They are commonly fried with potatoes in bacon grease or scrambled with eggs and served with cornbread and pinto beans in Appalachia. They can be substituted for onions or garlic in other recipes.

Two quotes that I think you should remember from James Beard: “There is absolutely no substitute for the best. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing.”

“It is always a good idea to follow the directions exactly the first time you try a recipe. But from then on, you’re on your own.”

Since I was not able to secure a recipe from the chefs of the previous restaurants, I was inspired to research a Bolognese sauce recipe since I loved the grass-fed beef Bolognese from Fig. I found it in my new James Beard Award winning cookbook, The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (yes, he is British), and found a wonderful spaghetti Bolognese. You must try this recipe. Spaghetti Bolognese is the most beloved pasta dish in the United Kingdom according to the book’s author. It is thrifty since you can use ground beef, but you must always have some kind of fatty pork such as diced bacon or pancetta.

This dish should be done with loving care and not thrown together. It is basically easy but you need to follow the steps and do the tomato recipe for tomato passata given at the end of the recipe. It is worth it!

Spaghetti Bolognese

Serves 6

2 pounds coarse ground beef

8 ounces salt pork, or bacon, or pancetta, finely chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 glass of red wine

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

14 ounce can of plum tomatoes

1 cup tomato passata (sieved tomatoes) or Sieved Roast Tomatoes (recipe given below)

1 ¼ cup beef stock

2 bay leaves

A few sprigs of herbs, such as thyme, basil, parsley, marjoram, or oregano

1 tablespoon heavy cream, or a large knob of butter (optional). Knob is a British term (I would suggest a tablespoon)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

To Accompany

1 pound spaghetti or linguine

A knob of butter

Fresh Parmesan cheese

Bread

In a large frying pan, heat half the olive oil over a medium heat and fry the bacon in it so the fat runs. Add the beef and brown it-if you don’t have a very large frying pan, do this in several batches-then transfer it to a good-sized flameproof casserole. The idea is to make sure that some of the meat is properly browned, as in lightly burned, not just “grayed” by this process. You want those caramelized browning flavors to come out in the sauce. When you’ve browned the last batch of meat, deglaze the pan with the red wine and add these juices to the casserole.

Now wipe the frying pan out with a wad of paper towels, add the rest of the olive oil, and heat gently. Add the garlic and the onions and sweat until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes and passata and turn up the heat so the mixture bubbles merrily. Stir regularly, breaking up the tomatoes with a spatula or spoon. You are making a quick tomato sauce here, which gives a much better result than simply tipping the tomatoes into the meat. When the tomato has reduced and thickened a little and the tomatoes are nicely broken up, add it to the meat with the stock or water, and the bay leaves and other herbs you are using. Season with plenty of pepper and ½ teaspoon of the salt.

Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, for at least an hour, stirring occasionally. The finished sauce should be thick, rich, and unctuous (i.e., not just ground beef in a thin liquid with little bits of tomato and onion floating around). You can cook it for up to two hours, if you like. For extra richness, finish the sauce by stirring in the cream or butter.

Boil the spaghetti or linguine in plenty of well-salted water and drain when just al dente. Return to the pan and toss with a knob of butter. There are two ways to serve up the dish. The tidy English way: a pile of spaghetti onto each plate and ladle a pool of sauce in the middle and the Italian way: toss the spaghetti with the sauce in the pan till thoroughly mixed up and serve ready sauced. I prefer it the Italian way.

Pass a hunk of Parmesan around the table, with a grater. Offer bread to mop up the plates. Then serve a simple salad with the meal.

Sieved Roast Tomatoes (passata)

Slice plenty of good ripe tomatoes in half, spread them out on a baking sheet, cut-side up, scatter with a few roughly chopped cloves of garlic, and trickle with olive oil. Roast in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for about 40 minutes, until soft, crinkled, and lightly browned. Then rub them through a sieve to remove the seeds and skin.