Let’s do the Charleston – food-wise, that is

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 5, 2010

I got my Charleston fix this past week with a visit (just one night) to the Spoleto Festival. It was the 34th year of the festival, and we have gone probably 28 out of those 34 years.

It is one of the world’s major performing arts festivals. It was founded in 1977 by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who sought to establish a counterpart to the Festival dei Due Mondi (the Festival of Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy. The annual 17-day event showcases both established and emerging artists in more that 120 performances of opera, dance, theater, classical music and jazz. When Italian organizers planned an American festival, they searched for a city that would offer the charm of Spoleto, Italy, and also its wealth of theaters, churches, and other performance spaces. Charleston was selected as the ideal location.

Since we were there for only one night, we only saw the play, Present Laughter by Noel Coward. This play has been around the block a few times; it premiered in the 1940s. It is a sophisticated farce about another era, where men did not answer their own doors and women did not go out their own doors without a hat. It was well done, and we also got to see the newly renovated Dock Street Theater. (They kept the old pews so sitting can be a little tiring.)

Of course, there was food. Charleston is becoming known as one of the great cities for food – right up there with Austin and Portland, Ore., according to one critic. But we still remember Henry’s on the market where the black waiters served bistro food — Charleston low-country style. We ate this visit at McCrady’s for our one good meal. We had eaten there last year and enjoyed it so much.

The chef at McCrady’s had just won the James Beard Award for the best chef in the Southeast. We gave our regards to him via our waiter but did not get to meet him. My meal was just not as good as last year’s, but then, it is all in what you order. I had an appetizer of pasta with ramps in a lamb ragout sauce. Sounded good, but not as tasty as I would have liked, but of course my husband loved it and finished it off for me. He had an appetizer of fried sweetbreads in a sauce. They were delicious, and perhaps I was somewhat jealous. We both had the grouper, which was nicely prepared but nothing outstanding. I did not get any recipes. No need. (But the martinis were perfect – as good as those at the Highlands in Birmingham.)

If you get the chance, go to the Spoleto Festival. It will continue until June 13. Charleston is just one of the best cities in America to visit.

I have another favorite restaurant in Charleston called Magnolias. They have a great cookbook I bought years ago, called Magnolias Southern Cuisine. The restaurant has been called the city’s most “celebrated restaurant,” by Southern Living. It has been open since 1990. I have eaten there and it is very good. Here are some recipes worth trying from that cookbook.

Magnolias’ Cobbler

4-6 servings

1 9”x13” baking pan


6 cups fresh blue berries

3 cups fresh strawberries

1 ½ cups sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt


6 tablespoons cold, diced unsalted butter

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup sugar

½ teaspoon non-alum baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk


Combine the berries, sugar, lemon juice, flour and salt, tossing the fruit until it is coated by the other ingredients. Pour the fruit into the baking pan.


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Dice the butter, put it on a plate and place it in the refrigerator to remain cold while you are assembling your other ingredients. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt and stir to mix well. Add the diced butter and cut it into the flour with either a pastry cutter or two forks until the mixture is crumbly. Add the buttermilk a little at a time until the dough starts to come together. However, this dough should not form a ball like a pie dough does. The topping should still be very crumbly, and not sticky. Sprinkle the topping over the filling. It should be about half an inch thick.

Bake the cobbler in the middle of the 350 degree oven for one hour or until the topping is a light golden color and the berry filling is bubbling up around the sides. Remove the cobbler from the oven and let it cool for a few minutes. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream.

Magnolias has a great Black Grouper recipe. Since I did not get the grouper recipe at McCrady’s this should be a good substitute. Grouper is a member of the sea bass family, and the black grouper inhabits the local waters around Charleston. I am sure regular grouper would be fine, since that is all I seem able to buy.

Grilled Grouper and Vegetables with Lemon and Fresh Herbs

4 servings

1 small eggplant

1 large yellow onion, peeled

1 red pepper, cored and seeded

1 yellow summer squash

1 bunch green onions

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

freshly ground black pepper

1 large garlic clove, mined

4 large grouper filets, weighing about 5 ounces

2 lemons, halved

4 sprigs each of fresh basil, thyme, parsley and chives, minced and mixed together

Fire your grill.

Cut the eggplant, onion, red pepper and squash into ¼-inch thick slices. Wash the green onions. Cut off the roots and any yellow tips on the green end. Place the vegetables in a glass or crockery container. Lightly toss with just enough olive oil to coat, the black pepper and the minced garlic. Let the vegetables marinate for five minutes at room temperature. Place the vegetables on the hot grill and cook, turning occasionally, until they are tender and cooked through. Watch carefully, because some vegetables will be ready before others. Keep the vegetables warm while grilling the filets.

Brush the grouper filets with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper, Place them on the grill and cook for five to 10 minutes, turning once or twice until done, or until a fork inserted into the fish easily flakes the flesh.

Warm four plates and divide the warm vegetables between them. Place a grilled fillet on top of each plate. Garnish with half of the lemon and a good sprinkle of the mixed herbs.