By Culinary Community Liaison, Jennifer Justus
As our gardens begin to thrive and the kitchens ramp up for the summer, things have been heating up and coming together in beautiful ways at The Nashville Food Project — “simmering,” if you will.
And that’s part of why we gratefully launched the first installment of our new fundraiser this month, “Simmer: a chef series where good food and ideas come together.” It includes nine, monthly events running through the end of the year and aims to take guests a bit deeper by telling the stories behind the food and the people in our city who grow, cook and share it.
For the first installment, we invited author and journalist Erin Byers Murray to speak about her new book “Grits: A Cultural & Culinary Journey Through The South.”
Erin prepared, naturally, a grits dish -- warm bowls of long-cooked grits held together with grueye and topped with a mix of oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, butter and flecks of thyme. She also asked some friends to join her in telling the stories from her book through food.
Food writer and spirits expert Jim Myers prepared variations on “corn from a jar.” Thanks to a donation by Pennington’s Distilling Co., we learned about the local company’s new Davidson Reserve Tennessee Whiskey. Jim spoke about the charcoal-mellowing process that gives a whiskey its Tennessee distinction, and we tasted unaged whiskey (or “white dog” as it’s called) before and after the charcoal filtering process.
Jim also whirled together a Mexican sangrita. Similar in appearance to a bloody mary, the sangrita is nothing of the sort. Ancho chiles rather than tomatoes give it the deep red hue while orange juice, pomegranate syrup, onion, lemon and lime provide a balance of tart, sweet and heat. Though traditionally served with tequila, Jim mixed his sangrita with Pennington’s unaged Davidson Reserve Tennessee whiskey.
“The fine line between the grits miller and the distiller had long been blurred, over and again, into one long, woven story of similar purpose. The two end products, one solid, one liquid might differ in terms of texture, style, and, of course, resulting fortitude once consumed, but their coexistence creates a through-line for grits and whiskey, both of which are claimed as deeply Southern totems. Grits are the happy, soul-sustaining by-product of the moonshiner’s bounty.” -- Erin Byers Murray, “Grits”
Guests were handed corn tortillas hand-pressed by Karla Ruiz of Karla’s Catering and topped with cochinita pibil. Karla shared stories about coming to Nashville from her native Mexico and landing at Belle Meade Plantation where she became a quick study in the kitchen on Southern American cooking, which she marries with her native cuisine and its nearly 60 varieties of indigenous corn. Karla says cochinita pibil comes from Yucatán, Mexico, and involves wrapping pork in banana leaves, marinating it in sour orange and achiote (a sweet peppery red sauce made from annatto seed), and baking it for several hours, traditionally in buried or underground pits.
As for the tortillas, the Mayans and Aztecs viewed corn as a foundation of humanity. When the Spanish arrived in the New World, they took note of the flat corn breads made by the Aztecs and called them tortillas.
Tandy Wilson, chef/owner of City House, served a third corn-related course and spoke about the part he played in Erin’s book. Erin joined Tandy on a trip to Orlinda, Tennessee, where he buys his corn from Windy Acres Farm. Then, he takes the extra tedious and labor-intensive step of milling his own corn for grits and cornmeal. Tandy served thin sour grit cakes (which undergo a three-day souring process) with scoops of beef sugo made possible through a donation by Bear Creek Farm. Spicy bits of arugula -- grown by Growing Together farmers -- brightened the dish.
And to end things on a sweet note, Rebekah Turshen, pastry chef at City House, spoke about the fresh cornmeal she uses fresh from the restaurant’s mill for desserts like the buttermilk cornmeal cookies she served pressed together with a scoop of tart creme fraiche ice cream.
Special thanks to Piedmont Natural Gas for their sponsorship of Simmer. Thank you to in-kind sponsors: Ian and Kady Navarro of Creation Gardens and Pennington’s Distilling Co. Last, but far from least, thank you to Erin Byer Murray, Karla Ruiz, Jim Myers, Rebekah Turshen and Tandy Wilson for donating their time and talents.
To see the full Simmer lineup and purchase tickets to future events -- including our next installment of farm dinner by Katie Coss from Husk on May 4 -- please visit thenashvillefoodproject.org/simmer.
And check out the recipes below to try out Jim’s sangrita and Erin’s grits!
Jim Myers’ Almost Legendary Sangrita Recipe
64 ounces fresh orange juice
1 cup fresh lime juice
5 ancho chiles
2 cups white onion, chopped
4 tablespoons pomegranate syrup
2+ tablespoons chili piquin (pequin) powder
Salt to taste
1. Tear open dried ancho chiles and remove stem and seeds. Roast chili pieces in cast-iron skillet to release flavor, being careful that the pieces don't burn or char. Admire the sweet aroma and have a sip of some good reposado and turn up the music a little bit.
2. Place roasted chili pieces in a stainless steel bowl and add enough boiling water to cover. Weigh down the chili pieces with another bowl on top. Let soak for about 15-20 minutes.
3. Have another little sip of tequila and call that friend you've been missing. Lie about your weight. As you're catching up on the last 10 years, squeeze your limes with a hand-squeezer. Remember to wash your limes first, and then roll them on the counter with the palms of your hand. This makes juicing them easier.
4. Chop your onion and put it in a blender. Cry, but only for a moment, over all of life's lost opportunities. No, wait, that was just the onions. Take another sip of tequila and throw into the blender a couple hearty pinches of salt and the soft ancho chili pieces. Pour in enough of the rusty-colored soaking liquid to make blending easy. Blend until all is well-pureed.
5. Combine in a large pitcher (1 gallon) the orange juice, lime juice, chili/onion puree and the pomegranate syrup. Add a tablespoon of salt and a tablespoon of the pequin powder, shake well and let sit refrigerated overnight. Have another sip and put on that old DVD of "Night of the Iguana" and look at how cool Puerta Vallarta was in the '60s. Have another sip as you wonder if you were ever as cool as Richard Burton. Have yet another sip with the realization that the answer will always and forever be "no."
6. The next day, fix yourself a cup of strong coffee and taste the sangrita for balance. This is where I add what seems to be too much salt, but it has to compete with the sourness and acidity of the pomegranate and lime. Just add what's needed for the right balance and your personal taste, and then do what I always forget to do -- write down exactly what and how much you added.
7. Finally, adjust for your level of heat. I usually start with a tablespoon of the piquin powder, and then add a bit at a time, remembering to stir well in between. Stop and marvel, for just a moment, at how improbably blue the sky is. Call your friends or make some new ones. Find some cool small glasses that are bigger than standard shot glasses. Pick out your favorite guayabera and crank up the music.
8. Serve sangrita with a good quality tequila. I prefer reposado, but choose whatever you fancy. Sangrita also mixes well with clear spirits like vodka and gin (and moonshine).
Notes: This recipe is perishable and should be used within 48 hours. All ingredients are available at K&S Markets on Charlotte and Nolensville Pike.
Recipe from Jim Myers (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Erin’s Gruyère Grits with Wild Mushrooms
3 cups stone-ground grits, cooked
½ cup heavy cream or whole milk
1 cup grated Gruyère cheese
2 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon white pepper
2 or 3 shallots, cut into thin slivers (about 1/3 cup)
1 or 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, plus leaves for garnish
8 ounces sliced mixed mushrooms (about 2 cups)
½ cup dry vermouth or white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a heatproof bowl or serving dish, combine the warm cooked grits with the cream and Gruyère. Cover the bowl with a lid or foil and keep the grits warm while you prepare the mushroom.
In a medium nonstick skillet, melt the butter over medium heat and season with the white pepper. Add the shallots and garlic and cook, stirring, until the shallots are translucent, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the thyme and mushrooms and cook, stirring, until the mushrooms begin to brown, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and simmer the mixture until most of the liquid has evaporated and the mushrooms are tender. Depending on the mushrooms you’re using, you may need to add more liquid and simmer a few moments longer to ensure they’re tender.
Fold the mushroom mixture into the grits. Taste for seasoning - you may need more salt. If the grits seem too thick, add a splash of water. If they’ve cooled down too much, reheat them in the microwave. Top with freshly ground black pepper and a sprinkle of fresh thyme leaves.
Recipe from “Grits: A Cultural & Culinary Journey Through The South” by Erin Byers Murray.