Play with Your Food: David Leathers

eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI861292_589765237737570_1936952674_o
December / January 2013

If asked about his childhood, chef and Mississippi native David Leathers likes to joke, “I had a dad that believed in child labor.”  Beginning at eight years old, Leathers worked in the kitchen of his parent’s barbecue restaurant in Fulton, Miss.

“Even before I became interested in becoming a chef, cooking was always been a part of who I was,” he explains.  “It was our livelihood.”

Leathers attributes the work ethic his father instilled in him at a young age as a contributing factor for his success later in life.  At eighteen, Leathers left small town Mississippi to attend culinary school at the former Pennsylvania School of Culinary Arts in Pittsburg.  He admits the move was a bit of a culture shock, but he would later go on to graduate at the top of his class. During his studies, an instructor gave him a bit of advice that would impact his career path.

“This particular instructor told me to find a specialty that makes you different from all the other chefs,” Leathers says.  He was inspired to take up food carving based on a book he owned by famous food sculptor Xiang Wang.  When Leathers discovered that Wang taught classes at The Andy Mannhart Academy in Luzern, Switzerland, he enrolled himself and was on a plane to Europe.

Where Pennsylvania was a culture shock, the young chef quickly fell in love with Switzerland.

“It is a beautiful country,” he adds.  “I didn’t want to leave.”  He did face one unique challenge, however, that most students don’t usually deal with on their first day of class.  Wang only spoke two languages – Mandarin Chinese and Swiss-German.  While it may seem impossible to take instruction from someone who doesn’t speak your language, Leathers discovered that the language barrier wasn’t really a barrier after all.

“It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language,” Leathers recalls, “It was more important that I was able to observe him and see his instruction rather than hear it.”  His experience would later inspire him to release three instructional DVD’s on the art of food carving.

David’s talents have garnered several TV appearances, most notably on TLC’s Extreme Food Sculptures.  During the show, Leathers constructed a life-sized sculpture of a woman in a masquerade mask to serve as the centerpiece for a charity ball in Louisiana.  The entire piece took 72 hours to construct.

Leathers eventually went on to launch his own brand of merchandise through his company Food Stylin.  The product line includes T-shirts and his own line of kid-safe knives.  Today, he frequently uses his talents to teach kids about healthy eating.  He makes frequent visits to elementary schools throughout the year and hopes to combat childhood obesity by finding ways to make eating fruits and vegetables fun.

“We have become a generation of convenience.  It’s not just about eating healthy food; it’s about eating real food.  Not everything comes out of a package.” he says.  “I had a little girl ask me once what my favorite vegetable was.  When I told her asparagus, her response was, ‘Ew, yuck.  Gross!’ I could tell from her response that this little girl had never actually tried asparagus.  I decided I wanted to visit every school in that community and let every kids try asparagus. Once they have the opportunity to try it, they can make their own decision.”

Leathers believes that by allowing kids to be involved in the meal process, it will open them up to trying new foods.  He hopes to be able to share his message with a wider audience through a children’s television show titled Play with Your Food currently in the works with PBS.

“It’s a tactic I use with my own five-year-old son,” he says.  “By giving kids ownership, they take pride in what they are eating.  The most important ingredient is making things fun.”

Eerie Eateries

EDM Oct Nov 2013eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
October/ November 2013

If you haven’t already made plans for this Halloween, consider forgoing the costume party and make dinner reservations instead.  It’s common knowledge that Mississippi has its share of haunted houses, so it should come as no surprise that we have a few haunted restaurants as well.  Whether the legends surrounding these establishments are true or not, that’s for you to decide.  Just remember when ordering “spirits” from the bar, it may come with a little something extra.

Weidmann’s Restaurant
Meridian, MS

Weidmann’s Restaurant is one of Meridian’s most well-known restaurants.  It opened in 1870 when the population of this city of over 40,000 people numbered less than 4,000.  After 143 years in operation, it is the oldest continuously operating business in Meridian.

It would be impossible to speculate how many people have come and gone through the doors of Weidmann’s during its long and enduring history.  Henry Weidmann, grandson of the original owner, ran the establishment from 1927 until his death in 1956.  He was known as a kind-hearted entrepreneur, extending business hours to accommodate railroad workers and even opening up the restaurant on Christmas Day to serve servicemen during World War II.

It was Henry’s kindness that surrounds one of the restaurant’s legends.  During the Great Depression, a young couple traveling through the state looking for work stopped into Weidmann’s for a meal.  Henry picked up the tab, telling the couple it was an engagement gift.  The couple promised to return on their first wedding anniversary, never to be seen again.  No one knows exactly what happened to them, but restaurant staff claims to see the ghostly shadows of a young couple sitting at one of the tables.  Doors have also been known to fly open, loud bangs are occasionally heard when nothing in the room is overturned, and footsteps can be heard walking around upstairs when no one is there.

Aunt Jenny’s Catfish
Ocean Springs, MS

Travel down Washington Avenue in Ocean Springs, and you’ll spot an antebellum home dating back to 1852.  Surrounded by stately 500-year-old live oaks, the house has served as the home of Aunt Jenny’s catfish for more than 30 years.  However in a past life, the 160 year-old house served as a sanitarium, marketing its nearby mineral springs as having healing powers.

The establishment’s most noteworthy ghost is that of a gentleman with dark hair wearing dark slacks and a white shirt sitting at the bar in the Julep Lounge.  People who have seen the man claim he is drinking beer from a can, even thought the lounge does not serve beer in a can.  Patrons have also reportedly tried to buy a drink for the stranger, only to come back and discover he has vanished into thin air.

Other ghostly sightings include a face in the second story window and a young girl playing with a ball.  Lights flicker, faucets turn on by themselves, doors fly open, and footsteps can be heard coming from the second floor.

Cedar Grove Mansion Inn and Restaurant
Vicksburg, MS

While Cedar Grove Mansion Inn and Restaurant was built out of love, the house has seen its share of tragedy.  Completed in 1852, the Greek Revival style mansion was built by planter and businessman John Alexander Klein for his young bride Elizabeth.  The couple had a happy marriage and took pride in the upkeep of their home.

During the Civil War, the home was used as a hospital for Union soldiers.  Obviously, some soldiers likely died in the house from their injuries and perhaps their spirits remained.  Later, the Klein’s 17-year-old son accidentally shot and killed himself on the back stairway.  A daughter also died in one of the upstairs bedrooms, while two infants died in the nursery.

Staff members and guests have both reported seeing the apparition of a young girl playing and soldiers dressed in Civil War-era uniforms have been spotted wandering the grounds.  The ghosts of both John and Elizabeth reportedly enjoy checking on their guests and the smell of smoke from John’s pipe can occasionally be detected in the Gentleman’s Parlor.

King’s Tavern
Natchez, MS

Built sometime in the mid-to-late 1700’s, the King’s Tavern is the oldest building in Natchez.  The tavern was originally opened by Richard King, the tavern’s namesake.  The King’s Tavern closed back in early 2012, but was recently bought by chef and Natchez native Regina Charboneau and her husband Doug  The restaurant reopened in September 2013.

The King’s Tavern is probably Mississippi’s most infamous haunted restaurant.  Ask anyone who from Natchez and they can probably tell you about Madeline.  According to legend, Madeline was a young maid who worked in the tavern and was supposedly also having an affair with Richard King.  When King’s wife Esther discovered the nature of their relationship, the jilted wife reportedly had Madeline killed.  The legend goes on to claim that many years later in the 1930’s, the remains of a young woman and two still unidentified men were discovered buried in the wall behind the fireplace.  The only actual confirmed death in the house, however, is that of Elizabeth Postlethwaite, who died in 1860 and whose family owned the building for over 140 years.

Staff and visitors to the tavern have seen full-bodied apparitions of a female walking throughout the tavern.  Footsteps appear across freshly mopped floors.  Jars come flying off the shelves, faucets turn on by themselves, doors open and close when no one is there, and chairs rock and move by themselves.

Pizza Pie: Basil’s 904 Serves up Pizza with Success

Portico October 2013Portico Jackson
October 2013

Jackson native and restaurateur Nathan Glenn pretty much earned his cooking credentials right here in the metro area.  In 1984, when Glenn was nine years old, his father Tim opened Rooster’s Restaurant, which is still home to one of Jackson’s best burgers 29 years later.  Glenn says he has been working in a kitchen ever since.

Fast forward almost three decades and Glenn is now the owner of five restaurants in the Jackson area.  In addition to Rooster’s in Fondren, Congress Street Bar and Grill serves up hamburgers, po boys, and Southern blue plate specials to the lunch crowd in downtown Jackson.  Glenn also opened his popular chain of Italian-inspired restaurants – Basil’s – which has locations in downtown Jackson, Fondren, and Belhaven.

It’s Basil’s Belhaven – now known as Basil’s 904 because of its location at 904 Fortification Street – that has been creating a lot of buzz lately.  After taking back over the restaurant earlier this year, Glenn wanted to revamp the location and make some changes to the menu.  That’s when Glenn’s brother-in-law Matthew Puckett recommended adding homemade pizza to the mix.

Glenn and Puckett go way back.  Long before they became in-laws, Puckett was a baker at Rooster’s for 10 years.  Puckett and his roommate built an outdoor brick oven in the backyard of their Memphis home and frequently enjoyed trying out new pizza recipes.  Turns out, Puckett just so happened to be working on a new recipe for the perfect pizza dough.

Recalls Puckett, “As soon as I saw the deck ovens in the kitchen, I told Nathan, ‘I know what we can do with those.’”

Puckett returned to Jackson and began tweaking his dough recipe for larger scale production.  As soon as the pizzas hit the market, Glenn and Puckett both agree they were an immediate hit.

“We almost weren’t prepared for how quickly they became a success,” says Puckett.  “News got around by word of mouth.  There were a lot of conversations going on about it and the pizzas took off really quickly.”

Adds Glenn, “Adding pizza to the menu really changed the shape of the entire restaurant.”

Glenn and Puckett credit several factors that make their pizzas stand out.  First, the crust is made using Antimo Caputo flour, produced by the Antico Molino Caputo company based in Naples, Italy.  The company sources high quality local ingredients and finely mills its wheat, earning it the reputation of producing some of the world’s highest quality flour.

“Pizza is really all about the crust,” Puckett explains.  “The flour we use creates smoother dough and allows it to become hydrated easier.”

The pizzas are also baked on stones at 600 degrees Fahrenheit.  Baking the pizza at this temperature not only cooks it in a mere six minutes, but it also steams the crust giving it a crunchy texture on the outside, but leaving it soft and chewy on the inside.  Glenn also keeps the pizzas simple, choosing fresh ingredients but not loading up the pizza with too many toppings.  The menu features your standard cheese and pepperoni options.  But there are also some regional favorites like the barbecue chicken pizza made with honey barbecue sauce, caramelized onions, and cilantro.

Finally, each pizza has a distinct oblong shape that is cut in a cross-cut pattern, creating long, thin slices.  Glenn says this ensures that every slice is the same, creating a more consistent bite.

“Pizza really speaks to everyone.  It is affordable and can feed a lot of people,” he adds.  “When we decided to add pizza to the menu, we didn’t just want to create a great pizza.  We wanted a pizza that would knock your socks off.  I think we hit a grand slam.”

State Fair Fare

EDM Oct Nov 2013

eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
October / November 2013

After enduring the sweltering heat that comes with the summer months in Mississippi, and often lingering well into September, the slightest hint that autumn might be on its way usually creates a buzz of enthusiasm.  Fall in Mississippi means colored leaves, football games, and the arrival of the Mississippi State Fair.

Now in its 154th year, “The Fair” as it’s affectionately nicknamed, begins the first Wednesday in October and runs for twelve days.  Anticipation builds in the weeks leading up to opening day as convoys of trucks hauling parts and pieces for rides with thrilling names such as The Zipper, Ring of Fire, and MegaDrop are spotted driving along the interstate headed to Jackson.  Adults and kids alike start dreaming about their favorite rides, or if you are hungry, favorite fair foods.

Fair food falls into a category all its own.  Combinations that would never be considered acceptable outside the fairgrounds – such as deep-fried Oreo cookies or a hamburger patty sandwiched between two glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts – are welcomed with open arms, or mouths rather, under the flashing lights of the midway.  Mississippi’s fair boasts a mile-long midway offering just about any treat you could possible think of.  If you are a regular, you are probably all too familiar with a few of these local favorites.  If not, we suggest you stop by their booth and give them a try on your next visit.

Penn’s

Penn’s red and yellow logo with its smiling catfish in a white sailor cap have been a familiar site across much of Mississippi for more than 45 years.  Roger Penn’s fried catfish and chicken nugget establishment began as a drive-thru in Canton in 1967.  Since then, Mr. Penn has seen his little restaurant spread to 10 corporate locations in the Jackson-metro area and nine franchises all over the state.

Every year, Penn’s bring some of its popular menu items down to the midway, such as fried catfish, crawfish tails, popcorn shrimp, and fried green tomatoes.  But hands down, their biggest seller is the chicken-on-a-stick.  Chunks of white meat chicken are skewered with dill pickle slices and onions, dipped in Penn’s secret-recipe batter, and fried until golden brown.  People wait in line for hours and after one bite, you’ll know why.

Malone’s Taffy

Malone’s Taffy is loved by fair goers all across the South and parts of the Midwest.  But the company that produces those fluffy, chewy morsels wrapped in waxed paper are based out of Byram, Miss.  Founded by the Malone brothers almost 100 years ago, the original brothers sold the business decades ago.  However, the candy company that still bears their name has been passed down through four generations.  It was Mike Mooney, Sr., who brought Malone’s Taffy to the Mississippi State Fair.  Mooney moved his family from Southern Illinois to Jackson in the early 1970’s and set up shop.

Mike Mooney, Jr., took over the family business in 2004 and now oversees the daily taffy-making operations.  From June to October, Mooney is hitting the state fair circuit, traveling through the Midwest as far north as Wisconsin before heading back home to serve up fresh, homemade taffy to the folks back in Mississippi.

The Biscuit Booth

There is probably no food vendor more loved than the State Fair Biscuit Booth.  Lines go on for miles as hungry patrons stand in line for a pillow-soft homemade biscuit filled with warm syrup.  The best part?  The biscuits are completely free.

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce oversees the Biscuit Booth every year.  They are able to give the biscuits away at no cost through donations and a team of dedicated volunteers.  Kroger donates nearly 7,000 bags of flour, while Borden supplies them with over 500 gallons of buttermilk.  The shifts of volunteers – some of whom have been working the biscuit booth for years – work day and night and on weekends to make sure their supply doesn’t run out.  It’s a sweet memory that has been passed down through the generations, and one you sure don’t want to miss.

Oodles of Noodles: Grant Nooe’s new venture in Fondren brings unique Asian flavors to Jackson

Portico September 2013Portico Jackson
September 2013

If you have explored Jackson’s food scene at all in the last 30 years, no doubt you have heard the name Grant Nooe come up a few times.  The Jackson-native has been the mastermind behind several successful meto-area restaurants.  However, his newest enterprise – the recently opened M!SO in Fondren – may be his most exciting venture yet.

After graduating from Murrah High School, Nooe originally thought he wanted to pursue a career in music.  Ultimately though, he decided food was the path he wanted to take.  Nooe attended culinary school at the former Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts), eventually going on to work in several restaurants in and around the Windy City.

You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy.  After being away for so long, Jackson began to beckon Nooe home.  He returned in the late 80’s and soon after opened his first restaurant – 400 East Capitol – in downtown Jackson.  He would later open other restaurants in the surrounding areas including Brick Oven Cafe in 1993, Fresh Market Cafe in 2002, PanAsia in 2003, and Grant’s Kitchen in 2010.

When the opportunity arose to move into the former Fatsumo Sushi location on the corner of Duling Avenue and State Street in Fondren, Nooe immediately recognized the potential the space had to offer.  Because of Fondren’s reputation for embracing out-of-the box ideas and creativity, he thought another Asian-inspired restaurant would be well-received.

When asked why he is drawn to Asian cuisine, he says, “The U.S. is such a melting pot, that I think all chefs are influences by all types of different cuisines.  I love Asian flavors and have always enjoyed cooking with them.  Living and working in the area, this is the kind of food I would like to eat and I thought it would be something that Jackson would support.”

Nooe is quick to point out, however, that M!SO is not just another neighborhood sushi bar.

“It is completely different.  Our emphasis is on our noodle bar and fresh ingredients,” he explains.  “We have also completely remodeled the space.  People who visited before we opened are amazed by the change.”

As soon as patrons pass under the brightly colored awnings and through the double glass doors of M!SO, they are greeted by an impressive menu offering a wide variety of unique Asian dishes.  Noodle dishes include favorites such as drunken noodles and Pad Thai.  Better yet, try a big steaming bowl of Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup made of oxtail broth, vegetables, an spices (and just so you look like you know what you are talking about when you order, it’s actually pronounced Fuh).  M!SO also serves Ramen, but it is nothing like the cheap noodle soup you lived on in college.

“When most people hear the word ‘ramen,’ they automatically think of that dried package of noodles that is full of chemicals and MSG,” Nooe says.  “Our ramen is made with fresh pasta, homemade chicken stock, and fresh vegetables.”

Another fun and unique feature is the restaurant’s wok bar.  Diners can build their own noodle bowl, soup, or stir fry from a selection of vegetables and meat, adding rice or noodles, and topping everything off with a freshly made sauce or one of three homemade broths.

However, what Grant hopes will soon become a signature attraction is the “Blow Fish” Bar, named for the unusual lights that adorn the bar made from actual blow fish.  The full-service bar, under the direction of manager John Swanson, will feature tiki drinks made from authentic Polynesian recipes dating back 80-100 years.  For added flavor, the bar will use freshly squeezed juice, house made tonics, and their own five-spice syrup.  Nooe has also acquired a sugar cane extractor so they will be able to press their own sugar cane when it becomes available in the fall.

Explains Nooe, “These drinks are full of nutrients.  They are made from real sugar, not processed, so they are clean and nutritious.”

From his first restaurant in downtown Jackson to embracing the eclectic vibe that surrounds his new eatery, it appears Nooe has come full circle.

“I am really glad to be back in Jackson, specifically Fondren,” he says.  “The Fondren community is really supportive and genuinely wants to see businesses succeed.  This has really grown to become a go-to area that offers a lot of options.  With Swanson running the bar and [kitchen manager] Stephen Jackson running the kitchen, I really have a great team.”

In the Bloglight: Seeded at the Table

EDM Cover Aug Sep 2013eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
August / September 2013
Cover photo and article

Like a lot of new brides just starting out in life, Nikki Gladd – author of the blog Seeded at the Table – began learning to cook out of necessity. Her husband Ben was in graduate school working towards a Ph.D. in New Testament and money was tight. Nikki began cooking budget-friendly meals as a way to avoid having to eat out and save money.

“I was never taught how to cook while growing up, so I had a lot to learn!” Nikki says. “The more I cooked, the more I learned. The more I learned, the more I enjoyed it!”

Soon after, other newlywed friends and family members began asking Nikki for her recipes. A native of Michigan, Nikki and her husband have also lived in the suburbs of Chicago and in Southern California. Because friends and family were spread out all over the country, Nikki launched her first blog – Pennies on a Platter – in 2007 as a way to share recipes that she tried and recommended.

In 2012, Ben, Nikki, and their young son Judah left Southern California and moved to Mississippi where Ben began a teaching job at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. It was during this time that Nikki began formulating an idea to rebrand her blog so that she could share more about her faith, family adventures, travel experiences, and product reviews. Seeded at the Table launched in early 2013.

“The phrase ‘Seated at the Table’ is one that means much more to me when it comes to my relationship with Jesus Christ, and changing the ‘Seated’ to ‘Seeded’ added a nurturing/growing notion to it,” Nikki explains. “My desire is to encourage families and friends to find joy and community by being nurtured at the table – sometimes an actual physical table, sometimes a symbolic table.”

Nikki admits that living all over the country has developed an appreciation for regional foods and cooking styles. She enjoys Midwestern favorites like hot dogs, brats, and Chicago-style pizza. While in California, she grew to love multi-cultural foods such as fish tacos and fresh salads. Since moving to Mississippi, she has jumped right into Southern cooking, honing her techniques for making cheese grits, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, and beignets.

Since her rebrand, Nikki’s readers have responded positively to the change. She never imagined that when she launched her first blog over six years ago that her life would change in so many ways. Nikki has been able to turn her hobby as a food blogger into a career, allowing her earn an income while being a stay-at-home mom Judah and newborn son Simon, who arrived in May. The highlight of her career came in February when she was granted to opportunity to interview First Lady Michelle Obama one-on-one during Obama’s visit to Clinton as part of the Let’s Move! campaign to prevent childhood obesity.

When asked to describe her experience interviewing the First Lady, Nikki reveals, “In one word: ‘unreal.’ She was the sweetest lady and made me feel like number one. She’s a super intelligent woman, but also very down to earth.”

Because Nikki and her family recently bought a house in Madison, she plans to add DIY home improvement and decorating projects to her lineup in addition to travel and family posts and of course, more recipes. One of her favorite recipes on the blog is White Cheese Dip.

“This recipe is a match of the queso dip we all crave at our favorite Mexican restaurants,” she says. “Using just a few ingredients and the microwave, it can be served in anyone’s home in just minutes!”

White Cheese Dip

Ingredients:
1 1/4 (1.25) lb block White American Cheese (Land O’Lakes brand preferred), cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup diced green chiles
2 pickled jalapenos, chopped
1 ounce pickled jalapeno juice
2/3 cup whole milk
1/2 cup cold water
Pinch of cumin (optional)

Directions:
Toss all ingredients into a large microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 5 minutes, stopping to stir after every minute. The mixture might seem watery during the first few stirs, but should come together as a nice runny dip after all the cheese is melted.
Serve immediately as a dip with tortilla chips or as a sauce over your favorite Mexican dish.

*Recipe Note: White American cheese is found at most deli counters in your local grocery store.

*Reheat Instructions: Store any leftover cheese dip in the fridge. Reheat in the microwave, stirring every 30 seconds until creamy and hot.

A Restaurant for the People: Madison native Zack Athearn returns home to serve up reinvented Southern cuisine

Portico August 2013Portico Jackson
August 2013

Most Southerners view food and cooking as much more than just a way to provide fuel for the body.  We to link our favorite dishes to emotions, feelings, and even childhood memories.  Zack Athearn, owner and executive chef of City Grille in Madison is no exception.  He has fond memories of working side-by-side in the kitchen with his grandmother, while Athearn’s grandfather taught him the finer points of hunting, fishing, and growing fresh produce.

What Athearn’s grandparents cultivated in him as a young boy sparked an interest that would stay with him as he grew up.  In high school, he recalls “Iron Chef”-style competitions that he and his best friend held in his friend’s kitchen.  By the time he left home to attend Ole Miss, Athearn was an enthusiastic member of the local food scene, always on the lookout for new restaurants and good food.

“At that point, I really considered myself more of a foodie than a chef,” he explains.  “But as I progressed into my sophomore year of college, I began to wonder cooking for a living was something I could actually do.”

Shortly afterwards, Athearn was hired to work in the kitchen of The Veranda in Starkville.  Almost immediately, he began incorporating locally sourced fresh produce and meat into all the dishes.

“Everything grown and purchased locally tastes so different than anything you can buy in a store,” he says.

Athearn also began catering for weddings and rehearsal dinners.  This gave him the opportunity to travel, try new cuisines, learn new techniques, and work with some of the best restaurants in the South such a Muriels in New Orleans.  After eight years in the restaurant business, he began to wonder if he was finally ready to take the plunge into owning his own business.

The deciding factor came in 2009 when Athearn’s grandmother, who played such a significant role in his life and career, was diagnosed with cancer.

“I knew I needed to be close to her and I had to figure out how I was going to get home,” he reveals.  “However, I didn’t want to come home and go to work for someone else. “

He began working on a concept for building a new restaurant from the ground up.  In 2010, Athearn and a business partner opened Georgia Blue in Madison, a casual family-style restaurant that serves up sophisticated American food.

When it came time for Athearn to leave Georgia Blue and open a new restaurant, he knew he wanted to stay close to his roots and open another restaurant in Madison.  He searched for almost a year for the prefect location, finally purchasing an abandoned Blockbuster.

Says Athearn, “There was nothing in that building but carpet and a bathroom.  I had a lot of work to do before we would be ready to open.”

After four months of construction, City Grilled opened its doors in February 2013.  Athearn describes the cuisine as reinvented Southern cuisine with French influence.  He prides himself on keeping everything fresh, from the fish, to the produce, to all the made-from-scratch sauces and salad dressings.  He also makes a point to keep the menu items manageable, changing it frequently according to what is in season.

“I don’t like huge menus because they can be overwhelming.  I believe if you are going to do something, do it well and execute it properly.  You can’t do that with a huge menu.”

One of the best aspects of owning a restaurant is bringing in menu items that diners aren’t likely to see anywhere else.  Like Athearn’s current favorite menu item, the tempura lobster roll.  Lobster claw meat and goat cheese risotto are rolled in a spinach wrap, lightly fried in a crunchy tempura batter, then served sushi-style with sweet corn cream and spicy “dragon sauce.”

“I love and am very passionate about food,” Athearn says.  “However, this restaurant isn’t just for me.  It’s for the people of Madison and the surrounding community.  I like bringing the people what they want to eat.”

Eating Al Fresco

919434_511684505545644_1825633308_o

eat.drink.MISSISSIPPI
June / July 2013
Article, photos, and cover

Spring is upon us, which means now is the time to get out and enjoy the outdoors before summer heat and mosquitos drive us back inside.  One of the best ways to enjoy the outdoors is a picnic.  Picnics can come in every form and fashion, from a romantic date for two, a fun-filled outing with the kids, or a time to catch up the relatives at a family get together.

To ensure a successful picnic, keep things simple.  Bring foods that can be eaten with your fingers and can tolerate warmer temperatures.  Remember, everything you bring to the picnic area you have to bring back with you, so opt for disposable items that can be thrown away afterwards.  After a hectic work week, combining delicious food with fresh air and sunshine is the perfect way to unwind.

Looking for a prime spot to picnic?  Mississippi has many to choose from.  In fact, Reserve America included several of Mississippi’s state parks in its “Top 100 Campground Awards.”

The listing below is just few of our peaceful and serene parks.  Each one has something different to offer and we invite you to explore all of them.

High White State Park
Grenada, MS

Located halfway between Memphis and Jackson, Hugh White State Park is home to Grenada Lake – Mississippi largest body of water.  The park’s 135 picnic sites are strategically located in various areas around the lake and each offers its own recreational amenities that are sure to please every outdoorsman.

The obvious attraction is Grenada Lake itself and there is no shortage of picnic tables and pavilions providing scenic views of the lake and its six beaches.  But if you’re looking for a way to work up an appetite, there are also four playgrounds located in three day-use areas in addition to tennis courts, ball fields, and a fitness trail.  Grenada Lake’s nature trail and four hiking paths are the perfect setting for doing a little bird watching.  The lake is also known for its crappie fishing as well as bass, bream and catfish.

Paul B. Johnson State Park
Hattiesburg, MS

Paul B. Johnson State Park is located on Geiger Lake in Mississippi’s Pine Belt Region.  The park is surrounded by long-leaf and loblolly pines, dogwoods, and ancient oak trees, creating the perfect setting for a family picnic.

Fifty picnic areas dot the shores of Geiger Lake along with six large picnic pavilions available by reservation for large groups.  Outdoor amenities include playground equipment, a 27 basket disc golf course, and a 5,000 square-foot splash pad where kids, and even their parents, can cool off on a hot summer day.  Fishermen can fish for largemouth bass, bluegill, shellcracker, crappie, and channel catfish

LeFleur’s Bluff State Park
Jackson, MS

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of Jackson lies the serene LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.  The 305 acres that make up the park are located on the banks of the Pearl River.  An abundance of amenities means there is plenty to do before and after a picnic.

In addition to five nature trails that lead hikers through wooded bluffs and river bottoms and beside lakes scenic swamplands, the park also features a nine-hole golf course, driving range, and children’s playground.  Fishing in Mayes Lake offers bass, bream, catfish and crappie.  The Mississippi Museum of Natural Science is also located on the outskirts of the park.

Legion State Park
Louisville MS

History abounds in Legion State Park, which was originally inhabited by the Choctaw Indians.  It is one of four original state parks built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.  In fact, the park’s visitor’s center, also known as Legion Lodge, is an impressive hand-hewn log structure that has remained unchanged since its construction in the 1930s.

The park’s 440 acres features a 1.6 mile nature trail around Lake Toppasha in addition to two miles of trails through the Red Hills Archery Range.  A children’s playground, swimming beach, and fishing are also available.  Legion State Park’s picnic area features tables, grills and picnic shelters as well as a large picnic pavilion, for large groups.

Holmes County State Park
Durant, MS

If you are making a road trip this summer on I-55, Holmes County State Park is conveniently located for a quick pit stop to stretch your legs and enjoy a bite to eat in the shade.  The 88-acre park is built around two bodies of water – English Lake and Odom Lake and has a variety of recreational amenities.

The park features three picnic areas equipped with tables and grills along with relaxing views of the water.  It also has three large picnic pavilions available for reservation for large groups.  Four miles of nature trails are good for working up an appetite or taking a relaxing stroll through the woods.  Along with playing fields, boat launch, fishing, and disc golf course, one of the park’s most unique features is a roller skating rink.

Sample recipe included with the article.  Other recipes included homemade cherry limeade, mini muffaletta sandwiches, and butterscotch pudding.

Spinach and Penne Pasta Salad

  • 1 package (16 ounces) uncooked penne pasta

 For the vinaigrette:

  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

 For the salad:

  • 1 ½ cups cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 3/4 cup (6 ounces) crumbled feta cheese
  • 4 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup sliced blacked olives
  • 1 package (6 ounces) fresh baby spinach

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat.  Cook pasta according to package directions.  Drain pasta and rinse in cold water.  Set aside.

While pasta is cooking, combine the vinaigrette ingredients.

In a large bowl, combine the pasta, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, onions, olives, and spinach.  Pour the vinaigrette over the mixture and toss until coated evenly.  Serve immediately.

Leftover can be store in an airtight container in the refridgerator for up to two days.

Serves 10

Healthy Father’s Day Favorites

Town & Gown cover June 2013Town & Gown
June 2013
Recipes and pictures

Sample recipe below.  Spread also included oven baked fries.  To view the entire issue online, visit the Town & Gown website.

 

 

 

 

Southwestern Turkey and Black Bean Burgers

Serves 4

  • 1 pound 90% lean ground turkey
  • 1 cup cooked black beans
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 slice whole wheat bread, torn into smaller pieces
  • ¼ teaspoon red chili flakes
  • ½ teaspoon oregano
  • 4 slices pepper jack cheese
  • 4 whole wheat hamburger buns

Come on In, Stay Awhile: Entertaining Southern-style by chef and cookbook author Regina Charboneau

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Portico Jackson
June 2013

Natchez-native Regina Charboneau is a pro at Southern entertaining.  She should be – during any given week, the award-winning chef and author of Regina’s Table at Twin Oaks may play hostess to hundreds of visitors.  Everyone from friends and family, visitors with the Natchez Pilgrimage, cruisers on the American Queen Steamboat, Roman Catholic nuns, and British nobility have been welcomed to Twin Oaks, Charboneau’s Natchez residence.

One sunny, but unseasonably cool afternoon in late March, a bus full of approximately thirty river boat cruisers pulls up to the curb in front of Twin Oaks.  Charboneau is dressed casually in an oversized shirt, black leggings, flats, and her signature cat-eye glasses.  As cruisers begin to disembark and make their way up the front walk, she throws open the huge wooden front door to Twin Oaks, steps out onto the front porch, and greets everyone with a warm, “Hello!  Please come inside.”

The first guests step over the threshold into the front hall and a woman wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat is the first to exclaim, “Wow!”  Soon, the room is buzzing with awe and amazement as everyone takes in the grand staircase leading up to the second floor, the ornate antique furniture, and large paintings on the wall.  Everyone is instructed to make themselves comfortable in two adjoining rooms to the left of the main hallway.

In today’s world of celebrity chefs, cut-throat reality cooking shows, and cable networks devoted entirely to food, one might assume that that Charboneau, after having lived all over the world, overseen two very successful business ventures, and mixed company with some of the biggest names on the planet, would be difficult to relate to.  But to be a fly on the wall during one of her riverboat demonstrations or as she gives guided tours of her home during the Natchez pilgrimage, it becomes very apparent that Charboneau hasn’t lost sight of what Southern hospitality has always meant.

She begins by laying down the ground rules to her guests.  “The first rule of thumb in my house,” she says, “is that there are no rules.  Sit on the furniture, open closet doors, go wherever you like.  Nothing is off limits.”

She then goes into the history of Twin Oaks, built in 1832 by Pierce Connelly, an Episcopal priest, and his wife Cornelia.  Pierce and Cornelia would later convert to Catholicism, Pierce going on to become an ordained Catholic priest in Rome while Cornelia would later establish her own order of Roman Catholic nuns.  To this day, Charboneau will occasionally receive a knock at the door from nuns of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus looking to catch a glimpse of the former home of their founder.

But what all these travelers, some from as far away as California, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, really came to hear about is Charboneau herself – the culinary director for the American Queen Steamboat Company and whose cookbook they just purchased in the boat’s gift shop.  A seventh-generation Southerner, Charboneau credits her mother for her ability to throw a good party.  However, she admits that while her mother was the entertainer, her father was the cook.  It was her father that would influence her career path later in life.  Charboneau attended several universities throughout the South, before traveling to the bush of Alaska with a group of friends.  While there, she landed her first culinary job, working as a cook at a construction camp.

Not surprisingly, Charboneau’s mother was less than thrilled by the news that her daughter had taken a job thousands of miles away in a remote area only accessible by aircraft or snowmobile.   “This was the late 1970’s,” explained Charboneau.  “I called my mother from a pay phone with my exciting news, and since there were no cell phones and no internet, there was nothing she could do at that point to talk me out of it.”

Despite her mother’s misgivings, Charboneau’s life would likely have taken a completely different direction had she not taken that job.  While in Alaska, she met her husband Doug and also saved enough money to put herself through Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France, one of the first accredited professional cooking schools in France to offer instruction in both French and English. Afterwards, she returned to Alaska and accepted the position of executive chef at the Tower Club in Anchorage.

In 1985, she opened her first restaurant, Regina’s at the Regis, located in the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco’s SOMA district.  It was during this time that the SOMA district was undergoing an artistic and cultural boom and Regina’s at the Regis was situated right in the middle of the theater district.  It soon became known for its opening night parties and theater goers could expect to rub elbows with celebrities such as Shirley Maclain, Danny Glover, Patti LaBelle, and Lily Tomlin.

In 1995, Charboneau drew inspiration from her Southern roots when she opened Biscuits and Blues, a restaurant that serves award-winning Southern cuisine while showcasing nightly acts by popular blues artists.   It was awarded a WC Handy award in 1999 as the “Best Blues Club in America. “

Despite the success of two restaurants, the Mighty Mississippi still ran through Charboneau’s veins and Natchez was never far from her mind.  She is often quoted as saying, “I spent my first 23 years trying to get away from Natchez and spent the next 23 trying to get home again.”

In 2000, she did just that.  Charboneau and her husband purchased Twin Oaks and began raising their two sons, Jean-Luc and Martin, according to the deep seated traditions and simple lifestyle that Southerners are so famous for.  In addition to running a six-bedroom guest house on the property, she oversees menu and recipe development for the American Queen Steamboat Company.  Frequently, she opens her home up to riverboat cruisers, allowing them a glimpse into Southern life and a taste of the cuisine.

Charboneau gives her riverboat guests a moment to explore her house and the grounds.  Mixed in among the beautiful antiques are glimpses into her life.  The hallway leading to the kitchen is covered in framed crayon sketches of various celebrities once used for opening night parties at Regina’s at the Regis.  Down the hall, novels line the bookshelves and cover the top of the baby grand piano in the library.  Tucked among the books are photos such as a black and white of Charboneau and actor Danny Glover and little trinkets like a set of Japanese maneki-neko figurines.  Outside in the garden, the snow white blossoms of the dogwoods are in full bloom and delicate paper lanterns strung from tree branches blow in the breeze.

Charboneau knows she wouldn’t be a very good hostess if she let her guests leave hungry.  In the adjoining formal dining room, she’s brought out the white tablecloths and glass serving platters full of treats are spread from one end to the other.  An impressive decanter filled with clementine-infused vodka waits to be mixed with cranberry juice.  There are delicate sandwiches topped with basil mayonnaise, tomato slices, and bacon; mini butter biscuits stuffed with turkey and cranberry chutney; and an absolutely sinful blackberry crème brulee trifle.  A punch bowl of refreshing almond iced tea is situated between two friendly pineapples, the symbol of Southern hospitality.

The two-hour excursion has gone by in a flash, and before long the tour bus once again pulls up to the front curb.  Guests scurry to make sure Charboneau signs their cookbooks.  Several hug her neck as if they have always been dear friends.  As the bus pulls away to take them back to their cabins aboard the American Queen, Charboneau stands on the front porch and waves goodbye until the bus is out of sight.  Another successful party has come to an end.

You don’t have to be a professional chef to throw a memorable party.  In fact, Charboneau says by keeping a few rules of thumb in mind, throwing a party that everyone will remember but still allow you to keep your sanity it easier than you think.

Regina Charboneau’s Tips for Southern Entertaining:

  1. Don’t try to be a martyr.  It is not necessary to make everything you serve from scratch.  Your party should not only be enjoyable to your guests, but you as well.
  2. Plan your menu around items that can be made ahead of time and frozen.  Regina’s famous butter biscuits can be frozen just before baking.  Remove them from the freezer a few hours before the party to thaw, then bake as normal.
  3. Pick a time during the year that works for your house.  Do you have a green thumb and love to garden?  Throw a dinner party during the spring when your flowers are in bloom.  Does your house look particularly lovely during the holidays?  Host a Christmas party.
  4. Use fun condiments to enhance a meal.  It’s okay to use store bought or something you already have on hand in your pantry.  Set it out in an attractive dish and no one will question whether it’s homemade or not.
  5. Set up stations where guests can serve themselves.  Charboneau frequently sets up empty drinking glasses beforehand.  A few minutes before guests arrive, she sets out a bucket of ice cubes so guests can grab their drinks and go.