If you're born in Charleston, you absorb the vernacular of its rich local food culture just as you learn to talk. The Lee Bros., who moved from New York to Charleston as kids, found themselves swimming in a whole new language of strange and amazing new food names, flavors, and traditions. As they discovered the pleasure of gorging on mulberries, luring blue crabs with chicken necks on strings, peeling loquats to enjoy their sweet-tart flesh, and so many more food-centered adventures, they developed an abiding sense of wonder about food that's followed them into the kitchen--and eventually fuelled a career as food journalists and writers of award-winning cookbooks.
Their new book, The Lee Bros. Chaleston Kitchen, pays tribute to their adopted hometown's deep and delicious culinary roots. To celebrate its arrival, we asked Matt Lee and Ted Lee to share five unsung, forageable Charleston ingredients--and what they like to do with them. Enjoy, and don't miss the book's beguiling trailer, after the jump! --Mari Malcolm
From Matt Lee & Ted Lee: Charlestonians are no strangers to foraging. We come by it honestly"”and early"”because as a kid it seems so magical to to climb a loquat tree downtown, and to pick and eat these weird little yellow fruits. (Besides, we learn that it's also fun to throw them at your friends, and at the occasional carriage tour!) Here, we present five favorite Charleston-foraged foods.
CHAINEY BRIAR (Smilax bona-nox) "Chainey briar" is what Charlestonians of a certain age call the tender shoots of the smilax"”or cat briar"”vine, which can be found growing in the dunes and in sandy disturbed sites and fencelines throughout the area. The distinctive spade-shaped leaves distinguish smilax from other vines growing in the same terrain. Raw, chainey briar has a delicious asparagus- and olive-like flavor that is fresh and green. We typically grill it, then dress it with a vinaigrette or tamari-based sauce. Or we tuck a few tendrils into a baked flounder in parchment.
LOQUATS (Eriobotrya japonica) No more flavorful than a Granny Smith apple, and a whole lot harder to eat since they're smaller than a lime and have three big seeds in them, loquats don't have leagues of champions, even in Charleston. What the most old-school Charlestonians"”and we!"”love to do with them is load a quart-size canning jar with washed fruit, top up with neutral spirits like vodka or brandy, and let stand for a week, or as some prefer, one year. The fruit will oxidize and the alcohol will become infused with a beguiling cherry-almond flavor that's a great shot over ice as an aperitif or nightcap, and a superb substitute for sweet vermouth in your favorite Manhattan cocktail recipe.
PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS (Opuntia tuna) Found mostly in the dry zones behind the sand dunes on the sea islands around Charleston (and ornamentally in other places), the purple-skinned fruits this plant puts forth have a mild sweet-tart flavor and electrifying, flame-magenta interior. They're used in many places as a landscaping plant, so we pick from a bank parking lot on Highway 61, buzz them up in the blender, then strain the juice into a dry martini or a margarita because it gives the drink the hue of the most amazing pink sunset you ever saw.
KUMQUATS (Citrus japonica) Kumquats look like miniature, oblong oranges, but they function sort of in reverse: the inside is pithy, less interesting, but the skin is sweet, tart and delicious: an otherworldy citrus flavor, like lime and tangerine in one, neat, small package. We infuse gin with sliced kumquats to make an infusion that works wonders in all kinds of delicious cocktails: kumquat martinis, kumquat margaritas, kumquat sparklers (a tablespoon or two of kumquat gin in a flute topped up with sparkling white wine). If you find them at the right ripeness--when the skin is sweetest and the interior is still tender and juicy--they are delicious eaten out of hand.
MULBERRIES (Morus nigra) Most people think mulberries are a nuisance: they drop their fruit on Charleston sidewalks and then get tracked into houses on people's shoes, where they stain the carpets. We pick them before they get underfoot, buzz them up in a blender with a tiny bit of salt and then strain the juice into a saucepan of sugar to make a syrup, which is great on ice cream and when cooked down with vinegar and herbs makes a delicious glaze for wild duck and venison. --Matt Lee & Ted Lee, authors of The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen