Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wes Melling -- Hydroponic Hero

If you are an avid GO diner, you might have noticed a most intriguing cherry tomato garnishing our Straight from the Garden Salad from time to time. It’s almost purple – possessing a rather swarthy complexion – and its flavor is even more complex. First comes sweetness followed by a heady, earthy flavor – bringing to mind dark, rich soil. This is most ironic, considering these tomatoes are grown without any dirt whatsoever. Wes and Juanita Melling cultivate these Black Cherry Tomatoes (an heirloom variety) in their entirely hydroponic greenhouse in Moncks Corner.

There at Kurios Farms, they have over 6,000 plants – predominately, lettuce but also tomatoes, cucumbers, and basil. If you have never seen a hydroponic setup, it really is something to behold. From the outside, it might just be another greenhouse – a large white structure made of galvanized metal tubing with a plastic skin. And even when you first enter, it does not look so foreign. Rows upon rows of plants climb up wire trellises, and happy fruit hangs from vines. Bees even flit about, pollinating plants. But then you look down and notice there happens to be no dirt anywhere. Wes grows his plants in perlite – a crushed volcanic rock – and a maze of plastic tubes connects the plants. Water runs through these tubes delivering nutrients like calcium and pot ash, and this entire process is controlled by a silent sentinel that hangs on the front wall.

If you made a quick tour of the place, you might not even notice this Grower’s Choice computer, which controls all of the variables – humidity, temperature, feeding, cooling and air flow. During the height of the season, the plants are fed every 20 minutes for 3 minutes, and they use 1,500 gallons of water each day. It would be easy to give the computer too much credit – a bit like the Wizard in Oz – when, in reality, the Mellings deserve all the credit. They are constantly perusing the rows -- harvesting, pruning, and making sure those bees (which they buy bi-monthly) are doing their job.

Also, Wes is constantly reprogramming the computer, and he knows better than to blindly trust electronics. One year he noticed that his plants were not progressing at a normal rate, and he finally thought to check his ph meter. He discovered the calibration was off, which meant he was not treating his water correctly, and consequently, he had to rip everything out and start over.

“Every year things come up,” says Wes. “You think you have it all under control…”

Still, he would much rather tend to his plants than sit behind a desk. The Mellings moved to South Carolina from Ohio in 1999. Wes had worked in management at BF Goodrich for 12 years when they decided to move away from the cold weather. Originally, the Mellings planned on buying a floral shop in the Charleston area, but that deal fell apart and Wes began to look into other options. He says the hydroponic idea came from a magazine that described how you could make as much money off an eighth of an indoor acre as you could off 100 outdoor acres. Basically, the greenhouse would cost the same as a large tractor.

Wes had always loved gardening, and after visiting a hydroponic setup in Ohio, he decided to take the plunge. For $160,000, provided all the pieces to build his operation and some technical support. Now, Wes talks casually about seriously scientific sounding topics like EC, or electrical continuity (which describes the amount of solids in the water) -- and he grows exquisite produce.

The Mellings sell their crops from the small storefront connected to the greenhouse and at the Summerville Farmers market. Their season is a bit different from outdoor farming, as it begins in November and ends in July. The plants must be torn out once a year, and July happens to be the perfect time due to the extreme heat and abundance of local tomatoes (which drives the prices down). This alternative growing season works out especially well for restaurants – allowing places like the GO to count on a consistent product during the winter months.

In July, the Mellings might try to take a little break and visit family in Ohio, but like traditional farmers, they are pretty bound to their trade. (They built a home that neighbors the greenhouse.)

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it,” Wes says. “If I figured out the time, I would make about $5 per hour.”

The Mellings’ son, Jarrod, does work with them, and Wes hopes he will take over the bulk of the work in the next few years. For now, his help proves invaluable with the more physical aspects of the job, like walking around on stilts to lower the plants when they reach the top of the trellis. It’s idiosyncrasies like this that make hydroponic gardening so unique and add a certain intrigue to the entire process. But when you ask Wes how he most enjoys his own product he gives a simple answer, “The tomatoes are nice sliced, and the lettuce is good on sandwiches,” he says.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Woman Behind the Golden Eggs

Celeste Albers is an iconic figure in the Lowcountry farming community. Her Sea Island Eggs are coveted by Charleston restaurants, and at the GO, we are lucky to serve them.

Cracking one open reveals a yolk as golden as a sunset. They literally make our bearnaise, deviled eggs, and desserts. During the heat of summer when the hens simply refuse to lay enough, we enter a time of mourning. We substitute other high-quality, farm-fresh eggs, but the bearnaise turns a pale yellow, more reminiscent of the washed-out midday sun than its evening splendor.

So who is the woman behind the golden eggs? Celeste’s roots lie in the Lowcountry. Her grandfather shrimped in Bulls Bay and ran a country store on Highway 17 near Awendaw. However, her father left farming to earn an accounting degree and wound up working for DuPont in Delaware. She remembers that he hated his job, and he eventually ended up back in Awendaw, farming the family land.

In 1993, Celeste moved down with her baby daughter, Erin, and joined him. She began selling their produce at the fledgling Charleston Farmers Market. There she met George Albers, who was selling his own produce. Celeste remembers that George used to stop by her booth, buy some of her wild blackberries, and chat for a while.

“It was the blackberries that did it,” says Celeste. “George stole me away from my dad, and before you knew it we had one booth instead of two.”

Together, they have navigated the rough terrain of making a living off the land. They have grown vegetables, shrimped, and finally raised chickens and cows. None of it has proven easy, especially since they lease rather than own their property -- negating any meager security you might expect a farmer to have. Furthermore, they physically labor every day of the year.

But Celeste maintains that she would rather this than a lifetime of working a job she hates. These days they do seem to have found their niche: focusing on their egg and raw milk production. And among those in the know, their product has achieved a cult-like following.

At the GO, we regularly receive phone calls from avid Celeste fans wanting to reserve their eggs and milk, and I truly understand their reverence. When the eggs become scarce, I reserve them for use only in our bread pudding, and with each of the 40 eggs I crack, I give thanks to Celeste.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Papa's Oyster Stew

Here, in Charleston we are lucky to have some warmer weather thawing us out, but I know that winter still has its hold on the folks up North! And regardless of your geographic location I am sure that everyone could a little gustatory hug as February drags on...

Well, I happen to have the perfect dish -- my father's oyster stew! Of course, you will need some freshly shucked oysters, but even inland states have great seafood markets! Seek one out and try out this simple, elegant dish for your next dinner party.

Papa's Oyster Stew

Every holiday season of my youth my father and I would go buy a Christmas tree together, and then we would buy quarts of freshly shucked oysters to make his famous stew while trimming the tree. Freshly shucked oysters may seem a bit incongruous if you remember that my hometown is the extremely inland hamlet of Columbus, Georgia. But my father's good friends, the Lunsfords, owned Rose Hill Seafood where they brought in oysters straight from Apalachicola, Florida. The flavor of those oysters and especially this stew is the flavor of my childhood.

1 quart shucked oysters and their liquor
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups chopped onion (about 1 medium onion)
3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Oyster crackers, for garnish

Place the oysters in a colander set over a bowl to drain off liquor. Reserve liquor and oysters.

Melt butter in a medium pot over medium heat. When foam subsides, add the onions and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved oyster liquor and cook until reduced by half, about 10 minutes. Add the milk and cream; bring to a simmer. Add the oysters; cook until their outer edges begin to curl, about 5 minutes. Serve hot with oyster crackers.

YIELD: About 4 entree servings

P.S. The stew might require more salt depending on the salinity of the oysters, but it is best not to oversalt at the outset.

P.P.S. I love a lot of black pepper in creamy dishes like this stew, but feel free to use less than the recommended 2 teaspoons if your palate is sensitive to spice.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Red Velvet Again -- For Valentine's Baking!

Just in case anyone wants to make a festive dessert for our favorite Hallmark holiday...I am reposting my recipe for Red Velvet Pound Cake!

Sarah's Red Velvet Pound Cake

Mystery surrounds the Red Velvet Cake; the particulars of its origin and ingredients vary from cook to cook. But any bona fide Southerner better have one in their repertoire. Mine comes in the form of a pound cake, as I feel the density stands up beautifully to all that cream cheese frosting! And I certainly don't go light on the food coloring, since red is the point, after all.

2 ½ cups sugar
8 large eggs
1 14-ounce can condensed milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 pound unsalted butter, melted
2 ¼ cups cake flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup red food coloring
Cream Cheese Frosting (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease a Bundt pan with softened butter and then dust with cocoa powder.

Combine sugar, eggs, condensed milk, vanilla, and salt in a food processor; mix until combined. While running, pour butter into food processor bowl and continue running until thoroughly combined. Pour this mixture into a large mixing bowl. Sift flour, cocoa powder, and baking powder into egg mixture, whisking as you go. Add red food coloring; whisk to combine. Pour batter into pan.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 1/2 hours. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Release from pan onto serving plate.

Allow to thoroughly cool.

Applying frosting to a cake is a battle against crumbs. It is easier done when the cake is cold since it will be less likely to crumble; thus, there will be several trips back and forth to the refrigerator during the icing process.

To frost: Refrigerate the cake until cold. Once cold, remove the cake and apply a thin layer of Cream Cheese Frosting using an icing spatula. Return cake to refrigerator until frosting hardens. Remove cake and apply remaining frosting using icing spatula. Refrigerate until frosting stiffens up a bit. Slice while cold, but cake is best served at room temperature.

YIELD: 16 to 20 servings

24 ounces cream cheese, softened
15 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Combine the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice and mix on low speed until combined.

P.S. The icing can be made in advance and refrigerated but should be brought to room temperature before using.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Glenn Roberts -- Father of Anson Mills

To understand the mind of artisanal grain guru Glenn Roberts, you must imagine a raging fire of knowledge. A quick conversation with him could jump from his mother's black-skillet cooking to moonshine to his cultivation of true benne. Do not be fooled by the seemingly random nature of these topics. Inside his mind, Glenn connects all sorts of ideas, just in a roundabout way. Eventually, most wind back to his brainchild, Anson Mills, and the art of seed preservation.

Glenn officially founded Anson Mills in 1998 and began supplying heritage strands of rice and corn products to chefs around the country from his home base in Columbia, South Carolina. However, the cultivation of Anson Mills began long before that year, back before Glenn even considered farming as a career option. Glenn uses the word "nonlinear" to describe his professional track, and he does so with pride. "My idea was to be as counter intuitive as possible," he says.

Glenn was born in Delaware and raised in California, but his mother, Mary Elizabeth Clifton, has deep ties to the South. During the early 1900s her father owned hotels all along the eastern seaboard that catered to horse racing tracks. This afforded them a lodge near Savannah, a house on South Carolina's Edisto Island, and an African American cook and nanny who taught her the secrets of black-skillet cooking. In fact, she grew up pounding kitchen rice and hand-milling grits at their house on Edisto.

All of these lessons became exceedingly valuable when the Depression hit, and their family went from being comfortable to hoping they would not lose everything. Ultimately, Glenn's grandfather decided the best place for his daughter would be at the helm of their hotel in Aiken, South Carolina. Thus, she began running this property at age 14 in the depths of the Depression . "She was feeding more people out the back door than the front door," says Glenn. "Black and white -- everyone was poor."

Eventually, his mother moved back to Delaware, and there she met his father. Their common love of music brought them together: he was the church choir director, and she was a talented vocalist. This passion ultimately led them to La Jolla, California, where they could study under the plethora of musicians that performed at the Hollywood Bowl.

Despite the move, Mary Elizabeth kept up her southern culinary ways, centered largely on rice. Glenn remembers that the cooking of rice was a ritual in their house that denoted a sense of honor. He also remembers, with a smile, that he was only allowed to cook rice for the dog. While Glenn treasures all of these kitchen memories now, at the time, he wanted nothing more than to be an astronaut. This never materialized, but he excelled in his studies and went to college at age 14 on a music and math scholarship. The college happened to be the University of North Carolina, and just like that his southern roots reconnected.

Glenn worked a myriad of jobs during college -- none without purpose. As a doffer in a twine factory, he saw the power of primitive water-driven machinery. And as a musician he toured around the southeast extensively -- experiencing firsthand the culture of the region his mother remembered fondly.

His major in topology -- a branch of mathematics specializing in distorting an object's spacial properties -- enabled him to break into the world of architecture upon graduation, and in this world he found his professional footing. He worked with one of the top firms at the time, and eventually developed hotel/restaurant design as his specialty. Glenn traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard resurrecting historic properties. He especially loved this line of work, as he loved working with chefs. He remembers that at the time, during the 1970s, there was a definite lack of locality in restaurant cuisine. The chefs that recognized this missing connection between farm and table happened to be those who came over from Europe to work at hotels.

"These great European chefs had walked away from a system of people [farmers] bringing stuff to their back doors," says Glenn.

Their interest in the agriculture behind the food lodged in Glenn's mind, right beside his mother's stories of freshly milled rice and grits. He had been sending her grits throughout his southern travels trying to satisfy her childhood memories, but she finally told him to stop wasting his time because they lacked any real flavor. "She wasn't trying to hurt anyone's feelings," says Glenn. "She just had a keen palate and remembered what they tasted like."

These thoughts came together just as Glenn approached burnout in the design world. He decided to take a break and chose Charleston as his retreat. He lived at the beach and found work on Junior Magwood's shrimp boat. Despite Glenn's desire to "do nothing" for a while, he gradually found himself pulled into the Charleston food community. A rediscovery of local foodways seemed to be underway, and Glenn could not help but join the effort. He met farmers like George and Celeste Albers and found work at Perdita's restaurant. There, he cooked, but perhaps more importantly he developed relationships with the largely African American staff who had been there since 1952. "They remembered everything from their grandparents...stuff that wasn't normal uptown food in Charleston at the time," says Glenn.

All of this simply added fuel to Glenn's fire. That tiny flame lit by his mother began to burn brighter, and before he knew it Glenn found himself filled with a burning desire to resurrect historic foodways -- specifically artisanal grains, and even more specifically Carolina Gold Rice. Thankfully, he already knew some of the key players like Dick and Tricia Schulze who had repatriated Carolina Gold Rice on their plantation near Savannah.

The Schulzes came by their seed through Texas A&M University, and Glenn sought out seed there as well. Luckily, he came away with not just seed but also the acquaintances of a leading corn and rice geneticist Dr. Anna McClung and a renowned entomologist, Dr. Merle Shepherd. Both provided and continue to provide invaluable assistance in his grain cultivation.

Finding the heirloom varieties of corn would require Glenn to dig a bit deeper in his past. He knew that, sadly, corn had become one of America's most industrialized crops and consequently, an extremely homogenized crop. Many of the historic lines of corn that possessed complex flavor and aroma also happened to be difficult to grow. So the question became, "Who might still have corn seed that dated back before industrialized farming became such a dominant force?"

Glenn remembered from his days at the North Carolina twine factory that there had been much talk of bootleggers. The reality (legal or not) was that generations of rural southerners survived on their proficiency in distilling corn whiskey. This was a lifestyle that did not allow them to buy seed from the local co-op; but rather, they saved seeds from their crops year after year (going back decades). Through avenues that only Glenn could drum up, he found one such family that appreciated his interest in their agriculture and eventually grew a field of corn for him.

This first field of corn proved a valuable lesson for Glenn when a wind storm blew the entire crop down in a matter of minutes. The next year he grew smaller plots in multiple locations, and he finally yielded his first crop of corn. Of course, he sent some to his mother and took some back to the staff at Perdita's. The flavor brought back the memories that Glenn had sought out for so long.

Glenn specifically remembers when he finally succeeded in bringing his mother some freshly milled rice. "Quiet reflection over a bowl of rice is something to behold," he says.

Corn and rice proved just the beginning for Glenn; now he cultivates heritage wheat, peas, and more. However, Glenn insists that, at heart, he is a "rice guy." Unfortunately, the economics of growing heritage rice prove entirely unprofitable. "It's not a business venture, but a cultural venture," says Glenn. Thankfully, the other crops help sustain his efforts.

Glenn's steadfast dedication to quality demonstrated in such painstaking practices as cold-milling and on-demand production have garnered him quite a following from the very beginning. Top southern chefs like Anne Quatrono, Louis Osteen, and Frank Stitt bought Glenn's first corn and rice, and others from around the country soon followed suit. Within the first few years Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, and Daniel Boulud all recognized the importance of Glenn's vision and the superior product he provided.

However, it must be noted that despite his celebrity chef roster and unequivocal success, Glenn shrugs off any praise. His primary allegiance remains the same -- the preservation of heritage seeds. Through Anson Mills and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, he seeks to enlist farmers on his mission. Not only does Glenn contract farmers in growing the crops but also in milling the product. He proclaims with pride that even his accountant can operate a combine. Glenn assists in all areas of the process -- from the field to the mill to the paperwork. His longtime business ally, Catherine Schopfer, brokers the grains, which basically entails constant communication with their commercial customers. Glenn's wife, Kay, is a free-lance writer who met him when the New York Times sent her down South to capture his story. Now, she attempts to capture his knowledge for use on the Anson Mills website -- -- which catalogs their various products.

Daring to distill the facts running through Glenn's head should be lauded. Like his ambition they seem ceaseless. Glenn has a favorite expression when describing folks he really admires -- from farmers to geneticists. He will say that they have forgotten more than most of us know. The irony is that he does not realize this statement describes himself perfectly.

Glenn Roberts has definitely forgotten more than most of know, and he's still learning.


At the GO we use Anson Mills "Carolina Whole Hominy Quick Yellow Grits" and Sea Island Red Peas.

You may buy directly from the Anson Mills website --

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Baby It's Cold Outside...Warm Up with Bread Pudding!

Okay, so maybe it's not as cold in Charleston as further north, but the dreary days of winter are certainly upon us. And I happen to have the perfect solution for the February blues...our World Famous Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce.

World Famous Bread Pudding

At the GO, we have served this dessert since day one, and we have called it “world famous” since day one -- it is just that amazing! The secret to its intoxicating powers lies in the beautiful, golden egg yolks that come courtesy of Celeste Albers. Her happy Wadmalaw Island hens lay the best eggs in town, and they are essential to the success of our bread pudding.

Read Celeste's story in my earlier blog!

15 egg yolks
¾ cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar
4 ½ cups heavy cream
1 ½ cups milk
2 ¼ teaspoons vanilla extract
12 cups soft French bread, diced into 1-inch squares
3/4 cup chopped pecans
Whiskey Sauce (see recipe below)

Combine egg yolks and sugar in a large bowl; whisk to combine. Add cream, milk, and vanilla; whisk to combine. Add bread and pecans; stir with a wooden spoon until well combined. Cover and refrigerate overnight. (The mixture must be soaked at least overnight and up to a few days in advance.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Stir mixture well and pour into 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Bake until surface feels firm, 30 to 40 minutes.

Serve warm with Whiskey Sauce. You may pour Whiskey Sauce over pan of bread pudding or pass around in a dish or guests to pour over their individual servings.

YIELD: 8 to 10 servings

1 cup milk
½ cup sugar
2 egg yolks
¼ cup bourbon

Combine egg yolks in a medium bowl and have near stove with a ladle for tempering. Combine milk and sugar in a medium pot over medium heat. Heat milk-sugar mixture until steaming. Ladle about 1 cup milk-sugar mixture into bowl with egg yolks. Whisk to combine. Add egg mixture to pot with milk-sugar mixture and whisk to combine. Heat until the mixture just begins to simmer.
Remove from heat and pour through a chinois or other fine-meshed strainer into a medium bowl. Fill a large bowl with ice water and set the medium bowl of sauce in this larger bowl to chill. Add bourbon; stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. This can be made several days in advance but should be brought to room temperature before serving.

YIELD: About 1 ½ cups