Metro Atlanta Urban Farm {Shrimp & Grits with Bacon, Corn, Asparagus and Chardonnay}

This week has been a bit of a whirlwind.  For someone who is happily content to exist within a 3-mile radius, I have traveled outside my usual stomping grounds on more than one occasion in the last seven days.

And I’m exhausted.

But also enlightened and inspired.

On September 20, I had the privilege of attending a communal dinner at the Metro Atlanta Urban Garden.  Sponsored by Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi’s Giving through Growing program, members of the Farm’s staff welcomed community members to dine with them in celebration of the amazing work being done there. 

Tucked away along a busy stretch of urban road in College Park, GA is this almost-five-acre working farm, complete with a Victorian-era farm house, caretaker’s cottage and original red barn, which serves as the support for their lovely greenhouse made from reclaimed windows.  They are certified naturally grown, and they produce all of their own soil and compost on site. The farm is situated on a 300-foot deep well, from which they draw all of the water for irrigation.  In the midst of a concrete jungle, there is this beautiful agricultural oasis.  It’s like a different time and place.

This is Bobby Wilson , President of the American Community Gardening Association, and co-founder of the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm.  He was kind enough to give us a tour, and  teach us a thing or two about community gardens and what a true gift they are to the people who have the opportunity to be involved with them.  His passion for his work was evident as he talked about the therapeutic benefits of gardening, the way it brings people together, and the joy of reaping the fruits of your labor month after month.

In this current position, as well as in a former role as the Program Director for The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension/Atlanta Urban Gardening Program, Bobby has offered gardening instruction and support to some three hundred gardens located at public housing complexes, shelters, schools, churches and elder care facilities in metro Atlanta.  He has also been instrumental in securing the partnership with Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, which resulted in an $8000 grant that allowed them to double the size of their community garden and install a drip irrigation system.  It has also allowed them to donate a portion of the food grown in the community garden to the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

Candice Kumai serves as the National Ambassador for Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi’s Giving through Growing program.  She was in attendance on Thursday, cooking up good things from the garden and working with the representatives from Mondavi to promote the good work being done at community gardens all around the country.   According to the Giving through Growing website:

Beyond supporting our own winery garden which was planted to produce fruits and vegetables for the Stockton San Joaquin Emergency Food Bank, Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi has granted $8,000 to five other gardens across the U.S. to undertake whatever is needed to produce more food –whether that’s building additional planter beds, improving watering systems, recruiting volunteers, or buying more fruit trees and vegetable seeds. All of the additional produce raised through this project will be donated to local food banks.

It was a great party, celebrating a great program, and I felt so privileged to have been invited to attend.  People who work in the garden, people who benefit from the garden and people who support the garden all came together to celebrate and dine together.  It was a true testament to the role that gardens can play in benefiting and growing a community.  And knowing that a portion of the evening’s dinner was grown right on the property made it even more special.

On Sunday, I introduced a friend of mine to one of my favorite places to shop for produce, outside of my own garden or my local farmer’s market (which is, sadly, closed for the season). For people in the Atlanta area, Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market is a great affordable alternative for fresh, local (sometimes, sometimes not so local) produce and meats.  While I was there, I picked up some sweet white corn, tiny pencil-thin asparagus (which I realize is out of season here, but I just can’t resist those tender green stalks when I see them all lined up.  Even if they came all the way from Peru), and some wild-caught Georgia shrimp.  I still had some stone-ground grits in my freezer from Rockin’ S Farms, so I thought a Georgia shrimp and grits dish would be nice.  I made a quick sauce using some of the Woodbridge Chardonnay that I received as a gift at the Farm celebration the other night.

Shrimp and Grits with Bacon, Corn, Asparagus and Chardonnay

prep time: 15 minutes

cook time: 15 minutes

serves: 6-8

Ingredients

  • 2 slices thick-cut bacon
  • 1 lb. wild-caught Georgia shrimp, peeled and de-veined
  • 2 ears corn, kernels cut from cob
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces (you could easily sub some swiss chard or kale here if you want to keep this truly seasonal).
  • 3 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 cups stone ground grits, cooked according to package directions
  • 2 oz. Manchego cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup chardonnay, divided
  • salt and pepper to taste

  1. Begin by cooking the bacon over medium-low heat, allowing the fat to cook out and the bacon to crisp up slowly.
  2. Remove the bacon from the pan, and pour the fat off into a heat-proof container.  Crumble the bacon and set aside.
  3. Add a tablespoon of the bacon fat back to the pan, along with a tablespoon of butter.
  4. Increase the heat to medium and add the diced onion.  Saute until translucent.
  5. Add the corn and the minced garlic.  Saute until corn starts to brown slightly.
  6. Pour 1/2 a cup of chardonnay into the pan and add a tablespoon of butter, whisking to combine.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Remove from heat and add the asparagus.  Cover and set aside – the asparagus will cook in the residual steam.
  8. Cook the grits according the package instructions (I do mine in liberally salted water, but you could also use chicken or vegetable stock).  At the end of the cooking time, remove from heat and add a tablespoon of butter and the manchego cheese.
  9. Heat an iron skillet over medium-high heat.  Add a tablespoon of the reserved bacon grease.  Season the cleaned shrimp with salt and pepper.  Cook in batches, approximately 1 1/2 minutes per side.  Deglaze the pan with the remaining chardonnay and add the shrimp back in.
  10. To serve, place about a cup of the cooked grits in the bottom of a bowl, then spoon the corn and asparagus mixture over the top, then place the shrimp on top of that.  Garnish with crumbled bacon and additional manchego cheese if desired.
  11. Enjoy!

If you have a chance, I encourage you to visit the Metro Atlanta Urban Farm, or another community garden in your area. There’s a community garden finder tool on the Giving through Growing website.  I think you’ll be surprised just how many of these communal gardens there are.  There may even be one in your neighborhood.  Get involved, and plant a row to donate to your local food pantry.  If you’re interested in starting a community garden, Bobby and the folks at the American Community Gardening Association can help with that, too.

Yellow Valleys, Amber Waves and Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

I hope you’ll bear with me to the end of this post – it’s kind of long.  In fact, it’s probably two posts in one; but, they’re two posts that really do have something in common, so I ask for your patience as I tie together the loose ends.  It’s all about making and sharing memories with family.  And corn.  Lots and lots of corn.

Back at the beginning of July, our family set off on a National Lampoon-style, semi-cross-country road trip.  For years, my mom has been talking about looking at some acreage in Wyoming, and this summer we decided to do something about it.  We rented a fancy space-age mini-van and loaded it up for a seven-day, nine-state, 3200-mile round trip tour.  With two small children in tow, that is no small feat.

And it really was a road trip in the truest sense – we spent at least seven hours (and sometimes as many as 11) every day driving, and spent no more than one night in any one place.  I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but I have to admit that it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken.

Armed with a myriad of DVDs for the kids, and satellite radio for the adults we set off down the road.  We were subjected to multiple viewings of Cars 2 and Dora the Explorer’s Hic-Boom-Ohhh episode.  When it was “mom’s turn” we listened to the Sirius Bluegrass station as a respite.  To keep the kids occupied while the DVD player was “resting”, we had them look for Dora’s yellow valley and quiet forest.  With miles and miles of corn fields to look at, that yellow valley wasn’t too hard to find.

On the first night on our way out to Wyoming, we stopped in St. Louis.  We ate at a local wood-fired pizza joint called Twin Oak, where we enjoyed some tasty pies and local brews.

Stingray touch pool at the St. Louis Zoo

The next morning we took the boys to the St. Louis Zoo for a couple of hours before hitting the road. We tried to do at least one fun, kid-friendly thing every day.  It cut down on the monotony of the car ride, and it let the boys get some energy out of their systems before being cooped up for hours on end.  It was a pretty good strategy.

Lincon, NE Train Depot

Our second night was spent in Lincoln, NE, where we ate at Lazlo’s in the Haymarket District.  The food was good, the beer, brewed right next door, was excellent and the service was impeccable.  The boys enjoyed getting to run around the old train depot after dinner, and we even found a little local ice cream shop for dessert.

Steam-powered carousel at the Pioneer Village

The next morning, on our way to Cheyenne, WY, we stopped at a place called Harold Warp’s Pioneer Village in Minden, NE.  It’s a little off the beaten path (like you feel like you’re driving through about a million miles of GMO corn and cattle feed lots to get there), but it was completely worth the detour.  From cars to trains to airplanes to tractors to boats, there was something of interest for everyone.  I think the adults liked this one as much as the kids (if not more).

In Cheyenne, we watched some gunslingers shoot it out and ate a place called The Albany Restaurant and Bar which was recommended by a woman at the Cheyenne Train Depot.

The next morning it was on to Laramie, WY to look at some land (and lots and lots of wild horses and Pronghorn).  In Laramie we had lunch at Altitude Chophouse and Brewery where I had a perfectly cooked Filet Mignon and a spicy Mexican Chili Ale.

After Laramie, it was time to head back east.  We took a slightly different route home, driving through Colorado and Kansas (surrounded by purple mountains and amber waves of wheat, not to mention gigantic wind farms) on the return trip.  It was July 4th, and we stopped in Burlington, CO for lunch.  There, we had a chance to take a ride on the Historic Kit Carson Co. Carousel.  Yes, that’s actually a picture of me up there.

We spent the night of the 4th in Topeka, KS, where the highlight of our stay was getting to watch fireworks from our 4th-floor hotel room with the lights off.

The 5th was spent driving the rest of the way through Kansas, all of Missouri, and portions of Kentucky and Tennessee.  We stopped off at a Civil War Battlefield in Lexington, MO, and wound up spending the night in Clarkesville, TN (which just happens to be conveniently located close to another Civil War battle sight, much to my husband’s delight).

In Clarkesville we ate at a little hole-in-the-wall place called Brunies Bar and Grill.  When we first walked in we were a little reluctant (the atmosphere is definitely of the college dive bar variety), but the live music and the fact that we were hungry and it was late sold us.  They specialized in German food, so we opted for the bratwurst and schnitzel sandwiches (at the server’s suggestion) and the German potato salad.  We were pleasantly surprised by the food, and the music was really good – a win all around.

On the morning of the day we headed home, we took a little detour to visit Fort Donelson, significant because it was the site of the first Union victory in the South.  My husband is a big American Civil War history buff, so these last two days were sort of devoted to him.  The kids really enjoyed getting to see the big cannons, and my mom and I just liked being outside with the family (despite the 100+ degree temperatures).

____________________________________________________

As vacations go, it will go down in my book as one of the most interesting I’ve taken.  Not only was it fun to spend time with my family experiencing things and places that were new for all of us; it was also fascinating to see our country’s industrial agriculture system at work.  I’ve never seen so much corn and soy growing in my life.  We even joked a couple of times about stopping off and pulling a couple of ears of corn to have with dinner when we got to our evening destination.

Of course, when you see things like this along the way, you realize that most of that corn is probably not destined for our dinner table – at least not in the traditional sense.  Most likely, the corn we saw growing is more of a commodity crop, slated to be turned into livestock feed, fuel, or sweetener and filler for the processed food industry.  We might have been sorely disappointed had we actually stopped and picked a couple of ears for dinner.  For more information on corn as a commodity crop, I suggest watching King Corn – it’s a relatively unbiased and eye opening look at “Americas most-productive, most-subsidized grain.”

After seeing all that corn in the heartland, I had a hankering for some good ol’ creamed corn when I got home.  Our sad little row of corn in our backyard garden had about given up the ghost after a week of record temperatures and little rain, but I managed to salvage a few poorly developed ears to add to the mix.  The rest came from our local Saturday-morning Farmers Market.

The recipe is my paternal Grandmother’s, and it came to me by way of my dad’s sisters.  My mom and I had been talking a while back about how much we loved Grandma Helen’s creamed corn, and wondering how we could replicate it.  The thing that made it special was the combination of  lots of black pepper and the fact that it wasn’t at all sweet.  I decided to email my Aunt to see if she had the recipe.  Here’s her response:

Of all the people to ask – the one who can’t boil water.  I can see her making it now.  My memory of her at the stove stirring.  She did it on top of the stove in that big cast iron skillet, think she started out with a small amount of water and then made a thickening with milk and flour.  I remember pepper, almost a stick of butter and when she got it to the consistency she wanted, put it in the oven and baked it until done.  Seems like it had to bake for quite a while because all the liquid had to cook down.  Remember her stirring it while in the oven, trying to keep it from sticking too much.  My job was to clean that nasty skillet. I will send your message to N {my other aunt}.  Since she and M {my cousin} love to do corn for their holiday meals, she might remember more.  I really don’t think it was written down anywhere – just something she learned.

My other Aunt’s response followed soon after:

Ok..am trying to send this from wee phone at home…I do have a recipe written that says mama’ s cream corn! It calls for 8 to 10 ears. Two tablespoons flour…less if young…stir in 1 cup milk, 1 cup water, 1 stick butter and salt, pepper to taste….cook about one hour at 325…..with your directions Niki will do it! That lil girl is a Real chef. I didn’t write the steps but just having ingredients helps…Off to babysit…love u.

First, it cracks me up that they still think of me as a “lil girl”.  Second, I love the fact that we can collaborate and share family recipes via the internet.  Passing these things on and keeping them alive is so important to me.  None of us live close to each other, so the idea that we can just hop on the computer and pass this knowledge on to one another is amazing. It certainly doesn’t replace standing next to each other at the stove, but it ranks a close second.

And now I get to share it with all of you.

Grandma Helen’s Creamed Corn

prep time: 5 minutes

cook time: 1 hour

yield: 8 servings

  • 8-10 ears corn (preferably a less-sweet heirloom variety)
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 2 Tablespoons flour (less if the corn is young)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup water
  • salt and pepper to taste (lots of black pepper)
  1. Preheat oven to 325F
  2. Begin by cutting the corn off the cob and scraping the cob to get all the milky liquid and starch
  3. In a large skillet (preferably cast iron, but I used a stainless steel one because it was the only one I had that was big enough), melt the butter and whisk in the flour.  Cook flour for a couple of minutes, just to make sure it doesn’t taste of raw flour.
  4. Add the corn and stir to coat with the butter/flour mixture.
  5. Add the milk and water.
  6. Add the salt and pepper (I added about a teaspoon of salt, and 30-40 turns of my pepper grinder)
  7. Cook over medium heat until mixture comes to a boil and begins to thicken.
  8. Place in your preheated oven and let cook for about an hour, stirring periodically to make sure it’s not sticking.
  9. Enjoy!
 

Southern Culinary Traditions At the King and Prince: Shrimp and Grits

A week or so ago, I packed a bag, grabbed my camera and laptop, and climbed in a car with my good friend, Rachel.  We drove five hours south of Atlanta to St. Simons Island, Georgia for three nights and two days at the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort.  Rachel and I have traveled together many times over the years, and I can honestly say this was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.

The historic building at The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort

It was a bit of a working vacation, as we had both been invited to attend a FAM trip focusing on the resort and their efforts to incorporate local and regional cuisine into their dining experiences.  If you’re unfamiliar (ha!) with the term, FAM is short for “familiarization,” and these trips are often offered to travel writers and agents as a way for them to educate themselves about an area.  Obviously I am neither a travel writer nor a travel agent, but since this trip focused on Southern Culinary Traditions, they were also looking for writers who focused more on food.   This is the first sponsored trip that I’ve been invited on, and I am admittedly a little ambiguous about them.  Since I don’t have a reference point, it’s hard to say whether this trip was typical; however I was very impressed by the fact that, even though the trip was sponsored by the King and Prince, we were exposed to a myriad of local vendors, growers, producers and attractions.  It really felt like an educational opportunity, and in that sense it was an extremely enriching experience.  This is the first in a series of posts focusing on what I learned over the course of three days.

The view from my room at The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort

The King and Prince is a historic hotel, opened in 1935 as a seaside dance club.  It has seen many iterations over the years, including serving as a naval coast-watching and training facility during World War II.  In its current state, it is an elegant resort with multiple dining options, five swimming pools and it boasts the distinction of being the only beach-front hotel in St. Simons Island.

The interior of my room at the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort

The rooms are spacious and  comfortably appointed.  Each room has a Keurig coffee maker, mini-refrigerator, free wi-fi, flat screen television and either one king or two queen beds.  My room had a small balcony overlooking the pool and the beach and ocean beyond.  There are a number of premium rooms available, as well as villas and resort residences.

The lobby of the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort

When we arrived at the King and Prince on Sunday, we were greeted by a light-filled lobby, a friendly reception agent and the hotel’s publicist, Leigh Cort.  We had time that afternoon to get settled in our rooms and then it was off on the Lighthouse Trolley for an excursion to the old Coast Guard Station and Maritime Museum.  St. Simons Island has a storied past spanning the prehistoric and historic eras and rife with interesting tidbits related to Native Americans, Spanish explorers, Revolutionary war battles, rice and cotton plantations, Gullah Geechee culture, and German U-boats.  The Coastal Georgia Historical Society offers a number of different programs related to the history and culture of St. Simons.

Cheeses from Flat Creek Lodge, Georgia pecans, Savannah Bee Company Honey

Upon our return to the hotel, we were treated to cocktails courtesy of 13th Colony Distillery, and an assortment of cheeses from Flat Creek Lodge Dairy.  The hotel’s Director of Food and Beverage, Vinny D’Agostino, is making a concerted effort to incorporate local and regional products into his various menus, and these are just a couple of the vendors with whom he’s been working.  Although he’s only been with The King and Prince for a short while, he’s making significant changes to their Food and Beverage Program, using wild-caught seafood, most of it from local and regional waters; incorporating prohibition-era cocktails utilizing spirits from 13th Colony; Featuring Georgia vineyards on the Wine Menu; working with the Georgia Olive Growers Association to get the word out about their product; and partnering with a variety of other growers and producers to round out his offerings.

Southern Gin, Plantation Vodka, Southern Corn Whiskey from 13th Colony Distillery

For dinner, we dined on shrimp and grits.  The hotel’s chefs did a cooking demonstration in the Solarium, and they were kind enough to share the recipe with everyone so that we could try it at home.

Table set for dinner in the hotel's Solarium

Dinner itself was lovely, both the food and the company.  Although it was our first night together as a group, the conversation flowed as easily as the food.  I’m sure some of that could be attributed to the abundant cocktails and wine, but I also think it has a lot to do with the setting and the simple act of breaking bread together.  Food is the great equalizer (we all have to eat), and when you enjoy a meal together, you’re sharing more than just the food – you’re sharing stories and experiences that might not otherwise be revealed in a different setting.  The fact that this trip centered on food gave us all an opportunity to get to know each other in a comfortable setting over delicious cuisine.  Again, the wine and spirits didn’t hurt matters at all.

Shrimp and Grits in a Tasso Cream Sauce

My first experience with Shrimp and Grits was at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina back in the mid-nineties.  Since then I’ve tried a number of different variations on the same theme, but have not, until now,  encountered Shrimp and Grits to rival those at Crook’s.  The version that Vinny and his team presented to us on Sunday night might just have surpassed them.  The combination of cajun spices, tasso ham, whole kernel corn, stone ground grits, sweet white Georgia shrimp, and a rich cream sauce came together to create a well balanced combination of flavors and textures.

Homemade version of the King and Prince's Shrimp and Grits

It was so good that I recreated it for my family when I got home.  We will make it back down to St. Simons Island and The King and Prince sometime in the near future, I feel certain of that. In the meantime, I can share the culinary souvenirs that I brought back and spread the word about this quaint little island and all that it has to offer.

Ingredients for Shrimp and Grits

Shrimp & Grits (adapted from King and Prince Shrimp & Grits in a Tasso Cream Sauce)
prep time: 10 minutes
cook time: 20 minutes
serves: 4-6

Ingredients

  • 1 pound wild Georgia white shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/2 cup tasso ham (I couldn’t find tasso, so I used 4 sliced of uncured peppered bacon instead)
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions
  • 1 cup whole-kernel white corn
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes
  • 1 clove garlic, grated
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1 cup asiago cheese, divided
  • 4-6 servings of stone-ground grits, prepared according to package directions

  1. Prepare grits according to package instructions.  For more flavor, replace the cooking water with chicken stock.
  2. Chop meat (either tasso ham or bacon) into small pieces and saute in a large skillet over medium heat until crispy and all of the fat has rendered out.
  3. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the pan and add the green onions.  Saute until wilted
  4. Add the corn, tomatoes, garlic, cayenne and thyme.  Stir to heat through.
  5. Add the shrimp and saute until just cooked through
  6. Add 3/4 cup of the half-and-half and 3/4 cup of the cheese.  Stir to combine and remove from the heat.
  7. Add the remaining half-and-half and cheese to the grits and stir to combine.  Taste both the shrimp mixture and the grits for seasoning.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Serve shrimp mixture spooned over grits.  Garnish with additional green onions and cheese.
  9. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: While our accommodations and food were provided by the King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, I was not compensated for the trip and the opinions in this post are mine.  I was under no obligation to write about my experience, but I felt compelled given how much I enjoyed my stay.  Thank you to our hosts and to the residents of St. Simons Island for a truly memorable time.