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.

The Story of post-Thanksgiving Gumbo

There has been a tradition in our family for a number of years now of making gumbo with our leftover turkey on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  I’m not sure exactly when it started, but Thanksgiving just isn’t Thanksgiving until we’ve made gumbo.

My aunt even brings her own container to take it home in when she comes to visit.  This year she was unable to join us, but we were thinking of her while we made it.  If we could ship it long distances, it would be on its way to Florida as I type.

I claim a pretty mixed-bag of southern roots.  I was born in Mississippi and  raised in Georgia (spending large portions of my childhood summers in the Mississippi countryside).  My mother was born in Texas and grew up between Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.  Her mother was born and raised in Louisiana, and her father was born and raised in Mississippi.  My father’s people are strictly Mississippi as far as I know (although now we’re all scattered throughout the US).  Needless to say, my heritage is southern, through and through.
This particular recipe hearkens back to my Louisiana decedents.  It is a pretty even mixture of the Cajun and Creole versions as it uses both a brown roux and file powder as thickeners, and it has a tomato base.  Sometimes we add shrimp, sometimes not (this version is completely sans seafood), but we always add andouille sausage for extra flavor – this year we’re using my house-made andouille and fresh turkey stock.
Turkey neck, backbones and carcass simmering away with celery, onion and carrot to make a lovely dark turkey stock.
You can throw in pretty much anything you might have on hand, meat-wise.  One year we added wild duck to the mix because my cousin had bagged a few on a recent hunting trip.  When we are in Florida for the holiday (although it has been admittedly too long since we’ve gotten down there for Thanksgiving), we add lots of seafood.  If you’ve got venison, toss it in there.  The beauty of gumbo is that it’s a perfect vehicle for using up various bits of leftovers you might have lying around the fridge and freezer.
Now, I like okra in my gumbo, but my mother does not.  As she will be enjoying the final product with us, we will not be adding okra to this pot.  However, please feel free to add it to yours – it can only make it better (in my oh-so humble opinion).
The bones of this recipe are adapted from David Rosengarten’s Dean and Deluca cookbook.  If you’re familiar with Mr. Rosengarten, you know he is quite the food historian; therefore, I trust his recipes for their authenticity and their consistency. The adaptations here are that I use turkey stock in place of seafood stock or clam juice, and I use turkey in place of the crawfish he suggests.  Otherwise, I follow his recipe pretty closely.
Spicy Red File-Thickened Gumbo
with Turkey and Andouille
prep time: 20 minutes
cook time: 4 hours
serves: 8-10
Ingredients
2/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup flour
1/4 cup minced garlic
2 cups minced onion
2 cups minced celery
1 cup minced green bell pepper
1 cup minced red bell pepper
1 cup minced scallions or green onions
2 quarts plus 1 cup turkey stock
two 28-ounce cans of crushed tomatoes
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 cloves
1/2 teaspoon Louisiana hot sauce, or to taste
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1-2 pounds andouille sausage, cut in 1/4-inch slices
1-2 pounds cooked turkey meat
1-2 tablespoons file powder
cooked rice as an accompaniment

Heat stock in a large stock-pot.

Flour and oil, before they have become a dark roux

In a large skillet, make roux by combining oil and flour.  Stir constantly with a flat wooden spoon or a roux whisk over medium-low heat until mixture turns a redish-brown color.  If you think it is getting too brown or about to burn, immediately remove it from the heat.

Dark, reddish brown roux

Add chopped garlic, onions, peppers, celery and green onion to the roux to stop the cooking.

Add the roux to the hot stock and whisk to combine.  Add the tomatoes, bay leaves, thyme, oregano, cayenne and cloves.  Now add the sausage and the turkey.

Let simmer over low heat for 3 hours or more.

Serve over boiled rice.  Add hot-sauce, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of file powder to individual bowls.  Do not add file powder to gumbo while it is cooking, as it will result in a stringy-textured end product.

I recommend this as a different way to use up that leftover turkey you’ve got taking up space in your fridge.  You’ll probably still have some left for turkey sandwiches, but this will give new life to what might otherwise be considered boring Thanksgiving leftovers.

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.