A new cookbook by the Lee brothers just might inspire daydreams of a food-centric vacation to South Carolina. It’s called The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, and in it, Matt and Ted Lee feature recipes and stories from the Southern port city they grew up in. The brothers joined NPR’s Melissa Block to talk about Charleston’s distinctive food culture, starting with the dishes that they’d put on a typical Charleston menu.
“I would start with kumquat sparklers, with the flavor of backyard kumquats, which are like tangerines,” Matt says. “Also, classic Charleston cheese biscuits with a single pecan pressed into it, and savory benne wafers — sesame seed wafers.”
For the second course, Ted says, “we’d do a she-crab soup, and then we’d do a shrimp and grits,” he says. “For vegetables, I think this is the perfect time to do chainey briar; it’s growing really well out on Sullivan’s Island. We’d do some Grilled Chainey Briar.”
“Chainey briar is a native weed or vine,” Ted explains. “It’s Smilax botanically. It’s something that grows on fence lines, it grows on sand dunes at the beaches and it has, in the spring right about now, a tender tip, a shoot that is delicious.”
It looks, quite frankly, like a weed, and might be a bit of an acquired taste — but the brothers say it’s worth acquiring. “It’s pretty rangy, and that’s the appeal, in terms of flavor,” Matt says. It tastes like asparagus but with this extra sort of reckless green thing. Sometimes we describe it as tasting like asparagus with olive oil already on it.”
For dessert, the brothers would serve Huguenot Torte, an iconic Charleston dish. “Hugeonot torte has this nice meringue-like crisp top, but then a sludgy caramel and apple and pecan bottom to it,” Matt says. “It’s got flour but tons of leavening — so it just puffs up in the oven, then collapses and creates this very interesting and uniquely Charleston dessert.”
Southern Food With Less Pork And More Loquats
The Lee brothers, who were born in New York but grew up in Charleston, have written two previous cookbooks highlighting Southern cuisine. This is their first to focus just on the city of their youth, and their choice is more than just hometown favoritism: Charleston’s culinary tradition is unusual, with dishes and traditions you won’t find in other parts of the South.
“It’s naturally about the seafood and also about the poultry,” Matt explains. “The much-heralded, like, ‘porkopolis’ of the South doesn’t really exist so much in Charleston, because it was never a place to raise cattle or pigs, being so marshy.”
It’s not just the meat that makes Charleston stand out; there’s also a rich variety of local produce. “I think another thing that visitors to Charleston are surprised by is just how close the farms are — the rural part of Charleston — to the city,” Ted says.
You might not even need to find a farmer to get fresh food. “Even downtown — we grew up downtown in the historic district — we’re surrounded by fruits of all kinds, like kumquats, loquats, mulberries, figs, pomegranates, bananas, citrus,” Ted says. “They all grow downtown, and you grow up sort of knowing where the trees are and which ones taste best.”
Call it “foraging” or call it “stealing,” snagging fruit off someone else’s tree is certainly possible in Charleston. “There are a lot of secrets in back alleys in Charleston that yield great fruits and herbs.” The trick to harvesting that bounty without ruining your neighborly relations? “Be very polite,” Ted says — and, Matt adds, be sure to smile. “That’s awfully disarming,” he says.
Taking Cues From The Past
In addition to highlighting Charleston’s current food culture, Matt and Ted Lee also looked to Charleston’s history to find old recipes that might have been forgotten. Cookbooks from the 19th century were particularly inspiring, Ted says. “They tell a story so diverse and varied about the different types of vegetables that were grown in the low country, some of which are rarely found, like salsify, tania — it’s a root vegetable,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to draw from the past to inform your kitchen in the present.”
One recipe in the new cookbook comes from an even more distant past — a dessert from the 1700s called Syllabub. “Despite the fact that it appears in all the old cookbooks, Matt and I have never been served it — either in a Charleston restaurant or a Charleston home,” Ted says. “So we just tried it ourselves. It’s basically very simple — it’s fortified wine that’s been seasoned with lemon juice and lemon peel, a little bit of sugar, sometimes spices, and whipped with cream until it’s sort of this airy, fluffy, alcoholic whipped cream that goes really well with fruit.”
If you want to follow Matt and Ted and take a stab at Syllabub, a recipe is below, as well as recipes for Huguenot Torte and Grilled Chainey Briar. But be warned: You might need to plan a trip to Charleston to enjoy that chainey briar. You won’t find it in grocery stores or farmers markets, and will have better luck harvesting it yourself. Like fresh kumquats off the tree or oysters from the ocean, it’s a location-bound delicacy. As Matt Lee, who lives in Charleston today, puts it, “it’s just one of those things that you have to live here to really appreciate.”
Chainey briar is what Charlestonians of a certain age call the tender shoots of the smilax (aka cat briar) vine, which can be found growing in the dunes and along sandy fence lines throughout the area. The distinctive spade-shaped leaves distinguish smilax from other vines growing in the same terrain. When raw, chainey briar has a delicious asparagus-and-olive-oil flavor that is fresh and green; lightly cooked, it is even more appetizing and tender. Chainey briar appears most often in community cookbooks of the rural sea islands, like Edisto and Yonge’s.
Most chainey briar found among the dunes or in metropolitan Charleston are thin, curly tendrils, although our friend Tom, who gentleman-farms on Johns Island, recently introduced us to “bull briar,” the thicker sprouts of mature smilax vines that grow in the forested areas of the sea islands. Bull briar, which truly resembles large asparagus, would seem to represent more vegetable for one’s effort, but it is found so high in the trees that a pole pruner is usually required to harvest it. We’re just as happy to spend the afternoon on a path to the beach, eating every third tendril we pick, until the basket is full.
Chainey briar almost never appears in the farmer’s markets, so you must forage for it yourself (or ingratiate yourself to farmer Sidi Limehouse [see page 94 of The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen], who will occasionally indulge good friends with a basketful). Its flavor is robust enough that it grills well, wilting and charring in places. Dressed with oil and lemon, it makes for an exciting side dish with pre-colonial roots.
1 pound chainey briar
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1. Thoroughly wash the chainey briar, removing any ants or foreign matter and pinching off the stem ends (which will toughen as they age) so only the tender parts remain. Toss the chainey briar in a large bowl with the olive oil to coat, scatter 1/2 teaspoon salt over the bowl, and toss again.
2. Lightly oil a grill pan, and place it over high heat. When a drop of water sizzles when dropped on the pan, spread the chainey briar in an even layer about 1/2 inch high (you may have to grill multiple batches, depending on the size of your pan). Allow the chainey briar to sizzle and pop for a minute or two, until the tips of some begin to blacken. Use tongs to shuffle the chainey briar on the grill pan and allow them to cook a minute or two more, until almost all the fronds show signs of wilting. Reserve the chainey briar in a large covered bowl as you move on to grill another batch.
3. When all the chainey briar is wilted and charred, dress it with the lemon juice, toss lightly, and season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Serves: 6 to 8
Time: 55 minutes, 10 minutes cooling
Imagine that a blondie and an apple-pecan pie got into a crusty-gooey, sticky-delicious accident in a baking dish, and you’ll approximate the ultra-decadence of this dessert. Until relatively recently, Charlestonians believed that this confection, as the title might suggest, came to Charleston with the French Huguenots, who settled in the city in the eighteenth century, and that it was a rustic cousin of elegant pâtisseries. But in the 1990s, the culinary historian and Lowcountry native John Martin Taylor tracked down the woman to whom the recipe is attributed in Charleston Receipts, and learned that she’d encountered the dish as “Ozark Pudding” while visiting relatives in Arkansas in the 1940s. She had brought the recipe back to Charleston, and put the dessert on the menu of the Huguenot Tavern, where she was a cook.
The fact that this dessert has become as much an icon of Charleston home cooking as Charleston Okra Soup [see page 74 of The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen] and She-Crab Soup [page 77] seems odd — but it’s all part of “Charleston’s food pattern,” as May A. Pyatt wrote in a 1950 review of Charleston Receipts in the News and Courier. Another interesting note: not many Charleston restaurants these days offer the torte — or even variants upon it — but it is almost always offered on menus at the tea rooms [see page 79] that open in the spring throughout the area. You should master it yourself; it’s easy to make and easy to eat, and nice to have in your repertoire.
When we’re serving this dish for guests, we often temper its sweetness by whipping a small amount of buttermilk or sour cream into the whipped cream garnish.
unsalted butter for greasing the dish
2 large eggs
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 Granny Smith or other tart apple, cored, peeled, and diced (1 cup)
1 cup chopped pecans
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons whole buttermilk or sour cream
1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease a 2-quart baking dish.
2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk until they’re creamy and frothy. Add the sugar, flour, baking powder, salt, apple, pecans, and vanilla, whisking to combine after each addition.
3. Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish and bake for 45 minutes, or until the top of the torte is crusty. Remove the torte from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes.
4. Whip the cream with the buttermilk until stiff peaks form. Cut into individual portions — they will be lumpen and misshapen, with shards of crust and spoonfuls of ooze, but no matter — and serve with dollops of the whipped cream.
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes, including chilling
1/2 cup Sercial Madeira or Amontillado sherry
Peel of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
1 cup heavy cream, cold
1/2 cup sugar
2 (3-inch) long sprigs rosemary
Pinch of kosher salt
4 ounces fresh figs (about 4 large), stemmed and quartered
1. Make the syllabub: Put all syllabub ingredients except for the cream into a large bowl, and whisk until the sugar has dissolved, about a minute. Let stand in the fridge, about 1 hour.
2. Make the rosemary-glazed figs: Heat the sugar and 1/4 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Add the rosemary and the salt, stir for about 30 seconds to dissolve the salt and bruise the rosemary, and turn off the heat. Cover and let cool to room temperature, about 20 minutes.
3. Put the figs in a small bowl, drizzle 2 to 3 tablespoons of the rosemary syrup over them, and toss gently to coat. (If the figs are less than ripe, let them stand in the syrup for 30 minutes to sweeten.) Reserve the remaining syrup for another use, such as sweetening lemonade.
4. Remove the lemon peel from the wine mixture. Pour the cream into the wine and whisk by hand until the cream is thick and holds its shape, about 2 minutes. Divide the syllabub among four wine glasses or sundae cups and spoon the rosemary-glazed figs over each serving.
Syllabub with Strawberries and Black Pepper
For a springtime variation on Syllabub with Rosemary-Glazed Figs, make Syllabub with Strawberries and Black Pepper. Simply substitute for the rosemary-glazed figs 4 ounces strawberries that have been quartered and tossed a few times with sugar to taste (a teaspoon or two) until the sugar has dissolved. (Add a few drops water, if needed, to dissolve). Spoon the strawberries over each serving of Syllabub, then grind a bit of black pepper over the top of each and serve.
Recipes from The Lee Bros. Charleston Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. Copyright 2013 by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson Potter, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House.