28 August 2013

Dinner in Oxford, MS - City Grocery


Dining on The Square

Back on The Square in Oxford, MS, following an afternoon at Rowan Oak, we had reservations for dinner at City Grocery.  There, and at several other restaurants in town, owner and executive chef John Currence, winner of a James Beard Foundation award in 2009 for Best Chef: South, continues to impress. 

I will have to admit that I entered City Grocery wondering how I was going to fully enjoy what the restaurant had to offer so soon after finishing a massive lunch at Ajax Diner.  After being seated I found the answer was right there on the menu. 

Inside City Grocery, Oxford, MS

Small Plates

The first column of City Grocery’s menu offers a wide selection of small plate options. After a good bit of deliberation we ordered:

Black Pepper Fettuccini with cashew /mint pesto, English peas and lemon zest

Spicy Green Beans in an Israeli cous cous salad

Mixed Baby Squash  and Zucchini Salad with roasted bell pepper and fried shallots in a creole mustard vinaigrette.

And….

An Off-Menu Special with a long spoken list of fabulous ingredients and descriptive detail that involved toast, arugula, figs, duck and a quail egg.


A Gorgeous Dinner

Every dish was beautiful! Our selections balanced well to provide a wonderful light meal for two.  My least favorite was the Mixed Baby Squash and Zucchini Salad. It was pretty and piled high with crisped shallots.  It was chilled, nice on a hot summer evening, but perhaps the serving temperature masked the unique flavors involved.  Or perhaps it simply suffered by comparison.

Spicy Green Beans on Israeli couscous salad at City Grocery, Oxford, MS

The Spicy Green Beans were robust enough to hold their ground as a chilled salad course.  These too were topped with crispy shallots and piled on top of a delightful bed of Israeli couscous salad, flecked with colorful bits of tomato and herbs. The couscous was perfectly cooked and dressed so that each bit was a separate al dente delight. The cool flavors balanced the spicy beans to great advantage. Not a morsel was left untouched.

off-menu salad of arugula, duck, figs, and quail egg on toast at City Grocery, Oxford, MS

The Black Pepper Fettuccini was interesting.  Again, the cool flavor of mint was balanced against a spicier note, this time black pepper. Lemon zest brightened the presentation and flavor and the perfectly cooked peas were neither too squishy nor too resistant. Each element held it’s own to add texture and complexity to the whole.  The tiny skillet was a nice touch, adding a bit more visual interest to this decidedly green side dish.


Still, my absolute favorite of the four small plates we ordered was the evening’s off-menu special.  It was a delightful combination of ingredients that have come to make me smile in just the last few years.  Arugula is perhaps my favorite green. Figs are a recent discovery for me and remain a point of particular interest.  I still cherish my introduction to quail eggs a few summer’s ago at the Camas Farmer’s Market and it has been since I moved to Memphis that I first tasted duck that intrigued me enough to want more. 

All of these exceptional ingredients were brought together in an inspired salad with an artfully casual presentation.  The attention to detail was poetic.  The toast was lightly browned, crisped enough on the outside to add substance against the dressed greens but still chewy enough on the inside to allow for discreet cutting.  The arugula was lightly dressed and wilted while the generous bits of duck were tender and well dispersed. The figs added a flash of rich color and  sweet flavor to the salad and the delightful little quail egg was cooked to a perfect over-medium (no small feat for such a tiny egg) allowing the flavor and texture to integrate into the salad as a whole.  Even the dressing (of which I can’t remember the details) added a nicely colorful garnish to the plate.

Grilled Peaches with Ricotta and Sorbet at City Grocery, Oxford, Mississippi

And a Little Dessert

This selection of small plates from the menu was so well-suited to our appetite that it allowed just enough room to order a single dessert to share.  We chose Grilled Peaches with blueberry and ricotta filling, honey sauce and blueberry sorbet for a light finale to our meal.  

I enjoyed the concept and the presentation.  This light dessert was served on a sturdy earthenware plate accompanied by a huge steak knife!  While I could hardly imagine the intent it made me laugh.

I opted to eat the sorbet with a spoon. It was pretty and it’s flavor was bright. It balanced the sweet honey sauce and creamy ricotta with a mild tartness. If only the peach had been riper and better able to yield to the quick char of the grill this dessert might have been exceptional.  Instead it was a side note rather than a highlight of the meal. Then again, as I said before, maybe it simply suffered by comparison.

All in all, City Grocery delivered on a fabulous meal in an elegant but comfortable atmosphere.  The service was helpful, accommodating and attentive without being intrusive. Overall it was a great dining experience and I feel sure we will be back there again.


20 August 2013

Between Meals in Oxford, MS - Rowan Oak


Cedar lined approach to Rowan Oak, The William Faulkner House, in Oxford, MS

It looks better in the pictures, even my pictures, than it does in reality.  Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, is a charming old property but it is not the elegant southern mansion imagined by many. Instead Rowan Oak remains a bit rough around the edges and feels more like an ample old farmhouse than a stately manor. 

It may be first impressions that suggest the grandeur. If you approach Rowan Oak directly from the front, walking down what was once a formal front lane established by rows of cedar trees that are now gnarled and overgrown, glimpses of its primitive Greek Revival facade tower through the vertical openings. Or maybe it is the legendary reputation of the owner himself.


Once you have entered, however, dispensed with introductions and been invited past the front library and parlor, the house begins to yield.  Upon further inspection its posture softens and formality relaxes into a more comfortable welcome. There you are free to sit in the back hall, where Faulkner often sat to read, and look through an intriguing collection of local newspaper clippings about the celebrated author and his home. Or you can walk on in and take a look around his writing room complete with the small desk where he worked, the old typewriter his mother gave him, and even the outline of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Fable, that is scrawled on the wall in the author’s own hand.

William Faulkner's writing table and typewriter at Rowan Oak, Oxford, MS

Upstairs the angles and attitude of the house relax even more. There you will find evidence of the house growing in a series of fits and starts. The floors slope, the feel of old wood pervades and a unique personality emerges leaving the home’s generous floor plan somewhat bent by the slow march of time.  Rooms on both floors were added on over the years, sometimes seamlessly and others with some contrivance, to meet the needs of the family.  Hallways and stairs connect the areas going up and down, here and there, sometimes abruptly.  Still there is a straightforward quality about the house as a whole, the intentionally sparse furnishings, the flow of interior and exterior space, the sense of a calm, though not unscarred, continuity between past, present and future that is peaceful and refreshing.

Approach to Rowan Oak, Oxford, Mississippi

Upstairs Faulkner concocted ghost stories to tell the children, stories that, while fabricated, dwell easily with the genuine narrative of the place. Rowan Oak, known then as “The Bailey Place,” was already old and disheveled when Faulkner purchased it in 1930.  The house and various outbuildings were first constructed nearly a century before and the house had stood empty for a number of years before Faulkner took ownership.

Smokehouse, Scuppernong Arbor and Bench at Rowan Oak, Oxford, MS

Faulkner’s years at Rowan Oak were productive ones.  Between writing stories and novels, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and other awards, he initiated updates to the property which honed it’s character.  The house was added onto several times. Indoor plumbing and electricity were installed.  Servants’ Quarters were built on an old foundation and a stable was added near the end of Faulkner’s life.  The grounds were also adapted by Faulkner who added an English Knot Garden near the Scuppernong Arbor while letting other areas, like the circular Maze Garden in front of the house, continue uninterrupted in their existing cycle toward decline.  There the now towering magnolias long ago sunk their roots into the abandoned foundations and Faulkner told the children that the ghost of its former owner threatened to haunt Rowan Oak if anyone “messed” with her garden.

Magnolia roots in the foundation of Circular Maze Garden, Rowan Oak, Oxford, MS

Though a great deal has been invested in restoring Rowan Oak it still seems to embrace a similar aesthetic, resisting any edge toward a presentation of living history, preferring instead to preserve in some sense the transformations of aging artifacts and memorabilia as their essence becomes legendary and their substance journeys on toward becoming one with their surroundings. The house contains many of Faulkner’s own possessions: his typewriter, his riding boots, his liquor bottles. Like most articles from those times these possessions show their age.  Though they are worn and faded, they invite the visitor to engage in the narrative of Faulkner’s life and use their imagination to understand the way they were once employed by a man of flesh and blood on the way to becoming a literary legend.

Poster of William Faulkner quote, from Rowan Oak, Oxford, Mississippi

Honestly, I was surprised by the impression Rowan Oak left on me.  I wouldn’t call myself a literary pilgrim. In fact, our visit to Faulkner’s home was more about passing the time between lunch and dinner than it was about gaining insight into the life of a great American writer.  Still, after walking the grounds of Rowan Oak, I find that I am a pilgrim nonetheless.  My quest, however, seems to be more about a personal history, the way real people lived in real places, than that of a literary legend. Still history is history and after leaving I wanted to know more about antebellum gardens, scuppernongs, primitive architecture and the works of William Faulkner.  While I have read several of his books in the past I have to admit that their greatness was largely lost on me.  Now I find myself wondering what I missed, am still missing, in the genius of his fiction. 

14 August 2013

Lunch in Oxford, MS - Ajax Diner

View onto Historic Square from Ajax Diner, Oxford, Mississippi

Oxford’s Ambiance

Oxford, MS is a fascinating town. Just an hour or so south of Memphis it is the home of Ole Miss and, like many towns that owe at least a degree of their popularity to the SEC, is the object of many a fall pilgrimage to join the crowd at football games, tailgate parties and reunions with children who have gone away to college.

The University of Mississippi, however, is far from being the only draw in town. Even for those unaffiliated with Ole Miss, Oxford has a reputation as a hospitable weekend destination.  There is just enough diversion in this small southern city to keep visitors from wondering why they came without intruding on a general ambiance of genteel southern charm and relaxation.

Stairs Inside Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi

Travel guides celebrate the literary ambiance of the town that has counted William Faulkner, John Grisham and other fine authors among its residents. Those who enjoy looking at Oxford through that lens can relax while exploring the grounds of Faulkner’s residence at Rowan Oak, visiting his grave, or looking through a collection of his work (and those of other Mississippi authors) at idependently owned Square Books.

Those who prefer still a different perspective on Oxford are welcome to find diversion in the unique boutiques and galleries that surround the old-timey town square, consider the architecture, browse historic markers or sample from a diversity of southern cuisine. Home to Southern Foodways Alliance, Oxford is also known for an abundance of quality restaurants offering everything from southern home-cooking to upscale fine dining served with imagination and charm.  

Front Door of Ajax Diner on The Square, Oxford, Mississippi

A Beautiful Meal

Last winter we made a brief day trip just to get our bearings.  Though it was a cold day the square was bustling and filled with game-day conversations.  My husband and I walked briskly from shop to shop around the square.  After browsing through fashion, art, and literature we made our way around to Ajax Diner where we hoped to eat a late lunch.  It was only by huddling and chatting with the other folks in the line that stretched out onto that sidewalk that we stayed warm enough to brave the wait.  I had heard it was worth it though.  The late crowd seemed to attest to the fact that it should be.

Tables in front dining room Ajax Diner, Oxford, Mississippi

Finally inside we lucked into the perfect table, at the front, just inside the window.  Service was brisk and I ordered a predictable southern meal of catfish, sweet potato casserole and collard greens. 

What came to the table a short time later was a beautiful southern meal that was far, but not too far, from predictable.  The catfish was fried crispy and flavorful.  The sweet potato casserole was smooth but not sticky, and garnished with (not buried in) little marshmallows. It was fragrant with a flavor that was well balanced and bright, rather than weighty.  The collard greens were tender and nicely seasoned. 


A Little Closer to Home

On a return trip to Oxford last weekend we were open to more of a leisurely visit, complete with sight-seeing and a brief stay at a popular B&B. We hoped to expand our culinary horizons and try a few more of the restaurants in town.  However, I did insist on another lunch at Ajax Diner.  While I have enjoyed a good bit of southern cooking over the years I can’t say that I have eaten southern style home cooking at any restaurant where I enjoyed it more.

Back dining area at Ajax Diner, Oxford, Mississippi

While Ajax Diner was crowded when we arrived, with every table taken, we did not have to wait but a few moments before seats opened up on this visit.  Still summer season in Oxford there were no game-day crowds or conversations, but also no luck finding a table with a view of The Square.  This time we sat in a rather shabby booth at the back of the diner, with views of the artwork and festive lights.  While darker and somewhat less comfortably inviting than the area up front the service remained brisk and friendly.

This time I ordered a little closer to home. My first time at Ajax Diner I had ordered southern classics that are not a part of my personal kitchen repertoire.  I can’t even imagine frying crispy flavorful Southern Fried Catfish in my kitchen.  I do however make Chicken and Dumplings quite often, from an old family recipe.  And I rarely cook Turnip Greens at home but I do cook southern style Green Beans that my family loves almost as much as I do. This time at Ajax Diner I ordered their Chicken and Dumplings, along with Green Beans and Squash Casserole.

When my lunch arrived I was glad to see that the dumplings at Ajax were the flat (or slick) kind, the kind we always ate when I was growing up and that I make at home.  The broth was thicker than in my version, almost like gravy, but well spiced and with chunks of tender chicken.  Though I couldn’t eat nearly all of my serving I enjoyed it. 

The Green Beans were also well spiced and flavorful.  They seemed a tad sweet but  nicely balanced with a lingering taste of pepper.  And the Squash Casserole?  It was amazing!  Made with lots of squash in bright yellow skins that were substantive but tender without being mushy, and just the right amount of crumb to bind the casserole. There was nothing cheesy or complicated about it, just well executed home-style cooking.  No wonder I couldn’t finish the Chicken and Dumplings.  I ate every last bite of that Squash Casserole.

Finishing up a fine lunch at Ajax Diner we were ready to find our way to Rowan Oak for a visit with Faulkner’s legacy before coming back to The Square for dinner at City Grocery.

11 August 2013

Kitchen Makeover


One Step Forward

Just over a week ago I was excited to have new countertops installed in my Tennessee kitchen. The countertops were part of a kitchen makeover I hoped would brighten the dark space and dated appliances in the home I moved into almost a year ago and make it a more inviting space to work in. The bones of the kitchen were good but the black sink and black laminate countertops on top of dark cherry cabinets sucked the light out of the kitchen work area with its limited northern exposure.  The Butler’s Pantry was even darker, with the same cabinets and countertops and no windows at all.



On Wednesday morning the plumbing was finished, hooking up the faucet and hot water dispenser.  All that was left to be completed was the installation of several new appliances.  By Wednesday evening the project was put on hold and then, later, in reverse.



Two Steps Back

As it turned out, all that was put in had to be ripped out: the new countertops, sink, hot water dispenser, etc. Besides that everything needs to be moved out of the kitchen and everything downstairs needs to be moved out of the house, the cabinets need to be removed, the floors lifted, more appliances replaced and the whole downstairs floor needs to be refinished. This is going to be a long haul and the third time I have packed up my kitchen and moved it in the last year.



Not that I’m complaining.  Good things will come of this, I’m sure, and the kitchen will look great and be pleasant to work in when finished, it’s just going to take longer to get there than I imagined. Meanwhile I get to do some more sorting and will hopefully make more progress in lightening the load and shedding the burden of unnecessary belongings. I am also looking forward to discovering some innovative ways to cook beyond the kitchen and prepare meals with limited access to kitchen conveniences.  Either that or do more restaurant and travel posts.  We’ll see. 


In any case, I hope not to lose sight of My Own Sweet Thyme with this most recent dislocation….

07 August 2013

Fig Salad Dressed in Honey and Balsamic Vinegar


Composed Salad of Figs, Baby Greens, Goat Cheese and Candied Pecans


Finding Figs

Since discovering figs a few years ago I have cautiously nurtured my interest into a seasonal attraction. Not always easy to come by even when they are in season, I was able to find a reliable source for figs in the Pacific Northwest. I wasn’t sure, however, where I would find them in my new home in Tennessee. 

Not to worry, I found them a few weeks ago, in a small box nestled among the seasonal berries at The Fresh Market.  There, for $3 I acquired about a dozen perfect two bite sized mission figs.  Then, at the local farmer’s market last week I found them again, even fresher and more appealing.


A Sweet Attraction


While I am attracted to figs my past experience with them has been mixed.  At times I admire their modest outward appearance and enjoy the complex sweetness of their vivid flesh. At other times I shy away from the almost cloying tear-shaped softness and sandy sweet crunch of these dark gems.

It took some time for me to understand how to gauge the ripeness of figs, and I am still learning. While fully ripe figs have a profound depth to their sweetness that I think is best enjoyed on its own, a fig that is just shy of perfect ripeness is excellent for pairing with goat cheese and honey or quartered to scatter with red onion and gorgonzola on a pizza.  That is also the stage where they are best suited to use in this delicious little composed salad.


Composed Salad of Figs, Baby Greens, Goat Cheese and Candied Pecans on Board

Fig and Goat Cheese Salad

½  cup pecan halves, divided
2 teaspoons butter
2 teaspoons brown sugar
6 ounces chèvre
Mixed baby salad greens
12 small figs
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

In a small nonstick skillet, toast pecans over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until fragrant and golden. Transfer pecans to a small dish. 

Return skillet to medium-low heat.  Add the butter and brown sugar, stirring until melted and combined.  Add ¼ cup of the toasted pecans.  Cook and stir for  two or three minutes, until the pecans are well coated.  Remove to a small dish and set aside.

Chop the remaining ¼ cup of toasted pecans.  Form the chèvre into a log and roll the outside in the chopped pecans, pressing the pecans around the outside of the chèvre.  Wrap the chèvre in plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for fifteen minutes or so, or until ready to assemble the salad. (You want the chèvre to be firm enough to slice but it need not be chilled through.)

To assemble the salad:

Place a handful, about 1 cup, of baby salad greens on each of 4 salad plates.

Remove the stem and slice the figs in half  (or in quarters if the figs are large). Scatter two or three figs on top of the salad greens on each plate.

Slice the pecan crusted chèvre into ¼ - ½ inch thick slices.  Divide between the salad plates.

In a small cup or bowl, whisk together the honey and balsamic vinegar. Drizzle evenly over the salads.  Top each salad with a few of the candied pecan halves.

Figs stuffed with goat cheese, drizzled with honey and pecans

Note: For an extra pretty garnish slice small figs from the stem end down, almost through in two directions.  Spread the quarters apart and stuff with chèvre. Drizzle the tops with a few drops of honey and top with a toasted pecan.  Place one on each salad or serve as appetizers.


01 August 2013

Roasted Cauliflower Medley with Dukkah


Oven roasting is one of my favorite ways to cook vegetables, especially cauliflower.  Oven roasting seems to release flavor elements that remain hidden when vegetables are cooked on the stove top or in the microwave.  Cauliflower browns and is infused with a nutty sweetness and depth making it, perhaps, my favorite roasted vegetable.  Onions and shallots also gain a caramelized sweetness when they are roasted and chickpeas gain a crisp nutty crust while the inside softens offering a contrasting texture.

This recipe, recommended by Carolyn at CarolynSmithDesigns.com, combines all of these plus some greens of your choice, in a fantastic medley. It is the perfect recipe when you are craving a variety of vegetables that are fresh and healthy and home cooked, but don't want to work from more than one recipe. 

Though a little more prep work is needed to prepare this dish than for my long-time favorite meal for one, Spinach with Chickpeas, it serves the same purpose and provides a nutritious vegetarian meal for one or two with a minimal amount of fuss. It also creates an additional layer of interest and texture with the addition of dukkah, a fragrant Egyptian blend of roasted hazelnuts, seeds and spices.  Serve it alone or with a side of couscous, rice or quinoa.  It also makes a great side dish when cooking for a larger crowd.



Roasted Cauliflower Medley with Dukkah

1 large cauliflower, cut into 1-inch thick florets or slices
¾ pound shallots, peeled and cut in half
3 Tablespoons olive oil
½  teaspoon kosher salt
1 bunch swiss chard, kale or spinach
1 15-oz can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
½ cup dukkah

Preheat oven to 425F. 

Toss cauliflower and shallots with 2 Tablespoons of olive oil and ½ teaspoon salt, or, if you have an oil mister, mist the cauliflower with oil until coated and then sprinkle with the salt.

Spread the cauliflower on a large rimmed baking sheet or in a roasting pan.  Roast at 425F, stirring occasionally,  until it begins to brown, about 10-15 minutes. 

Add the chickpeas along with the chard or kale and roast another 5 - 10 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. (if using spinach wait to add it until the next step.)

Scatter the dukkah over the vegetables and drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil.  Stir it into the roasting vegetables. If you are using spinach, rather than chard or kale, add it now, spreading it across the top of the vegetables to wilt.  Return the mixture to the oven for another 5-8 minutes or until cooked through and fork tender.

Stir vegetables together, season to taste with salt, pepper and dukkah. 

Serve and enjoy!