Lazy Days in Chestertown

We are still in the middle of cornfields, which, oddly, I love. My husband, Mark, and I always describe ourselves as the Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert pair from the 1960s oldie-but-goodie television show, “Green Acres” (remember that?). For those of you too young to know this gem, Oliver opens with:

Green acres is the place for me.
Farm livin’ is the life for me.
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.

To which his wife, Lisa, responds:

New York is where I’d rather stay.
I get allergic smelling hay.
I just adore a penthouse view.
Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue….

These lyrics sum up our differences on urban life, but when I’m in Chestertown on the Eastern shore of Maryland and we make a right on to Route 290 and head into the cornfields, this feeling of complete relaxation comes over me. I also somehow stop worrying about things like whether we’ll have a leaky roof when we get home, or whether I forgot to pay the gas bill (which, come to think of it, I probably did!).

Part of the joy of coming here is staying with our favorite American innkeepers. We love Tracy and Jim Stone of The Inn at Mitchell House in nearby Tolchester. Their house is immaculate but has that wonderful old house smell.

Tracy makes the most scrumptious and hearty country breakfasts, such as homemade waffles with local blueberries and thick French toast with strawberries and perfectly crisp bacon. They are truly living an envious country life, with a balance of wit and hard work.  I often wish I could be Tracy mowing all 12 acres singlehandedly, or Jim who enjoys fixing the tree swing for the millionth time after working all day as captain of a skipjack at the Echo Hill Outdoor School in nearby Worton.

We love going to the Dixon Furniture auction in Crumpton on Wednesdays, eating delicious crab dishes, playing croquet, and buying trinkets at Twigs and Teacups in town. But I what I really like the most about Maryland’s Eastern Shore is that I don’t feel like I have to do anything and that clears my head to do some of the things I love, like looking through my favorite magazines. We have piles of The New Yorker, Bon Appetit and Saveur on – I hate to admit it – the staircase leading to the second floor at home. I sometimes clear the deck for company and they get shoved in a lonely pile in the attic. I feel defeated every time I see them; the only time I can justify this kind of pure joy is here in Chestertown.

I also started a new indulgence when I opened the Fig Cooking School – Cookbooks.  I love taking brightly colored stickies and marking pages of recipe inspirations for classes. The girls always run to get a glimpse of a newly acquired cookbook before it gets “mom-afied” – the point in a book’s life where it has so many post-its, the page perimeters looks like they’ve grown feathers. Over the course of the week, Mitchell House becomes my Mom-ification workshop.

The girls and Mark are ready to be picked up from kayaking. I’m sure they’re feeling baked from the sun and ready for lunch at the Fish Whistle, a great local place that overlooks the Chesapeake Bay. I’ll be back soon… In the meantime, enjoy these end-of-summer images from our trip.

This Week In Pictures

I had such good intentions of doing a Wordless Wednesday post, but I realized too late that I’m incapable of doing anything wordlessly and on top of that, without my noticing, Wednesday turned into Thursday, and my plans were foiled. But I have a great many pictures to share with you, and they deserve an explanation anyway. Once a year or so my family has to take a vacation to a place with open fields, cows, fresh air, fireflies(!) and farms, or we’ll just go insane. There are a few different places we’ve tried but few work their magic quite the same way as Chestertown, MD. The difference between us in Connecticut and us in Maryland is immediate and extreme – Isabella even let me take a picture or two of her! My fantasy is to one day move down here, buy an old farmhouse and divide my days equally between cooking, exploring cornfields and catching fireflies in glass jars (with my children of course). It’s a very realistic dream.
.
We can’t cook down here, so we take pictures instead. Here are some scenes from our life this week.This post will be wordless starting… now.

Fig Travels: Nashville and Fried Chicken

You haven’t been to Nashville if you can’t come home raving about your favorite “meat ‘n’ three” spot. The hometown of Country Music is also the birthplace and epicenter of this heavenly rich comfort food package. A meat ‘n’ three consists of one meat, fish or poultry dish and three “vegetables,” (i.e. baked beans, cole slaw, candied sweet potatoes, squash casserole, mashed potatoes, fried okra and, yes, macaroni and cheese). Nothing in the world is more comforting or more delicious and as for calories, with food this good, honestly, who’s counting?

Ask 20 Nashvillians their favorite place to have this uniquely southern meal, and you’ll get just as many different answers, but The Loveless Café was, hands down, our favorite. The biscuits served with all natural homemade jam, and fried chicken that blew us away. You have to taste it to believe it, and fortunately, we’ve included our own perfected version of their fried chicken below so you can!

Locals and tourists have been coming to Loveless from miles around for more than 50 years, ever since Annie Loveless first started serving her unusually light and tasty biscuits. An anointed “keeper,” most recently Carol Fay Ellison who sadly passed away in April, guards the secret recipe. No biscuit comes close to being as flavorful and airy as a Loveless Biscuit, and our (perhaps impossible) dream is to one day recreate the taste in our own test kitchen. And after devouring our little pieces of heaven with peach and blackberry jam, our immense platter of golden fried-to-perfection chicken arived. Thank goodness we ordered it family style because we just couldn’t stop eating.

Here is our version of this classic southern comfort food inspired by the Loveless Café’s own cookbook. But first, please keep in mind that there are some essential ingredients and tools that are important to assemble if you want to make your chicken truly special. We are just as health conscious as many of our readers, but we believe in cultural food immersion, and that means eating like the locals. After the jump you’ll find a breakdown of what you may need to make these and many other first-rate southern dishes.

Continue reading

Fig Travels: The Deep South

I’ve traveled to France, the Mecca of haute cuisine, many times and I didn’t think there could never be another regional food that would ever satisfy me as much as a perfectly cooked steak au poivre and a good glass of Bordeaux wine. Our road food trip to the Deep South was probably one of the last places I thought my stubborn belief system would be rattled, but I’ve been humbled.

French cuisine is still of course dear to me, but now I know how utterly fantastic, and complicated, real southern food is. Down-to-earth Southern fried chicken is not simple at all: we’re still perfecting the art of duplicating the texture, taste, and even the color. In fact, we could cook a le creuset filled with beef bourguignon faster. The same goes for so many other southern treasures we sampled. The biscuits from The Loveless Café in Nashville, TN are so buttery, rich and yet airy, they rival the best croissants anywhere. We’re not sure they can be replicated, although we’ll let you know if we succeed.

Clockwise from top left: Fried Okra, Nashville, TN; Sign at Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, Lynchburg, TN; Basket of cornbread, Lynchburg, TN.

On our southern food odyssey, we also learned that barbeque ribs and pulled pork as we previously knew them, are oversimplified. The variations and interpretation of great barbecue are almost endless. Some places even offer barbecue nachos. Even in the epicenter of barbeque, they are still reinventing it every year at the annual Memphis in May barbeque world championship. The same is true for Cajun cooking; the possibilities and interpretations of local favorites – etoufee, gumbo, bisque and the countless versions of “blonde” and “dark” rouxs – would stun your taste buds.

Clockwise from top left: Crawfish pie, Breaux Bridge, LA; Bicycle street scene, New Orleans, LA; Beignet Machine at Cafe du Monde, New Orleans, LA; Francesca enjoying a beignet, New Orleans, LA.

Non-natives usually think of chicken and pork dishes first, but the variety of southern seafood dishes also blew us away. The catfish from the Mississippi Delta is succulently sweet and juicy, but our favorite local seafood specialty turned out to be oysters; we had oysters fried, raw and even, charbroiled. Oysters Rockefeller was invented it the Deep South but you haven’t had an oyster, really, until you’ve had one on the grill.

It is hard to figure out just what make southern food so mouth-watering and addictive, but one thing I noticed is that Southern cooks are not afraid of abundant flavor and seasoning. We never needed the salt and pepper shakers. There were unexpected ingredients along the way too, like Jack Daniels in fudge pie or copious amounts of turmeric in some of the ribs. But whatever the surprising ingredient was, it was always perfectly balanced.

Clockwise from top left: Rice at Rendezvous, Memphis, TN; Barbeque sauce at Blues City Cafe, Memphis, TN; Ribs at Blues City Cafe, Memphis, TN.

For the next few posts, prepare yourself a nice glass of sweet tea – we’re going to chronicle our travels, and along the way, we will give you the recipes to create some of these southern gems for yourself!