Tuesday, August 7, 2018

New Jersey State BBQ Competition - A Judge's Perspective

Kids' Que "Jersey Burger" 
You may not think BBQ is a big thing here in the Garden State, but let me assure you it is and getting bigger all the time.

New Jersey has been crowning BBQ champs at this state event since 1999, and recently I had the pleasure of participating as a judge at this year’s competition, which took place July 14-15 in North Wildwood. The NJ State Barbecue Championship benefits the Anglesea Volunteer Fire Company, which has served the community since 1897.

Besides BBQ, the three-day event, spread out across several streets near the beach, also features cooking demos, vendors offering all sorts of goodies, and fabulous live music all weekend as part of the Anglesea Blues Festival.

The NJ State BBQ Competition is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), and BBQ teams compete not only for the glory but for $10,000 in cash and prizes. In addition, the NJ grand champion is automatically entered to compete in the World Food Championships, which takes place in November in Alabama, where the total prize purse is $300,000! So this is kind of a big deal.

Now you may be wondering “how hard could it be to judge BBQ?” And I’m here to tell you “it’s a tough job, but…” you know how the rest of that saying goes. To give you a peek into what it’s like to be a BBQ judge, follow along. 

For premiere events such as this one, certified KCBS judges apply six months in advance for a coveted spot. This year, all the slots were filled the first day registration opened! Most BBQ competitions are two day events. We start the day with a mandatory judge’s meeting where the rules are reviewed. Judges are then seated six to a table (this competition had approximately 60 total judges, but only 54 for the first day), and after some casual introductions and catching up with judges we’ve met at previous events, we get ready to eat! 

The first day’s entries at the NJ event included an “Iron Chef” competition where the teams had to cook (using only their grills and/or smokers) a dish using a mystery ingredient that would only be revealed the night before at the cook team meeting. This year, the secret ingredient was ground bison. My table had eight samples, which included everything from bison empanadas, bison meat loaf, bison meatball sandwiches, to bison wontons. 

Next, we judged BBQ sauces, and finally desserts. Desserts are where the BBQ teams can really get creative. Every judges table gets different entries, but a couple of the things our table enjoyed were key lime mousse, and a peanut butter cheesecake. The most unusual and creative dessert we received arrived in a mini-grill. Inside the grill, the team had made devil’s food chocolate cakes resembling charcoal briquettes and included eight slices of thick-slab candied bacon along with it. It was outstanding! Remember, the teams had to create these desserts using only a grill or smoker!

After we waddled away from the table, our next assignment was to judge the “Kids Que,” where kids from age 7-14 grilled burgers, pork, tacos, or dessert. One of the entries we sampled was a Jersey Burger - complete with Taylor ham and fried egg, sandwiched between a glazed donut. These kids were amazingly poised and accomplished and I’m sure we’ll see them competing in the adult competition someday.

And all that was just day one! Suffice it to say, I didn’t eat dinner that night.
Grand Champion
Day two brought the official KCBS entries (chicken, pork, ribs, brisket). Luckily, there were more judges this day so we only had six entries for each category (from 64 cook teams). KCBS judges evaluate the submissions for appearance, taste, and tenderness, on a range from 2 (inedible) to 9 (excellent). Judges take a few bites from each entry to gauge where the ribs, brisket, etc., fall on the KCBS criteria. In-between, we cleanse our palate with plain crackers and water. Rolls of paper towels and unscented wet wipes are strewn around the table. During the judging, the tent grows quiet as judges concentrate on which entries make the cut. Judges don’t evaluate one entry against another - each entry is judged on it’s own. After the judges’ score sheets are turned in, official KCBS reps tally up the numbers via a computer program and the winners are announced.
Reserve Champion
The grand champion of this year’s event was  New Jersey’s own “Uncle Pig’s BBQ Pit” from Gibbstown; the reserve champion was “Piggin’ Whiskey,” from Flourtown, PA.

Cook teams come from all over the country to compete and New Jersey was well represented:

Packanack BBQ Club (Packanack Lake)
Hot Rod’s BBQ (Wharton)
Minuteman Smokehouse (Morristown)
Ribbed Off BBQ (Pittsgrove)
Sir-Porks-Alot-BBQ (Paulsboro)
Boy-BQ (Hillsborough)
Local Smoke BBQ Team (Cookstown, Neptune City, Red Bank)
Uncle Pig’s BBQ Pit (Gibbstown)

The BBQ community is fun, warm, and welcoming. If you’re interested in becoming a KCBS certified judge, visit the KCBS page for more information. Or if you simply want to enjoy the sights, sounds, and flavors of New Jersey’s premiere BBQ and music event, put it on your calendar for next July.

It was a beautiful weekend in the Wildwoods - the sun was shining, ocean breezes cooled the crowd, blues music blared from the stage, and the scent of BBQ wafted through the streets. Sounds like a perfect Jersey shore summer weekend to me.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Blueberry Crumb Cake

We just returned from an incredibly inspiring trip to Tanzania, which I will write about soon. In the meantime, please enjoy this delicious, perfect summer dessert. 

You may know that I am a HUGE lover of all things coffee-cake-y and streusel-y. Throw in some plump, sweet blueberries and I’m a happy girl. Make this for your next gathering or just as a treat for yourself. It couldn’t be easier to throw together and it keeps well.

Happy Summer Baking!

Blueberry Crumb Cake (Ina Garten)



1/4 C granulated sugar
1/3 C light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 t ground cinnamon
1/8 t ground nutmeg
1/4 lb (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1-1/3 C all-purpose flour


6 TB unsalted butter, room temp (3/4 stick)
3/4 C granulated sugar
2 extra-large eggs, room temp
1 t pure vanilla extract
1/2 t grated lemon zest
2/3 C sour cream
1-1/4 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/2 t kosher salt
1 C fresh blueberries
Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling



Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9” round baking pan.


Combine granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl. Stir in melted butter and then the flour. Mix well and set aside.


Cream butter and sugar in bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment on high speed for 4-5 minutes, until light. Reduce the speed to low and add eggs 1 at a time, then add vanilla, lemon zest, and sour cream. In separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Fold in blueberries and stir with a spatula to be sure the batter is completely mixed.

Spoon batter into prepared pan and spread it out with a knife. With your fingers, crumble the topping evenly over the batter. Bake for 40-50 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool completely and serve sprinkled with Confectioners’ sugar.

Print here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

'Till We Eat Again - Charleston Edition - Part II

Greetings, dear readers! Hope this finds you well.

A few weeks ago on the CT, I wrote about a lovely springtime salad that you should definitely make. BTW: I think we have turned the corner here in NJ re the weather & it really is Spring - yeah!

And the time before that, we talked about a luscious Apple Buttermilk Loaf Cake (have you made that yet?).
Ft Sumter flag raising

Now it’s time to get back to Charleston (figuratively speaking). On our last full day in CHS, we hopped a ferry to visit Ft Sumter (about 30 minutes from downtown CHS). On the way there, playful dolphins accompanied the boat while a guide gave us an overview of what we could expect at the fort. There was a crisp breeze but the sun was shining brightly as we did a self-guided tour around the grounds. Lucky for us, being the first boat of the day to land at the fort, we watched as the National Park rangers raised our nation’s flag for the day. Ft Sumter is definitely worth a visit.
Ribs at Rodney Scott's BBQ

Remember in my earlier post, I bemoaned the fact we were shut out of ribs at Rodney Scott’s BBQ on our first day? Well, this was our last best hope to get those ribs & we were determined to get them! So after disembarking the Ft Sumter ferry, we Uber’d over to Rodney’s & got on line (yes, there was a line at 11:30am!). WOW! Must say, BEST RIBS EVER! We try BBQ everywhere (we’re certified KCBS BBQ judges so it’s kind of our job) and these were killer! These ribs were big and smoky and juicy and succulent! Believe me, there were no leftovers at our table. When Rodney stopped by to see how everything was, we tried to convince him to PLEASE come to New Jersey (no dice). Rodney Scott’s BBQ is a must if you love BBQ & are in Charleston (or you could plan a trip just for these - they are worth a drive or a flight!).
McLeod Plantation owner's home

After polishing off those ribs, we took in our last historic site, McLeod Plantation. Established in 1851, it is one of the most authentic views into the lives of slaves who lived and worked there for decades, enriching the plantation owners by growing and harvesting sea island cotton under deplorable conditions. It was an enlightening and sobering visit, lightyears away from the sanitized tour we took at Magnolia Plantation earlier in the week.
View of live oaks and slave quarters at McLeod Plantation

Ricotta Gnocchi at FIG
For our last two dinners in Charleston, we had reservations at FIG (Food is Good) and The Ordinary, both owned by celebrated chef, Mike Lata. After reading for years about these restaurants, I was really looking forward to superb meals. At FIG, the standout dish recommended by every notable food critic is the ricotta gnocchi. I’m spoiled because here in NJ, there is no finer ricotta gnocchi than that served by Ryan DePersio at Fascino in Montclair, so FIG had big shoes to fill going in. And I must say that FIG’s gnocchi came very, very close. These small, puffy pillows of delicate ricotta surrounded by an Ossabaw bolognese were heavenly.
Fabulous whiskey sour at Felix
Before dinner at The Ordinary, we stopped next door at Felix, a terrific cocktail lounge, that reminded me of a chic bar you might find somewhere in Paris. We sat at the bar and sipped expertly made cocktails until our dinner reservation time approached. We loved the atmosphere and service at Felix so that we wished we had stayed there for dinner! Next time!
The view from the upstairs dining room at The Ordinary
Jumbo Lump Blue Crab Toast - The Ordinary

The Ordinary is Lata’s casual seafood restaurant and oyster bar. Set in a former bank building, it’s a cavernous, loud setting. We sat upstairs where we had a birds-eye view of the action downstairs. The first things on the menu that caught my eye were the Hawaiian rolls with sea salt butter (natch!) and the sea salt potato chips - both excellent! My friend, A, enjoyed the Jumbo Lump Blue Crab Toast with Lime and English Peas - a beautiful presentation. My entree, Grilled New Orleans Style BBQ White Shrimp was good, but did not live up to The Ordinary’s hype. But the restaurant redeemed itself with my dessert — a perfectly luscious Coconut Cream Pie that made me practically lick the dish!
Coconut Cream Pie at The Ordinary

Our four days in Charleston were a really nice break from winter in the northeast, combined with a chance to visit with friends that we don’t see very often. The city has alot going on, and is growing at a rapid rate, but if you’ve never been and have an affinity for innovative food, traditional low country dishes, American history, and graceful Southern hospitality, make a plan to visit Charleston soon. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

Seed-studded Anzac Biscuits

The name of these tasty little cookies originates in Australia/New Zealand. In fact, ANZAC stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps.” On April 25th, citizens of AUS & NZ honor the soldiers who died in the conflict at Gallipoli, Turkey. Research tells us that these cookies were shipped to soldiers because they travel well and don’t spoil easily.

I happened upon a recipe from Nigella Lawson for these biscuits (which are really like oatmeal cookies that have been kicked up a notch) and since they have almost all of the flavors I love in a cookie, decided to give them a try. The only thing I left out was the coconut — not because I don’t like coconut, but because I didn’t have any in my pantry and didn’t feel like running to the store. Next time, definitely coconut! And based on a friend’s suggestion, possibly a quick half-dip of melted chocolate. I did throw in a handful of raisins to add another texture. Other than that, these little treats are perfect for so many reasons:
  1. easy to make
  2. no electric mixer required
  3. wonderfully chewy texture
  4. as mentioned above, they keep well and travel well (throw them in your backpack for a hike, or ship them to a well-deserving friend)
  5. nice lunch bag addition or for the 3pm slump
  6. not overly sweet
  7. chock full of good things like oatmeal, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds
  8. great with a cup of coffee or tea
  9. nice historical connection
  10. um, do you really need another reason to bake these?!

Seed-studded Anzac Biscuits 

Adapted from Nigella Lawson


7 TB soft unsalted butter
1/2 C soft light brown sugar
2 TB golden syrup or light corn syrup (I used light corn syrup)
1/2 t baking soda
2 TB hot water from a recently boiled kettle
3/4 C all-purpose flour
3/4 C shredded unsweetened coconut
1 C sprouted or quick-cooking oats (not instant) (Iused quick cooking oats)
3 TB pumpkin seeds
3 TB sunflower seeds
3 TB sesame seeds
5-6 TB raisins


  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a decent-sized saucepan, big enough to hold all of the ingredients, melt the butter, sugar, and syrup (golden or light corn) together, then remove from heat.
  3. In a bowl, dissolve the baking soda in the hot water, then add to the butter mixture in the saucepan.
  4. Now add the remaining ingredients to the pan and combine well.
  5. Scoop rounded tablespoons of the mixture onto the lined baking sheets, leaving about 1" between them to allow for the biscuits to spread as they bake. Then slightly flatten them with the back of a spoon.
  6. Bake for 8-10 minutes (or a little longer if you want them crisp) until golden brown, swapping the baking sheets over and rotating them halfway through cooking. When cooked, the biscuits will still feel slightly soft, but will harden to a desirable chewiness once cooled.
  7. Remove from the oven and let biscuits stand on their sheets for 5 minutes before using a spatula to transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Additional Information:

Storage: Store in airtight container at cool room temperature for up to 1 week. The crisper version will soften slightly over time.

Freezer note: Put cooked biscuits into a resealable bag, or stack in an airtight container with baking parchment between the layers, and freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost individual biscuits on a wire rack for about 1 hour before eating.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Recipe-in-a-Flash: Asparagus Garbanzo Bean Salad

Well, technically it’s Spring…but you couldn’t win that argument with me (or most people in the northeast)! Today is April 18th; it’s 35 degrees in my north Jersey neck of the woods. Yesterday, a friend in Easton, PA and another in Newton, NJ posted that it was SNOWING! As you might suspect, we are all desperate for real Spring weather, and while I can't do anything about this never-ending winter, I can sort of “force” Spring to come alive inside my kitchen.

To save the day, the “Fresh Tastes” section of the PBS Food blog recently published this bright, healthy, and easy recipe. We made it yesterday as a light lunch, but this would be a terrific first course for dinner, perhaps of grilled lamb chops?

Hoping this delicious salad brings Spring a little closer to your home.

Asparagus Garbanzo Bean Salad (PBS "Fresh Tastes")


3 TB olive oil
1 TB lemon juice
1 t red wine vinegar
1/4 t salt
1/4 t dried oregano
1/4 t freshly ground pepper
4 spears asparagus, trimmed & thinly sliced
1 (15 oz) can garbanzo beans, drained & rinsed
1 Persian cucumber, trimmed & thinly sliced
1/4 red onion, thinly sliced


In a large serving bowl or mixing bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, salt, oregano, and pepper. Then add the asparagus, garbanzo beans, cucumbers, and red onion. Toss until combined. 

This is a great "make-ahead" salad, so freel free to keep it in the fridge for up to 2 days.

Cook's Tour notes: 
  • we used a mandoline to slice the onion and cucumber (a mandoline is not advised for slicing the asparagus)
  • the recipe calls for 4 asparagus spears, but it didn't look like enough to us so we used 6
  • we didn't feel 1/4 t salt was enough so will up it a bit next time

Print recipe here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Apple Buttermilk Loaf Cake

Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good coffeecake-type cake. Love ‘em more than chocolate, more than pasta (and that’s a BIG one in my book), more than ice cream. So when I come across a recipe that sounds like a winner, I’m going to give it a try. 

Since leaving the pharma industry in 2016, my normal baked goods distribution network has dried up. Back then, I would bake something at least once a week and bring my goodies to the office. I was happy, my colleagues were happy. 

Fast forward to present day. When I see a recipe that calls to me, I have to think twice before baking it because, really, what am I going to do with a whole coffeecake or an entire tray of cookies?! How much can two people eat? 

So anytime we invite a friend to dinner, or when we are invited somewhere, I jump at the chance to make dessert so I can fulfill my baking jones. And that’s where today’s cake comes in. We had invited a friend for a casual Sunday night dinner of pork roast stuffed with a savory mixture of bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, and sharp provolone; roasted butternut squash; and tender peas with pancetta and shallots. We served a wonderful Spanish wine (2011 Conde de San Cristobal) that paired perfectly with the pork. I needed a homey-cozy kind of dessert to go with that menu, and I found it in Melissa Clark’s delicious Apple Buttermilk Loaf Cake. It’s wonderfully moist due to the chopped apples incorporated into the batter, and the buttermilk glaze gives it a slight tang. 
Bake up this cake, I think you’ll like it. Let me know how it goes. I’ll be here looking for a good home for my future baked items (gratis, of course!). 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Till We Eat Again - Charleston Edition

Ricotta Cake at Chez Nous
As I mentioned in an early 2018 post, Charleston, SC was one of the trips we had on our calendar for this year. We just returned from a terrific few days in the holy city (so called because of the many churches there). 

It’s been 4-5 years since our last visit to this beautiful southern city and man, it is just exploding with growth! We saw new construction and rehabbing of older buildings all over town. Of course, with that comes many new food and hotel venues that were not in place during our last visit.

So, let’s start the tour! 

Day 1: we actually got an extra day in Charleston due to the snowstorm that was forecast in the northeast for our original departure date. In fact, our airline encouraged us to revise our travel plans, offering no change fees. Unfortunately, the hotel we had booked could not accommodate us a day early, but luckily their sister property had space. And it turned out to be a very pleasant happenstance. After scrambling to pack and change hotels, car service reservations, pet sitters, and everything else you do before a trip, we landed in a very wet, cold, and windy Charleston (my hopes of escaping the frigid NJ temps faded fast). 
Whole Hog BBQ at Rodney Scott's BBQ

After arriving at the French Quarter Inn (our home for night one in Charleston), we realized that since we flew in a day early, we had no restaurant plans (horrors!). We quickly hailed an Uber and raced over to Rodney Scott’s BBQ. This place has been on all the “must-eat” lists, not just for Charleston but for BBQ in general, so this was on our agenda anyway. However, to our profound disappointment, the person on line in front of us got the last order of ribs! AAAAAHHHH! Not to be defeated, we ordered the Whole Hog BBQ sandwich and platter so we could also try a couple of different sides. WOW! This was pulled pork to the nth degree - moist, smoky, succulent. Sometimes at BBQ joints, the sides are an afterthought - not here. The baked beans were tender (not mushy) and spicy, and the cole slaw was light and flavorful. We would have to come back later in the week to get those ribs!

Lovely ham biscuits and croissant from hotel
We returned to the hotel and were delighted to find a night cap of port and cookies waiting in the lobby. I would describe the French Quarter Inn as having an “old world” gentility, as one might expect to find in the South (hospitable, warm, gracious - without being fawning). The hotel does not have an on-site restaurant, but they offer a continental breakfast either delivered to your room, or available in the lobby. We took advantage of room service & enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before heading out for the day. Another nice feature we loved here was a coffee station on every floor for emergency refills.
Shrimp Bog at Hominy Grill

Around lunchtime, we made our way over to The Hominy Grill, a long-established venue in Charleston, that we had enjoyed during our last visit. Opened in 1996 by chef Robert Stehling, one of the pioneers of the low country food movement, this popular restaurant serves up traditional southern dishes such as shrimp and grits, biscuits, and fried catfish. Since I was on vacation, I opted for a New Old Fashioned made with Old Overholt rye, orange bitters, and vermouth; and the Low Country Shrimp Bog with Andouille and Carolina Gold Rice, with a side of cornbread. Mr B chose the Country Breakfast (eggs, grits, and biscuit), which was just OK.  My dish was well done, but I couldn’t help the feeling that the restaurant that was ahead of it’s time in Charleston had become something of a tourist trap. 

Lest you think all we did was eat and drink, we managed to do quite a bit of sightseeing. There is so much history to soak up in Charleston that if you are a civil war or American history buff, you should definitely add this city to your travel plans.

Fabulous fried chicken at Leon's Oyster Shop
We checked out of our night one hotel & checked in to The Spectator for the rest of our trip. If the French Quarter Inn can be described as the “old” South, the Spectator is definitely the “new” South. Sleek, modern, and luxurious, this hotel is also all about gracious service. Upon arrival, we were greeted with the drink of the day (a refreshing Paloma) and introduced to our butler, who escorted us to our room and gave us an overview of  the hotel. The hotel has a very nice bar off the lobby and offers a “butler’s happy hour” every afternoon with a lovely selection of cheeses, olives, nuts, etc.
Oysters Casino at Leon's Oyster Shop

We planned this trip with our friends from Austin and when they arrived after a long travel day, we visited Leon’s Oyster Shop for an early dinner. Obviously Leon's specializes in oysters, but they are also famous for their fried chicken (which did not disappoint). This is a funky little spot with a very popular bar. People were crowded in waiting for tables, enjoying a nice selection of beer, wine, or cocktails. We got a table pretty quickly and immediately ordered up raw oysters, fried oysters, and that crispy, moist fried chicken (dark meat, thank you very  much!). Good results all around, our only negative was the noise level.

Sunbathing Alligator at Magnolia Plantation
Charleston has several antebellum plantations within 30 minutes of downtown. After reading many travel articles about these sites, we settled on a tour to Magnolia Plantation. I would have to say we did not choose wisely. This plantation, established in 1676, is more about the extensive gardens than the history of the founding Drayton family. After a 45 minute walking tour of the gardens (on a cold, windy day), we were herded onto a tram (ok, they call it a “nature train”) for a 30 minute ride to look for alligators, birds, turtles, etc. We did see several alligators trying to warm up on specially-designed alligator ramps in the ponds. Finally, we arrived at the house where we got a speed-of-light tour and were hustled out the door. For the rest of the week, we referred to this as the “Disney” plantation tour, as it was expensive and provided a glossed over version of plantation life. We made up for it later in the week with tours of more historically accurate plantations (read about them later in the post).

Being food-obsessed people, we had booked our dinner reservations prior to arriving. Charleston is known as one of the country’s top food destinations and we did not want to get shut out of specific spots. 

Husk was first on the list. Opened by chef Sean Brock (one of the early leaders of the authentic Southern food movement) in 2010, it still reigns supreme as a temple to Southern ingredients. Husk only has a service bar in the restaurant but next door they have a great little cocktail lounge where you can while away some time waiting for your table (which we did). 
Dinner Rolls at Husk

Relaxed, professional, friendly service is a hallmark of Husk and our server was all that. After reviewing the menu with us, he went off to grab our next round of drinks and a basket of benne seed dinner rolls with PORK-infused butter (these were off the hook!). I, of course, started with the Broadbent Country Ham with Buttermilk Biscuits, Dijonnaise, and House made Pickles. The fabulously flavorful ham came arranged on a large wood hunk (great presentation, but a little unwieldy). Loved the dijonnaise, a combo of Dijon mustard and mayo (I don’t know for sure, but given Chef Brock’s dictum that everything at Husk be of Southern origin, I bet the mayo was Duke’s, which I use at home and it has changed our mayo habits forever!). 
Country Ham at Husk

Biscuits, Dijonnaise, Pickles at Husk

Mr B ordered the General Tso’s Glazed Pig Ear Lettuce Wraps with Sweet Vinegar Cucumber and Red Onion. The consensus was this was a great concept, but the glazed pig ears were overdone, way beyond crunchy. 

My main course was the Carolina Heritage Pork with Pit Smoked Butterbeans, Collards, Cornbread Croutons, Sweet Potatoes, and Pot Likker. The pork was sort of a roulade of pork with tender pork belly wrapped inside. The dish sang with intense flavors!
My adorable Sweetgrass Basket

Day three saw us up bright and early, and after coffee and biscuits in our room (same continental breakfast offerings as their sister property), we were off to find real plantations. But not before stopping to see Corey Alston of Gullah Sweetgrass Baskets at the Meeting Street entrance to the City Market. Sweetgrass baskets are a significant part of the African culture that was transported to this country by enslaved African people (this was a way for them to keep a connection to their beloved homeland). Originally, the coiled baskets were used as a tool of rice production on plantations. The basket sewing handcraft tradition is passed down from generation to generation. In fact, the beautiful little basket I purchased was made by Corey’s daughter. Today, examples of sweetgrass baskets are on display at The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, and art galleries around the world.

We began our day by visiting the Charleston Museum, which showcases the complicated history of Charleston, including pre- and post-Civil War life. In addition, two homes are owned by the museum and are well worth your time for an in depth look at how plantation owners and their slaves lived. We started with the Joseph Manigault House (directly across the street from the museum), built in 1803. This was the home of a wealthy planter family and the house features many historic pieces from the family (current generations of Manigaults still live in Charleston).
All that sightseeing makes you hungry! Luckily, I thought ahead and made a lunch reservation before we left the hotel for Chez Nous. Tucked away down an unassuming alley in an out of the way Charleston neighborhood, this charming bistro took my award for “best meal” of the week. 
Chez Nous 

With a menu that changes daily, and consisting of only two choices for each course, along with no chance to peruse the menu beforehand, a meal here is sort of like a mystery train ride. Chez Nous is housed in a small, cozy building which makes you feel like you’ve somehow been beamed to the south of France. But it’s the Mediterranean influences (southern France, northern Italy and Spain) that really transport you.
Mushroom Salad at Chez Nous

The day we visited the appetizer choices were a Raw Button Mushroom Salad or a Tuna Nicoise Salad. We shared the mushroom salad, which sounded very mundane in print, but was a joy to eat. Fresh, thinly sliced mushrooms, simply tossed with shaved Parmigiana Reggiano, bright parsley, and one of the best olive oils (Molino la Condesa) I’ve ever had. This salad was sublime. 
Stewed Octopus at Chez Nous

Our main course choices were Stewed Octopus with Butterbeans and Potatoes, or a Roast Chicken with Sautéed Radicchio. To fully experience this charming restaurant, we ordered one of each and shared. The chicken was “roast chicken perfection.” When you dream of the ultimate French countryside roast chicken with crisped skin and super moist meat, this is it. And the stewed octopus? One of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Ever. I’ve never had such tender octopus. The broth was so delicious we asked for extra bread to sop it up. Our server suggested two lovely wines to accompany our dishes, and we indulged in the kind of long, relaxed lunch that don’t come along too often.
Luscious Ricotta Cake at Chez Nous

Dessert?  Lemon Mousse or Ricotta Cake with Fresh Berry Compote? No decision dilemma here - definitely the Ricotta Cake. Fabulously light, creamy, flavorful, with a side of sweet berries. This is the kind of lunch you do not want to end. 
Gardens at the Heyward-Washington House

But end it must, as we had tickets for a tour at The Heyward-Washington House. Through a stroke of luck, we were the only people for the afternoon tour so we had a friendly and knowledgeable docent all to ourselves. Built in 1772 by Thomas Heyward, Jr, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, it is loaded with beautiful examples of fine furniture craftsmanship from that period. It’s called the Heyward-Washington house because the city of Charleston rented the house for George Washington to stay in when he visited the city in 1791. The property features the only 1740s kitchen building open to the public in Charleston (something we really wanted to see), as well as beautiful formal gardens, which were just starting to bloom when we were there. The house was opened as Charleston’s first historic house museum in 1929.

There is too much great stuff going on in Charleston to cram it all into one post, so 
next time on The Cook’s Tour: our visits to Fort Sumter (where the first shots of the Civil War were fired), historic McLeod Plantation (established in 1851 and definitely not a "Disney" version); meals at FIG, and The Ordinary, drinks at the very cool Felix Cocktail Lounge, and more about those fabulous ribs at Rodney Scott BBQ. Stay tuned!

Iris bloom at the Heyward-Washington House 
Beautiful tulips- Heyward-Washington House