For the holiday cocktail party, some nibbles never go out of style in the Lowcountry. Certain appetizers and indigenous ingredients are preserving their status as perennial crowd-pleasers — even when they might be sharing the table with sushi.
Take ham biscuits, like those served by Duvall Events. The biscuits have buttermilk and benne seeds in the mix, with the salty country ham tempered by a sweet-hot dab of peach chipotle chutney.
The ham biscuit has maintained its place at the Charleston cocktail party, says Isabelle Donovan, event coordinator at Duvall.
“The ingredients themselves have roots in our food culture: biscuits from pre-Civil War times as an easy alternative to housemade bread; chutney from India by way of English settlers; and cured country ham as a tradition that emerged from curing tactics needed to store meat without refrigeration — the three components that have remained virtually untouched throughout the evolution of Southern food. Why change a good thing?”
So-called community cookbooks are great sources of tried-and-true recipes with that special local touch. Take the Junior League of Charleston’s popular “Charleston Receipts” and “Charleston Receipts Repeats” cookbooks.
“I think (they) tell so much about the history of the city through lifestyle and food,” says Vereen Coen, the self-described “biggest cheerleader” of the books. Coen’s mother, Mary Vereen Huguenin, and Anne Montague Stoney organized fellow Junior League members to put together the original “Receipts” in 1950 with the idea of raising money for charitable causes. “Charleston Receipts” is the oldest Junior League cookbook in print.
Recipes such as the Marinated Lemon Shrimp in “Repeats,” first published in 1986, have stood the test of time “because they were handed down,” says Coen.
“When you read these receipts, they are using local ingredients, they may be from the farm, they may be from the vegetable man, from your favorite fish man. Much of the game was killed. It was all local.”
The Luscious Pimento Cheese spread found in St. Michael’s “Faithfully Charleston” cookbook is another local classic identified by Gwen McKee. She is co-author with Barbara Moseley of “The Best of the Best From South Carolina” cookbook. As they did across the country, the two women traveled and spent time in each state to cull recipes from community cookbooks. They put their favorites into a series of cookbooks, one for each state.
Such recipes “are not pretentious,” says McKee. “They don’t mind using soups and packaged mixes. I don’t see anything wrong with that. There are a lot of people who put their noses up at certain things, ‘Oh, you just don’t do that.’ The community cookbooks, they just cooked what their mama cooked, the way they cooked it. If they put bacon fat in it, well, that’s how they presented it.”
Several recipes in the book are drawn from the Charleston area, including Parmesan Squares from “Catering to Charleston: Hamby Catering” and Aunt Margaret’s Blue Cheese Pull Aparts from the “ ’Pon Top Edisto” cookbook.
“The Lowcountry to me is just like heaven. ... We loved eating there,” McKee says.
People never seem to tire of shrimp and grits, says Steve Hamby of Hamby Catering, a family operation that has been serving Charleston since 1979. Originally a breakfast dish, shrimp and grits was one of the first “action stations” at catered events, starting in the early 1990s.
Today, Hamby’s chef John Brunski is putting a new presentation twist on shrimp and grits to make it suitable as a passed hors d’oeuvre. His version is a mini grits cake topped with a shrimp bathed in tasso gravy.
Shrimp and grits “identifies the area,” says Brunski, who came to Hamby’s in September from Maryland and was culinary manager for Marriott International for 15 years and personal chef to the CEO. “I think people come here expecting that. It’s like going to New Orleans and expecting Creole.”
While Hamby’s always has been known for traditional Lowcountry fare — its finger sandwiches are legendary — it is focusing on more contemporary presentations, Hamby says.
Meanwhile, his mother, Frances Hamby, hasn’t slowed down much if at all in the business. She comes to work six days a week.
“We’re still trying to keep up with Mrs. Hamby,” jokes Candice Wigfield, director of sales and marketing.
While the collective palate of Charleston has changed from decade to decade as new food trends emerged, the ingredients have remained the same, Donovan says.
“Fresh shrimp, crab and oysters. Homemade jams and jellies, pickles ... the amazing bounty of vegetables and grains from okra and corn to collards and benne. As long as you maintain the integrity of what Southern food represents — flavor and soul — it will go over well at any cocktail party.”
Duvall Buttermilk Benne Seed Biscuits
1½ cups all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
1½ tablespoons granulated sugar
¼ cup cold unsalted butter, cubed
1½ tablespoons benne (sesame) seeds, plus extra for sprinkling on top)
½ cup cold buttermilk
¼ cup whole milk
1 egg for egg wash
Additional milk for egg wash
Thinly sliced country ham
Sift or whisk together dry ingredients.
Cut in butter by hand until it resembles corn meal. Stir in the 11/2 tablespoons benne seeds. Add cold buttermilk and milk, gently stir/knead only until combined. Roll out on a floured surface about ½-inch thick. Cut into round biscuits at desired size (be sure not to twist when cutting).
Beat egg with equal amount of milk. Brush biscuits with egg wash and sprinkle with benne seeds. Bake at 375 degrees for approximately 10-12 minutes or until golden brown.
For serving, slice biscuits and place small slices of ham inside with a dollop of peach chutney.
Marinated Lemon Shrimp
Serves 15 or more
2 pounds shrimp
3 cups beer
1 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup oil
1/2 cup white tarragon vinegar
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
11/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Dash of Tabasco or other hot sauce
2 onions, sliced very thin
2 lemons, sliced very thin
2 tablespoons capers with liquid
Boil shrimp in beer, water and 1 teaspoon salt (just until they turn pink). Drain and peel.
In a small jar with lid, combine oil, vinegar, parsley, 11/2 teaspoons salt, pepper and hot sauce. Cover and shake well.
In a large bowl, alternate layers of shrimp, onion slices, lemon slices and capers. Pour oil and vinegar mixture over all and marinate in refrigerator at least 8 hours. Serve with toothpicks.
— From “Charleston Receipts Repeats” produced by the Junior League of Charleston
Hamby’s Shrimp & Grit Cake With Tasso Gravy
Makes about 24 cakes
For grits cake:
2½ cups water
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup quick grits
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup half-and-half
½ cup cooked crumbled bacon
½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
For tasso gravy:
¾ cup water
1 tablespoon chicken base
½ cup diced tasso ham sauteed in 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon paprika
1/3 cup prepared or homemade roux
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
For the shrimp:
12 raw shrimp, peeled and deveined, cut in half lengthwise
Butter for sauteeing
Butter for sauteeing
Fresh chives, cut into 2-inch lengths
For the grits cakes: Bring water to boil. Add salt and grits. Return to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often. Additional water may be added to reach desired thickness (should resemble oatmeal).
Add butter, half-and-half, and crumbled bacon. Stir well and remove from heat. Place pan of grits in refrigerator to cool. Once grits have reached 70 degrees, gently fold in cheese. Pack mixture into buttered, shallow baking dish. Grit layer should be approximately ¾-inch thick. Refrigerate until cold and thickened. Using a 1-inch diameter biscuit cutter, cut small rounds out of grit mixture. These should be ¾ inch thick and the approximate size of a quarter.
For the tasso gravy: Bring 3/4 cup water to a boil. Add chicken base, cooked tasso ham and paprika. Return to boil. Add 1/3 cup roux to thicken and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in chopped parsley.
For the shrimp: Heat a small amount of butter in a skillet until hot. Saute shrimp just until they turn pink throughout.
To assemble: Saute grits cakes in butter to lightly brown on both sides. Remove from skillet and drain. Place ½ teaspoon of tasso gravy and a half of a shrimp on top of grit cake. Serve warm and garnish with chive spear.
Luscious Pimento Cheese
11/2 pounds extra sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
1 (10-ounce) jar stuffed green olives, drained and chopped
1 (12-ounce) jar roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon minced onion
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
Combine all ingredients. Refrigerate several hours before serving. Serve with crackers.
— From “The Best of the Best From South Carolina” by Gwen McKee and Barbara Moseley (Quail Ridge Press, $16.95). Recipe reprinted from “Faithfully Charleston” produced by St. Michael’s Church.
Makes 100 buttons
1 cup margarine, softened
2 cups self-rising flour, sifted
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 cups grated sharp cheese
2 cups puffed rice cereal, such as Rice Krispies
½ teaspoon red pepper or to taste
Combine margarine and remaining ingredients; mix thoroughly.
Roll into marble-sized balls; place on baking sheets and flatten to a quarter-size with a fork.
Bake at 325 degrees for 18 minutes until light tan; sprinkle with salt while hot.
— From “ ’Pon Top Edisto” produced by Trinity Episcopal Church, Edisto Island