Jestine's is still making sweet treats

Jestine's Sweet Shop, which suffered a fire in late April, has begun baking its pastries in an off-site kitchen.

"A few people think Jestine's (Kitchen) is closed," owner Dana Berlin Strange lamented in an email.

Strange declined to reveal any details about the arrangement. It's unclear when the Sweet Shop will reopen as a stand-alone retail operation, although a worker at the site indicated "it will happen pretty quick" after restoration work begins this month.

The April 27 fire in the Sweet Shop's back room was attributed to a dryer; firefighters were called to the bakery near the corner of Meeting and Wentworth streets after staffers failed to extinguish the flames. In the immediate wake of the incident, the space was declared unsafe for occupancy. The business has since been permitted to rebuild.

According to an April 27 post on the Sweet Shop's Facebook page, "The smoke and water damage will have the Sweet Shop under repair for a short amount of time. Don't fret, my pets!"

During the closure, Strange says, Jestine's pies, cakes and biscuits are being sold through the nearby restaurant, Jestine's Kitchen.

"Jestine`s Kitchen still has the great sweets they have always had," Strange writes.

For more information, call 722-7224.

Key to good food fest? Good tasting tents

The tasting tents at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, which wrapped up earlier this month, aren't just popular with patrons who thrill to the prospect of getting their fill of food and drink from the South's top talents. According to festival CEO and co-founder Dominique Love, they're a favorite of event planners tasked with putting together culinary tents.

"We've had a lot of festivals calling and asking 'How do you make it less commercial?' " says Love, who's created a consultancy to help answer that question. "We try to tell a story in our tents."

Like all tasting tents, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival tents sometimes feel stuffy and crowded: This year, the threat of a thunderstorm at one point drove most of the crowd into one area, defying the organizers' carefully rehearsed scenarios.

But it's a testament to the tents' high quality that the vast majority of festivalgoers ignored the inconvenience, focusing instead on the dynamic lineup of talent, which mixed newcomers with established names. What apparently unified all of the 160 exhibitors was an eagerness to impress, whether they were serving peach sliders, dill pickle chicken rinds, Indian pancakes or sesame lamb ribs.

"Chef (Frank Lee) found the Tasting Tents to be a great value for the guests," the Maverick Southern Kitchens blog solemnly reported. (Having run into Lee at the tents, I can confirm he's an unabashed fan of the set-up.)

According to Love, the tents are the result of a highly selective process.

"We say no to a lot of people," she says. "We've very picky. Across the board, we require people to submit menu items."

No matter how prestigious the restaurant, it can't get away with serving plain roast chicken, Love says.

"We turned down one restaurant this year because there was no wow," she says. "You didn't feel the excitement."

Perhaps the most critical "no" came in the festival's first year, when it declined a six-figure check from a major corporation. Although representatives from Delta, Buick and Coca-Cola are stationed alongside the "tasting trail," which connects tents grouping chefs preparing seafood, chicken, vegetables and sweets, the sales pitches don't feel central to the experience.

"It would have made it too commercial," Love says of the rejected money. "These are painful things, but the right things."

Canning expert coming to Mount Pleasant

As an emblem of seasonal, local, nonindustrial eating, a jar of strawberry jam is very much on trend. But the amount of sugar required to turn fruit into preserves is at odds with how many conscientious cooks eat now.

"People experience 'recipe shock' over the amount of sugar in the recipes and want to know how to do low-sugar, no-sugar recipes," says Andrea Weigl, author of the "Pickles & Preserves" volume of The University of North Carolina Press' Savor the South series.

Most of the recipes in the Jams, Jellies and Preserves chapter of Weigl's book call for at least four cups of sugar. The entirety of her strawberry preserve ingredient list, for example, is "2 pounds whole strawberries; 4 cups sugar; cup lemon juice."

According to Weigl, food writer for the Raleigh News & Observer, sugar brightens colors, protects textures, enhances flavors, extends shelf lives and coaxes jam into setting (although Weigl's book offers another suggestion on that score, courtesy of decorated canner April McGreger: Since ripe strawberries are short on pectin, it helps to add unripe berries to the mix.) Still, it's possible to make jams and preserves with less sugar.

"Cooks can use honey, maple syrup, agave syrup and stevia with Pomona's pectin or low-methoxyl pectins," Weigl wrote in a recent article. "The key is finding trusted recipes that call for such ingredients."

For her story, Weigl conducted an informal taste test of strawberry jams. Her co-workers preferred the jam made with Splenda to the jam made with Pomona's Universal Pectin, a "Sugar-free, preservative-free, low-methoxyl" product.

But as Weigl points out, "Sugar binds itself with the water, making it less available to microbes that can cause spoilage or make someone sick. Splenda does not bind as well with water, increasing the risk of microbial activity."

With so many factors to consider, it's no surprise that Weigl's hit the lecture circuit. Locally, she's leading a class at Southern Season on Saturday at 1 p.m. Weigl describes the session as a "marathon canning session," featuring "peach and blueberry freezer jam, peach and tomato salsa, dilly beans, yellow squash pickles and sweet and sour refrigerator pickles."

Registration for Weigl's class is $40. To sign up, go to southernseason.com.

Big Belly opening soon

Larry White has worked at Peninsula Grill, Circa 1886 and The Ocean Room, but he promises patrons of his forthcoming James Island restaurant won't see any traces of upmarket elegance.

"Fine dining is fun, but this is where my heart is," says White, the chef and owner of Lechon Food Truck. He partnered with Tyler Mai of the Fat Ninja food truck to create Big Belly Kitchen + Tap House, set to open before the end of the month.

"If you wanted to compare it to something in Charleston, it's between Fuel and the Tattooed Moose," White says of the 80-seat restaurant. "It's mostly geared toward sandwiches."

Although Big Belly's menu hasn't yet made it online, White says it features an array of "quirky" sandwiches, such as a pork belly gyro and fried chicken banh mi, and more traditional tacos.

Mai will handle the front of the house, while White, whose resume also includes a U.S. Coast Guard Culinary School degree and personal chef gigs, will run the kitchen. He plans to apply his training to items such as chicken wings.

"Instead of the basic bar chicken wings, it's kind of like a Thailand style," White says. "They're brined and dusted in potato starch before frying."

Big Belly Kitchen + Tap House is located at 1014 Fort Johnson Road. Once open, it will keep an 11 a.m.-11 p.m. schedule. For more information, go to facebook.com/bigbellykitchen.