Finalists in Piggly Wiggly's "Taste of the South" recipe contest drew inspiration from things close to the heart: old family receipts and fruits of the land and sea such as peaches and pecans, shrimp and crab. Elvis even got into the act.
In the end, though, a cook from "off" came out on top with a dish dubbed Charleston Chili. It gave a Southern accent to the spicy stew, with pulled pork barbecue, country ham, boiled peanuts and black-eyed peas instead of the usual beef and beans.
Doug DuCap of Charleston claimed the grand prize, a $1,600 set of All-Clad cookware. But DuCap was more wowed by the honor to represent his new home than the pots and pans.
DuCap, 46, is a native New Yorker who came to the Lowcountry three years ago. "The people down here have been so kind, so welcoming. I wanted to do something that would ground me here, make me a part of it," he says.
The contest was launched in August in Piggly Wiggly stores in the Carolinas and southeastern Georgia. About 250 recipes were entered in three categories: appetizers/sides, main dishes and desserts.
After semifinal rounds in mid-November, 13 cooks made it to the finals last week. Judges were Charleston-raised food authors and celebrities Matt and Ted Lee and Charleston Magazine editor Darcy Shankland.
"We thought it was a very high-caliber contest," says Ted Lee. "We've done a few of these, and it ranks up there recipe-wise.
"They were really, really close."
As for the chili, the judges lapped it up.
"I gotta say, I had doubts about it, but the flavors were fantastic," Lee adds. "It was clearly an original idea that followed through."
DuCap's food muse was a "classic Southern gentleman" whom he met in Ithaca, N.Y. The man, James Gulledge, who is now deceased, had been a professor of ornithology at Cornell University.
Gulledge was handicapped from a stroke, but his mind was razor-sharp, DuCap says. "He led a very interesting life, and I learned a lot from him."
Gulledge was born in Moncks Corner and always spoke of the Lowcountry, DuCap says. As the friends spent time together, DuCap often cooked for him.
"I tried to bring back the flavors of his childhood. Working from 'Charleston Receipts' and other books, I learned to cook Southern food. He approved. He didn't laugh too hard at my mistakes."
After Gulledge's death, DuCap wanted to do something to honor him. He turned to writing something that would be part biography and part cookbook, stories of him and their meals together.
"I knew I had to see this area," DuCap says. He came, intending to stay a few months. That was three years ago.
"I love it here and this is my home now," says DuCap, who works as a bartender on James Island.
The finals, held in a tent at the Northbridge Piggly Wiggly on a chilly Thursday afternoon, had its share of sentimental moments, along with disaster and laughter.
When contestant Krista Simmons of Charleston brought her dish, Boiled Peanut Salsa, to the judges, it was nicely presented in three martini glasses sitting on a plate. But, at the last minute, the glasses toppled over, heaping salsa on the table.
Simmons and the judges took it in stride. "Look, there's your 'sophisticated' boiled peanuts," she told the judges, laughing.
Turning to the other contestants, she added, "Y'all have nothing to fear. I've done the worse."
Ann Kaskinen-Chapman's Beach Shack Cheesecake also brought smiles to the crowd.
Chapman's dessert paid homage to a Southern entertainer famous for his love of peanut butter and bananas: Elvis, of course.
She themed the cheesecake around the 1966 movie "Spinout" in which Elvis plays a race-car driver. He also sings a song with lyrics that beckon a female guest "to have a snack ... in my little beach shack." (Chapman lives on Edisto Beach.)
Each wedge of the peanut butter cheesecake represented a "race car." It was laid on a "track" of chocolate sauce, with chocolate cookie-coated banana slices placed along the sides for "wheels." Elvis, the "driver," was a chocolate-dipped strawberry perched on top.
Finally, a generous squirt of whipped cream at the rear was made to be the car's "exhaust."
By the time she had assembled the dessert on the plate — to the sound of Elvis crooning "Beach Shack" from a portable stereo — Ted Lee quipped, "How many pages is this recipe?"
DuCap says he wrote out his "Charleston Chili" recipe before he ever made it.
"I was actually rethinking boiled peanuts — they have become an obsession," says DuCap. "It got me to thinking about peanuts as vegetables rather than peanut butter. Using them as a bean was a natural leap to making the chili."
He brought other Southern flavors into the mix as he tried to build layers of "smokiness" with country ham, black-eyed peas and pulled pork.
"Carolina barbecue was another one of my revelations here," DuCap says.
Here is his grand-prize recipe, followed by the category winners in appetizer/sides and desserts.
Makes 6 servings
5 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
1 large white onion, chopped
2 cups chopped green bell peppers (about 2 large)
2 medium poblano chilies, skin and seeds removed (see cook's notes), chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 cup minced country ham
3 scallions, diced
3 cups shelled boiled peanuts, preferably green (about 4-5 pounds before shelling)
1 can (15-ounce) black-eyed peas, rinsed and drained (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 cups water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 or 2 chipotle chiles, minced (see cook's notes)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
4 cups pulled pork barbecue, divided for use (see cook's notes)
1 teaspoon spicy brown mustard
1 teaspoon honey
Salt to taste
-- Roast or char poblano chiles over a flame to blister the skin for easy removal.
-- Chipotle chiles come in a can packed in adobo sauce.
-- DuCap makes his own pulled pork barbecue, but other options are purchasing it or using leftover roast pork, pulled into chunks and seasoned with high-quality hickory smoke seasoning. His barbecue starts with a homemade wet rub for the meat — Boston butt and pork loin — that includes celery salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper, brown sugar, cider vinegar and brown mustard. He hickory-smokes the pork for at least three hours and then finishes the meat in a 225-degree oven for another four hours or more.
In a large, deep skillet or heavy casserole, saute the garlic in the oil over medium heat for 1 minute. Stir in the paprika and cumin, then add the white onion, bell pepper, poblano, thyme and black pepper. Cook, stirring, until vegetables are just softened, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove vegetables from pan and set aside.
In the same pan, cook the country ham for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the scallions, peanuts and black-eyed peas. Stir for a few minutes to meld the flavors. Return the onion/pepper mix to the pan, add the water, and stir in the tomato paste, chipotle chiles, Worcestershire sauce and vinegar. Stir in 3 cups of the pulled pork. Bring just to a boil and reduce heat, simmering uncovered for 40 minutes, sitrring regularly.
Remove from heat and stir in the mustard and honey. Add salt to taste, if needed. Stir in the remaining pulled pork just before serving. Serve with Carolina rice, cornbread, biscuits or white grits.
Ron Ormrod showed up at the finals wearing a bright red sweater and a (real) white beard, looking a bit like Santa. He came to the South Carolina coast from Maryland, another oyster-loving state.
"I was surprised when I moved to Little River — they do oysters very well," he said to the judges.
This recipe, he says, is the best Carolina has to offer — beautiful oysters on the half shell, crabmeat and barbecue sauce.
Little River BBQ Oysters
Serves 4-6 people
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons white vinegar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons hot sauce, such as Tabasco
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoon brown sugar
Juice from 1/2 fresh lemon
2 dozen South Carolina oysters, shucked and left in deep side of shell
1 pound fresh Carolina lump crabmeat
Grated parmesan cheese for sprinkling on top
Melt butter in medium saucepan and saute garlic, onion and green pepper. Add tomato sauce, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, cayenne, brown sugar and lemon juice. Mix well and let simmer for 15 minutes.
Place shucked oysters in shell on a cookie sheet. Cover each oyster with a couple of lumps of crabmeat, then the barbecue sauce. Sprinkle a little parmesan cheese on top.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for around 15 minutes, until hot and bubbly.
Note: Also can be cooked on the grill over coals.
Lorraine Hiltz of Columbia won the dessert category with a Southern-style cheesecake. "This recipe came together with my kids. They came up with the idea of the butterscotch," she said, and she swirled it in the cake.
But she felt the cheesecake needed something else. She hit the right note with a pecan and brown sugar topping.
Pecan Butterscotch Cheesecake
8 ounces crushed graham crackers (about 7 crackers)
1/4 cup butter ( 1/2 stick or 4 tablespoons)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup finely chopped pecans
3 (8 ounces each) packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup butterscotch chips
2/3 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter, melted
Nondairy whipped topping, such as Cool Whip (optional)
For crust: Mix crushed graham crackers, butter, sugar and pecans in a small bowl. Press into a 9-inch springform pan sprayed with cooking spray.
For filling: In a mixing bowl, combine cream cheese, sugar, cornstarch and vanilla. Mix on low speed. Add eggs one a time.
Melt butterscotch chips in microwave. Pour most of cream cheese batter into the prepared crust. Pour butterscotch into the remaining cream cheese batter, mixing by hand, and swirl batter into the pan. Bake 40 minutes at 300 degrees.
For topping: Mix together chopped pecans, brown sugar, butter and egg. Pour over the top of the cheesecake and return to the oven for 10 minutes.
Cool before removing from springform pan. Refrigerate. Serve with a dollop of Cool Whip, if desired.