Couple embraces small plates, Mediterranean way, sharing

Dawn and George Durst

There must be something about the salt air and the beach that makes people take a relaxed approach to eating. Mark Tanenbaum, himself featured here not long ago, recommends his friends and neighbors as “wonderful home chefs. ... A meal at their house is always casual and incredible.”

Names: Dawn and George Durst, M.D.

Residence: Sullivan’s Island

Occupations: Physician (George) and musician (Dawn)

Family: George came with four kids and we added two together. They are a fabulous brood of brilliant and uniquely talented souls.

Q: Dawn, you say the two of you have a somewhat atypical way of eating. Please describe how you eat.

A: George and I come from very different backgrounds. He is deeply grounded in the Southern food traditions, his family originating from Greenwood. I came from a French Canadian community in Ontario that was a cultural melting pot of immigrants that came to work in farming and the nearby auto factories. My grandfather was U.S. consulate to Canada and had lived all over the world so my family ate from a different country every night depending on the visiting dignitary. One reason I adore George is that he is not stuck in the flavors of the South and is adventurous traveler and eater. George, being a family doctor, is a big proponent of the Mediterranean, (Levant) diet and lifestyle. The food is full of wonderful and healthy ingredients but we both often wonder whether the way they approach a meal holds the greatest of health benefits. A variety of small, fresh and simple dishes, hot and cold, salty and sweet, creamy and crunchy. The idea of sitting and sharing a meal, a bottle of wine, and spirited conversation with friends and family is the real dish!

In order to create an environment of ease for me and whomever is at the table, the food cannot be too structured or formal. Most evenings, I dash by the grocery store and buy the prettiest seasonal vegetables I can find. I’ll scope out the meat and seafood counter and see if anything looks good and buy those items. If nothing is suits, I will use the meat share bits I have stashed in the freezer. On the way home, I call friends and family and invite them over to play in the kitchen and eat. It may sound terrifying to some home cooks but, my game plan is simple and pretty much no fail.

Have good bread. My favorite is baguette from the Co-op on Sullivan’s Island and Sicilian Music Bread from Trader Joe’s.

A plate of olives with herbs and citrus rind warmed in a little crock to release the aromatics.

Two cheeses, one fresh and one aged. I love to offer labaneh, which is nothing more than strained Greek yogurt with a splash of olive oil and herb. Create three or four small and simple raw vegetable dishes and several simple roasted ones.

A bit of freshest quality meat or seafood you can find and either grill or pan roast it with herbs and olive oil. The key here is that great quality is very expensive but you don’t need a lot. A gorgeous T-bone can be grilled and served to four people when sliced thinly and served with an array of accompaniments.

Q: Who or what most influenced you to become serious home cooks?

Dawn: My grandfather had been assigned as U.S. Consulate General in Windsor, Canada, toward the end of the Vietnam war to deal with the overflow of young Americans fleeing the draft. I often sat at my grandparents’ very formal table eating food my grandmother Rose prepared from recipes she discovered during their days in American Foreign Service in Japan, France or South America and many other countries She was an extraordinary cook, as were many women in the diplomatic service. I am proud to say that I have all of her recipes and cookbooks, many original editions in both French and English.

Other great influences include friends’ homes in my neighborhood. Immigrants love to feed new friends their native food. I took full advantage of the neighborhood melting pot. I learned to make dumplings from a classmate’s Estonian mom and eat octopus stew of a beloved Italian Nona down the street at 9 years old. The one thing I learned early on from Grandma Rose, is to taste the food offered to you, accept it as a bridge of understanding and appreciating the culture and the family that left it all behind to become part of the same American dream I share. And of course, always reciprocate the gesture by offering a carefully prepared meal that reflects your background.

George: My mother and grandmother influenced my home cooking the most. They made lemon meringue pies, chocolate cakes and fried chicken. My side of the family is all about ice cream and Dawn has to hide the maker so I don’t gain weight because I would make it every night and eat it all. I love plain vanilla using the recipe from the ice cream maker. It is always the simplest and the best. Add a few fresh peaches or figs ... Perfect! I’m like my mom, she loved her sweets and ate ice-cream every night and lived to be 100.

Dawn bakes, but rarely bothers except for special occasions and is not much for sweets. She will fry chicken for family gatherings outside in a big vat and it’s very good. Luckily, my youngest daughter, Lynna, has picked up the tradition and makes the lemon pie, cakes and ice cream. She is shameless in her use of butter and lard. A good Southern girl! All of my kids are good cooks.

I must admit that these days, I am the one to make a late night omelet or egg sandwich at the end of a chaotic day. Eggs are a special part of our diet since we keep seven hens in the backyard. They are keeping life interesting with their crazy escapes and penchant for munching out of the same bowl with our 80-pound Lab.

Q: George, we understand you are the grill guy and that lamb chops are your specialty. What makes them stand out?

A: Great lamb is the most important ingredient. The New York Butcher in Mount Pleasant often carries wonderful lamb but in a pinch, Publix has a very nice product. Fresh garlic, some fresh rosemary, mint leaves are crushed and chopped. I sprinkle the New York Butcher seasoning mix liberally, rub the crush herb mix on the meat, and moisten with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and olive oil. Grill over a very hot Green Egg, 650 degrees for about a minute and a half on each side, sometimes two if they are really thick. That’s it! Don’t forget to rest it for about 10 minutes to finish cooking to a perfect medium to rare.

Q. Dawn, please tell the story of your first dinner date.

A: I had become a strict vegetarian when I moved to Charleston mostly because it was cheap, I loved growing my own food and loved animals. I took over a few of my friend’s violin students. Surprisingly, she made house-calls to one of her student’s homes on Sullivan’s Island. She assured me he was a great person and I would enjoy teaching him.

The house George lived in at the time was fondly named the BC, short for bad condition. It was an old whitewashed Sullivan’s Island shack precariously perched on cinder block pilings, a little rebar, and black plastic indoor-outdoor carpeting inside and out. George was divorced with a passel of wild children. There were boats and funky exotic old cars in the yard. I really did not know what to make of the whole scene but, I admired the single father and busy doctor that took time out to learn to play the violin.

It must have been the third lesson when I showed up as scheduled and he opened the door, invited me in and it became evident that I must have shown up on the wrong day. There were flowers on the table, silver flatware and linens. Clearly, he was expecting a romantic date. It took a while to realize that date was me. I glanced at the table and saw a vegetarian’s worst nightmare! A baby lamb chop stuffed with mousse of baby cow. I was in a serious relationship with a violinist and was not at all interested in a courtship with a divorced man with a bunch of kids. I heard my grandmother Rose’s wisdom echoing in my panicked brain and realized that gracious appreciation and diplomacy was going to be the only way out of this situation. I ate the veal-stuffed lamb chops and the poached pears and did not say a word about being a vegetarian.

George diplomatically invited my boyfriend to dinner as well and struck up a great friendship with him. Eventually, as so often the case with musicians, my boyfriend won an audition and moved to California. I was disgusted and forlorn. George became my confidant, cheerleader, best friend and favorite cooking partner. He still is ... 25 years later.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 tablespoon of chopped fresh tarragon leaves (or a tablespoon of spice mix below and a teaspoon of dried sumac)

3 medium-sized carrots

1/2 fresh lemon

1 tablespoon good olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Clean and shred the carrots either with a box grater, food processor or a vegetable peeler. I like the ribbons from the peeler. Swirl the shreds about in a large bowl with the lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, transfer to a small bowl, cover, and refrigerate until dinner.

Spice mixture: Lately, I have been omitting the tarragon and adding one of the spice mixtures I created after touring in Israel and Spain. I throw a tablespoon of cumin seed and caraway into a hot frying pan and heat it until fragrant. Toss it into a blender along with a tablespoon of Aleppo pepper flakes (Turkish crushed peppersu, smoky Spanish pimenton and 1 teaspoon of garlic powder. I put it in a jar and use it for about a month. It is very hot but the carrot and lemon juice foil the heat a bit. The sumac is a spice with a lemony taste without the acid of citrus.

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 large ripe Hass avocado

1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice

Zest of 1/2 lemon

A small handful of mint leaves, shredded with a sharp knife

2 heaping tablespoons of whole milk ricotta cheese

4 slices of great rustic bread

Olive oil

1 peeled garlic clove cut in half

1 tablespoon of toasted and salted pine nuts

Directions

Remove and cube the avocado flesh. Toss with lemon juice in a mixing bowl. Salt and pepper to taste. Add the zest, mint and ricotta, folding to mix thoroughly but allowing for a few nice chunks of avocado.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Paint the sides of your bread with olive oil, put them on a sheet pan and toast until crisp, 7-10 minutes. When these are still hot out of the oven rub the cut side of the raw garlic on one side of the toast. Pile on the avocado mixture, portioning generously, and sprinkle liberally with pine nuts.

Note: These are slime-free for okra-wary folk.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon freshly ground cumin seed

1/4 teaspoon each kosher salt and pepper

1/2 pound of small, bright green okra

1 tablespoon of olive oil

Directions

Prepare a quick spice mix of the cumin seed with the salt and pepper.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Clean and slice okra lengthwise. Toss them in the mixing bowl with the olive oil and lay out on baking sheet with their seeds up. Sprinkle on the seasoning and roast until tender, slightly crispy.

Tip: On this same baking sheet, toss some olive oil-coated mushrooms and potatoes cut into small cubes. Add a squeeze of lemon after they are cooked or chopped garlic and parsley.