Monday, July 11, 2011

A Feast for Body and Soul at The King's Kitchen

I’m not sure how often I have ranted about the lack of fine dining, or even merely adequate dining, experiences in Madison, SD, my current hometown. I tend to rant frequently on this topic: blog or non-blog, private or public conversations. Our previous home in Ohio, on the outskirts of Columbus, was a mecca of fine dining establishments. We used to eat out an average three times a week, we now average twice a month. Definitely helps the budget, but trying out new restaurants and re-visiting favorites adds zest to our otherwise thrifty lifestyle. And it’s a nice break from the standard palate experienced in our own kitchen, which despite my vast cookbook collection and interminable hours with the Food Network, can still get a little jaded from time to time.

Returning home from Ohio to South Dakota with Rhett, our new basset hound (story for another blog post) I turned around a week later and flew to North Carolina to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Charlotte and my parents in Franklin. While in Charlotte, Elizabeth and Nate (daughter and s-i-l) took me to dinner at The King’s Kitchen.

Now, before I get to specifics on the dinner I need to clear my conscious a bit. I love gourmet cooking and dining. I will travel far and wide in search of required ingredients to prepare a new recipe and ensure my dinner guests a unique and different culinary experience. I loathe substituting ingredients, especially if I’m trying out a recipe for the first time. If the recipe says leeks, I want to taste leeks, not yellow onions. If the recipe says Hubbard squash, then I don’t want acorn, butternut, or pumpkin. After I get the feel for a recipe I’m all for experimentation, but for a recipe’s debut appearance in my kitchen, I want to know and taste as close to the original as I can get. In my view this honors the chef/recipe creator. This is usually and expensive approach to cooking especially if the ingredients are in anyway exotic or I have to make an extra trip or an out of the way trip to a specialty food store. When I lived in Morgantown, WV it was not unusual for me to drive to Pittsburgh, PA (destination: The Strip District) when I was planning a dinner party. (SideBar: I have to remember to tell you about the carry-out Tibetan dinner from the Himalayan Tibetan Restaurant in Pittsburgh when I hosted a party honoring the Dalai Lama’s birthday).

In the same way, when dining out, not all ingredients are created equal. In the hands of a talented chef, even the most humble ingredients can be elevated to new heights. I want that lofty experience now and then and I’m willing to pay extra for it.

But I confess, I feel guilty when I’m spending $14 a pound on wild catch Alaskan salmon when I know how many people can barely afford a can of generic tuna. Likewise, I know how to transform an ordinary Friday Night Date-Night with My Farmer-Architect-Husband into a romantic adventure even if our destination is Wal-Mart and we follow up with a fast food burger and a Coke. But I will never claim it’s the same experience as savoring bison tenderloin with a glass of vintage cabernet and the riverside view at the Wild Sage Grille in Sioux Falls. I don’t need that experience as a regular menu option, but every now and then it’s an experience that boosts my spirits.

So it was with great interest and a certain free-ing feeling when Elizabeth said she and Nate wanted to take me to The King’s Kitchen in Uptown Charlotte. The King’s Kitchen is owned by Chef Jim Noble and all profits from both the restaurant and catering go back into the Charlotte community. Chef Jim also partners with area ministries to provide training and employment opportunities. Not only did I enjoy an excellent dinner, I was making a contribution. Chef Jim also supports area farmers and buys local as often as he can.

The King’s Kitchen menu is billed as “new local southern cuisine.” I figured, if ever I was going to try collard greens, this would be the place. I ordered Aunt Beaut’s Skillet Fried Chicken, mac’n cheese, and stewed tomatoes, along with the collard greens. The appetizer – pimento cheese. All was excellent, although the stewed tomatoes were way too sweet for my palate. My first experience with collards was memorable. The taste was a little strong for me, yet I sensed they were excellently prepared, earthy with an undercurrent of tangy vinegar. The pimento cheese was a real treat, zippy, creamy, and a toothsome foil to the crisp buttery toast it was served on. I’ve had variations on pimento cheese before, but at the King’s Kitchen it was the best I’ve ever had.

I certainly recommend the King’s Kitchen. It’s worth going out of your way for. Chef Jim Noble gives us a rare and unique opportunity to enjoy the pleasures of the table and support his good works and the work of others in the Charlotte community. The King’s Kitchen is a concept that can and should be replicated in every community. I’m already figuring out how to bring the concept back to Madison. We may not have a four star chef in Madison, but we have people with need, farmers with fresh produce, talented cooks, and people with talent and abilities to bring it all together.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Alpha & Omega - or The Return of the Dakota Diner

I’ve experienced a hibernation of sorts these past few months. The muse was frozen I think. But the 24 hours that passes for springtime in South Dakota is history and summer is here in earnest. My writing-self has thawed out and is coming back to life.

Just like the gardens. Somewhere along about the end of April we had the last of the butternut squash from autumn 2010 (Butternut Squash Lasagna). The next day we had the first of the asparagus in Asparagus Risotto. Thick crunchy stalks heavy with the promise of garden’s bounty nestled in Arborio rice swollen with white wine and chicken stock and swept up in parmiggiano-reggiano.

Autumn squash and spring asparagus. The Alpha and Omega of the gardening life.
Now at the first of July we are full swing into broccoli, lettuce, spinach, and radishes. Hot weather started very late this year. But bad weather news for the strawberries – wet cold does not make for sweet, ripe, and juicy – is glory for the cool weather crops – the greens and the coles (broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, and cauliflower).

I see the cycle of seasons more clearly here in South Dakota. Must be because winter is a definite season. Not the wishy-washy damp cold with an occasional burst of snow that I remember of Ohio winters, and even West Virginia winters. There is never ambiguity in South Dakota winters. Alas, spring is short-lived - . a quick sweet breath and poof! – it’s gone. Grab it quick because your next breath bears the heat of prairie grass baking in the sun.

The apple trees and peach trees we planted last summer are leafing out. They survived their first South Dakota winter. The elderly apple tree that’s been in the backyard for an indeterminate length of time has leafed out as well. No blossoms this year though. We had a bumper group of apples last fall. The elderly apple still wobbles perilously under the edict of my Farmer-Architect who is threatening to dispatch it if it can’t produce.

The fingerling potatoes I bought at the Sioux Falls Farmers Market last fall and then promptly forgot about in the back of the kitchen cabinet all winter put forth impressive shoots from their numerous eyes. They are coming to new life in the backyard garden, securely fenced in and safe from marauding squirrels with a taste for spuds.

The circle of life. I am so blessed to be living it every day on the prairie and in the gardens. And now I share it with you in my writing.