Thursday, January 26, 2012

Were talkin bout the China Grove, Oh China Grove

Before you launch with me into a tirade of lyrics ala Doobie Brothers (and if you remember Rerun trying to bootleg one of their shows double your points!), know that China Grove is a small community located in West Tennessee. It is also home to a really cool country store owned by a local Mennonite family that is an amazing place for foodies.

If your familiar with my writings here, you know that I am not big on 'southern food' in this blog. I was raised on fried chicken and black eyed peas but I prefer a bowl of Kimchi or a plate of lechon over southern food on any given occasion. So when my friend Glenn suggested I visit China Grove Country Store you can imagine my lack of enthusiasm. (I know I could eventually be 'run out of town on a rail' in rural West Tennessee for liking Chef Lee Ann Wong over Paula Dean but them's the breaks!)

As we drove through the country roads of Gibson County Tennessee I secretly dreaded going to eat at any place deemed a 'country store'. It conjured up thoughts of jars of pickled eggs, old men sitting around bickering over politics and heavy fried something...But alas we were on our way.

China Grove Country Store is not what I expected! This clean and well stocked little market is filled with  the smell of homemade breads and sweets. As you enter several rows of colorful jams, jellies and seasonings catch your eye. I purchased some of the homemade strawberry and elderberry jams which were AMAZING. Ditto for the homemade candies and desserts. The really neat thing was that I could look at a product and read the label and see nothing but raw, natural ingredients. No #5 anything, no sodium hydroclotite whatyacallit. Just ingredients like sugar, milk, butter,etc. And for those folks with special needs like sugar free or gluten free there are several items specially made for you!

For those who like to cook, there is a fantastic selection of herbs and seasonings and a very affordable price. You can find everything from dried lemongrass to pine nuts for your cooking needs. There are several homemade items like a homemade dried cheese seasoning and homemade bbq rubs. Jars and bundles of fresh herbs are available at a really good price. I purchased a jar of Amish made molasses which when mixed with melting butter on a hot biscuit is so good it should be a felony....

There is also a nice selection of meats from the Yoder Farms folks in Paris Tennessee. The Yoders are producers of beef and pork products that have no antibiotics, no added hormones and are fed a total vegetarian diet. The Yoder farms sausage is really good stuff!

The store is also filled with cooking tools, cookbooks and assorted gift items. However all of this can be skipped over and bypassed in order to get to the deli. A group of young ladies bakes fresh baked breads and stands waiting to take your order behind the deli counter. My friend suggested some of the Virginia ham with a slice of something called 'Amish butter cheese' on fresh made sourdough bread. The entity known as 'Amish butter cheese' is a rich and creamy cheese made from cow's milk that has not been given any artificial hormones. The cheese is smooth and silky and melts in your mouth!

He also picked up a bag of homemade (yes you read it) homemade potato chips and a cold sarsaparilla soda. We feasted inside on all of this inside the cab of his pickup truck. (Yes, the only thing I was missing was a pair of overalls and a straw hat. Country indeed.) Just when I was going on about how stuffed I was from the sandwich (yes it was that big!) My friend produces a small paper box and says " you must try this!"

He opened the box to reveal a beautiful brown round cake oozing with white icing. It was a piece of homemade pumpkin roll with cream cheese frosting. I'm not a fan of pumpkin rolls but this was not the typical dried out sponge with drab icing over it. This was a moist, sweet spicy delight covered in a creamy vanilla buttery frosting. You must try this when you visit!

When you want to try some really good food, made really clean and served really fresh, check out China Grove Country Store!

China Grove Country Store
445 China Grove Rd
Rutherford TN 38369

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Foodies Road Trip: St. Louis and the Hill

While we perused the virtually 'hidden' Chinatown in our last post about St. Louis, I wanted to delve into one of the most famous ethnic cuisines in St. Louis...Italian.

For those seeking true Italian food, the area known as the 'Hill' in St. Louis is a treasure mine of deliciousness. The Hill is a large Italian community located around Kingshighway and Northup Avenue. 

In the late 1800's, the railroads and growing industry brought many Italian families into St. Louis. By 1900 over 600 Italians had made the area their home. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the area began to see a number of small Italian markets, bakeries and eateries. For several years members of the community known as 'the Hill' were virtually isolated from the rest of the city of St. Louis. Public services such as sanitation were not accessible from the area. Over time, the area became self sufficient and boasted a growing community of Italian owned restaurants and markets. 

Today as a foodie the Hill is an amazing tour through 'little Italy'. The Italian culture permeates the street life where the smell of roasted coffee and flags of red, green and white wave in the wind. Fogged up windows of bakeries hold within them the rich smell of golden Italian breads and sweet crispy pastries. Beautiful cobble stone streets can still be seen in many of the neighborhoods. 

We were able to visit a number of Italian bakeries including the famous Amighetti's bakery. Inside were mountains of breads, cookies and sweets. We enjoyed sweet homemade Canolli filled with sweet cream and berries. The smell of a stout espresso permeated the room. 

Right around the corner we visited a St. Louis classic 'Viviano's Grocery'. A trip inside of Viviano's grocery is indeed a treat. Homemade pastas, cheeses and breads are available throughout the store. A butcher offers fresh cut Italian meats and sausages while we perused the many shelves of imported oils, tomatoes and wines. Viviano's has been a part of St. Louis since the forties. The store features an olive bar filled with luscious Italian olives and peppers as well as a number of imported foods and gifts.

As we dipped into a number of little mom and pop Italian markets, I was immediately drawn to the site of fresh made Italian cheeses. (In case you didn't know, I am a cheese fiend. I literally would sell my soul for the right piece of cheese. )And no where was my cheese fetish more fulfilled than on the Hill. Historical Di Gregorio's Market carried an unbelievable selection of homemade Italian cheeses like aged asiago, parmesan, romano and  parmigiano reggiano. 

There are several authentic restaurants on the Hill. While we wanted to try every Italian restaurant on the Hill, this would have taken weeks and thousands of dollars. So we settled on having one big meal at a Hill favorite 'Rigazzi's'. Founded in 1957, Rigazzi's restaurant is the oldest Italian restaurant on the Hill. The walls of Rigazzi's are covered in signed photos of diners including Frank Sinatra, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Dinero and many other big named stars who have sampled the restaurants fairs. Rigazzi's serves up old school Italian dishes like baked mostoccioli, baked ravioli and stuffed cannelioni as well as fresh antipasto and warm baked breads. 

The trip would not have been complete without a visit to Gelato Di Riso, an amazing gelato shop that was nominated best gelato in St. Louis in 2010 by the Riverfront Times. Gelatos are made with fresh fruit and milk and are uber creamy and sweet. I tried a blood orange gelato which was slightly tart and sweet. I also sampled a pear and a caramel gelato which were also fantastic.

If you want to take a trek to little Italy without wandering far from the BibleBelt, check out the Hill in St. Louis. You won't be disappointed!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Foodies Road Trip: St. Louis Chinatown

Over the holidays I had an opportunity to visit some friends in St. Louis. St. Louis is a virtual foodie town as it boasts thousands of restaurants, cafes and markets. A virtual cornucopia of cuisines can be had from Mid Western comfort food to authentic Italian dishes. An while St. Louis has some local favorite dishes including barbecue pork steak and gooey butter cake, it also is home to one of the Mid-West's best kept secrets: Chinatown. Yep, you heard me right…San Francisco and D.C. are not the only metropolitan cities with an amazing Asian community of markets, bakeries and restaurants serving everything from Peking Duck to Shark's Fin Soup. 

The original Chinatown in St. Louis started out in the region where Busch stadium is now located. Chinese immigrants made this area home from 1869 to 1966 . The community now calls Olive Boulevard in University City home. The area maintains several Chinese business including a Chamber of Commerce. 

As far as food goes,one of the best ethnic supermarkets in the city can be found in Chinatown.  'Seafood City Supermarket' is one of the largest international markets in the Mid-West. The building is thousands of feet of food, seasonings and tools used in various ethnic cultures. Rows of seasonings from China, Korea, India, Jamaica, Japan and many other regions can found throughout the store. Fresh seafood is brought in daily including fish, shrimp, clams, crabs and eels. Kitchen tools such as woks, knives, rice cookers and steamers also decorate the shelves. 

One of our first stops was at the 'Wei Hong Bakery and BBQ'. This small brick building houses some truly amazing little bites of heaven.  We feasted on fresh, hot  pork buns while watching the baker prepare fresh Hong Kong style rice dumplings. 

We also made a stop at J&W Bakery which was serving a number of fresh baked breads and dumplings. They even prepared a delicious pork bun served in a crispy lattice work breading as opposed to the traditional soft bread bun. 

There were a number of little cafes and markets offering Oriental delicacies like Hong Kong dumplings filled with rice and pork. 

Roasted pork and duck seasoned with Chinese five spice hung in the windows of markets. 

One author has noted that the St. Louis Chinatown is more like 'Asiantown'. We found this to be true as we spotted Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants in the area. 

 And while I did enjoy a little bit of Chinese garlic beef at a 'touristy' Chinese restaurant, our true gem came in the form of Pho we found at Pho Long. Pho Long boasts a number of wonderful Vietnamese dishes.

I discovered that because the Missouri Department of Transportation has jurisdiction over part of Olive Blvd. that no decorative arches or gateways could be placed over the roadway. As a result, there is no officially 'designated' Chinatown in St. Louis. But like most cultural treasures, being designated 'officially' makes little difference in the hearts and minds of those who celebrate the Asian culture in this community. They will continue to celebrate their community through the wonderful foods and cooking techniques of their homeland.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Happy New Years Foodie Style!

Here's hoping that all of you have a great 2012! If doomsday prophets and the Mayan calendar aren't correct, we hope to try and share a whole new year of amazing restaurants and foods with you!

Well, 2012 started out with a bang as I was invited to a New Year's Eve party with members of the West Tennessee Thai community. Guests brought several delicious dishes from China, Korea, Japan and Thailand. The intoxicating scent of Thai chilies, coconut milk and lemongrass could be smelled throughout the air. One of the cooks exclaimed "This is the real Oriental food! Not Americanized!"

I started out with some Korean bass. The fish was freshly caught by the cook's husband. The fish was steamed with garlic, ginger and spicy seasoned vegetables. It was delicious!

Next I tried a truly unique dish which was baked jasmine rice with shredded coconut and homemade sausage. It was slightly sweet but having the a nice bite of spiciness. This was served wrapped in lettuce.

For those who attended seeking a little 'heat' in this winter cold, homemade Kimchi and spicy black bean pastes were available. I enjoy spicy foods and this was definitely a treat!

I was in foodie heaven if only for a few hours. The food was delicious, soulful and made with love. Amazing food created by some amazing people. Happy New Years to you and let us always remember the eloquent words of opera great Luciano Pavarotti who said "One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote ourselves to eating."