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Going to Seed

How nearly extinct grains helped propel a next-generation soul food chef to the big time

Author LEAH KOENIG

CHARLESTON, S.C.

LOTS OF CHEFS TODAY sport food tattoos: inked-on images of sunny-side-up eggs or pigs diagrammed into butcher’s cuts. Sean Brock, head chef at the celebrated restaurants Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., has an ear of corn. It’s actually part of a full sleeve of botanical tattoos on Brock’s left arm that includes pea shoots, candy-striped beets and black radishes, but the corn — the brick-colored, nearly extinct Jimmy red corn — gets special prominence, as well it should. It helped make him what he is.

Five years ago, Brock, now 34, began thinking that in order to fully realize the dishes he grew up eating in Virginia, he would have to recover many of the thousands of richly flavored native grain varieties, like Jimmy red corn and Carolina gold rice, that once thrived in fields and kitchen gardens across the South, but then all but disappeared in the wake of industrial agriculture.

So he decided to grow them himself. Brock researched heritage seed varieties at local heirloom grain mill Anson Mills, and started cultivating a few, like Sea Island white-flint corn, on a small farm plot in nearby McClellanville. He cooked with them too, of course, crafting such dishes as grits baked under a bubbling cap of cheddar, creamy laurel-aged rice dressed in butter and fresh herbs, and pots of pimento cheese served with crackers made from local benne (sesame seed) flour.

Brock’s work has not gone unnoticed. In 2010 he won the coveted James Beard Best Chef of the Southeast award, and across the country a growing number of chefs — including Dan Barber of New York’s celebrated Blue Hill, Ana Sortun of Oleana in Cambridge, Mass., and Jonah Rhodehamel of Oliveto in Oakland, Calif. — have begun to take the provenance of their grains as seriously as that of their heirloom tomatoes. Even celebrity chef Mario Batali’s New York City Italian food emporium, Eataly, sources organic stone-ground flour from Wild Hive Farm, located just two hours upstate.

Brock, meanwhile, is hardly finished with his undertaking. He is now experimenting with fermentation, making a soy sauce alternative out of locally grown farro and oats and brewing his own rice wine vinegar (“It smells like opening a can of Sprite,” he says). He also works diligently with longtime mentor Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills, to discover new grains as well as new techniques for using old ones.

“Sean puts these grains to work more enthusiastically than anyone I know,” Roberts says. “If I send him a seed sample, he starts ordering it the next day.” The tattoos, one presumes, follow shortly thereafter.

DARK MATTERS
A new grain is on chefs’ minds like white on rice

WHEN THE WAITER ASKS what kind of rice you’d like with that, there are exactly two options: the tasty and the righteous. Diners who favor smooth flavor at the expense of nutrients will choose the white. Those who favor their figure will choose the brown. And that’s that. Or is it?

If the recent proliferation of black rice among sushi spots and Whole Foods stores is any indication, there is soon to be a happy medium. Chewier than white or brown rice, with a fruity flavor and a deep purple color, black rice has begun to appear on restaurant menus alongside its less pigmented cousins. Said to have been so precious in ancient China that it was reserved for emperors, black rice also contains the same antioxidants found in acai berries. “Chefs see it as a superfood,” says chef Ian Pengelley of London’s Gilgamesh, a pan-Asian restaurant whose separate black rice menu contains such dishes as fried black rice with Chinese sausage, prawn and egg; black rice risotto with king crab, yuzu, truffle and bonito; and startlingly colored sushi rolls.

In Chicago, Union Sushi and Barbeque Bar mixes the exotic grain into rice pudding with coconut milk and sesame seeds. “The earthy aroma from the black rice and the touch of sweetness enhance the flavor,” says executive chef Worachai Thapthimkuna. But regardless of health benefits or taste, he admits there’s a superficial reason the grain is gaining in popularity: It looks cool on white plates. — AMBER GIBSON

A CLASSIC RIFF

The original “old-fashioned” — bourbon, sugar and a dash of bitters — may have originated among Kentucky’s equestrian elite, but that hasn’t stopped bartender T.J. Palmieri of Miami’s Yardbird from putting a down-home patina on it. After adding a little sorghum syrup, the grain-based sweetener long used to top biscuits and grits, he named his creation after the patron saint of blues guitar, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

THE STEVIE RAY

2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. sorghum syrup
2-3 dashes The Bitter Truth’s Jerry Thomas bitters

1. Rim a rocks glass with powdered sugar.
2. Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass.
3. Pour over ice.

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