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1/100 Onslow Oysters

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It was incredibly hard for me to decide what county, what recipe, what food group I was going to choose to launch Tasting North Carolina. I grew up in Durham County, have spent countless summers and made incredible memories (including my wedding) in Carteret County, and now find myself living in New Hanover County. But the task of picking a food that defined Durham was more than I could tackle at the beginning of the project, so I decided to focus on something coastal. I figured that if I put my ear to the ground, it would come to me. Thankfully, this weekend, it did.

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One of my favorite family traditions is eating grilled oysters over the holidays. Best practices has, in the past, said that the best time to eat oysters was any month ending in “-er” so as soon as November rolled around we’d load up and fill ourselves. We always stopped on the way home from the Ballenger family Christmas party in Richmond to get a bushel of oysters and then devoured them straight from the grill. It is heaven and easily my favorite way to spend the afternoon with my father, brothers, uncles, and cousins.

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Our family home in Morehead, the Swamp House, has massive oyster beds behind it in the low saltwater marsh, like much of the creeks and sounds of North Carolina. I’ve spent countless days in pockmarked rain boots mucking through the oysters and swimming in Calico Creek but it never once occurred to me that we could eat those oysters. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever had a Crystal Coast oyster. Recently, however, my dad and I had a conversation about how he’d discovered two things. 1) That he prefers oysters that come from the colder season months when the water is much colder and their taste gets salty and 2) that he’s discovered he’s not only a fan of Crystal Coast oysters but that he prefers them to oysters from other areas. I took this as a sign that I should find myself some local oysters.

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onslow oysters 6 This past weekend our two dear friends Brit and Aaron visited us in Wilmington. We love being with them because above all else we have so much in common. We share a passion for food and drink, Dan and Aaron obsess over the same music, and being with them is easy and comfortable. We made our goal for their visit to show them the very best that Wilmington (as far as we’ve discovered) has to offer. On Sunday morning we headed down to Kure Beach to hunt for fossils with our friend Dave, a PhD candidate in Marine Biology. On the way back to the car I asked him if he knew where we could get some fresh local oysters. His response? That his favorite place to buy invertebrate was Seaview Crab Shack. Spoken like a true marine biologist.

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On the way home from Kure we stopped into Seaview and sure enough there were big, beautiful, local oysters. We picked up a 1/2 bushel of oysters from Topsail Island, along with firewood and two oyster shuckers, and headed on our way. Topsail Island is located in two counties- Onslow in the north and Pender in the south. These oysters came from Stump Sound in the northern part of the island. Onslow County  is situated between Jones County to the north, Pender and Duplin to the south, and Carteret to the east. The seat of Onslow county is Jacksonville, and much of the county sits on water- either the Atlantic or one of the number of bays. Jacksonville is the home of Camp Lejune, a large U.S. Marine base. It is also a good portion of the drive from Morehead City to Wilmington, a drive we’ve done frequently in recent months and a drive that I genuinely enjoy because of the scenery.

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Oysters are an important part of any marine ecosystem as they filter the water and their shells help define marsh areas and prevent erosion. North Carolina has worked hard to encourage a depleting oyster population through initatives such as the NC Oyster Shell Recycling program (something I’ll be doing with our shells once we’re done eating them!). It’s no surprise that, like all the seafood you can find here in North Carolina, the oysters are delicious.

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onslow oysters 10 The oysters we picked up were fat, juicy, and salty. When I first started eating oysters the texture weirded me out so I’d cover them in horesradish and tobasco, plop them on a saltine, and swallow the the thing as fast as I could. These days I’ve grown to appreciate foods of different textures, and yesterday when I popped a raw oyster, undressed, in my mouth I was in heaven. Sure there’s a visual barrier but the flavor is so worth it. Sometimes you just need a little mental disconnect. We ate a dozen or so oysters raw and the started to roast them over hot coals. Dressed with tobasco, horseradish, and a sauce Aaron made (white wine, white wine vinegar, minced shallots, and cracked black pepper) they were smokey and delicious. Some came off the fire hot and cooked through, others came off perfectly warmed. It was an awesome afternoon with friends and I’m so glad that we could enjoy this meal together. Thanks Onslow County!

 

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onslow oysters 3 Oysters are a mussel so strong and so well designed that no human can open a live oyster with their bare hands. This is why the shucking knife is genius. Simply insert a shucking knife (or a screwdriver, we’ve learned) into a crack or opening or into the lip, and pry open. If the shell opens easily (when raw) the oyster is dead and should not be consumed. After roasting (which essentially steams them in their juices and saltwater) for a few minutes the shells will open as the mussel dies, and then they can be eaten.

This post is part of the ongoing series, Tasting North Carolina. See more about the project here.

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Tasting North Carolina

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When I started this blog in 2008 it was because I was feeling totally alone in a strange place, a strange life, and I missed home. I needed tastes of my childhood to help me remember who I was and why I had chosen this path. In the years that followed the blog became a haven during jobs that I hated or when I felt creatively stunted. And as I continued to live in the Northeast it became a way to stay connected to my home state, to assert my North Carolinian identity. Through all this, the cumulative eight years I spent in Maryland, I always knew I wanted to come home. And as Biscuits and Such grew and became a part of my routine and a part of me, I didn’t ever stop to consider how it would change when I was no longer a displaced Southerner trying to find pieces of home in a Northerner’s world.

These days I’m surrounded by the things that I love and missed. If I wanted to I could eat grits and biscuits every day and I wouldn’t even have to make them. I no longer have to recreate home because I am home. And in a lot of ways, because of that, the blog has changed. I’ve felt uncertain of its direction, uncertain of its purpose. I’m sure you’ve noticed it, this hasn’t really been a settled space in months. The process of moving, taking time for the holidays, and settling in has given me a lot of time to think about what I wanted out of this website. Asking myself the age old question (that I usually hate), what’s next? We are in a new house that we love, we have new jobs (that I’ll talk about soon enough, I’m sure), we’re feeling happier than we’ve ever been. I want that enthusiasm and love of this place to seep into every part of my life, especially Biscuits and Such. I want this blog to become more than a tribute to the South I remember, I want it to become a celebration of the South that is.

So, with that, I’m excited to launch a new project, Tasting North Carolina. My goal is simple, over the next few years I’d like to create and share a recipe that is representative of each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. This is a huge undertaking, and I’ll admit to feeling a bit intimidated. I don’t know much about most of the counties in North Carolina, but that’s what excites me about it. It will involve research, travel, and learning the stories of the state that I am so happy to call home. I envision the foods to be a mix of regional cuisines,  specialty dishes, and old favorites. Because North Carolina has so many counties I’m hoping that I can pull some unique and hyper-regional dishes and recipes to share here on the blog. I’ll be posting them all with links to a main roundup where you can follow the progress and revisit favorite recipes.

I want to showcase each part of this wonderful place, and I invite you to help me do it. If you have a recipe that you think would be perfect for your county or a county in NC that you love, please email me (elena@biscuitsandsuch.com). I am so excited to launch this project and I hope that you will join me! We’ll be kicking off tomorrow with a seasonal favorite from Onslow County- oysters!

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Smoothies for Breakfast

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On my sister in law Megan’s recommendation I downloaded Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run for the trip to Orlando. I’m 3/4 of the way through it and frankly, I have mixed feelings. I plan on doing a full review and posting his Minnesota Winter Chili recipe (which is pretty delicious) once I’ve finished and have had time to process my thoughts, but I did want to share one thing that I’ve taken from the book so far. And please, feel free to be all, duh Elena, did you need to read a book to tell you that?

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In the book Jurek spends a long time picking over his food choices throughout his lifetime- attributing meaning to those choices and determining how each food has helped him in his career as an ultramarathoner. After a trist with the raw diet in the late 90’s he started eating a smoothie every day for breakfast and a big salad for lunch. In the past I’ve gone on smoothie kicks (hello, love of mango smoothies) but when my immersion blender broke I pretty much stopped. But after I got off the plane on Sunday all I could think about was a nice, big, smoothie. So on the drive home I stopped and picked up a blender.

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This blender is nothing special, but each morning this week I’ve put together a smoothie that, compared to my mango smoothies, are complex and full of different vitamins and nutrients. Each one has included one apple, a handful of spinach, a little mango juice, some frozen fruit (either berries, pineapple, or mango), a carrot or two, ice, and a dollop of Greek yogurt. And while this idea is not revolutionary, it has been a nice reminder to me that I can make something delicious, SUPER healthy, and filling in less than ten minutes.

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