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Charm of the south

ST. PETERSBURG — Brothers Ted and Matt Lee ooze Southern charm. That's sort of what you'd expect from sons of genteel Charleston, S.C., but still a sweet surprise from two guys at the top of the foodie chain.

At Savannah's Cafe one evening last week, they flashed wide smiles, as authentic as the low-country food they write about, for a roomful of people armed with cookbooks for signing. There were lots of handshakes, too, and plenty of people went home with photos of themselves with a Lee on either side. And during a four-course dinner of dishes from their latest book, The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern (Clarkson Potter, 2009), the brothers walked from table to table to chat and answer questions.

"We love Southern food and we love interpreting it in new ways," Matt told the audience of about 60 packed into the upstairs dining room at the Central Avenue restaurant. Simple Fresh Southern includes the ingredient-driven aesthetic of these 30-something innovators, and there is not a grits recipe to be found.

"We haven't gotten much hate mail yet," Matt said.

Savannah's owner John Warren met the brothers at a Charleston book signing recently and invited them to St. Petersburg. Since they were headed to other appearances in Florida, including a film festival in Orlando, they accepted.

The Lees are among a number of children of the South who have embraced their native dishes and become chroniclers of what some say is the only original American cuisine. In 1994, living in a lousy New York apartment and just recently out of college, they started the Lee Bros. Boiled Peanuts Catalogue, which specialized in Southern pantry staples. (View it online at Their curious venture gained traction — the catalog was made of fabric and bound on a sewing machine — and people were happy to pay more for shipping boiled peanuts than the peanuts were actually worth. New careers were born.

The catalog helped launched their writing career and they are now contributing editors for Travel + Leisure and wine columnists for Martha Stewart Living. Their first book, The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, is a 550-plus page homage to the foods of their youth and how they came to learn to cook them. It won nearly every cookbook award imaginable in 2007, including cookbook of the year from the James Beard Association. They are now doing more TV, including a recent throwdown with Bobby Flay on the Food Network. The brothers beat Flay with their version of Country Captain, the Southern curry dish.

But on their night in St. Petersburg, the only control they had over dinner was what they had written in their cookbook. Savannah's executive chef Sal Merola selected the dishes for the meal and his crew executed them with a few embellishments from the chef. Not an easy task, Ted said, to take recipes intended for six and translate them into dinner for 60. The brothers led a round of applause for the cooks, another example of their agreeable natures.

On the menu was Gran's Flank Steak, a family recipe influenced by their grandmother's time living in Japan. The marinade includes soy sauce and bourbon. "When I taste it, I get goose bumps. That's my Gran's," Ted said, after biting into Merola's version.

Each dish came with a story or explanation from one brother or the other about how it found its way into a book on Southern food. Soybeans? Squid? Not traditionally what one might expect to find.

"Soybeans are one of the biggest crops in South Carolina," Matt said. "We want to push them to the forefront. Good luck to us." He flashed that big smile again. "And squid is a huge catch off the coast of Charleston."

Those ingredients were integral in two salads: Cherry Tomato and Soybean Salad, and Squid With Watermelon and Basil. Matt said Mediterranean combinations of salty and sweet ingredients gave them the "courage to pair watermelon with squid."

For dessert, there was well-conceived Mint Julep Panna Cotta that seemed destined for a Kentucky Derby party. Bourbon gilded the cooked cream and fresh mint leaves added a refreshing herbal note.

An original twist for sure. Just like the brothers themselves.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.


Squid With Watermelon and Basil

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more, to taste

1 large lemon, halved

1 pound cleaned squid, cut into 1/3-inch-wide rings, flapper cut into strips, tentacle clusters cut in half

1 (8-ounce) piece seedless watermelon, cut into 1- by 1/4-inch tiles (about 2 cups)

1 medium red onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)

1 jalapeno chili, seeded and finely diced (optional)

3/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Leaves from 3 sprigs fresh basil, coarsely chopped (about 1/4 cup)

Combine 1 quart of water and 1 tablespoon of the salt in a saucepan and bring to boil. Juice the lemon into the water. Add the squid and cook for 45 seconds. With a slotted spoon or skimmer, transfer the squid to an ice bath (or to a colander set under cold running water) to cool and halt the cooking. Reserve 2 cups of the squid cooking liquid. Drain the cooled squid and reserve it in a medium bowl.

Add 1/2 cup water, the watermelon pieces, onion, jalapeno, red wine vinegar, remaining 2 teaspoons salt and the black pepper to the bowl and toss until evenly combined. If the level of the liquid is below the level of the squid, add enough of the reserved squid cooking liquid to just cover. Pat a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the liquid and place the bowl in the refrigerator until the flavors have melded, 1 to 2 hours.

To serve, use a slotted spoon to transfer serving portions of the squid and watermelon to small bowls. Drizzle each portion with a tablespoon of the olive oil and sprinkle about a tablespoon of the chopped basil over the top. Season each portion with salt, pepper and marinating liquid to taste.

Serves 4.

Source: The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, 2009)


Cherry Tomato and Soybean Salad

2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

1 pound fresh or frozen shelled soybeans (edamame) (about 3 1/3 cups)

3/4 cup whole or low-fat buttermilk

1 clove garlic, finely grated

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

10 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes (about 2 cups), halved lengthwise

Leaves from 4 sprigs fresh basil (about 1 cup loosely packed)

Freshly ground black pepper

Bring a quart of water to boil in a large saucepan and add 2 teaspoons of the salt. Add the soybeans and, when the water returns to a boil, continue to cook until the soybeans are just tender but cooked through, about 5 minutes. Drain the beans in a colander and cool them under cold running water. Shake the colander vigorously to remove excess water.

In a medium bowl, whisk the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt with the buttermilk, garlic and olive oil. In a large bowl, toss the beans, tomatoes and basil together. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to coat evenly. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. (Covered, the salad will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 days.)

Serves 4.

Source: The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, 2009)


Gran's Flank Steak

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whiskey

1 3/4 pounds beef flank steak

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons cane syrup or honey

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar, white wine vinegar or red wine vinegar

Pour the soy sauce, bourbon and 1/2 cup water into a broiler pan. Lay the steak in the pan and flip it a few times to agitate and mix the marinade and to coat the steak in the liquid. Let stand, covered, for 1 hour, turning it once at the half-hour mark.

Remove the steak from the marinade, pat it dry with two changes of paper towels, and then season it with the salt and black pepper. Reserve 1/2 cup of the marinade.

Turn the broiler on and position the broiler pan 4 inches beneath the heat source. Wait until a drop of water dropped into the pan sizzles, and then add the steak. Cook for 3 minutes on the first side. Then flip it and cook for 2 minutes on the second side for rare, 3 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer the steak to a cutting board, tent it with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes.

While the steak rests, pour the reserved marinade into the broiler pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Simmer until reduced by half, about 6 minutes. Add the cane syrup and vinegar, and cook for 1 minute until warmed through.

Slice the flank steak as thin as you can across the grain, and serve with the sauce.

Serves 4.

Source: The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, 2009)


Mint Julep Panna Cotta

1 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin powder (such as Knox gelatin)

1/2 teaspoon canola oil

1 cup whole milk

2 cups heavy cream

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup packed fresh mint leaves, plus more for garnish

1/4 cup Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whiskey

In a small bowl, stir the gelatin into 3 tablespoons room-temperature water, and set it aside to soften. Pour the oil onto a paper towel and use it to lightly but completely coat 6 small (6-ounce) ramekins.

Combine the milk, cream, sugar and mint leaves in a small saucepan and heat slowly over low heat, stirring occasionally. When the milk boils (about 30 minutes), remove the pan from the heat and skim the mint leaves from the milk with a slotted spoon. Discard the leaves.

In a 2-quart pot, bring the bourbon to a boil over medium heat and boil for 30 seconds. Add the mint-flavored cream mixture and continue heating until the mixture reaches 175 degrees. Remove from the heat, add the gelatin and stir well to dissolve the gelatin.

Decant the mixture into a pitcher or large measuring cup with a spout. Pour into the oiled ramekins and refrigerate until set, about 1 1/2 hours.

Slip a thin knife around each ramekin to loosen the custard and then invert each custard onto its plate with a quick tap; serve immediately, garnished with mint. If serving later, keep the custards in their ramekins and press small swatches of plastic wrap directly over the surface of the custards and return them to the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Serves 6.

Source: The Lee Bros. Simple Fresh Southern by Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Clarkson Potter, 2009)

Charm of the south 04/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 7:27am]
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