I attended the first in what will become a series of demonstrations of “unconventional cooking at a convention center” at the newly renovated Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center last week.
Charleston Gazette-Mail intern Alayna Fuller covered the event (https://www.wvgazettemail.com/life/food_and_dining/charleston-chef-heats-up-coliseum-and-convention-center-with-cooking/article_3b064c1b-2210-5fcb-b0b0-b3d2a04dc3ba.html) in her feature column this past Wednesday.
In a noteworthy gesture, she left the printing of the recipe for what we tasted to me, which I appreciate and have here today.
Corporate chef Paul Smith from Buzz Food Service put his undeniable entertaining and informative spin on the afternoon’s presentation.
He pulled from our state heritage with an Appalachian-themed menu. The coliseum’s food and beverage staff created an eye-catching kitchen work station for Smith through floral arrangements and the use of crafted pieces of artwork. They aptly conveyed we were in West Virginia territory.
Smith chopped, sautéed, toasted, coated, and all-around drove the audience to distraction from the appetite-stimulating aromas that were emitted from his cast iron skillets.
There was one skillet, a hand-me-down from his grandmother, which I would have loved to tuck under my sweater to carry out.
It was desirable because, although a 10-inch round, it had goldilocks-just-right shallow sides. Not too deep and not too grill-pan shallow.
I hadn’t seen a skillet like that one before. They have to be very hard to find today. Maybe I’ll catch Smith one day when his vision is diverted and also when the skillet isn’t smoking hot. Takes forever for them to cool down. That’s part of the attraction of cast iron, but very disturbing when you forget to pad the handle.
Smith created a seared venison tenderloin, coated with Dijon and rolled in panko and fines herbs. It came out of the cast iron skillet a fork-tender perfection.
Pairing with it was a roasted asparagus salad with walnuts and feta. He cut the asparagus spears into short rounds and sautéed them (for time’s sake forgoing the roasting), mixed them with black walnuts, another West Virginia staple, and finished the dish with a smooth yet piquant vinaigrette.
The vinegar Smith selected for the dressing was a Mother Shrub drinking vinegar, developed by Charleston native Meredyth Walker Archer.
As her website explains, she makes the shrubs from a recipe she found in her grandmother’s notes. You can’t get more authentically Appalachian than that, for it seems so many of our state and local products began the same grandmotherly way.
Besides their use in cooking, the drinking vinegars are added to seltzer water and cocktails for flavor and for health benefits.
Very briefly, due to my shaky chemistry history, the “mother” in the shrub title refers to a substance added to an alcohol solution, turning it to acetic acid — vinegar. Most often discarded, the “mother” is the most nutritious part.
Archer produces shrub flavors of black cherry, grapefruit, salted honey (made with J.Q. Dickinson salt, Smith’s preferred seasoning) and ginger. They are available at J. Q. Dickinson Salt Works in Malden and possibly other locations where West Virginia-grown products are sold.
Since Smith wanted to have enough food to pass around, the coliseum’s executive chef, Todd Jones, stepped into the role of supplying our taste samples. They were flawlessly executed, even cooked in quantity.
There was one part of the venison recipe that was overlooked, but not by me. After the demonstration had concluded, the bottle of an Appalachian-brand moonshine that had been promised as part of a finishing sauce for the entrée was still on the demo table. Untouched.
That’s something Smith has to make up for in some way, somehow, someday.
The cooking events are free and open to the public, plus the $3 parking fee if you’re driving.
This day’s demonstration was in the box office lobby, but the coliseum’s food and beverage director, Todd Tinney, along with Smith, indicated they will be using various locations within the building for cooking segments.
In that way, everyone who attends will get to totally experience the unique atmospheres and architecture that has been created from the remodeling.
The newest feature in the Coliseum & Convention Center to remember when you are in town for weekend FestivALL activities and looking for lunch is the Elk River Grill.
It’s located both inside (with river views) and outside for boating access at the coliseum’s Elk River Dock. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. each Sunday through August.
There will be more “unconventional cooking at the convention center” in the future, so watch for the ads and flyers for dates and times.