published Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

Side Orders: Two chefs coming to aquarium food event

Tennessee Aquarium
Tennessee Aquarium
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Tennessee Aquarium is gearing up for a week of fun and taste during its third annual Serve and Protect event. This year’s theme is “Decapod Duel” and will feature two celebrity chefs.

First is Virginia Willis, a classically trained Southern chef and cookbook author of “Bon Appetit, Y’all” and “Basic to Brilliant, Y’all.” Willis has worked for Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay and as executive producer for “Epicurious” on The Discovery Channel. She has also appeared on the Food Network’s “Chopped.”

Second is Susan Spicer, who’s known as “a one-woman industry” in New Orleans. Among her many awards, Spicer has been named one of Food and Wine’s 10 Best New Chefs and, in 1993, she received the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast Region. Her French Quarter restaurant, Bayona, has been featured in Bon Appetit magazine and has also been listed as one of the top five restaurants in the Zagat Guide for New Orleans. She has received the DiRoNa designation from Distinguished Restaurants of North America and the Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence.

The Serve and Protect event begins at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 19. Attendees will join chefs from Whole Foods for cooking demonstrations and tastings in the IMAX Great Hall at the aquarium. Gourmet boxed lunches will be provided for guests in the theater while Spicer and Willis cook onstage. A dessert reception with the chefs will follow the one-hour show. Individual tickets are $75.

More activities follow, beginning at 5:30 p.m., when guests gather in the IMAX Great Hall for cocktails and appetizers. Spicer and Willis will then go skillet-to-skillet in a competition to see who comes up with the most-creative dish using shrimp and crawfish. The competition will be followed by a seafood dinner, prepared within the aquarium’s galleries by chefs from Chattanooga restaurants. A dessert reception will cap off the evening with an opportunity to meet Spicer and Willis. Individual tickets for the evening event are $200 each.

Tickets for the Thursday events are available at: tnaqua.org/SustainableSeafood/2013SpecialEvent.

You can also do your part to support the Tennessee Aquarium’s conservation efforts by dining at the following restaurants on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20-21, when menus will place an emphasis on sustainable seafood options:

• 212 Market

• Back Inn Cafe

• Bluewater Grille

• Broad Street Grille

• Easy Bistro & Bar

• Porter’s Steakhouse

• Public House

• Rembrandt’s

• St. John’s Restaurant

• Sticky Fingers

• Whole Foods

Capping off the Serve and Protect weekend, the Chattanooga Market’s Cast Iron Cook-off will feature a mystery sustainable seafood product revealed to the contestants only shortly before they are given one hour to shop the market for ingredients. Chefs then draw upon their skills to develop seafood dishes to impress a panel of judges. Market attendees will also learn more about sustainable seafood — species that are caught or farmed in a way that ensures the long-term health and stability of the species, as well as that of the greater marine ecosystem.


The countdown is on to support your local favorite farmers market. Now through midnight Monday, log onto action.farmland.org to help area farmers by pledging money you intend to spend at your local market. You can make pledges each day between now and Monday to support more than one market.

This is all part of American Farmland Trust’s “I Love My Farmers Market Celebration,” which is intended to raise national awareness about local farmers markets and put money directly into the pockets of family farmers who, according to the trust, are a dying breed due to economic factors as well as pressures from real estate developers to destroy farmland for commercial purposes.

A pledge is a commitment to spend just $10 at your favorite farmers market. It’s not a lot to pledge, but it all adds up. The two markets listed on the trust’s site are Chattanooga Market and the Main Street Farmer’s Market.

“Making this commitment will support local farmers and allow them to continue providing us with truly local foods grown within 100 miles from here,” said Chattanooga Market spokeswoman Melissa Siragusa. “Also, it’s important to encourage folks to expand their palette of foods they cook with and eat what is in season. This way we are working hand-in-hand with our farmers and the markets they sell from.”

Chattanooga Market is open on Sundays at First Tennessee Pavilion through Nov. 24. Main Street Farmers Market is open on Wednesday afternoons from 4 to 6 p.m. (winter hours are 4 to 5 p.m.). The market is located at 325 E. Main St. on Chattanooga’s Southside.


There are so many ways to make pimento cheese. Some like it creamy, others like it a little on the dry side. Everyone has their favorite, but now I have two. For years, I’ve made the pimiento cheese created by my friend Sandy Zitkus, a dish that many swear is just like the famous pimiento cheese at The Masters Tournament. I agree.

But after trying the recipe from my friend, cookbook author and food historian Damon Lee Fowler of Savannah, Ga., I have to say it ranks right there with Sandy’s. But true to form, it’s totally different, yet both offer a true taste of the South.

At one time, pimiento cheese was called the “house pate” of the South, Fowler said in a recent conversation. “It used to be an essential stock in the refrigerator of any Southern cook who aspired to be known as a good one,” he says.

He remembers making it with his grandmother.

“It is one of my earliest and best culinary memories,” he says. “I remember my very small hands working part of the cheese to a paste with the mayonnaise before folding in the rest of the cheese. In my entire life as a cook, I cannot remember a single summer without a ready supply in my refrigerator.”

Fowler’s recipe is a simple one.

“I don’t like it sweetened — at all — which is one reason I don’t care for roasted bell peppers in it, and the other is because they don’t taste like pimientos. I’ve even seen pickle relish added.”

To Fowler, that’s a travesty, because pimiento cheese is just that: pimientos and cheese, with just enough mayonnaise to hold it all together. Here’s his take on it:

Classic Pimiento Cheese

8 ounces (1 small block, about 2 generous cups grated) extra-sharp cheddar

2 ounces (1/2 cup grated) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

5 to 6 tablespoons mayonnaise, preferably homemade

1 (4-ounce) jar diced pimientos, drained but liquid reserved, roughly chopped

Ground cayenne pepper, optional

Finely grate half the cheddar and all of the Parmigiano-Reggiano through the finest holes of a box grater, a rotary cheese grater, a microplane grater or with the fine shredding disk in the food processor. Mix together lightly.

Knead 4 tablespoons mayonnaise until the mixture is creamy and very smooth. This can be done in a food processor fitted with a steel blade, but be careful not to overprocess it or the mayonnaise could break down and make the pimiento cheese oily.

Coarsely grate the remaining cheese. Work it, the pimientos and a tablespoon of reserved pimiento liquid into the mixture until it is almost smooth but still a bit lumpy. Add mayonnaise by tablespoonfuls until it is just spreadable (it should be very thick and taste of cheese, not mayonnaise), and season with cayenne or hot sauce to taste. Mix well. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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