Food » $20 Dinners

Slow food, Crook's style

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This is Bill Smith's 13th asparagus season at Crook's Corner, and he's just lived through his 24th graduation weekend working in restaurants in Chapel Hill. All restaurant work is seasonally based to an extent, with lulls and busy periods, and Chapel Hill is about to ease into its slow summer, when the students are gone and the produce is at its best. After so many years of working through these cycles, it's no wonder Smith's cooking is guided primarily by the seasons.

Smith's new cookbook, which is being published by Algonquin and is slated to come out in late September, is titled Seasoned in the South and focuses on cooking with seasonal ingredients. Recipes are grouped by seasonally available ingredients, with menus for every time of year. It's an accessible and smart approach to cooking.

Since opening in 1982, Crook's Corner has become an institution in Chapel Hill, in many ways being the restaurant that best embodies the personality of the town; proudly Southern, quirky and friendly, staffed by local musicians and artists, and decorated with local art. The restaurant is famous for dishes like shrimp and grits, and their country sampler, which includes pulled pork barbecue, collard greens and corn bread.

But Crook's is becoming equally known for Smith's fleeting seasonal dishes, like his honeysuckle sorbet, which is available for only a few weeks each year, and his soft-shell crabs. Smith's cookbook stresses that cooking with seasonal and local ingredients is the most cost-effective way to cook, as well as the most satisfying in terms of taste. He more than proved this point when I asked him to participate in the $20 Dinners series.

Taking advantage of asparagus at $3 per pound, local bay scallops, and mangoes at 6 for $4 (at Weaver Street Market), Smith was able to make a full meal for two people (with leftovers) for $14.67. He added a half bottle of Gruet Brut sparkling wine and brought the price to just over $20.

For the first course, Bill grilled a whole pound of asparagus, then chilled it and doused it with lemon juice. It's an incredibly fresh and simple dish, for a first course or to be eaten alongside the main course, a stew made with scallops, Mexican-style hominy, black beans and tomatoes. The stew is an unlikely combination of ingredients, but it works well and is easy to make. This dish epitomizes what Crook's is good at--finding comfort in the slightly unexpected.

For dessert, Smith made a mango salad that he serves as a first course at Crook's but which he eats for dessert at home. Sexy mango, acid lime, spicy cayenne and cleansing mint mix together to make a refreshing summer dessert or side salad.

These recipes are a good example of why Crook's has succeeded for so long. The dishes are simple, cheap and fresh. Every time I eat at Crook's I am a little surprised at how good it is, how inexpensive, and how relaxing the dining experience is. Some days I'm in the mood for overwrought expensive food, but more often I'd be happy with a plate of crackers with pimento cheese and pepper jelly, a dish of perfectly cooked chicken livers, or a couple of fried soft-shell crabs. And Crook's has the best patio in Chapel Hill, perfect for enjoying the long, slow, student-free summer.

Note: Smith originally had the cost of the meal at just over $20, which included first course, second course, dessert and a half bottle of champagne. However, he cheated a little in that he used mint leaves from the Crook's garden for his mango salad. Most of us don't have mint growing outside the back door; we have to buy it from the supermarket at the outrageous price of $2 or $3. I felt like I had to add this to the total price. You can buy bulk herbs at the farmers' market and save some money though, or if you're lucky enough to have mint in your yard, you can add the half bottle of Gruet Brut for $8.99 and come out just over $20.

Grilled Asparagus
Total: $3.30
1 lb. fresh asparagus $3.00
1 lemon $0.30
salt
pepper
olive oil

Snap the ends of the stems off the asparagus. Toss them with olive oil and grill for 3 minutes (longer if you have thick stalks of asparagus). Cool in the fridge for a few minutes, then toss with another teaspoon of olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Squeeze the lemon over them and serve.

Scallops with Black Beans and Hominy
Total: $6.94
small red onion sliced into strips $0.30
2 cloves garlic, chopped $0.10
28-oz. can chopped tomatoes $1.00
half a 15.25-oz. can of black beans, drained $0.75
half a 29-oz. can of Mexican-style hominy, drained $1.29
1/2 lb. bay scallops $3.50
olive oil
fresh thyme (optional)

Sauté the onion in olive oil until soft, approximately 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir. Add canned tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add black beans and hominy and simmer long enough to heat everything through. Add the scallops and simmer until just done, 4-5 minutes. Add fresh thyme if desired.

Mango Salad
Total: $4.43
2 ripe mangoes, peeled, seeded and diced $1.30
one lime, juiced $0.30
10 mint leaves, chopped $2.75
1/4 tsp. cayenne $0.08
1/2 tbsp. olive oil
pinch of salt
1 tsp. sugar

Mix ingredients together and serve.

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