How do you sum up Crook’s Corner, Chapel Hill’s legendary restaurant, in five dishes?
With an ever-evolving seasonal menu, there are many classics we could pick, from chef Bill Smith’s annual celebration of soft-shell crabs to banana pudding.
Later this year, the restaurant will begin a new chapter, as reported in The Observer last week: Owner Gene Hamer will sell the restaurant to new owners, including Gary Crunkleton of The Crunkleton and Shannon Healy of Alley 26, who will keep it in the original location on West Franklin Street. (Crunkleton is still on track to open a new restaurant in Charlotte later this winter.)
Smith, the restaurant’s second chef in its 36-year history, will step down, but he’ll still be involved, taking on the role of chef emeritus and representing the restaurant at events and dinners. Chef Justin Burdett, formerly of Asheville’s Local Provisions, will take over daily operations.
Crunkleton and Healy said they want to keep the dishes that put Crook’s on the map while giving Burdett the freedom to put his own touch on the menu, just as Smith did in making the dishes from the original owner, the late Bill Neal, while adding his own.
If you’re going to Crook’s for the first time or your 30th, here are the five dishes you should know and the recipes.
1. Shrimp & grits
It started as a simple breakfast by shrimpers in Charleston’s lowcountry: freshly caught shrimp sauteed with bacon grease or butter and poured over breakfast grits. The late Bill Neal, the founding chef at Crook’s, took that idea and turned it into a white-tablecloth dinner dish, sauteing shrimp with bacon, mushrooms, green onions and lemon juice and serving it over stone-ground cheese grits. It’s gone on to become one of the best-known Southern dishes, made from Mississippi to Maine.
2. Atlantic Beach Pie
Growing up in New Bern, Smith remembered that fried-seafood restaurants on the North Carolina coast all served lemon pie for dessert. He added a simple saltine-cracker crust to balance the sweet filling, a genius move of salty, sweet and creamy. National media outlets from NPR to Food 52 grabbed on to it, and it became so well known, Smith jokingly calls it “that stupid pie.”
3. Green Tabasco Chicken
A garden of too many peppers was Smith’s inspiration for this rendition of roast chicken. In his cookbook, Smith writes about switching out bottles of vinegared peppers for the green version of Tabasco, preferring its mild heat, but strong pepper flavor. The chicken is basted with the green Tabasco and a pan sauce is made from the jalapeno and garlic that cooked inside the chicken and all those drippings.
4. Persimmon pudding
For a few months in the fall, when the wild persimmons have ripened, Crook’s serves this glorious pudding. Of all the recipes Smith inherited from Neal, he has said this may be his favorite. A puree of the deep orange fruit is baked to a rich brown and served hot with whipped cream and a sprig of mint. Warming spices of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are the woolen blanket draped across the lap on the nights when a chill becomes a frost.
A large mass of honeysuckle blooming behind the restaurant in early summer led owner Gene Hamer to challenge Smith to find a way to use it. Smith hit on an ancient Arabian technique for flower ices, soaking fresh blooms overnight in water to capture their essence. Crook’s has several signature sorbets, including mint sorbet served in a bourbon cocktail and orange sorbet flavored with Red Hots. But the brief seasonal appearance of honeysuckle sorbet has fans obsessed.
Crook’s Corner Shrimp & Grits
From “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” (UNC Press, 1989 edition). Bill Smith Jr. says they still make it according to Neal’s original recipe, but they skip the nutmeg that he included in the book.
4 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup grits, preferably stone-ground
3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
Butter, Tabasco and white pepper to taste
1 pound fresh shrimp
6 slices bacon
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup finely sliced green onions
1 large clove garlic, peeled
4 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons fresh, chopped parsley
Salt and pepper
Bring water and salt to strong boil in a saucepan. Slowly sift the grits through one hand into the water while stirring with a whisk in the other hand. When all the grits have been added, continue stirring and reduce heat to low until only an occasional bubble breaks the surface. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Beat in a good quantity of butter, Tabasco and white pepper, then stir in the cheese. Hold in a warm place or in the top of a double boiler over simmering water.
Peel shrimp, rinse and pat dry. Dice bacon and saute lightly in a skillet, until edges are browned but bacon isn’t crisp. Add enough peanut oil to the skillet to make a layer about 1/8-inch deep. When hot, add shrimp in an even layer. Turn shrimp as they start to color, add the mushrooms and saute about 4 minutes. Turn occasionally and add the green onions. Add the garlic through a press and stir around. Season with lemon juice, a dash or two of Tabasco, parsley and salt and pepper.
Divide grits among four plates. Spoon the shrimp over the grits and serve immediately.
Yield: 4 servings.
Atlantic Beach Pie
From The Raleigh News & Observer archives.
1 1/2 sleeves saltine crackers
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup softened, unsalted butter
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup fresh lemon or lime juice, or a combination
Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Crush the crackers finely, but not to dust, using a food processor or your hands. Add the sugar, then knead in the butter until the crumbs hold together like dough. Press firmly into an 8-inch pie pan.
Chill for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes, or until the crust is beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and cool while you make the filling. (It doesn’t need to be completely cool or cold.)
Place the sweetened, condensed milk in a mixer and beat in the egg yolks, then the lemon juice. Beat well, until completely combined. Pour into the saltine crust and return to the oven. Bake for 16 minutes, until the filling is set. Remove from oven and cool, then refrigerate until completely chilled.
Whip cream and spread over the pie. (If you’re going to keep the pie around for a couple of days, wait until serving to top it, or keep the whipped cream separately and use it as a garnish.) Sprinkle with a little sea salt.
Yield: 1 pie
From The Raleigh News & Observer archives. You’ll have to wait until early next summer before the honeysuckle bloom again.
5 2/3 cups cool water
4 cups honeysuckle blossoms, tightly packed but not smashed (see note)
2 cups sugar
1 2/3 cups water
Few drops lemon juice
Dusting of cinnamon
Add cool tap water to flowers. Place in a nonreactive container (glass or stainless steel) and let stand on the counter overnight.
The next day, make a simple syrup by heating sugar and 1 2/3 cups water in a saucepan over low heat until the mixture is clear, then boiling it for a minute or so, until the syrup begins to appear lustrous and slightly thick.
Remove from heat and add a few drops of lemon juice to prevent the sugar from recrystallizing. Cool the syrup.
Strain the honeysuckle infusion, catching the water in a bowl and gently pressing the blossoms to extract all the flavor. Discard the blossoms.
Combine the strained water and the syrup and add just the merest dusting of ground cinnamon – hardly any.
Churn in an ice cream freezer, according to the manufacturer’s directions. Store in the freezer for one or two weeks. (The flavor will dissipate eventually, so it doesn’t keep long.)
Note: Four cups of flowers is the least you will need to make this worthwhile. If you’re using more, use 1 2/3 cups water for each cup of flowers for the initial infusion. For the syrup, use 2/3 cup water and 1/2 cup sugar for every cup of flowers.
Yield: 1 quart.
Bill Smith’s Persimmon Pudding
From “A Chef’s Life” on www.pbs.org.
1 tablespoon plus 1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature, divided
3 cups very ripe persimmons
2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Whipped cream (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-by-8-inch baking pan with 1 tablespoon butter. Use a food mill, sieve or cone strainer to remove the seeds from the persimmons and puree the pulp; it will reduce them from 3 cups to 2 cups. Combine the puree with the buttermilk.
Beat the remaining butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time. Fold in the persimmon puree by hand.
Sift the dry ingredients together (flour, salt, baking power, baking soda, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon) and fold them into the persimmon mixture. Spread the batter in the baking pan. Place the pan in a larger pan and fill halfway up with warm water. Bake, uncovered, for 1¼ hours, or until the pudding is firm at the center, has pulled away from the sides of its pan, and a paring knife inserted into the center of the pudding comes out clean.
Serve hot with fresh whipped cream. This keeps well in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days and reheats beautifully in the oven or microwave.
Green Tabasco Chicken
From “Seasoned in the South,” by Bill Smith Jr.
1 whole chicken (about 3 pounds), rinsed and patted dry
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, halved
1 jalapeno pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/2 (5-ounce) bottle Green Tabasco jalapeno sauce
Melted butter or bacon grease, for basing
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Snip off the tail stub of the chicken and the last joint of each wing. Salt and pepper the cavity and stuff with the lemon halves, whole jalapeno and garlic. Truss the chicken with kitchen twine and place on a rack in a roasting pan. Baste the chicken with half of the bottle of Tabasco sauce. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the wet Tabasco. Place the chicken in the oven.
Put the trimmings (the tail stub and wing tips) and the giblets (minus the liver) in a 1-quart saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a simmer and cook while the chicken roasts.
In about 20 minutes, when you hear the chicken sizzling, reduce the heat to 350 degrees and baste the chicken with the butter or bacon grease. Repeat every 20 minutes. Cook until the legs can be wiggled easily, about 1 to 1 1/4 hours.
Remove the chicken from the oven and let rest about 20 minutes at room temperature. When it’s cool enough to handle, remove the twine, collect and save the juices from the cavity, and use poultry shears to cut out the backbone. Put the juices, jalapeno and garlic into the saucepan and turn up the heat to a boil. (Discard the lemon, which will make the sauce bitter).
Place the roasting pan on the stove over high heat. Pour in the wine and use a metal spatula to scrape up the browned bits. Add to the sauce. Boil the sauce until it reduces and begins to thicken. (The time will vary according to the amount of liquid.) Degrease the sauce.
Cut the chicken into serving pieces and arrange on a platter. When the sauce has thickened, strain through a sieve over the chicken. If there’s more sauce than the platter can hold, serve the rest in a gravy boat.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.