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Alabama Recipes

Made from scratch

Any cook who takes the time to prepare a dish “from scratch” gets my compliments. I remember the first time I made homemade pancakes using actual ingredients instead of baking mix and another time I baked a cake without using a box mix. Truth is, it’s worth the trouble. I tend to add special things, like adding almond extract to my pancake batter, to recipes from a box to make them taste a little more homemade. It’s delicious! But don’t tell anyone I cut corners in the kitchen!

Mary Tyler Spivey

 


Cook of the Month

cake

Zucchini Chocolate Cake

Ann Varnum, Wiregrass EC

1/2 cup margarine or butter
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
2 cups grated zucchini
2 1/2 cups flour
4 tablespoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla flavor

Mix softened butter, oil and sugar. Add eggs, vanilla, sour cream and zucchini. Mix well. Add dry ingredients and mix. Bake in a 9×13-inch pan at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Check with a toothpick in the center to make sure cake is done. On warm cake, frost with cream cheese frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting:

1 stick butter
3 1/2 teaspoons cocoa
1/3  cup milk
1 box powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla flavor
3 cups chopped pecans

Stir together butter, cocoa and milk in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla and pecans. Beat until smooth. Spread on warm cake.

 

 

Zucchini Strudel Pie

Dough:

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter

Filling:

5-7 cups zucchini, peeled and cubed
1/2 cup lemon juice (add enough water to equal 2/3 cups)
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (divided)
1 /4  teaspoon nutmeg

Dough: Combine flour, sugar, salt, and butter until crumbly. Press 1/2 of mixture in 9×13-inch greased pan. Bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Filling: Combine cubed zucchini and lemon juice/water mixture in a saucepan. Cook until tender. Add 1 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and nutmeg. Simmer 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup reserved dough mixture to filling. Stir until thickened. Spread zucchini over baked dough. Topping: Add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to remaining dough mixture and sprinkle over top of zucchini. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Yummy served warm and topped with vanilla ice cream! Note: Tastes like apple pie! A great way to sneak zucchini into your menu.

Martha Joy Troyer, Southern Pine EC

 

 

Crab Jambalaya

1 pound crab meat
1/2 cup chopped bacon
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped green pepper
1 (29-oz.) can tomatoes
1/4  cup uncooked rice
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper, to taste

Remove any remaining shell or cartilage from crabmeat; set aside. Fry bacon until lightly brown. Add onion, celery, and green pepper; cook until tender. Add tomatoes, rice and seasonings. Cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes or until rice is tender, stirring occasionally. Add crabmeat; heat through. Serves 6.

WM. J. Peyregne, Pea River EC

 

 

recipes2

Spinach Pizza

2 large handfuls spinach
2 tablespoons creme fraiche
1/2 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 small handfuls grated Parmesan cheese
Sea salt and black pepper
2 large golf-ballsized pieces pizza dough
2 small eggs

(This recipe serves two, but you could make more individual pizzettas if you have guests)! Preheat your oven to 500F. Put a pizza stone or baking sheet in the oven to heat it up. Plunge the spinach leaves into boiling salted water for one minute to blanch them. Remove the spinach and plunge into ice-cold water. Squeeze dry and finely chop it. Add the creme fraiche, garlic, about 3/4 of the Parmesan, a pinch of salt, and black pepper. Mix together to form a green paste. Roll each dough ball out to around 8 inches in diameter. Evenly spread the spinach mixture over each pizza base, creating a tiny wall. Crack an egg into the center of each. Place the pizzas on your pizza stone or baking sheet in the oven for 6–8 minutes.One minute before your pizzas are ready, sprinkle with remaining Parmesan and black pepper.

Robin O’Sullivan, Wiregrass EC

 

 

Refuge rangers fight myths about wildlife

Young visitors recoil from a snake held by a refuge biologist at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Credit:  Andrea Brophy/USFWS
Young visitors recoil from a snake held by a refuge biologist at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Credit: Andrea Brophy/USFWS

It’s not just snakes. Other wild creatures inspire exaggerated fears, too: bats, spiders, birds, fish – yes, even fish.

In the course of greeting tens of thousands of visitors a year, rangers on national wildlife refuges bump up against many such bugbears. They know which natural-world denizens invariably make some people flinch or go “Ewww!”

Whether it’s because today’s visitors tend to live more indoor lives than past generations or watch too many TV survival shows, fears of nature are flourishing — in all ages.

“We see more and more children (and adults) in our programs at the Visitor Center unaware of what native wildlife species are found on the refuge and in their own backyard,” says Teresa Adams, a park ranger at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur. “We try to show them the wonders of nature while educating them on what to expect and how to react to wildlife.”

To help anxious visitors, refuge staffers across the United States share some proven tactics.

Admit to fears of their own. Visitors may be surprised to hear refuge staffers aren’t all fearless.

Find out what they know. At Patuxent Refuge outside Washington, D.C., staffer Laurel Harrison asks visitors softball questions: “Do you spend any time outside? What’s your favorite animal?” Then she moves to the hard stuff: “Are there any animals you’re worried about?”

Don’t dissemble. To a child nervous about snakes, Harrison offers, ‘Just so you know, there are snakes at Patuxent, but I almost never get to see any. That’s because they’re shy, and they can feel the ground tremble, and they go and hide when they hear people coming.”

Never feed a wild animal. Says ranger Toni Westland of Florida’s J.N. “Ding” Darling Refuge, “If fed, they lose their fear of humans, so we do a ton of education about not feeding alligators.” Also ill-advised: getting too close, crouching at the water’s edge (you look smaller), turning your back or challenging a basking gator for rights to a path. Even if you were there first, go around the gator.

Contain nervous adults. Says Dave Sagan, visitor services specialist at Great Swamp Refuge, “I allow the adults to be nervous if they like but not to show it in front of the kids so they do not develop the same fear for no reason.”

Let kids adjust at their own pace. In classroom demos, Harrison lets kids decide if they want to touch a live frog or snake. “I have sometimes had parents take a child’s hand and say, ‘Touch it, touch it.’  And I have to say, ‘Remember, we want to empower kids to say ‘no.’ So when they say it, we have to respect it.’”

Show enthusiasm. “We have a Summer Day Camp program where kids come to the refuge and spend a day with a ranger doing lots of fun and interesting outdoor activities,” says Adams. “This gives us an opportunity to expose the kids in a safe way to all sorts of bugs, fish, reptiles, amphibians, plants, birds and mammals. They get dirty and wet and they love it!”

 

 

 

Funny stuff: Praise the Lord, it’s August!

By Harvey “Hardy” Jackson

Years ago, when agriculture dominated Alabama, August meant it was time for revivals.

Crops were laid by and the first cotton boll was yet to open, so it was a dandy time to get folks to church, entertain them with music and preaching, shake them out of their summer spiritual lethargy, and maybe even save a few souls.

A visiting evangelist would come town to bring The Word in a series of nightly messages. There would be “special music” and professions of faith that would soften the hardest heart. A week of this would culminate with a wingding of a sermon on Sunday, followed by dinner on the grounds. Bring a friend and a covered dish.

When I was a boy, rural churches loaded up members and drove to town for the festivities — a trek that normally was only made on Saturday. But it was OK to take time to make the journey because, well, it was done in the name of the Lord.

Not to downplay the spiritual side of revivals, but there was also a reunion aspect to the gatherings – especially for the children. Friends they had not seen since school let-out came with their parents. Often segregated from the adults who went to “Big Church,” kids were among their own, and as I recall there was more playing than praying where we gathered.

Most folks I knew were either Methodists or Baptists. They mingled freely.         Children were especially ecumenical. We attended each other’s Vacation Bible Schools, where we learned which denomination had the best cookies and Kool-Aid.

Theological differences eluded us – Baptist dunked, Methodists sprinkled – that was pretty much it.

And we attended each other’s revivals, because it was a great place to meet girls.

Rural families who came to town to be “revived” often brought a daughter you had not seen since school shut down three months earlier. Time had worked a miracle and the skinny, knob-kneed girl that no one would give a second glance had blossomed into a sun-kissed beauty.       By the last night, some lucky lad would be holding her hand under the hymnal as they sang “Have Thine Own Way.”

There were also moments of high drama, which usually came at the end of the evening when the evangelist issued the altar call.

While the congregation sang “Softly and Tenderly,” sinners came forward, confessed their sins, and prayed for forgiveness.

Only sometimes they didn’t.

I remember well such a time.

Over and over the congregation sang “calling o’ sinner come home” but the sinners just sat there. The evangelist look worried. If no one got saved his reputation would suffer.

My fear was that we would be stuck there all night.

I was on the verge of going down myself and confessing that I was the one that put the dead snake in Mrs. Poole’s flower box – almost gave her a heart attack, she told her neighbors –when the spirit moved someone else and I was safe.

Then we sang a closing hymn, the relieved evangelist pronounced the benediction, and we went our separate ways to wait for September and football season.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of history at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net..

 

 

The bounty of our Alabama-grown trees

By Katie Jackson

DCF 1.0

As the heat of August settles fully upon us, there’s nothing like taking a break from our gardening chores under the shade of a spreading tree. Yet these generous giants of the landscape give us so much more than shade.

They clean the air, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, help stabilize soil and reduce water pollution, provide aesthetic beauty to the landscape, increase the value of real estate, provide habitat and sustenance for wildlife, give us branches for climbing and building tree houses and, of course, provide us with wood, paper and other products.

In addition to all those benefits, trees also provide us with a wide array of fruits and nuts that, in turn, give us a chance for an almost year-round supply of something delicious and nutritious to eat.

In the spring and early summer, plums and nectarines are in abundance. As summer progresses, peaches (the official state fruit of Alabama) come into their own, followed by figs and, as early as this month, even apples. More and more apple varieties will be available this fall as well as persimmons and pears. Later in the fall and into early winter, pecans, walnuts and chestnuts will be raining down, and a variety of citrus fruits will be ready to pluck—all just in time for the holidays. In short, we can have something Alabama-grown and delicious regardless of the season if we just take advantage of the bounty of our trees.

Of course an ideal way to have access to all this bounty is to establish home plantings of fruit and nut trees. While late fall, winter and very early spring are the best times to plant most trees, as well as many fruiting vines and bushes, there is no time like the present—maybe as you sit in the shade of a tree this summer—to start considering what and where to plant a few trees or even a small orchard for yourself.

A great resource for home gardeners is the Alabama Cooperative Extension System publication Fruit Culture in Alabama (www.aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0053-A/index2.tmpl), which offers details on how to choose fruit types and varieties, select and prepare a site for planting and care for your trees throughout the year. Similar publications are available for pecans and other nuts, berries, grapes, kiwifruit and even some more novel tree, bush and vine crops. To learn more, search the ACES website at www.aces.edu for “home fruit and nut production” or ask your local Extension office for help.

Planting fruit and nut trees is also something of a social movement. Think Johnny Appleseed on a bigger and more diverse scale. Many horticultural experts these days recommend the inclusion of fruit and nut trees as part of a beautiful and edible landscape. Other groups advocate planting fruit trees as a community-building project. For example, the nonprofit Fruit Tree Planting Foundation (www.ftpf.org) has a goal of planting 18 billion fruit trees (approximately three for every person alive) worldwide. Communities can apply to them for assistance, including donations of trees and help with planting and caring for those trees. And, for a $50 tax-deductible donation, they also offer the Home Orchard Handbook: A Complete Guide to Growing Your Own Fruit Trees Anywhere, which helps homeowners create and sustain their own orchards.

Don’t have the space or inclination to plant fruit and nut trees? No problem. Alabama is chock full of commercial orchards, berry farms and vineyards that offer the bounty of their boughs and branches to the public, many of which also offer value-added products such as jams, jellies and baked goods as well as family-friendly on-farm activities and events.

To find such an experience or sources of fresh fruits, nuts and other Alabama grown and made products in your part of the state visit the Pick Your Own website at www.pickyourown.org/AL.htm, the Local Harvest website at www.localharvest.org, the Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association website at www.aces.edu/department/associations/afvga/ or, to find out about farms that offer tours and other special events throughout the year, check out the Alabama Agri-tourism website at www.alabamaagritourism.com.

 

August tips:

*Watch for signs of insect and disease damage on ornamental and vegetable plants and treat for problems before they get out of hand.

*Continue to mow and water lawns as needed. Keep container plants well watered, too.

*Divide irises and other perennials that have become overcrowded.

*Plant fall vegetables such as cabbage, collards and broccoli, and fall-bearing beans and peas.

*Plant a winter cover crop in your garden as it finishes its growing season.

*Keep fresh water in birdbaths.

*Plant seeds of cool-season flowers such as snapdragons, dianthus and pansies in flats or in the garden for fall blooms.

*Order fall-planted bulbs and start looking in catalogues and online for sources of fall-planted trees, shrubs and trees to order later.

*Use mosquito repellant and sunscreen when you’re out in the yard or garden.

 

 

 

A century of aviation is cause for celebration

T. Gary Wick, the great-grandson of aviation pioneer William Lafayette Quick, continued the family tradition by working with NASA 50 years later. Photo by Marilyn Jones
T. Gary Wick, the great-grandson of aviation pioneer William Lafayette Quick, continued the family tradition by working with NASA 50 years later. Photo by Marilyn Jones

By Marilyn Jones

Every year, on August 19, National Aviation Day is observed in the United States to commemorate the history and development of aviation…and boy, does Alabama have a lot to celebrate!

 It was in 1908, along the Flint River near New Market, when William Lafayette Quick’s mid-wing monoplane took flight. His 16-year-old son William was at the controls. This was the first airplane designed, built and flown in the state; the first to leave earth’s gravitational pull.

“He wasn’t in a race to be first,” says T. Gary Wick, a retired NASA aerospace engineer and the great-grandson of the inventor. “He was a designer; a contemporary of the Wright Brothers.”

Gazing up at the Quick Plane at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville Wick says the airplane is not a replica, but the restored plane his ancestor built. “I remember as a kid looking at it in [my great-grandfather’s] workshop.”

Made of wood harvested on the Quick’s farm and cut in his sawmill, and the metal forged in his blacksmith shop, the design allowed the pilot to be seated and had a three-wheel landing gear.

The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville
The U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville

Construction began in 1900. Awaiting an engine, it took nearly eight years to complete. On its only flight, the airplane sustained damage to its right wing and gear when it landed.

“He learned from this experience and designed an ‘Improved Flying Machine,’” says Wick. “He patented in it 1912. It included other unique features including retractable landing gear and folding wings.

“And 50 years later I went to work for NASA,” Wick says with an easy smile.

Wright Brothers and Tuskegee Airmen

In 1910, as Quick was perfecting his monoplane, Wilbur and Orville Wright were opening the nation’s first civilian flying school on an old cotton plantation just west of Montgomery. Their idea was to train pilots for exhibition shows which, they hoped, would boost sales of their aircraft.

Although the school didn’t stay open long, the location was later used for aircraft repair during WW I and, in 1922, became Maxwell Field. Today it is the site of Maxwell Air Force Base.

Another significant aviation location is Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Tuskegee.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site chronicles the training of African American pilots during WWII.
Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site chronicles the training of African American pilots during WWII.

It’s all here; the gate these young black men passed through during WW II when they arrived at the air base, the airplane hangars and the control tower. This was a time of segregation and these men weren’t allowed to be a part of the U.S. Army Air Force. Every black military pilot who trained in the United States — including five Haitians —were trained here.

They had a lot to prove; and they did. The first African American military aviators were highly decorated for their defense of this nation; their bravery and mission success.

Visitors to Hanger #1 first enter an orientation room where they can watch a short video of introduction before entering the sprawling museum which houses two World War II era training aircraft. Rooms around the outside of the hanger are set up as 1940s offices, training rooms and a coffee shop. The entire museum is like a time warp; visitors are suddenly transported back nearly 75 years. And the quiet, this chasm of time, remembers these men who served their country.

Aviation Museums

The Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham is home to Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame. Exhibits feature several facets of aviation including Korean War jets, Vietnam War helicopters and Huff-Daland crop dusters.

The museum is one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast and is dedicated to presenting civilian, military and experimental aircraft and memorabilia from the earliest history of powered flight.

The United States Army Aviation Museumin Fort Rucker houses a collection of helicopters and airplanes that trace the development and use of aviation by the Army from troop and cargo transportation, to medical evacuations and scouting missions.

The museum is also home to the Army Aviation Hall of Fame and a Vietnam Memorial, and has the largest collection of helicopters held by a museum in the world.

Full Circle

Walking with Wick, past displays and artifacts at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, it’s hard to imagine all that has been accomplished between 1918 when an airplane first to took the skies over Alabama and today.

Huntsville is where the space program was born. Men and women from Alabama, like Wick, and others from across the nation and around the world worked together to develop rockets that put the first U.S. satellite into orbit and sent men to the moon; where the power of the space shuttle was developed; where the modules for the International Space Station were designed and built; and where the Space Launch System is being designed.

Yes, Alabama has a lot to celebrate on August 19 and all year round; its aviation history is legendary.
For more information:

U.S. Space & Rocket Center; 1(800) 637-7223; rocketcenter.com

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site; (334) 724-0922; www.nps.gov/tuai

Southern Museum of Flight; (205) 833-8226; www.southernmuseumofflight.org

United States Army Aviation Museum; 1(888) ARMY-AVN; www.armyaviationmuseum.org

Cajun Café: A different kind of Southern comfort food

Mickey Thompson, owner of Uncle Mick's in Prattville, opened his restaurant after deciding that retirement was "no fun."
Mickey Thompson, owner of Uncle Mick’s in Prattville, opened his restaurant after deciding that retirement was “no fun.”

By Jennifer Kornegay

“Good? Everything good?” Every day at Uncle Mick’s Cajun Cafe in Prattville, Ala., this questioning phrase is repeated by a silver-haired, spectacled man strolling around the tables in a pretty packed dining room. He’s looking at plates, to see if food is regularly leaving them via forks en route to mouths. He’s watching those mouths, to see if their corners turn up in a satisfied smile after bites. He’s Mickey Thompson, owner of Uncle Mick’s, and he’s always there, ensuring his business is doing its business of feeding folks as well as it should be.

Thompson is from Montgomery and opened Uncle Mick’s in 2009 after leaving the real estate investment business he’d worked in for three decades. He’d actually been retired for a few years when he decided retirement itself was “no fun” and decided to open a restaurant in one of the two historic buildings he’d bought in downtown Prattville. The story is not unusual, a retiree looking to keep busy, but an Alabama guy opening a Cajun joint is, considering how seriously (and personally) Louisiana natives and others who love the cuisine take it if the roux isn’t right, the crawfish is overcooked or the Andouille isn’t authentic. So why and how did he do it?

“While I was still in real estate, I had a guy from Lafayette, Louisiana, a guy with real Cajun roots, working for me,” Thompson said. “I learned from him to love Cajun food, and then he taught me how to make it.” He knew that Cajun-style food would work well for a buffet-type eatery, and that would be simpler to run. “Our food, by its nature, can be cooked well in big batches,” he said.

So he restored the building and honed his recipes, and then he opened the doors, not quite sure what to expect. He started with a steady crowd and it has grown, as more and more people discover a different kind of Southern comfort food, something that’ll spice up their fried chicken and squash casserole routine.

Cajun potato salad? Yes, please!
Cajun potato salad? Yes, please!

Yet Uncle Mick’s dishes are not overly spicy, as some might expect. “So many people think all Cajun food is hot, but it’s not. Even some things that are usually spicy, we keep on the milder side and let people add the heat themselves,” Thomson said. And it’s easy to do, thanks to a wide range of hot sauces available. The exceptions are the dishes that end in “piquante;” they are often pretty fiery.

Most days around lunch, you’ll find a line, but it moves fast as folks grab a tray and then point out what they want their plates filled with. Choose from crawfish etouffee, crab meat au gratin, seafood gumbo, chicken and sausage gumbo, alligator and sausage sauce piquante, and the classic red beans and rice. Sides include corn maque choux (a rustic corn dish), dirty rice, deviled eggs and Cajun potato salad among others. For dessert, Uncle Mick himself recommends the bread pudding with bourbon sauce or the buttermilk pie. Choosing is hard, so a sampler platter is offered.

But how can you go to a place that bills itself “one bite away from the bayou” and not order red beans and rice? You can’t. So when you do, you’ll be happy to find a good consistency (not too soupy but not gummy either), and the subtle flavor of slow-cooked beans highlighted by the salt and fat of Andouille sausage. If you like your RB&R with a kick, you’ll be grabbing for hot sauce, but, again, there is plenty of it around. The provided bread lets you sop up every last drop. And try the Cajun potato salad on the side; the potatoes are cooked with crab boil seasoning, which is pretty hot, but the traditional mayo dressing tames it just enough. If your lunch sparks a desire for more Cajun cuisine, shop Uncle Mick’s market. Take home some house-made boudin or even that secretive beast of the bayou, a turducken (if you’re feeding a crowd).

And when you’re leaving, if Uncle Mick asks again “Everything good?” you should be able to truthfully say, “Ça c’est bon! (that’s good!)” in reply.

 

Cajun Calling
Uncle Mick’s Cajun Cafe
www.uncclemickscajun.com
334-361-1020
136 West Main Street
Prattville, AL

 

SEC will control college football’s final four

Brad Bradford is ready for the 2014 college football season.
Brad Bradford is ready for the 2014 college football season.

By Brad Bradford

Finally, a playoff!

For all those college football fans who have been clamoring for a playoff, your wishes have come true. 2014 will be the first year of a type of “Final Four” to crown the national champion at Jerry World in Dallas on the night of Monday January 12, 2015.

To those deprived souls who eat tofu and put sugar in their cornbread and live outside the beloved footprint of the Southeast: Be careful what you wish for. There is not a limit on the number of teams from any particular conference in the final four, so the odds of an SEC vs. SEC championship just went up.

It is very possible that the loser of the SEC championship game can (and should) be in the playoffs. Last year, Missouri would not have been one of the top four. Alabama would have been. The 13-member selection committee has the marching orders to select and seed the top four teams, pitting #1 against #4 and #2 against #3. This year’s semifinals will be in the Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl. The higher seeded team will be placed in the closest bowl geographically. (Last year Florida State would have been in the Sugar playing #4 Michigan State with #2 Auburn playing #3 Alabama in the Rose Bowl.) The committee will also pair up the opponents in this year’s Orange, Cotton, Peach and Fiesta Bowls.

2013 IRON BOWL REWIND: Coach Paul Bryant famously stated that to win championships, you have to have injury luck and schedule luck. Many teams also create their own luck. Auburn did that last year. Auburn stayed healthy. Nick Marshall did a great job at quarterback and Auburn made huge plays against Georgia and Alabama when needed. (Last year, I picked the Tigers to win 8 games and was accused of being a “homer” since my wife was a former Auburn cheerleader. I also picked Alabama to win it all and would do it again.) Since Auburn had already lost to LSU by 14, a loss to Georgia basically sent then-undefeated Alabama to Atlanta. That’s why the tipped pass for a touchdown against the Dawgs meant so much in the total season. Without this play, there would be no Auburn SEC championship nor a trip to Pasadena to play Florida State for the BCS trophy.

Alabama took care of everything all season until the end of the Iron Bowl with no SEC opponent (except A&M) getting closer than two touchdowns. There were three questionable decisions in the game at Auburn, one by Auburn and two by Alabama: Both teams went for it on 4th down and were stopped when a punt or field goal would have been safer. An Alabama field goal after stopping Auburn on fourth down in scoring territory would have given them a two-score lead which would have been huge at the time. With one second remaining, most Alabama fans liked the odds of a “Hail Mary” jump ball in the end zone to Amari Cooper, O.J. Howard and Kevin Norwood against Auburn’s shorter secondary as opposed to a 57-yard field goal attempt. The questionable part had more to do with the size of the linemen and lack of speed of the Bama field goal unit (in case of a miss) than the attempt itself. This situation is practiced every Thursday of the week on both sides. Auburn entered the SEC championship game and final BCS game with unbridled confidence.

TAKE OUT LOANS NOW: Does the new format financially eliminate the hard working Auburn fan from Wetumpka or the diehard Bama supporter from Muscle Shoals from seeing their favorite team play in the post season?

Ponder this: Auburn or Alabama could win the West and be in Atlanta for the SEC championship game in early December. Would you pay $400 for a ticket if your team was favored by two touchdowns or save up for the next one? The winner would then play in the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl, depending on the rankings, on New Year’s Day. Would you travel to California and pay $500 for a ticket to the semifinal game knowing that in 11 days, you could be in Dallas for the championship game paying much more? Three games in five weeks would be a challenge on any budget. The winners are going to be the corporate sponsors, ESPN and ticket scalpers.

SEC EAST: Predicted order of finish: 1. Georgia 2. South Carolina 3. Florida 4. Tennessee 5. Missouri 6. Vanderbilt 7. Kentucky.

The top two teams both have to play Auburn from the West. Conventional wisdom is to go with South Carolina. However, the Gamecocks have to open with Texas A&M and have to play Auburn on the road. Replacing NFL top pick Jadaveon Clowney will be tough. The winner of the showdown with Georgia on September 13 will be the front runner in the East.  Georgia returns nine defensive starters and gains the services of former FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Dawgs have a tough road opener against ACC foe Clemson. The winner of the East will probably have two losses.

Florida had 13 season-ending injuries last year but should be better as the younger players got experience by filling in. The Gators draw Alabama and LSU from the West and play Florida State. Otherwise, Will Muschamp needs to buy stock in United Van Lines. Tennessee will improve but plays Oklahoma and Alabama. With some breaks, they could win 7. Missouri will prove that it was a one hit wonder from 2013. Suspended receiver Green-Beckham, was their only offensive threat. They won the East last year by staying healthy and playing a weak schedule. James Franklin took Vandy about as high as they can go last year before he left for Penn State. They return only four defensive starters. A bowl is not likely this year. Kentucky has recruited better but has too much distance to make up this year. The Cats end the season at Louisville, then can get ready for basketball once again.

SEC WEST: Predicted order of finish: 1. Alabama 2. Auburn 3. Ole Miss 4. LSU 5. Texas A&M 6. Mississippi State 7. Arkansas

The difference between Alabama and Auburn in 2014 will boil down to the schedule of the crossover games from the East. Alabama plays Florida at home and Tennessee on the road. Auburn plays South Carolina at home but has to travel to Georgia. Auburn may have the better team but Alabama could have the easier road to Atlanta. When Nick Saban has the top recruiting class year after year, the quality of the depth becomes unfair. Replacing quarterback A.J. McCarron with FSU transfer Jacob Coker is going to be a challenge for new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Having T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kendrick Drake at running back; O.J. Howard at tight end and Amari Cooper at wide receiver will make it easier and force defenses to choose their poison. Better corner play and a better pass rush will be key for Kirby Smart’s defense. In 2013, Auburn came as close as any team to playing to its full potential. Gus Malzahn is better than any offensive coach in the country in creating mismatches and exploiting them. Auburn returns the best quarterback in the league, Nick Marshall, and has a big play receiver in Sammie Coates. Replacing left tackle Greg Robinson, running back Tre Mason and blocking back Jay Prosch is going to be tough. Auburn will have a big bull’s-eye on its back this year.

Ole Miss has recruited well and draws Vandy and Tennessee from the East. Playing Alabama and Auburn at home with an experienced quarterback in Bo Wallace is an advantage toward winning 8 games. LSU returns 4 offensive line starters but must replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger and 6 players who left early for the NFL. Opening with Wisconsin will answer some questions quickly. Texas A&M lost the most dynamic and creative player in years in Johnny Manziel. He kept them in games. Last year, they lost to Alabama, Auburn and LSU. Ditto for 2014. Mississippi State has a top quarterback in Zac Prescott. Their watered down schedule plus Kentucky and Vandy from the East will get them to a bowl. Arkansas is still a couple of recruiting classes away after the departure of Bobby Petrino.

IRON BOWL: For the first time in the history of this game, both teams will enter the game undefeated and ranked second and third behind Florida State. The winner of this game will come down to key injuries, turnovers and the kicking game. Nick Saban and the Bama players have a vivid memory of the fans storming the Jordan Hare field last year. Home field advantage and the revenge factor means Alabama wins 30-24.

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Alabama (12-0) will play Georgia (10-2) in Atlanta. The previous week, Bama plays Auburn and Georgia plays Georgia Tech. Big difference in those contests. Alabama can relax a little knowing that they are probably a lock for the final four, win or lose. Believe it or not: Auburn fans will pull for the Tide to win to keep the Tigers in the running for a “Final Four” slot. Alabama will win 31 to 21 with Derrick Henry being the MVP.

WHO MAKES THE FINAL FOUR: Eight teams can make the Final Four: Alabama, Auburn, Baylor, Florida State, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Oregon, and UCLA. (Outside chance: Ohio State, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Georgia)

SEMIFINAL GAME PREDICTIONS: #1 Florida State vs #4 Auburn in the Sugar Bowl. Gus Malzahn will have the Tigers well prepared for this rematch from last year. FSU’s off the field issues will be a distraction. Auburn will find a way to win in a shootout: 38-35.

#2 Alabama vs #3 Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Oregon’s quarterback and leading Heisman trophy candidate Marcus Mariota will be more confused than a baby in a topless bar. The Tide will have played a similar spread offense in Auburn and will prove to be too physical: Bama 28-17.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: #2 Alabama vs, #4 Auburn. The entire nation (outside the state of Alabama) will get what they dreaded: SEC vs. SEC for all the marbles. Commissioner Mike Slive will laugh all the way to the bank. The game will be played 11 days after the semifinals on Monday Jan. 12 in Dallas. This will be a rematch from the Iron Bowl on Nov. 29. Alabama will lead at halftime 21-13. Alabama’s kicking game will once again be the deciding factor. Auburn’s offense will make a 4th quarter comeback and win its second national championship in 4 years. Auburn 33-Alabama 31. Most valuable player: Nick Marshall. Alabama finishes the year 14-1 and SEC champions. Auburn finishes 13-1 and national champions.

Brad Bradford is a 21-year veteran of the coaching business, six years as a high school assistant, four years as a head coach, three years at the University of Alabama with Ray Perkins and eight years as the running backs coach for Howard Schnellenberger at the University of Louisville. He is the author of the inspirational and humorous book, Hang in There like Hair in a Biscuit (hairinabiscuit.com.) Brad can be reached at coachbradbradford@gmail.com.and followed on Twitter @coachhardknocks. He is the president of Bradford Consulting Group and is a motivational speaker. Brad and his wife Susan currently split time between their homes in Destin, Fla., and Wetumpka, Ala.

 

Chatting with Paul Finebaum

By Brad Bradford

Paul Finebaum
Paul Finebaum

Any book titled My Conference Can Beat Your Conference (Why the SEC Still Rules College Football) is sure to irritate football fans outside their chosen conference. In this case, the SEC.

Paul Finebaum’s book by this name will come out in August, just in time for the 2014 football season.  Finebaum has been the leading voice and opinion maker of the SEC since his move to Birmingham in the early 80s.  Paul has written a number of books and has hosted his popular radio show for years.  Last year, he appeared on ESPN’s “Gameday” program.

This year, he will be working with the new SEC Network, along with former quarterbacks Greg McElroy and Tim Tebow. His radio program can also be viewed daily on the SEC Network.  I recently caught up with Paul and asked him a few questions about the SEC Network and the SEC in general.

What will be your primary role with the SEC Network, and what do Greg and Tim bring to the table?

Each Saturday, I will be on the set of SEC Nation, much like I did on occasions with ESPN’s Gameday.  I will be able to rely on my 30-plus years covering the conference as a writer, radio host and fan.  Greg McElroy (former Alabama quarterback) will be in the Charlotte studio each Saturday. His knowledge of the game is outstanding. Even though it didn’t work out for Tim Tebow in the NFL, his popularity both on and off the field is unequaled. Tim will also be on the set giving his views, much like Kirk Herbstreit does for ESPN. I feel really good about the team that has been put together.

Most predictions have Alabama and Auburn fighting it out in the West, with Georgia and South Carolina in the East. Do you see any way that someone else could sneak in the top two like Auburn and Missouri did last year?

Probably not.  LSU could surprise some people in the West if they upset Auburn and beat Alabama at home.  Ole Miss was a disappointment last year. The Rebels would have to have a lot of pieces fall in place to get there. However, they play both Alabama and Auburn in Oxford.  In the East, Florida has to be better than they were last year.  Having to play at Alabama and playing LSU leaves very little room for error.  The Tennessee-Florida game will finally mean something this year. The winner will have some momentum and the loser can pack it in.  The Vols are doing things right for a change but its game with Oklahoma is going to be difficult.

What do you see as the key games in the SEC this year?

Well, the obvious choice is the Iron Bowl. Both Alabama and Auburn have a chance to be undefeated.  Auburn’s schedule is tougher.  Alabama plays a pivotal game at Ole Miss this year.  The Georgia-South Carolina game will put the winner in the East’s driver’s seat early. Like last year, the loser will have an uphill battle to get to Atlanta. The two largest crossover games this year will be Florida-LSU and Auburn-Georgia.  The Bulldogs will remember the ending of the game at Jordan-Hare last year. Adding Jeremy Pruitt as the defensive coordinator may be the missing piece to the Georgia puzzle.

Each year, it becomes tougher and tougher for teams and coaches to survive in the SEC. Who do you see on the hot seat this year?

The frontrunner would have to be Will Muschamp at Florida.  His team could be better but having to play two of the favorites to win it all in Alabama and Florida State, along with Georgia, South Carolina, and LSU could send him to the unemployment line.  The fan bases at Georgia and LSU will not tolerate middle of the pack standings for very long. Both teams need to avoid costly upsets. If LSU loses to Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia and is upset by Ole Miss, it could be rough for Les Miles. Dan Mullins at Mississippi State needs a break out year.  The recruiting class and its win over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl last year give the fans in Starkville hope.  It is almost impossible to move up when you have to play Auburn, Bama, LSU, Texas A&M and cross state rival Ole Miss every year.”

Last year was the first time in eight years that the SEC didn’t win the BCA Championship. Who do you see in the Final Four this year and who do you see advancing to Dallas?

My top two right now would be Florida State and Alabama.  Florida State plays in a weaker conference and has an experienced quarterback in Jameis Winston and they are the defending champions. I think they are in the same boat that Alabama was in last year. Auburn could get back there but Alabama has a more favorable schedule and the Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year. Last year, I was totally convinced that Alabama would win it all and was as shocked as anyone when they lost to Auburn. I really felt as though Saban lost the game at the end of the second quarter when it should have been put away. The Oklahoma loss in the Sugar Bowl was not as shocking. It will be tough for the committee to put two SEC teams in the Final Four due to SEC fatigue unless one is undefeated and the other has a close loss early in the year.  The other obvious teams are Oregon, Oklahoma, Ohio State, UCLA, Michigan State and either Georgia or South Carolina if they win the SEC. If I were a betting man though, I would put the Seminoles and Bama in Dallas.”

 

 

 

 

Four days of bargains begins in North Alabama this month

The World's Longest Yard Sale will be Aug. 7-10.
The World’s Longest Yard Sale will be Aug. 7-10.

By Lori Quiller

Looking for a great bargain? Then mark your calendar for Aug. 7-10 and make your plans to check out the World’s Longest Yard Sale.

This annual four-day event stretches from Alabama following the Lookout Mountain Parkway and U.S. Highway 127 North to Michigan, and it’s the perfect opportunity for shoppers to check out what vendors have to offer, as well as a chance to enjoy the scenic parts of Alabama you may not have visited before.

According to John Dersham, president and CEO of DeKalb Tourism, the Highway 127 Yard Sale will easily bring 30-40,000 visitors to the Lookout Mountain area during the long weekend, which is one reason why tourism officials take the time to encourage visitors to check out more than just the vendors participating in the sale event.

“Because of Alabama’s public parks and mountains, this is a great vacation spot, and we promote that,” Dersham said. “Every piece of available land in the area will have tents set up for sales…really everything from Gadsden north along the corridor will have something for sale.”

Dersham added that the event in 2013 produced more than $2.5 million of revenue for the county in just four days, calling it “the largest single event of the year.”

“It really is a fun getaway weekend that’s more than just selling knickknacks,” Dersham said. “It’s a great way to have a good time visiting Alabama’s state parks and scenic mountains.”

Following the Lookout Mountain Parkway, visitors will come to Mentone, which will also be filled with yard sale participants during the weekend in August. Ray Padgett, who owns Kamama Fine Art with his wife Sandra, said he’s looking forward to the event this year.

“This place will be a sea of white tents!” Padgett laughed. “The entire mountain will be! It gets quite crowded, but it’s a lot of fun because of all the people that we meet. Mentone is already a diverse community, and the yard sale brings in a lot of people who have never been here before…and that’s a good thing.”

Anyone can participate in the yard sale, even homeowners, but some vendors make arrangements with shop owners to set up in their parking lots. Vendors can sell almost anything during the weekend, but antiques, collectibles, glassware, clothes, housewares and food can be found under the tents.

Because the yard sale covers more than 690 miles, here are a few tips to make your trip a success:

  • If you’re staying overnight, make your accommodations early. Local hotels will fill up quickly.
  • Don’t forget the sunscreen and mosquito repellant to protect you and your children from the elements. All yard sale events are outdoors.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Bring cash. Some vendors may be set up for credit cards, but be prepared for cash-only transactions.
  • Shop early! Most vendors will open at 8 a.m., but some operate sunup to sundown.
  • Be cautious of vehicles and watch for pedestrians. This event will have you walking most of the time, so remember where you parked your vehicle.

For more information on the World’s Longest Yard Sale in Alabama, go to www.ShopLookoutMountain.com.

 

Lori Quiller is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about the people, places and things that make Alabama special. Contact her at lori107@charter.net.

Eat fresh and local: New generation of chefs spread the good news

Chefs Leo Maurelli III, Wesley True and David Bancroft are spreading the word on fresh, local eats.
Chefs Leo Maurelli III, Wesley True and David Bancroft are spreading the word on fresh, local eats.

By Jennifer Kornegay

If you asked someone outside our state to name the first few things that come to mind when someone says “Alabama,” you’d probably get answers like football, farms, maybe even Lynard Skynard or that band from Fort Payne bearing our name. It’s doubtful anyone would mention our culinary scene. It may not pop up in your mind either. But it certainly should. And if a couple of veteran chefs and a crop of new ones have their way, it soon will.

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In the beginning, there was Birmingham

Alabama has always been home to good food. Mamas and grandmas keep comfort-food traditions alive in their kitchens. Meat ‘n three joints, BBQ shacks and fish camps have long been the bastions of a rich food culture. There are even a few fine-dining establishments that have been wowing diners for decades with their fancy, flavorful fare.

But the real restaurant renaissance in Alabama can be traced back to Birmingham and right into pioneering Chef Frank Stitt’s kitchen at Highlands Bar & Grill, which he opened in 1982. Stitt now owns two other lauded restaurants in the Magic City and in 2011 was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage,” a major honor.

One of Stitt’s protégés, Chef Chris Hastings, blazed several miles further down the trail as one of the first in Alabama to base a restaurant on the “farm-to-table” philosophy when he opened Hot and Hot Fish Club in 1995. In addition to being a Beard nominee for “Best Chef in the South” twice, he competed in the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” show, cooking against and handily beating one of the country’s leading chefs, Chef Bobby Flay.

Hastings and Stitt will forever be recognized as two of Alabama’s best, and they are still going strong, but a new class of chefs following in their footsteps is spreading the “eat fresh and local” good news as well as plenty of good food far beyond Birmingham. We picked a few of our favorites from around the state and asked them what inspires their cooking and influences their cuisines. While their individual styles are reflected in their unique menus, they all share one thing: An understanding that the best dishes begin with the best ingredients — and that the best ingredients come from home.

 

Chef Josh Quick of Odette restaurant in Florence knew that he wanted to cook from a young age.
Chef Josh Quick of Odette restaurant in Florence knew that he wanted to cook from a young age.

Generation Fresh

Chef Josh Quick

Restaurant: Odette in Florence

Opened: November 2013

Eat This: Ginger lemongrass pork kebobs, red curry deviled farm eggs (You’ll never truly enjoy a regular deviled egg again) and chilaquiles made up of practically melted braised pork, topped with a perfectly fried egg all over crispy, just-made tortilla chips and finished with smoky roasted tomato and avocado salsa.

When you step off the main street running through downtown Florence and into Odette’s long, slim, sleek dining room (built into a 100-year-old building), Chef Josh Quick hopes you see a few things you recognize on his menu, but he wants you to embrace the twists he’s putting on these familiar flavors. “We’re putting some innovative spins on things,” he said. “There are things you’ll know, but they’re probably executed a little differently.

When people leave us, I hope we’ve pushed them past their boundaries a little bit, and have helped them break out of their own culinary mold.” And since the menu changes often, and Chef Josh is passionate about learning and creating new things, there are always new tastes to try.

Born in New York City, Quick moved to Montgomery when he was five. Adter high school he opened a coffee shop, his first attempt at the career in food he’d known he wanted since he was a kid. “I knew pretty young that I wanted to cook,” he said. “I remember going to visit my grandmother in New York at 14 and saying I wanted to be a chef. We went to the Culinary Institute of America to check it out and took a tour; I was then positive being a chef was for me.”

The coffee shop was short lived. “I realized fast that I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. In an effort to find out, he enrolled in a three-year culinary apprenticeship program at Disney World. After successfully completing the program, he stayed at the Mouse House for two more years, working in every aspect of food and beverage there. Next, he worked as the sous chef at the Ross Bridge Resort in Birmingham, working up to become banquet chef. He moved to Florence to work as the banquet chef at Ross Bridge’s sister property, the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. He was promoted to executive chef, but when the Odette opportunity came his way, he jumped on it.

At Odette, Chef Josh’s belief that “scratch-made” and “fresh” are more than mere buzzwords is evident in every menu item. “We make everything from our bread to our ketchup in house, with a focus on local products,” he said, “and my food is very influenced by the region we live in, but since my culinary education was European-based, you’ll find classic techniques applied to local ingredients.”

 

Chef David Bancroft

An ACRE specialty entree: Roasted duck with risotto. Photo by Taste Buds Photography
An ACRE specialty entree: Roasted duck with risotto.
Photo by Taste Buds Photography

Restaurant: ACRE in Auburn

Opened: August 2013

Eat This: Crispy fried goat cheese salad, BBQ brisket tacos and “Butt-rubbed” Gulf snapper with creamy grits, spicy Andouille and a drizzle of herb-crawfish butter (just the right mix of heat, richness and light, flaky fish).

Rustic timber and stone anchor the physical structure of ACRE, Chef David Bancroft’s restaurant in Auburn, and the plates coming out of his kitchen are as pretty as the food is delicious, but Chef David wants his guests’ time at ACRE to transcend the tangible. He wants every bite of every dish to convey sincere hospitality; he wants you to feel the love.

It’s a sweet sentiment from the avid outdoorsman who’s more often than not in jeans, cowboy boots and sporting a hefty belt buckle that hints at his Texas roots.

Born in Mobile, he grew up in San Antonio where he learned the art of brisket and barbecue. “I was always cooking, smoking, grilling,” he said. “I love to cook because I love to eat. There’s no greater satisfaction than enjoying something good you made yourself.” He made his way back to Bama via Auburn University, following his two older brothers and his parents.

In college, David’s culinary skills, particularly his way with smoke and flame, were quickly noticed, and he was made kitchen manger for his fraternity. “I told my dad then that I wanted to go to culinary school,” he said. But his dad said, “Wait.” “He told me to work in a restaurant first, so I got a job at Amsterdam Café.”

After a year, he was offered the chef position, and he led the kitchen at the popular restaurant for six years, putting an emphasis on local produce and products while also running the management and financial side of things. Amsterdam Café’s success gave Chef David the confidence he needed to open his own place, and he did.

ACRE is Chef David’s food philosophy in action. He built the restaurant on an acre of land in town, and scattered between parking spaces and sidewalks is ACRE’s mini-farm. Peach trees line a median; an herb garden is right near the front door. Other veggies and fruits (plums, figs, blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, beans, carrots, zucchini) are growing in unexpected places, and they all find their way into Chef David’s creations, food that he deems “driven by the land and what it gives us.”

But again, Chef David looks beyond the act of eating. He sees bridges being built. “I enjoy the communal aspect of folks eating and enjoying food together; it is an immediate invitation for storytelling and passing down traditions. I love being able to prepare food and attach to someone else’s story through my food or attach my story to theirs, to find that common bond,” he said.

 

Chef Rob McDaniel

Restaurant: SpringHouse in Alexander City

Opened: 2009

Eat This: the cheese plate with local honey and berries (pure satisfaction), the Southern veggie plate (with whatever’s ripe right now) and hickory-grilled bone in pork loin with summer squash, lemon and Parmesan.

Real food done right is what you’ll find at SpringHouse in Alexander City where Chef Rob McDaniel proves that simple can be stunning. “We use quality ingredients, and we use things in season. When you do that, you don’t need to dress them up or drown them in sauces. We don’t alter food very much because I want you to taste it for what it is,” he said.

The North Alabama native got his degree in hotel and restaurant management from Auburn before heading to the New England Culinary Institute. He honed his craft at Creola’s in Grayton Beach, Fla., for a few years before heading to work under Chef Chris Hastings at Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. He was working for Jim and Nick’s while also serving as a personal chef when he was offered the SpringHouse job. “I’m so glad I took it,” he said. “I love the company I work for, and I love the restaurant. Being a chef is hard work—really hard work. When everyone else you know is out playing on weekends, you’re slaving in a hot kitchen, but the friends you make through this process, you get really close to them, so it’s a neat family you create.”

His sacrifices are his diners’ gains, who choose from an ever-changing menu that is, as Chef Rob explains it, “Southern, but yet influenced by many other cultures and cuisines too.” Tastes and techniques gleaned from his mother’s kitchen are just as likely to show up in a dish as his classical French training.

But it all goes back to the basics. “We source local as much as possible, but it’s more about making things ourselves. Ninety percent of everything we do is made from scratch, right here in our kitchen,” he said. “And we break down whole animals ourselves. It’s tough, but we can get so much more out of it and learn so much about it. Then we really know how to treat it so we pull out its best flavor.”

 

Chef Wesley True

Restaurant: TRUE in Montgomery

Opened: 2012

Eat This: The Cox Farm burger with Alabama beef, house-made boursin, hand-cut fries and house-made pickle (a better burger in every way) and the house-made gnocchi with local tomatoes, celery leaves, Parmesan and white wine butter.

Some minds are never static, never satisfied with the status quo. They achieve, and then they keep climbing until they reach that “aha!” moment again. Chef Wesley True knows this; he lives it, consistently pushing past culinary boundaries and encouraging an “open palate” attitude, much to the delight of capital city diners who visit his Montgomery restaurant TRUE in the hip and historic Old Cloverdale neighborhood.

The Mobile native opened TRUE in Montgomery in 2012, after running a successful version of the restaurant in his hometown. The James Beard Award nominee and CIA grad has fashioned a menu featuring dishes that shine the spotlight on the best locally sourced, seasonal ingredients he can find. Each item reflects the classical French training he received at school and his tutelage in the kitchens of renowned NYC eating establishments like Bouley and Aquavit, as well as his commitment to farm-fresh food, but not necessarily “Southern” food.

“I think ‘Southern food,’ can be a misleading and limiting way to describe something,” he said. “I’m inspired by multiple influences from all over.” The menu section titled Chef True’s Signature Small Plates illustrates this best with selections that read like poetry and look like paintings. Case in point: the Taste of Spring with seafood mousse, poached Gulf shrimp, red pepper ice cream, spring pea dash and squid ink. Follow that masterpiece with a more rustic, definitely regional, dish: crispy fried chicken skins in hot sauce with buttermilk-herb dressing for dipping. Placing these dishes mere inches apart on the menu is proof that Chef Wesley is well on his way to re-interpreting what Southern food encompasses.

 

Chef Leonardo Maurelli, III

Restaurant: Central in Montgomery

Opened: 2012. Chef Leo joined Central in February 2013.

Eat This: Braised duck wontons with crunchy vinegar slaw, the tangy pickled Gulf shrimp and wood-fired meatloaf (way better than your mama’s!).

He’s a big guy with a big smile and an even bigger appetite for bonding with other food lovers and blowing their taste buds right off their tongues with his dishes that are a happy marriage of just-harvested produce, fresh meats and the finest anything else he can get his hands on prepared under the influence of his Panamanian heritage, the lessons from an Italian grandma and no small amount of energy. He’s Chef Leonardo Maurelli, but you can call him Chef Leo, and when you’re at Central in downtown Montgomery’s Alley entertainment district, you’re in his house. And everyone’s welcome at Chef Leo’s house.

He comes by his enthusiasm for eating naturally. “I just grew up in the kitchen and in an environment where food was about more than filling your stomach. On both sides of my very social family, food was a big deal. It’s why I fit into the South so well,” he said. Born in the Republic of Panama, he moved with his family to Daphne, Ala., in 1991, and he graduated high school early, at age 16. His mom didn’t want him off at college that young, so he took a year off and then did two years at a technical school in Mobile.

He choose Auburn University with the idea he’d study architecture, but quickly changed his mind and pursued his degree in hospitality and restaurant management instead. He started working as a fry cook at Willie’s Wings and while still working there and taking classes, began work in the kitchen at Hamilton’s restaurant. After graduation, he worked at the Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center. “There was so much talent there, and I got to cook under that and get the basics: making stocks, sauces, knife skills.” After helping open Montgomery’s Railyard Brewery, he became Central’s executive chef. In the lofty space that was once a grocery warehouse, he and his staff are turning out dishes focused on seasonal ingredients prepared with precision. “We use things that are at their peak, and I want the food to speak for itself, so I don’t fuss around with it too much,” he said.

He’s earned some high praise: Alabama Restaurant Association’s Chef of the Year 2011 and being named one of the Best Chefs America-South by a peer review publication highlighting the best of the best in the culinary profession. But it’s not gone to his head. In fact, he’s eager to share recipes and offer kitchen tips with anyone and everyone. On Friday evenings in the spring and summer, he partners with Montgomery’s Downtown Farm to put on Desde el Jardin (from the garden) dinners. On Friday afternoons, he gets a basket full of whatever is ripe and ready on the farm, creates a menu based on the basket and posts it, as well as photos and videos of the dishes in process, on his social media sites. He also includes the playlist he and his kitchen staff will be jamming to while whipping up the evening’s offerings.

 

A succulent shrimp and grits dish at Fisher's Restaurant
A succulent shrimp and grits dish at Fisher’s Restaurant

Chef Bill Briand

Restaurant: Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach

Opened: May 2013

Eat This: ham and green onion hushpuppies with jalapeno dipping sauce and blackened fish tacos (dockside) and oysters Earle (you really must!) and seared jumbo sea scallops with roasted cauliflower and ginger herb salad (upstairs).

“All Alabama” is the mantra of Chef Bill Briand. He’s striving to incorporate as much Alabama-grown produce and as many Alabama-made ingredients as possible into his menu, particularly the bounty of the warm Gulf waters only steps from his kitchen. “We are definitely using Alabama seafood to our advantage,” he said. “It would be crazy not to, but you’d be surprised how many places don’t.”

Born in Great Britain while his military dad was there, he and his family finally settled in New Orleans. He tried college, majoring in industrial drafting, and didn’t love it, so he went to work for a little Mexican eatery back home in NOLA. One knock on a door put him on the path to a culinary career. “I just knocked on the door at Emeril’s [famed Chef Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant] and offered to work for free for one day if they’d give me a chance,” he said. “They did, and he worked there for 11 years, moving his way up the ranks in the kitchen.” His next job was with Chef Donald Link, another major name on the national culinary stage, and he was the executive chef of Link’s Cochon restaurant for three years before Fisher’s owner, Johnny Fisher, brought him to Alabama to head up his namesake restaurant.

Chef Bill’s approach is to treat food honestly. “You don’t need 85 things on a plate,” he said. “You just need a balance of flavors, and you want to truly taste every one of them.” He strikes this balance in Fisher’s two menus: one for the casual dockside dining, the other for the fine-dining upstairs area. Both are designed to be part of an overall experience. “From the atmosphere in both dining rooms to the service to the food, it is all about being relaxed,” he said. “You’re at the beach.”

But don’t get too comfortable. Chef Bill wants diners to branch out and try new things, and he makes sure the wait staff clearly understands every item on the menu so they can accurately describe it to Fisher’s guests.