Lee Brothers Reinforce Delicious Southern-Food Stereotypes

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The Lee Brothers, Ted and Matt, in their Hamilton Heights headquarters. Photo: Melissa Hom

Southern-food enthusiasts Matt and Ted Lee grew up in Charleston, but their love of cooking came from their parents, who are native New Yorkers. “There might be something in the Upper West Side chemistry that gets people loving shopping, cooking, and fixing dinner,” says Matt. Their foray into food writing began in 2000 when the editor of Travel & Leisure came upon the 'zinelike mail-order catalogue they were using to market boiled peanuts to Southern expats. One food essay sparked a writing career, and the pair will publish their second cookbook, Simple, Fresh, Southern, this fall. See how much bacon, grits, and buttermilk ice cream two Southern boys can take down in our weekly New York Diet.

Sunday, May 24
Ted: We weren’t together over the weekend. I was in Florida with my wife, E.V. It was our first anniversary. She’s an artist and doing a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and I was visiting her for a weekend. We were being hosted in West Palm Beach by a friend who has some of her artwork. I woke up and had some fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, and slices of Manchego cheese.

Matt: I was with my wife, Gia, at our place in upstate New York, the Hudson Valley. We had a group of about eight or ten, so we did a big pot of grits from North Carolina with some half-and-half and a block of cheese mixed in, cheese grits. We had some slab bacon from the Fairway, scrambled eggs, and coffee, of course.

Ted: For lunch: blueberry waffles and more coffee at Testa’s in Palm Beach.

Matt: For lunch, I heated up leftover burgers from the night before, which still had a little gummy American cheese on top. And I think I let into my first beer. Holiday weekend, right? The guests had brought Smuttynose IPA from New Hampshire. It was delicious; very hoppy.

Ted: We had driven back to New Smyrna Beach where the residency is, and E.V. and I went out for our anniversary to P.J.’s Fish Shack. We had a wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese and about a quarter pound of bacon crumbled over it, a fried seafood platter with scallops, shrimp, and clams, and blackened dolphin tacos. For dessert we went back to her room and ate the top layer of our wedding cake. It was a coconut cake. It was in the freezer for a year, and I brought it with me in my suitcase — it was incredible how it held up.

Matt: Was it the embalming fluid?

Ted:
No, I would say E.V.’s wrapping job: three layers of foil first, then three layers of plastic, and a really cold freezer. No freezer flavor at all; it was shockingly well preserved.

Matt: For dinner, we went to a friend’s house in a nearby town and we had toad in the hole: mini wieners in pastry. They had amazing potato salad, pork shoulder that had been pulled, long baked, and reunited with its braising juices, and Mount Gay Rum on the rocks with a twist of lime. The other thing they had that blew me away was open-face tomato sandwiches: A circular slice of white bread with a bacon-y mayonnaise — they had mixed crumbled bacon and mayonnaise — and a nice big ripe slice of tomato. I think that was my dessert.

Monday, May 25
Ted: I had an early-morning flight out of Orlando, and for breakfast I had some coffee. Then on the plane I got a Mr. and Mrs. T’s Bloody Mary Mix and a $3 can of Pringles. When you eat them together it’s almost like eating a pizza.

Matt: Breakfast Monday: Coffee, and my wife had a container of ricotta that was on the edge, so she mixed it with walnuts and honey and put it on a piece of toast; it was delicious.

Ted: It was on the edge? Ew.

Matt: It wasn’t molding or anything, but it had been in there for a week. We knew we had to use it right away. It wasn’t sour or anything. All cheese is aged a little bit, right? It was yummy. I normally just have coffee for breakfast because I’m still digesting the huge dinner I had the night before. I turned 40 recently and my metabolism is slowing down. So the coffee with a quarter cup of sugar and a quarter cup of heavy cream is breakfast enough.

Ted: For lunch, I got back to the apartment in Bed-Stuy and had what I call an insta-meal: homemade chicken broth with miso and julienne fresh ginger mixed in it, poured over tofu. We usually have at least a quart of homemade chicken broth on hand. And I use condiments: soy sauce, and sambal sauce, a salty chile paste.

Matt: We were still upstate and did a late lunch. Everyone went down to the water because it was such a pretty day, and we had a 4 p.m. cookout. I grilled what they were calling flat iron steak. It was like skirt steak, which I patted down with some generic Moroccan spice that was in the cabinet. It was a like a carne asada. We had tortillas and I grilled jalapeños and scallions for a taco night outdoors. We also had a salad of lettuces from our garden there — the first of the year. To drink we had various white wines. I had received a shipment from Joseph Drouhin of Chablis and Macon-Villages.

Ted: I was testing a cocktail recipe we’re donating to a friend's cookbook, so I had three. It’s yellow-peach purée with sparkling Spanish white wine. Like a Bellini, but Southern-style. I was at my Bed-Stuy liquor store and I asked, “do you have any Prosecco?” and the guy said “what flavor?” so I reached for Cava. I had gotten some ground Waygu chuck from Fairway in Red Hook and I had hamburgers for dinner, cooked on a cast iron skillet. I got more meat than I thought I wanted, but I ended up having three hamburgers on toasted Thomas English Muffins, with sliced tomato, and mayo that I made from Hellmann's and sambal, that chile sauce I was telling you about.

Matt: For dinner we were interested in clearing out the fridge since it was the last night. We just had leftover salad, some corn that had been grilled from our friend’s party the night before. I must have had another glass of wine. My wife is about five months pregnant, so she’s been going to bed on the early side, like 7:30, 8. So the 5 p.m. cookout sufficed as dinner.

Tuesday, May 26

Ted: I drank two-thirds of a French press of coffee with milk and sugar. I was doing a test of strawberry buttermilk ice cream. You make the custard and then you put it into the ice-cream maker, but I had about three-quarters of a cup extra so I drank it like a smoothie, room temperature. It was an impulsive thing. I realized the ice-cream maker was uptown in Hamilton Heights at Matt and Gia’s place, which functions as our office. When I got up there, I raided their refrigerator. I guess it was stuff from the BBQ the day before. They had grilled scallions, onions, and jalapeños, so I added fresh tomato and dressed that with some vinegar and olive oil as a breakfast salad.

Matt: Tuesday began at 4 a.m. in the morning because we were up there and Gia is a kindergarten teacher in Staten Island and needed to get to work by 8 a.m. I only had coffee until lunch. Tuesday morning we decided to drop the invitations to our fried-chicken book party, and I was hustling to drop the invitations. It was a marathon morning until Ted showed up at lunch with some fried chicken that he had picked up from Piece of Chicken, on West 45th Street. It’s where we’re getting the fried chicken for the party. It’s been there a little while and a friend got his fried chicken there for a Kentucky Derby party. The chicken seemed really good and it was really cheap. We had to get enough for 800 people, so we needed it to be really cheap.

Ted: I had gone down to do the deal and brought it back to Matt’s apartment, so that’s what I had for lunch, too. We drank glasses of Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc from Napa. We also churned the strawberry buttermilk ice cream so we tasted that afterward. It’s going into the friend’s cookbook.

Matt: It’s for Lee Schrager. He’s doing the SoBe Festival Cookbook with our publisher to coincide with the tenth anniversary in February 2011.

Ted: I went home for dinner. E.V. and I usually cook together, but since she wasn’t there I started cooking some meals for the week. I made a double portion of Marco Canora’s marinara and added some double smoked bacon, which I’m not sure was a good idea. We did a story about meatballs in New York City for the Times about two years ago and he had given us this recipe. I use it all the time; make a huge batch; keep it in the freezer, I love that. I made a bunch of carrot slaw from the new cookbook, and I was also testing the second batch of strawberry buttermilk ice cream, because Matt said the first batch wasn’t tart enough. I still didn’t have the machine with me, so I had to bring it to Matt’s the next day and I didn’t eat any. By the time the marinara was done it was really late, so I ladled off a cup of the sauce and warmed up a leftover hamburger in it.

Matt: My wife cooked me some soba noodles, steamed broccoli, and we were clearing out some roasted root vegetables that I had made last Friday: beets, parsnips, sweet potatoes. It was a light dinner. To drink, a cold glass of red wine: Côtes-du-Rhône, Perrin with a screw cap: a really good, really cheap, $9 wine.

Wednesday, May 27
Ted: I reheated the leftover coffee from Tuesday. I went to the Carolina Country Store, in the easternmost part of Bed-Stuy. They sell all kinds of items from the Southern larder, like canned boiled peanuts, country ham, liver pudding, grits. I was going there because Amy Sedaris gave us the first blurb for our new book, which was amazing, so I was buying stuff to put in a thank-you gift for her. But I ended up buying liver pudding for myself, and some country ham. I never make a breakfast like this, but I was inspired. I did seared liver pudding and country ham in a skillet and poached some eggs and draped them over it. Liver pudding is a classic North and South Carolina thing; it would probably be called pâté in New York. It’s basically pig liver and sage and spices.

Matt: … And some sort of starch that stretches it a little bit and mellows out the liver flavor. In the low country it’s rice. Upstate it’s usually cornmeal; I don’t know which one he got.

Ted:
It was interesting, it had very little binder and it was in as small a sausage casing as I’ve ever seen it, like the thickness of a hot dog, but a big long link. I just cut a six-inch link, took the casing off and seared it; it was fantastic. It’s really earthy and rich, so you need the eggs to cut that. The country ham was really salty and delicious.

Matt: For breakfast: coffee and scrambled eggs on a weird baguette that my wife must have bought, which had a lot of flaxseeds glued to the exterior.

Ted: I don’t think I had anything for lunch.

Matt: I’ll tell you what you had, because it’s what I had! I had about two inches left of a hunk of slab bacon...

Ted: Oh, I forgot!

Matt: Let me tell the story. I had super-smoky slab bacon from Fairway. I sliced it pretty thin and fried it up in a cast iron skillet. I also had a dime bag of haricot verts that I was concerned were about to go south, so I fried them in the bacon grease with salt and chile flakes, and blistered them, and drained those on paper towels. That was our snack/lunch: bacon and bacon green beans. That’s the kind of lunch you have when no one’s watching, but it’s comfort food and clears out the fridge. I think we tucked into a glass of wine to keep the arteries from clogging. Then we tasted the second batch of strawberry buttermilk ice cream: a side-by-side comparison. It was a split decision. I liked the first one better. It had more heavy cream, and was more like a fancy ice cream. That second one was more tart and was a little prettier (more red), but the texture was a little ice crystal-y. I think it won by a nose, but we may need to go to a third draft.

Ted: For dinner, I went to a new restaurant in Brooklyn, called Brooklyn Star, with a friend. We had the summer-squash casserole, Dr Pepper ribs, corn bread, buttermilk biscuits, BBQ catfish, fried cucumbers, grits, the chicken and dumplings, and we had collard greens that were amazing. For dessert there were fried strawberries with vanilla ice cream and honey drizzled over it. They were battered and deep-fried, which was unnecessary, but I ate them all nevertheless. The star dish was the chicken and dumplings, with the BBQ catfish a close second. We took all the leftovers home, which I think is a good sign, because I don’t really do that.

Matt: Because you eat everything on your plate or because you take a stand against doggy bags?

Ted: A little bit of both. Well, I don’t eat everything on the plate.

Matt:I took my wife to a 5:30 dinner, because that’s how we roll these says. It’s a new wine bar at 80th Street called Cava that has Dominican food. It was amazing. The best Dominican food I’ve ever had. The standout was something they called “Seafood Banana,” which wasn’t banana. It was Caribbean plantain formed into a cylinder and the void was filled with grilled calamari and shrimp that was perfectly cooked. It had some sort of dressing that had chiles and tropical flavors in it. One of the specials was an osso buco. One of the best I’ve had in a long time, really well seasoned. It was just the bone on the plate, but they had infused the meat with a lot of herbs. I actually picked up the bone and gnawed on it. I drank Portuguese wine, Touriga Nacional. For dessert, they sent out pineapple flan, which was so sweet it clenched my jaw, and a really nice bread pudding.

Thursday, May 28
Matt: For breakfast, I had fried eggs on toast. There are no more eggs in the house, by the way.

Ted: Want me to get some?

Matt: Yes, please.