Remember the first day back at school in the fall and the assignment was to write about what you did on your summer vacation? Well, summer is just getting started, but here’s what I’ve done so far. More accurately, in keeping with our food theme here at Kitsey’s Kitchen, here is what I ate while on vacation.
I’ve been a beach girl from a young age. As a child and teenager my summer vacation was always in the Myrtle Beach area. A few years ago, however, I visited Beaufort, North Carolina, and fell absolutely in love with it. I’ve vacationed on the Crystal Coast near Beaufort, Morehead City and Atlantic Beach ever since.
Mainly my vacation consisted of sitting on the beach staring out at mother ocean, walking on the sand and reading. Aside from actually being at the beach, my other favorite part of vacation is going out to eat.
My dad is an avid fisherman and as a child we often had fish frys at our house. In those days I even ate frog legs! Then I went through a phase where I was kind of weirded out about seafood, unless it was your basically basic tiny tasteless popcorn shrimp. After I started going to some of the nicer restaurants on the Crystal Coast, however, I began to learn to love all sorts of seafood. After having to dissect a frog in eighth-grade biology, I still can’t bring myself to eat frog legs though.
Frog legs were on the menu down at the coast last week, however, and my dad ordered them one night at one of my all-time favorite restaurants — Floyd’s 1921. Floyd’s is in a beautiful old home in Morehead City and serves up great southern favorites like meatloaf alongside some seaside favorites. My personal favorite dish at Floyd’s is their mahi mahi. I order mine blackened. It comes atop fried green tomatoes with tasso ham gravy. Mahi mahi is a great fish to try if you’re one of those who don’t like fishy tasting fish. It’s a flaky white fish and I’ve never had a piece that had that unpleasant fishy flavor.
I’ll pause here for a moment on the seafood to tell you about tasso ham gravy, probably one of my favorite things ever. I actually discovered tasso ham gravy at the beach at my other all-time favorite restaurant Amos Mosquitos in Atlantic Beach. Amos Mosquitos is almost always packed, it’s a popular place on the beach and it’s well worth the wait, locals and regulars often refer to it simply as Skeeters. Quaintly decorated with various mosquito-themed objects, dried Spanish moss hangs from branches on the walls and ceiling and there is even a soundtrack of evening insect noises that plays in the bathroom. You have to love a place that gives that much attention to detail in keeping with their theme.
The first time I ever ate there, probably about seven or eight years ago, I ordered their fried pork chop with tasso ham gravy. Now what possessed me to order pork chops I don’t even know because truthfully it’s not a menu item I normally care that much about. I must have had some sort of magical food intuition telling me how good this dish was going to be. The pork chops themselves are thin and so tender they practically fall apart at the touch of a fork. The breading is so delightfully crispy with just the perfect blend of seasoning and then there is the gravy. Ah, the gravy. Tasso ham is a Cajun thing. It’s a cut of pork cured in various seasonings and smoked. The outside of the ham is red with all the spices it is cured with. Using this as your fat to make a gravy or even a pasta sauce is just out of this world. Now when I go to Skeeters I ask the server just to bring me a vat of the gravy and nothing else. They laugh at me, but in a way, I’m really not even kidding.
Tasso is not something readily available around here, although I have found it at Whole Foods before. I typically buy at least two and then slice it into smaller portions which I shrink wrap and freeze for later. You can also find it on the website CajunGrocer.com. The combination of the pork, breaded in such delightful seasonings and the spicy and creamy gravy, well, as you can tell, I could go on and on about it. Though it’s not seafood, it’s pretty much my favorite meal when I go to Atlantic Beach. Skeeter’s mojitos are also great and then they have tiny little fire pits they bring right to your table if you order the s’mores for dessert. It’s just overall such a fun place. If you visit the area and go there, tell them I sent you!
Shrimp, flounder and crab legs were other dishes we enjoyed while at the beach last week. My dad’s favorite place is called Ruddy Ducks and it’s right on the Morehead City waterfront. Their shrimp basket is one of the best deals in the area and great quality food. Their fish tacos are my favorite and their burgers are also terrific. If you like a cocktail with your meal, I suggest the Pain Killer.
Another place I had heard about for years, but never tried is a little drive-in dinner called the Big Oak Drive-In. It’s right near the beach in the Salter Path area of Atlantic Beach. They’re famous for their shrimp burger — fried shrimp on a bun with ketchup, tartar sauce and slaw. We finally tried it this trip. We had onion rings and fries and gobbled up those shrimp burgers as fast as we could.
Channel Marker and McCurdy’s are two of our other favorite places in the area. We always get the crab legs at McCurdy’s and they are always great. Flounder at Channel Marker is my favorite and I love their twice baked stuffed potato as well.
I’m not sure why, but fish is something I never fix at home. Now that I have made myself hungry reminiscing about all the good food I ate on vacation though, I may have to work up my nerve to try cooking my own seafood at home. If you have a great seafood recipe to share, email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call at 336-518-3049.
As mentioned above, tasso ham is not an easy ingredient to find in our area, but if you should manage to get your hands on some, here’s a recipe for a tasso ham pasta sauce. Truthfully I would put tasso in everything if I could. I have put it in spaghetti sauce, chili, gumbo and even vegetable soup. It’s just a great seasoning to bring a little spice to any dish.
Kitsey and Morgan’s Tasso Pasta
• 8 oz. of tasso, diced into small cubes
• 3 to 4 tbsp. flour
• 1 shallot finely minced
• 2 cloves garlic finely minced
• 2 cups chicken broth
• 3/4 cup heavy cream
• salt and pepper to taste
• Parmesan cheese to taste
Add a good-sized pat of butter to a sauce pan and on medium heat begin adding your diced tasso bits. Brown ham slowly until the fat is rendered. Add shallot and cook until translucent. Add garlic and sauté just a minute. Slowly add flour, whisking to make a roux. Once flour has incorporated, slowly add chicken broth. The mixture will begin to thicken, then slowly add cream and mix until incorporated into a thick creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste and grate in a small amount of Parmesan cheese (or a larger amount if that’s your thing.) Serve over your favorite pasta. If you are able to get your hands on some fresh mahi mahi, this dish would also make a great accompaniment.
Kitsey E. Burns is a reporter for The Yadkin Ripple, here she shares her musings on food, life and love. She can be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.