Ava Maria Grotto - Cullman, AL

Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, AL - stop here before you eat your way through Birmingham

If anyone had asked me ten years ago where I would go to celebrate my one year wedding anniversary, I can assure you I would never had said Birmingham, AL. Granted 10 years ago I probably didn’t think I’d end up married to a southerner and living in Nashville, TN, so there’s that too. When you grow up in the north, whatever you hear about Alabama is never very good. Alabama is images of grainy news reels of church bombings and Bull Connor. But C had visited Birmingham a year ago to watch a friend in a cooking contest, and came home raving about a different city. He waxed poetic about the Civil Rights Institute and the 5 Points neighborhood, and most of all he came home talking up the food. And after a year of raving about the city he wore me down and we set of for a long weekend in Birmingham to celebrate one year of marriage.

While this post will be mainly about the food, I will say that Alabama has several non-gastronomic sites that should not be missed. If you enjoy folk art, the intricately-designed miniature sculptures at the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, AL is a sight to behold. The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham is one of the more powerful museums I’ve ever attended – and if the museum is offering walking tours of the adjacent Kelly Ingram Park and the surrounding neighborhood – take it. The walking tour follows the steps of the Civil Rights movement in the city and offers no sugar coating of the events that happened there. Also, the Birmingham Art Museum is a good municipal art museum that had several engaging exhibits.

But If I’m honest, one of the main reasons C was able to convince me to make this trip was Frank Stitt. Arguably one of the most famous chefs in the south, Mr. Stitt has several restaurants in Birmingham. We had Saturday night reservations at the Highlands Bar and Grill – the restaurant that focuses on combing fresh, local southern cuisine with classical techniques. We had heard amazing things and Highlands truly lived up to the hype. The fried oysters were succulent, the fish tender and flaky and the beef rich and flavorful. C had fried squash blossoms filled with goat cheese that he hasn’t stopped talking about since – it has lead to his current fruitless quest for fresh squash blossoms – all so I can try to recreate the dish at home. We also ate another amazing meal at the Hot and Hot Fish Club – we basically returned home stuffed and happy (see the pictures above, which are plates we ate at both restaurants).

Given that the traditional first anniversary gift is supposed to be paper, C had surreptitiously bought me a copy of Mr. Stitt’s cookbook Southern Table which he presented to me back in Nashville. Given how much C had loved Mr. Stitt’s food this may seem a bit self serving, but I must say we both enjoy the dishes from it. The recipes themselves are not hard – they just demand good fresh ingredients. And when I saw fresh Red Snapper at the grocery store I knew that I needed to try a en Papillote recipe from the cookbook. The recipe actually calls for Pompano – but Mr. Stitt identifies Red Snapper as a fine substitute. By cooking the fish with aromatics in parchment, the fish gets steamed perfectly and it saves me (or C) from having to clean up fishy-smelling pans. The fish tasted delicate and delicious and was the perfect reminder of our wonderful weekend away.

Red Snapper en Papilote

Red Snapper en Papillote

Pompano (or Red Snapper) en Papillote

Taken from Frank Stitt’s Southern Table

Ingredients:

5 T. butter – plus more butter for the parchment at room temperature

2 Spring onion or 1 large sweet onion, finally sliced

Fresh ground white pepper

8 thin lemon slices

2 shallots, thinly sliced

Kosher salt

1/4 cup chopped chives and parsley, and chevil, basil or dill

4 6 ounce pompano fillets (Red Snapper and Flounder are also acceptable)

Preheat oven to 475 degrees

Melt 1 T. of butter in a saute pan over medium heat and add the onion and pepper and saute until softened. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Cut four 16 by 20 inch sheets of parchment. Rub a bit of butter on each parchment where the fish will lie and place 2 slices of lemon on each one. Top will sliced shallot and sauteed onion. Season with salt and pepper and a pinch of the herbs then top with the fish. Seaon each fillet with salt and pepper, and sprinkle the remaining herbs over the fish. Dot each fillet with 1 T. of butter. Fold up the parchment packet so that the edged are sealed.

Place packages on a baking sheet on the top shelf of the oven for 10 minutes. Transfer to serving plates and open the packages with a knife or scissors. Inhale and enjoy.