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Urban Spring

Urban Spring
Photos by Andrew Cebulka

The Lee Brothers Forage the Streets of Their Native Charleston to Throw a Spring Dinner Party

The mulberries and loquats we harvested as kids in Charleston, South Carolina, were more for throwing than for eating. But even as we beaned our friends (and more than a few horse-carriage tours), that simple act of picking around the peninsula at a young age played a part in what inspires us about food today, especially here in Charleston where raw materials are abundant and memorable. These days, a beach walk on Sullivan’s Island typically ends with a thirty-minute smilax-gathering session. Walking past our neighbor Nathalie Dupree’s garden, we can’t resist picking one of its exotic enticements—kaffir lime leaf, lemon grass, banana flowers—to bring back to our kitchen.

We take every opportunity to incorporate foraged ingredients into our recipes, and our new book, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, celebrates the thrills of backyard and sidewalk pickings: the citrus, the rosemary and figs, the pecans. With its Drinks chapter, we hope to inspire the city’s mixologists to a new appreciation of what’s close at hand. Beverages inflected with citrus (fruit and leaf) abound. Ever try a loquat manhattan? You will if you’re lucky!

We’ve never been vegetarians (despite fond memories of Sprouts & Krauts, the veggie emporium our parents loved taking us to in the 1980s), but we’ve always found as much inspiration in vegetables as we have in proteins and fats. For a spring dinner on the heels of oyster-roast and pig-picking season, we thought going the all-vegetable route seemed fitting, and an outdoor setting was mandatory. We imposed upon our friends Josh Nissenboim and Helen Rice, whose Spring Street garden boasts what may be the largest orange tree in Charleston County. Besides being great backyard growers—of raised beds of peppers, tomatoes, and herbs—Josh and Helen are the principal artist-designers behind the design shop Fuzzco. They invited to the table new clients of theirs Joshua Walker and Duolan Li, chefs and owners of the just-opened Spring Street restaurant Xiao Bao Biscuit, a place that gives Asian street-food classics a soulful, locavore twist. And we cajoled our friend David S. Shields—preeminent scholar of Southern vegetables (and the still photography of the silent film era and Russian piano music)—and his wife, Luci, to come down from Columbia for the springtime feast.


Lettuce Soup with Pickled Mizuna

This lettuce soup was improvised with an abundance of spring greens—different lettuces from a trip to Johns Island, spicy mizuna, radish leaves, and with herbs like basil, dill, fennel tops…we soon lost track. It all blended well with a dose of asparagus stem broth and a splash of vinegar, then seasoned with salt and strained through a French press coffee carafe (another improvisation!). A drizzle of buttermilk transformed the chaos of the green flavors in the broth into a luscious soup. The mizuna stems were so stout, crisp, and fresh tasting, we decided to quick pickle those and then use them as a garnish.

The Menu for this Special Fete

CocktailsLemongrass Gimlet

Hors D’oeuvres | Guinea Squash Dip and Cheese Straws

Starters | Lettuce Soup with Pickled Mizuna

Main | Mushroom and Sticky Rice Packets

SidesButterbeans and Crowders with Bay Butter and Grilled Asparagus with Backyard Citrus

DessertsSyllabub with Strawberries and Black Pepper


Mushroom and Sticky Rice Packets

Back in the kitchen, Matt worked on the mushroom stuffing, trying to create a dark-brown, woodsy jam so concentrated that it would stain and infuse the sticky rice wrapped around it. Fresh shiitakes from Johns Island, dried porcini, and button mushrooms sautéed and caramelized with onion formed the foundation of the paste, and jolts of balsamic vinegar and dark soy sauce (“foraged” from Helen and Josh’s cabinets) made it pop to his satisfaction. Then the process of embedding the jam in the rice and wrapping it in banana-leaf parcels began, with several guests swooping in to help out, tying each parcel together with lemongrass “ribbon.” Once wrapped, Matt steamed 94 them in a colander set inside a covered boiling pot.

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