6 Enticing Bites and Sips at the 2017 Atlanta Food & Wine Festival

Alligator and peanuts and crab fat, oh my! Discover Southern cuisine trends and tastes.

Now celebrating its seventh year, the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival has become one of the most anticipated annual events for foodies in the region. At the recent June event held at the Loews Atlanta Hotel and Piedmont Park, award-winning chefs, bakers, roasters, mixologists, sommeliers and other creative people in the food industry came to present new dishes, offer tastings and party with the attendees.

Bless Your Heart Cocktail

Bless Your Heart Cocktail

This creation by Arkansas mixologist Brett Bassett features Rock Town rye whiskey, simple syrup, fresh lemon juice and Chamourcin wine (floated on the top).

Photo by: Jeff Stafford

Jeff Stafford

A typical day at the festival goes like this: you start with breakfast hosted by some of the guest hosts and then learn some new tricks of the trade in a full afternoon of cooking classes, demonstrations and tastings. At night, all the attendees and guests retire to tasting tents in the park for a spectacular cocktail/dinner experience is usually the highlight of each day. 

Some of the emerging trends in Southern cuisine that were spotlighted this year:

Top Trends:

  • CRABFAT: Also known as tomalley, crabfat is the yellow colored organ meat in crabs which can actually be used like butter to enhance the flavor of seafood dishes or highlight in a recipe where it is the main event.
  • SOUL FOOD VEGETABLES: Creamed corn, fried okra and boiled cabbage are old-school favorites but chef Ryan Rogers is creating innovative twists on the standards such as collards with star anise, pickled cauliflower or eggplant fritters with wild honey and saffron whipped yogurt which he presented at this year’s event.
  • PINOT NOIR and GAMAY: Pinot noir has long been the top favorite in the Burgundy category but sommelier Justin Amick believes red wine devotees will also like gamay, a light-bodied cousin to pinot noir which has a subtle earthiness and pairs well with almost any entree. Try both and pick your poison.
  • BARBECUE AND BOURBON: You’ve heard of food pairings with wine so why not bourbon? Chefs Jonathan Banta, Rachel Ford and Madison Ruckel serve up new creations like Salt and Pepper Brisket Sliders with pickles and sweet onions on a Hawaiian roll alongside a favorite small batch bourbon.
  • EGGPLANT INNOVATIONS: Other than making baba ghanoush or eggplant Parmesan, what can you do with eggplant? Chefs Todd Ginsberg and Meherwan Irani have plenty of ideas that demonstrate the nightshade’s versatility such as Eggplant Matbucha (which includes red pepper, tomatoes, smoked paprika, red wine vinegar and sugar parsley in the ingredients) and eggplant carpaccio (charred eggplant served with several garnishes - tomato salsa, herb sauce and lemon tahini).
  • PEANUTS ARE BIG: From boiled peanuts to peanut brittle, the peanut has deep roots in southern cuisine but chefs Ouija Michel and Vishwesh Bhatt present other inspired uses of it on a global level. Consider, for example, a dish from India like Okra Chaat which tosses fried okra slices, tomatoes, lime juice, cilantro, and the spice chaat masala together with chopped peanuts.
  • APPALACHIAN STACK CAKES: Cuisine from the mountains of Appalachia is becoming popular beyond its region thanks to chefs like Travis Milton who spin new variations on classics such as cornmeal-crusted catfish with tomato gravy or his unique, super-moist Appalachian stack cakes that add fresh apples and cinnamon red hots (candy) to the recipe.

These were the most memorable tasting highlights for me which give an indication of some food trends you might find turning up soon at your favorite cutting-edge restaurant:

An Arkansas Brunch Dish

An Arkansas Brunch Dish

This is a soft cooked farm egg & braised Petit Jean pork jowl cuisada served over cheese grits with crumbled pork crackling, Ozark Muscadine hot pepper jam and micro greens.

Photo by: Jeff Stafford

Jeff Stafford

1. Soft-Cooked Farm Egg & Braised Pork Jowl Cuisada

Sponsored by the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, Arkansas chefs served up this hearty and succulent breakfast entree which was served over stone ground cheese grits with crumbled pork crackling, Ozark muscadine hot pepper jam and micro greens. 

The Carpetbagger Cocktail

The Carpetbagger Cocktail

A creation by South Carolina mixologist Jayce McConnell, The Carpetbagger includes whiskey, sweet vermouth and Averna (an herbal liquor in the Amaro family) in a glass rinsed lightly with orange oil.

Photo by: Jeff Stafford

Jeff Stafford

2. Carpetbagger Cocktail

Amari, a class of bitter herbal liqueurs that have been popular in Italy for centuries, is being discovered by bartenders in the U.S. who are creating unique cocktails using Amaro as an ingredient. This one from South Carolina mixologist Jayce McConnell fashioned a blend of whiskey, sweet vermouth and Averna (a type of Amaro) and served it in a cocktail glass lightly rubbed with orange oil. Smoky, complex and wondrous.

A Louisiana Dish with Craft

A Louisiana Dish with Craft

Chef Isaac Toups whipped up a succulent dish using crabfat (crab roe), butter, garlic, ginger, lemon zest and green onions and mixed it with white rice.

Photo by: Jeff Stafford

Jeff Stafford

3. Crabfat Rice

What is crabfat? It is actually crab roe. When cleaning crabs, most people discard it but you’d be making a big mistake. Chef Isaac Toups of New Orleans showed us how to take the crabfat and make a richly flavored liquid base, adding butter, garlic, ginger, lemon zest and chopped green onion bottoms. The final result, poured over and mixed with white rice, was a fantastic taste sensation that had a light, delicate crab flavor followed by after notes of each fresh ingredient that was added.

Gazpacho Rock Town Bloody Mary

Gazpacho Rock Town Bloody Mary

This variation on the traditional cocktail includes locally sourced Arkansas ingredients: Rock Town vodka, roasted peppers and olive oil.

Photo by: Jeff Stafford

Jeff Stafford

4. Gazpacho Bloody Mary

If you like gazpacho, you’ll really love it in this innovative twist on the Bloody Mary that combines Arkansas Rock Town Vodka, roasted peppers and olive oil from Bentonville, Arkansas to create a refreshing and subtly spiced cocktail that is ideal for brunch.

Dessert for Brunch

Dessert for Brunch

Salted Caramel Pudding Cake with Bourbon Chantilly and spicy candied pecans is an Arkansas brunch specialty.

Photo by: Jeff Stafford

Jeff Stafford

5. Salted Carmel Pudding Cake

When did salted caramel become the new favorite flavor in desserts? In the past several years we’ve seen it emerge as a prime flavor in ice ream, candies, cupcakes and cookies. But I have to say this mouth-watering concoction which is served with Rock Town Young Bourbon Chantilly and spicy candied pecans might be my favorite recipe yet.

A Smoked Gator Slider

A Smoked Gator Slider

Chef Kenny Gilbert from Florida served up a delicious smoked alligator slider with dill pickle at the 2017 Atlanta Food and Wine festival.

Photo by: Jeff Stafford

Jeff Stafford

6. Slow-Smoked Alligator Sliders

Deep fried alligator bites is not an uncommon appetizer in Louisiana and Florida restaurants but in that form I don’t find that it has much of a distinctive taste. Florida chefs Kenny Gilbert and Greg Baker demonstrated a much more flavorful way to prepare and serve it. They brined a whole alligator, rubbed it with cajun spice and refrigerated it for a day or so. Then they smoked it for about three to four hours until the meat was literally falling off the bone. The final verdict: mounds of juicy white meat with a slight seafood flavor. It makes a superb gator slider with dill pickle or a stand alone dish with your favorite barbecue sauce. 

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