$20 Dinner with Savannah Sasser
Twain's Brewpub and Billiards' Executive Chef makes a satisfying and affordable meatless meal
Twain's Brewpub and Billiards chef Savannah Sasser can look at a pig or cut of pork and tell you if the animal was happy when it died. Anyone can if you know what to look for.
“Blown capillaries,” Sasser says. She’s rinsing a sink full of vegetables in her home kitchen a few miles east of Decatur. “If you ever see a pig with a lot of red little spots on it, it was under severe distress when it was slaughtered. Pigs have feelings and they know something's wrong when they go to the slaughterhouse.”
Two months prior to this balmy August afternoon, this room was packed with Atlanta’s Les Dames d’Escoffier — local members of the renowned culinary mentorship organization for women — and two whole hogs ready to star in the butchering workshop Sasser was hosting that day.
“When I took on Twain’s I was a vegetarian and everyone thought it was hilarious. But then after going to different local farms and seeing how they were treating animals humanely, I started to eat meat again,” she says. “Everyone laughs at the vegetarian who likes to butcher. But I find it cathartic, so I do it quite often. If I'm having a rough day and we've got some pig in today, I'm gonna go handle it.”
Sasser has been the Executive Chef at Twain's for the last four years. When the owners decided to buy and renovate the former Suburban Lanes Bowling Alley and reopen it as the Comet Pub and Lanes, they tapped Sasser to build its kitchen up from scratch. She created the menu, wrote kitchen protocols and guidelines, calculated food costs, and shored up vendors. Now that the Comet is up and running, her attention is back on Twain’s.
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When she took over for the Decatur brewpub’s then-chef Ben Horgan in 2012, she had a plan. She wanted the food to better reflect the house beers that Twain’s then Head Brewer David Stein who went on to co-found Creature Comforts Brewing in Athens and Twain’s current Head Brewer Chase Medlin were producing. Since graduating from Le Cordon Bleu of Pittsburgh in 2005, Sasser had developed a passion for local food and sustainable farming. She started to prepare even more of Twain’s sauces and ingredients from scratch and began sourcing all of the pub’s proteins from Georgia farmers. Eschewing the typical bar food repertoire even further, she made room on the menu for two rotating vegan dishes.
“I want everyone to be able to eat something when they come to Twain's,” she says. “It's a bar, but you know, vegans and vegetarians like to go and have a nice beer at a bar.”
No one taught Sasser how to cook vegetarian cuisine. When she stopped eating meat for two years in 2010, she learned by doing. She had to feed herself, after all. Today she’ll put those skills to use and cook up a lovely meatless meal that feeds up to six people.
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With a budget of $20 in mind, it was easy for Sasser to dream up the vegetarian family meal she has planned. She’s making a dish out of creamy Logan Turnpike grits topped with a fresh corn, creamer pea, and tomato relish, finished with a sunny fried egg. She’s also serving an elegant spinach salad with juicy muscadines, lemon goat cheese crumbles, and curried peanuts tossed in a warm sorghum and Vidalia onion vinaigrette. She wanted her ingredient choices to be protein-rich and encompass a variety of textures and flavors.
“I also wanted to source locally from Your DeKalb Farmers Market, which not everyone always thinks about,” she says. And the meal “had to be very light, which is what you want when it's this hot and muggy outside,” she says.
She preheats two cast iron pans in the oven, one for toasting the peanuts and the other to slowly caramelize a large Vidalia onion she just chopped up. She gets some water boiling for the grits, and shaves slabs of fresh corn off the cob in four effortless swipes.
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“I don't have that great story where I grew up in a household where my grandmother was picking things from the garden,” she says. She pauses to squeeze the remaining juices out of the bare cob and into the bubbling water. “I remember my mom making casseroles, opening cans of green beans, a basic rice dish,” she says. “The focus was more on talking as a family than what was necessarily on the plate.”
When Sasser’s stepfather passed away, the then 14-year-old began cooking a lot of the family’s meals to help out.
“I always wanted to be a chef,” Sasser says, “but once I was doing it to help out my family I realized that food was much more than nourishing the body. That it could be comforting, and silently helping, only added to my passion for cooking.”
After culinary school, Sasser worked at a small French restaurant, Café du Jour, and the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. Next she spent a short time cooking at the Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs before swearing off hotel gigs for good and returning to Atlanta in 2010. She got a job at the Grape in Vinings where she worked under chef Micah Willix, her eventual mentor.
“I was kind of in awe of him,” Sasser says, “because he’d be like, ‘I'm not serving chicken because I can't find a pasture-raised chicken,’ with that kind of conviction. I was like, ‘Oh, I want to have that kind of conviction.”
No value assigned As Sasser removes the seeds from each golfball-sized muscadine, she describes the role they’ll play in her spinach salad. “They’re going to bring a tartness to the salad,” she says. “And then texturally, muscadine is firmer than a normal grape. They’ll go really well with the lemon goat cheese and spinach and then the sorghum and Vidalia onion will add the sweetness to balance it all out.”
At Twain’s, Sasser’s classical French training melds with her Southern sensibilities. Both cultures routinely show up in dishes such as the cassoulet she’s developing for Twain’s upcoming quarterly menu change.
“It is a traditional French dish, but I’ll be using local peas and making my own sausage with pork and then adding bacon — little aspects of Southern,” she says.
Sasser’s vegan and vegetarian offerings have attracted their own dedicated fan base.
“We have a community that comes in to Twain's purely because they know they can get a good vegan or vegetarian option,” she says. “Our vegan pasta with a smoked lemon oil, heirloom tomatoes, and some arugula — I was really surprised at how well it did. I have a feeling I'm going to get in trouble with some people when I take it off the menu.”
On Sasser’s watch, Twain’s became the first Decatur restaurant to subscribe to the CSA program that local farming nonprofit the Global Growers Network offers in addition to educational programming for disadvantaged farmers. The CSA arrives at Twain’s every week and usually includes around six cases of seasonal, locally grown produce. Sasser rarely knows what ingredients are coming and loves the task of adapting her menu accordingly. Some weeks are harder than others.
“One time I got six cases of radish and then six more cases of radish,” she says. “It challenged me to figure out what I could possibly do with all these radishes, how to implement them on a bar menu. I made a radish preserve and also a radish and ranch chow-chow.”
Sasser’s main focus right now is to keep pushing Twain's further — to make its menu more local and sustainable and to craft more ingredients from scratch. They already do a lot of butchering and make their own sausage. Now Sasser wants to implement an in-house charcuterie program. Eventually, she hopes to open her own place, perhaps with Twain’s owners Ethan and Uri Wurtzel as partners. Her dream restaurant is a small, intimate affair. It would only be open for dinner and the menu would change daily.
“I’d like it to have a garden or my own farm, if we're talking about shooting for the stars,” she says. “And a really cool beer program, as well, and drink program. … Community is huge. That would be a main focus of the restaurant — a lot of family tables.”
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As she drizzles glistening bits of caramelized onion over the fresh spinach straight from the pan — the heat, she explains, will wilt the spinach a bit and add another texture profile to the dish — the themes of food and family return to the forefront of Sasser’s mind. Growing up, the food they ate at her house wasn’t particularly special. The time she got to spend in the kitchen with her mother, on the other hand, was priceless.
“I didn't always have a lot of quality time with her,” Sasser says. “Cooking time was time that I got to spend with my mom.” Even before she was big enough to reach the countertop, Sasser would help out with things like baking, making stuffing at Thanksgiving, and stirring anything her mother allowed. Sasser motions across the room toward a tiny step stool with a heart shape cut out of the dark wood. “That’s from when I was little,” she says. A note written on the bottom reads, “Your first step stool to becoming a chef. Love, Mom.”
For Sasser, dinnertime will always mean family time. She’ll always view cooking for others as an act of love. Her past experiences shaped these notions and, in turn, have had a profound influence on her chef identity. Sasser may not have had a memorable gardening grandma, but her food tells a story that’s all her own.
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Logan Turnpike Grits and Summer Corn Salad
For the corn salad:
• ½ cup fresh creamer peas or other peas that you like
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 2 ears of corn
• 1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes
• ½ Vidalia onion
• 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
• ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
• 3 tablespoons whole grain mustard
• fresh cracked pepper
• 4 sunny-side-up eggs (one for each serving)
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit with a large cast iron skillet in it.
Rinse peas in a bowl of cold water, allowing debris to float to the top. Remove debris and rinse. In a sauce pot, cover peas with cold water and bay leaf. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, skimming the top of impurities (foam) as needed. Add salt and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Strain and set aside.
Remove cast iron and add 1 tablespoon olive oil to pan, carefully spread out onion and season with ½ teaspoon salt. Put back in the oven for 5-10 minutes or until starting to brown.
Rinse corn under running water, removing any fibers. Remove kernels from the cobs, saving the cobs for your grits, and set aside. Rinse and quarter tomatoes. Combine tomatoes, corn, onions, and peas in a bowl. Mix oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper in a separate bowl and then stir in with the vegetables until everything is evenly coated. Allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
Fry eggs right before serving.
To assemble spoon grits onto the plate and top with pea, corn salad, and sunny egg.
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For the grits:
• 4 cups water
• 3 corn cobs
• 1 bay leaf (optional)
• 2 tablespoons salt
• 1 cup Logan Turnpike grits
Combine water, corn cobs, bay leaf, and salt in a sauce pot over medium heat. Once it comes to a simmer remove cob and set aside. Slowly whisk in grits and turn heat to medium low heat. Once the cob is cool enough to handle run the knife back down the cobs and add any little bits that fall off back into the grits. Continue to stir grits and cook for 30 minutes or until done.
No value assignedSpinach Salad with Vidalia Onion and Sorghum Vinaigrette
For the spinach salad:
• 1/2 bunch spinach
• 1 cup muscadines
• 1 loaf lemon goat cheese
Clean spinach until all soil is removed, spin dry. Rinse muscadines and cut in half removing seeds. Set spinach, muscadines, and cheese aside until ready to assemble.
For the vinaigrette:
• 2 tablespoons oil
• ½ each Vidalia onion, small diced
• 2 tablespoons sorghum (or molasses or maple syrup)
• 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
• Salt and fresh cracked pepper
In a sauté pan heat oil over medium-high heat. Once oil is hot, add onions and continue to cook until caramelized, 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and add all remaining ingredients. Salt and pepper to taste.
For the peanuts:
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 tablespoons curry powder
1 tablespoon salt
• 1 cup peanuts
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit with large cast iron skillet in it. In a bowl combine oil, curry powder and salt. Toss the peanuts in the oil and spice mix. Carefully remove the hot cast iron pan from the oven and add seasoned peanuts. Put back in oven and toast until golden brown.
To assemble the spinach salad:
Combine muscadines, goat cheese, and spinach in bowl. While peanuts and vinaigrette are still warm, pour over spinach and serve.
Corn: 99 cents
Logan Turnpike Grits: $1.60
Fresh peas: $2.99
Cherry tomatoes: $1.10
Vidalia onion: 90 cents
Sorghum syrup: 50 cents
Goat cheese: $2.39
Curry powder: $2.32
*Pantry Items: salt, pepper, mustard, oil, vinegar