Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Things I Like: Chapel Hill

IMG_0006Last weekend, I was lucky enough to be invited with my co-author to teach a KEEPERS cooking class at Southern Season in Chapel Hill. It was my first visit to North Carolina, which is surprising because I have long had an affinity for the South. My favorite author is Eudora Welty, and secretly I’ve always wished I’d been raised south of the Mason-Dixon, just so I could claim some of its rich heritage (and the accent and the pimento cheese sandwiches) as my own. I’ve also never in my life met anyone as sincerely nice as the people I’ve met in the South (with the exception of one harrowing incident years ago, when Tim and I attended a friend’s wedding in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and were harassed by the local police force for being “a bunch of Yankees”…it’s a long story).

From Charleston to Savannah, New Orleans to Atlanta, I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how incredibly friendly everyone is to perfect strangers, which I guess is a product of good-breeding and geographical pride. Perhaps the fact that I’m from New Jersey has something to do with the shock I feel every time someone is nice to me for no apparent reason. Once, during a food festival dinner at Miller Union in Atlanta (a terrific restaurant that you should go to if you have a chance to visit), I hovered by the wall during cocktail hour, not knowing a single soul and expecting to spend the entire evening as a shunned interloper (which is basically what would have happened if this scenario occurred in New York City). But literally, within minutes of my arrival, a lovely couple came over and asked me who I was, where I was from, what did I do; and within minutes they had introduced me to everyone they knew, and they all scooped me up in their southern embrace of genuine interest and loveliness. We’re all friends on Facebook now.

IMG_0032Which all goes to explain why I was expecting a warm and delicious reception by the Tar Heel State, and they did not disappoint in the slightest. Before and after our class, Kathy and I plotted a course of Southern eating, aided by our good friend Kelly Alexander. Kelly is a former Saveur colleague, food writer extraordinaire, and Chapel Hill denizen, who literally knows everyone in town. Here she is with the owner/chef of famed Crook’s Corner during our epic Sunday morning breakfast visit (and I want his t-shirt):
IMG_0946And here’s what we ate:

IMG_0034Shrimp and Grits—known as the best in town but I might argue that it’s the best in the universe.

IMG_0008Jalapeno-cheddar hushpuppies. This was our breakfast appetizer…I mean…I’m still dreaming about them.

IMG_0947Peach gravy! This is one of the chef’s specialties, which he gave me a sample of when I told him I’d never had a peach and meat gravy before. He said it’s only supposed to be a seasonal item, but the regulars demand that he keeps it on the menu. Fully understandable request.

IMG_0027 While we were in Chapel Hill, fellow magazine food editor Dana Bowen tipped us off to the miraculous Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen, which is essentially a drive-thru biscuit place. Have you every heard of anything more wonderful than that? Although, our friend Kelly said it became an extremely dangerous temptation when she was pregnant with her second son…she had to have extreme willpower to hit the Sunset only once a week. I don’t think I would have exerted the same amount of willpower. Funnily enough, on the menu (which lists ever imaginable indulgent biscuit-sandwich filling from fried chicken to bacon and cheese) they list kale as one of the filling options. Needless we didn’t order the kale, we ordered our biscuit stuffed with country ham…
IMG_0018 IMG_0019We enjoyed these egg and country ham biscuit sandwiches from inside our rental car, with a view of the parking lot and a group of co-ed acapella singers from William and Mary (name: the “Cleftomaniacs”), who were also enjoying a roadside biscuit breakfast. My only regret? I didn’t go back before my flight home for a bag of biscuits to take with me (that would have been the pro-move), because no one in New Jersey makes biscuits like the ones at Sunrise Kitchen. Now I’m sad and hungry.

IMG_0024The one thing I had to have on this trip was North Carolina BBQ, which, for those of you who do not spend your waking hours contemplating BBQ culture, is distinct from other forms of regional BBQ because the sauce is vinegar-based, which is exactly how I like it. We were directed by Kelly to go to Allen & Son, which is literally a roadside shack (isn’t that where all good BBQ is made?), located not far from the UNC campus. The first thing we ordered was a big pitcher of sweet tea (see up top); which I only enjoy get to enjoy when I’m in the South (my favorite sweet tea is the one served at Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room in Savannah).
IMG_0009I ordered the pulled pork (which is wood-smoked out back), slaw, and yes, more hushpuppies. I was very generous with the sauce dispenser and another regret is that I didn’t ask to purchase a bottle for home. Not only was the meal everything you dream eastern North Carolina BBQ should be—smoky, tangy, with a tinge of peppery heat—but the actor William Dafoe was having lunch only a few gingham-clothed tables away from us. Bonus.

I also enjoyed two wonderful restaurant dinners which, I would feature more prominently in this post, but since they were enjoyed at night, the lighting was less than optimal, so the photos are not the best. So keep that in mind! Our first night we went to Lantern, Andrea Reusing’s famed Southern-Asian-farm to table restaurant in the heart of Chapel Hill. We basically ordered the entire appetizer menu (and were given some generous additional plates to try, courtesy of the kitchen), which included salt and pepper shrimp with fried jalapenos, Vietnamese-style NC crab and pork spring rolls, black mushroom and cabbage dumplings, crispy local okra, and these NC oysters topped with yuzu creme fraiche and roeIMG_0030On my last night in town, I went with Kelly to Mateo, a tapas restaurant near the Duke campus in downtown Durham. Through the blur of several Ferdinands—a bourbon cocktail with ginger-apple shrub and ginger beer—I fondly remember all of the small plates: NC littleneck clams with sherry, garlic, ham and boiled peanuts; shrimp with green tomatoes; and in particular the Huevo Diablo, a riff on the deviled egg (clearly one of my favorite things to eat…see the name of this blog) that was encased in a crispy layer of chorizo…
IMG_0011It was a phenomenally decadent handheld dish, made perfect by the company, the bourbon, and the pulsating soundtrack. Will I ever stop falling hard for the South? I don’t think so.

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Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Food for Thought: Bees Are Magic

IMG_0591I’m of the belief that honey can cure just about whatever ails you. Raw, unfiltered, creamed. Tupelo, orange blossom, clover. I consume it all, in particular on a day like today, when I’m home sick with a hybrid of bronchitis and walking pneumonia (feel free to send chicken soup…extra noodles).  To deal with my little illness I splurged on Manuka honey, which costs almost as much as a white truffle on the black market, but it’s healing properties are well documented (and it tastes better than Robitussin).

IMG_0005My devoutness to the cult of the bee began about seven years ago when I was an editor at Saveur. There were two assignments that really woke me up to not only the plight of the bee (which is currently very much in the news, as it should be), but also how truly magical and necessary they are to our everyday lives.

The first assignment was when I edited a review of three terrific books (some of which are now out of print, but fortunately still available on Amazon, I’ve included links below) that covered everything from bee culture and bee lore, to bees in science and agriculture. From reading those books book I learned several things:

*That a third of our food supply relies on pollination by bees, many of whom travel via truck across country—like professional hives-for-hire—to pollinate crops.

*That the invention of the first box hive containing moveable shelves occurred in the 19th century, and this was important because it allowed honey and honey to be harvested without killing the bees.

*And that Virgil and Aristotle thought that honey fell from heaven. Cool, right?

Not long after I read these books, I went to New Zealand and met an amazing woman who had been a pilot and architect before opening a honey business. She not only managed hives that produced honey and other bee products for her to sell at her store, but ran a cafe where every dish contained honey, and also had a learning facility devoted to bees (she also claimed that a regular diet of bee pollen and royal jelly helped cure her of cancer). Since then I have been prone to include honey often in my cooking—as a sweetener in homemade granola, marinades, vinaigrettes and even instead of sugar for my coffee, a trick I picked up when I went to Savannah Bee. 

My newest favorite way to eat from the bee comes from my latest restaurant crush—Buvette in NYC. I can wax on about the perfection of this cozy, chic, French resto for hours (and if you can’t make it to New York City anytime soon, there’s also THIS beautiful cookbook); but instead, I’ll just share the marvel that is their breakfast toast of thick walnut-cranberry bread, slathered with melted butter and then liberally sprinkled with bee pollen. I would never have thought of doing this before, but now it seems like all my toast must be sliced thickly, slathered generously and topped healthfully with bee pollen (Side note: the novel pictured alongside my Buvette toast is hilarious and you should read it).

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I also now add pollen to my morning yogurt (see heart dish above), along with chopped honeycrisp apples, toasted walnuts, a drizzle of honey, maybe some toasted coconut…it’s a morning cavalcade of goodness. For the kids, particularly before a sports practice, I’ve been slicing a banana into discs then drizzling with honey and sprinkling with cinnamon. With all the honey consumption that is going on in my house, I’ve even considered keeping my own hive…don’t tell my husband. But until then, I’ll keep spreading the word of the honey bee’s goodness and hopefully we can all keep them around for a very long time to come.

BEE LITERATURE:

Letters from the Hive by Stephen Buchman

Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop

Sweetness & Light by Hattie Lewis

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Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Upgrading the Pizza Bagel

Pickett.bagelLast Sunday night I was in a bit of a crunch for dinner—we had hockey practice until 7 o’clock and truth be told, I hadn’t really thought about what we were going to eat until we were basically in the car on the way home (the pro-move would have been to prepare a pot of turkey chili ahead of time and had it simmering on the stove waiting for us, but unfortunately half of my head is still in summer mode, when I could still toss a salad, throw burgers on the grill, and call it a night). When we arrived home—tired, sweaty, cranky—I had a few minutes to figure something out before my family began a rebellion. That’s when I remembered the dozen bagels I had bought that morning for breakfast. A-ha! Like a flash it hit me: I would make pizza bagels for dinner. Fresh, hot, pizza bagels on a Sunday night after a sporting practice inside of an ice dome, what could be better?

At first, my brilliant idea was met with skepticism (note: just because you’ve written and published a cookbook, doesn’t meant your family will buy into every food whimsy you throw at them). Their response went something like this:

Conor: “What’s a pizza bagel?”

Me: “It’s pizza. On a bagel.”

Conor: “I’ve never heard of it.”

Me: “It’s basically your two favorite things, combined.”

Conor: “I don’t like it.”

Me: “You’ve never had one before!”

Conor: “Bagels are supposed to have jam and butter on them, not pizza.”

Belle was more enthusiastic about the pizza bagel because she’s game for anything covered in melted cheese, but there remained some grumbling in the background:

“Pizza bagel? For dinner?”

At this point I was now determined to prove the worth of a pizza bagel. I decided to not only create the most delicious pizza bagel that ever existed, but to make it dinner-worthy. Luckily there were a few necessary elements that I happened to have on hand:

A batch of homemade tomato sauce that I had made earlier in the week with enough leftover for a second meal. Shredded mozzarella. Fresh basil. Pecorino. These were the basic building-blocks. From there it helps to have a few other ingredients to begin your “elevation plan”: Mushrooms and onions (caramelized over low heat in a pan with some olive oil), pancetta (chopped and crisped in a pan), prosciutto (slices layered on top), black olives (sliced and sprinkled on top), pesto (one of my favorite pizza toppings, along with big dollops of ricotta)…any of these can be used as a topping or placed on the table for everyone to help themselves. In my case, I had a bunch of rainbow chard in the crisper, leftover from my CSA. I was able to prepare the chard in the same time that it took to bake the bagels: Remove the leaves from the stems and roughly chop, slice the ribs about a 1/4 inch. Cook the sliced garlic and red pepper flakes over medium heat in olive oil until fragrant, then add the sliced ribs and saute until softened. Add the chopped leaves and cook until wilted. Season with salt and pepper. I wish this photo was better but just so you get the idea:

photoAs for preparing the bagel: I find that it’s best to use a good-quality bagel (so not the doughy, supermarket variety; try and get a bagel shop bagel if you can). I used a combination of everything-bagel and plain bagels (onion, garlic, salt, poppy seed, or sesame would all be good): Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Slice the bagels in half and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or tin foil (to help with clean-up). If you have a cooling rack then I recommend placing that on the baking sheet and the bagels on top, which will prevent the bottom from getting soggy. Top each bagel with some tomato sauce then a liberal sprinkling of cheese (I used mozzarella and goat cheese the other night, but if you’re using goat then allow it to soften at room temperature and then add on top of the sauce after baking the bagel, same with ricotta). If you want to add cooked toppings like mushrooms, onion, or crisp pancetta, then I’d recommend nestling them between the sauce and cheese layers; raw ingredients like prosciutto and black olives can go on after baking. Top the cheese with a drizzle of olive oil and then bake for about 10 minutes (you want to the bagel to get a little crisp and the cheese to melt). Tear your basil leaves and sprinkle on top; serve with your selected toppings so everyone can help themselves.

P.S:I love this idea not only for the weeknight meal but if you’re ever having a posse of kids over, say for a sleepover, it’s a fun way to get them fed without dialing in for pizza…again. It also saves time when making dough from scratch is just not an option.

 

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Thursday, September 25th, 2014

The Forgotten Meal

IMG_0131If someone asks you to name all of the meals of the day, I’m assuming that you’ll say: “breakfast, lunch and dinner“. If you’re fancy, you might throw in afternoon tea. If you’re a hobbit, you’ll include second breakfast. Interstitial-nibbling and habits of the Shire aside, it’s the trifecta of morning, midday, and evening meals that we all know and recognize. But I’m here to put a pin in that inflated myth, because if you have a child, or have yourself ever been a child (I’m guessing you have), then you know what happens between arrival home from school and actual dinnertime: Ravenous eating, pantry-raiding, cookie jar emptying, fridge strafing consumption. What I have christened: The Forgotten Meal.

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Here is Belle enjoying a forgotten meal after arriving home at the end of the school day (along with our new puppy Lulu, aka the reason why I haven’t been posting with any regularity for the last couple of weeks, because most of my time is spent preventing her from pooping in the house–more on her later!). Belle has been known to polish off an entire apple crisp within minutes of arriving home from the bus. I’m not joking. The child is hungry when she gets home; and not only that, several days a week she has swimming practice and dance class, so it’s basically crucial that she get something in her belly before these activities start. Something satisfying, filling, healthful, and tasty, that does not require cooking. Basically not a Hot Pocket.

As a kid, my forgotten meals were pretty helter-skelter… In elementary school, I recall eating a lot of Mallomars at my grandparents house—which is where I went most days after school because my parents were at work. In middle-school, I was lucky enough to have a friend whose dad owned the best deli in New Jersey (Town Hall in South Orange!), which was also serendipitously on our route home. We would stop in everyday and Mr. Burdorf would give each girl in the walking posse the thick heel from a loaf of rye bread slathered in soft butter, along with a giant dill pickle, which we would happily consume on the way home. In high school, I recall a lot of scrambling for enough change to buy a slice of pizza on the way to field hockey practice (note: owning a pizzeria anywhere near a high school is a brilliant business move), but the rest of the year, my girlfriend Radhika and I would come to my house after school and make her version of a Taco Salad, which was basically vegetarian junk food: Shredded iceberg lettuce topped with a drained can of red beans, chopped tomato and cucumber, crushed tortilla chips, and shredded cheddar cheese, all drowned in bottled French dressing. Although oddly satisfying (don’t knock it ’till you try it), this forgotten meal was more of a teenage-level preparation; for the elementary-or middle school ages kid, a salad is not going to cut it.

So what do I think is the ideal Forgotten Meal? It’s a sliceable loaf or bread that’s full of fruits or something savory (typically made with a combination of buttermilk, eggs, and butter, perhaps with some chocolate chips stirred in): Banana bread. Zucchini bread. Lemon loaves. Pumpkin bread. I make them all.

IMG_0156Our favorite in the rotation right now is a banana loaf from a cookbook I’ve raved about before: Breakfast, Lunch, Tea by Rose Carrarini, founder and chef of Rose Bakery in Paris. Her book is full of wonderful loaves, cakes, and breads, but the banana is truly a masterpiece. I deliberately allow a bunch of bananas to go overripe (TIP: you probably already know this but if not: soft, brown spot-mottled bananas make for the sweetest, moistest banana bread) each week, just so I can make the Rose Bakery banana bread for our Forgotten Meal. I typically make two of them at a time because they go so fast (and also frequently gets consumed for breakfast as well). I also like to play with the recipe, like adding dark chocolate chips (TIP: if you toss the chips with a little bit of flour first, so that they’re lightly coated, they’re less likely to sink to the bottom of the loaf while baking, and instead stay evenly distributed throughout…something I neglected to do with the loaf pictured up top) and substituting almond flour or whole wheat flour for some of the all purpose flour (about 1/4 of the amount asked for).

IMG_0141Here are recipes for some of my favorite breads and loaves that will hopefully get you over the chasm between arrival home and dinner. And if you have your own favorite forgotten meal recipe–please share!

Zucchini Bread

Olive Oil Cake

Carrot Cake

Pumpkin Spice Loaf

Lemon Loaf

Banana Bread

Gluten-Free Banana Cupcakes

*Bonus: Interesting article on the global appeal of banana breads

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Friday, September 12th, 2014

So it begins…

IMG_0043It’s easy to get cocky the first week back to school. Coming off the summer months, well-rested and pumped with vitamin D, I begin to forget what last June looked and felt like (dusty lunchboxes, forgotten homework, despair) and look forward to the return of the school year routine: The busyness (so many things to do!), the atmosphere (piles of fallen leaves at the bus stop), the freedom (the kids are away learning stuff while I sit here typing next to a snoozing dog). Which is not to say I haven’t screwed up already…

Just 20 minutes before the arrival of the school bus on Monday morning, Conor looked up at me (as I drank my third cup of coffee and stared out the window) and said, “aren’t you supposed to be riding the bus today?”

Frickin’ frick!

Yes, I had completely forgotten that I’d volunteered to help with weepy Kindergartners on that morning’s bus route. Don’t worry. I made it (with enough time to put a bra on) and all the Kindergartners arrived safely, if still a little weepy.

Forgetful hiccup aside, this joie de Septembre even extends to meal time. Meals composed of town pool snack bar offerings and backyard hot dogs are all fine and dandy, but the time comes to sit back down at a table, eat a meal with utensils, and make conversation. Of course I KNOW that come week #2 of back-to-school (yes, my kids go back to school later than everyone else on the planet) the drudgery will set in. Soccer practices will run late, homework assistance will be needed, it will be 5 o’clock and the chicken is nowhere near marinated.  But until then, I’m going to ride this wave of blissed-out beginnings. I’m also not going to try and knock anything out of the park; which leads me to what I think is the simplest and most satisfying dish you can ever make for a family weeknight meal: Pasta with Tomato Sauce.

It’s a classic meal that appeals to everyone, no matter what kind of family you’re feeding— from a passel of picky children to your on-a-budget roommate. It’s fast. It’s comforting. It’s filling. You can add meatballs but you don’t really don’t have to. A generous grating of pecorino is all you really need.

So my gift to you this back-to-school season is the 10-Minute version from KEEPERS, which I make time and time again, including already once this week. One of my favorite anecdotes about this dish is from a mom-friend with three boys, who had never before made tomato sauce from scratch until she made this version for her family. It’s now in her regular rotation and, even better, one of her boys asks for it by the name: “mommy’s sauce”.

SPAGHETTI WITH 10-MINUTE BASIC TOMATO SAUCE

SERVES 4 TO 6

If you normally rely on jarred tomato sauces, here are five reasons to make this sauce instead the next time spaghetti is on the menu: It’s fresher tasting, preservative-free, less expensive, requires only basic pantry items, and takes barely any more effort or time.

We find the quality of canned whole tomatoes is generally better and more consistent than the crushed version, so we usually buy the former. Caroline crushes them into the pan using her hands; Kathy prefers to crush them against the bottom of the pan with a potato masher. Either way, pierce them first to avoid spurts and remove any hard cores. Sometimes canned tomatoes can be very acidic; if you find this to be the case when you taste the sauce, add a pinch of sugar.

Salt

1 pound spaghetti

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for finishing the dish

2 large garlic cloves, minced

One 28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes

Handful of basil leaves, roughly torn (optional)

Freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese

-Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and season it generously with salt; it should taste like seawater. When it returns to a boil, add the pasta, quickly stir to separate the noodles, then cover the pot. When the water returns to a boil again, uncover and boil the pasta until al dente, stirring occasionally.

- Meanwhile, in a large high-sided sauté pan, heat the oil, garlic, and 2 large pinches of salt over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is fragrant and just starting to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices, crushing the tomatoes with your hands or a potato masher (see note above). Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until you can draw a line through it with a wooden spoon and it doesn’t fill in immediately, 5 to 7 minutes. The sauce should be light and fresh tasting, so don’t let it cook down too much. Check the seasonings (it should taste a little salty) and set aside.

- When the pasta is ready, drain it, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water, then pour the noodles on top of the tomato sauce. Add a little more oil and toss to combine over medium heat. If the pasta looks dry, add some of the cooking water. Check the seasonings, add the basil (if using), and serve with the cheese.

Tip: Once you know how to make a basic tomato sauce, you can easily turn out a number of variations, including Spicy Tomato-Cream Sauce (opposite page); puttanesca (add some minced anchovy fillets with the garlic and capers and chopped olives with the tomatoes); and Amatriciana (cook some chopped bacon or pancetta and then onion before the garlic and add a generous amount of black pepper and crushed red pepper flakes). You can also cook the basic sauce down a little more and use it on pizza.

TIP: If you prefer a smooth sauce rather than a chunky one, instead of crushing the tomatoes, puree them with a handheld blender (right in the can, if you like and are careful).

 

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