Friday, October 29, 2010

Barbecue road trip: B's Barbecue, Greenville, NC

As any barbecue troller knows, the places that look like the least are the ones you hear about most.

B's Barbecue has such a loyal following in Greenville, N.C., that it has its own street - B's Barbecue Road. But although I've managed to visit most of the major 'cue spots in North and South Carolina, B's had eluded me. I stopped there on one barbecue trip years ago: Just my luck, the giant fan that keeps the open-air cookhouse liveable had broken down, so they had shut down early.

I've heard that kind of thing happens a lot. They only make so much barbecue, and when it's gone, it's gone.

On Thursday, I finished up with an assignment near Greenville just before lunch and decided to try my luck again. This time, I pulled up to find cars crammed in the parking lot and along the road (yes, that would be B's Barbecue Road), and smoke puffing from the screen windows in the cookhouse.

B's is about the same inside as you'd expect from the outside. Floors slope, chairs creak, tables are covered with mismatched oil cloth. But it's a friendly place, and all that wear comes honest, from years and years of loyal East Carolina University fans. B's returns the favor with plenty of love for the Pirates.

As for the food, it's dished up steam-table style. You find chicken so rarely in N.C. barbecue places that I went with the combo plate, with slaw, green beans and cornsticks. The chicken was excellent, smoked slowly until it was falling off the bone, with good, chewy skin and sauce with just a touch of sweet. The barbecue was exactly what I expect: Moist, Eastern-style pork, chopped fine, with that pit-cooked flavor that comes from fat dripping on coals.

I should have skipped the green beans and asked to double up on slaw, which was milky with just a little sweetness. But I got plenty of cornsticks: Long and thin to give the maximum crust, they were crunchy with a corn-grittiness that tasted like a stick of grits. (Yes, non-grits fans, some of us like the taste of grits.)

I was glad to finally add B's to my barbecue roster. Maybe I'll find my way back when they're open again someday. Maybe.

B's Barbecue, 751 B's Barbecue Road, Greenville, NC.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Don't miss today's roasted okra recipe

As love/hate foods that divide or unite, okra is right up there with grits and livermush. (Thanks to childhood liver-aversion therapy, I've never learned the trick to loving livermush. But if you struggle with grits, remember that cheese grits are the newbie's training wheels. You're welcome.)

But okra . . . well, okra does have this tendency toward sliminess. It's called roping, and it's as much a part of the okra experience as cornmeal and a frying pan. The roping actually contributes to okra's usefulness as a thickener for dishes like gumbo, when the gooey stuff melds with the roux base to create a velvety texture.

At least, I had always assumed that okra and slime go together. Until two weeks ago, when I was reporting today's story on book-club food. Rhonda Cramer, who was hosting her club's discussion of Michael Polan's "In Defense of Food," mentioned that she would definitely be serving "the amazing roasted okra."

Roasted okra? I've made grilled okra, and fried okra, and I've stirred together my share of gumbos. But roasting okra was new to me. Cramer said she got the technique from a farmer at the Matthews Community Farmers Market. It's amazing, she assured me: It gets as crispy as potato chips, and even non-okraists love it.

At the Charlotte Regional Farmer's Market that Saturday, Dean Mullis had bags of very fresh red okra at his stand. I took a bag home and followed Rhonda's directions: Cut each pod in half lengthwise, from stem to tip. Toss them with a tablespoon or so of olive oil and about a teaspoon of salt (I used coarse kosher salt). Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. You want them to get really dark, almost black.

Result? No slime at all. The pieces get as crispy as potato chips. Even my non-vegetable-loving husband ate them, and my teenage son went nuts over them, fighting for the last bits on the plate.

My checks at the farmers market last weekend showed okra is still abundant. Although smaller pods are better, I had some larger pods in my batch and they worked fine. Their tips curled up like little Persian slippers and they looked very pretty.

Seriously. Non-slimy okra. Who knew?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Willow Bird blogger needs your help

Julie Ruble of Charlotte has a secret identity: She's a fanatical baker who blogs and posts very nice pictures of her decadent creations at

Now Julie has reached the upper level in a national food-blogger contest on Bloggers have to participate in 10 challenges, with bloggers eliminated every week. It's sort of a "Survivor: Kitchen Island." Willow Bird is one of only 100 blogs who have made it to Round 4, and she really needs your votes.

To vote for Julie, you need to sign up (it's free) at, then visit Julie's entry at and click "vote for this entry." This one is on how to make croissants, and the pictures are cute. Deadline to vote in this round is Oct. 14.

I don't think Julie can bake a croissant for everyone who votes, but I'm sure she'd still be very grateful.

Mizuna salad is a taste made for fall

If you're going to grow unusual things, it helps to tell people what to do with them. Kim Shaw of Small City Farms usually has the table right by the door at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. Now that fall greens are coming in, she spends a lot of time explaining what do with them.

On a recent Saturday, she had bags of mizuna, which got puzzled looks. Mizuna is a green with pointed, dagger-shaped leaves. It's not as peppery as arugula, with a light, crispy texture. To head off the questions, Kim was handing out copies of a recipe for a mizuna salad with a cooked dressing of port, dried cranberries, pancetta (unsmoked Italian-style bacon), pecans and goat cheese.

Since I knew I already had the pecans, dried cranberries and goat cheese, I knew I was most of the way to a nice dinner for two. I picked up a single thick slice of pancetta at the Harris Teeter deli, and since I also happened to have a smoked duck breast in the refrigerator, I seared a few slices to serve with the salad. That was a nice luxury touch, but not necessary. If you wanted to turn this salad into a full meal, you could serve it with roasted chicken, or even slices of a pan-sauted bratwurst.

The dressing was so good, you could almost drink it. I liked it so much, I made it again this week. This time, I skipped the pancetta (heresy, I know, but there is life without bacon), browned the shallot and garlic in a little olive oil, and used a splash of the dressing as a sauce over sliced, oven-roasted chicken breast. I know what's going to be my next dinner party salad, as long as the mizuna holds out.

Mizuna Salad With Dried Cranberries, Pecans and Goat Cheese
You'll need about half the dressing for a nice-size bag of greens. You can cut the amounts in half, or refrigerate the rest of it and rewarm it for another night. One other tip: You can toast the pecans in a dry skillet, remove them and then use the skillet to make the finished dressing.
1 1/4 dried cranberries
1/2 cup tawny port
5 ounces pancetta or thick-sliced bacon, diced
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 (5.5-ounce) log of fresh goat cheese, crumbled (I used about 1/4 cup Bosky Acres fresh goat cheese)
1/2 pound mizuna and/or arugula or other crispy greens
1/2 cup pecans, toasted
Combine cranberries and port in a small pan. Bring to a simmer, remove from heat and let stand about 15 minutes, until the cranberries swell and soften a bit.
Saute the pancetta or bacon in a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat until crisp on the outside, about 8 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel.
Add the shallot and garlic to the bacon fat in the skillet and cook about 2 minutes, just until onion starts to soften a little. Add the oil, vinegar and sugar and cook briefly, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the port and cranberries and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. (Can be made in advance. Rewarm before finishing the salad.)
Combine the salad greens and pecans. Rewarm dressing slightly if needed. Add just enough dressing and cranberries to the greens to moisten and toss well. Top with crumbled goat cheese.

Friday, October 8, 2010

What's coming up in food world

  • Get your chili on at the 7th annual Plaza-Midwood/Chantilly Chili Cookoff Saturday. Gates open at noon at 1318 Central Ave., near Sammy's and the Family Dollar. There also will be live bands, a bake sale, a bike show, a raffle and other stuff. $10 gets you a lot of samples, and raises money for Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte. Drink tickets are also available "for a reasonable price," according to the release. Of course, if it's five-alarm chili, "reasonable price" might mean "how much are you willing to pay for a squirt from a fire hose"? Details: or email Nancy Cole at
  • HoneyByrd Sweets is back to making toffee after Howard and Kathryn both were sidelined by health troubles. They won't have their stands at the Charlotte Regional or Matthews Community farmers markets, but they's taking orders for the holdays and offering free shipping. Get the details and the list of candies at
  • Go, Kim Hansen! The Charlotte blogger is a finalist in the Avocado League, an online contest for game-day avocado recipes feature the hometown flavors of the eight finalists. She needs online votes through Oct. 28 to win $5,000 and a year's worth of avocados. Her recipe for Avocado and Cream Sauce is currently in second place, behind Chicago but ahead of that tiny town to our left, Atlanta. To vote and get the recipe, go to
  • Tea fans, it's time to get reservations for the annual Matthews Victorian Christmas Teas, put on by the Matthews Woman's Club at the Historic Reid House in downtown Matthews. The teas are held Dec. 2-5 and include lots of tea-related nibbles. Tickets are $25. You have to call to get one: 704-849-5063.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Finding the secret of Hungarian cucumbers

On a visit to Cleveland last summer, my friend took us to an Irish restaurant for lunch, then told us we had a choice for dinner: Polish, Russian, Slovenian or Hungarian.

Tough choice. We picked Hungarian sort of randomly, and ended up at Balaton in Shaker Square, on a just-warm-enough night with a concert going on in the park across the street. We asked for a little table outside on the sidewalk to take it all in.

To start, we ordered Uborka Salta, Hungarian cucumber salad. It came as wide, shallow bowls with paper-thin cucumbers soaked in a juice that was sweet and vinegary, topped with dollops of sour cream.
It reminded me of the old Southern dish of sliced cucumbers with vinegar that was a staple of my mother's Sunday dinners in summer. But these cucumbers were sliced so thin that you got this amazing crunchiness from the edges of the peel. And the sour cream added a creaminess that balanced the vinegar and sugar in the juice. It was sprinkled with little seeds that popped as you ate, adding even more texture.

When I got back to Charlotte, I dug through my cookbooks, looking for something like it. I never found the exact recipe. But in Craig Claiborne's 1961 "The New York Times Cookbook," I spotted a Sweet Cucumber and Green-Tomato Pickle that had a pickling liquid that I thought might be close.

I got some long, thin cucumbers and pulled out my mandoline, the tool you need when you need paper-thin slices. You can sometimes slice things thin enough with a vegetable peeler, but for a job like this, you really need something like a mandoline or a Japanese Benriner.

I heated a mixture of cider vinegar, sugar, salt and mustard seed, cooled it just slightly and poured it over the sliced cucumbers, then chilled it. At dinner, I topped the cucumbers with sour cream and a light sprinkling of mustard seeds. And I tasted success: Re-creating a recipe is sometimes impossibly elusive. But this time, I nailed it on the first try.

The cucumbers kept beautifully in the refrigerator for weeks, ready whenever I needed some small dish of something to round out a meal.

It was getting so late in the season that I thought it was too late to share this cooking adventure. But at the Charlotte Regional Farmer's Market on Saturday, Maria Fisher of Fisher Farms had a huge box of heirloom-variety cucumbers she was selling for Tega Hills Farm. There were green ones and white ones, small ones and large ones.

So I got the chance to make it again. I sprinkled on a little fresh dill, just because I had some handy, but you don't really need it. With the sweet/sour/creaminess, it seems like a perfect transitional dish to add to fall meals.

Sort-Of Hungarian Cucumbers

Heavily adapted from "The New York Times Cookbook," by Craig Claiborne.

1 to 2 cucumbers, preferably fairly thin ones with smaller seeds

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup cider vinegar

3 teaspoons mustard seed, divided

1/4 cup sour cream

Leave the peel on the cucumbers. Trim off the stem and root ends. Slice the cucumbers very thinly, preferably using a mandoline or a very sharp slicer. They should be thin enough to see through them, between 1/16th and 1/8th inch thick if your slicer has a dial to set the size.

Combine the salt, sugar, vinegar and 2 teaspoons mustard seed in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring, and heat just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let stand a few minutes, until it's still very warm but not boiling hot.

Pour over the cucumbers. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours; they'll keep for several weeks.

To serve, spoon cucumbers out of the juice with a slotted spoon into a serving dish. Top with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of mustard seed.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Serious eating with

Taking a visitor out to lunch is one thing. Taking New York's Ed Levine out to lunch ought to be titled "Eats, Shoots and Leaves."

In the food writing world, Levine is one of the smart guys who makes the rest of us pay attention. He's a book author ("Pizza: A Slice of Heaven" and "The Young Man and the Sea," with chef David Pasternak, among others) and he used to write occasionally for The New York Times. He has an almost goofy love of anything that smacks of authenticity in food.

In 2006, back when the rest of us were still figuring out how to spell "blog," Ed came up with the idea for a very cool Web site called, which would pull together smart people who were posting all over the Web. He swears he had no idea what he was doing, but it worked. Today, it's a must-check stop in my daily Internet reading.

His experiment has done so well, he has a staff - "with paid health insurance," he says with pride - and now there's a book coming out on Serious Eats food finds all around the country.

Ed came through Charlotte on Friday to start a quick trip through North Carolina for book research. He was bound for Lexington, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. But first he wanted to do a little Charlotte exploring, so I agreed to play tour guide. His stated aims: Fried chicken and banana pudding. I love a man who knows what he wants.

Just before 11 a.m., we pushed through the door at Price's Chicken Coop and ordered up fried chicken, gizzards and cups of very sweet tea. We spread out on the trunk of my car in the parking lot while I did my best to explain the makeup of the SouthEnd neighborhood and the importance of crushed ice in a great cup of sweet tea.

Ed has chronicled his attempts to reconcile weight gain with the life of a food writer, and he is disciplined enough to only pick at his food. I had to save him from making the mistake of closing the Price's box without trying a thigh. He leaned forward to crunch through that crispy skin and erupting juice and made a very happy noise.

"That thigh," he admitted later, "was pretty transcendant."

We jumped back in the car and raced up North Tryon to the Chicken Box, another favorite of mine. His verdict: Great hush puppies, really good fried chicken. Different from the Price's chicken, he decided, but good. Before we could leave, he took pictures of the red rugs on the floor with the Chicken Box Cafe logos. "I just love rugs in restaurants. Don't you?" Actually, that's one aspect of food I had never noticed.

For the banana pudding, we went back downtown to Savor Cafe on Morehead Street. He seemed very happy with the banana pudding -- "so much real banana flavor" -- and the Coca-Cola Cake, but he was fascinated by the Open Kitchen across the street.

He kept admiring the colorful retro look of the place and reading the sign out loud: "The Home of the Pizza Pie." Before we could drive back to my office, we had to pull into the parking lot so he could shoot a picture and run inside for a peek and a menu.

In his heart, that's what Ed really loves in food. It isn't the latest star chef or the most precious bite. It's the real. The real is what he thinks is the best thing about food in America right now. As the economy staggers, what survives is what really makes people happy.

"People recognize places that feel good and are real and have good food," he said over a few careful spoonfuls of banana pudding. "There's more good stuff than bad stuff right now. Food culture in America isn't museum culture. It's a vibrant, living thing."

Creating Serious Eats, he says, has been a blast because it let him find a lot of young, creative people who are crazy in love with food. At 59, he's created a business that lets these young people dig into a whole new way of writing.

"They're eating chicken, they have paid health insurance and they're 25," he said, laughing. "I don't know what they're going to do in the future, but for now, it's pretty great."