Friday, December 23, 2011

One Great . . . New Year's Day soup

Yes, I'm superstitious: I would never consider passing the first day of the year without eating collards, black-eyed peas and a little hog jowl. Some people say the peas represent coins and the collards represent money. My Georgia-born parents used to tease us that if you're eating poor people's food by choice, it's a sign that you're doing pretty good.

Whatever. Given the current economy, I don't intend to take a chance.

I was looking around through this year's crop of new cookbooks when I spotted this in "A New Turn in the South," by Hugh Acheson. Acheson is the chef of the restaurants Five and Ten and The National in Athens, Ga., and Empire State South in Atlanta. But these days, he's probably more famous as the chef with the unibrow on "Top Chef Masters" and a regular judge on "Top Chef."

If you want to adhere strictly to tradition, you could swap the mustard greens for collards, but you'll need to add them earlier, probably when you add the peas. The recipe is a little longer than we usually use for One Great, but you can simplify things and use a mix for the cornbread.

Field Pea, Ham Hock & Mustard Green Soup
From "A New Turn in the South," by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, $35).

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup minced sweet onion
1/2 cup diced carrot
1 stalk celery, minced
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup dried black-eyed peas
6 cups chicken stock (low-sodium if canned)
1 smoked ham hock, about 1 pound
1 batch of cornbread, baked and cooled
2 tablespoons bacon fat
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 cups chopped mustard greens
1 cup chopped tomato
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil

Place a 4- to 6-quart pot over medium heat and melt the butter. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the garlic, black-eyed peas, chicken stock and ham hock. Cook until the peas are tender, about 1 hour. Skim occasionally to remove any white bean matter that rises to the top.

Cut the cornbread into 1/2-inch-by-1/2-inch cubes while the soup is cooking. Heat the bacon fat in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the cubes and toast until crisp, cooking in batches if needed. Cool on a large plate.

Remove the ham hock and let stand until cool enough to handle. Remove the meat from the bone, coarsely chop and return to the pot. Add the thyme, mustard greens, tomato and salt to the soup. Cook 10 minutes longer. Drizzle each serving with a few drops of vinegar and a dash of olive oil, and garnish with a few cornbread croutons.

Yield: Serves 6 with leftovers.

Polka Dot's Sweet Potato Chips get kudos

Cupcakes aren't the only thing cooking at Polka Dot Bake Shop in Charlotte. The bakery's Sweet Potato Crackers have been picked as Paula's Hidden Gem for the January/February issue of the magazine Cooking With Paula Deen.

The crackers are made with real sweet potatoes (N.C.-grown, of course). They're available in five flavors (yes, they're all sweet potato, but some have spices too) and are Star-K kosher-certified, as well as dairy- and nut-free. The black-pepper flavor is gluten-free, too.

The suggested retail price is $5.99 for a 5-ounce package. They're available at the bakery, 1730 E. Woodlawn Road in the Park Towne Village (the shopping center at the top of the steep hill), and also at Reid's Fine Foods, Earth Fare and Fresh Market stores.


Check out our new Food Facebook page

Ah, the last days of the year, when the bosses stay home and you can actually get a few things done.

One of the things on my to-do list was fixing up a new Facebook page for The Observer's food coverage. It seems like every time I try to figure out the best way to use Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg changes the whole darn thing. Since Mr. Zuckerberg is apparently on kicked back on a Bermuda beach with my bosses, maybe the coast is clear.

So now we have Observer Food, with links to our coverage but also links to any other good food stories I see out there. Click on over to and "like" us if you like. I'll try to keep Mr. Zuckerberg busy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Charlotte-Douglas improves in healthy airports list

If you're taking wing for the holidays, you might have a better chance of getting a healthful bite to eat before you leave Charlotte-Douglas. According to study released today by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Charlotte's airport had made the most improvement since last year, with a 9 point increase in the number of restaurants offering a healthful option.

Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport improved 8 points, so its now one place up from the bottom. Denver International Airport fell six points.

Best and worst? The airport with the most options for healthful is Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. And the worst: Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport, gained a point but still landed in last place.

Check out the full list of 15 airports and how they rank here.

What's the best cooking videos? Think Epic

My college-age son introduced me to EpicMealTime, the head-achingly manic YouTube cooking series. Basically, a bunch of guys make things with over-the-top fat and calorie counts. This involves harsh language, yelling and uses of Baconators that nature never intended.

So which five cooking/food-related videos were viewed the most often on YouTube in 2011?

1. EpicMealTime. 12.6 million views for "TurBaconEpic Thanksgiving," in which our boys make a turducken wrapped in bacon, cook it, then roll it in a suckling pig and wrap it in more bacon and smoke it. And eat it.
2. EpicMealTime, "Showdown at Awesome," 1.9 million views. The boys have a run-in with the Barely Political comedy team on the streets of New York for Super Bowl Sunday and force them to eat an Epic-designed sandwich.
4. An EpicMealTime parody called Healthy Mealtime, viewed 1.85 million times.
5. The Vegan Black Metal Chef's Pad Thai episode, viewed 1.7 million times. (I'm still envious that a food editor I know in Florida got to interview the real Vegan Black Metal Chef.)

No, I didn't skip No. 3. That was the only actual cooking video, an oddity in which someone makes gummy marshmallow candies from the Popin' Cookin' Gummy Land Kit.

Here are the links, courtesy of YouTube. Watch/listen at your own risk, and try not to picture Julia Child hooting with disgust. (If I had to pick a favorite, I'd go with 2, which actually does have funny moments.)

1. EpicMealTime:
2. EpicMealTime Vs. Awesome:
3. Gummy Candy:
4. Healthy Meal Time:
5. Vegan Black Metal Chef Pad Thai:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Food fans, can you spare some love for Raleigh?

It pains us to acknowledge that Charlotte isn't on Southern Living's list of the 10 Tastiest Towns in the South. Although we are in good company, because the magazine from Birmingham managed to put their own town on the list while dissing a lot of candidates. (No Asheville? No Durham? No Oxford, Miss., for heavens sake?)

But Raleigh, our own state capitol, is on the list. And as much as it pains us to direct gustatory fame toward the only city in Eastern N.C. without a legitimate claim to great barbecue, we can help a sister city out. So . . .

On Friday, you can vote for Raleigh out of 10 candidates for tastiest city in the South. Far be it from us to suggest that Charleston, S.C., probably has a better claim on the title. The 10 cities in the running: Baltimore, Houston, Birmingham, Lafayette, La. (good candidate there), Charleston, Louisville, Charlottesville, Va., New Orleans (OK, they might have a good bite of food or two), Decatur, Ga., and Raleigh.

Go here to read the details and get ready to vote: Vote Raleigh. May the best home of the Roast Grill win.

Monday, December 19, 2011

One Great . . . slow cooker stew

The title "The French Slow Cooker" almost sounds redundant. After all, French country cooking brought us things like boeuf bourginon and coq au vin, long before Crock Pot thought about sticking a plug in a Dutch oven.

But that just makes Michele Scicolone's new book even more useful: A slow cooker is a natural combined with recipes like Soupe au Pistou and Bourride.

On a recent winter night, I went the bargain route, grabbing a package of country-style pork ribs and putting together dinner before leaving for work in the morning. We served it over creamy polenta (cornmeal whisked into half water and half milk), but mashed potatoes would do just as well.

Pork Ribs Hunter-Style
"The French Slow Cooker," by Michele Sciolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

3 pounds country pork ribs, cut into individual ribs
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 (8-ounce) can tomato puree
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence (it's not exactly the same, but if you don't have them, use a sprinkle of dried thyme, rosemary, marjoram and sage)
Pinch of ground allspice
8 to 10 ounces white button mushrooms, halved or quartered (I added some shiitake caps because I had them)

Pat the ribs dry with paper towels. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add as many ribs as will fit in the pan without touching. Cook them in batches, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 20 minutes total. Place in a large slow cooker. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Add the onions and cook 10 minutes, or until tender. Stir in the tomato puree, garlic, tomato paste, herbs and allspice. Bring to a simmer, stirring well.

Scrape into the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low heat for 8 hours, until meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. About 30 minutes before serving, stir in the mushrooms, re-cover and continue cooking. Discard any loose bones and skim off the fat.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What's Christmas dinner for you?

Vote in our poll on Facebook:

Christmas dinner poll

Charlotte food news: What's coming up

What's coming up, going on or taking off in Charlotte food in the next few days:

  • Get your farmer's market food shopping done this Saturday: Several markets, including Atherton in Southend, the Matthews Community Farmer's Market and the Davidson Market, are closed Dec. 24 for Christmas Eve. UPDATE: The Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, 1801 Yorkmont Road, will be open Dec. 24 until 2 p.m., although some farmers have already announced they won't be there that day. Manager Frank Suddreth says the market also will be open Dec. 31, although it might close early.
  • Get your latkes on, Saturday at the Atherton Market, 2104 South Blvd. Bill Averbach of the popular Pickleville stand, will do a command demonstration of last year's latke cooking demonstration, at 10 a.m. and noon. Get your food shopping done: The market will be closed next Saturday for Christmas Eve.
  • If you're looking for food gifts with a local flavor, the Harvest Moon Grille at the Dunhill, 237 N. Tryon St., is running a mini-holiday market from noon to 6:30 p.m. weekdays until Dec. 23. Look for things like bacon brittle, biscotti, pepper or raspberry jam, sausage, molasses-brined smoked ham and more.

Gotta, wanna, needa Bojangles app?

Yes, the advance of technology has brought us to this: Bojangles has a free app for iPhone and iPad. "It's BO Time" includes BO time alerts, a restaurant locator and most importantly: Digital cornhole. You can find it at the App Store online.

Now, the Bo Alerts sound kind of interesting. Apparently, you can set them to send invitations to your friends to meet you at a specific Bojangles, and when it goes off, it makes the sound of a stomach growling. I could see that having its uses.

But what really captured my imagination is the idea of digital cornhole. Wouldn't it be cool if you could combine a game of Bo 'Hole with Angry Birds? If you win, you could get the birds plucked and fried. Who's angry now, Tweetie?

For that, I might actually buy an iPhone.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Meryl/Julia/Margaret: The Iron Lady Chef

Start your Thursday off on a cheery note. Thanks to for pointing out this video mashup, a trailer for an imaginary movie that asks the question: What if Meryl Streep played Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher in the same movie? Yes, it's "The Iron Chef."

If nothing else, I have a new rallying cry for 2012: "Where there is discord, may we bring BUTTER."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cookbook giveaway: Party time

Remember the giveaway for "The Happy Table of Eugene Walter"? We asked for recipes for very simple appetizers for party season in exchange for entering you in the giveaway.

The party appetizers run tomorrow in the Food section, so that means it's time to give away Mr. Walter. For those who aren't familiar with the late Eugene Walter, he was as much raconteur as writer. A food writer who was born and later returned to Mobile, Ala., he spent the time in between in Italy and in New York, where he became known for his love of and writing about Southern food. If you know the Time-Life American cooking series, Walter wrote the Southern food entry.

"The Happy Table" is a rescued manuscript of all alcohol-related recipes that was printed this year by UNC Press in Chapel Hill.

So who wins it? That would be Catherine Carlisle of Pinehurst, who shared a very simple stuffed mushroom recipe that's in tomorrow's party story. Congratulations, Catherine. Go celebrate.

One Great . . . classic winter vegetable

A big pile of very fresh, very leafy Swiss chard grabbed my attention at a farmers market recently. It's already far enough into winter that green is starting to stand out.

The great thing about Swiss chard is that you get so much out of it: The meaty, crunchy stems and the big, ruffled leaves can be cooked separately and then combined into one dish. Of course, the downside is a hint of beet flavor, which someone people aren't crazy about. So the French have the right idea: Mix it all up with an easy bechamel, so the focus is on green and cream.

Swiss Chard Gratin
Adapted from "The Art of Simple Food," by Alice Waters.

1 1/2 bunches chard
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
About 2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk (nonfat will work)
Freshly grated nutmeg

Wash the chard and cut away the thick stems. Trim the stems, then cut into thin slices. Set aside the leaves separately. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the stems and cook about 2 minutes. Stir in the leaves and cook about 3 minutes. Drain, then let stand a few minutes until cool enough to handle. Squeeze out any excess liquid and chop everything coarsely.

Melt about 2 teaspoons of butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat, then cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly brown. Set aside.

Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the onion and cook about 5 minutes, until transluscent. Stir in the chard and a little salt and cook several minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir well. Stir in the milk and a little freshly grated nutmeg. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thick. Taste and add more salt and nutmeg if needed.

Butter a small baking dish and spread the chard mixture in. Dot with 2 teaspoons butter. Sprinkle evenly with breadcrumbs. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until bubbling.

Yield: 4 servings.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Kringle want a Pringle? Yes, it's a potato chip cookie

Some people watch for Santa. Some people watch for the Great Pumpkin. Every year between Halloween and Christmas, I watch for "most desperate product pitch."

The all-time winner was the year a maker of canned black olives sent a Thanksgiving recipe for mixing sliced black olives into your mashed potatoes. Mmmmm. A big bowl of mashed potatoes with black circles at the one meal that brings all of your pickiest family members together. Bet that's a hit.

There's still time to get a worse contender, but the winner so far this year is Kringle-Spiced Pringle Cookies. It's a spiced cookie made from crushed Pringles and then sandwiched with a jam and ginger filling.

Salty, sweet and spicy. Who knows? It might be good. If you try it, let me know.

Kringle-Spiced Pringles Cookies 1 can Pringles "The Original"
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fruit preserves (raspberry or mixed berry)
1/3 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped (or 2 teaspoons powdered ginger)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place Pringles, flour, baking soda and spices in a food processor and pulse until the consistency of corn meal. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar until slightly fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat for 30 seconds. Pour in the Pringles spice mixture and mix for 1 minute. Refrigerate dough for at least 1 hour.

Drop by rounded teaspoonsful onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.

Combine fruit preserves and ginger in a small bowl. Spread 1 teaspoon on a cookie and top with another cookie.

Photo: Hill and Knowlton

Confessions of a dangerous mind: Sean Brock's cookbook collection

If you know anything about Sean Brock, of McCrady's and Husk in Charleston, you know he's one of the most talented chefs working in the South these days. He's also got a demented way with discovering things that taste crazy-good, like fried chicken skin dipped in Tabasco and honey.

In a fascinating interview on, Brock goes into depth about his obsession with cookbook collecting. Sure, he likes the modern, cutting-edge stuff - cheffy books like French Laundy and Eleven Madison Park and edgy Thai cookbooks. But what he really goes for are the very old Southern cookbooks, and books written long before he was born.

This is Brock on the Time-Life "Foods of the World" series: "Going back, looking at these books, people weren't afraid to cook then. You go to the Good Cook pork book and they're like deboning whole pigs and stuffing them and sewing them back up and cooking them and why are we scared to do that in books now? Because we want to sell books and we're afraid people aren't going to do that now. You look back on these books, though, and there's really complex stuff in there intended for home cooks. So I just love those books to death. Those are really inspiring and the photography is so cool in them."

Read about here. It's good thinking from a young man who is turning out seriously good food in a city not very far from our own. (One warning: Like a lot of young chefs, he doesn't always edit his language. C'est la vie.)


Friday, December 9, 2011

Gadget gifts: Yes, bubbles, I like our Soda Stream

I've gone on the record about my resistance to most kitchen gadgets. I'm a "single knife and one good pan" kind of girl. But I have spent a year getting to know one trendy gadget, and I'll share my experience for those considering Christmas gifts.

Last year, I was casting around for a gift for my husband, otherwise known as The World's Toughest Giftee. The man is even more basic in his needs than I am. This would be endearing if every year didn't include at least two gift-giving occasions.

When I saw the new Soda Stream at Sur La Table, for one giddy moment, I thought I'd found an instant winner. Then he opened it on Christmas and gave me one of those sideways looks that says your husband thinks you have the brains of a Kardashian with less fashion sense.

Still, he's a good sport. We found a spot in the kitchen for the Soda Stream, slid in the carbonation canister . . . and proceeded to fall in love with the darn thing.

It's easy to use: You fill one of the special heavy-plastic bottles with water, screw it in and press the button several times until it makes a load noise that drives the dog crazy (bonus!). When you unscrew it, it makes a "pfssst!" like when they opened Ripley's pod in the second "Aliens" (2nd bonus!). And then you have all the fizzy, bubbly water you want.

There were a few learning curves. First, while the instructions are easy, never add syrup before you fizz up the water. I learned that in a terrible few seconds right after we came home from a New Year's Eve party. I welcomed 2011 while scrubbing down every lemon-lime speckled surface in my kitchen.

Next, the flavor syrups that come with the thing are awful. Truly. They're too expensive and even the non-diet ones taste like fake sugar. The best syrups are Torani. After a brief but pricey fling with ordering them online, we discovered the best source is Cost Plus World Market.

Finally, no cola syrup actually tastes like Coca-Cola. If your soda be-all and end-all is Coke, stick with actual Coke. But if you're willing to like fruit flavors, you can have fun. Our house favorite is a hint of Torani Cherry Mint. Better yet, if you like just plain ol' fizzy water over ice, you always have something fresh and bubbly.

There are environmental advantages: The gas cartridges usually last for several months, and you get a price break when you turn them in at several stores for recharging. And since you have to use the hard plastic bottles (get an extra), you cut down on the plastic in your recycling bin. Finally, if you pay attention to the syrups, you can cut a lot of high-fructose corn syrup out of your life.

So: is a $100 soda maker something you need? Up to you. But our fling has lasted longer than a Kardashian marriage.

Monday, December 5, 2011

One Great . . . shrimp dish

It was the last quiet Saturday night before the holiday party onslaught begins. Just two of us at home, primed for a peaceful weekend. We wanted something that would be as indulgent as a restaurant meal with no more work than a frozen dinner.

Solution: A half-bag of frozen shrimp, a handful of dried fettucine, some garlic, butter and lemon juice. Thanks to "The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper," I found Lynne Rossetto Kasper's recipe for North Shore Shrimp Scampi, based on a version she found in Hawaii.

It called for marinating the shrimp for 24 hours, but I didn't have that kind of time. Instead, we thawed them for an hour in the powerfully flavorful marinade. It was so easy, I had time to make a classic French chard gratin with Swiss chard I found at the farmer's market Saturday morning.

Thanks, Lynne.

North Shore Shrimp Scampi
Serves 2 or 3 or can be doubled

1/3 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
6 or 7 fat garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 pound raw extra-large or jumbo shrimp, fresh or frozen, shelled
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1/4 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves (I skipped it and used minced green onion tops instead)
Combine the olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper and the shrimp. (If they're frozen, rinse them under cold running water to break them apart, then let them thaw in the marinade. If they have shells, you can shell them before cooking.) Refrigerate overnight (or about an hour, if you're short on time).

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta. About 15 minutes before serving, place a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook 11 to 12 minutes or according to directions. In the skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter with a little salt and pepper. Add the shrimp with the marinade. Stir once or twice, reduce heat to medium low, cover and cook 3 to 4 minutes, until shrimp are just cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to move them to a bowl.

Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-high. Stir the wine into the pan juices and boil for 1 minute, or until the juices are reduced. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Drain the pasta and add to the skillet. Add the shrimp and toss to coat everything with the sauce. Drizzle with half a lemon and parsley (or green onions). Serve immediately, with warm bread for sopping up the juices.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pigs do fly in Charlotte

Last summer, food writer John T Edge came through working on a story about Charlotte for Garden & Gun magazine. I took him around several places to get a taste of what's happening around here these days.

We started his trip with a quick lunch meetup at the Diamond, where I remember tucking into the hot pimento cheese dip. And a plate of . . . "hey, John T -- does that menu really say 'pig wings?'"

Indeed it did. They turned out to be little bones with a nub of tender white meat on one end. And we enjoyed them very much. Later in his trip, he alerted me to another pig wing sighting at Mac Speedshop.

Edge does get around. And apparently, he has since found pig wings in a lot of other places around the country. He also found a story in this week's New York Times food section, about the pig wing phenomenon (remember the Times only gives you limited downloads for free). It includes Mac's, although not the Diamond.

I'd love to play with cooking pig's wings, but I haven't seen them for sale in supermarkets. If you have a source for them, let me know.


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cookbook shopping? Try one of these

Looking for a cookbook or food book (or drinking book!) to give as a gift? Here are 13 new books I'll suggest:

1. Essential Pepin

By Jacques Pepin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 704 pages, $40)

Jacques Pepin’s career has spanned France to New York, and World War II to digital. With 700 recipes, almost all classic and French, this is a masterwork. With a searchable DVD of techniques.

2. Cooking Light: The Complete Quick Cook

By Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (Oxmoor House, 352 pages, $29.95)

For the person who wants to eat better and cook better but is overwhelmed by the task. With two experienced authors behind it, this magazine-based project is one of the best home-cooking guides I’ve seen in a while, with pictures, tips, smart thinking and solid recipes.

3. Serious Eats: A Comprehensive Guide to Making & Eating Delicious Food Wherever You Are

By Ed Levine and the editors of (Clarkson Potter, 368 pages, $27.99)

Give this to a young and eager diner. New York food writer Levine pulled together a smart bunch of young editors to build a great food-obsessed website. Their first book is a guide to obsessive eating from coast to coast (including North Carolina).

4. The Art of Eating Cookbook

By Edward Behr (University of California Press, 296 pages, $39.95)

Edward Behr’s newsletter/magazine The Art of Eating has been a source of smart, sophisticated food writing with a focus on classic cooking for 25 years. Now he’s gone back through all those recipes to put together a collection of essays and recipes that will pull armchair cooks out of their chairs.

5. The PDT Cocktail Book
By Jim Meehan and Chris Gall (Sterling Epicure, 368 pages, $24.95)

Shake it up, baby: The people behind New York’s almost-hidden cocktail bar, PDT (for Please Don’t Tell) have found the middle ground between retro-cool and contemporary in this fun guide to all things alcohol.

6. Basic to Brilliant, Y’All

By Virginia Willis (Ten Speed Press, $35).

I love this concept by Atlanta author Willis: Every recipe includes a variation or a way to dress it up. And thanks to her solid training at La Varenne in France, her recipes bring fresh perspective to basic Southern cooking.

7. Cooking in the Moment

By Andrea Reusing (Clarkson Potter, $35).

Reusing, the chef of Lantern in Chapel Hill, racked up honors this year, including a James Beard medal as Best Chef: Southeast. But there’s no pretension in her book, aimed at home cooks trying to make the best use of locally grown, heirloom foods. She’s not cooking with special chef food – this is the same stuff we get in our own farmers markets.

8. The Homesick Texan Cookbook

By Lisa Fain (Hyperion, $29.99).

Homesick Texan, Fain’s blog about re-creating Texas food when she moved to New York, found a huge following online. A book was the next step. You don’t have to be from Texas to appreciate her sincere, down-home recipes.

9. Paula Deen’s Southern Cooking Bible

By Paula Deen with Melissa Clark (Simon & Schuster, $29.99).

Has anyone since Martha Stewart evoked so much love and venom? But this is a solid book, without too many corny gimmicks. It’s a reminder that at heart, Deen is still a cook from Savannah who knows how to turn out crowd-pleasing food.

10. Cook This Now

By Melissa Clark (Hyperion, $29.99).

Between exploring ingredients in her New York Times column and co-authoring with Paula Deen, Clark was writing her own inventive cookbook, geared to home cooks who aren’t afraid of frisee, quinoa – or good recipes.

11. The Food 52 Cookbook

By Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs (Morrow, $35).

It’s a little high-concept: The website aims to create a “food community” by letting members post weekly recipes while other members vote on them. Skip all that and you end up with a solid collection of sophisticated home cooking. That’s much simpler.

12. The Italian Baker

By Carol Field (Ten Speed Press, $35).

After it came out in 1985, “Italian Baker” became a classic, a serious yet approachable guide to bread, pizza, focaccia and sweets. The revision is even better – and ready for a new generation to discover it.

13. Momofuku Milk Bar

By Christina Tosi (Clarkson Potter, $35).

While David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants were taking over New York, his pastry chef, Tosi, was staging her own revolution with desserts so sweet, they verged on sugar obsession. Now Tosi shares the recipes for things like Cereal Milk and the crazy good Crack Pie.

Eating on the fly at Charlotte-Douglas?

If you're traveling during the holidays, the web site Serious Eats has a fun little slide show up, "Airport Food That Doesn't Suck."

It doesn't offer anything really unusual and certainly nothing high-end - One Flew South at Atlanta's Hartsfield didn't make the cut. But the focus here is on fast, cheap and reasonably satisfying, which is usually what most of us need in an airport. And they found picks at both Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which is a nice perk for those flight-delayed days.

Go here to click through their picks. And yes, it's one of those slide shows you have to click through. Which does kind of suck.

Monday, November 28, 2011

One great recipe: Cranberry thighs

It sounds like something you'd call someone the week after Thanksgiving. But cranberry thighs were my solution last week when I needed a pre-holiday meal for a big group. I wanted something that felt like the season but didn't steal the thunder from Thanksgiving the next night.

Since I was feeding a crowd, I stretched the sauce over two big pans of 14 chicken thighs. If you need to cut it down to 8, you'll have some sauce left over. But you can stick it in the freezer and have a head-start for another night. With fresh cranberries making their brief appearance in stores through Christmas, this will be tasty and festive anytime.

Cranberry-Glazed Chicken Thighs

Figure on two chicken thigh per serving.

8 to 12 skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries, rinsed and soft ones discarded
1 1/2 cups sugar
2/3 cup ketchup
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon dry mustard

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Choose a 13-by-9-inch baking dish or roasting pan large enough to hold the thighs in a single layer with a little space between each one. Spray it with nonstick cooking spray.

Sprinkle chicken thighs with salt and pepper and arrange them in the prepared pan or dish. Place in the oven and roast for 25 minutes.

While chicken is roasting, combine the cranberries, sugar and 1/2 cup water in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes, or until the berries start to pop. Remove from heat and stir in the ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar and dry mustard.

Remove chicken thighs from the oven and spoon some of the sauce over each one. Return to oven and roast 20 minutes longer. Spoon a little more sauce over each and turn oven to broil. Broil about 5 minutes, until brown in spots, watching carefully to make sure they don't burn.

Why should you salute the late Jeno Paulucci?

The New York Times had a tribute today to a man who certainly had an influence on American food: Jeno Paulucci, 93, of Duluth, Minn. It seems weirdly appropriate that Mr. Paulucci died on Thanksgiving.

His contributions: First, in 1955, he noticed the burgeoning interest in Chinese food. So he borrowed $2500 from a friend, came up with a formula for canned chow mein, and ended up creating the Chun King brand. He also came up with the Divider-Pak, packaging that kept the crunchy noodles separate from the sauce. He sold it to R.J. Reynolds (yes, here in North Carolina) for $63 million in 1966.

But he wasn't finished yet. Next, he founded Jeno's Inc., making frozen pizzas and snacks. He combined the two to create the pizza roll. After selling it to Pillsbury in in 1985 in $135 million, Jeno's Pizza Rolls were renamed Totino's Pizza Rolls.

And finally? He founded Michelina's, which makes ready-made pasta and Mexican dishes, in the early 1990s. He was still the head of that company when he died.

Read more about Mr. Paulucci's story here in the Times.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sink your teeth into Thanksgiving

A couple of last developments before I head home to my own range for Thanksgiving:

  • Harvest Moon Grille is running a special Thanksgiving market in front of the restaurant at the Dunhill Hotel, 237 N. Tryon St. You can buy bread from locally grown and milled wheat, locally grown vegetables. Days and hours: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 19), and noon-7 p.m. Monday-Wednesday next week.
  • The Ritz-Carlton's Giant Green Gingerbread House goes on display on Thanksgiving in the lobby of the hotel and will stay up until Dec. 28. It's green because it has all organic and natural components, its own LED lights and a green moss roof. If you go by, you can visit the new Bar Cocoa dessert area with Norman Love chocolates.
  • Also at the Ritz-Carlton: Holiday teas on Dec. 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 16, 17 and 18. Details and reservations: 704-547-2244.

Get your party food ready

Last year, I wrote a column about "Little Black Dresses," those simple recipes for holiday party appetizers that you can always depend on. Some of you were kind enough to send me yours, as well.

This year, I'd love to get even like to run more of them. If you send me an appetizer recipe with no more than 6 ingredients, I'll enter you in a drawing for the cookbook “The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink” (UNC Press, $30). The deadline is Dec. 2; send your recipes to

Photo: Little Black Dress magazine

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The best turkey video ever

O Captain, my Captain - you are such a turkey. And I love you for it.

Seriously, William Shatner teams up with State Farm and does his best attempt at the Alton Brown School of Cooking Demos. All to show you the danger of "fire, metal, oil and turkey."

Top Chef: Gone too soon

So we don't post a spoiler on the Food page, let's make a change: Humming.

Hum. Humhum. Humhumhum. Wonder if there was news from "Top Chef" last night that might be of interest to people in North Carolina?

I wonder. Hmmm. Have I pushed the spoiler down far enough?

OK, let's return to today's blog post, already in progress:

Keith, we hardly knew you. But when you bought those already-cooked shrimp, I knew you were cooked.

If you haven't been watching the new season of "Top Chef" on Bravo, you may have missed North Carolina's Keith Rhodes, chef of Catch in Wilmington. It's hard to miss him anywhere, actually: Rhodes is a big guy. (The blogosphere nicknamed him Rick Ross, after the rapper).

When Rhodes made it through that interminable sorting-hat of hundreds of contestants (OK, it was just under 50, but I stand by "interminable") to make the final 16, I was delighted. I'm a fan of Catch, which is on my current list of favorite NC restaurants. I've eaten there twice, once when it was still a tiny counter-service place in downtown Wilmington and once in the newer, larger place on Market Street. Both times, the food was fun and impressive.

Rhodes has a way with clever seafood dishes, and he definitely handles fish with respect. The last time we ate there, the waitress not only told us how and where the softshell crabs were raised, she volunteered the name of the fish farmer and told us exactly when that night's catch had shed their shells. It was obvious Rhodes makes sure his staff knows what
s what.

So I was mystified when Rhodes made the rookie error Wednesday night of buying pre-cooked shrimp for a challenge. It was like watching a train wreck: I was waving my arms, yelling, "No, chef! No! Step away from the seafood case, baby!"

Yes, Rhodes also got bounced for using flour tortillas instead of corn in enchiladas in Texas. But that one is easier to understand. Texans might think it's obvious, but the rest of the country doesn't cut its teeth on the "which tortilla when" code.

But pre-cooked shrimp when your restaurant is called "Catch"? So sad. And Keith Rhodes is so much better than that.

Speculation this morning is that Rhodes isn't really gone. He's doing an online bit, and "Top Chef" is wily about bringing promising chefs back. Even if he doesn't return, we can drive to Wilmington for more of Keith Rhodes. And we should.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

One more time for the make-ahead potatoes

Of all the recipes I've run through the years, which one do readers request the most? The Make-Ahead Potato Casserole. It's been a mainstay of our Thanksgiving recipes many times.

What's so great about it? You can make it in advance and it feeds a crowd. But most importantly to me, it doesn't get that yucky old-potato taste when you reheat it. I can't explain why, but I've always figured it has something to do with the sour cream and cream cheese. It also works with reduced-fat sour cream and Neufchatel cheese, trimming a little fat from a day when we tend to get too much.

Since I know someone will ask for it between now and next Thursday, here it is again, to add to your collection:

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes

Serves 8 to 12.

5 pounds russet, Idaho or Yukon Gold potatoes


1 (8-ounce) package reduced-fat cream cheese

1 (8-ounce) container reduced-fat sour cream

1 to 1 1/2 cups skim milk

Freshly ground black or white pepper

2 to 3 tablespoons butter, cut in pieces


PEEL potatoes and cut into chunks, dropping into a pot of cold salted water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat slightly and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Drain well.

BEAT in cream cheese with electric mixer. (Work in batches if necessary, using half the potatoes and cream cheese, then combine.) Beat in sour cream and milk until potatoes are fluffy. Season to taste with salt and ground pepper or ground white pepper.

SPRAY a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Spread potatoes evenly in dish. Dot with butter and sprinkle with paprika. If making in advance, cool completely, cover tightly and refrigerate up to 24 hours.

PREHEAT oven to 375 degrees. Uncover potatoes and bake 30 to 40 minutes, until heated through and brown in spots.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Parade magazine wants your pie recipe

I was looking for it Sunday and I missed it, so I figured you might not have spotted this either: Parade Magazine is holding a national pie contest, The All-American Pie-Off. The winners in seven categories (apple, cherry, Derby, Key Lime, pecan, pumpkin and sweet potato) will get $50 American Express gift cards, will be featured on and, and will have the chance to be featured in Parade.

The reason I was looking for it Sunday: I'm one of the judges. Parade apparently saw my article on sweet potato pie (yes, it should be North Carolina's state pie!), and asked if I'd judge the sweet potato category.

Other judges: Michele Stuart of Michele's Pies in Connecticut and author of "Perfect Pies"; Debbie Macomber, author of "The Christmas Cookbook"; Rosemary Black, author of a bunch of cookbooks (and mother of Kidcook columnist Molly Lopez, for those who remember her) and editor of Dash and Parade's Sunday Dinner column; Sharon Thompson, food writer for the Lexington Herald Leader; Janet Keller, food editor of the St. Pete Times; and Linda Odette of the Grand Rapids Press.

The deadline for entries is Nov. 19. Go here for details on how to enter. Make sure you send a good sweet potato entry - I'm looking forward to it.

Photo: Todd Sumlin, The Charlotte Observer.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What are you doing New Year's?

I was flipping through the James Beard Foundation's December events guide when I spotted a familiar face: Tony Coturri, the maker of organic wines in California who's been a favorite at farm-to-fork dinners around here for several years.

Then I spotted another familiar face on the same page: Joe Bonaparte, at the International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Charlotte.

It turns out Bonaparte is leading a lineup of AI instructors (Walter Leible of Phoenix, Larry Maston of Dallas and Michael Nenes of Texas) to cook dinner at the James Beard House for New Year's Eve.

It isn't cheap: $200 for foundation members, $250 for nonmembers. But the menu is luxe, including foie gras, rabbit, lobster, caviar, scallops, pork belly and duck breast. What really amused me was the toast at midnight: Shelton Vineyards Blanc de Blanc with a truffle from the Secret Chocolatier here in Charlotte. Nice to see attention for local food makers.

If you're planning to be in New York and that's your kind of price and experience, go to for details and tickets.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Weekend cooking project: The Christmas spirits

Here's a thought that will drive you to drink: You have 44 days until Christmas. Which is just enough time to start a batch of 44 Cordial, a tasty winter liqueur that's great for giving to consenting adults on your Christmas list.

And since I ran the 44 Cordial a couple of years ago, I have a second libation you can start this weekend, too. When I was in Charleston last month for the Association of Journalists conference, mixologist John Aquino of Coast Bar & Grill was serving a dandy twist on an old-fashioned, made from Firefly Sweet Tea Bourbon.

He was kind enough to share the recipe, which I immediately put to good use. It only takes 5 days to make a batch, and it makes a tasty libation to have on hand for entertaining season. It's a little richer and spicier that a regular Old-Fashioned, making it a good winter cocktail.

Two tricks: Aquino uses Fee Brothers Orange Bitters, which I happened to have on hand. If you don't, good ol' Angostura works fine. And tart-cherry extract can be a bit tricky to find. I found cherry extract in the juice aisle at the Cotswold Harris Teeter. Unfortunately, it's $15 a bottle, but it is a concentrate, so you just need a drizzle. You might be able to find it cheaper at a health-focused supermarket such as Earth Fare, now that tart cherry juice is so popular as a treatment for joint pain.

OK, both recipes:

44 Cordial
Saveur magazine ran a short item on this West Indies liqueur in 2008. It's become a regular winter project at my house and a favorite with some of my friends. You need a jar with a tight lid and a mouth wide enough for the orange.

1 large orange, such as a navel
44 coffee beans
44 teaspoons sugar (1 scant cup)
1 liter white run (about 1 quart)
Poke 44 (1-inch) slits all over the orange with the tip of a paring knife. Stuff a coffee bean into each slit. (I usually work one row at a time so the slits don't close up or the orange doesn't lose too much juice.)
Put the orange, sugar and rum in a wide-mouthed jar with a tight lid. Place in a cool, dark spot, swirling the jar occasionally, for 44 days.
Remove the discard the orange. Strain the liqueur through a cheesecloth-lined strainer into a clean bottle. Refrigerate or freeze. Serve neat or over ice.

Bourbon Ice Tea Old Fashioned
From John Aquino, Coast Bar and Grill, Charleston.
1 (750ml) bottle Firefly Sweet Tea Bourbon
Zest of 1 orange, peeled in strips
About 1/2 tablespoon tart cherry concentrate
Bitters (such as Angostura, or Fee Brothers Orange or Old-Fashioned Bitters)
Sparkling water

Place sweet tea bourbon in a jar with a tight lid. Add orange zest strips. Let stand 5 days, swirling bottle occasionally. Drain back into the bottle, then add tart cherry concentrate. (If you have tart cherries and want to use them, add them for the final two days.)

To use, place about 2 ounces in a rocks glass and add a dash of bitters. Add ice and top with sparkling water, such as plain seltzer or club soda.

Photo: Liquor Digest

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gifts from our readers

This is what I get for checking my email on a Saturday night. The subject line was "Haiku":

Let fish thaw on counter
Should have listened to Kathleen
Threw it all up.

Yes, the count is technically off (6/7/4 instead of 5/7/5). But given that I couldn't spell my own name in the same condition, much less make a food editor laugh that hard, the judges will accept it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Farmers market season: It ain't over yet

A well-meaning person posted a comment on my story about the 7th Street Public Market project claiming the growing season here is over.

Sorry, but it triggered my inner Bluto Blutarski: Over? Over? Go to a local farmers market on a Saturday morning and it's far from over. Greens, winter squash, carrots, apples, eggs. If the growing season is over, why are my bags so full? And they stay full right on through January, February and March.

Between cold hoops, greenhouses and our own temperate climate, nothing is over until we say it is. Who's with me? Let's go!

This Saturday's market news roundup:

  • The Davidson Farmers Market kicks off it's every-other-week winter market with the First Ever Winter Market Chef Challenge, from 9 a.m.-noon. Five local chefs -- Vera Samuels, Wes Choplin, Joe Kindred, Andres Arboleda and Adam Spears -- will compete using what's available at the market. And shoppers get to be the judges. Details on the market schedule and offerings:
  • The Matthews Community Farmers Market no longer has winter market hours: It's open all year on Saturday mornings. Hours are 7:15 a.m.-noon through November, then 8-10 a.m. Saturdays from December through March. Starting this week: The Cookbook Swap, which continues through Nov. 19. Bring cookbooks you don't want and swap them for a cookbook you do, or buy a used cookbook for $2; money raised goes to fill The Harvest Donation coolers, which are used for local feeding programs. Details and vendor lists:
  • Simply Local at the Atherton Market has added egg nog made from local milk. For details on the Atherton Market, go to their Facebook page here.
  • The Charlotte Regional Farmers Market is still up and running, too, with lots of local farms and food makers. If you spot me there tomorrow, say hello. Just don't wear a toga. It's chilly out there.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Yes, Cincy fans, Graeter's ice cream is here

I sit next to three people with ties to Cincinnati, but that's not the only reason I know about Graeter's ice cream: Every publication from Saveur to Gourmet to Oprah includes it on the lists of the country's best ice creams.

Made by the French-pot method, it's known for being exceptionally creamy, and for having really rich flavors, particularly the popular black raspberry chocolate chip.

Still, I didn't expect to ever try it. It's pricey to mail-order it and I don't have many chances to visit Cincinnati.

So how great is this? Fresh Market and Kroger stores started carrying Graeter's ice cream in October.

It's not cheap, at $5.49 a pint, but that's actually in line with other premium ice creams. And Graeter's is definitely premium: After a taste-test at my desk, two Cincinnati co-workers, Tim Funk and Karen Garloch (she's not from Cincinnati, but she's married to a native), they declared it has all the richness and creaminess they expect.

We had black raspberry chip and peppermint, which is available for the holidays. Fresh Market at Strawberry Hill, at Providence and Fairview, also had mocha chip and vanilla chocolate chip.

Since frozen Skyline Chili has been the area for years, that means Cincinnati transplants at least are happy. All they need now are Montgomery Inn ribs.

Web Tricks: Did we open a wine bottle with a shoe?

Do those crazy food tricks floating around the Web work? I'll offer occasional reports on the ones I try.

But I can't say we're off to a flying start. Restaurant reviewer Helen Schwab and I tried Opening A Wine Bottle With a Shoe, which has been all over the Internet for a couple of years. It even turned up in an episode of "Modern Family."

There are a couple of dozen versions out there, ranging from people doing it while speaking French to 20somethings doing it while stumbling around a city street.

Basically, the trick involves: A) A shoe. Preferably a hard-soled men's shoe, although some videos shoe an athletic shoe. B) A bottle of wine, with the capsule removed. And C) A wall. One with paint you don't care about chipping.

We procured all of the above and went to work. We tried a couple of different shoes -- a woman's shoe with a wide, 2-inch heel, and a man's basic brown lace-up oxford. The man's shoe was slightly easier, because the heel area was wide enough to hold the bottle easily.

We tried a couple of angles, higher and lower. We tried different people beating the wall with the shoe and the bottle.

Result: Nada. Zippo. After a good 50 whacks, there were lots of bubbles visible in the bottle, but no movement at all from the cork.

So, if you get the wine-shoe trick to work and have proof - preferably time-elapsed video - send it to me at I'll be glad to try again if it actually works.

Next up: Can you trust Mary Ann to peel a potato without a peeler?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Top Chef": Is it time to pack their knives and go?

Two things about me and "Top Chef": I'm not a fan of reality TV (isn't part of the idea of TV-watching to escape reality?) and it seems a little weird to watch a TV show about cooking where you never get to taste the food and you don't learn anything useful about cooking.

Those prejudices aside, I have been a fan of "Top Chef." I got caught up in the whole Volt Bros drama, and spent way too much time quietly cheering for Carla. But as the saga and the spinoffs continue, I've found myself cooling on it, in the same way you love a food until that moment when you take one bite too much. I liked the first season of "Top Chef Masters" but erased the last season without watching more than an episode or two -- and I knew people competing. I watched one episode of "Top Chef Desserts" and wasn't interested enough to go on.

So, with the regular season of "Top Chef" starting Wednesday night on Bravo (they're in Texas this time, which is probably not a surprise anymore), I'm curious how you feel about it.

Do you love it and hang on Padma's costume change?
Are you bored enough to stick your head in a stockpot?
Does the whole thing just make you want to yank out Tom's soul patch?

Monday, October 31, 2011

One Great . . . Mashed Potato Version

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Mashed potatoes again. They're easy, almost everybody likes them, they don't take much thought. There's just not much to get excited about though, is there?

Then again . . .

Atlanta chef/author Virginia Willis has this crazy ability to think like a chef about simple things. Her newest book, "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all" (Ten Speed Press, $35) is really sort of brilliant in itself: She has all these great recipes, most Southern in inspiration. For each one, she gives the recipe, then she gives you something else with it - a way to dress it up, or use it another way, or add something to it. For instance, she has a recipe for Seafood Jambalaya, and with it she gives you an idea for grinding your basic bag of fried pork skins into a powder in a food processor and sprinkling it over things like jambalaya. Yes, she thinks like that.

Her mustard-flavored mashed potatoes really grabbed my lapels and shouted "cook me!" And when I did, it shouted with flavor. Seriously, mustard whisked into mashed potatoes: Sounds strange. Tastes delicious. I haven't made the second recipe, but it might be just the thing for ramping up your Thanksgiving potatoes.

Virginia Willis, I bow to your cooking talent. Well-played, missy.

Yukon Gold Mash With Coarse-Grain Mustard From "Basic to Brilliant, Y'all," by Virginia Willis.

2 pounds (4 to 6) Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut in large chunks
Coarse salt
1 1/3 cups low-fat or whole milk (I used skim, which worked fine)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup coarse-grain Dijon mustard
Freshly ground white pepper (I used black pepper, and it didn't blow up)

Place potatoes in a large, heavy saucepan and cover with cold water. Season with salt, bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease heat to low. Gently simmer until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 25 minutes.

Combine milk, butter and mustard in a small saucepan over low heat while the potatoes are cooking. Cook until the butter is melted; cover and keep warm.

Drain the potatoes in a colander and return to the saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until a floury film forms on the bottom of the pan, 1 to 2 minutes. (You're just drying the potatoes so they mash well without being watery.) Remove from heat. Pass the potatoes through a ricer or food mill, or mash with a potato masher. Add the warm milk mixture, stirring vigorously until well-combined. (I added it by additions, so it didn't get too loose.) Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and white pepper. Serve immediately.

Pommes Mont d'Or Yes, it means "Golden Potato Mountain." Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a gratin dish with 1 tablespoon unsalted butter. Let the potato mixture cool slightly in the saucepan, then add 3 lightly beaten eggs and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme. Stir to combine. Pour into the prepared gratin dish and spread gently with a spatula. Sprinkle 1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated Gruyere on top and bake until a rich, golden brown, about 30 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool slightly, then serve. Serves 4 to 6.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Did you win the biscuit book?

Judging from the response to our giveaway of Nathalie Dupree's new book "Southern Biscuits," an awful lot of you wish you had the knack for making biscuits.

Besides getting a slew of entries for the drawing, I've also gotten a kick out of the comments, tales and jokes about biscuits people sent along with their entries:

"I'm 28 now, but when I was 5, I made a book for a kindergarten project that showed how to make biscuits."

"Earlier this year I had the great misfortune of, at the same time, breaking, both my femurs. During my arduous recovery and rehab, I had a great desire for biscuits. Isn't that what your grandmother always cooked for you when she wanted to make you feel special?
"Since I've recovered to the point of now being able to stand long enough to cook, I'd love to be able to make biscuits for myself. What better teacher than the great Southern cook, Natalie Dupree. I enjoyed nothing better then watching her on PBS. She always made me laugh at least once during the show. I remember one time in particular, she set an oven mitt on fire. She handled it with the grace of a true Southern lady."

am still trying to achieve the same kind of biscuits my grandmother made each morning on the farm using a wood stove. She used lard from our pigs and mixed the biscuits in an enamel pan the size of a dishpan. These were not dainty little creations! The family and hired hands would have been tended the animals for two hours before they came in for breakfast at 7 am. The biscuits were light and full of buttermilk flavor. My, how I wish I could make them."

"After more than 30 years in Charlotte, I still haven’t made biscuits that rate better than 'hockey pucks' from my family! I’m going to try again with your tips in today’s Charlotte Observer. Success AND the book would be wonderful!

have failed at making biscuits and can never get them right like my Southern friends do. Not that I am a Northerner, just Asian, and haven't developed the technique for Southern cooking.

"You are right on, girl, about making biscuits. As a retired home economics teacher I had great fun and laughs helping my students learn how to make biscuits. One might ask why in this day and age. They requested it, along with making sausage gravy...a real southern dish. In fact, I saw a student I had in the late 1990's who said she still uses the same recipe on Sunday mornings. Excuse me while I go set out my ingredients."

"As my husband says, 'my wife can cook anything, except biscuits!' Of course, he was spoiled by his next-door neighbor who made wonderful, light-as-air biscuits for him throughout his childhood. I tend to blame it on the fact that since I was born in Buffalo, NY, I missed getting the 'biscuit gene.'"

"Here is a totally tongue-in-cheek answer to serving perfect biscuits EVERY time at brunch:Before anyone else gets up, drive to Bojangles and buy a dozen plain biscuits. When home, arrange them on a baking sheet and just before everyone comes to the table, pop them in a preheated 400 degree oven for 5 minutes. Splash flour on your shirt and a smidgen on your cheek, take the perfect biscuits out of the oven and VOILA!!! cheers from all. Perfect every time!"

I wish I could send copies of the book to every one of you. But there's only one winner, and that is .. . .

Debbie Agerton. Congratulations, Debbie. And thanks to everyone for their interest and their entry.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Trader Joe's latest: Crispy seaweed snacks

Consider your basic sushi roll, the kind with the dark green wrapper. Take away the rice and the fish and what you're left with is that dark green wrapper.

That clever Trader Joe has now dusted that wrapper with salt and wasabi and packaged it for 99 cents as a virtuous snack.

You know the name of the blog, people: I'll Bite. And I will.

This morning, I opened a package of Trader Joe's Wasabi Roasted Seaweed Snack. The first thing to get past is the texture: It's sort of plastic, shiny and very green, like freeze-dried Astroturf. It's also a bit fishy. But it is crisp, and it delivers a dose of salt and a nose-clearing hit of wasabi. It's weirdly addictive if you're trying to avoid potato chips. You also can crumble a few sheets for a salad topping.

Half of a package, or about 10 to 15 palm-size rectangles, has 30 calories, 2 grams of fat (none trans or saturated) and 60 milligrams of sodium, with 20 percent of your RDA of Vitamin C, a little vitamin A and tiny bit of iron.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Barbecue time, and more

What's up in Charlotte's food world:

  • Thursday is the annual Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church Barbecue, my favorite excuse to sit at a trestle table and consider the role of white bread as a pork-pusher. Yes, there are politicians. But remember, it's really a fundraiser for the church. If you're keeping track, this is the 82nd. Get the directions and details here.
  • Johnson & Wales chef Peter Reinhart will read from his book, "Mastering Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Baking," at 7 p.m. next Wednesday, Nov. 2, at the House of Olives, 16620 Cranlyn Road in Huntersville. It's free, but you need to register. Call 704-895-6950.
  • "Tiny Chef" Susanne Dillingham will teach a fall cooking class using produce and meats from local farms, from 1-4 p.m. Saturday at Reid's Fine Foods, 2823 Selwyn Ave. Cost: $75; register online at
  • The Davidson Farmers Market starts its winter schedule Nov.5 (9 a.m.-noon, every other week), with the market's first Winter Market Chef Challenge. Chefs will be given four mystery-basket items and will get 10 minutes to shop for a fifth, then will get 45 minutes to prepare a dish for judging. The competing chefs are personal chef Vera Samuels, Wes Choplin of Choplin's, Joe Kindred of Rooster's, Andres Arboleda of Flatiron and Adam Spears of Chef Charles Catering. Details and market schedule:
  • Tastings:
Total Wine & More stores will hold tastings of Halloween-theme and fall-appropriate wines and beers on Saturday, from noon-6 p.m.
Fresh Market stores will hold tastings of holiday foods, including appetizers, desserts and standing rib roast, noon-6 p.m. Nov. 4 and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 5.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

One Great . . . Biscuit Book Giveaway

Charleston's Nathalie Dupree is one of the South's great cookbook writers, so her book "Southern Biscuits" has been on my list since it came out in May. When I was in Charleston a few weeks ago for the Association of Food Journalists conference, Dupree and Lauren Vinciguerra of Callie's Charleston Biscuits made dueling biscuit batches to show a few tricks.

If you don't want to tackle your own biscuits, Callie's are available frozen at several local stores, including Reid's Fine Foods, Dean & Deluca and Fresh Market, or by mail order from They're not a cheap luxury though, at $16.99 for a dozen at Reid's.

Making your own is cheaper, and eventually more fulfilling. Once you get a feel for it, you'll always be able to do it. Here's a simple refrigerated dough called Angel Biscuits, handy to keep around for up to a week so you can pat out a batch whenever you need fresh biscuits.

And I have a copy of Dupree's book to give away. Send an email to me at and put "biscuits" in the subject line. I'll announce a winner by random drawing. Deadline: 9 a.m. Friday.

Angel Biscuits

From “Southern Biscuits,” by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart (Gibbs Smith, $21.99).

1 package active dry yeast

1/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons warm water (110 to 115 degrees)

5 to 6 cups self-rising flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup shortening, room temperature

1/2 cup butter, room temperature

2 cups buttermilk, room temperature

Melted butter, for finishing

DISSOLVE the yeast and sugar in the warm water in a small bowl. Set aside.

FORK-SIFT or whisk 5 cups of the flour, baking soda and salt in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep. Break the shortening and butter into pieces and scatter over the flour. Work in by rubbing your fingers with the fat and flour as if you’re snapping your thumb and fingers until the mixture looks like well-crumbled feta cheese.

MAKE a deep hollow in the center with the back of one hand. Stir the yeast mixture into the buttermilk and pour this mixture into the hollow, stirring with a long wooden spoon. Add flour as needed to make a very damp, shaggy dough.

FLOUR a clean work surface and turn out the dough out. With floured hands, knead the dough by folding in half, pushing out, refolding and turning dough until the dough is tender, about 10 minutes. Add flour as necessary. Refrigerate up to one week.

WHEN READY to use, take out some of the dough and roll into a 1/3 to 1/2-inch-thick round. Fold in half and roll or pat out again until about 1 inch thick. Cut into rounds with a 2-inch biscuit cutter dipped in flour. Place on a greased baking sheet and let rise at room temperature until doubled, about 30 minutes.

BAKE at 400 degrees on the middle rack for 12 to 15 minutes, rotating the pan after 6 minutes. (If the bottoms are browning too quickly, slide a second sheet underneath.) Brush the tops with melted butter.

Yield: 30 to 40 (2-inch) biscuits.

Sushi that is dreamy

In New York a couple of weeks ago, at the end of a two-day James Beard Foundation conference on sustainability, I had the chance to view a new documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." It won't be released until March.

Since I was poised to leap in a cab and head to the airport, I perched at the very back of the auditorium, where I ended up sitting next to the filmmaker, a so-young man named David Gelb. I didn't expect to get so caught up in the story and found myself pushing off my departure, wanting just a few more minutes of it.

Gelb borrowed money from everyone in his life to realize his dream of making a movie about Jiro Ono, the 82-year-old owner of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo. It's the tiniest of restaurants, only 10 seats and no bathroom, yet it has 3 Michelin stars and its owner is recognized as the world's master of sushi. Gelb's film is so beautiful, it's hallucinatory and revelatory: A life aimed at a perfection that the master himself believes is unattainable.

Here's the trailer, a very brief 50-second experience. Like a single piece of perfect sushi, it might whet your appetite to watch for an unusual film.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Who gets to celebrate like a Culinista?

That would be Mark Roman, who won the random drawing for the cookbook "Party Like a Culinista," by Jill Donenfeld and Josetth Gordon. Congratulations, Mark! Let us know if you use one of the menus for a party.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One Great . . . Cookbook giveaway

Fans of roasted cauliflower, here's a new way to use it: Toss it with herbs, olives and capers to make a salad. We got the recipe from the new cookbook-with-attitude, "Party Like a Culinista," by Jill Donenfeld and Josetth Gordon (Lake Isle Press, $21.95).

Donenfeld and Gordon are caterers and party experts who are into easy entertaining with whole foods and simple recipes.

Want to win a copy of the book? Email me your name with "Culinista" in the subject line. We'll pick a winner by random drawing and post it here. Deadline: 9 a.m. Friday.

Party on, kids.

Roasted Cauliflower Salad

From “Party Like a Culinista,” by Jill Donenfeld and Josetth Gordon (Lake Isle Press, $21.95).

2 heads cauliflower, chopped into florets

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt

3/4 cup crushed walnuts

1/2 cup chpped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

2 tablespopons chopped fresh oregano

3/4 cup pitted kalamata olives

2 tablespoons juice from the olive jar

2 tablespoons capers packed in brine, crushed

2 teaspoons caper brine

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

PREHEAT oven to 375 degrees. Toss the cauliflower with the olive oil and salt. Spread on a rimmed baking sheet and roast 20 to 30 minutes or until the edges of the cauliflower are starting to brown. Cool.

SPREAD the walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven until browned and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Cool.

Toss together the cauliflower, nuts, herbs and olives in a large bowl. Blend the olive juice, capers, caper brine, lemon juice, zest and pepper in a small bowl. Drizzle over the cauliflower and toss again. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Who's leading American food?

Put aside the news about food-safety outbreaks and obesity numbers for a minute and think about something positive: The people doing incredible work to improve sustainability and fairness in America's food policy.

I got to play a small part in that last week. Two years ago, I was stepping down after 10 years on the committee that oversees the James Beard Foundation's book awards. I was literally at my last meeting in New York when the committee that oversees all of the foundation's awards started talking seriously about finding a way to honor American food beyond the glitz and glamour of the yearly restaurant and chef awards.

The foundation was starting a yearly conference that would bring together the best minds to highlight great work being done. In addition, the foundation wanted to include some kind of an award. What kind, they didn't know. They just knew there was a lot of important work being done in areas of food availability, sustainable agriculture and food policy.

That's where I came in: Since I knew how to write bylaws and set up committee procedures from my work with the book awards, the foundation asked if I would stay on as a volunteer to figure out how to make a new set of awards. We wanted to honor a long list of criteria, everything from hunger relief to school gardens.

The result was the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards: A list of honorees who will be named every year for the work they're doing right now. The first honorees were named last week in New York, at the second JBF Food Conference: Sustainability on the Table.

As a journalist, I can't vote on things that I might need to cover. So the Leadership Awards were arranged so I don't have to: We have a prestigious advisory committee that picks the nominees and votes.

The initial advisory committee: chefs Dan Barber and Rick Bayless, Scott Cullen of the GRACE Communication Foundation, Hal Hamilton of the Sustainable Food Lab, culinary historian Jessica Harris, Robert Lawrence of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins, nutrition and public health professor Marion Nestle, Eric Rimm of Harvard, Gus Schumacher of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, Debbie Shore of Share Our Strength, Naomi Starkman of Civil Eats, and Arlin Wasserman of Sodexo.

My role is gatekeeper -- I make the train run on time. I helped to write the award definition and criteria, ran the conference calls and set up the schedule. But the work that was honored last week is so important, I'm proud to play even that small role.

Here are the first honorees, and a little about them. Yes, there are some names on this list you may not expect, like Unilever and Costco. But it takes all kinds of work to make a sustainable food supply. It's not all Saturday morning farmers markets, folks:

Will Allen, (below) founder of Rainbow Farmer's Cooperative, the last remaining farm within the Milwaukee city limits, and founder of Growing Power, a 2-acre urban agriculture model that works with children and adults to grow food in inner cities.

Fedele Bauccio, Bon Appetit Management Company, an innovative food-service company that pioneers things like a Low Carbon Diet program. Bon Appetit also works with the United Farm Workers and Oxfam to support social-justice in the harvesting of food.

Debra Eschmeyer, (left, with her husband Jeff) co-founder of Food Corps, which works with AmeriCorps to match young adults with school-based food organizations in high-obesity, low-resource communities.

Sheri Flies, assistant general merchandise manager for Costco. Yes, Costco: Flies oversees the sourcing of limited-resource commodities for the Kirkland Signature label, making sure the products are environmentally sustainable and making sure workers get fair treatment and health care.

Jan Kees Vis, global director of sustainable sourcing for Unilever. A big company like Unilever makes a lot of products that use palm oil. Vis changed the way palm oil is grown and harvested to make it sustainable.

Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University of president of the board of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Fred has a farming background and a visionary's imagination.

Michelle Obama, for her work on childhood obesity and the Let's Move campaign. The first lady doesn't officially accept awards, but the White House sent advisor Sam Kass in her place.

Janet Poppendieck, sociology professor at Hunter College and author of "Sweet Charity," an examination of food relief programs, and "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America."

Alice Waters, for her advocacy of sustainable agriculture and her work with the Edible Schoolyard program.

Craig Watson, vice president of Agriculture Sustainability for food-service giant Sysco Corp. Sysco's Integrated Pest Management program includes 921,000 acres and 30 local food programs.

You can find more on the Leadership Awards, including video from the conference sessions, at