Monday, January 31, 2011

Special food report: Durham A Day

If Charlotte streets are a ball of yarn, Durham is a tangled skein. You need a GPS to get from 15/501 to Duke Street, and even when the GPS says "you have reached your destination," you may be sitting there, yelling, "Where? Where is my destination?"

That just adds to the fun. Chapel Hill and Asheville may be hip, Charlotte and Raleigh may be all business. Durham is something else entirely. What Durham has is a food entrepreneur class, a lot of young people who came for college or fun and stuck around to do what they love. I spent last Friday trolling Durham, and I heard variations of this over and over: "The economy is lousy, there are no jobs. Might as well do what we love. And what we love is food."

I'll bring blog reports all week on a half-dozen places I tried. Starting with:

Scratch Baking, 111 Orange St. Phoebe Lawless started out selling her pies at farmers markets and opened a bricks-and-mortar bakery last year. Finding it isn't easy: Orange Street isn't actually a street, it's a brick-lined alley tucked behind the City Complex. If you see the bull statue near Mangum Street, you're a block away.

I've interviewed Lawless and was hoping to meet her, but she was out tending to a sick kitten. Her employees were happy to help, though. The menu is a bit quirky. One employee called the style simply "Phoebe's whims." She likes old-fashioned pies, like chocolate chess, and she likes seasonal pies, like fig and pear tarts. The drinks menu includes "Candy Milk" because Lawless' 5-year-old daughter likes to order steamed vanilla latte with a candy stick to stir it. So they put it on the menu so she could order like a big girl.

There's a whole chalkboard just devoted to local producers, and pies come and go so quickly. So check before you get your heart set on anything.

I went with the Shaker Lemon Pie, one of Lawless' favorites in the category of "rescued farmhouse recipes."
You have to really, really love lemon. Luckily, I really, really do: The filling is creamy and yellow with a taste of buttermilk, and it's filled with strips of lemon peel. The crust literally flakes when you press down with a fork. It's bitter and sweet, creamy and crunchy.

Truly fine pie. And a fine place to start off a Durham eating day.

Next up: The Food Truck Revolution.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Food label "keys": Out of tune?

The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America announced new label "keys" this week, a code on the front of packages that will give you a quick rundown on things like calories, saturated fat, sodium and dietary fiber. Hailing it as a voluntary effort by food makers, the two groups said it's a move to answer consumer demand for more information. Here's FMI's one-page explanation of the new labels:

But complaints are quickly cropping up that the new labels are just an attempt by manufacturers to make it more difficult, not easier, to tell which products are poor choices. Marion Nestle, New York University professor and a frequent commentator on nutrition policy, explains that side of the argument in her column, here:

Take a look at both sides and see what you think. Is this a guide that you will find useful, or just more "white noise" that makes it harder to navigate the grocery store aisles?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Grab a bag - it's wine-sale season

Ah, the holidays - all that frenzy, all those decisions. Not the Christmas holidays. I've started celebrating my own special season in January: Wine-sale season.

There are mini-wine sale seasons through the year. Stores usually have a lot of markdown at the end of summer to clear out space for the fall releases, and sometimes they run big sales for reasons I can't fathom without a marketing degree. But the one I watch for is in January, when supermarkets clear out old vintages to make space for the new stuff.

Harris Teeter is always a big player, although I've also celebrated the season at other stores. Earth Fare usually is a good hunting ground, too. But I know it's wine-sale season when I see those big blue tags hanging off the Teeter shelves. I make a point to start bringing my bottle-bag into the store and warn my grocery haulers at home that I'll be bringing home extra bottles for a few weeks.

Think of it like an Easter egg hunt for grownups: I troll the tags, looking for the big numbers. Forget $2 or $3 off. I fish for $5 off or higher, I always stop at $7-off and $9-off is my personal "cha-CHING." I don't always bite, though. $10 off on a $50 wine is still out of my league. But $10 off on a $20 bottle is 50% off - very enticing.

I generally stick to wines, regions and labels I know, but when a $25 wine comes down to $15, I'm willing to take chances. I've been burned occasionally, but never badly. This weekend, I scored two cabernets and a zinfandel. The zin was a little oxidized, a bit brown around the edges, but it still had plenty of fruit. I'm not looking for wines to impress, just stuff in a comfortable price range for weeknights, a glass of red to go with a plate of pasta or something from the slow cooker.

Maybe it's not everybody's idea of a season to celebrate, and I certainly get even more excited about asparagus season. But in January, it's the little things that count off.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Charlotte Food world: What's going on

  • Cooking Uptown classes fill up fast, so they announce them early. The April schedule kicks off knife skills on April 2, and the month continues through "Spring in France" on April 30. Prices and times vary; go to or call 704-333-7300. Cooking Uptown is at 1707 E. 7th St. in Charlotte.

  • For all of you have been asking for hands-on cooking classes for kids, Cooking Uptown is going to offer them for the first time this summer. The classes will be $195 for four days and include a chef hat, apron, take-home booklet of recipes and an awards ceremony at the end. The web site and number are above.

  • "Forks Over Knives," a documentary on the health issues involved with a diet of an animal- and processed food-based diet, opens nationwide in March, but there will be an early screening in Charlotte at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 5 at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, 920 N. Sharon Amity. Tickets and details:

  • Chef Carrie Leonard of Johnson & Wales University's Charlotte campus, will teach a 12-class series of videos on classical culinary techniques that will be available on Time Warner Cable's Video on Demand channel. The series is free and available on the Carolina On Demand channels, 199 or 1047.

  • You've heard of an open house. The Inn at Celebrity Dairy is having an Open Barn from noon to 5 p.m. Feb. 12 and 13 and March 12 and 13. If you feel like taking the easy drive to Siler City, you can buy lunch and goat cheese and see the goats. $10 donations for Heifer Foundation International are requested but not required. Details and directions: or 919-742-5176.

  • Oh, and one more I should mention: I'll be a guess on Tuesday, WFAE's "Charlotte Talks" on the subject of food in the New South. Turn in at 9 a.m.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Good Food Awards: Carolina winners

The first Good Food Awards kicked off last week in San Francisco, with Alice Waters and thousands of food fans in attendance at the Ferry Plaza Building. The Good Food Awards Seal was awarded to 71 artisan or small-batch products from 26 states. The seal recognizes contributions toward "a more tasty, authentic and responsible food system in urban and rural communities throughout the nation."

There were a sprinkling of winners from the Carolinas in the seven categories. Surprisingly, there were no home-states winners in the beer, cheese and chocolate categories (we have some mighty good contenders in all three). And most of the winners were clustered in the Triangle - maybe next year we'll see some well-deserved attention for producers in the mountains and the Piedmont. But we had winners in charcuterie, coffee, pickles and preserves:


  • Cypressata from Cypress restaurant, Charleston.
  • Sweet potato liverwurst, from Weeping Radish Farm Brewery, Grandy. (I haven't seen the liverwurst locally, but Weeping Radish hot dogs and a few other things are sold by Gilcrest Natural Farms at the Charlotte Regional Farmer's Market.)
  • El Aguacate, from Carrboro Coffee Co., Carrboro.
  • Finca Kilimanjaro, Counter Culture Coffee, Durham. (Counter Culture has an office and does tastings in Charlotte, and many of its coffees are available at Earth Fare markets.)
  • Spicy Green Tomato, from the Farmer's Daughter, Carrboro.
  • Bourbon'd Figs, from Farmer's Daughter, Carrboro.

For details, including information on who's behind the awards and Good Food Month, go to

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blenheim report: Nice writing, Salon

Food writer Francis Lam did a tasting of ginger ales and ginger beers and weighed in on Carolinas-based Blenheim's:

"It's like drinking pins and needles. Like drinking down a sneeze. The flare goes back up your throat, through your nose, and for a moment, you are breathing Godzilla's nuclear blast. OK, that's probably overstating it, but if, like, Godzilla had a pilot light for his nuclear breath."

And he meant that in a good way. I'm with you, Francis. And I can tell you that Blenheim's Old No. 3 is a great mixer with bourbon. Makes a high ball that will keep you warm all winter.

Tasting: Poppy's Bagels

I'm a popular girl in my office. Since I eat for a living, I share a lot of leftovers. But now my colleagues have a new reason:

I bring the good bagels.

Poppy's Bagels opened in Providence Plaza on Providence Road near Sharon Amity in mid-November. Way to locate: If you drive uptown on Providence with the morning herd, you know that intersection is like the stocked fishing stream of office workers.

The first time I stopped in, Poppy's felt familiar. It's like the little bagel shops all over New York. They decorate the bowls of cream cheese with flower designs, they have whitefish salad, and the cooler is stocked with Dr. Brown's. And the bagels are right, with that shiny, crackly crust and chewy interior.

Ronnie Rippner grew up on Long Island and lived all over Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn before he moved down here four years ago for all the reasons most people from the Northeast head South: Lower taxes, bigger houses for the money. Like a lot of people, he used to be in banking. To learn the bagel business, he found a guy in New York to teach him the ropes.

They make the bagels on the premises, including boiling and baking. Back when Charlotte didn't have real bagels (yes, I'm old enough to remember it well), people used to say you couldn't make New York bagels here because the water isn't the same. Rippner heard that, too, but says it hasn't turned out to be the case. The tangy cream cheese has been particularly popular at my office. They get it from a wholesaler, but they mix their own flavors.

One more thing Poppy's has that keeps me stopping in: Rippner's mother, Georgeanna. A native of Hungary, she came down from New York to open the shop. She spots the regulars quickly and chats with everybody. It's like stopping by 28th Street for portable breakfast while I'm driving to Stonewall and Tryon.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Which diet works for you?

Jan Norris, former food editor at the Palm Beach Post who now has an active and creative food writer online, posted a good piece this morning with common-sense advise on dieting.

Among other things, she shares points on why not all diets work for all people. She also includes smart pictures illustrating key points about portion control. It's good reading here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who's the most powerful in the food world?

Expect a lot of debate over the 50 Most Powerful People In Food, released this week by the web site Of course it will be a debate: The Daily Meal is headed by Colman Andrews, who was founder of Saveur magazine.

You'll have to go to here to see the whole list. But to give you an idea of Andrews' reasoning, here are the top 10:

1. You. "The reader. The consumer. The restaurant-goer. The home cook."

2. Thomas J. Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture.

3. Hugh Grant. Not the actor. The chairman and CEO of Monsanto.

4. Michelle Obama. For her White House garden and her "Let's Move" initiative.

5. Steve Jobs. Yes, the Apple chair. For all those food-related aps.

6. Alice Waters. For, well, I suppose for being Alice Waters.

7. Brooke Johnson. The woman in charge of Food Network and its new spinoff, the Cooking Channel.

8. Mike Duke. CEO of Wal-Mart, not only the world's largest grocer but now the nation's No. 1 purchaser of organic foods.

9. Sam Sifton. The New York Times restaurant reviewer.

10. Jim Skinner. CEO of McDonald's. Who knew Mickey D is now the largest purchaser of apples in the U.S.?

The rest of the list will certainly be parsed and diced. Wolfgang Puck and Rachael Ray are almost evenly matched, at Nos. 13 and 14 respectively. Tom Colicchio is on there, at No. 30, but "Top Chef" co-host Padma Lakshmi isn't. And fellow judge Tony Bourdain didn't make the cut, but Martha Stewart did (No. 47).

Read the full list

Need your Super Bowl, food-waste tips

Not together, of course. My colleague Andrea Weigl is working on a couple of stories and she could use good people. I'll let her explain them both:

  • Are you the ultimate Super Bowl host or hostess? We'd love your advice on throwing a stress-free Super Bowl party - meating you actually get to enjoy the game because you get everything ready before kickoff. Send your tips and recipes to Please include "Super Bowl" in the subject line.
  • Andrea also is looking for tips on how to avoid wasting food. Are you a master at turning leftovers and leftover ingredients into amazing meals? Have you found a way to make sure you only buy what you need? Send your tips and ideas to Please include "food waste" in the subject line.

Thanks, folks. We get the very best ideas and recipes from all of you. That's what keeps this job fun.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Silver Lining Dept.: More Home Meals

Down economies are apparently good for something. The number of daily family meals eaten at home has made a significant jump, from 52 percent of meals in 2003 to 73 percent in 2010, according to a survey by the American Dietetic Association Foundation.

Among kids surveyed -- the ADA polled 1,193 pairs of parents and children ages 8 to 17 -- 63 percent of Hispanics, 56 percent of African-Americans and 51 percent of Caucasians reported their families eat at fast-food or sit-down restaurants less than once a week or never, according to a report on the survey in the Chicago Tribune.

Not all the news is good, though: 42 percent of Hispanic and Caucasian children and 59 percent of African-American children report sometimes missing breakfast. And just over half the kids reported snacking after school and 24 to 26 report snacking in the evening. Not that snacking is all bad, but health experts say what kids eat as snacks usually isn't as healthy as what they eat in a meal.

Still, 21 percent more meals are being eaten at home? I'd put that in the "whoo-hoo" category if even some of those meals are being cooked at home from fresh foods instead of being picked up from a drive-through on the way home.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Secret Chocolatier will be less secret

Fans of Bill Dietz' truffles at the Secret Chocolatier won't have to search for him just at local farmers' markets soon. Andy Cordia, Dietz' son-in-law, has announced that the family has signed a lease at Providence Plaza, at Providence and Sharon Amity, to open a retail shop this spring.

The plan is to be open in time for Easter and Passover.

Robin Cordia, Dietz' daughter and a co-owner of the business, says they won't drop their farmer's market booths.

"Our farmers market customers were a bit worried when they learned we were setting up shop, but why would we drop the markets? We love being a part of the spirit at Atherton Mills and Market, Matthews Farmers Market and the farmers market at Yorkmont."

When the shop is open, hours are expected to be 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.

Food State Map

What's wrong with this picture? The web site I Can Haz Cheez Burger posted a pictoral map of the country by foods. Problem is . . . well, you can imagine all sorts of problems with that idea. The whole state of Florida is represented by an orange. What, no black beans and rice, no lechon asada, no sweet plantains?

So far, though, the 232 comments have heavily weighed in on one big mistake: Us.

North Carolina is listed as "dry barbecue," with a picture that looks like a rack o'ribs. Um, Cheez? Stick with burgers. Let us handle the barbecue -- whole pig or Boston butt, chopped or minced, vinegar sauce or red vinegar sauce.

If you want to join the fun, go here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

More really simple party appetizers

The holidays are over, but I'm still getting suggestions for quick and simple party appetizers. Good thing - we still have Super Bowl parties, tailgates and potlucks ahead. Here are few more to add to your list (the recipes are at the end). Look down the list for the rest that people sent in:

  • Sharon Berry sent two, Baked Fruit and Black Bean Salsa Dip that she had just taken in a neighborhood party when she saw my column.
  • Eileen Woodward sent a copy of the classic Ro-Tel tomato and sausage dip, this one made with cream cheese instead of Velveeta.
  • Kathy Clarke sent three: Cranberry Cheese Ball, Hot Artichoke Dip and Fruit Pizza.
  • Linda Burcham sent an appetizer made with one of my favorite ingredients, canned hearts of palm.

Thanks to you all.

Hearts of Palm Dip
1 (14.25-ounce) can hearts of palm, drained and chopped
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 cup chopped green onion
1/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 small clove garlic, pressed
PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Grease a glass or Pyrex pie pan or Corning round or oval dish.
MIX all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Spread in chosen dish or pan. Bake 20 minutes or until light brown and bubbly. Serve with crackers, Melba toast round or flatbread crackers.

Cranberry Cheese Ball
1 1/2 (8-ounce) blocks cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 cup dried cranberries
Chopped pecans (no amount specified; I'd try 1/2 cup plus about 1/2 cup for coating the ball)
COMBINE cream cheese, powdered sugar, cranberries and chopped pecans. Roll into a ball or log shape. Roll in more chopped pecans. Serve with crackers, preferably Wheat Thins.

Hot Artichoke Dip
2 to 3 jars artichoke hearts, drained well
1 to 2 blocks cream cheese or goat cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
Garlic salt, lemon pepper or other favorite spices.
MASH drained artichokes with a potato masher. Add other ingredients and mix well. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes until just beginning to brown on top. Serve with hot, crusty bread.

Fruit Pizza
2 packages sugar cookie dough
1/2 to 3/4 cup powdered sugar
Colorful fresh fruit, cut into bite-size pieces
About 1/2 cup flaked coconut
SPREAD cookie dough on a pizza pan or cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool about 10 minutes. Mix cream cheese with powdered sugar and spread over baked crust. DECORATE with fruit, such as kiwi, raspberries, Mandarin orange slices, strawberries, pineapple tidbits and grapes. Sprinkle with flaked coconut and chill several hours before serving.

Ro-Tel Sausage Dip
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese
1 pound bulk sausage, browned and drained
1 can Ro-Tel tomatoes
COMBINE and heat together, then serve with scoop-shaped tortilla chips.

Black Bean Salsa Dip
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
12 ounces chunky salsa
4 ounces grated Mexican cheese
COMBINE beans and salsa in a serving bowl. Microwave at 50% power for 5 minutes. Stir and microwave again until warm. Top with cheese and microwave on low power until cheese melts. Serve with tortilla chips or Fritos Scoops.

Baked Fruit
1 can each peaches, pears, pineapple and apricots, cut in similar-size pieces, drained (reserve 1/2 cup juice)
1 can cherry pie filling
Cinnamon if desired
COMBINE fruits, pie filling and reserved juice in a rectangular baking dish. Sprinkle with cinnamon for the holidays. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

Christmas exchange: Making pierogies

What do you do with mothers on holiday visits? My friend Halina is from a mixed cultural background: She left England for America more than 30 years ago. But her late father was Polish and her mother is British. Despite her mother's Birmingham accent, Bobbie adopted enough Polish ways that all of Halina's friends call her Babsha, Polish for grandmother.

We all know Babsha well. When she goes to the trouble of crossing an ocean for a visit, she makes it worthwhile, settling in for weeks. After raising four sons and a daughter, Babsha takes cooking seriously. That means Halina's friends get treated to plenty of Babsha's cooking at Christmas - Polish walnut torte and galumpki, usually with an English steamed pudding thrown in.

This year, Halina was determined that her mother's visit would include a cooking lesson in pierogies. Actually, she wanted her mother to show the whole Polish repertoire, an idea that made her mother roll her eyes. We negotiated her down to a big batch of pierogies.
I do have some experience with pierogies: My son's godmother is from a Polish family. When she got married in Cleveland, her family hired "the best Polish caterer in Cleveland," a statement pronounced with the hushed reverence of "the best cattle herder in Texas". The wedding banquet featured more kinds of pierogies than I can count or recall, especially since it also included a day of vodka toasts that started in the bride's dressing room at the church before the ceremony.

Luckily, there were no vodka toasts for the pierogie cooking session last week. When several of us gathered in Halina's kitchen, there already was a huge pot of boiled, mashed Russet potatoes. First lesson: Cheez Whiz squirted into the potatoes, along with sauteed onions. It has the tanginess of English cheddar, Babsha explained, but it blends easier.

I sent out a Tweet about the Cheez Whiz and got a disparaging comment from a chef: "British food - go figure." No, not British, according to Babsha. That's a Ukranian shortcut that also turns up among her emigre connections in Canada. Listen, when you raise five kids on platters of pierogies, you don't turn up your nose at shortcuts that work.

Next, she pulled out the biggest mixing bowl in the house, dumped in an enormous pile of flour and made a mixture of eggs, cold water and vegetable oil to work into it with her hands. How much? "Until it's enough."

The kitchen table was cleared off and Halina was put to work rolling out the dough to her mother's specifications: Thin enough? No, thinner. Is that thin enough? No, girl, thinner!

Finally, Halina was granted permission to start cutting out circles with a wide drinking glass. We sat around the table, snow on the ground outside, and shaped teaspoons of potato filling on the dough circles, wet the edges with a little water, folded them closed and pressed them shut carefully, crimping tightly so they wouldn't come open in boiling water. Babsha lined them up on a tray dusted with flour so they wouldn't stick together.

After dropping them in boiling water to cook, they were drained and chilled, to be finished that night by frying them in a little butter. With a big pot of chicken soup and a salad of shredded, roasted beets mixed with lemon juice, sugar and enough horseradish to clear every nose on the East Coast, that was dinner on a winter night.

Can I tell you have to make pierogies? No, girl. But I got plenty of practice in eating them.