Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is it Jane Parker fruit cake time?

For Jane Parker fruitcake fans (and believe me -- there is no bigger fruitcake nut than a Jane Parker fruitcake nut): The Jane Parker website is ready to take your orders. Go to and peruse the selection, including both light and dark fruitcakes, ranging in price from the 1-pound dark cake for $27.49 up to the 4.5-pound light fruitcake ring for $46.49.

If you aren't a Jane Parker fruitcake nut, a brief explanation: Jane Parker is the house brand for the A&P supermarket stores, which once were all over the South. Although A&P stores are now harder to find, some of its brands, including Jane Parker, are still made and sold at various chains around the country, such as PathMark, Waldbaum's and The Food Emporium.

For many people who grew up in the South in the 1950s and '60s, Jane Parker cakes were as much a part of Christmas as spray-on snow and aluminum Christmas trees with blue ornaments. So when the stores dwindled and the cake got hard to find, it become a yearly ritual to track down an elusive cake.

Nowadays, you can not only get them through the A&P company, you can find them on Amazon. But Santa doesn't travel as fast as he used to, so it's time to get those orders in.

Let me know if you spot an elf riding a Norelco shaver.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Barbecue: Are those fighting words?

Washington Post contributor Jim Shahin had some choice words for Charlotte barbecue recently. Stopping in Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, he contemplated our city while getting a barbecue sandwich from Brookwood Farms Carolina Pit BBQ:

"I was in an airport, ordering faux Carolina ’cue, and I was lost. Technically, I suppose, I was in Charlotte. But the city is itself lost, barbecue-speaking. It does not adhere to one of the state’s famously partisan styles, whether Eastern or Western.
"As a city within one of the great barbecue regions, Charlotte is regarded as a barbecue embarrassment. If Charlotte were a relative, it would be the one everyone wished didn’t come to Thanksgiving."

Is that fair? Is Charlotte that much of an embarrassment? Does someone from Washington -- the  flattest flavor spot between Baltimore and New York -- have any experience at knowing what tastes good?

Share your opinion here and we'll pass them on to Shahin. A few ground rules: Keep your response concise; don't use profanity; and keep the personal insults to a minimum. Although Shahin did call our city an embarrassment. So the personal insults have already started to fly.

Even more cookbooks for your gift list

What's harder than deciding which cookbook to buy? Deciding which cookbook to review. In Sunday's Observer, I picked four (for the record, I didn't suggest my own book, "Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook" - writer Pam Kelley made that decision).

In Wednesday's Food section, fellow writer Andrea Weigl and I named our seven picks. But we knew that it wouldn't be enough and that we both would have our own favorites. So here are a half-dozen more that are my picks, plus a recap of the ones we're already suggested.

Even Santa should be able to find something to cook:

Comfort Me With Offal, by Ruth Bourdain (Andrews McMeel, $19.99). Will the real Ruth Bourdain please not stand up? The joke is more fun if we never know who is behind the food-writing parody "Ruth Bourdain" - a mashup of impossibly elegant Ruth Reichl and always profane Anthony Bourdain. RB started as a Twitter account, but the book stretches the joke past 140 characters. It's a sendup of foodie-world pretensions, like a guide to "nose to tail" eating that includes probiscus monkeys and a chart to decide if you're a celebrity chef ("does the inside of a QVC studio feel homey?") Rock on, Ruth, whoever you are.

 "Southern Comfort," by Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing (Ten Speed Press, $35). Both chefs who moved back to Louisiana after a foray in New York, the Rushings are unabashed lovers of bold, hearty, homey Southern cooking. These are the kind of recipes you'd make on a Sunday afternoon when you want to hang out with a bunch of friends and eat something good.

"Fred Thompson's Southern Sides" (UNC Press, $35). Sometimes the side dishes are the best things on the plate. Raleigh food writer Thompson pulls from his family history and his own extensive experience for these 250 recipes. (Disclosure: Fred and I both have books from UNC Press.)

"Burma: Rivers of Flavor," by Naomi Duguid (Artisan, $35). I wrote a column about Duguid's Burma trek earlier this year, but her cookbook is definitely worth a deeper look. For global eaters, it's an exploration of a cuisine that is still a surprise, with a range of new flavors and techniques.

"Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts: Quicker Smarter Recipes," by Alice Medrich (Artisan, $25.95). Medrich has always been one of our most innovative and creative food writers. She's not a baker so much as someone who loves all things sweet and knows how to lead your tastebuds in new paths.

"How to Cook Everything: The Basics," by Mark Bittman (Wiley, $35). Every year, I get questions about which book to buy for a beginning cook. This would be an excellent choice: It has more than 1,000 photos, including steps, and like his earlier "Everything" books, the recipes are accessible without being dumb. You can start here and learn enough to go a long way in the kitchen.

RECAP: What else have we suggested?

"Bouchon Bakery," by Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel (Artisan, $50).
"Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking," by Kevin Gillespie with David Joachim (Andrews McMeel, $40).
"Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook," by Kathleen Purvis (UNC Press, $18).
"Buttermilk: A Savor the South Cookbook," by Debbie Moose (UNC Press, $18).
"Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking," by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubert (Gibbs Smith, $45).
"Great Meat Cookbook," by Bruce Aidells (Houghton Mifflin, $40).
"Barefoot Contessa Foolproof," by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter, $35).
"Fix It & Freeze It, Heat It & Eat It," by Southern Living (Oxmoor House, $19.95).
"The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook," by Deb Perelman (Knopf, $35).
"Japanese Farm Food," by Nancy Singleton Hachisu (Andrews McMeel, $35).
"Flour Water Salt Yeast," by Ken Forkish (Ten Speed Press, $35).

One Great . . . fast breakfast

One of the great things about being the recipe clearinghouse is that readers are always making sure I remember old recipes. You lose it, I look for it and then I get to take a second look.

A few weeks ago, a reader was looking for an oatmeal recipe that her sister had found in the Observer years ago. All she remember was the date -- sometime around 2007 -- and that it involved sticking oatmeal in the refrigerator overnight.

I can't always work miracles to find missing recipes. We switched from paper clip files to an electronic version in 1985, the same year I started working here. If it's before 1985, you're out of luck. But after that, if I have a clear phrase or a distinct word, I can usually track it down.

That worked in this case. And when I looked at the recipe, I set aside for my own uses, too. At this time of year, I'm just as likely to eat oatmeal for a late dinner as an early breakfast. Thanks, reader.

Overnight Pineapple Oats

From "The Short-Cut Vegetarian," by Lorna Sass (Quill, $16). You could probably use  nonfat milk if you don't keep rice or soy milk (or almond milk) on hand. And you'd never miss 1/4 teaspoon of cardomom.

2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 (8-ounce) can unsweetened crushed pineapple
1 1/2 cups rice or soy milk
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 or 2 sliced bananas
1/4 cup toasted nuts (I'd go with pecans, but that's me)

COMBINE  oats, pineapple, milk, cardamom and salt in a glass or plastic bowl. Stir well, cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, stir in the banana and top with nuts.

YIELD: 4 servings.

Friday, November 16, 2012

One Great . . . Thanksgiving salad

Looking through all the Thanksgiving recipes we've run in the last two weeks, what haven't we covered? Ah, a good salad.

You need something sturdy, in case you're taking it for a potluck. It should be simple to make. Colorful, of course. And it should be something everyone will like, even the ones who think they hate broccoli.

Where will I find such a recipe? Hey, that book about pecans looks familiar. I wonder what kind of recipes I could find there?

Broccoli-Pecan Salad

From "Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook," by Kathleen Purvis (UNC Press, 2012).

1 small head of broccoli, cut into florests (save the stalks for another use)
1/4 cup dried cranberries or dried cherries
1/2 of a medium red onion, minced
1/2 cup toasted, chopped pecans
4 tablespoons reduced-fat mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons nonfat milk
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt

TOSS the broccoli, cranberries, onion and pecans in a large serving bowl.

WHISK together the mayonnaise, sugar, milk, vinegar and salt in a small bowl. Pour over the salad and toss to mix well. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving.

YIELD: 4 to 6 servings.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Do you trust your food information?

My column on California's vote on GMO labeling actually started several weeks before the election, at the James Beard Foundation's annual October food conference.

A little background: I am the chair of the JBF Leadership Awards, which honor people and organizations for their work on things like sustainable agriculture, sound food policy and safe food systems. For the record, my role was to craft the procedures for how the awards work, but I don't vote on the honorees. I helped to lay the tracks and I make sure the train runs on time, but I don't drive the train. Setting it up that way was my attempt to avoid a conflict of interest with people and issues I cover.

As part of the Leadership Awards for several years now, the foundation holds a conference on food policy. The conference covers everything from sustainable policies to the future of food. This year, conference director Mitchell Davis set up an intriguing and thought-provoking subject -- trust. Trust in your food supply, trust in food information, trust in food regulation.

It was edgy stuff. There were discussions on the pressures within the dairy industry, and the role of government in creating food systems we trust. Dennis Treacy, the chief sustainability officer for Smithfield, set on a panel with Tensie Whelan from the Rainforest Alliance, Shauna Sadowski from Annie's and Hal Hamilton of the Sustainable Food Lab -- and looked some vocal critics straight in the eye.

The panel that caught my attention, though, was the one on GMOs. That's the one I quoted from in my column. Jason W. Clay, one of the winners of this year's Leadership Awards and the VP of market transformation for the World Wildlife Fund, spoke sensibly and reasonably about the importance of research into GMOs, which usually are shorthand for "evil empire." It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon after a big lunch, in a sunny 44th-floor conference room with windows overlooking Central Park -- and I was not only fully awake, I was transfixed by what he had to say.

Yes, I know that it's easy to make snap judgments about food science. It's faster to decide "I don't like it in my gut" than it is to do the hard slog of reading through reporters and research, to sift through seemingly conflicting bits of information to decide whether what your gut is telling you is something you can trust. But as Jason Clay is fond of saying, "It’s not what to think, it’s how to think."

You can see clips of all the panels on Livestream, including that panel with Clay and moderator Fred Kaufman, a contributing editor at Harper's and author of "Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food." The other I'd recommend: The talk by one of the other Leadership Awards honorees, Kentucky farmer, poet and farm activist Wendell Berry, on the 50-Year Farm Bill and the future of American agriculture.

Monday, November 12, 2012

High 5 for Polka Dot Bakery and Cupcrazed

Great news for Charlotte's Polka Dot Bakeshop and Fort Mill's Cupcrazed Cakery: They both made the list of the 50 Best Cupcake Bakeries in the country.

The website is fond of posting slideshows (the better to log lots of clicks) with the editors' picks for best in a number of food categories. This time, they ranked cupcake places, with drool-worthy pictures. A couple of bakeries with national reps didn't rank all that highly -- New York's Magnolia Bakery came in at a lowly 43 out of 50, while Baked by Melissa ended up at No. 22.

Cupcrazed, which came to national fame on the Food Network show "Cupcake Wars," was ranked No. 38, with shoutouts for its flavors and its great customer service.

Meanwhile, Polka Dot Bakery broke into the Top 10, at the No. 6 slot. Daily Meal editors called it "the price and joy of Charlotte, North Carolina," and said, "They pour their hearts into creating a delectable menu."

And if you want to try the No. 1 pick for best cupcake bakery, it's not a very long drive: The honor went to the Atlanta Cupcake Factory.

Here's the slide show: Best Cupcake Bakeries. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Anybody here seen sweet things?

You guys are the reason I spent several days on the road in late October, loading my car with cookies, the elusive iced brownies, nutty fingers and cream horns. (Um, thanks.)

In January, Bill Addison wrote a piece on Southern bakeries for Southern Living magazine. To my surprise, there were no local bakeries on the list. So I wrote a blog post and threw it open to you, the readers: Where would you send Southern Living to taste bakeries around here?

I figured I might get a baker's dozen replies or so. To my surprise, I got 53, a long list of bakeries from Harrisburg to Pineville. There was a roundup of Charlotte favorites, of course -- Amelie's and Nona's, Tizzerts and Suarez. All fine bakeries.

But what really caught my attention were the small-town places. I can't believe in all these years, no one told me about the wonders of the Albemarle Sweet Shop's clown cookies (above) or the cheese rings at Carswell in Rock Hill. Or the pecan pie cupcake "under glass" (right)  at Just Baked, in a comfortable old house in Cornelius.

My editors and I agreed that a bakery tour of the countryside was in order. The result was today's story.

Now, I knew the whole time that there would be more bakeries than I could possibly include. And everybody has their own standard for how to pick a bakery. Before I hit the road, I wrote out my own Sweet-Stuff Manifesto, what I was looking for in a good small-town bakery:

It should smell warm and sugary and buttery. It shouldn’t be all glass and plastic.
It should have people behind the counter who look like they sometimes get floured handprints on their backsides and don’t even notice.
It should have cookies and layer cakes and a good slice of pie, not just cupcakes. But if it has  cupcakes, they're as much about the cake as the frosting.
It should have a short list of great stuff, not a long list of good stuff.
It shouldn’t have so few things in the case that you’re forced to eat something you don’t want.
It should be a place where people come to sit and be comfortable and eat something they know they shouldn’t but know they can.
It should have cakes with names instead of just flowers. 
When you ask what the most popular thing is, the people behind the counter should know and not just say "oh, everything is good."
It should make you feel a little bit like a kid again. 

So, what about you? What places did I miss? Is there another Albemarle Sweet Shop hiding out there? Post a comment and let me know. I'm always looking for an excuse to hit the road.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

One Great . . . simple party dip

Back when the World Wide Web was still called the World Wide Web, it didn't take long to notice that the whole thing was made for recipe searches. But with so many early players stumbling around, how did you know where to start?

That's why we quickly learned to appreciate the cleverly named Epicurious. Built by Conde Nast, it contained recipes from both of its food publications, Gourmet and Bon Appetit magazines. It was a rarity in the too-much-to-see web world: Something that actually did make life simpler.

Over the years, Epicurious has spawned a lot more, including the blog, and its recipe database has grown to include more than 180,000 recipes, from members, cookbooks and all kinds of sources. If you're looking for it, Epicurious has probably got at least one version of it.

Epicurious editor Tanya Steel and her editors have now reversed the old print-to-web path. They've sorted through their databases to find the highest-rated recipes and put them in a book, "The Epicurious Cookbook: More Than 250 Our Our Best-Loved Four-Fork Recipes" (Clarkson Potter, $27.99).

Recipes? Printed? What a startling concept. I wonder if it will catch on.

Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa Dip

An Epicurious member posted a family recipe that may be the easiest dip every printed. It's certainly the easiest to remember.

1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded imported Swiss cheese
1 cup minced onion
Crackers or pita chips, for serving

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Stir together the mayonnaise, cheese and onion in a medium mixing bowl. Transfer to a shallow, 1-quart baking dish and bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 25 minutes.

Serve with crackers or pita chips.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Monday, November 5, 2012

On the pecan road in Whiteville

I'll admit it: Whiteville, N.C., on U.S. 74 about 60 miles before Wilmington, is usually known to me for two things: Speeding tickets (see "60 miles before Wilmington," above - and yes, the locals do joke about that), and the classic chili dogs at Ward's Grill.

After this weekend, I have a few more things to add to my list of Whiteville experiences. I took my book, "Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook," to Whiteville for the annual N.C. Pecan Harvest Festival:

1. Whiteville now has a notable restaurant, the Southern Kitchen. The Southern Kitchen, 606 S. Madison St., has been a number of kinds of restaurants over the years, but because the building   has a lovely old neon sign that says "The Southern Kitchen," they've all had the same name. Now it's called The New Southern Kitchen, and it features French/Southern/Asian food cooked by Sokun Slama.

Slama is a native of Cambodia whose family had to flee the Khmer Rouge. They ended up in Paris, where she trained as a chef. Slama and her husband, Guilliame, first opened two restaurants in Washington, Ga. In 2009, a supporter offered to help them if they would come to Whiteville and open a restaurant. Now they have the New Southern Kitchen and a more casual lunch place, Sophie's Bistro, next door.

Slama is trying to use as much local produce as possible, including locally sourced fish, sweet potatoes (and pecans, of course). One  special  Friday night included an osso bucco-inspired pork shank with pomegranate molasses sauce and spinach gnocchi. I had the Cambodian beef, similar to Vietnam's shaking beef -- thin slices of seared beef on jasmine rice with lots of lemon grass. Not at all what I expected to find on a Friday night in Whiteville, N.C. If you want a look at the menu and pictures of the restaurant, go here.

2. Like every town in a rural area, Whiteville is working hard to get a local-food economy up and running. So while the Byrdville Farm Market, 721 S. Madison St. wasn't completely open yet, I found it fascinating. Owner Susie Rockel is creating an interesting hybrid of a produce store, where she'll stock locally grown produce, and a small cafe, where she'll make a small menu of soups, salads and sandwiches using local ingredients. She even has a cooler labeled "Slow Food Fast," where you can pick up things like pimento salad and other things. Just the thing on your way to the beach, right?

3. Whiteville farmers love their pecans. At the pecan festival, my table of books was right next to the tent to the N.C. Pecan Growers Association. That meant that I spent a lot of time listening to explanations about tree girdlers (they chew a band around small tree limbs until they break them off from the tree) and pecan weevils (they have very long snouts that they stick in a pecan nut when it's green and lay eggs that eventually hatch and destroy the pecans).

There wasn't quite as much pecan stuff at the pecan festival as I had hoped -- I could use a good pair of pecan earrings -- but I did buy a 5-pound sack of new-crop Stuarts, a pecan pie and a paper sack of cinnamon-glazed pecans. And yes, I heard more nut jokes than any Saturday in November ought to involve.

I'm learning that the fun part of having a book is that it gives you a driving tour of your state. At regulation speeds, of course. No tickets, not even in Whiteville.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Go back to school with Deborah Madison

Yes, that would be California chef Deborah Madison. Founder of the iconic San Francisco restaurant Greens as well as an early chef for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Author of the book "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone," among others. One of the early lights of the local-food, farm to table movement. These days, she's in Sante Fe, at Cafe Escalera.

Until she leaves Sante Fe to travel to Davidson College. Yes, that would be Davidson, just north of Charlotte, where Madison will do two events next week. For very low prices. Seriously, this is a major opportunity for local-food fans.

On Thursday, Nov. 8, Madison will host a squash tasting at 11 a.m. in the Lilly Family Gallery of the Chambers Building at Davidson. There will be seven or eight squash dishes to taste and instructions on how to cook them. There's no charge to attend. Just show up and learn about squash.

On Friday, Madison will coordinate lunch in the dining hall at Davidson, featuring braised chicken with dried fruit and shallots, savory goat cheese tart, greens with Moroccan spices, and "soups for the soul." Cost for that is $10.25 each, and it's basically lunch in the college dining hall with students -- and a great chef.

Color me Greens, with envy. Welcome, Deborah. And lucky Davidson.

If you need more details, call chef Craig Mombert, 704-894-2600, or the main information line for the college, 704-894-2140. Friday's lunch is in the Vail Commons and the Lilly Family Gallery is on the ground level of Building 54.

PHOTO: Cooking Light.

Which brewery won the battle?

Last week, I ran an item about the Battle of the Brews at the All-American Pub, to raise money for the group 704 Project, which gives grants to local projects.

Organizer Mark Miller told me this week that the event was a bigger success than they ever expected. They had hoped to get 100 people, and got 275. And the group raised $4,300, a lot more than the $1,000 they were hoping to get.

The enthusiasm isn't surprising: If you've gone to any of the events at the local breweries, it's astonishing how much a part of Charlotte life they have become so quickly.

The results: 1st place went to Olde Mecklenburg's Mecktoberfest. Second: NoDa Brewing Co.'s Coco Loco. And third: Triple C's Smoked Amber. Hops, Birdsong and Heist also were competing.

And the best result of all, of course, was the money raised. Olde Meck donated its $1,000 prize to the Charlotte Public Tree Fund. Nice. I'll raise a glass to that.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Locavore lunch with the Girl Scouts

Combine local food, Girl Scouts and a church potluck on Sunday at Wesley United Methodist Church. 

Girl Scout Troop 3260 is hosting a locavore potluck lunch at 12:15 p.m. Sunday at the church, 3715 Rea Road. All you have to bring is a dish to share that's made from locally grown or produced food. 

While the lunch is aimed at church members, a spokesperson for the church said they're willing to  open it to the public. "We'll see what happens," she said Thursday. "I'd never even heard of a locavore before this."