Friday, March 29, 2013

Want to see pretty Easter chocolate?

The very talented student chocolate sculptors at Central Piedmont Community College will have their work on display through Easter weekend at the Charlotte Marriott City Center uptown. The centerpiece will be a 3-foot chocolate egg, surrounded by more chocolate egg-type creations.

The display is the creation of students Laura O'Neil, Frances Holland, Richie Walkup, Tequilis Knox and Sarah Castro. Look for it through Monday.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Taste-test: How are the new Campbell's Go soups?

So many products cross my desk that I have earned my own red barrel from Second Harvest. Most things go straight into the barrel - they're either not all that new, not all that tasty-looking or not all that interesting.

The fairly new Campbell's Go soups, though, caught my attention. First, there's the rethinking of an iconic brand. Buh-bye, can with the red label. For those us who eat lunch at a cubicle desk, this is a smart product extension: Shelf-stable pouch, clear directions for venting and zapping in a microwave. If you want to eat it straight out of the pouch instead of using a bowl, it would be messy, but you could do it.

Second, there's the marketing: Eye-catching graphics, with those black-and-white "hipster" faces, pushing hard at the same vibe you see in the food truck world. It may get dated quicker than a co-ed with her first apartment, but for the moment, this is kicky stuff.

Third, the flavors. Speaking of those food trucks, Campbell's has caught that vibe too:
-- Spicy Chorizo & Pulled Chicken With Black Beans
-- Coconut Curry With Chicken & Shiitake Mushrooms
-- Moroccan-Style Chicken With Chickpeas
-- Chicken & Quinoa (yes, quinoa!) With Poblano Chiles
-- Golden Lentil With Madras Curry
-- Creamy Red Pepper With Smoked Gouda.

So how are they? We did a quick taste-test at my desk with the Chicken & Quinoa and the Golden Lentil. I love the design of the bag, including attention to detail. The bags are even marked with  "cool touch" fingerprints to show you where to hold the bag when it's hot from the microwave.

Taste: A solid A-. Spicy, bright, flavorful. Chicken & Quinoa had good-size chunks of chicken and a hint of lemony acidity. Golden Lentil had curry heat and no muddiness. The only problem with both? Meet me at "nutrition."

Nutrition: Everyone here? OK. The bags claim to have 2 servings, but who's doing that? If you take it for lunch, you're going to eat most or all of the 2-cup bag. And while the calorie counts and fat grams aren't bad -- 320 calories and 4 grams of fat for the whole bag of Chicken & Quinoa (160 and 2 if you stuck with the 2-serving recommendation), the sodium is WAY out of line. Chicken & Quinoa had 790mg in HALF the bag. If you ate the whole thing, not unreasonable, you'd get 1,580 milligrams of sodium, That's more than a day's worth for most of us. And yes, all the others ran about those same numbers. Unfortunately, the soups taste like it, too. You'll be grabbing the water bottle after that lunch.

Price: $2.99 for a 14-ounce bag.  So they cost a lot more than a can of soup, but that's not unreasonable for something tasty you can haul to work. If you were eating them at home, for lunch or dinner, you also could serve them over rice, which would stretch them and make that sodium a little bit more reasonable again. Also, Campbell's is offering a $1 off coupon right now at

Bottom line: A good start. Campbell's, please find a way to reduce that sodium. There's so much to like here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Show us your favorite food pictures

Did a slide show with 40 pictures cover every food moment of the last six months of my life? Of course not. For instance, I left out the picture above, with Sam Jones (right) of the Skylight Inn in Ayden chopping  barbecue with Rodney Scott of Scott's in Hemingway, S.C. (middle in the red shirt) helping out, at the Southern Foodways Symposium in October. They were part of a lineup of a half-dozen barbecuers from all over the South who cooked all day in a big field on a farm outside Oxford, Miss.

Other than that, though, my slide show and column this morning pretty much covered a six-month stretch of my eating life. And now, you get to join in. We have a contest where you can enter your favorite picture from the last six months of your food life. We'll pick a winner in two weeks and give away a restaurant gift card.

Enter the contest right here: Observer food photo contest.

The newest trend in food is watching what you eat: We're all out there snapping pictures of our plates. We might as well have fun with it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Want to talk about the Kraft campaign?

The Observer will host Lisa Leake of the website and Vani Hari of for a live chat from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday at

The two women have gotten more than 272,000 supporters on a petition asking Kraft Foods to remove artificial colors from its baseline, original flavor of Macaroni & Cheese Dinner. The petition is still active at

Kraft's response has been that it has some products, such as the organic, without food colors and that it's only using ingredients that the FDA has approved. The company also has posted a letter to consumers stating that its customers prefer the American version to stay the way it is. (It's difficult to find on the Kraft Foods site since it's under "corporate," so you might need to use that link to find it.)

In Britain, products containing the dyes have to carry a warning label, so Kraft has formulated a version that is colored with beta carotene and paprika rather than yellow dyes No. 5 and 6. Here's my story on the issue earlier this week.

I can tell from the comments on my story that there is a lot of interest on both sides of the topic. If you want to join in the chat and post questions, go to at noon Thursday. Social media editor Jennifer Rothacker will be the moderator.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Thanks for the laugh, NoDa Brewing

The guys at NoDa Brewing are getting very good at this video thing. They have a whole channel on YouTube. The latest (and my favorite so far): This week's video announcing the release Tuesday of Imperial Hop, Drop 'n Roll. Chad Henderson, you're having a little much fun over there.

One Great . . . red enchilada sauce

On the list of Permanent Pantry Staples, corn tortillas are always in my refrigerator. They usually last a good long time without getting moldy and you can always make some form of a quesadilla with there's just flat nothing left in the house to eat. The final reason: You can turn leftover anything into enchiladas, if you have enchilada sauce.

So let's turn our attention to enchilada sauce. Looking around for a recipe to use leftover pork carnitas from Lupita, the carneceria at North Tryon and Eastway, I had almost everything I needed -- except some form of enchilada sauce. But I had bags of roasted tomato sauce in the freezer, and that was all it took. Homemade tomato sauce is always better, but you can do this with a 15-ounce can of tomato sauce or  diced tomatoes, too.

Red Enchilada Sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 cups or 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce or diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Warm the vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the chili powder and flour, making a paste, and cook for a minute or two. Working a little at a time, whisk in the tomato sauce and then the chicken broth. Add the cumin, garlic powder and salt. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook about 15 minutes. Cool and use right away, or refrigerate up to two days.

To make enchiladas, stir about 1/4 up into about 2 cups cooked, chopped chicken or pork (or use roasted vegetables). If you have it, stir in some tomatillo salsa.  Roll in tortillas, softened according to package directions. Place tightly in a baking dish, seam down. Cover with remaining enchilada sauce. Sprinkle generously with cheese (a mixture of Monterrey Jack and mozzarella, or crumbled cojita or queso fresco). Bake 25 minutes, then top with minced cilantro and red onion if you have them.

YIELD: 3 cups sauce, 4 servings of enchiladas.

CSPI notes decline in foodborne-illness outbreaks

Here's some good news -- well, actually, mixed-but-mostly-good news -- to start your week:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit that tracks nutrition and food-safety policy, is reporting that foodborne illnesses fell more more than 40 percent between 2001 and 2010. Despite what can seem like endless rounds of spinach outbreaks and salsa recalls, better food safety practices actually do appear to be working.

CSPI noted the decrease particularly in outbreaks related to E. coli and salmonella, with the sharpest declines in cases involved seafood, poultry and beef. (Adjusted for consumption, though, the center notes that seafood still presents the greatest risk, causing almost 20 times as much disease as fruit and dairy.)

 Outbreaks related to produce, which is involved in the highest number of illnesses -- we eat a lot of it, and we still forget to wash the stuff we're not going to cook -- have remained relatively flat. Illnesses related to dairy were at their highest point in 2010, the last year of the study period, possibly because of increases in consumption of raw and/or unpasteurized milk and cheese.

A few points I found particularly interesting:
 -- HAACP -- Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, the program that most of the food industry uses to set up plans for handling food -- may be responsible for the fall in outbreaks from the seafood, meat and poultry industries. HAACP was adopted in the late 1990s and was in place in the decade of the study. If these numbers hold steady, it could be evidence the program is working.
-- CSPI's study notes that the foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which include produce seafood, dairy and most packaged foods, were responsible for more than twice as many outbreaks as the meat and poultry foods regulated by the USDA. The FDA recently got the go-ahead to make changes under the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, so it will be interesting to see if we see more declines.
-- CSPI is worried that cutbacks and tight state and federal budgets will slow or halt progress, or will disrupt research into which practices and pathogens are the most dangerous.

For more on the report, go to the center's site,

Thursday, March 21, 2013

If you have a community garden, raise your hand

So, Mecklenburg County, how does your community garden world grow? With lots of volunteers and gardener workers, which is why the county Fruit & Vegetable Coalition, an offshoot -- or should that be a pea shoot? -- of the Health Department is taking a community garden census.

This is the second year of the census. Last year's gardens were sorted into two  lists, one for gardens where people sign up to tend their own plot, and one for gardens with volunteers who help the organization that runs the garden. The county uses the information to promote and support the gardens. And you know how it is in the heat of the summer -- it's tough enough to tend a garden, much less worry about drumming up volunteers for it. So help is usually as welcome as rain in September.

Here's what you need to do with the census. First, take a look at those lists:

Second, if you are involved with a community garden that isn't on one of those lists, or if your garden is on the list but needs to be updated or corrected, send an email to Beth Mack, the food access health educator for the county, so she can send you a copy of the census questionnaire. Her email is

And third, of course, would be to find a garden and get involved. Hi-hoe, hi-hoe.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How about a GMO protest with your lunch?

If you've got an open 30 minutes at lunch Thursday, the group pushing for North Carolina to require labeling of genetically engineered products will hold a campaign kickoff from 12:30 to 1 p.m. at The Square, at Trade and Tryon streets uptown. Speakers will include Cassie Parsons of Grateful Growers Farm and the Harvest Moon Grill and Vani Hari of the Food Babe blog.

Food & Water Watch, a North Carolina nonprofit group, is calling the campaign Let Me Decide and is trying to get Rep. Becky Carney to introduce a bill to label food that contains genetically engineered ingredients. For more information on the campaign, go to

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Take a class at Wolfgang Puck

Could we interest you in brunch? Scott Wallen, the executive chef at the Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar, will teach a class in brunch classics, including a frittata with side dishes, a Bloody Mary and bread pudding. Followed by a nap. Well, no, the nap part is up to you. Wallen won't give instructions in that.

The class is 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, March 23, at Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar in Phillips Place, off Fairview. The class is $50 and reservations are required. Call 704-295-0101.

Other classes still coming at Wolf's place: Homemade pasta, May 18; Farmers' Tribune, July 27; Rome Remembered, Sept. 28; and Italian Sunday Supper, Nov. 16.

Now this is March Madness: Southern food bracket

Co-Cola -- as we say it in the South -- and RC are in a dead heat, Texas Pete is blowing away Tabasco and Martha White is stomping White Lily.

Garden & Gun, the Charleston magazine with the crazy name and the Southern attitude, has put up a bracket to pick the best Southern products. You go here to vote; the first round will be narrowed down on Monday.

I might quibble with some of their choices -- Palmetto Cheese is up against Fritos, not another brand of pimento cheese? Moon Pies are going up against Little Debbie oatmeal cakes? But I can't question the ultimate goal: Duke's Mayonnaise will reign supreme.

Monday, March 18, 2013

James Beard finalists announced

Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen kept it from being an N.C. shutout when the finalists for the prestigious James Beard Awards were announced Monday morning in Charleston. Charlotte's Eric Solomon was in consideration for Wine & Spirits Professional but didn't make the final cut.

Among the book nominations, though, Southern books dominated the American category, with nominations for "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking," by Charleston's Nathalie Dupree and co-author Cynthia Graubart of Atlanta, along with "Fire in My Belly" by Atlanta's Kevin Gillespie and David Joachim, and "Southern Comfort: A New Take on the Recipe We Grew Up With," by Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing.

The full list for Best Chef Southeast (the Carolinas' category): Christensen, Poole's Diner, Raleigh; Edward Lee, 610 Magnolia, Louisville; Soseph Lenn, The Inn at Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tenn.; Steven Satterfield, Miller Union, Atlanta; Tandy Wilson, City House, Nashville. In other categories, Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's in Charleston was a nominee for Outstanding Chef.

The complete list of nominations, including Books, Journalism and Broadcast, are available here:  JBF Nominees. The awards will be given out May 3 and May 6 at ceremonies in New York.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What's a Dishcrawl?

The name is enough to get my attention. "Dishcrawl" makes me think of phrases like "I'd walk over broken glass," or the times in my first apartment when I'd run out of room in the sink and stack the dirty dishes on the floor. Good times.

But no, Dishcrawl sounds like a lot more fun than either of those. This is a new food adventure, in which you buy a ticket and join a group to visit several restaurants in different areas of the city. They started March 6 in NoDa and the next one is March 12 in SouthEnd. Tickets are usually $45 and the tour typically includes four places.

The restaurants are close together, but wear walking shoes. They do include vegetarian choices. And they keep the restaurants secret until right before the tour.

Interested? Get tickets and details at And keep it in mind for those nights when every dish in your kitchen is dirty and you'd crawl over broken glass for something good to eat and fun people to meet.

Barbecue TV show comes to Blue Ridge Festival

Has it really been 20 years? I was a judge for the first Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival and I swear it doesn't feel like it was longer than, oh, 19 1/2 years or so.

But festival founder Jim Tabb called to tell me this is indeed the big anniversary and big events are afoot: The Destination America show "BBQ Pitmasters" will be at this year's festival, June 14 and 15 at Harmon Field in Tryon. Tabb's daughter Lee Ann Whippen, a barbecue chef in Chicago, has been on the show and helped to bring them to Tryon.

If you've never been to a barbecue competition, it is a different animal. There are teams that travel all over the country and spend a major amount of time and money to do this. Some come with full sets, like stages, and cook in costume. You can't get barbecue directly from the teams (well, not officially or legally, but if you make friends with a team, that's up to you). But there also are teams that are licensed to sell to the public, so there is barbecue to be bought.

Tryon's setting in Harmon Field is pretty, with a creek on one side and hills all around. It's also an easy drive from Charlotte, about 90 minutes to the northwest. Get the details at

And since I'm hoping to return as a judge for the first time in several years, I'll try to bring back some sights, sounds and as close to tastes as my grease-smeared iPhone can get.


Monday, March 4, 2013

The best things I ate in Charlotte and Charleston

I started last week so sick, I lost my voice. I ended it at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, where I talked myself hoarse as a book signer (for "Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook") instead of my usual role as a journalist. Along the way, I managed to rack up some seriously good food experiences:
New England clam chowder at Deep Sea Seafood Market. A chilly Tuesday was the perfect time to finally visit the new fish store at 10020 Monroe Road (across from the Five Guys near the corner of North Sardis and Monroe). If you complain that Charlotte doesn't have a fish market, this is your answer. Besides well-sourced and wild-caught fish, it serves simple food like sandwiches and salads. The clam chowder is off-the- hook good, with a ton of clams and a pure-cream flavor. Buy a small order to eat there ($3.99), or get a quart to go ($10.99). I'm almost afraid to try the lobster bisque. It sounds frighteningly good.

The Glass Onion, Charleston. Before driving in to Charleston's "old town" for the festival, I stopped for lunch at this funky cafe on U.S. 17. I've known Sarah O'Kelley through the Southern Foodways Alliance  for years. She and chef Chris Stewart have teamed up to create a sweet little restaurant with their own riffs on Low Country and Southern. When I got there, Sarah and I stood in front of the menu for 10 minutes figuring out what I should get: Fries with Bearnaise (who thinks of something that decadent?), a platter with their housemade Belle's Sausage, pimento cheese and a "salad" of pickled okra, green beans and cucumber chunks, and a deviled egg flavored with their signature Thunder Sauce, a sweet/hot red pepper relish. My kind of place: They keep mint syrup by the iced tea dispenser. Details:
Benton's Country Ham, Roasted Oysters and Pappy Van Winkle: The Charleston Wine + Food Festival is a long weekend of deliciousness and fun, with lots of private parties sprinkled in. I got to stop by an oyster roast at a home on Broad Street, courtesy of the crowd from, and had paper-thin slices of Allan Benton's country ham at Hominy Grill. But you know it's going to get something different when you walk into a small party at the new cookbook store, Heirloom Books, and the guy behind in the counter is Julian Van Winkle (left) of the Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon company. And he's pouring 12-, 15- and 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle and a special-reserve 10-year-old. For non-bourbon afficiandos, Pappy is so sought after, people chase bottles like unicorns and pay hundreds of dollars for them. In Charleston, you could stop by the restaurant Husk and buy a single shot of 23-year-old Pappy for $130.  

Waffle House eye candy: The Charleston Wine + Food Festival sounds pretentious, but it actually isn't. It's so much fun, there was a Waffle House chef cookoff featuring Ashley Christensen of Raleigh (right), Edward Lee of Louisville and "Top Chef" (top), Mike Lata of F.I.G. and The Ordinary, and Michelle Weaver of the Charleston Grill. The four chefs had actually gone to Waffle House's nearby headquarters to train and they had to compete by making short-order specialties with time limits. Lata was the official winner, but Christensen and Lee were having so much fun wearing those hats, they didn't lose a thing.

Great wine: Before leaving Charleston, I always stop by The Wine Store at the marina on Lockwood Boulevard to see Debbie Marlowe. And I always give her the same order: A mixed case of wines, her choice, all below $20. Her old friend, "Hoppin' John" Martin Taylor, says Marlowe has the wine version of perfect pitch. She's down to earth and unpretentious, and she loves my challenge of picking great bargain bottles. Back at my own stove Sunday night, I made ribeyes with a mushroom sauce, served with a fantastic glass of 2007 Vina Gormaz tempranillo. 

So what did all of those things have in common? Every moment involved people having fun with what they do, whether it was chefs goofing around, a distiller pouring what he makes, young cooks making fun food or a wine expert having fun with the cheap stuff. Forget fancy: The best food is just fun.