Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Love local food? Put your money where your mouth is

OK, Charlotte, it's time to step up to the plate for local foods. After launching in the Triangle earlier in the year, Funds to Farms is coming to Charlotte from 6:30-8:30 p.m. May 12 for a dinner at Triple C Brewery, 2900 Griffith St. (off South Boulevard and New Bern).

Funds to Farms is a micro-funding program for beginning farmers and food entrepreneurs, supported by Slow Food NC, the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and The Abundance Foundation. The idea is that you pay $20 for a dinner (prepared here by chef Craig Barbour and Roots.Good.Food.) During dinner, you'll hear pitches for projects from three farmers or food entrepreneurs.

People attending the dinner get to vote on who gets the money, which comes from the money you paid to eat.

It's simple and straightforward, and it gets money in the hands of people who have immediate plans to use it to get a food business going. It's similar to the SOUP events going on in cities like New York, Philadelphia and Detroit, where people get together over a bowl of soup and raise money for community projects.

Co-sponsors in Charlotte are Edible Charlotte, Slow Food Charlotte and the Atherton Market. Get tickets here: fundstofarms.com. Go forth and sow some good.

Monday, April 29, 2013

One Great . . . sweet treat

Rushing around to get  ready for my annual church women's retreat in the mountains, I was running down the list of preparation: Extra wine (check). Sloppy clothes (check). Something to do while everyone else knits (check).

Something sweet to share . . . uh oh. And I certainly didn't have enough time to do anything elaborate. I grabbed a recipe I had seen recently on the website Serious Eats, originally taken from a blog called Shugary Sweets: Caramel Cracker Bars. I had all the ingredients on hand, it took next to no time to make, and it had all the requirements for sharing: Sweet, salty and chocolatey.

With a couple of modifications to make the directions clearer, I had something to take -- and a keeper recipe.

Caramel Cracker Bars
Adapted from www.seriouseats.com.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra for pan
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup milk (nonfat worked fine)
About 3 tubes Ritz crackers (about 80; Townhouse would work too)
1 cup butterscotch morsels
1 cup semisweet chocolate morsels
3/4 cup peanut butter

Line a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with foil. Coat lightly with about 1 tablespoon butter (or nonstick cooking spray). Place a single layer of crackers on the bottom, not overlapping. (It's OK if there's a little space between them.) Set aside.

Melt 1 cup butter in a saucepan over medium high heat. Stir in the graham cracker crumbs, brown and granulated sugar and milk. Heat, stirring occasionally, until it's bubbling around the sides. Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool 1 minute.

Pour half of the caramel mixture over the crackers in the prepared dish and spread evenly with the back of a wooden spoon. Top with another layer of crackers and the second half of the caramel mixture. Top with a third layer of crackers. Place in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.

Combine the butterscotch and semisweet morsels and the peanut butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Heat, stirring, until smooth. Remove caramel and cracker base from the refrigerator. Pour the melted chocolate over the top, smoothing to cover completely. Chill 4 hours or overnight before cutting.

YIELD:  About 40 small squares.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How do you make a sweet potato into pasta?

For my column this week, I wrote about Dustin Wigglesworth and Joseph Siccardi, two Johnson & Wales University students who had made a dish at a recent S&D Coffee contest that used sweet potato pasta.

Seriously, the pasta is as simple as it gets. While I watched them make it, I gave a try to making a video showing them making it. Dustin and Joseph are students, and when it comes to video, so am I:  I lost a little bit of the video in the middle and had to fill in with still pictures. But I think you'll get the idea.

The recipe is so simple, it's not really a recipe: Just cut sweet potato into very thin strips using a vegetable peeler or a mandoline. If you want it to look more like pasta, trim the edges straight. Then saute the strips in about 1/4 cup butter for 2 or 3 minutes. Add a drizzle of maple syrup and a sprinkle of salt. Remove the strips from the skillet with tongs and use the leftover butter to saute something to top the pasta.

But if it helps, here's the original recipe that inspired them, from Atlanta chef Richard Blais.

Potato "Linguine" With Conch and White Wine

From "Try This at Home," by Richard Blais (Clarkson Potter, $30). Blais originally made this on an episode of "Top Chef" that involved catching and cooking conch on a beach. Instead of simmering their strips of sweet potato in broth and butter, Dustin and Joseph used butter only, although they sometimes add a little chicken broth if the butter cooks away too quickly.

3 large russet potatoes, peeled
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 pound fresh conch, minced, or 1 1/2 cups chopped, shucked cherrystone or whole small white clams
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup toasted bread crumbs

Using a mandoline or a very sharp long knife (or a sharp vegetable peeler), cut the potatoes lengthwise into long, thin sheets (as thin as possible -- ideally, you should be able to see through them). Stack the slices a few at a time and cut them lengthwise into 1/4-inch-wide ribbons.

Pour the chicken stock into a large skillet and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and butter and cook until the potatoes begin to absorb the stock, about 4 minutes. Add the conch, oregano and chiles and cook until the potatoes are al dente and most of the stock is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Pour in the wine and toss the potatoes gently until it evaporates. Stir in the parsley.

Divide the "linguine" among four warmed shallow bowls. Squeeze some lemon juice over each bowl and top with a sprinkling of bread crumbs. Serve immediately.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

One Great . . . simple Japanese custard

I'm always drawn to unusual food names. My first bite of smoked salmon on a chewy roll came because I was intrigued by the words "lox" and "bagel."

This time, a new word caught my eye while I was flipping through  "How to Boil an Egg," by Rose Carrarini (Phaidon, 2012): Chawanmushi.

Chawanmushi? I finally discovered it's a cross between soup and egg custard, and it's a favorite comfort food in Japan. Made with vegetables and sometimes seafood covered a simple mixture of egg and broth, it's steamed -- mushi -- in a tea cup, called a chawan.

The crazy thing is the way it turns out: I got a layer of very soft custard similar to fresh tofu on top of broth, all studded with bits of vegetables. Spring vegetables such as green peas, green onion and asparagus are  perfect with the soft texture. For a dinner or lunch for one or two people, it's easy and adaptable.

Chawanmushi With Spring Vegetables
Adapted from "How to Boil an Egg," by Rose Carrarini.

2 eggs
1 cup vegetable or chicken stock, or dashi
1/2 teaspoon shoyu or regular soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Pinch of cayenne pepper
3 or 4 stalks asparagus, trimmed and cut in bite-size pieces
1/4 cup frozen green peas, rinsed to thaw
1 spring onion, diced
Fresh herbs, such as chives or thyme leaves (optional; garnish)

LIGHTLY MIX the eggs with a fork, being careful not to beat them so much they're frothy. Stir in the stock, shoyu, sugar and cayenne. Place a sieve over a small bowl or large measuring cup with a lip and pour the egg mixture through to strain and break up the protein in the eggs.

PREPARE the vegetables and place in one or two small, heatproof bowls or cups. Carefully pour in the egg mixture, completely covering the vegetables. Place a pot with a few inches of water over high heat and add a rack or steamer. Place the bowls on the steamer and cover with a dish towel, then cover the pot with a lid.

STEAM for 2 minutes on high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and steam for 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the custard comes out clean. Serve hot, or refrigerate and serve chilled.

NOTE: Tender vegetables like asparagus or mushrooms will cook in the custard, but tougher things like diced carrot should be cooked a little first.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Riddle me this: What does Alton Brown want you to ask?

So Alton Brown is coming to Charlotte on Saturday night, as part of the N.C. Science Festival. The format of the evening is Q&A.

Having seen His Science Geekness handle audience questions - most recently at the Southern Foodways Symposium last October, where he lectured on barbecue - I know that he is very good at questions. Even answers. The boy gives good answer.

Still, I started to wonder, as someone who asks a lot of questions, what questions he wishes you would ask him.

So I called and asked Alton a few questions about questions. First, the questions everyone ALWAYS asks (so don't bother asking these):

1. Will you ever compete on "Iron Chef"? Absolutely not. "The answer is positively no. I don’t want anybody to have a shot at my job. If they do it as well as me, I’m vulnerable. I’ve spent years perfecting that aura.”
2. His favorite episode of "Good Eats." He doesn't have one. "I always just make something up."

OK, so if you want to have fun and engage him with a good question, try one of these:

1. What's his least favorite thing to cook? Everyone always asks his favorite thing to cook, but no one ever asks what he can't cook. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. I hate making coffee. No matter what, my coffee isn't very good. I thought for a long time that I did (make good coffee). But I have, in fact, given up." He thinks the problem is too much experience: "My taste in coffee has improved over the years. I have had really good coffee made by really good barristas (not Starbucks, by the way). I dread making coffee."

2. Anything about flying. "I love it when people ask me questions about flying, because I'm a pilot. I love to get pilot questions. That's me up there, pulling levers and stuff." Yes, by the way, he will fly himself to Charlotte. Keep watching the skies, kids. (And yes, that is him up there, literally, at the top of the blog. Doesn't he look all serious and stuff?)

3. "No one ever asks me who the biggest influence has been on me. Not as a cook, but as a filmmaker, which is what I consider myself first and foremost. I used to direct TV commercials. Deep down, that’s what I am and that’s how I think of myself. If someone comes up behind me and says 'hey chef,' I look around to see who else is there." (I didn't say they'd be interesting questions, just questions he wishes you would ask.)

And finally, as a bonus round: Tell him I told you to ask him what he always keeps on the stove. He mentioned it while we were talking. But I bet he doesn't remember, so here's your chance to Stump the Geek.

Enjoy, and welcome back to Charlotte, Alton.  

Want to go see him? Tickets range from $32.50 to $150 (a VIP thing, with extras). Buy them through the them here at Blumenthal site.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Texas barbecue snob tours the Carolinas

The buzz in the barbecue world for the last few weeks has been the appointment of Daniel Vaughn as the  full-time barbecue editor of the magazine Texas Monthly. In food-writing and barbecue circles, this is  akin to suddenly being granted a magical golden coin and a free pass to every casino in the country.

Vaughn, a smart and funny writer (is that sucking up hard enough, editor Dan?) tweets as @bbqsnob. And while he certainly knows his Texas 'cue, some of the other barbecue worlds had escaped him. So as any good researcher would, he hit the road last week to smoke over how we do it here in the real land of barbecue. Many of us were following along via Twitter. 

Of all the gifts the gods might give us, to see ourselves as others see us. So I gathered his tweets in one list. Dropping a few to keep it focused and adding a little translation here and there (@redblank is photographer Nicholas McWhirter), here's a look at how Vaughn saw us:

Tuesday, April 10:
1. Hey North Carolina -- I'm boarding a plane soon and I'm coming for all your Cheerwine & Fullsteam beer. What else should I be drinking in NC?
2. @redblank and I @dfwairport waiting to go whole hog all over #ncbbq. (That's gotta be the most obvious BBQ pun.)
3. Salt Lick at DFW Airport. The brisket was actually better than my meager expectations. Great beans.
4. Chopped beef, sauce and bun. Salt Lick at the airport. Will this be better than #ncbbq? I hope not.
Wednesday, April 10:
1. Hog skin at B's in Greenville, NC. This is how to start a #ncbbq tour.
2. Feasting at B's BBQ. Chicken incredible and the pork was great too. Very little smoke but freshly . . . .
3. I kid you not, after a meal at B's BBQ w/@redblank, I approached the owner outside. Just as I said we're from TX a bird shit on me.
4. Small tray at Skylight Inn in Ayden. Adding the cracklings into the chopped meat is brilliant.
5. The capital spire & the pork tray at Skylight Inn.
6. No AC at Wilber's in Goldsboro, but the service is very friendly. Before entrees we learned of our server's recent surgery up in Greenville.
7. Hash tags so far in Eastern #ncbbq - #humility #oak #collards #proudtradition #family #hospitable #cashonly
8. A snack at Wilber's. I love this slaw w/a hint of horseradish? and the pork's good too.
9. After just a single day of #ncbbq, I must say NC Brunswick Stew < GA Brunswick stew by a mile or six.
10. @joeperryintx At what sort of establishments would one happen to find this 'livermush' you speak of?
11. Barbecue, NC was named by a man from the West Indies who saw fog ocming off the narrow creek and thought it looked like a BBQ pit.
12. Pleasure meeting Pastor Williams at the Barbecue Presbyterian Church in Barbecue, NC.
13. Pork platter at Smithfield ain't bad but pales in comparison to that fried chicken.
14. The pork sandwich at Smithfield Chicken & BBQ illuminated by the Chrysler 200 dome light.
15. Ingested way too much pork today, but back in Raleigh and @johntedge said I should make room for dessert @poolesdinner. How late y'all open?
16. My digestive track is yelling back at you right now.
17. @johntedge @poolesdiner. Redemption rye and bruleed bananas headed my way. Maybe a nightcap at Fox Liquor.
18. Excellent banana tart at @poolesdiner to cap off the night.
19. Piggly Wiggly empanadas from Calavera in Raleigh featuring NC smoked pork. You'll want to eat these.
Thursday, April 11:
1. Day 2 of the #ncbbq quest. Headed west today.
2: First stop in the Piedmont. Short Sugar's in Reidsville.
3. Minced on the sandwich, chopped on the tray at Short Sugar's.
4. First red slaw of #ncbbq trip. Stamey's in Greensboro. Tastes like cocktail sauce mixed w/cabbage, in a good way.
5. Sliced plate, chopped sandwich, Brunswick stew at Stamey's.
6. Those are hushpuppies and they are superb.
7. Thanks to @grillgirl we made sure to get a chili dog w/slaw at Stamey's. Outstanding.
8. The pit house at Stamey's in Greensboro. Expansive and cleaner than most pit rooms I've seen.
9. In the car and ready to leave Stamey's then see @dennyculbert's photo of the outside brown pork & peach cobbler. Back inside.
10. Peach cobbler at Stamey's in Greensboro.
11. The outside brown at Stamey's, aka what was missing on that earlier smokeless sliced pork plate.
12. Outside brown: #ncbbq = fatty brisket: #txbbq. . . . If you don't ask for it, you probably won't get it. But it's the best thing off the pit.
13. @johntedge The first bite of outside brown at Stamey's was a revelation. It turned a ho-hum day of BBQ into one full of possibilities.
14. A little more outside brown from Bar-B-Q Center in Lexington. Great stuff.
15. More wonderful outside brown at Lexington Barbecue #1.
16. Maybe the best cracklings and sauce of the trip at Lexington Barbecue #1. This place is great.
17. I'm sure you've seen it before, but here are the iconic pit room stacks at Lexington Barbecue #1.
18. Burning hickory in the fire pit at Lexington Barbecue.
19. Look what we found at Cook's BBQ south of Lexington. Brisket & ribs combo. Couldn't resist.
20. Asked for outside brown. Got the inside, frown. At Cook's BBQ south of Lexington.
21. Allen & Sons in Chapel Hill toes line between E & W NC. Pork shoulders, but w/ vinegar sauce untainted by ketchup.
22. Finally found great NC Brunswick stew at Allen & Sons. Really, the whole meal was great.
23. Enjoying a Highland Gaelic Ale at (Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill). Come by and say hi.
24. Too full,  but maybe a late night empanada.
25. Meeting & talking w/ John Shelton Reed in NC was a pleasure. Drinking sazeracs in his living room while discussing his new book on NOLA? Wow.
26. Once again, we had pie for a nightcap. @chulegre (Bill Smith of Cook's Corner) makes a mean key lime pie w/ a saltine crust.
27. After a day in the east for #ncbbq it's all about whole hog, clear vinegar sauce, mayo slaw, collards, oak and cash only.
28. After a day in the west for #ncbbq it's all about pork shoulder, red vinegar sauce, red slaw, fries, hickory and credit cards accepted.
29. After hearing all the jawing about West v. East in #ncbbq - The state is united under a banner of pork, vinegar, cabbage and hush puppies.
Friday, April 12:
1. This morning means goodbye to #ncbbq and hello to #scbbq with first stop in Hemingway, SC three hours away. Tired.
2. Hello South Carolina! I was not expecting to be welcomed by a giant sombrero hoisted on a tower.
3. It's all about the hog and pepper sauce at Scott's BBQ in Hemingway, SC. Incredible stuff.
4. The only way to cool the burn of Scott's sauce is to just keep eating, or take a swig of Red Rock soda.
5. I've been getting requests for recommendations on NC BBQ joints. I spent 2 days there. @bbqjew has spent his life there. Follow him.
6. Generous tray of food for $12 at Brown's BBQ in Kingstree. Good eatin'.
7. The first gasser pit we've encountered this far on the tour. Brown's pit in Kingstree.
8. Scott's in Hemingway -- all wood cooking, slaw and beans only. Brown's uses gas & has 15 sides, like this catfish stew.
9. I wasn't expecting the BBQ sandwich at Cooper's in Salters to come wrapped in plastic & be warmed in the microwave.
10. A well-cooked hog sopped in a great sauce can still taste good, but you can taste the difference at Scott's.
11. Cooper's Country Store in Salters, SC. Come for the historic building, then go to Scott's for BBQ.
12. McCabe's BBQ in Manning has a spicy vinegar based sauce similar to Scott's w/some of the smokiest meat in Carolinas.
13. Sweatman's BBQ. Our only mustard stop of the #scbbq tour.
14. Ended the #scbbq tour on a very high note by sharing a seafood tower @eattheordinary (Mike Lata’s new Charleston restaurant, The Ordinary).

 PHOTO: Eater.com.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Stupid kitchen tricks: The potato slice guide

What's a stupid kitchen trick? It's one of those things that someone shows you that make you slap yourself on the head and think, "Why didn't I think of that?" (Put down the knife first, though.)

I had that reaction the first time someone pointed this one out to me. You know how annoying it is when you're slicing things that are naturally a little wet -- potatoes, pickles, carrots -- and they stick to the blade of your knife? Don't knock them off: Use them to make uniform cuts. When you lift your blade and a slice is sticking, use that as a guide to show you where to place the knife for the next cut.

Simple, and kind of stupid. But handy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

So you want to be a food writer?

Is there a food writer inside you, screaming to get out? (Me too, but I usually just take a Pepcid and ignore her screaming.)

OK, OK, here's a class that you might enjoy: From 6:30-9 p.m. April 29, Queens University will offer "Delicious Memories," a single class on food writing taught by Maureen Ryan Griffin.

From the class description: "We'll explore our connections with food as we write of when, where, what, with whom, how - and even why - we ate! You can use your food writings to create a family cookbook, creative nonfiction, poetry, a food blog, etc. -- or just for your own pleasure."

The class costs $49 and the registration deadline is April 19. Get the details here:  http://www.queens.edu/Academics-and-Schools/Continuing-Education/Program-Categories/Writing---CE/Writing---Delicious-Memories-with-Maureen-Ryan-Griffin.html\

And trust me, if you're going to get serious about food writing, I'd think about those Pepcids. I keep them handy.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Bad Daddy's Burger Bar competes on Steve Harvey

Owner Frank Scibelli and chef Adam Long went to Chicago to compete for the title of Best Burger in America for Steve Harvey's TV show. The show airs Wednesday at 7 p.m. on WMYT (channel 55)  in Charlotte.

Scibelli says his restaurant, Bad Daddy's Burger Bar, was competing against Maple & Motor of Dallas for the Golden Spatula award. (He can't say who won, of course, but he seemed to be in a good mood when I talked to him Tuesday.)

For the competition, they made 200 burgers that are similar to Bad Daddy's Big Ass burgers, "with our homemade American cheese, country-fried bacon and signature aioli." The studio audience got to vote for the winner. 

Cheese wisdom from Orrman's Cheese Shop

For my column this week, I spent time with Rachel Klebaur of Orrman's Cheese Shop in the 7th Street Public Market uptown. (Remember, you can get free parking at 7th Street Station if you take in your parking ticket and get it validated before you leave.)

But those of us who love cheese can never get enough. So here are a few more nuggets from Klebaur:

The dumbest questions people ask about cheese: "I hate to say this, but, 'who makes better milk -- males or females?' And I've had questions wondering if there's dairy in the cheese."

Her favorite part about working with cheese: "Opening cheese -- the fresh wheels. Checking it out and noticing the variations from wheel to wheel and season to season."

Her current favorite cheese: Prairie Breeze cheddar from southeast Iowa. "It's so sweet and tangy -- I haven't met one person who doesn't love it."

Mistakes she'd stamp out if she could: "Better storage -- not wrapping it in plastic. And not buying too much."

Wrap your cheese in cheese paper, the kind with the slick coating on both sides, or wrap it in wax paper and plastic. The wax paper lets it breath and the plastic keeps it from absorbing flavors. "Don't suffocate your cheese -- it will taste dead."

And how much is the right amount to buy? "What you plan to eat that evening and a few bites more. You always want a little cheese on hand, to melt into things."

Klebaur loves meeting cheesemakers and going to the farm where the cheese is made. So she was excited to tell me about a new Western N.C. Cheese Trail, just getting started in the area toward Asheville. Cheese road trip! Get details on that, including a map, at http://wnccheesetrail.vpweb.com/

Orrman's is in the 7th Street Public Market, 224 E. 7th St., 980-226-3025, open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays and 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays. You can also follow her on Twitter, @orrmanscheese, and find her on Facebook, under orrmanscheese.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Hey, Charlotte -- who put all this beer here?

There ought to be a better name for this than a beer crawl, what with all that pace-yourself and be-responsible stuff. But with all the breweries that have opened in Charlotte, you truly can put together a beer tour with no more effort than finding a place to park.

With gorgeous weather Saturday afternoon, my husband and I decided to explore breweries in NoDa. After all, it was so nice outside, surely there wouldn't be crowds. Whoa, guess again: Where are all these people coming from? Hanging out at a brewery is now the thing to do around here.

A flight at NoDa Brewing 
Most places have outdoor spaces as well as comfortable indoor rooms. We saw people with their dogs and a few
kids running around, even a baby getting cuddled in a sunny spot. Other food entrepreneurs join in, too. At NoDa and Birdsong, the King of Pops cart was offering a nice selection of frozen pops in flavors like chocolate mint, in case you wanted a break from beer.

1. NoDa Brewing Co., 2229 N. Davidson St. This is one of the most ambitious local breweries, with a chalkboard full of choices. They tap something new every Wednesday. With so many, it was hard to narrow it down to a flight. We ended up with Ramble on Red, an American red ale with a distinct note of coffee; the fruity/herby Hop, Drop & Roll IPA; The Monk's Trunks Belgian pale ale; and the fruity-in-a-good-way Jam Session. And we learned a new term: IBUs, or international bittering units. OK!

2. Birdsong Brewing Co., 2315 N. Davidson St. Don't be fooled by the address: It's actually right next door to NoDa. And while this isn't a popularity contest, I came away with a real fondness for this place. The style is simple and laid-back, all corrugated metal, concrete block and friendly staff. The beers are unfiltered and there was quite an interesting lineup. My flight here (shown in top photo): Doin' Thyme, a pale, light beer with a definite hit of thyme; Jalapeno -- yes, jalapeno, and it would be fabulous with food; Lazy Bird Brown, another one with a pleasant coffee taste; and Higher Ground IPA.

3. Heist Brewery, 2909 N. Davidson St. A little drive, but a short one, and there's plenty of parking. This is more like a restaurant with its own beer. Amazing woodwork here -- who's responsible for those stacked wood and stone pillars? The food is ambitious and unusual, with everything from a shrimp dish that involves cotton candy and test tube lobster bisque up to burgers and flatbread pizzas. We had maibock and Red No. 7, along with the addictively tasty baked beer cheese with warm pretzel sticks, pork belly corn dogs with a root beer/barbecue dipping sauce, a loaded-up salad called the Krone -- love the gorgonzola wrapped in bacon -- and the barbecue burger. They also have house-made sodas, a welcome touch for the designated driver.

Three stops, 3 hours. Where was this kind of street life when I moved to Charlotte as a young lass?

Friday, April 5, 2013

One Great . . . easy steaks with mushroom sauce

I've always agreed with the idea that if you buy good ingredients, you don't need to do much to them. Particularly steaks: At the prices of good beef these days, you don't want to cover it up.

Still, sometimes it's nice to dress up a little for dinner. Looking for a nice dinner at home recently, I pulled out a recipe from an old ad for Alexia frozen potatoes. The only connection to frozen potatoes is that you can serve it with potatoes.

I was sure the method would lead to overcooked steaks, but I decided to trust the force and follow the directions (with a few substitutions -- I grabbed Shaoxing rice wine because I keep it on hand, and I used regular button mushrooms and yellow onion instead of the cremini and shallot in the recipe). The result was a good steak, cooked just right, with a very flavorful sauce.

Ribeye Steaks With Mushroom Sauce
Adapted from Alexia.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in pieces, divided
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ribeye steaks, about 12 ounces each
2 shallots (or 1/2 of a medium yellow onion), minced
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1 cup red wine
1 cup beef or chicken stock
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons sherry (or rice wine or dry vermouth)

HEAT oven to 500 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over high heat. Season ribeyes with salt and pepper and sear for 3 minutes per side. Set skillet aside and move the ribeyes to a baking sheet. Place in the oven for 4 minutes, until medium rare. Remove from oven and set aside, tenting loosely with foil.

RETURN the skillet to medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon butter and remaining 2 tablespoons oil and cook the onion for 1 minute. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add red wine; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cook until syrupy and reduced, 8 to 10 minutes.

ADD the stock, reduce the heat slightly and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Stir the cornstarch mixture to make sure it's blended and whisk into the sauce along with the sherry. Bring to a boil until thickened, 1 or 2 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in the remaining butter. Pour over the ribeyes and serve.

YIELD: 2 servings. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Eat steak, help Charlotte firefighters

Firefighters from two Charlotte firehouses will compete April 13  in the Walmart Steak-Over Challenge. The winners go on to the national finales in Los Angeles, where the grand prize is $20,000.

It happens from noon to 2 p.m. that Saturday afternoon in the parking lot of the Walmart Supercenter at 3850 E. Independence Blvd. Firefighters from Station 7 (North Davidson Street) and Station 39 (Providence Road near the Arboretum) will grill steaks using their own recipes. Walmart shoppers will get to sample the steaks (as well as Dr Pepper and A.1 steak sauce) and vote on which firehouse wins.

Other cities in the contest include Jacksonville, San Antonio, Tampa, Atlanta, Kansas City, Houston and Indianapolis. The finale in Los Angeles will be held the week of May 20.

McDonalds offers free coffee during tax season

If you go to a McDonald's in the Charlotte area between April 5 and April 15, you can get a free small coffee. It's a small cup of McDonald's Premium Roast McCafe and it's available all day. The idea is to help you stay awake during tax time.

CORRECTION: The dates for the coffee giveaway are April 8-15. I could use a cup right now.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

More habits of happy cooks: Readers' edition

My column (link here) on the habits of people who like cooking got an immediate response: Before it even came out in the paper, replies were already coming in from readers sharing their habits that help them like cooking.

As promised, I'll share them here. And I'll keep updating as new ones come in. You can add them as comments here as well.

I'd also like to hear from anyone who switched from a reluctant cook to a happy one. What did you learn or start to do that made a difference?

Jesse Jones: Here is one I've been working on lately, which seems particularly apt for those of use cooking for only two (or one): Start meal planning by thinking of what is already in the pantry and refrigerator, be it half a box of penne, fresh oregano, cream, Parmesan, etc.

Ann Cricchi, Fort Mill: Happy cooks think food is entertainment. They pick up a food magazine in the doctor’s office. They go to farmer markets for the fun of it. They are happier in Publix than Macy’s. They like the physical acts of chopping and stirring. Interesting food is their top criteria for selecting a restaurant. They love the challenge of turning leftovers into a feast.

Garrell Keesler: To your list , I'd add to cook ahead.  Roast chicken breast for dinner tonight, shred leftovers for an Asian wrap tomorrow.  Roast vegetables today and add leftovers, some nuts and rosemary to quinoa the next.  Even if you need only half a lemon, squeeze the whole thing  and store the leftover juice. It's a great feeling to approach dinner preparation knowing you're a few steps ahead because of the extra work the day before.
To your "don't overcomplicate" I'd add:  invest your energy in one part of the meal. Use frozen brown rice, steamed green beans with olive oil and sea salt, grill white fish and spend more time preparing a mango salsa or tomatoes, olives and capers sauce. 

@clt_foodie:  I love your 10 habits and already use most of them without even thinking about it. Except the cleaning as you go. Need to work on that. Here are my top three habits that make me look forward to cooking:
1. Have a backup. I’m much more willing to try something I’ve never made before if the worst case scenario is we have a frozen pizza for dinner. Knowing I may not have to eat it if it is awful makes the risk-taking less stressful.
2. Take a cooking class. Turns out w/ a little professional instruction I’m a French sauce savant and I should NEVER EVER try to roll my own sushi again. Lesson learned. And yes, if you’re eating at my house, it’s probably going to have a sauce on it. I’ve learned sauces hide a multitude of cooking sins I may have committed in my adventurous dish preparation (refer to rule 1).
3. Wine. Relax, make cooking a social activity, not a chore. As WC Fields once said: “ I love cooking with wine. Sometimes, I even add it to the food”. My thoughts exactly. Just make sure you’re done cutting things up before you’re done with the glass of wine. And friends or family helping you in the kitchen don’t distract you from the pan of hot oil at your elbow.

Martyn: I always enjoy tinkering and experimenting. The funniest experience was with Durian. I went to buy a whole one that was being thawed out at the Oriental food store on Central Ave. The cute girl asked me if I had ever tried it to which I replied no. She made a gesture of holding her nose as she was putting something in her mouth saying "smell bad. Taste good". She suggested I buy a little package of frozen durian and try it. She was quite right. A while later on vacation in my old home town Toronto I was walking through China Town and a vendor was selling home made ice creams and one was durian. She also asked me if I had durian before. When I said yes, it was like passing a test. The ice cream was very good.
At the moment, I'm experiments with a drum coffee roaster and 5-pound lots of Costa Rican green coffee beans. Altogether too much fun! I even used to smoke my own bacon and thick-slice it. I have even cold-smoked cheeses. The irony is, I used to be a meat and potato sort of guy.

Kathy Cathey: I love home-cooked meals and find that if I spend a day once every month or so, I can make up a batch of dinners for my freezer such as meatloaf separated into individual baggies for two that I can quickly thaw, cover with sauce and bake in muffin cups for a quick meal. Or homemade meat balls. I often double batches when I have time, then have a backup meal for when I don't have time. Example: stuffed shells, lasagna.
It's all about the planning. Saves lots of money by not eating out.

UPDATE: Newest replies:
Joan: I have one idea (not a habit, however).  Good, sharp knives are essential to be a good (happy) cook.

Robin:  I am always asking for recipes!  If I am at a covered dish or a party, at work, anywhere I try a recipe that I like.  That way I have already tasted it and I know I like it. It is also a great way to collect a nice variety of recipes from people I know or  have met.

Pam: I would be a far less happy cook without the wonders of Reynolds Wrap nonstick foil. I line every pan with it when baking, and line casserole dishes with it, too. You put the lined, filled casserole dish in the freezer , and when it's solid you just pop it out. You end up with a clean casserole dish and a frozen casserole that takes up way less room in the freezer . When you need it, peel the foil away, slip it back into the same dish and pop it in the oven.

Nina: I not only love to cook – I love cookbooks and recipes. My collections fill cabinets and are not always organized.  The trial of a new recipe is that if it doesn’t get at least an A-, it goes in the “trash.” My husband gets to grade the meals. Sometimes, a B does get a second chance with modifications either of us think would make it better.  We both consider recipes a suggested starting point.  In 10 years, we have had a share of A, B and C’s but only one F – which ended up with the entire crockpot getting dumped, not just the contents.

Kaye: LEFTOVERS make me a happier cook.  Even if it's just a side like lima beans or rice.  It's easy to add a little something new to a few leftovers.  I am not a planner.  I usually plan my meals two hours ahead.  But I cook all my meals from scratch, so I have lots of stuff on hand. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

One Great . . . mango twist on chicken salad

With the weather hovering between winter and spring, I'm ready for things to eat that signal warmer weather will be here eventually.

Over the Easter weekend, I was casting around for a way to give new life to an easy dinner of chicken salad when I spied a little pullout magazine from a recent edition of Food Network magazine: "50 Salad Dressings." A mango lime dressing looked easy enough and I just happened to have a ripe mango on the counter, waiting to be used.

For the chicken salad, I added green onions, diced cucumber, a spare boiled egg from the batch bound for deviled eggs and sliced almonds. A little extra diced mango wouldn't have been out of place. On a bed of tender spring lettuce, it was a lovely dinner without the fat of a  mayo-bound salad.

Mango-Lime Chicken Salad
Adapted from Food Network magazine.

2 to 4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
1/2 cup peeled, diced cucumber
1 or 2 green onions, diced (white and tender green parts)
1 hard-cooked egg, peeled and diced
About 2 tablespoons sliced almonds
Lettuce leaves for serving (optional)
1 mango, peeled and cut away from the pit
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil

PLACE chicken breasts in a skillet with just enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook about 10 minutes, until cooked through. Set aside until cool enough to handle. Cut chicken breasts into bite-size pieces.
COMBINE  chicken with cucumber, green onion, diced egg and almonds. Toss to mix well. Add about 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup Mango-Lime Dressing and stir to mix well. Serve on a lettuce leaf drizzled with a little more dressing.
DRESSING: Combine mango, lime zest and juice, Dijon, sugar and salt in a blender. Pulse until pureed. Using feed tube with motor running, slowly blend in vinegar and oil until dressing is thick. Use some on chicken salad and refrigerate the rest for up to 3 days.
YIELD: 4 to 6 servings.