Thursday, December 23, 2010

Snow on Christmas? Wrap your hands around a warm mug

Will it snow on Christmas for the first time in my memory? I had never seen snow falling outside the window while my Christmas tree lights were on until last Saturday. So I already feel like I've seen everything.

Whichever way it goes - snow, sleet or rain - the one thing we know for sure is that it will be very cold. Which means you could use a couple of things to keep you warm. Before I leave for my Christmas vacation, I'll leave you with two ideas:

The first is Nutella Hot Chocolate. It's been popping up all over the Internet this season. And it's one of those ideas that's so smart, all I can think is, "what a great idea!" I've tested enough hot chocolate recipes to be able to say with confidence that the very best hot chocolate is made with a few squares of good-quality chocolate melted in warm milk. As a Nutella fan, I think this goes one better. Just put 3 tablespoons or so of Nutella in a small saucepan, add a couple of cups of milk, and stir it over medium-low heat.

The second is one of my favorite recipes. I got this originally from my friend Jane Snow, who got it, as I recall, from a bartender at a ski resort. I make a batch of the base every winter and use it as I need it on cold winter nights. I usually don't make it until January. But this winter is defying all predictions. (If you like simple, great ideas for food, you should subscribe to Jane's free food newsletter. It comes in every week and it always has something I end up wanting to cook. OK, end of pitch.)

Put out a hot cup of either one for Santa. The Dude is going to need to thaw out his fingers if he's going to pull anything out of his sack for you. Enjoy either, or both, stay warm, and I'll see you in 2011.

Hot Buttered Rum

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

6 tablespoons packed brown sugar, light or dark

1/4 cup molasses or dark corn syrup


Boiling water

Combine the butter, brown sugar and molasses or dark rum in a small bowl and mash with the back of a spoon or fork to combine it into a paste. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Place 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of the mix in a mug (the amount depends on the size of the mug and how sweet you like it). Add 1 ounce rum. (I like dark, but any rum will do.) Fill the mug with boiling water, stirring until the butter mix is melted. Top with whipped cream if you insist.

Party on, Charlotte: The Easy Stuff

In my column Wednesday, I suggested that everyone needs a "little black dress" appetizer for party season, drop-dead easy stuff that you can throw together and transport easily, and that always pleases people. The simpler, the better.

Then I threw it open to people to send me their own "little black dresses." The responses:

  • From Ann: Kalamata olives and mascarpone cheese. Basically equal parts, food-processed. This recipe started with olives and homemade mayonnaise, but the substitution of mascarpone really simplies it. Toasted baguette slices. You're done. It's best to process the olives first, until well-chopped. (From Kathleen: Pitted olives, of course. That should go without saying. Or maybe it needs to be said.) Add cheese, softened, and mix well.
  • From Marna Polhill: Mix an 8 ounce package of cream cheese (1/3 less fat variety is fine) with at least 1/4 cup of good-quality Vidalia onion relish. I purchase mine, Georgia Vidalia Onion Relish from Hillside Orchard Farm in Tiger, Ga., at the Handy Pantry gas/grocery/vegetable market across and down a little from Miller's vegetable stand below Pineville going toward Fort Mill. Anyway, mix cream cheese, relish and serve with crackers.
  • From Jane Loveless: This is a recipe from my cousin April Morrow. April's Chicken Spread: One large and one small can of canned chicken (white-meat only). One large and one small block of cream cheese. One pack of ranch dressing mix. Set cream cheese out to soften. Drain chicken. Mix everything with mixer, carefully dodging flying pieces of chicken as you get started. Recipe can be adjusted by using more or less cream cheese or chicken, but never use more than one pack of ranch dressing mix unless the recipe is doubled. Best eaten with bagel chips. It's also better if you make it the night before so the flavors have time to blend.
  • Sue Clark, Matthews: Take a sheet of wax paper and sprinkle heavily with chili powder. Use a package of Velveeta unwrapped and the sides moistened with a little water. Roll in the chili powder until completely coated. Place on a pretty plate and surround with crackers. They all want the recipe.
  • Dotty Dysard, Matthews: Put some green pepper jelly in a dish. Open a container of spreadable cream cheese. Arrange Ritz crackers on a plate. Put a spoon in the jelly and a spreader knife in the cheese. Demonstrate by spreading the cheese on a cracker and adding a dab of jelly. Eat one. Oh, and eat another one, too.They're really good.
  • Skippy Krell: Santa Barbara Mango with Peach Salsa, available at Costco behind the meat section. No substitution! Tostitos whole-grain scoops. Arrange partially drained salsa in a glass bowl with scoops in a basket nearby and watch it all disappear.
  • Ann Houston Staples, Pineville: Deviled eggs. Everyone has a fit over them and acts like they are really hard and time-consuming. I've used many variations, but keep going back to the one in my mother's 1953 copy of "The Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook": Mayo, parsley, dry mustard, sweet pickle relish and horseradish. I also use a very simple punch recipe that has actually caused riots around the punch bowl. It is a blend of pineapple juice and Cheerwine. If you want to get fancy, you can freeze some pineapple juice into ice to decorate and keep it cold. But honestly, it doesn't stay in the bowl long enough to get warm. (From Kathleen: Hey, that's my punch! I use that one whenever it's my turn to do Punch on the Lawn at St. Martin's Episcopal. And yes, people go crazy for it.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Name That Lunch: We have a winner

Katie Rozycki was the first to respond correctly with where I had lunch: The restaurant was Halcyon: Flavors from the Earth, at the new Mint Museum uptown. The inventive menu is the work of Mark Jacksina, who developed a following at Lulu among others.

The dish, by the way, is the Poulet Plate, just added to the menu this week. That's dark-chicken confit topped with a fried quail egg, a sort of deconstructed German potato salad on the end, and my favorite thing on the plate, a delicately fluffy scoop of cold butternut squash ricotta, in the middle.

The restaurant has such a strong local-food mission that there is no freezer and only a small walk-in refrigerator in the kitchen, so they're forced to keep it very fresh and local.

It's a beautiful space, right at the top of those very high front steps, with soaring windows and lots of natural wood and stone touches. You can get a look the menus (not updated with new stuff added this week, but you'll get the general idea and the price range) at

Thanks, everyone, for playing. And Katie, the copy of the cookbook "Plenty" will be on the way to you soon.

Need holiday farmers markets?

Having two holidays in a row fall on Saturdays is great for long weekends, but not so great for Saturday morning farmers markets. So some markets are making special plans to get your New Year's collards and Christmas breakfast bacon.

At the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, 1801 Yorkmont Road near Billy Graham Parkway, a small group of local farmers plan to be on hand from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays to sell whatever they can salvage from those freeze-ravaged fields.

The Matthews Community Market, 188 N. Trade St., will hold holiday markets from 4-6 p.m. Wednesday and again next Wednesday.

The Atherton Market, 2104 South Blvd., will be open 3-7 .m. today and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday, then will close until Jan. 4.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Name That Lunch: And Win A Book

Shall we play a game? Take a look at the picture above and tell me where I had lunch today.

Hints: It's very new, with an old-favorite chef.

The first correct answer wins a copy of "Plenty," Diana Henry's new book on cooking with sustainable agriculture. Just in time for all those January healthy-eating resolutions. (Subtitle: "With over 300 recipes, none of them extravagant.")

Email your guess to me at Deadline is noon Tuesday (that's tomorrow). I'll announce the restaurant - and identify the plate - at that time. Oh, and one more hint: It was delicious.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Want to buy a N.C. barbecue battle?

When the Barbecue Battle Box arrived on my desk, packed in a cooler of freezer packs, I had to admit: Clever idea. It's $59 ($39 if you buy 10 or more for a "Corporate Gift Special") and it comes with 1 pound of Eastern-style pork, 1 pound of Piedmont-style pork, one bottle each of Piedmont Dip and Eastern Barbecue sauce, and two tubs of cole slaw, a red Piedmont style and a white Eastern style.

The battle idea is that you're supposed to decide which style of barbecue is better. But you know barbecue fans -- we spend our time deciding whether this particular sample is a good example of the art of True 'Cue.

So I microwaved the barbecue packages, called together a small coterie of seasoned co-workers (and ended up with a large coterie -- you try putting out a couple of bowls of barbecue at lunch) and we commenced to tasting.

The slaws were big hits, with everyone loving the white and slightly sweet Eastern style, and even barbecue-slaw dislikers saying they liked that version more than they usually do. The sauces were pronounced reasonable facsimiles of the real deals.

The barbecue was pronounced generally good, although there is no nitpicker like a barbecue eater. Several people wanted more smokiness, even though I reminded them that true N.C. 'cue isn't very smoky. We all agreed the textures were right, with the proper minced quality in the Eastern style and more shredded, chunky pork in the Piedmont style. The Eastern style, even before saucing, was noticably more vinegary.

Price-wise, we all thought $59 was a mite high, considering that a pound of either one usually runs $8 to $9 at most of the classic places. As several people noted, "For 60 bucks, you ought to get banana pudding and some white bread."

But still, I've run into pretty big barbecue fanatics from out of state who spend a lot more on a plane ticket, a rental car and several days hitting places like Skylight Inn and Bridge's. So if what you want is to get or give a taste of N.C., this is a pretty good way to do it.

Interested? Go to or call 866-617-4467.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Food fans, give the gleaners a hand

What's going around here in food:

  • The Society of St. Andrew is a great group that gathers unused food, usually from picked-over fields, and gets it in the hands of people who can use it. They could use help a couple of times this week. In Operation Food Lift, 9:30-10:30 a.m. Friday, they need a few people to help box up butternut squash and load it onto trucks. It's at a warehouse in Monroe, so Southern Mecklenburg and Union County volunteers would be great. On Saturday in Mooresville, they need help picking turnips and greens at 10 am. For details on either of these, email your name and phone number to Kristen Shaben at
  • House-Autry, the N.C.-based company that makes all kinds of things cornmeal, such as fish-fry and chicken breading, hush puppy mixes and cornbread mixes, has a recipe contest called "I'm Dreaming of a Fried Christmas." (And I'm just going to back away and let you make any joke you like about that.) The grand prize is that you get to make a cooking video that they'll feature at The recipe has to use a House-Autry product and can't use more than seven ingredients. Deadline is Dec. 13 and you can get entry details here.
  • If you've ever shopped at the Fisher Farm stands at the Matthews Community and Charlotte Regional farmers markets, you may not know that Dane Fisher, the guy selling all those heirloom tomatoes, tomato sauces and kale, is actually Dr. Dane Fisher, associate professor of biology at Pheiffer University. He's putting on his speaking cap (he doesn't talk much on cold Saturday mornings, I can tell you) and speaking at Discovery Place from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Friday for the Charlotte Area Science Network. He'll talk about the flavor, quality and nutrition of locally raised produce. Should be intriguing. It's free, but reservations are recommended. Call 704-372-6261, extension 300.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Cold comfort: Kale is back

I took this picture on a snowy morning last winter at the Matthews Community Farmers Market. But I almost got to replay it this Saturday at the Charlotte Regional Market: Sleet on the way there, tiny flakes of snow while I was shopping.

I had to miss a couple of market weeks thanks to that turkey-choking calendar lump called Thanksgiving. So I took a quick survey: Apples are starting to dwindle, broccoli is almost done. Winter squash were hard to find because Thanksgiving shoppers wiped them out. Brussels sprouts haven't show up yet.

But the kale is back! Dinosaur, Siberian, green.

Regular readers know that is big news at my house. Go here for a repost of last winter's story about my struggle to find a way to get my husband to eat kale. It has a bunch of cool kale tricks, including the amazing crunchy kale chips. And it has one of my favorite recipes of the year, Tuscan Kale Salad. People ask for copies of it all the time and tell me they're addicted to it.

Seriously, raw kale. It's easy, fast and packs major flavors of lemon, pepper and garlic. Kale was with us until well into March last year, so keep this one handy.

Tuscan Kale Salad

Adapted from the New York Times

1 large bunch kale

1 slice country-style bread or 1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs

1 clove garlic, peeled

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino Romano or Parmesano Reggiano, divided

About 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Juice of 1 lemon, freshly squeezed

1/4 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Freshly ground black pepper

Trim off the bottoms of the kale stems and discard. Pile up the leaves and slice into ribbons about 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide. You should have 5 or 6 cups. Pile them in a large serving bowl or salad bowl.

Toast the bread lightly, then pulse in a food processor or rub on the large holes of a cheese grater to make coarse crumbs. If you're using fresh bread crumbs, spread them on a pan and toast them lightly.

Pound the garlic clove into paste in a mortar or with the back of a large knife. Place garlic in a small bowl. (If I use a mortar, I just mix the dressing right in it.) Add 1/4 cup cheese, 3 tablespoons oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper flakes and pepper. Whisk to combine.

Pour over the kale, using tongs to toss well. Let stand at least 5 minutes and up to 15 or 20 minutes. Add bread crumbs, remaining 2 tablespoons cheese and a little drizzle of additional oil and toss again before serving.

Friday, December 3, 2010

How is CPCC's culinary school like your house?

Central Piedmont Community College issued an open invitation to the Charlotte media Thursday for a holiday reception at the Van Every Culinary Arts Building. It was one of the rare times when TV, indie and old-fashioned daily newspaper folks banged elbows.

Between multiple visits to the garde manger class's table (cold food, like housemade sausages, pates and very nice duck confit on little toasts) and plates of Beef Rib Lollipops and Braised Pork Belly on Stone-Ground Grits, it occurred to me that when CPCC has a holiday party, it's a lot like what happens at your house:

First, everybody hangs out in the kitchen. CPCC is justifiably proud of the spiffy, still-sorta-new culinary building, and they're smart enough to know that everybody wants to be where the action is. So all the food is put out in stations around the kitchen. It's not only practical - have the food where the stoves are -- but it makes the whole thing feel fun and relaxed, rather than the usual stiff work party.

Second, everybody feels like they're being graded when people eat your cooking. In this case, students actually were: Prepping and serving food for the reception was part of their final exam. But they watch and take personally every reaction to every bite. Just like you do when you cook for a party.

Thanks again to department head Bob Boll, all the student cooks and very efficient student waiters, and especially to chef-instructors Jim Bowen and Pam Roberts. I spend a lot of time at Charlotte's four culinary schools -- Johnson & Wales, CPCC, Art Institute and Community Culinary School of Charlotte. And what blows me away every time isn't just the food. It's how much the chef-instructors love those students.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

How America Eats (And Argues About It)

In the discussion over how we eat (local, not local, cheap, expensive), there are a couple of good pieces in the news this week.

Newsweek's cover story looks at the divide between those who spend more on quality and those who have less to spend and make tough choices. The headline is a little misleading ("How Our Foodie Obsession Is Driving Americans Apart" isn't really the conclusion of the article). Lisa Miller's piece really shows more insight into the tough choices people have to make between quality and affordability.

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post's opinion pages, writers Brent Cunningham of the Columbia Journalism Review and former Post food writer Jane Black weigh in on the food-culture wars and how food choices are becoming class divisions. Ironically, the Newsweek headline would be more appropriate on this one.

Taken together, they're both thought-provoking and the beginning of what is becoming a new way to define the choices we make about what -- and how -- we eat.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving Confessions: Which recipes, tips did you use?

Now that we've sent the Thanksgiving frenzy to the back of the pantry for another year, I was wondering how it went.

Help us hone our coverage for next year. Did you use and love any of the recipes below? Did our tips turn out to be helpful -- or no help at all? (It's OK, I can take it.) Did you watch Paul Malcolm's turkey-carving video posted at (It's 8 minutes long, but worth every minute. If you missed it, it's still posted up until Wednesday.)

To refresh your memory, our Thanksgiving recipes, compiled by Andrea Weigl and myself and spread over two weeks, were:

  • Charleston Shrimp Spread

  • Dry-Brined Turkey

  • Roasted Turkey Gravy

  • Make-Ahead Mashed Potato Casserole

  • Cornbread-Pecan Dressing

  • Slow-Cooker Green Bean Casserole

  • Spiced Cranberry Chutney

  • Sliced Sweet Potato Pie with Butter Pie Crust

  • Easy Cranberry & Apple Cake
Post a comment and let me know which ones you used or what you'd like on the menu for next year.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Week: You need waffles

I'm headed off on my annual Thanksgiving break. I've got pies to bake and miles to travel. But before I hit the road, I wanted to leave you with one really great recipe.

If you have a houseful of guests this week, a leisurely breakfast you can make in advance may be just the ticket. My suggestion: Club soda waffles.

Seriously. If you've never made them, club soda makes waffles that are fluffy inside and wonderfully crispy outside. You can make them in advance, toss them in the freezer and they'll recrisp nicely in a toaster oven. The recipe doesn't call for any fancy touches like beaten egg white or yeast raising. As long as you've got some fresh club soda (unopened bottles have more bubbles), you've probably got everything you need for these.

My picture didn't turn out great, but the waffles will. Here's hoping everyone has a Lake Woebegone Thanksgiving: All the pies are outstanding, all the side dishes are satisfying, and all the turkeys are above average.

Club Soda Waffles

Makes about 6 big waffles

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled

2 large eggs

14 ounces ( 1 3/4 cups) club soda

Plenty of maple syrup and butter

Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add the butter, eggs and seltzer and whisk until smooth.

Heat a waffle iron. Brush it with oil if it isn't nonstick. Pour about 1/2 to 2/3 cup batter on the grids. Close the waffle iron and bake until browned and crispy. Serve right away, with butter and maple syrup, or place a warming rack over a baking sheet and keep the waffles in a warm oven until they're all ready. Or cool them, slide them into a resealable freezer bag and freeze. Reheat in a toaster oven.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Doing your Thanksgiving shopping Saturday?

If you're aiming for a local-food menu, here are a few places to check:

  • The Matthews Community Farmers Market holds its last regular-season market Saturday from 7:15 a.m. until noon. They'll do a special Thanksgiving market from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday. The market won't open next Saturday, and will start the every-other-week winter schedule on Saturday, Dec. 4, from 8-10 a.m. The market is on North Trade Street in downtown Matthews.
  • The Davidson Farmers Market is open from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. It won't be open again until Dec. 4.
  • The Atherton Market is also open Saturday at 2104 South Blvd.
  • The Common Grounds Farm Stand, 923 Providence Road (next to Interior Marketplace near Providence and Queens) is also open Saturday frin 9:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Proceeds from their sales benefit the Urban Ministry Center.
  • The Community Culinary School of Charlotte will hold a holiday bake sale from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesday, at 2401 Distribution St. They'll have pumpkin pies, sweet potato pies, fruit pies, layer cakes, cookies, yeast rolls and more. Pie prices range from $10 to $14; cakes are $14 to $16; rolls are $3 per dozen. CCSC is a nonprofit organization that provides training and job help in the food service industry for adults who have had problems with employment.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

One great beef stew: Take a Thanksgiving breather

Between the magazines, the cooking shows, the food Web sites and -- yes, we're guilty -- the newspapers, it's easy to get caught up in Thanksgiving panic.

Make it bigger! Make it fancier! Make it the most special Thanksgiving of all time! If you're not milling your own flour for pie crusts, you're not going to have The Best Thanksgiving Ever.

You know what? Thanksgiving comes every year. It came last year, it will come next year, and it will be fine this year.

Maybe it's a good time to step back and make a simple dish, something earthy and comforting. Something satisfying with no loaded expectations attached.

I found this Slow Cooker Beef Stew in the most recent issue of Cook's Country magazine. Like all of America's Test Kitchen recipes, it has a fussy touch or two. But nothing difficult -- I put it together one morning before I left for work, and was rewarded by coming home to a satisfying dinner on a chilly, rainy night.

One of the wrinkles is a great tip for slow-cooker fans: Use Minute tapioca as a thickener for slow cooker sauces. Unlike flour slurries or cornstarch, it won't break down in the heat. The method of wrapping the vegetables in foil and placing them on top of the cooker keeps the vegetables from getting too soft and lets you season them separately. And stirring in the peas at the end keeps them green and appetizing.

As always, I made changes: I skipped the parsnips because my husband doesn't like them (pity -- I love their sweet flavor), and I used stew beef from Gilcrest Natural Farms. Cutting your own chuck roast would be cheaper, but would take a bit more time. Instead of a 6-ounce can of tomato paste, I used a healthy squirt from a tube of paste.

It all turned out just fine. And so will Thanksgiving.

Slow-Cooker Hearty Beef Stew

From Cook's Country, December/January issue.

5 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

2 to 4 onions, peeled and diced

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

2 cups low-sodium chicken or beef broth

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 bay leaves (optional)

2 tablespoons Minute tapioca

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces (peels left on)

1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme (I was out, so I used dried herbs de Provence)

2 cups frozen peas, rinsed until partly thawed

Pat beef dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. (If using prepared stew beef, cut into bite-size pieces.) Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Cook half the beef until well browned all over, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to slow cooker. Repeat with additional 1 tablespoon oil and remaining beef.

Add onions, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and cooked 6 to 8 minutes, until softened and a little browned. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring often, until paste begins to darken, about 2 minutes. Stir in broth, soy sauce and bay leaves and bring to a boil. Add to beef in the slow cooker. Stir in the tapioca.

Toss the carrots, parsnips, potatoes, remaining 1 tablespoon oil, 1/2 teaspoon thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Spread out a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Pile the vegetables on one side of the foil, fold over and crimp edges to seal. Place the packet in the slow cooker on top of the beef mixture. (This was the only place I had trouble -- make sure your packet will fit in the slow cooker and stay sealed to hold in the steam. I ended up using a second piece of foil to seal it.)

Cover the slow cooker and cook on high for 6 to 7 hours or on low for 10 to 11 hours. Uncover and remove the foil packet to a bowl or cutting board. Discard the bay leaves if you spot them. Open the packet and pour all of the vegetables and any cooking liquid to the slow cooker, stirring to mix it all in. Cover and heat about 30 minutes. Stir in the peas 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

They're making whoopies

Now here's an e-mail to warm a food editor's heart: Gary Kunes wrote this morning to tell me that his 12-year-old daughter, Evie is "a cookie baking machine."

"Lunch at school is before 11 a.m., so she is hungry when she gets home at 4:15. So she makes sure there are always cookies in the house."

After he showed her my Wednesday story on whoopie pies, Evie got to work making winedrop cookies (don't worry, no actual wine is used in the making of the cookie.) Gary got her permission to fill the cookies with a filling for impromptu whoopies. That's Gary's picture above.

"I figured cream cheese mixed with homemade apricot jam would pair well with the clove, cinnamon, etc., spices in the cookies. I was right! Thanks for the inspiration."

Why no, thank you, Gary. Inspiring 12-year-old bakers and their dads is what we live to do.

Meanwhile on the whoopie front, I heard from a few more bakers doing the whoopie thing. Suarez Bakery at Park Road Shopping Center says they make them all the time, including a special holiday flavor, chocolate peppermint. And Miss Ms Sweets at Afton Village in Concord also makes them. You can get those details at

And here's Gary Kune's (and Evie's) recipe for winedrop cookies. You're on your own for the filling.
Winedrop Cookies
1/2 cup each molasses, brown sugar, buttermilk and shortening
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon, cloves, salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup raisins
BEAT together. Spoon out onto baking sheets and bake at 375 degrees for 8 minutes.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Pumpkin pie vs. sweet potato: How do you make the call?

They're both dark orange, they both have smooth consistencies that are the perfect contrast with flaky crust, and they both taste mighty good under a crown of whipped cream.

So how do you decide which pie to have for Thanksgiving, sweet potato or pumpkin?

Pumpkin has that fall-harvest connection, but it's too often relegated to frozen-pie status. It's like we feel the obligation but not the motivation. Sweet potato pie recipes usually have family roots, but it gets so spiced and sweetened, it loses its connection to the fields and becomes just another delivery system for melted marshmallows.

Personally, I skip the debate and go with pecan. It's in my Georgia roots. Or I try to find the best of both worlds with a pumpkin pie topped with sweetened pecans, for that creamy/crunchy/nutty contrast.

But in the run-up to Thanksgiving, I'd love to hear which way you go and how you make the decision. What's your pleasure - pumpkin or sweet potato?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Barbecue road trip: B's Barbecue, Greenville, NC

As any barbecue troller knows, the places that look like the least are the ones you hear about most.

B's Barbecue has such a loyal following in Greenville, N.C., that it has its own street - B's Barbecue Road. But although I've managed to visit most of the major 'cue spots in North and South Carolina, B's had eluded me. I stopped there on one barbecue trip years ago: Just my luck, the giant fan that keeps the open-air cookhouse liveable had broken down, so they had shut down early.

I've heard that kind of thing happens a lot. They only make so much barbecue, and when it's gone, it's gone.

On Thursday, I finished up with an assignment near Greenville just before lunch and decided to try my luck again. This time, I pulled up to find cars crammed in the parking lot and along the road (yes, that would be B's Barbecue Road), and smoke puffing from the screen windows in the cookhouse.

B's is about the same inside as you'd expect from the outside. Floors slope, chairs creak, tables are covered with mismatched oil cloth. But it's a friendly place, and all that wear comes honest, from years and years of loyal East Carolina University fans. B's returns the favor with plenty of love for the Pirates.

As for the food, it's dished up steam-table style. You find chicken so rarely in N.C. barbecue places that I went with the combo plate, with slaw, green beans and cornsticks. The chicken was excellent, smoked slowly until it was falling off the bone, with good, chewy skin and sauce with just a touch of sweet. The barbecue was exactly what I expect: Moist, Eastern-style pork, chopped fine, with that pit-cooked flavor that comes from fat dripping on coals.

I should have skipped the green beans and asked to double up on slaw, which was milky with just a little sweetness. But I got plenty of cornsticks: Long and thin to give the maximum crust, they were crunchy with a corn-grittiness that tasted like a stick of grits. (Yes, non-grits fans, some of us like the taste of grits.)

I was glad to finally add B's to my barbecue roster. Maybe I'll find my way back when they're open again someday. Maybe.

B's Barbecue, 751 B's Barbecue Road, Greenville, NC.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Don't miss today's roasted okra recipe

As love/hate foods that divide or unite, okra is right up there with grits and livermush. (Thanks to childhood liver-aversion therapy, I've never learned the trick to loving livermush. But if you struggle with grits, remember that cheese grits are the newbie's training wheels. You're welcome.)

But okra . . . well, okra does have this tendency toward sliminess. It's called roping, and it's as much a part of the okra experience as cornmeal and a frying pan. The roping actually contributes to okra's usefulness as a thickener for dishes like gumbo, when the gooey stuff melds with the roux base to create a velvety texture.

At least, I had always assumed that okra and slime go together. Until two weeks ago, when I was reporting today's story on book-club food. Rhonda Cramer, who was hosting her club's discussion of Michael Polan's "In Defense of Food," mentioned that she would definitely be serving "the amazing roasted okra."

Roasted okra? I've made grilled okra, and fried okra, and I've stirred together my share of gumbos. But roasting okra was new to me. Cramer said she got the technique from a farmer at the Matthews Community Farmers Market. It's amazing, she assured me: It gets as crispy as potato chips, and even non-okraists love it.

At the Charlotte Regional Farmer's Market that Saturday, Dean Mullis had bags of very fresh red okra at his stand. I took a bag home and followed Rhonda's directions: Cut each pod in half lengthwise, from stem to tip. Toss them with a tablespoon or so of olive oil and about a teaspoon of salt (I used coarse kosher salt). Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in a hot oven for about 20 minutes. You want them to get really dark, almost black.

Result? No slime at all. The pieces get as crispy as potato chips. Even my non-vegetable-loving husband ate them, and my teenage son went nuts over them, fighting for the last bits on the plate.

My checks at the farmers market last weekend showed okra is still abundant. Although smaller pods are better, I had some larger pods in my batch and they worked fine. Their tips curled up like little Persian slippers and they looked very pretty.

Seriously. Non-slimy okra. Who knew?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Willow Bird blogger needs your help

Julie Ruble of Charlotte has a secret identity: She's a fanatical baker who blogs and posts very nice pictures of her decadent creations at

Now Julie has reached the upper level in a national food-blogger contest on Bloggers have to participate in 10 challenges, with bloggers eliminated every week. It's sort of a "Survivor: Kitchen Island." Willow Bird is one of only 100 blogs who have made it to Round 4, and she really needs your votes.

To vote for Julie, you need to sign up (it's free) at, then visit Julie's entry at and click "vote for this entry." This one is on how to make croissants, and the pictures are cute. Deadline to vote in this round is Oct. 14.

I don't think Julie can bake a croissant for everyone who votes, but I'm sure she'd still be very grateful.

Mizuna salad is a taste made for fall

If you're going to grow unusual things, it helps to tell people what to do with them. Kim Shaw of Small City Farms usually has the table right by the door at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. Now that fall greens are coming in, she spends a lot of time explaining what do with them.

On a recent Saturday, she had bags of mizuna, which got puzzled looks. Mizuna is a green with pointed, dagger-shaped leaves. It's not as peppery as arugula, with a light, crispy texture. To head off the questions, Kim was handing out copies of a recipe for a mizuna salad with a cooked dressing of port, dried cranberries, pancetta (unsmoked Italian-style bacon), pecans and goat cheese.

Since I knew I already had the pecans, dried cranberries and goat cheese, I knew I was most of the way to a nice dinner for two. I picked up a single thick slice of pancetta at the Harris Teeter deli, and since I also happened to have a smoked duck breast in the refrigerator, I seared a few slices to serve with the salad. That was a nice luxury touch, but not necessary. If you wanted to turn this salad into a full meal, you could serve it with roasted chicken, or even slices of a pan-sauted bratwurst.

The dressing was so good, you could almost drink it. I liked it so much, I made it again this week. This time, I skipped the pancetta (heresy, I know, but there is life without bacon), browned the shallot and garlic in a little olive oil, and used a splash of the dressing as a sauce over sliced, oven-roasted chicken breast. I know what's going to be my next dinner party salad, as long as the mizuna holds out.

Mizuna Salad With Dried Cranberries, Pecans and Goat Cheese
You'll need about half the dressing for a nice-size bag of greens. You can cut the amounts in half, or refrigerate the rest of it and rewarm it for another night. One other tip: You can toast the pecans in a dry skillet, remove them and then use the skillet to make the finished dressing.
1 1/4 dried cranberries
1/2 cup tawny port
5 ounces pancetta or thick-sliced bacon, diced
2 shallots, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 (5.5-ounce) log of fresh goat cheese, crumbled (I used about 1/4 cup Bosky Acres fresh goat cheese)
1/2 pound mizuna and/or arugula or other crispy greens
1/2 cup pecans, toasted
Combine cranberries and port in a small pan. Bring to a simmer, remove from heat and let stand about 15 minutes, until the cranberries swell and soften a bit.
Saute the pancetta or bacon in a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat until crisp on the outside, about 8 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel.
Add the shallot and garlic to the bacon fat in the skillet and cook about 2 minutes, just until onion starts to soften a little. Add the oil, vinegar and sugar and cook briefly, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the port and cranberries and season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. (Can be made in advance. Rewarm before finishing the salad.)
Combine the salad greens and pecans. Rewarm dressing slightly if needed. Add just enough dressing and cranberries to the greens to moisten and toss well. Top with crumbled goat cheese.

Friday, October 8, 2010

What's coming up in food world

  • Get your chili on at the 7th annual Plaza-Midwood/Chantilly Chili Cookoff Saturday. Gates open at noon at 1318 Central Ave., near Sammy's and the Family Dollar. There also will be live bands, a bake sale, a bike show, a raffle and other stuff. $10 gets you a lot of samples, and raises money for Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte. Drink tickets are also available "for a reasonable price," according to the release. Of course, if it's five-alarm chili, "reasonable price" might mean "how much are you willing to pay for a squirt from a fire hose"? Details: or email Nancy Cole at
  • HoneyByrd Sweets is back to making toffee after Howard and Kathryn both were sidelined by health troubles. They won't have their stands at the Charlotte Regional or Matthews Community farmers markets, but they's taking orders for the holdays and offering free shipping. Get the details and the list of candies at
  • Go, Kim Hansen! The Charlotte blogger is a finalist in the Avocado League, an online contest for game-day avocado recipes feature the hometown flavors of the eight finalists. She needs online votes through Oct. 28 to win $5,000 and a year's worth of avocados. Her recipe for Avocado and Cream Sauce is currently in second place, behind Chicago but ahead of that tiny town to our left, Atlanta. To vote and get the recipe, go to
  • Tea fans, it's time to get reservations for the annual Matthews Victorian Christmas Teas, put on by the Matthews Woman's Club at the Historic Reid House in downtown Matthews. The teas are held Dec. 2-5 and include lots of tea-related nibbles. Tickets are $25. You have to call to get one: 704-849-5063.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Finding the secret of Hungarian cucumbers

On a visit to Cleveland last summer, my friend took us to an Irish restaurant for lunch, then told us we had a choice for dinner: Polish, Russian, Slovenian or Hungarian.

Tough choice. We picked Hungarian sort of randomly, and ended up at Balaton in Shaker Square, on a just-warm-enough night with a concert going on in the park across the street. We asked for a little table outside on the sidewalk to take it all in.

To start, we ordered Uborka Salta, Hungarian cucumber salad. It came as wide, shallow bowls with paper-thin cucumbers soaked in a juice that was sweet and vinegary, topped with dollops of sour cream.
It reminded me of the old Southern dish of sliced cucumbers with vinegar that was a staple of my mother's Sunday dinners in summer. But these cucumbers were sliced so thin that you got this amazing crunchiness from the edges of the peel. And the sour cream added a creaminess that balanced the vinegar and sugar in the juice. It was sprinkled with little seeds that popped as you ate, adding even more texture.

When I got back to Charlotte, I dug through my cookbooks, looking for something like it. I never found the exact recipe. But in Craig Claiborne's 1961 "The New York Times Cookbook," I spotted a Sweet Cucumber and Green-Tomato Pickle that had a pickling liquid that I thought might be close.

I got some long, thin cucumbers and pulled out my mandoline, the tool you need when you need paper-thin slices. You can sometimes slice things thin enough with a vegetable peeler, but for a job like this, you really need something like a mandoline or a Japanese Benriner.

I heated a mixture of cider vinegar, sugar, salt and mustard seed, cooled it just slightly and poured it over the sliced cucumbers, then chilled it. At dinner, I topped the cucumbers with sour cream and a light sprinkling of mustard seeds. And I tasted success: Re-creating a recipe is sometimes impossibly elusive. But this time, I nailed it on the first try.

The cucumbers kept beautifully in the refrigerator for weeks, ready whenever I needed some small dish of something to round out a meal.

It was getting so late in the season that I thought it was too late to share this cooking adventure. But at the Charlotte Regional Farmer's Market on Saturday, Maria Fisher of Fisher Farms had a huge box of heirloom-variety cucumbers she was selling for Tega Hills Farm. There were green ones and white ones, small ones and large ones.

So I got the chance to make it again. I sprinkled on a little fresh dill, just because I had some handy, but you don't really need it. With the sweet/sour/creaminess, it seems like a perfect transitional dish to add to fall meals.

Sort-Of Hungarian Cucumbers

Heavily adapted from "The New York Times Cookbook," by Craig Claiborne.

1 to 2 cucumbers, preferably fairly thin ones with smaller seeds

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup cider vinegar

3 teaspoons mustard seed, divided

1/4 cup sour cream

Leave the peel on the cucumbers. Trim off the stem and root ends. Slice the cucumbers very thinly, preferably using a mandoline or a very sharp slicer. They should be thin enough to see through them, between 1/16th and 1/8th inch thick if your slicer has a dial to set the size.

Combine the salt, sugar, vinegar and 2 teaspoons mustard seed in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring, and heat just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let stand a few minutes, until it's still very warm but not boiling hot.

Pour over the cucumbers. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours; they'll keep for several weeks.

To serve, spoon cucumbers out of the juice with a slotted spoon into a serving dish. Top with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of mustard seed.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Serious eating with

Taking a visitor out to lunch is one thing. Taking New York's Ed Levine out to lunch ought to be titled "Eats, Shoots and Leaves."

In the food writing world, Levine is one of the smart guys who makes the rest of us pay attention. He's a book author ("Pizza: A Slice of Heaven" and "The Young Man and the Sea," with chef David Pasternak, among others) and he used to write occasionally for The New York Times. He has an almost goofy love of anything that smacks of authenticity in food.

In 2006, back when the rest of us were still figuring out how to spell "blog," Ed came up with the idea for a very cool Web site called, which would pull together smart people who were posting all over the Web. He swears he had no idea what he was doing, but it worked. Today, it's a must-check stop in my daily Internet reading.

His experiment has done so well, he has a staff - "with paid health insurance," he says with pride - and now there's a book coming out on Serious Eats food finds all around the country.

Ed came through Charlotte on Friday to start a quick trip through North Carolina for book research. He was bound for Lexington, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. But first he wanted to do a little Charlotte exploring, so I agreed to play tour guide. His stated aims: Fried chicken and banana pudding. I love a man who knows what he wants.

Just before 11 a.m., we pushed through the door at Price's Chicken Coop and ordered up fried chicken, gizzards and cups of very sweet tea. We spread out on the trunk of my car in the parking lot while I did my best to explain the makeup of the SouthEnd neighborhood and the importance of crushed ice in a great cup of sweet tea.

Ed has chronicled his attempts to reconcile weight gain with the life of a food writer, and he is disciplined enough to only pick at his food. I had to save him from making the mistake of closing the Price's box without trying a thigh. He leaned forward to crunch through that crispy skin and erupting juice and made a very happy noise.

"That thigh," he admitted later, "was pretty transcendant."

We jumped back in the car and raced up North Tryon to the Chicken Box, another favorite of mine. His verdict: Great hush puppies, really good fried chicken. Different from the Price's chicken, he decided, but good. Before we could leave, he took pictures of the red rugs on the floor with the Chicken Box Cafe logos. "I just love rugs in restaurants. Don't you?" Actually, that's one aspect of food I had never noticed.

For the banana pudding, we went back downtown to Savor Cafe on Morehead Street. He seemed very happy with the banana pudding -- "so much real banana flavor" -- and the Coca-Cola Cake, but he was fascinated by the Open Kitchen across the street.

He kept admiring the colorful retro look of the place and reading the sign out loud: "The Home of the Pizza Pie." Before we could drive back to my office, we had to pull into the parking lot so he could shoot a picture and run inside for a peek and a menu.

In his heart, that's what Ed really loves in food. It isn't the latest star chef or the most precious bite. It's the real. The real is what he thinks is the best thing about food in America right now. As the economy staggers, what survives is what really makes people happy.

"People recognize places that feel good and are real and have good food," he said over a few careful spoonfuls of banana pudding. "There's more good stuff than bad stuff right now. Food culture in America isn't museum culture. It's a vibrant, living thing."

Creating Serious Eats, he says, has been a blast because it let him find a lot of young, creative people who are crazy in love with food. At 59, he's created a business that lets these young people dig into a whole new way of writing.

"They're eating chicken, they have paid health insurance and they're 25," he said, laughing. "I don't know what they're going to do in the future, but for now, it's pretty great."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cook, eat or shop for food? We need your brains

If you read other sections of the Observer than the Food section (it's OK, you won't hurt my feelings), you may have read announcemens about our new Carolinas Public Insight Network.

It's a cool thing, actually: You feel out a form detailing your areas of expertise, and we add you to a database of people we use as sources for stories. We don't sell your name or pass it on to anyone else. We use you for journalism, not for marketing. We don't even have to quote you if you don't want. We can just use your advice to get background on a story.

But it occurs to me that the first thing you think of when you see a fancy phrase like "public insight network" isn't food. People don't always think of food and cooking as something all that important.

It is important. Food expertise is as valuable as any other kind of expertise. Maybe more -- food costs you money, food keeps you alive, food is the one thing every person experiences.

Bargain food shoppers, locavores, expert cooks, trained chefs, people who know more about the best chili dog in the state -- we need those kinds of experts, too.

So, please go to . Fill out the form. And in the box for your personal or professional specialties, make sure you include a little about what kind of cook or eater you are.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Reporting for barbecue duty in Mayberry

Mount Airy, N.C., would be a nice place even without its history as the inspiration for Mayberry in the "The Andy Griffith Show." A quick 90-minute run up I-77 from Charlotte, it's a pretty little town of Victorian houses perched right on the sweet spot where the Piedmont hills start building up to become the Blue Ridge mountains.

And yes, it has another claim to fame besides Mayberry: It was home to Chang and Eng, the brothers whose vaudeville act supposedly gave the world the term Siamese Twins.

For people who don't understand the Tarheel reverence for all things Mayberry, let me explain: When I was a kid in the 1960s, everything on TV was about New York: "That Girl" lived in New York, Dick Van Dyke commuted to New York, half of the "Twilight Zone" sets were built to look like New York.

For us North Carolina kids, Mayberry was the only thing on TV that looked like the world as we knew it. Aunt Bea looked like my Aunt Rosalie, Mayberry looked like downtown Wilson, right down to the courthouse square. In the pre-AC days, front porches were survival zones.

I made the trip up to Mount Airy on Saturday to serve as a judge for the Mayberry Days barbecue contest. Yes, this is sometimes my life: Eat 26 samples of chopped pork 'cue and give each one a grade on a score sheet. As a "blind" judge, I was sequestered in a little room in the Surry Arts Council with two suspender-wearing gents. John T. Matthews is a Mount Airy native and retired hog farmer. The other judge was a TV/radio guy named Roy. He prefered just Roy -- he apparently once had a traumatic judging incident that involved a children's beauty contest and wouldn't judge again unless he was promised anonymity and a locked door.

I did my duty to the best of my ability, poking through the boxes, noting things like tenderness, moisture, even distribution of sauce and inclusion of small bites of crispy skin. By 9:30 in the morning, we had eaten our way through samples A-X.

Eating that much pork that early in the morning will bring on pork fat-induced hallucinations. When I stepped out into the sunny morning, I could have sworn Aunt Bea was thumbing through the local paper.

Oh, no, wait -- that's an Aunt Bea impersonator. And if there is room in the world for Elvis impersonators, I think it's a good idea that the world also have Mayberry impersonators. I saw a very convincing Barney, hang-dog jowls and all, and an excellent Otis Campbell stumbling up the street.

After walking around to look at the barbecue teams and listen to that wonderful sound of cleavers rapping out chopped pork, I stood on the sidewalk and watched the Mayberry parade. Actress Elinor Donahue was there, perched on the back of a convertible and laughing her head off. As an early fan of "Father Knows Best," long before she played Mayberry pharmacist Ellie Walker, I was delighted to see a lovely woman who looks like a retired librarian being treated like a beauty queen.

After giving her a wave, I got in my car and headed back to Charlotte, happy to know that the legacy of Mayberry is alive and well and having a great time in Mount Airy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Need to scare up some Halloween fans

Do you make Halloween-themed treats? My colleague Andrea Weigl at the Raleigh News & Observer needs to hear from people with experience cooking up ghoulish gourmet treats. Are those frozen hands in the punch bowl worth it? If you are willing to share a recipe and be interviewed, e-mail her at or call her at 919-829-4848.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Food stuff to do

  • I can't write this the way Groucho would have asked it, but here's your chance to answer the question and win . . . a day on the Know Your Farms tour Sunday with the Tiny Chef. Cooking teacher Susanne Dillingham will take what you buy on the tour back to your house and help you cook it. To win, you have to answer this question: "What are five vegetables grown in our region in fall and five that are grown in spring?" (Oooh! Ooooh! I know! Aw, they never call on me.) Email with your answer or to get more details.
  • Do you speak sous vide? Williams-Sonoma wants to help you get your feet wet (vacuum-sealed food, cooked in water at very controlled temperatures . . . they'll tell you the rest). They're holding sous vide demos from 7-9 p.m. Oct. 18 at both the SouthPark and Birkdale stores. It's free and open to the public, but it helps if you call so they can put out enough chairs and supplies. 704-364-8886 for SouthPark, 6401 Morrison Blvd., or 704-895-8331 for Birkdale, 16740 Birkdale Commons Parkway.
  • Cooking Uptown, 1707 E. 7th St., has posted its November and December cooking classes. They fill up fast (and make good gifts, but you didn't hear that from me). Go to to see the list, then call 704-333-7300 to register.
  • Saturday is the Dilworth Chili Cookoff, in The Courtyard Shopping Center, 2400 Park Road, in front of Sunset Grille. It starts at 4 p.m., judging is about 7:30, and $5 is the entry fee. Which includes chili samples, I believe. And a bake sale. Proceeds benefit the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer and another charity that will be chosen by Fire Station No. 2 (and I believe the Deuces are capable of making some seriously hot chili.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Race City Sauce Works brings the heat

Charlotte-based Race City Sauce Works won the title as the hottest hot sauce at the N.C. Hot Sauce Contest, held Saturday in Oxford. The reason: Their '98 Octane Ghost Pepper Reserve, which contains bhut jolokia chile, also called Ghost Chile. They also won for Most Unusual Sauce, for their Victory Lane Jalapeno-Sour Apple Pepper Sauce.

Debbie Moose was in the hot seat as a judge for the hot sauce category (the contest also looked at barbecue sauces). Read about it this morning on her blog,

Time to pick your apples

It's always a little startling to realize that the heat of summer hasn't finished letting go but the fall apples are already hanging in the trees. If the lower humidity and (slightly) cooler temperatures put you in the mood, you can find apple and pumpkin farms in our Pick-Your-Own Farms database, at

I was having lunch in Hendersonville on Sunday when I overheard a visiting family asking the guy behind the cash register at Mike's Soda Shop about an apple farm - "Mountain Top, Top of the Mountain, something like that?" The cashier answered him with "Sky Mountain." Wrong on both counts: I'm betting he was looking for Skytop in Flat Rock, a longtime favorite among apple fans. You can find the directions, hours and correct name for it in our database, too.

We always get a couple of apple and pumpkin farms calling in late summer, long after we compile the list in spring. Here are a couple that didn't make this year's database:

  • Hodges Family Farms in Mecklenburg County has pick-your-own pumpkins along with family activities, such as hayrides, pony rides and a corn maze. It's at 3900 Rocky River Road East; 704-494-0107. Open daily from Sept. 25 to Oct. 31, 9 a.m. to dark. Get the details at
  • Windy Hill Orchard is at 1860 Black Highway in York, S.C., with pick-your-own apples, fresh apple cider, farm tours and fresh-made apple products. Apple picking started in mid-August and continues until Christmas. Hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. on certain Sundays (Sept. 19, Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10). Details and directions:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Eat and be merry this weekend

Thanks to a long-planned mountain trip, I'll miss all the Charlotte food excitement this weekend. So enjoy it twice as much on my behalf:

  • The yearly Yiasou Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, 600 East Blvd., until 9 tonight, plus 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. General admission is $2 for adults, but it's free if you can show a ticket that proves you got there by bus or light rail. Charlotte food lovers know this one well: You can buy plates and Greek specialties, and they have an open-air market that includes Greek products. It is seriously fun, even if you don't drink a single shot of ouzo.
  • Time Warner Cable BBQ & Blues, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday on Tryon Street from Trade to First streets. This is the contest and music festival that grew out of the old Brews, Blues & BBQ, which grew out of the Charlotte Shout cultural festival. It still includes a certified barbecue competition, cooking demos, pig racing and more. Nice touch this year: At the People's Choice Contest at 1 p.m. Saturday at The Green, you can make a $5 donation to Slow Food Charlotte and vote on barbecue samples made from locally raised pork. Nice. Details:

Enjoy. Meanwhile, I'll pass the time in the car imagining what would happen if you combined Yiasou and BBQ & Blues. Pork baklava, maybe? Smoked feta? It's starting to sound tasty.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Barbecue road trip, Part III: Cook's BBQ

OK, I've been holding out. When I made a swing by a couple of Statesville stops last week, I was actually on my way back from an early lunch in Lexington. Statesville is not usually on the way back from Lexington, but Tom-Tom makes many fine drives possible.

And in this case, the best was the first.

I've been hearing about Brandon Cook at Cook's BBQ for a couple of years. I had just been waiting for an open travel day to check his place out. The son of barbecuer Doug Cook, who owns Backcountry Barbecue in Lexington, Brandon opened his own place and decided to forego modern shortcuts like electric or gas cookers and go back to all-wood cooked barbecue.

Does it make a difference? Apparently so: he's had to expand his little restaurant, tucked away in the country outside Lexington, a couple of times. Draw your own conclusions on this, too: When I pulled up for an early lunch at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, there were already two patrol cars with officers waiting to eat, and two more had joined them by the time I left around noon. Maybe it's like following truckers - Lexington police officers know good barbecue.

And amazingly good barbecue it is. I ordered a chopped pork plate and opened my notes. But after the first bite, it was several minutes before I could order my brain to write more than "oh my lord." Moist, tender, with just enough outside brown to give the whole pile texture. It was like pork raised to a higher purpose.

It came with just enough vinegary sauce already mixed in. In fact, I reached for the sauce bottle once and draw back my hand. It's good sauce, vinegary with just a little heat, and they take the time to serve it warm. But it seemed like a sacrilege to cover that pork with anything.

The $6.29 plate came with red slaw and a basket of terrific hush puppies -- round and as small as shooter marbles, but buttery and crisp. The waitress brought fries by mistake, but I held out for the baked beans. They had an apple flavor that was almost reminded me of pie filling but was on the right side of too sweet.

Cook's BBQ is a simple place, very country style, with a big dining room. There are other things on the menu, but with chopped pork like that, I'm sure I'll never get around to trying them. It's tucked back off a country road, about an hour from Charlotte, but it's not that hard to find: From I-85, take N.C. 8 (Exit 91). Turn left and go about 4 miles, to Rock Crusher Road. Turn right and follow it back about a half mile. Turn left on Valiant. It doesn't look like there will be a restaurant back there, but there is -- just look for the smoke. Or the patrol cars.

Cook's BBQ, 366 Valiant Drive, Lexington. 336-798-1928. 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 3:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Barbecue road trip, Part II: Port-A-Pit

Port-A-Pit? It sounds like something I avoid at outdoor concerts. But I've passed the sign so many times after leaving Keaton's outside Statesville, I finally had to stop and figure it out.

It's not easy. When you spot the sign on U.S. 64, right next to the Cool Spring Fire Department and just before the John Deere dealership, there is no obvious sign of a restaurant. Just the sign and a gravel road leading into a field. But the field is full of trucks with "Port-A-Pit Barbecue" painted on their sides. So there's got to be something in that building at the back, right?

Is it in that machine shop on the left? No, that's just the whine of power tools. Wait, the right side of the building, where the steps are -- ah, that's it.

You still have to go all the way around to the back and through the door. And you're still puzzled: You're in the small office of Koala-T-Katering. The guy on the phone in the back doesn't even look up. But if you turn right, there's the catering kitchen. A line of women are rapidly dealing cups of sauce into take-out boxes on one side. On the other side, there's a line of steam trays with chicken, pork, ribs and the day's vegetables, and a couple of tables lined up to herd you toward cash register. Takeout is the only choice.

Since I was on my third lunch of the day, I just opted for a pork barbecue sandwich for $3.25. That brought a very generous pile of already sauced, shredded pork, a hamburger bun, a large serving of coleslaw -- choice of mayo-based or red -- and two little cups of barbecue sauce. There are a few benches outside, but your car is the most comfortable place to sit.

The barbecue is smoky, moist and already sauced, the sauce on the side is dark, sweet and tastes strongly of liquid smoke.

Port-A-Pit must operate on the Smucker's theory -- with a name like that, they have to serve something good.

Port-A-Pit BBQ, 119 Marshall Forest Lane (behind Cool Spring Fire Department on U.S. 64 East), Statesville. 704-872-9778. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wednesday and Friday only. Prices range from $3.25 for a barbecue sandwich, $5 for a barbecue tray, $4.75 to $8.25 for chicken, rib or pork plates with two sides and bread or hush puppies.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Barbecue road trip, Part I: Keaton's

Taking a trip to Keaton's BBQ in Cleveland, N.C., outside Statesville, isn't really about the food. It's about the journey.

There's figuring out a way to get out of the office and play hookey at a time that actually matches their hours. (The hours change by season or whim, so after you check the Web site,, it's still a good idea to call 704-278-1619 just to make sure.) There's the 30-minute run up I-77 to I-40 to U.S. 64. There's the drive down long, winding Woodleaf Road, past the farms and corn fields until you cross into Rowan County, head into the trees and finally spot the place.

There's the look on the face of whichever first-timer you're taking along when they first see the rusted sign stretching along the roof, the hand-scrawled notes on the windows and doors. Maybe they look with trepidation, or hesitation. If they look with a big smile, you have the satisfaction of knowing you picked the right traveling companion.

I made my fourth or fifth visit to Keaton's last week, by myself this time. Not much has changed. "No smoking" signs have replaced the old "no guns" sign, which is cheering. There's still the portrait of founder B.W. Keaton by the front door inside, big smile and cigarette dangling from his mouth, long ash eternally caught by the camera just before it falls.

The counter service is just as chaotic and confusing. The side dishes are just as negligible. I've been enough times to know to stick with baked beans and the crusty-on-top mac & cheese and avoid the potato salad. They have pork barbecue, I've heard. But I never get around to trying it.

The real star of the menu is just the same: Half-chicken fried, dipped in sauce and grilled. The meat inside is a little dry, but the skin is the point, peppery and just a little chewy.

Maybe it's not the food. Maybe it is the journey.
Keaton's Barbecue, 17365 Cool Springs Road, Cleveland, N.C.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Charlotte gets a fresh-fish market

Look Ma - blue prawns.

Bill Ryan is mighty proud of those blue prawns. And his big hunks of tuna, dry-pack scallops and John Dory. Ryan, a Bostonian-turned-Charlottean, is the owner of Clean Catch Fish Market, the long-awaited fish market that is finally open at Selwyn Avenue and Colony Roads.

Look for my story about Clean Catch's sustainable policies, chef service -- and its prices -- in Thursday's Business section.

For all of you who have complained over the years because Charlotte doesn't have a serious fish market for serious fish fans, consider your hook baited.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Writers can climb on the Floating Island

You're sure you have a food memoir in you just bursting to get out? You might be able to get the push you need in Chapel Hill in October. (Warning: It ain't cheap. But writing workshops rarely are.)

Kim Sunee, author of "Trail of Crumbs," will bring her Floating Island Writers Workshop Oct. 11-14. It has a variety of events attached to it. The actual workshop is four days of intensive group and individual sessions, a roundtable discussion with Frances Mayes, author of "Under the Tuscan Sun," a cooking demonstration and a wine tasting at Bonne Soiree. The cost: $1,200 per person. (Steep, yes, but try pricing something like the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers.)

If you can't handle the full four-day event, there are a couple of smaller events in conjunction to it that are open to the public:

  • Lunch with Bill Smith, chef at Crook's Corner and author of "Seasoned in the South." That's $29 for a three-course lunch from noon-2 p.m. Oct. 11 at Crook's. It's included for workshop participants.

  • Two publishing panels, including cookbook authors and possibly editors, at Fearrington Village at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 12.

  • A family-style, multicourse dinner at Lantern with chef Andrea Reusing at 6 p.m. Oct. 13, for $95.

The extra events are expected to sell out quickly, and time also is running out to sign up for the workshop. Go to for full details and registration forms.

Write on.

Friday, August 27, 2010

It's still farmers' market season

If experience is any indication, I know what will happen the Saturday after Labor Day: The crowds at the local farmers markets will slow to a trickle, like somebody turned off a faucet.

I understand the problem: School is back in full swing, soccer leagues decide that 8 days a week isn't too often for your kids to be at practice, and buying seasonal, local food doesn't seem as pressing once the peaches and corn ease up.

Pity: The fall growing season around here is one of the best. The heat lets up -- a little! -- and we start to get things like apples from the mountains, greens and late-season tomatoes. Lots of local meat, of course, although the chicken farmers start to warn that they're coming to the last batches for the year.

The Matthews Community Farmers Market is months away from its winter schedule. But it will have shorter hours just for the Saturday of Labor Day weekend (that would be Sept. 4) because of the Matthews Alive! Festival. It will open 7:15 to 9 a.m. only on that Saturday.

Also, it's time to buy tickets to the Matthews market's annual barbecue, 5-7 p.m. Sept. 28. A $12 ticket gets you barbecue made by chef Alex Ranucci using Grateful Growers pork, and side dishes and desserts made by local chefs. I've gone before and I can tell you that tickets sell out fast for a good reason.

Get tickets at the market's Community House during market hours, or at Renfrow's Hardware, just a couple of doors up the street, at 188 N. Trade St.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Egg recall: A blast from the past

What's wrong with that picture? Well, the egg looks moist and delicious with a yolk that is runny and perfect for dipping in a corner of buttered toast.
Food editors who swap messages on a list serve were chattering Monday about the Food & Drug Administration's latest announcement in the massive shell-egg recall: Cook your eggs until they are hard and the yolks are dry. For those of us who were around in the 1990s, that's a return to business as usual.
I had the luck to start covering food in the summer of 1990, when the first cases of salmonella contamination in eggs erupted just a few weeks after I was assigned to the beat. I had barely figured out how to spell "FDA" and I was trying to explain to people how to make custard-based ice cream without raw eggs, and what to do with their Hollandaise and mayonnaise recipes. In the 20 years since then, I've learned to type this one by rote: "Uncooked eggs can be dangerous for infants, children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems."
Truthfully, though, undercooked eggs didn't go away. Because they taste good. The American Egg Board issued a statement this morning with this sentence: "Thoroughly cooked eggs are thoroughly safe eggs." Yes, they are. Unfortunately, they are also throughly tasteless eggs, with yolks that taste like library paste and whites that chew like rubber.
Over the intervening years since the original egg warnings, most of us found ways to adapt. We either did without dishes made with undercooked eggs, or we found ways to minimize the risk. For myself, I started buying eggs from farmers who produce them in small batches, because there is less risk of contamination. Unfortunately, I also had to get used to paying $5 for a dozen eggs. Yes, they're great eggs, with tall, dark-yellow yolks, but they're not exactly a cheap indulgence.
Yes, we still can get cheap eggs. Unfortunately, that means coming to terms with eggs that are
produced on large-farm operations, where contamination spreads quickly throughout the food system. And means recognizing that those eggs need to be cooked more thoroughly.
Don't you think 20 years should have been enough time to come up with a system that's better than telling us the solution to egg contamination is in how we're cooking, not in how we're raising chickens?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Feed our heads: Looking for book clubbers and tailgaters

We're looking for people for a couple of upcoming stories:

1. We all know that a lot of book clubs serve good food. We're looking for a couple of book clubs that tie the theme of the food to the theme of the book. If you know someone in a book club that has done that, let me know.

2. Tailgate season is coming. We're looking for a couple of great tailgaters who can give advice on the tricks they know for putting on a great sports tailgate party.

Got someone in mind? Send me your contact information (or a way to contact the person you have in mind) at Thanks!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Egg recall still spreading

Eggs laid in Iowa may have cut a wide path through the U.S. food supply. A voluntary recall by Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, of certain shell eggs that might have been contaminated with salmonella is up to 380 million. While the eggs weren't distributed in the Carolinas, they were distributed to food wholesalers, distribution centers and food service companies in 16 states that do business nationwide.

The recall started as part of an investigation into an increase in cases of salmonella contamination nationwide that was reported earlier this summer.

A spokesperson with the N.C. Department of Health said that there was a confirmed salmonella outbreak related to the same strain of salmonella in April. It stemmed from an egg product used in meringue at a Durham restaurant. However, that is the only N.C. connection so far, and state officials have not issued a warning about eggs or egg products in North Carolina.

Exposure to the salmonella bacteria can cause serious infections with symptoms that include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain, and can be particularly dangerous to young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.

While the investigation continues, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration recommends avoiding restaurant dishes made with raw or undercooked, unpasteurized eggs. Restaurants should use pasteurized eggs in any recipe (such as Hollandaise sauce or Caesar salad dressing) that calls for raw eggs.

You also should be aware of the symptoms of salmonella contamination. If you think you've gotten ill from eating recalled eggs, call your health care provider.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pimento Cheese: Ready for more?

After our recent tasting of three pimento cheeses, Palmetto, Augusta's and Ruth's, readers demanded another tasting. This time, you wanted us to include Stan's, Something Classic and Fresh Market.

Did we listen? Of course we did. Did you think we'd miss a chance to eat 'minnow cheese and talk about it?

This time, we lined up Palmetto, based on a recipe from the Sea View Inn on Pawley's Island, with Stan's, Something Classic and Fresh Market.

Which one came out on top? Tune in tomorrow to The Observer, available in handy printed and online versions ( for online, at the end of your driveway for print) to find out which pimento cheese was the champion.

And yes, we'll have a recipe for making your own. No, it probably isn't the one your mom made. But we like it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

What did I eat on my summer vacation?

I already knew Cleveland has a reputation as a fun town. It's got the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (just called "the Rock Hall" by most everybody) and it's the home of Big Fun, which has to be the greatest toy store anywhere in the country. Where else can you see an Austin Powers action figure next to an action figure of D-Day from "Animal House" -- both in their original packages?

What I didn't realize was that Cleveland may be one of the great food destinations in the United States. Yeah, I said it: New York has pretensions, San Francisco has ambitions. But baby, only Cleveland has Slyman's, Home of Cleveland's Biggest Corned Beef Sandwich.

Only Cleveland has an Irish restaurant called The Harp, where you can sit out on a patio with a view of the skyline, Lake Erie and a salt mine while eating a corned beef boxty -- all the makings of a Reuben, corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing, between two potato pancakes. (I'd post a picture but trust me -- it doesn't look nearly as good as it tastes.)

Cleveland isn't the only city with a Little Italy, but this one is strung along a hill going up to Cleveland Heights and it smells like garlic even when we drove through at 9 a.m. one morning.

I was touring this cornucopia of delights on a college tour with my high school senior son, who wanted to visit Kenyon and Oberlin. And since his godmother is a writer in Cleveland, we grabbed the chance to follow in the footsteps of the late and still very lamented Harvey Pekar, also a denizen of Cleveland Heights.

On Saturday morning, our friend took us to the West Side Market, one of the last great surviving city markets. It was packed with people stocking up on everything from perogies to carnitas. I haunt city markets wherever I go, but this one had more life than even San Francisco's Ferry Market Plaza. There was a jazz band playing on a walkway upstairs, overlooking the whole boiling mass of food shoppers down below.

Over that lunch of boxties, my friend, a dedicated vegetarian who lives vicariously by making other people eat meat, offered my son a lineup of Saturday night choices: He could choose between Polish, Hungarian, Slovenian or Russian. Then she gave him a lesson on which is which, based mainly on use of paprika vs. mushrooms. We picked Hungarian and ended up at Balaton in Shaker Square, tucking into big plates of their famous weiner schnitzel and veal paprikash.

On the way to the airport, our friend gave us two sets of directions: One, to get to the Rock Hall. The other, how to pass right by Slyman's on the way to the airport to pick up something that would get us through two airports before we would get back home to Charlotte. At the airport, we unwrapped our sandwiches and I measured mine: 4 inches thick, not counting the three slices of rye bread.

Take that, San Francisco.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

See you in a week

It's vacation time for me. I'll be away until Monday, Aug. 16, exploring the great state of Ohio and enjoying some at-home time right here in Charlotte, N.C. Maybe I'll finally get that stack of recipes organized.

Until then, go cook something you love.

Who wins the Ball canning kit?

Gretchen, it looks like you won't need that coupon. You're the winner of the canning kit. Send your address to me at and I'll get the kit in the mail to you.

Thanks, everyone, for playing. And for all of you who expressed in interest in learning how to can, you're on the right track. It's really not difficult.