Friday, December 23, 2011

One Great . . . New Year's Day soup

Yes, I'm superstitious: I would never consider passing the first day of the year without eating collards, black-eyed peas and a little hog jowl. Some people say the peas represent coins and the collards represent money. My Georgia-born parents used to tease us that if you're eating poor people's food by choice, it's a sign that you're doing pretty good.

Whatever. Given the current economy, I don't intend to take a chance.

I was looking around through this year's crop of new cookbooks when I spotted this in "A New Turn in the South," by Hugh Acheson. Acheson is the chef of the restaurants Five and Ten and The National in Athens, Ga., and Empire State South in Atlanta. But these days, he's probably more famous as the chef with the unibrow on "Top Chef Masters" and a regular judge on "Top Chef."

If you want to adhere strictly to tradition, you could swap the mustard greens for collards, but you'll need to add them earlier, probably when you add the peas. The recipe is a little longer than we usually use for One Great, but you can simplify things and use a mix for the cornbread.

Field Pea, Ham Hock & Mustard Green Soup
From "A New Turn in the South," by Hugh Acheson (Clarkson Potter, $35).

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup minced sweet onion
1/2 cup diced carrot
1 stalk celery, minced
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup dried black-eyed peas
6 cups chicken stock (low-sodium if canned)
1 smoked ham hock, about 1 pound
1 batch of cornbread, baked and cooled
2 tablespoons bacon fat
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 cups chopped mustard greens
1 cup chopped tomato
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Extra-virgin olive oil

Place a 4- to 6-quart pot over medium heat and melt the butter. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the garlic, black-eyed peas, chicken stock and ham hock. Cook until the peas are tender, about 1 hour. Skim occasionally to remove any white bean matter that rises to the top.

Cut the cornbread into 1/2-inch-by-1/2-inch cubes while the soup is cooking. Heat the bacon fat in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add the cubes and toast until crisp, cooking in batches if needed. Cool on a large plate.

Remove the ham hock and let stand until cool enough to handle. Remove the meat from the bone, coarsely chop and return to the pot. Add the thyme, mustard greens, tomato and salt to the soup. Cook 10 minutes longer. Drizzle each serving with a few drops of vinegar and a dash of olive oil, and garnish with a few cornbread croutons.

Yield: Serves 6 with leftovers.

Polka Dot's Sweet Potato Chips get kudos

Cupcakes aren't the only thing cooking at Polka Dot Bake Shop in Charlotte. The bakery's Sweet Potato Crackers have been picked as Paula's Hidden Gem for the January/February issue of the magazine Cooking With Paula Deen.

The crackers are made with real sweet potatoes (N.C.-grown, of course). They're available in five flavors (yes, they're all sweet potato, but some have spices too) and are Star-K kosher-certified, as well as dairy- and nut-free. The black-pepper flavor is gluten-free, too.

The suggested retail price is $5.99 for a 5-ounce package. They're available at the bakery, 1730 E. Woodlawn Road in the Park Towne Village (the shopping center at the top of the steep hill), and also at Reid's Fine Foods, Earth Fare and Fresh Market stores.


Check out our new Food Facebook page

Ah, the last days of the year, when the bosses stay home and you can actually get a few things done.

One of the things on my to-do list was fixing up a new Facebook page for The Observer's food coverage. It seems like every time I try to figure out the best way to use Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg changes the whole darn thing. Since Mr. Zuckerberg is apparently on kicked back on a Bermuda beach with my bosses, maybe the coast is clear.

So now we have Observer Food, with links to our coverage but also links to any other good food stories I see out there. Click on over to and "like" us if you like. I'll try to keep Mr. Zuckerberg busy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Charlotte-Douglas improves in healthy airports list

If you're taking wing for the holidays, you might have a better chance of getting a healthful bite to eat before you leave Charlotte-Douglas. According to study released today by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Charlotte's airport had made the most improvement since last year, with a 9 point increase in the number of restaurants offering a healthful option.

Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport improved 8 points, so its now one place up from the bottom. Denver International Airport fell six points.

Best and worst? The airport with the most options for healthful is Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. And the worst: Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, the world’s busiest airport, gained a point but still landed in last place.

Check out the full list of 15 airports and how they rank here.

What's the best cooking videos? Think Epic

My college-age son introduced me to EpicMealTime, the head-achingly manic YouTube cooking series. Basically, a bunch of guys make things with over-the-top fat and calorie counts. This involves harsh language, yelling and uses of Baconators that nature never intended.

So which five cooking/food-related videos were viewed the most often on YouTube in 2011?

1. EpicMealTime. 12.6 million views for "TurBaconEpic Thanksgiving," in which our boys make a turducken wrapped in bacon, cook it, then roll it in a suckling pig and wrap it in more bacon and smoke it. And eat it.
2. EpicMealTime, "Showdown at Awesome," 1.9 million views. The boys have a run-in with the Barely Political comedy team on the streets of New York for Super Bowl Sunday and force them to eat an Epic-designed sandwich.
4. An EpicMealTime parody called Healthy Mealtime, viewed 1.85 million times.
5. The Vegan Black Metal Chef's Pad Thai episode, viewed 1.7 million times. (I'm still envious that a food editor I know in Florida got to interview the real Vegan Black Metal Chef.)

No, I didn't skip No. 3. That was the only actual cooking video, an oddity in which someone makes gummy marshmallow candies from the Popin' Cookin' Gummy Land Kit.

Here are the links, courtesy of YouTube. Watch/listen at your own risk, and try not to picture Julia Child hooting with disgust. (If I had to pick a favorite, I'd go with 2, which actually does have funny moments.)

1. EpicMealTime:
2. EpicMealTime Vs. Awesome:
3. Gummy Candy:
4. Healthy Meal Time:
5. Vegan Black Metal Chef Pad Thai:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Food fans, can you spare some love for Raleigh?

It pains us to acknowledge that Charlotte isn't on Southern Living's list of the 10 Tastiest Towns in the South. Although we are in good company, because the magazine from Birmingham managed to put their own town on the list while dissing a lot of candidates. (No Asheville? No Durham? No Oxford, Miss., for heavens sake?)

But Raleigh, our own state capitol, is on the list. And as much as it pains us to direct gustatory fame toward the only city in Eastern N.C. without a legitimate claim to great barbecue, we can help a sister city out. So . . .

On Friday, you can vote for Raleigh out of 10 candidates for tastiest city in the South. Far be it from us to suggest that Charleston, S.C., probably has a better claim on the title. The 10 cities in the running: Baltimore, Houston, Birmingham, Lafayette, La. (good candidate there), Charleston, Louisville, Charlottesville, Va., New Orleans (OK, they might have a good bite of food or two), Decatur, Ga., and Raleigh.

Go here to read the details and get ready to vote: Vote Raleigh. May the best home of the Roast Grill win.

Monday, December 19, 2011

One Great . . . slow cooker stew

The title "The French Slow Cooker" almost sounds redundant. After all, French country cooking brought us things like boeuf bourginon and coq au vin, long before Crock Pot thought about sticking a plug in a Dutch oven.

But that just makes Michele Scicolone's new book even more useful: A slow cooker is a natural combined with recipes like Soupe au Pistou and Bourride.

On a recent winter night, I went the bargain route, grabbing a package of country-style pork ribs and putting together dinner before leaving for work in the morning. We served it over creamy polenta (cornmeal whisked into half water and half milk), but mashed potatoes would do just as well.

Pork Ribs Hunter-Style
"The French Slow Cooker," by Michele Sciolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).

3 pounds country pork ribs, cut into individual ribs
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced
1 (8-ounce) can tomato puree
3 large cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence (it's not exactly the same, but if you don't have them, use a sprinkle of dried thyme, rosemary, marjoram and sage)
Pinch of ground allspice
8 to 10 ounces white button mushrooms, halved or quartered (I added some shiitake caps because I had them)

Pat the ribs dry with paper towels. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add as many ribs as will fit in the pan without touching. Cook them in batches, turning occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 20 minutes total. Place in a large slow cooker. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat. Add the onions and cook 10 minutes, or until tender. Stir in the tomato puree, garlic, tomato paste, herbs and allspice. Bring to a simmer, stirring well.

Scrape into the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low heat for 8 hours, until meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. About 30 minutes before serving, stir in the mushrooms, re-cover and continue cooking. Discard any loose bones and skim off the fat.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What's Christmas dinner for you?

Vote in our poll on Facebook:

Christmas dinner poll

Charlotte food news: What's coming up

What's coming up, going on or taking off in Charlotte food in the next few days:

  • Get your farmer's market food shopping done this Saturday: Several markets, including Atherton in Southend, the Matthews Community Farmer's Market and the Davidson Market, are closed Dec. 24 for Christmas Eve. UPDATE: The Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, 1801 Yorkmont Road, will be open Dec. 24 until 2 p.m., although some farmers have already announced they won't be there that day. Manager Frank Suddreth says the market also will be open Dec. 31, although it might close early.
  • Get your latkes on, Saturday at the Atherton Market, 2104 South Blvd. Bill Averbach of the popular Pickleville stand, will do a command demonstration of last year's latke cooking demonstration, at 10 a.m. and noon. Get your food shopping done: The market will be closed next Saturday for Christmas Eve.
  • If you're looking for food gifts with a local flavor, the Harvest Moon Grille at the Dunhill, 237 N. Tryon St., is running a mini-holiday market from noon to 6:30 p.m. weekdays until Dec. 23. Look for things like bacon brittle, biscotti, pepper or raspberry jam, sausage, molasses-brined smoked ham and more.

Gotta, wanna, needa Bojangles app?

Yes, the advance of technology has brought us to this: Bojangles has a free app for iPhone and iPad. "It's BO Time" includes BO time alerts, a restaurant locator and most importantly: Digital cornhole. You can find it at the App Store online.

Now, the Bo Alerts sound kind of interesting. Apparently, you can set them to send invitations to your friends to meet you at a specific Bojangles, and when it goes off, it makes the sound of a stomach growling. I could see that having its uses.

But what really captured my imagination is the idea of digital cornhole. Wouldn't it be cool if you could combine a game of Bo 'Hole with Angry Birds? If you win, you could get the birds plucked and fried. Who's angry now, Tweetie?

For that, I might actually buy an iPhone.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Meryl/Julia/Margaret: The Iron Lady Chef

Start your Thursday off on a cheery note. Thanks to for pointing out this video mashup, a trailer for an imaginary movie that asks the question: What if Meryl Streep played Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher in the same movie? Yes, it's "The Iron Chef."

If nothing else, I have a new rallying cry for 2012: "Where there is discord, may we bring BUTTER."

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Cookbook giveaway: Party time

Remember the giveaway for "The Happy Table of Eugene Walter"? We asked for recipes for very simple appetizers for party season in exchange for entering you in the giveaway.

The party appetizers run tomorrow in the Food section, so that means it's time to give away Mr. Walter. For those who aren't familiar with the late Eugene Walter, he was as much raconteur as writer. A food writer who was born and later returned to Mobile, Ala., he spent the time in between in Italy and in New York, where he became known for his love of and writing about Southern food. If you know the Time-Life American cooking series, Walter wrote the Southern food entry.

"The Happy Table" is a rescued manuscript of all alcohol-related recipes that was printed this year by UNC Press in Chapel Hill.

So who wins it? That would be Catherine Carlisle of Pinehurst, who shared a very simple stuffed mushroom recipe that's in tomorrow's party story. Congratulations, Catherine. Go celebrate.

One Great . . . classic winter vegetable

A big pile of very fresh, very leafy Swiss chard grabbed my attention at a farmers market recently. It's already far enough into winter that green is starting to stand out.

The great thing about Swiss chard is that you get so much out of it: The meaty, crunchy stems and the big, ruffled leaves can be cooked separately and then combined into one dish. Of course, the downside is a hint of beet flavor, which someone people aren't crazy about. So the French have the right idea: Mix it all up with an easy bechamel, so the focus is on green and cream.

Swiss Chard Gratin
Adapted from "The Art of Simple Food," by Alice Waters.

1 1/2 bunches chard
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
About 2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk (nonfat will work)
Freshly grated nutmeg

Wash the chard and cut away the thick stems. Trim the stems, then cut into thin slices. Set aside the leaves separately. Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the stems and cook about 2 minutes. Stir in the leaves and cook about 3 minutes. Drain, then let stand a few minutes until cool enough to handle. Squeeze out any excess liquid and chop everything coarsely.

Melt about 2 teaspoons of butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat, then cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly brown. Set aside.

Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter over over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the onion and cook about 5 minutes, until transluscent. Stir in the chard and a little salt and cook several minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir well. Stir in the milk and a little freshly grated nutmeg. Cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until thick. Taste and add more salt and nutmeg if needed.

Butter a small baking dish and spread the chard mixture in. Dot with 2 teaspoons butter. Sprinkle evenly with breadcrumbs. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until bubbling.

Yield: 4 servings.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Kringle want a Pringle? Yes, it's a potato chip cookie

Some people watch for Santa. Some people watch for the Great Pumpkin. Every year between Halloween and Christmas, I watch for "most desperate product pitch."

The all-time winner was the year a maker of canned black olives sent a Thanksgiving recipe for mixing sliced black olives into your mashed potatoes. Mmmmm. A big bowl of mashed potatoes with black circles at the one meal that brings all of your pickiest family members together. Bet that's a hit.

There's still time to get a worse contender, but the winner so far this year is Kringle-Spiced Pringle Cookies. It's a spiced cookie made from crushed Pringles and then sandwiched with a jam and ginger filling.

Salty, sweet and spicy. Who knows? It might be good. If you try it, let me know.

Kringle-Spiced Pringles Cookies 1 can Pringles "The Original"
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup fruit preserves (raspberry or mixed berry)
1/3 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped (or 2 teaspoons powdered ginger)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place Pringles, flour, baking soda and spices in a food processor and pulse until the consistency of corn meal. Set aside.

Beat the butter and sugar until slightly fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat for 30 seconds. Pour in the Pringles spice mixture and mix for 1 minute. Refrigerate dough for at least 1 hour.

Drop by rounded teaspoonsful onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.

Combine fruit preserves and ginger in a small bowl. Spread 1 teaspoon on a cookie and top with another cookie.

Photo: Hill and Knowlton

Confessions of a dangerous mind: Sean Brock's cookbook collection

If you know anything about Sean Brock, of McCrady's and Husk in Charleston, you know he's one of the most talented chefs working in the South these days. He's also got a demented way with discovering things that taste crazy-good, like fried chicken skin dipped in Tabasco and honey.

In a fascinating interview on, Brock goes into depth about his obsession with cookbook collecting. Sure, he likes the modern, cutting-edge stuff - cheffy books like French Laundy and Eleven Madison Park and edgy Thai cookbooks. But what he really goes for are the very old Southern cookbooks, and books written long before he was born.

This is Brock on the Time-Life "Foods of the World" series: "Going back, looking at these books, people weren't afraid to cook then. You go to the Good Cook pork book and they're like deboning whole pigs and stuffing them and sewing them back up and cooking them and why are we scared to do that in books now? Because we want to sell books and we're afraid people aren't going to do that now. You look back on these books, though, and there's really complex stuff in there intended for home cooks. So I just love those books to death. Those are really inspiring and the photography is so cool in them."

Read about here. It's good thinking from a young man who is turning out seriously good food in a city not very far from our own. (One warning: Like a lot of young chefs, he doesn't always edit his language. C'est la vie.)


Friday, December 9, 2011

Gadget gifts: Yes, bubbles, I like our Soda Stream

I've gone on the record about my resistance to most kitchen gadgets. I'm a "single knife and one good pan" kind of girl. But I have spent a year getting to know one trendy gadget, and I'll share my experience for those considering Christmas gifts.

Last year, I was casting around for a gift for my husband, otherwise known as The World's Toughest Giftee. The man is even more basic in his needs than I am. This would be endearing if every year didn't include at least two gift-giving occasions.

When I saw the new Soda Stream at Sur La Table, for one giddy moment, I thought I'd found an instant winner. Then he opened it on Christmas and gave me one of those sideways looks that says your husband thinks you have the brains of a Kardashian with less fashion sense.

Still, he's a good sport. We found a spot in the kitchen for the Soda Stream, slid in the carbonation canister . . . and proceeded to fall in love with the darn thing.

It's easy to use: You fill one of the special heavy-plastic bottles with water, screw it in and press the button several times until it makes a load noise that drives the dog crazy (bonus!). When you unscrew it, it makes a "pfssst!" like when they opened Ripley's pod in the second "Aliens" (2nd bonus!). And then you have all the fizzy, bubbly water you want.

There were a few learning curves. First, while the instructions are easy, never add syrup before you fizz up the water. I learned that in a terrible few seconds right after we came home from a New Year's Eve party. I welcomed 2011 while scrubbing down every lemon-lime speckled surface in my kitchen.

Next, the flavor syrups that come with the thing are awful. Truly. They're too expensive and even the non-diet ones taste like fake sugar. The best syrups are Torani. After a brief but pricey fling with ordering them online, we discovered the best source is Cost Plus World Market.

Finally, no cola syrup actually tastes like Coca-Cola. If your soda be-all and end-all is Coke, stick with actual Coke. But if you're willing to like fruit flavors, you can have fun. Our house favorite is a hint of Torani Cherry Mint. Better yet, if you like just plain ol' fizzy water over ice, you always have something fresh and bubbly.

There are environmental advantages: The gas cartridges usually last for several months, and you get a price break when you turn them in at several stores for recharging. And since you have to use the hard plastic bottles (get an extra), you cut down on the plastic in your recycling bin. Finally, if you pay attention to the syrups, you can cut a lot of high-fructose corn syrup out of your life.

So: is a $100 soda maker something you need? Up to you. But our fling has lasted longer than a Kardashian marriage.

Monday, December 5, 2011

One Great . . . shrimp dish

It was the last quiet Saturday night before the holiday party onslaught begins. Just two of us at home, primed for a peaceful weekend. We wanted something that would be as indulgent as a restaurant meal with no more work than a frozen dinner.

Solution: A half-bag of frozen shrimp, a handful of dried fettucine, some garlic, butter and lemon juice. Thanks to "The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper," I found Lynne Rossetto Kasper's recipe for North Shore Shrimp Scampi, based on a version she found in Hawaii.

It called for marinating the shrimp for 24 hours, but I didn't have that kind of time. Instead, we thawed them for an hour in the powerfully flavorful marinade. It was so easy, I had time to make a classic French chard gratin with Swiss chard I found at the farmer's market Saturday morning.

Thanks, Lynne.

North Shore Shrimp Scampi
Serves 2 or 3 or can be doubled

1/3 cup good olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
6 or 7 fat garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 teaspoon each salt and freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1 pound raw extra-large or jumbo shrimp, fresh or frozen, shelled
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1/4 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves (I skipped it and used minced green onion tops instead)
Combine the olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper and the shrimp. (If they're frozen, rinse them under cold running water to break them apart, then let them thaw in the marinade. If they have shells, you can shell them before cooking.) Refrigerate overnight (or about an hour, if you're short on time).

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta. About 15 minutes before serving, place a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook 11 to 12 minutes or according to directions. In the skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter with a little salt and pepper. Add the shrimp with the marinade. Stir once or twice, reduce heat to medium low, cover and cook 3 to 4 minutes, until shrimp are just cooked through. Use a slotted spoon to move them to a bowl.

Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-high. Stir the wine into the pan juices and boil for 1 minute, or until the juices are reduced. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Drain the pasta and add to the skillet. Add the shrimp and toss to coat everything with the sauce. Drizzle with half a lemon and parsley (or green onions). Serve immediately, with warm bread for sopping up the juices.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pigs do fly in Charlotte

Last summer, food writer John T Edge came through working on a story about Charlotte for Garden & Gun magazine. I took him around several places to get a taste of what's happening around here these days.

We started his trip with a quick lunch meetup at the Diamond, where I remember tucking into the hot pimento cheese dip. And a plate of . . . "hey, John T -- does that menu really say 'pig wings?'"

Indeed it did. They turned out to be little bones with a nub of tender white meat on one end. And we enjoyed them very much. Later in his trip, he alerted me to another pig wing sighting at Mac Speedshop.

Edge does get around. And apparently, he has since found pig wings in a lot of other places around the country. He also found a story in this week's New York Times food section, about the pig wing phenomenon (remember the Times only gives you limited downloads for free). It includes Mac's, although not the Diamond.

I'd love to play with cooking pig's wings, but I haven't seen them for sale in supermarkets. If you have a source for them, let me know.