Tuesday, July 30, 2013

One Great . . . succotash salad

What is a succotash, anyway? The Miriam-Webster definition is "lima or shell beans and kernels of green corn cooked together." The term apparently came from a Narragansett Indian word, msickquatash, that simply meant "boiled corn kernels."

With definitions that vague, I've always figured you can do pretty much anything you want, as long as you have some version of shell beans and some version of corn. You don't even have to serve it hot, do you?

At a farmer's market on Saturday, I spied a bag of those lovely, green cousins to lima beans, butter beans. Now, speaking of definitions, we could debate all day on the difference between limas and butterbeans. Personally, I think butterbeans are green, smaller and less starchy. I simmered them in a mix of half chicken broth and half water for about 45 minutes and had a nice summer side dish -- and a half-bowl left over. I also had a couple of extra ears of cooked sweet corn, and some very leafy celery.

What to do? For a weeknight side dish, I cut the kernels from the corn and stirred them into the cold butterbeans along with about a 1/4 cup of diced celery. Then I took some of the green celery leaves, sprinkled them with coarse salt and a little olive oil and minced them together into a paste. The leaves have a little bitterness that's a good counter to the sweetness of the corn and beans. After stirring it in, I added a little more olive oil and a squirt of a half-lemon to balance the flavors.

We ended up with a refreshing, chilled succotash salad. Nothing suffering about that.

Succotash Salad

About 2 cups cooked butterbeans (any other tender, cooked shell bean would work)
About 1 cup cooked sweet corn kernels
1/4 cup minced celery
2 tablespoons celery leaves (see note)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)

STIR together the beans, corn and celery in a serving bowl.
PLACE the celery leaves on a cutting board, sprinkle with the salt and add about 1 tablespoon olive oil. Mince, sliding your knife blade over it, to create a herb paste.
STIR that into the vegetable mixture, then add about 1 tablespoon olive oil and the lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasoning.
NOTE: If you don't have celery leaves, you could do the same thing with arugula, or even fresh basil leaves.

YIELD: About 4 servings.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Have you seen corn look like this?

Dried up, no kernels: Some of the ears of corn I've seen lately look like something from drought country. But it's definitely not drought country around here. And except for a couple of inches at the top, the rest of the ear is delicious -- fat, juicy, sweet corn.

So what's causing that odd dry tip? I called Darrell Blackwelder, the director of N.C. Cooperative Extension in Rowan County, to ask.

There are some stories floating around that the ends of the ears aren't getting pollinated because the heavy rains knock off pollen. But that didn't make sense to me: Each silk on an ear of corn represents a kernel of corn. And while corn may not release pollen when it's wet, the pollen is quite sticky and doesn't usually get knocked off by rain.

Blackwelder confirmed all that. Instead, he pointed out that corn ears pollinate from bottom to top. So what I'm seeing is simply corn that is pooped: There's so much rain that it's leaching out the nutrients, particularly nitrogen and potassium, and washing them into the soil. By the time the corn finishes filling out the top of the ear, it's running out of nutrients.

"Corn is a grass and it takes a lot of fertilizer," Blackwelder says. "So much water will just flush it right through."

The real irony: Other than those weird tips, we're having a great year for corn. Drive out into the country, around any corn fields and admire: Tall stalks, lots of green leaves, and corn that is fat and tasty. A lot of other crops are struggling through all this rain, but Blackwelder suggests this is the year to grab a bunch of corn and freeze it. Just trim those weird tops off first.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A food book worth Yelping about

Let me make this clear from the start: I know Hanna Raskin, dating back to her days as the eager young restaurant reviewer at the Mountain Xpress in Asheville, through her travels and travails in alt-weekly newspaper reviewing in Dallas and the Seattle Weekly and right up to her new gig, starting soon, at the Charleston Post & Courier. She's smart, energetic and down to earth.

So partly, I wanted to pass along word about the e-book she wrote while she was between being laid off in Seattle and happily hired in Charleston because she works hard, writes well and deserves to be read.

But the other reason I wanted to highlight "Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews" is because there's more here than just how to write a one-paragraph review that isn't inane. Hanna goes into insider information on what goes on in restaurants, how to develop your writing voice and how to craft information that goes beyond the "I hate this restaurant because I don't like chicken" reviews that haunt too many crowd-sourced reviewing sites and online comments.

If you're a food fan, you don't even have to write online reviews to find it interesting. It might help you experience restaurants differently and hone in on why you like a place or why you don't, even if the review doesn't go any further than your own thoughts.

It's $2.99, it's smart and it's fun. Take a look at the sample at www.amazon.com.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Don't miss these on today's food page

Navigate over to the Observer's Food page to find:

The debut of You Asked For It, Robin Domeier's new column on recipes from local restaurants. She kicks it off with the Cajun Carbonara from Boudreaux's in NoDa. If you've got a request from a local restaurant (chain restaurants usually don't share their recipes), send it to Robin and she'll try to get it.

Corn, glorious corn. Well, this year, corn has been late and because of all the rain making pollen bounce around, you may see more ears that aren't filled out to the end. But even the smaller ears I've had have been wonderful. Get it while you can and make the most with it with this roundup of recipes, tips and corn ideas. On the comments, there's already some debate on an interesting question: Is corn a vegetable or a grain?

If you're going to a potluck, there are some tricky shoals to navigate in what to bring -- and what to take home. Even a Wake Forest expert knows there are powerful issues at stake. Take a look at these tips and guidelines for guests and hosts.

If you don't know the Turkish/Middle Eastern chili paste harissa, this is the time of year to make your own.

Finally, readers always ask for recipes that are simple, quick and sized for two: Linda Gassenheimer's offering this week is Buffalo shrimp.

And we also have our regular useful features: The guide to pick-your-own farms (peaches and blueberries are still going strong); farmers markets all over the region; and our searchable database of recipes with thousands of choices.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Matthews CFM ends Tuesday market night early

Pauline Wood, the manager of the Matthews Community Farmers' Market, sends word that tonight's Tuesday Twilight Market will be the last of the season and you can blame the weather:

"We did intend to hold our Tuesday Twilight Markets through Aug. 6, but it has become clear that would be overreaching given the situation our farmers are in this summer. The continuous wet weather has wreaked havoc on crops, and, in a nutshell, the overabundance farmers usually experience in June and July didn't happen this year."

Tonight's market, held in the usual space at North Trade and John streets in Matthews, will include a demo by Jason Newman, sous chef at Barrington's, and vendors will include Hinson Farms, Garden of the Woods, Willow Oaks Farm, Walnut Ridge Farm, Nut Hill Farm, Baker's Blessings, Quench!Essentials and Ranucci's Big Butt Barbecue. 

Saturday's market hours will remain the same. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Is your tomato sauce worth bragging about?

It's been a tough year for tomatoes, what with that long, lingering cool spell and weeks of monsoons. So this year, instead of the annual tomato tasting day, the Matthews Community Farmers' Market will hold a marinara contest this Saturday, July 27.

As in their other cooking contests, there will be two rounds of judging:: A People's Choice table, where you can sample and vote, and a professional judging session. Judges for that will be Luca Annunziata of Passion8 Bistro, Joe Bonaparte of the International Culinary Schools of the Art Institute, and cooking teacher/writer  Heidi Billotto.

Entries must be made with tomatoes that are either grown in a home garden or bought from a local farmer's market; each entry has to be accompanied by a whole tomato of each variety used. You should also use as many fresh, locally grown ingredients as you can. To enter, bring your sauce by 9 a.m. Saturday to the market, 208 N. Trade St. in Matthews. Judging starts at 9:15 a.m. Prizes include market gift certificates, tote bags and T-shirts.

Other rules:
No professional chefs or cooks;
All entries must be made from scratch. The marinara sauce should be brought to market warm if
it is a cooked sauce or at room temperature if an uncooked sauce.
Bring a copy of the recipe, including ingredient list, with your name, address and phone number. Index cards taped to submissions work best.
Bring at least a 1/2 gallon of sauce split between two disposable plastic quart containers, for the judges' table and the public tasting table. 

As long as we're on the subject, what's a marinara? For the contest, the market is using this definition:
"A meatless, Southern Italian tomato sauce usually flavored with garlic, onions, herbs and spices. Chunky or smooth, it can have many variations."

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Checking it out: Good Bottle Co.

Craft beer is exploding so fast, I can't visit the new businesses fast enough. My latest stop: Good Bottle Co., 125 Remount Road, less than a block from South Boulevard and Ideal Way.

Guys and bikes: Watching the Tour 
I got lucky finding it open when I pulled in on a Thursday on the way back from an interview. It's usually open noon-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, but owner Chris Hunt had unlocked the doors a little early so some of his customers could sit at the bar and watch the Tour de France.

So is it a bar or a store? Hunt says the aim is to be both: He stocks a wide selection of bottles and growlers, but there is a small beer bar across the back with seating and a half-dozen taps.

The section of N.C. beers is truly inspiring:  Fullsteam, Mother Earth, Pisgah, French Broad, even Beer With No Name from Raleigh. There is a small section of imports, and that's by design. Hunt said he aims for 85 percent to 90 percent American craft beers.

When he was visiting bottle shops and planning his own, he said, he was really struck by all the stores that said they made a mistake in having too many imports. These days, he says, American craft beer is the way to go. Even with a big section for NC brews, he's running out of room, he says.

"Craft beer should be as local as possible," he says. I'll raise a toast to that.

Follow Hunt on Twitter, @goodbottleco or find him online, www.goodbottleco.com.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

One Great . . . creamy hummus

Hummus, the puree of chickpeas, tahini and garlic, is one of my favorite bagged lunches: Toss in some carrot sticks and a few triangles of pita and I've got a vegetarian lunch that's pretty high in protein, not too high in fat and definitely cheap.

Thanks to good Mideastern restaurants, I've gotten hooked on better hummus, though. The creamy, smooth kind that many restaurants produce is better than the cheaper prepared versions of hummus in most supermarkets. It's also labor-intensive: The trick to really smooth hummus involves the fussy steps of soaking, cooking and then peeling chickpeas. On a weeknight? No way.

Cleaning out some recipe clippings recently, I stumbled on a trick from America's Test Kitchen, the publishers of Cook's Illustrated and Cooks Country magazines. They figured out a way to use the alkaline in baking soda as a shortcut to get the skins off canned chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans). It makes much creamier hummus with less work -- and a canned-beans price.

Shortcut Creamy Hummus

Adapted from America's Test Kitchen and "The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook," by Ina Garten.

1 (19-ounce) can chickpeas/garbanzo beans
2 teaspoons baking soda
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/3 cup tahini (see note)
Freshly squeezed juice of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons reserved liquid from the chickpeas
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little more for serving
Cayenne pepper or chili powder for serving

DRAIN and reserve the canning liquid from the chickpeas, then empty the chickpeas into a sieve, rinse well and shake to remove excess water. Place in a microwave-safe bowl and add the baking soda. Toss to mix well. Microwave 2 to 3 minutes, until hot.
POUR into a large mixing bowl and wash with 3 to 4 changes of cold water, swishing the chickpeas vigorously each time and skimming off the skins that float to the top. After the final rinse, pick through to  look for any chickpeas that haven't peeled -- they'll look a little paler than the peeled ones. Just squeeze them to remove the skin. Set the peeled beans aside.
DROP the garlic into a food processor with the motor running to mince quickly. Stop the motor and add the peeled chickpeas, salt, tahini, lemon juice and reserved liquid. Puree until smooth. Add a little olive oil and continue to puree until creamy.
REFRIGERATE up to 5 days. Serve drizzled with a little olive oil and a sprinkling of cayenne or chili powder, along with carrot sticks and pita triangles for dipping.
NOTE: Tahini is a canned sesame paste that's available in the international aisle of most supermarkets. It keeps in the refrigerator indefinitely. The oil separates, though, so you'll need to stir it together before using.
YIELD: About 2 cups.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Cocktail tour of Wilmington is worth lifting a glass

These days, where there is food, there's a food tour. Brews cruising, restaurant walking, winery pedaling: Pick a place and someone will lead you there. On a  trip last week to Wrightsville Beach, outside Wilmington, we decided to take a break of a different kind, with one of Liz Biro's cocktail tours.

Biro (right) is a freelance food writer and an old friend from the Association of Food Journalists. So I'm not surpised she knew her territory. Downtown Wilmington is in a full food renaissance, thanks to all those movie and TV people. She offers several tours, including one for restaurants and another that takes you through the local farmers market. The cocktail tour was just what we wanted -- at only $30, it was a reasonable price, and at only 5 stops within a short few blocks near the waterfront, it was the perfect length. Just enough to get a taste without taking up a whole evening.

We met in front of the very popular restaurant Manna, where mixologist Joel Finsel was ready to mix up a tasty little drink that involved gin, cucumbers, rosewater and ginger-flavored Domain Canton. The restaurant was buzzing, getting ready for an evening fundraiser: Ashley Christensen of Poole's Diner et al in Raleigh (left) had come in to cook for the evening.

Since everyone in our group was from Charlotte, Caprice Bistro was a popular second stop: We all remembered when chef Thierry Moity had Patou here in the 1990s. For our drink, we trooped upstairs to the "sofa lounge," where we had a twist on a mint julep made with Trey Herring's Carolina Bourbon from North Charleston  and fresh basil instead of mint. Better than it sounds: Liz pointed out that basil and mint are botanical cousins.

Around the corner at Mixto, a waterfront Mexican restaurant, the vibe was fun and colorful. We were served a fruity punch that used both rum and tequila, along with a nice amuse bouche of chorizo and clam with a corn relish. We also had a taste of an usual cocktail made with tequila steeped with serrano chiles and mixed with coconut milk and orange. It was hot and sweet and controversial in our group. We spent the rest of the night debating who liked it. (I did, but I only took a small sip as the night's driver.)

The next stop was time for wine, at The Fortunate Glass, home of the mermaid on the wall at the top. Celeste Glass, co-owner with Denise Fortuna, poured a Rhone and an usual white, Qupe Roussanne, along with tasty toasts topped with goat cheese and fruit relishes. They make small plates along with an impressive collection of wines by the glass.

The final stop was dessert: Gruet sparkling wine with a plate of miniature cupcakes at the popular and stylish bakery Hot Pink Cake Stand. At all five stops, we got generous pours, small bites to eat and enthusiastic bartenders who really seemed to be into talking to us. If you're headed to Topsail or Wrightsville and you need a break from the sun, it's worth going indoors for this. Details and reservations: www.lizbiro.com.

The absinthe water fountain is part of the decor at Manna.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Restaurant day at the Matthews market

Sante Restaurant and Slow Food Charlotte are planning a special event July 13 at the Matthews Community Farmers Market: A tour of the market, a buying trip for local food, and a cooking demonstration and lunch at the restaurant.

Sante chef Andy Reed will talk about ways to use produce, cheeses and meats from the market, and Slow Food representatives will explain what they do. The class costs $40. The market is at Trade Show, next to Renfrow's Hardware, and Sante is across the street, at 165 N. Trade St.

Call Sante, 704-845-1899, for registration. (The restaurant is closed next week, but you should be able to leave a message.)

One Great . . . handy summer sauce

Since I'm off next week, I wanted to leave an extra recipe. And after the mojo marinade I posted earlier, it seemed like a good time for summer two-fer.

In Spanish, sofrito means to lightly fry, and that's pretty much what you do" Chop of the ingredients, saute them lightly and use the mix as a flavoring base. But that's just the start of it. It's used all over the Caribbean, particularly in Puerto Rico, and the ingredients can vary from mostly tomatoes to mostly peppers. I've seen red versions and green versions.

The uses are endless, too: As a base for a soup, stirred into rice and peas, mixed with mayonnaise for a sandwich spread. I love to use a couple of tablespoons to flavor canned black beans for a fast side dish.

When the ingredients are available in summer, make a big batch, put it in a freezer bag, flatten it out and freeze it. Then you can break off chunks to use all year.

Red Sofrito

2 pounds plum (Roma) tomatoes
2 red bell peppers
2 onions
4 to 6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
1 cup cilantro leaves with some stems
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

CUT the stems out of the tomatoes and coarsely chop. Core, seed and chop the peppers and chop the onions. Place in a food processor with the garlic and cilantro. Pulse until finely chopped.

HEAT olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the vegetable mixture and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it's thickened into a sauce, about 25 minutes. Cool, then refrigerate up to 2 weeks or place in a freezer bag and freeze.

YIELD: About 3 cups.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

One Great . . . mojo sauce

Growing up in South Florida surrounded by family friends who were Cuban refugees, the smells and flavors of their food was something I absorbed through my pores. Arroz con pollo, ropa viejo, sweet plantains, and always that amazing roast pork.

The flavor that powers so much of it is good ol' "mo-ho." It's used as a salad dressing, a dip or a sauce, but mostly, it's an indispensable marinade. I still load up on big bottles whenever I go back on a visit, even though you can find around here in any supermarket that carries Latin American ingredients. You can also make it yourself and keep it on hand in the refrigerator for weeks.

If you're grilling over the summer and you want something that packs a lot of flavor, you need this stuff.

Mojo Criollo

6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup juice from 1 to 2 oranges (see note)
1/4 cup lime juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

PLACE the garlic on a cutting board and sprinkle with the salt. Use the flat side of a wide chef's knife to drag the garlic back and forth in short strokes until the garlic is ground into a paste.

SCRAPE the garlic in a jar with a tight lid and add the remaining ingredients. Shake to blend. Refrigerate until ready to use, shaking it up to recombine it.

YIELD: About 1 1/4 cups.

NOTE: In Cuba, they use sour orange juice. It's getting easier to find in Latino markets. If you do find it, skip the orange and lemon juice and use an equal amount of sour orange.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Dedicate your cookout to the USO

This has to be the easiest multitasking idea of the week: Turn your July 4 cookout into a fundraiser for the USO and the active-duty soldiers it supports. 

At www.bbqforthetroops.org, you can register to give a cookout, invite people to donate to your cookout, or find other people's cookouts to donate to. You can also get tips on spreading the word about your cookout using social media, and templates for things like invitations. The money raised goes directly to the USO's programs to support active-duty troops and their family members. 

Seriously, that's such a great idea that I won't even fuss because they called a cookout a barbecue.