Monday, December 23, 2013

One Great . . . really easy recipe

Before I take off for my own holiday, I was looking around for the first recipe I could offer for 2014. I won't be back until after Jan. 1, and you'll be embarking on your recipe resolutions by then.

So I thought of this recipe, from "The Can't Cook Book," by Jessica Seinfield (Artisan, 2013). If you know someone (or you are someone) who really thinks cooking is scary business, make 2014 the year you get over that. It's healthy - it's fresh, green broccoli tossed with almonds, lemon juice, feta cheese and pasta.

Who doesn't want to start the year eating like that? Life is better when you make dinner. And it doesn't have to be hard. I promise.

Greek Pasta
Adapted from "The Can't Cook Book," by Jessica Seinfeld.

1 bunch broccoli
8 ounces feta (2 cups, crumbled)
1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 (16-ounce) box whole wheat or regular penne pasta
2 tablespoons olive oil

FILL a large pot with water to about an inch below the top. Place on the stove, turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Place a colander in the sink. (To make the water boil faster, put a lid on it.)

CUT the broccoli into small florets, leaving a little stalk attached. Cut the florets in halves so it will be easier to eat. Place the broccoli in the calendar and rinse with cold water. Drain the feta if it's packed with water and crumble into a large bowl. Grate the yellow part of the lemon rind into the bowl. Add the oregano, red pepper and black pepper.

PLACE a small skillet on the stove and add the almonds. Turn the heat to medium. Shake or stir the almonds often so they don't burn and cook 3 to 5 minutes, until toasted and fragrant but not too brown. Remove from heat.

ADD the pasta to the boiling water. Set the time for 3 minutes less than the package directions call for. When the time goes off, add the broccoli to the water and continue cooking together for 3 minutes. Drain everything in the colander and add immediately to the large bowl. Sprinkle in the almonds and toss everything to combine. Drizzle in the oil. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice in. Toss again to cot. Season with salt to taste.

YIELD: 4 to 6 servings. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

A few more food events to round out the week

Tonight is the 12 Beers & Wines of Christmas, at 201 Central, the Harris Teeter offshot that carries beer, wine and food store with locations in Wesley Chapel and Huntersville. From 5 until 8 p.m., they'll have a complimentary tasting event of Christmas beers and wines. What are those? Guess you'll have to stop in to find out. The stores are at 13108 Eastfield Road in Huntersville, and 5939 Weddington Road in Wesley Chapel.

Saturday is a market day for the Davidson Farmer's Market. It's open 9 a.m. to noon, in the location behind Main Street in downtown Davidson. There's also a silent auction as part of the festivities.

The Matthews Community Farmers Market will have customed Dickens carolers tomorrow morning from 8:30 to 10 a.m. The Dickens, you say? Why yes, I did.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

One Great . . . no-work holiday party bite

Did I mention this is the Christmas when I have no kitchen? No oven, no refrigerator. We're living through an emergency house renovation thanks to a water leak, so December this year is a little different.  No tree, no lights, no decorations. Lots of dry wall dust.

And social obligations. Ohhh, I still have those. And that's a good thing, since some nights we've had to resort to buffet-grazing to feed ourselves. In my current kitchen-less state, I really can't do much beyond tearing open a bag of fancy nuts. I can bring the wine. I do that a lot.

And I gaze upon the good ideas of other people. That's how I spotted this brilliant holiday party nosh at a recent gathering. It's so simple, a person without a kitchen could almost do it. Almost.

Pepper Pimento Cheese Bites 

1 package mini phyllo cups
1/2 to 1 cup of your favorite pimento cheese
About 1/2 cup red pepper jelly

PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Place the phyllo cups on a baking sheet. Fill each cup with about a teaspoon of pimento cheese. Place in the oven and bake about 8 minutes, just until the pimento cheese melts and the phyllo cups are lightly browned around the edges.

REMOVE from oven and cool briefly. Put a dab of pepper jelly on top of each one. Serve warm or at room temperature.

YIELD: About 15 cups.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lupie's pork, a Crock-Pot feast and more cookies

Today in our food coverage:

Can you make an entire Christmas dinner in a slow cooker? Amy Dunn, who writes about bargains and thrifty living for the Raleigh News & Observer, decided to try. Yep, it worked, and today you get seven recipes that can be used for the party season. By the way, Amy is the mother of Observer business writer Andrew Dunn, so they both are smart with a buck.

How do you open and eat a pomegranate? It's surprising how many of us are intimidated by one of the world's oldest and most popular fruits. In my column, I tried to take some of the mystery out of it. And in another "by the way," did you know you can grow pomegranates in North Carolina?

Fans of Lupie's can celebrate: For her column You Asked For It, Robin Domeier got the recipe for the slow-roasted pork with jalapeno sauce. You'll definitely want to save this recipe for use all winter.

Star anise and anise: What's the difference? I answered that one in this week's Q&A.

My fellow Observer writers and I will be signing books Thursday in The Observer lobby, if you want to drop by between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.: Get the details on that along with news in the Charlotte Wine & Food Weekend and new hours for Tupelo Honey's new Charlotte location.

Helen Schwab has news about a new Fort Mill restaurant, Flipside, with ties to Upstream and Mimosa.

Are nuts a good idea for your diet? Suzanne Havala Hobbs helps you figure that out.

If you had trouble with one of last week's Christmas cookie recipes and would like a corrected copy, we have them here, along with the full slide show of recipes. My apologies for that.

And more:
From-scratch chocolate pudding. 
Pork in Port Wine.
Decorate a Cookie Tree.
A Shortcut Cookie for the Holidays.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Texas Pete releases its own sriracha sauce

You can stop worrying about that rumored shortage of Huy Fong sriracha sauce after the shutdown of the plant in California: T.W. Garner Food Co. of Winston-Salem is riding to the rescue with Cha! by Texas Pete.

Yep, Pete is going Southeast as in Asia. T.W. Garner announced the release of the sauce Dec. 17. Cha! will be sold at national and regional stores that already carry Texas Pete brands. The company describes is as "a fiery blend of heat and sweet" that has been in development for more than a year.

That came long before the current worries about a shortage of Huy Fong sriracha, but Steve DeCorte, general manager of sales for T.W. Garner, says the company developed the sauce with the rabid fans of sriracha in mind.  Texas Pete is the third biggest hot sauce brand in the country.

Holiday shopping with a local-food angle

Remember, all this holiday fa-la-la-la-laderol will be over in January. While you still have time, here are two options if you're looking for something local and food-like:

The Atherton Market, 2104 South Blvd. in South End, is stocked with special foods from around the area, including Taste of the South gift baskets from Honest Harvest, or you can gather things from around the market and have them put together as a gift basket at Queen City Pantry or Cardais Gourmet. Queen City Pantry and the Food Hub also will be open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, in case you suddenly realize you just haven't found the right thing for a passionate cook or eater.

The 7th Street Market, 224 E. 7th St., has increased its holiday foods and food gifts through Dec. 21. The Meat & Seafood Co. has special holiday items, including new charcuterie offerings and Kurobuta ham. Plus you can see Nutcrackers on Parade, nutcrackers decorated by art students at Central Piedmont Community College. Market hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. (some vendors) Sundays. )If you park in 7th Street Station, remember to take your parking ticket in to get stamped.)

Monday, December 16, 2013

One Great . . . kids' baking activity

Decorating cookies with the kids is fun, for sure. It's also messy, chaotic and sometimes a little frustrating. Most little kids just want to get straight to the frosting part and skip the mixing, cutting and baking part.

When Betty Crocker did a Google Hangout recently on holiday entertaining ideas, this project caught my eye. Cute as it can be, and just the thing for holiday parties with lots of kids. You can go the cookie mix route if you just want a fun, fast activity, or you could adapt it to your favorite homemade ingredients.

Put out the baked trees, a bunch of green frosting and a bowls of colorful candy and let the kids go to town. Even the big kids - the ones a few decades beyond 21 - will like this one.

DIY Cookie Tree

From Betty Crocker.

1 pouch sugar cookie mix
1/3 cup butter, softened
1 egg
Green food coloring
1 container white icing, such as Betty Crocker Fluffy White Icing
Candies and sprinkles for decorating

HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Line a 15-by-10-by-1-inch pan with foil.

STIR together the cookie mix, butter and egg to form a soft dough. With moistened fingers, press the dough into the lined baking pan. Bake 10 to 14 minutes, or until light golden brown. Cool completely, about 30 minutes. Use a sharp knife to cut out a tree shape. (Use extra baked cookie to cut out a star for the top of the tree and presents to put around the bottom, if you like.)

STIR food coloring into the frosting to create the color you like. Frost the tree, then use candies to decorate it.

Come see us at The Observer

If you're coming to uptown Charlotte to do a little shopping and sightseeing on Thursday, stop by The Observer building at Stonewall and Tryon streets. We're trying something different: A book sale and reader appreciation event for the holiday.

It's from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday at our building, 600 S. Tryon St. I'll be there, selling and signing copies of both of my books in the Savor the South series, "Pecans" and "Bourbon." And I'll be in the company of fellow writer Scott Fowler ("100 Things Panther Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die") and editor Roland Wilkerson, with a new book version of his "I'm So Clever" column for reader home tips.

You'll also be able to buy some of the posters we've done over the years on N.C. phenomenon. All sales are cash or checks (my books are $18 each, Scott's is $14.95 and "I'm So Clever" is $5.99).

If you're in the area, drop in and see us. There's a limited amount of free parking under the building.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Feast your eyes on gingerbread houses

Is that you, Santa Claus? Great Wolf Lodge has a gingerbread dining room.

This is shaping up to be an unusual Christmas for me. It's Dec. 12, and I haven't been asked to judge a single gingerbread house display. I'll never meet my annual quota of counting Lifesaver roofing tiles and meringue snowmen this way.

Don't let that fate befall you. Here are a few places where you can catch up on the wonders of royal icing mortar and giant confections:

1. Gingerbread Lane at the Ballantyne Hotel is open for viewing through Dec. 29. The judging for the annual amateur and professional was Dec. 11, but I haven't heard the results yet. So I don't know if there's anything to top my personal favorite from last year, "Night of the Living Bread," a gingerbread zombie battle. (Don't worry, most displays are much sweeter, mostly happy elves and gingerbread cathedrals.) The display is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and you can cast votes for your favorites with $1 minimum donations to the Levine Children's Hospital. There are other events going on like holiday teas and hot chocolate sippings, if you want to make a bigger event of your trip. Details: 

2. Wait, the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte doesn't have its annual lifesize gingerbread house this year? Never fear, there's an 8-foot Christmas tree made from French-style macarons instead. And it includes chocolate reindeer, so we'll accept that. It's on display near Bar Cocoa, conveniently stocked with macarons and very near the gelato machine. There are holiday teas available, too. Bar Cocoa hours are 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays. For teas, go to or call 704-547-2244.

3. Now here's a giant gingerbread event: At the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, you can dine inside a life-size gingerbread house at Snowland! through Dec. 30. Seatings are at 8 am., 9:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 5 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. The house can hold up to six people. Reservations are required; call 704-549-8206, ext. 5036. You don't have to be a guest at the lodge. It costs $10 to sit in the house; meals are extra and range from $7 for kids and $14 for adults at breakfast to $20 for adults at dinner. The house-sitting fee goes to Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Details:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What's on the table for today's recipe feast?

If you click on over to The Observer's food page,, here's what you can pile onto your pre-holiday plate today:

Cookies, cookies, cookies. Yes, we have the four winners - the grand prize and three runners-up - in our Family Holiday Cookie Contest. But wait, there's more: We also have a slide show with the winners and 13 more finalists, with their stories, recipes and pictures of the cookies. That's 17 cookies, folks. Even Santa couldn't finish a plate like that.

It's the spirited season, so we have lots of news on spirits this week: A new locally made rum, Queen Charlotte's Reserve, hits the stores, Daniel Hartis shares ideas for beer-related gifts, and I answer a question on whether bourbon has gluten. 

Suzanne Havala Hobbs says you can help yourself and the environment if you skip the bottled water.

Yes, you can make your own soft pretzels: Here's how.

And there's more:
Shrimp and coconut stew.
A stream-lined version of spinach and artichoke dip.
A yellow dal from Raghavan Iyer's new book on Indian cooking.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Feeling lucky, Charlotte?

Here's a quick contest for you. See that number in the picture? It was a little dark, so I'll repeat it: 1158499.

Where did I shoot the picture and what does the number mean?

I have a copy of "Mad Hungry Cravings," by Lucinda Scala Quinn, for the first person who emails me at with the correct answer. Ready, set . . .

UPDATE: Well, that took 11 minutes. The winner is Adam Robertson, who sent the correct answer at 11:28 a.m. That's the number of pizzas made by Luisa's Brick Oven Pizza on Abbey Place since it opened in 1991.

Apparently, owner Jeff Russell started keeping count when they were nearing the millionth pizza two years ago. Customers enjoyed it so much that he has kept it up, updating the number every Saturday night. He has a formula that lets him account for the number of pizzas they put out on the buffet, too.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Season's eatings in Charlotte, Tupelo Honey and more

You know it's the week after Thanksgiving when you can go to a holiday food event every night. Here were just three I fit in last week:

Community Culinary School of Charlotte is good causes rolled in good causes: The culinary program takes people who've had employment problems for various reasons and trains them for jobs in food service. And as part of their training, they do catering and make the meals for Friendship Trays.

Tuesday night's fund-raising holiday party pulled in an enthusiastic crowd (left) with a silent auction, food samples including a pasta bar, and a culinary competition featuring instructors and alumni vs. the most current class, No. 47. That's program administrator Lakesha Lamons, above, in the chef's jacket and Santa hat. She's also a graduate herself, of Class 41.

In my column last week, I wrote about the career of Jeff LaBarge, chef-instructor and director of the culinary program at Central Piedmont Community College. Wednesday night's party for LaBarge was supposed to be a surprise (oops, no one told me), and it still was: His wife, former chef Nell LaBarge, hid the paper and even unplugged the computer so he couldn't go to The Observer online.

The party was a dinner featuring food by the advanced garde manger (cold-food prep) class. But here's one last thing that says a lot about the effect a single teacher can have: Two of the guests were LaBarge's former students, Chicago chef Gene Kato (center) and Ilios Noche chef James Jermyn (right), who stepped away from very busy restaurants just to be there for their former teacher.

And finally, Friday night brought the very packed preview party at Tupelo Honey, the hugely popular Asheville restaurant that opens today in the former Pewter Rose spot at 1820 South Boulevard. If the popularity of the original in Asheville is any indication, if you get in line today, you might get a spot for brunch next Sunday.

There are a lot of funny touches in the new space, including a big crown-shaped light fixture at the front desk. And if you've ever schlepped up those stairs, you'll be happy to see the first welcome touch when you arrive: A new elevator (left).

Executive chef Brian Sonoskus was there and thrilled: He has lived and worked in Charlotte several times in the late '80s and early '90s, including at Talley's Green Grocery, for Fran Scibelli at Metropolitan and at Bayou Kitchen. So he knows Charlotte. ("I've seen every show the Grateful Dead ever played in Charlotte since 1981." Yeah, he's right in home in Asheville.)

The food included the very popular pork chops with Zippy sauce, a kind of smoky/chunky barbecue sauce, huge scallops in a roasted garlic beurre blanc, and crab cakes that were falling-apart tender. My favorite thing was the Honey Pickled Beet Salad. Seriously, even if you don't like beets . . . It will be on the menu, but the recipe also is in the Tupelo Honey Cafe Cookbook, written by Sonoskus and former Southern Foodways president Elizabeth Sims. I'll put it below. You need a mandoline or a some kind of really sharp slicer, like a food processor with a slicing blade, to make it.

My favorite touch at Tupelo Honey proves that Sonoskus and his pals do know our humble city. In the bar, there's a painting featuring a bottle of Cheerwine and the most important of all stock cars, No. 3. Next to it, in a tiny frame, there's the perfect quote about Charlotte, by artist Amy Evans:

"Charlotte likes her drinks sweet, her cars fast and her pockets full."

Yep, that's us.

Tupelo Honey Pickled Beet Salad

2 pounds beets (you can use a variety of colors)
1 large Vidalia onion
2 cloves garlic
3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup honey (Tupelo preferred, but non-pedigree honey will do)
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 teaspoon ground white pepper

Peel and trim the beets and onion. Slice very thinly using a mandoline or slicing blade on a food processor. Crush the garlic with the flat side of a knife and add whole to the mix. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper. Pour over the sliced beets and onions. Mix well, cover and refrigerate overnight before serving.

YIELD: 8 to 10 servings.

Friday, December 6, 2013

One Great . . . shrimp stew

With rainy, chilly weather expected to set in over the weekend, a good bowl of stew may be just what you need.

Susan Arelt-Pohlman of Weddington answered my call for good recipes for the One Great feature, since my kitchen is currently the housing equivalent of a dust bowl. My. that dry wall does make a mess?

Susan explains: "I cannot claim credit for this recipe, which I found through Fine Cooking's website (Pam Anderson is the author). I appreciate that it is easy to prepare (minmal prep, one bowl, one Dutch oven), is festive and has fantastic flavor."

I see that Susan and I are both Fine Cooking, Pam Anderson - and coconut milk. The combination of shrimp and coconut milk is particularly wonderful. I'll save this to make as soon as I have a stove again.

Shrimp Stew With Coconut Milk, Tomatoes and Cilantro

3 pounds jumbo (21- to 25-count) shrimp, peeled and deveined
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, sliced into very thin, 1 1/2 inch strips
4 green onions, thinly sliced (keep the white and green parts separate)
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 (14.5-ounce) can petite-diced tomatoes, drained
1 (13.5- to 14-ounce) can coconut milk
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

PLACE the shrimp in a large bowl, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt, toss to coat and set aside.

HEAT the oil in a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the bell pepper and cook, stirring, until almost tender, about 4 minutes. Add the green onion whites, 1/4 cup of the cilantro, the garlic and the pepper flakes. Continue to cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 to 60 seconds.

ADD the tomatoes and coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer to blend the flavors and thicken the sauce slightly, about 5 minutes.

ADD the shrimp and continue to cook, partially covered and stirring occasionally, until the shrimp are just cooked through, about 5 minutes longer. Add the lime juice and season to taste with salt. Serve sprinkled with the green onion tops and remaining cilantro.

YIELD: 6 to 8 servings.

Friday farmers market roundup

Now that Thanksgiving is over, winter market hours have kicked in at many markets. Here are a few I know about. If you have more or want to know the status of a particular market, post a comment or email me directly,, and I'll check on it for you.

The Matthews Community Market, 208 N. Trade St. in Matthews, has switched hours to 8-10 a.m. every Saturday. That's rain or shine, so even if it's sleeting, expect that anyone with freshly grown, local food will be there, huddled under the tents.

The Davidson Farmers Market is closed this week, but will be open next Saturday, Dec. 14, from 9 a.m. to noon. That market is open every other week until next spring. The market is next to Town Hall between Main and Jackson streets.

The Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, 1801 Yorkmont Road, is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday through March. On Saturdays, there are still a number of local growers filling both the open-air and the indoor sheds. And if you're shopping for crafts, remember that the Crafts Barn is open 8 a.m.-2 p.m. through December. The market now has an active Facebook:

The Atherton Mill and Market, 2104 South Blvd., will hold its First Friday Holiday Arts Market tonight (as in Friday night), and will be open as usual on Saturday. The best way to keep up with that market also is Facebook:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Southern books, local teaching and more

Click over to today (or heck, go old school and open a print newspaper) and you'll find:

The Southern cookbook roundup. There are so many great food books this year that we didn't know where to begin. So my Raleigh counterpart Andrea Weigl and I picked through the stack of 2013 Southern cookbooks to highlight our favorites, including Ed Lee's "Smoke & Pickles" and John Currence's "Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey." And this morning, I got one more in the mail that you should consider: "Essentials of Southern Cooking," by Damon Lee Fowler (Lyons Press, $35). On the first flip through it, I spotted a dozen dishes I want to read more about. 

In my column, I talk about the influence and impact of CPCC culinary instructor Jeff LaBarge, who is retiring. You probably encounter LaBarge's teaching every time you sit down in a Charlotte restaurant. 

I know a lot of fans of Betty's Pimento Cheese at Harper's, as sassy as Betty Sasser herself. In You Asked For It, Robin Domeier scores the recipe, and shares a bunch of ideas for putting it to work in your holiday entertaining. 

Bread fans in Raleigh will already know about La Farm Bakery and chef Lionel Valinet. Andrea Weigl shares a little of Valinet's story and you can meet the man himself (and get samples of his bread) at a book signing at 2 p.m. Sunday at Park Road Books. 

In this week's Q&A, I try to sort through some of the fears about nonstick cookware. 

Finally, in One Great, I shared an easy ham and potato soup - and issued my own plea for recipe help. With my kitchen undergoing a complete overhaul, I have no place to try out One Great recipes for the next six weeks. If you have a recipe that fits the column -- short, easy to do and interesting -- send it on and I'll run it. 

Also in food:
A gingerbread that is both gluten-free and vegan.
A coconut version of dulche de leche
A roundup of good holiday cocktails
A homemade version of Duke's mayonnaise

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

One Great . . . easy soup

Each week in One Great, I feature a simple but unusual recipe. It might be a shortcut appetizer, a quick way to try a new vegetable, or an easy dish to add to your weeknight repertoire.

For the next month, though, One Great needs your help. As you may have seen in this blog, my kitchen is undergoing a massive renovation. While I've set up a field kitchen under the drop clothes, and I have many friends who have offered me the use of their stoves, my ability to cook will be a bit truncated for the next month or so.

So I'm turning to you guys: Do you have a great, short recipe to share? It can be something from any category, from holiday favorites to easy weeknight entrees or side dishes. It just has to be fairly short, easy to understand -- and tested. Email them to me at, and please include your contact information so I can get back in touch in case I have questions.

In the meantime, here's one more quick one. I found it in the new Allrecipes magazine, a selection of favorites from the website

Ham & Potato Soup

From Allrecipes magazine and the editors of (If you don't have -- or use -- chicken bouillon granules, you could swap the water for chicken stock.)

3 1/2 cups peeled and diced potatoes (1 3/4 pounds)
1/3 cup diced celery
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
3/4 cup diced cooked ham
3 1/4 cup water
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules (see note above)
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1 teaspoon ground white or black pepper, or to taste
5 tablespoons butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk

COMBINE potatoes, celery, onion, ham and water (or stock) in a stockpot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.

STIR in the chicken bouillon (if using) and pepper. Taste and add salt if needed.

MELT butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour with a fork and cooking, stirring constantly, until thick, about 1 minute. Slowly stir in milk and continue cooking, stirring constantly, over medium-low heat until thick, 4 to 5 minutes.

STIR milk mixture into stockpot and cook soup until heated through. Serve immediately.

YIELD: 8 servings. PER 1-CUP SERVING: 195 calories, 11g fat (6g saturated); 6g protein; 20g carbohydrates; 2g fiber; 394mg sodium; 30mg cholesterol.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Kitchen mission: Demolition

Have I mentioned the kitchen problem?

It started in mid-September, when we innocently walked into our kitchen one day and felt a little bump. In front of the dishwasher. Under the vinyl flooring.

Such a little bump. Cute, really. Until there was a second one the next day. Then the first one got bigger. By the third day, we knew we were in trouble. We called our contractor friend and got the bad news: That's a leak, probably from under the dishwasher, but maybe from under the sink. They wouldn't know until they pulled everything off the wall. And since that would mean destroying the tile-and-grout counter and backsplash, we'd probably have to destroy the matching counter on the other side of the room, and that would lead to the cabinets and . . .

He seemed surprisingly cheerful. Happens all the time, apparently. I wasn't cheerful. Weeping was heard.

It's not that I loved my kitchen. It was a minimal, 1950s-era kitchen. Lots of tall cabinets, two nice windows. A broom closet I turned into a pantry. My collection of 1950s kitchen kitsch looked right at home, with cheery cherry-themed accents. My husband dressed it up with a really nifty red-and-gray paint theme.

But there were only two drawers in the whole dang room, the broom closet was too deep and narrow to be efficient, the floor plan left major "dead corners" in two cabinets, and because the cabinets were so low, I couldn't have a gas stove. The only refrigerator that would fit in the 1950s floor plan was a dreadful side-by-side with a freezer so narrow, you couldn't put a frozen pizza in it. No task lighting. Limited counter space.

Nope, I didn't love it. But replace it? How do you even begin?

Still, after getting the bad news from the contractor, my husband put his arm around me and said one of the nicest thing he's ever said to me: "You've done 20 years of food writing and two cookbooks in minimal kitchens. It's time you had something better. So let's do it. Let's gut the whole thing."

It wasn't the time I would have picked, and I certainly would have liked more time to think about it. But the little spot in front of the dishwasher was growing fast, into a big bump with a frighteningly bouncy feel to it. Bouncy is never a good thing in a floor.

For six weeks -- through a book tour and trips to New Orleans, New York, Nashville, Mississippi, New York and Memphis -- I've been in overdrive, meeting with an architect and cabinet designers, obsessively clicking through,  studying every Consumer Reports appliance review I could find, and looking at dollar amounts that are truly staggering.

Last week, in the middle of packing to take Thanksgiving dinner on the road, we also packed our kitchen and dining room. (I looked on the back of a china cabinet one morning and discovered my husband had sketched a word in chalk: "Heisenberg." I'll leave that there for Breaking Bad fans. He also laid down blue tape, like a crime scene, so I could see where the architect is moving the kitchen island.)

Last night, we set up a field kitchen in an empty bedroom and moved the dog's bowl to a bathroom.

And this morning . . . it began.