Chef & the Farmer reopens

fried sea mullet with miso-cucumber tartar sauce & crisp lemon slices

When I told Ben Knight that I smelled smoke when I walked into Chef & the Farmer, his eyes got as big as saucers. I guess it was a little soon to make a fire joke – and I knew the scent was from the new wood-fired oven. The acclaimed Kinston, N.C. restaurant, where Knight is manager and his wife Vivian Howard is chef, was heavily damaged in a January fire. It reopened on Tuesday with a shiny new kitchen, redesigned server station and some different things on the menu.

Howard used the forced closing to read up on new techniques and hone her skills at a Chicago whole-animal butcher. He goal was to add eastern North Carolina-style charcuterie to the menu, and it was already present. She turned two pigs, who had been born the week of the fire, into items on the opening-night menu: pork belly skewers with candied bell peppers, “canadian bacon” (more like prosciutto, and awesome) with new potato and pickled ramp salad, and green garlic sausage with red peas and cabbage. Sausage from the piggies also was in a new item, the Pimp My Grits menu of creamy grits with additions like pimento cheese and greens.

It’s hard for me to walk by pork belly, and this one paired not-too-salty belly with sweet-spicy peppers. On

'canadian bacon,' new potato-pickled ramp salad, horseradish-bacon vinaigrette, crackin' cornbread

the Share Plate menu was mullet, which you rarely see in restaurants and I’d never tasted. It was crispy fried with a miso-cucumber tartar sauce. She had also fried paper-thin slices of lemon, giving the hint of citrus you find with squeezing lemon over fried fish, but better, like lemon potato chips. I had expected mullet to have a strong flavor, but it was mild and moist, with a firm texture.

Also irresistible to me is tilefish. It’s another little-known seafood that I rarely see outside of the coast. It’s a thin, flat fish with a light, sweet flavor. The vegetables in the entree dish were as good as the fish – caramelized little carrots and turnips, with bok choy. The Hub’s shellfish dish, which included clams, mussels, shrimp and a giant soft-shelled crab, all over Carolina Gold rice, was reminiscent of bouillabaisse, but with less liquid.

So, they’re back and cooking on all burners. And don’t worry if you get a little whiff of smoke when you walk in. No need to grab a fire extinguisher.



Hail to the haggis

haggis, right, with 'neeps' and 'tatties'

This is what happens when you fall in with a crowd of Scots:  Eventually you have to drink Scotch, which tastes like I fell face down into my backyard; and you have to deal with haggis.

I had naively hoped I could avoid the legendary haggis, despite hanging with this crowd of ale-drinking musicians who call themselves the Raleigh Scottish Fiddle Club. We meet monthly at 518 West in Raleigh, an Italian restaurant. The ringleader is the chef there. No haggis in Italian cooking. I was safe.

Then someone suggested holding a Burns Night.

Scots around the world celebrate the beloved 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns (who wrote the New Year’s Eve song “Auld Lang Syne”) with Burns Night or Burns Supper events on or near his birthday of Jan. 25. There is the playing of Scottish music, especially Burns’ songs; the reciting of poetry in indecipherable Gaelic; and the consumption of a traditional Scottish meal. Which means haggis. Burns wrote “Address to a Haggis,” ensuring that it would become the national dish of Scotland and the centerpiece of the meal in his honor, along with “neeps” (turnips) and “tatties” (potatoes).

Well, I thought, I’ve eaten chitlins. How much worse can a sheep’s bladder stuffed with oats, suet and organ meats and then steamed be? Besides, I had faith in our leader, chef Blaine Nierman, and I offered to be his sous chef for the haggis.

Blaine created a 21st-century haggis, not an 18th-century one. No mystery meats. There was beef and lamb plus calves’ liver, with onions, lemon juice, steel-cut oats, pepper and nutmeg. We cut and sauteed the meats, and combined it all in a big bowl. “This isn’t in the recipe,” Blaine said as he tossed in a jigger of Scotch, “But it can’t hurt.” We used cooking bags, like you use to roast the Thanksgiving turkey, instead of animal containers for the mixture. The bags steamed over simmering chicken stock for a hour and a half.

That night, after the playing of music by the unrehearsed and the orating of Burns’ lines by men in kilts, the haggis was marched through the assembly on a silver tray, accompanied by bagpipes.

It had a strong lamb flavor, and looked a little like Hamburger Helper. Not frightening at all. With all that meat, it was a fairly heavy dish. If I’d been struggling through a Scottish moor in the rain, it would have been perfect sustenance, but for a warm Southern winter’s evening, it was a bit much. But nothing to fear.

So, all hail the haggis…once a year.

Whoosh! There go the holidays

I think that blazing flash of light I just saw was the holiday season whizzing by. December usually runs in fast-forward (now there’s a term today’s tape-free teens probably don’t know), but it seems worse for me this year. A big part of it was having to finish proofs and other materials for my cookbook on buttermilk, which won’t be published until fall of 2012, but nevertheless the publisher needs the stuff now.

I’m finally up for air, and plan to make the most of the remaining time. “Christmas in Connecticut” is snug in my DVR, right next to the Alastair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol.” “Christmas in Connecticut” is my new holiday fave – I love the idea that Barbara Stanwyck’s 1945 version of Martha Stewart doesn’t actually cook any recipes she writes about.

I don’t look quite as va-va-voom as Barbara, but I do bake. When fresh cranberries and oranges abound, this quick bread is my favorite. It’s easy, good for breakfast or snacks, freezes well, and I can easily “non-dairy it” for The Hub.

Cranberry-Orange Nut Bread

2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 cup fresh cranberries

1 cup chopped pecans

2 tablespoons melted margarine or butter

Grated rind of 1 orange

Orange juice

1 egg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the flour, salt, sugar, baking powder and baking soda. Stir in the cranberries and pecans.

Put the margarine or butter in a 1-cup glass measure and melt the margarine or butter in the microwave. Add the grated orange rind, then pour in enough orange juice to fill the cup. Add the liquid and the egg to the flour mixture and stir to blend. Don’t overbeat. Pour into a non-stick 8-inch by 5-inch loaf pan. Bake 1 hour or until it tests done with a toothpick.

Let the bread cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 15 minutes, then remove it. Let it cool completely if you want to wrap and freeze it.


Garlands of garlic

Even after offering heads of garlic as lovely parting gifts to each visitor to my home in the last few weeks, I noticed last night that the bag of garlic The Hub brought home was still about half full. I combed through my cookbooks on Sunday, determined to make a dent in the sack.

The result: Garlic soup, based on a recipe from “Soup: A Way of Life” by Barbara Kafka (Artisan, 1998) with my additions. The crucial part of this soup, as Kafka writes, is cooking the garlic cloves very slowly until they’re pillowy soft. Do not let them come anywhere near brown. I left them whole in the finished soup, but I suppose you could puree them. A little coconut milk might be interesting, too.

Garlic Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 heads garlic, peeled and sliced in half (remove any green part in the center and discard)

1 (3-inch) stalk lemongrass, cut in half lengthwise

About 1/2 cup chicken broth (I used the broth from cooking the chicken in the microwave)

2 boneless chicken breasts, cooked and shredded

1/2 to 1 serrano chile, chopped

Juice of 1 lime

About 2 cups baby spinach

Salt to taste

About a cup of cilantro leaves

Heat the oil in a large pot over low – and I mean low – heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, or until the garlic is silky and translucent. Do not let it brown. Do not be tempted to raise the heat. Add 9 cups of water, the chicken broth and the lemongrass and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook, uncovered, about 30 minutes. Add the chile, shredded chicken, lime juice, spinach and cilantro. Cover and simmer on low heat for a few minutes, until the cilantro and spinach wilt a little. Taste and add salt as desired. Remove the lemongrass before serving.


The wonderful world of biscuits

Carrie Morey makes biscuits for Association of Food Journalists

There are so many bad biscuits in the world. Greasy ones that leave sludgy rings on the plate. Salty ones that reek of packages and industrial mixers. Here’s a hint: Anything handed to you out a drive-through window is not going to be a good biscuit. Why do we love these little things so much that fast-food joints will try to capitalize on our affection? When made well, biscuits are simple, warm bits of cloud. Put some good ham inside them and you have perfection for breakfast. Well, that’s what I think as a Southerner.

Naturally, being in Charleston, S.C., the subject of biscuits was bound to come up at the Association of Food Journalists’ recent conference.  We got two views of biscuits, actually. Carrie Morey, owner of Callie’s Charleston Biscuits, demonstrated biscuit-making for the group. She is one fast, biscuit-making machine, and no wonder. The company, which has been featured on the Today show, Food Network and in Martha Stewart Living, produces about 1 million biscuits a year – all by hand.

Morey started with 5 pounds of self-rising flour (she prefers a lower gluten flour, such as White Lily). Into that she worked – by hand – 1 1/2 pounds of cream cheese and 1 pound of butter, both at room temperature.

What? No pastry blender? No ultra-cold butter? That’s right. The secret in her technique must be how fast she works, sliding the mixture through her hands and fingers like water. “I’m looking for the feeling,” she said. “It should feel like a grated Parmesan cheese texture.” When it hit the proper texture, Morey made a well in the center of the mixture, then poured in 1/2 gallon of cold, full-fat buttermilk. Not low fat. The good stuff. She rolled the very moist dough on a floured surface to a good inch of thickness. It’s a very soft dough. Flouring the biscuit cutter helps to cut the dough quickly with a snap – no twisting, which seals the edges and prevents the biscuit from rising. In the parchment-lined baking pan, “biscuits like to touch,” Morey said, and the sides gently nudged. She bakes them at 500 degrees for 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through.

Then, cookbook author Nathalie Dupree showed her biscuit style. Dupree, who most recently wrote “Southern Biscuits” (Gibbs Smith, $21.99) has a simpler technique. She also insists on lower gluten flour. Her recipe: 2 cups self-rising flour and 1 cup yogurt thinned with a little water or whipping cream. That’s it. She said that the acid in yogurt serves the same function as buttermilk. A neat trick that she demonstrated was using a flexible plastic cutting board to roll the dough. She placed the dough in it, folded it over and patted it, then unrolled it for cutting. She thought of the idea while demonstrating for TV shows, to keep flour from flying all over during the conventional way of rolling out on a counter. “It gives it layers,” she said. Dupree also had thoughts about biscuit placement: “If you want crispy biscuits, put them far apart. If you want tender biscuits, have them touching.”

See a slide show of Carrie Morey making biscuits here.

Illegal oleo no more

I was about three years out of journalism school when I went to work on the copy desk of The Raleigh Times. The publication that the bar was named after. We copy editors sat in a circle of desks and waited for reporters and editors to send us their articles, which we would then knead into readable, correct copy that would print to fit. The job consisted of long periods of waiting jarred by frantic, noisy activity as the desk chief yelled for a page-one piece and the pneumatic tubes we used to receive items from the photo department whooshed and clunked as deadline approached.

But we did spend a lot of time waiting. And that was when I’d find out stuff. Part of being a copy editor was the speedy retrieval of random facts. One minute, you’d have to know that the small Granville County town north of Raleigh is not spelled Creedmore. (Rookie reporter mistake that we’d scoff at.)  The next, you’d have to change Hugh Morrison High to the correct Hugh Morson.

But there was one person on the desk who seemed to know the most about everything, who was always the first to answer when someone yelled a question like, “When did Isabella Cannon get elected Raleigh mayor?” His name was Jim Pearce. Even if Google had existed, I would have put my money on him in any contest of rapid fact fetching. He could also spin a tale. On one particularly slow Saturday morning, he told me a long story about how yellow margarine used to be illegal because of the powerful butter lobby. I had no reason to doubt the story, but it always seemed a little stretched.

Well, Jim, wherever you are, I know you were right – at least in Wisconsin. This article says that a law was on the state’s books banning yellow coloring in margarine, along with other pro-butter laws that are set for repeal.

So, enjoy your yellow oleo today. It tastes like freedom.

Food News Roundup

Church ladies long were responsible for the food at church suppers and fundraisers. But as this in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) points out, church guys are in the act, too. And I bet they aren’t stuck in those flowered hats. The big dog of church food-related fundraisers – Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church’s Greek Festival – takes place this weekend at the N.C. State Fairgrounds.

Tales of being a food tourist in Charlotte is in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer here. Yes, you can eat around the world, says the writer, in the Queen City.

The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal notes here the growing number of restaurants in the city which offer gluten-free menus that have creativity and flavor.

Want to eat sushi in a barn with a silo? Check this out from the Wilmington (N.C.) Star-News. It just makes me laugh.

You may be sitting in your little apartment right now thinking, “I sure do wish I could compost.” Wish no longer. A Triangle company will compost for those who can’t. Read more in Savor NC here.

There’s nothing cheesy about football season, except this appetizer recipe for the tailgate from the New Orleans Times Picayune. Follow along with Judy Walker in the video.

Kathy Hester turns an “oops” into an unusual soup at HealthySlowCooking. See how it happened.

Mantoo? I didn’t know what it was either, until I read Seattle Weekly, here. (Hint: Your Mama didn’t make, unless she was Afghan.)

Food News Roundup

I often meet people who seem to think that I, and other food writers, prepare everything from scratch. They’re shocked that I don’t make my own pasta, or some such. But, as The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer reveals here, convenience foods are the friends of chefs, food writers and culinary instructors, too. And we are not ashamed about it. The article offers ways to use convenience items creatively. It’s in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), too.

Mildred “Mama Dip” Council’s Chapel Hill, N.C. restaurant is the center of the universe for Southern food lovers. Now, Council’s daughter, Annette, is making a mark with her cake mixes. Read more in the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) here.

A review of Cary, N.C. writer Sandra Gutierrez’s new cookbook is in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal here.

The latest on brews in the North Carolina mountains, including a new tasting room in Hendersonville, is in the Asheville Citizen-Times here.

While wandering the ‘net, I found out that the Ikea store in Charlotte contains a restaurant. They serve Swedish meatballs, naturally. Wonder if you have to cook your lunch yourself using a cheap miniature spatula? See the menu here.

Still carrying that Partridge Family lunch box? Well, put it away for Antiques Roadshow and look at the beauties at Leite’sCulinaria.

A sort of clam-burger is awaiting at Mariner’s Menu here.

Food News Roundup

Thank you, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, for not stooping to using one of the plethora of lame rib puns for the headline on the detailed ribs article here. The photo alone should get you running to the grill. It’s in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), too, plus a recipe here for she-crab soup.

The Feed With Care column in the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) explains how a parent can work with the school of a child with food allergies. It’s here.

A profile of Sara Foster and her new cookbook is in the Winston-Salem Journal. Read more about the founder of Foster’s Markets in Durham and Chapel Hill here.

We’re in the sweet heart of peach season, and Our State magazine has a collection of reader-submitted recipes using peaches here.

Beer here, beer there, beer everywhere. Check out the latest news about beer in the Tar Heel State at NCBeer.

Recipes from the Wisconsin State Fair are in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, here. I know how y’all love those state fair recipes, and it’s still a month or so away from North Carolina’s.

Board up windows and stock up on batteries before a hurricane? Not JaneLear. She got ready by preparing Tomatoes Irene.

Food News Roundup

If the SUVs and minivans clogging the streets around my house weren’t a big clue, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) let me know that school is about to start. (I live near an elementary school.) Here it offers advice for making feeding kids easier and less stressful.

When the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer’s Kathleen Purvis and I took a trip to New York in May, she was carrying on about what she termed “cooking anachronisms” in the popular novel “The Help.” She’s still on a tear, and you can read her thoughts here.

More on packing those school lunches is in the Salisbury (N.C) Post, here. Almond butter and jelly? Hmmm.

There’s plenty of heat left in this summer, and if you’re done with the same old banana Popsicles and chocolate ice cream, the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) has tales of local makers of creative frozen sweets. Read more here.

Things have settled down in the Triangle after the Great Quake of ’11 (I heard that a lawn chair got knocked over in North Raleigh). In Charleston, S.C., a microbrewery and bakery are each marking the 125th anniversary of the city’s 1886 earthquake with guess what? Beer and cupcakes. Read more here.

NestMeg finds a sweet way to mark one year of blogging. Yes, it involves chocolate.

Herbs are busting their pots here at the end of the summer. The Detroit Free Press has suggestions for ways to use them here.

Even high-end restaurants face the challenges of gluten-free diners. The San Francisco Chronicle here says here that chef Thomas Keller has created a new gluten-free flour.