A trip through Japan in 12 courses

monkfish liver with sea urchin and pickles

I was glad I’d purchased a fast, new smartphone before I got to Blind Pig’s Rising Sun dinner in Raleigh. In a lot of cases, it was the only way to know what The Hub and I were eating.

Kenchin-jiru? The Google told me that was Buddhist vegetarian soup. Furikake? A Japanese seasoning that often contains seaweed. But it failed me on “yukke hato,” which turned out to be ground chicken heart. No matter. The remarkable experience of dining on 12 courses of Japanese-themed food made by six top North Carolina chefs needed no translation.

Blind Pig Supper Club is based in Asheville, and calls itself an underground supper club. It organizes culinary events that bring top chefs together to step outside their usual styles of cooking. I think this is the third dinner the group has organized in Raleigh. Find out more here.

The chef for this meal were Jason Smith of Raleigh’s 18 Seaboard; Scott Crawford, formerly of Heron’s at the Umstead Hotel in Cary, now opening Standard Foods in Raleigh; Drew Maykuth of Stanbury in Raleigh; Matt Kelly of Mateo Tapas and Vin Rouge in Durham; Kyle McKnight of Highland Avenue in Hickory; and Brian Canipelli of Cucina 24 in Asheville.

kohii zerii (coffee jelly), condensed milk, caramelized peas

kohii zerii (coffee jelly), condensed milk, caramelized peas

Each chef prepared two courses, and did it without an actual kitchen – the meal was served at Clearscapes downtown. Smith prepared the yukke hato with radish and pear, and the final course, a dessert using coffee jelly – which my phone told me was popular in Japanese coffee shops – condensed milk and topped with crunchy caramelized peas. (“Peas? That’s a very Japanese thing to do,” said my friend, Linda, who lived in Japan for several years, when I told her about it. Linda is hotly anticipating the new ramen shop opening in Durham, so they need to step on it. )

Crawford made the gentle first course – scallop sashimi with ginger juice – and a version of chawanmushi with cucumber and a touch of roe. Chawanmushi is a kind of custard that, in Japan, is savory, not sweet.

Maykuth created a course that made one of my least favorite fish, mackerel, appealing. It was pickled with seaweed and some other things I had to use my phone for. He also made a combination of tofu and bacon dashi.

McKnight offered a course of three kinds of mushrooms with garlic (one was had a little too much moisture in it) and another with a delightful bit of pork belly and peach vinegar next to a tempura-fried whole okra pod.

A fried round of monkfish liver topped Canipelli’s 11th course, accompanied by sea urchin. He also made the delightful kenchin-jiru soup, studded with different crunchy root vegetables.

Kelly combined cherry tomatoes and grilled shishito peppers with burrata (an Italian cheese) for a twist on caprese salad. His other course was wittily labeled “JFC”: Japanese fried chicken, with cabbage.

A standout for The Hub and me was the soup, which was refreshing halfway through the meal. I can’t say I’ll wake up one morning craving monkfish liver, but it was quite good and the little plate’s flavors were nicely balanced. Hub liked the chawanmushi, but I’ve never cared for the texture on that dish. Pork belly…what’s not to like about that? Each dish had it’s own qualities, and played a role in the unique theater that was this meal. Quite an experience.

Bacon apron! Bacon apron!

No calories! And vegan! The Queen did an amazing job, didn’t she? These photos show the end of the tale I told in my latest Sunday Dinner column, which, if you missed it in The News & Observer last Sunday, you can read here. Now, to fry bacon while wearing it…

pocket with a fried-egg applique

pocket with a fried-egg applique

modeling my new apron in bacon-print fabric

modeling my new apron in bacon-print fabric

Tasty training wheels

One of the hardest-to-get reservations in the Triangle is for a spot in a basement room that looks like a Holiday Inn breakfast buffet lounge. But hundreds sign up for a lottery to earn a spot at one of the 40 tables.

The appeal of the restaurant goes beyond the food – diners are helping students perfect their culinary and hospitality skills as they prepare for jobs. Flavors is run by the Culinary Arts and Hospitality programs of Wake Tech Community College. Culinary students select menus and prepare the food, baking students prepare breads and desserts, and hotel management students are servers and run the front of the house. They do all this, under supervision of instructors, three days a week for 10 weeks out of the 16-week semester.

beet salad with goat cheese

beet salad with goat cheese

The Culinary Arts Program is one of Wake Tech’s most popular. Many students enter believing that a show on The Food Network is just a couple of classes away, then discover just how much hard work is involved in a culinary career. That’s why organizers say the attrition rate is as much as 60 percent. “Some don’t even make it through one semester,” says Fredi Morf, a chef instructor there since 1986.

But for students with a true interest in culinary careers and hospitality, and a willingness to work hard, the program offers high-level professional training with a teacher-student ratio of 8 to 10 students per instructor.

Morf says that the Culinary classes are about evenly split between men and women, despite the macho image of restaurant kitchens. However, when they visit France – as a group is planning to do, making sausage to sell to raise money for the trip – the female students are often the only women in the kitchens.

I was Morf’s guest for a lunch on one of the Classic Cuisine days (others are titled Global Cuisine). I selected the chef’s special first course, a layered beet salad with herbed goat cheese – although the Chicken Consomme with Quenelles at a nearby table looked like an extra-good version of chicken soup with matzo balls. The third option was Rissoles Bouquetiere, which my server described as a filled turnover. The combination of beets with goat cheese is classic, and I always enjoy it.

seared salmon with roasted pepper salad

seared salmon with roasted pepper salad

For an entree, I selected Seared Salmon with Roasted Pepper Salad and Basmati Rice. I was worried about overcooking when the soy-marinated salmon arrived as slices, but they were moist and tender. The slightly chilled pepper salad, which included raisins, pine nuts and serrano chiles, was an interesting contrast. The other options were Grilled Medallions of Beef Tenderloin Bearnaise and Allumette Potatoes, Sauteed Chicken Breast Provencal and Couscous, and Vegetarian Risotto.

Since working on my taxes has increased my need for chocolate to combat the associated depression, I selected the Marjolaine for dessert: a layered stack of chocolate-hazelnut mousse and whipped cream with blueberries. The other options seemed just as good: Apple Crisp and Chai Latte Cake. There is no photo of my Marjolaine because, well, I couldn’t wait and ate it. But look here for an idea of it.

To sign up for a Flavors reservation, visit here.

Battle of the chilis

Whenever you have a room full of chili competitors, you’re bound to find some unusual approaches, for chili is a canvas for individuality. And although this particular competition took place among representatives of churches, there was plenty of devilish fire.

My friend Fredi Morf, a Wake Tech culinary instructor, asked me to help judge the competition at St. Saviour’s Center in Raleigh. The center offers wellness programs for seniors and infants, including the Diaper Train, which provides diapers to needy families, and Wake Relief food pantry. Proceeds from admission went to the programs.

The third judge was Bob Passarelli, executive chef at US Foodservice and spice rub maker, who I hadn’t seen since he was a chef at the governor’s mansion. We discussed heat level before we got started and I discovered that I exceeded the others in tolerance for flame.

The nine chilis were prepared by First Presbyterian (who entered two), Hillyer Memorial, Christ Church, St. Paul AME (last year’s winner), St. Michael’s Episcopal, White Memorial Presbyterian (who entered two) and Wake Relief.

As those attending voted for a people’s choice award, we judged in two categories: meat and vegetarian. Since only one chili was vegetarian, the winner was rather obvious. But the other chilis were as varied as the fiendish minds of cooks can make them. Some were chicken, some included pork, one had canned pumpkin as an ingredient, one had such a strong cinnamon aroma I thought more of a muffin. One richly dark chili had an afterburn that snuck up from behind. “Too hot for you, boys?” I said sweetly to my fellow judges. They smiled, temporarily unable to speak.

We picked the Bo-dacious Southern Chili  from St. Michael’s as our meat-category winner. And it had plenty of meat – ground beef and sausage – in addition to poblanos, ancho chile powder, chipotle, canned green chiles and beer. The people’s choice winner was St. Paul AME, and it was a very fine chili.

White Memorial’s vegetarian chili was a default winner, but it would have been a strong contender in any case. It was more hearty, thick and flavorful than I’ve found many vegetarian chilis to be and contains some unusual ingredients. The cooks were glad to share their recipe with me. I haven’t tested it myself yet; these are their directions.

White Memorial’s Vegetarian Chili

1 cup bulgar

1 ounce dried ancho peppers

1 ounce dried anaheim peppers

1 ounce dried guajillo peppers

4 cups vegetable broth (divided use)

2 cups diced yellow onions

1 cup diced red bell pepper

6 cloves garlic

3 tablespoons safflower oil

3 (14-ounce) cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 (14-ounce) can kidney beans, drained

1 (14-ounce) can black beans, drained

1 (14-ounce) can corn

1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms, ground to powder in a blender

1 1/2 tablespoons cumin

1 tablespoon Mexican oregano

1 or 2 canned chipotle peppers, chopped

2 tablespoons adobo sauce from chipotle peppers

2 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter

2 bay leaves

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Salt and pepper to taste

Soak the bulgar in 2 cups boiling vegetable broth for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, toast the ancho, anaheim and guajillo peppers in a frying pan over medium heat until fragrant. Don’t let them burn. Remove the seeds, tear them into small pieces and puree in a blender with about 1/4 cup water. Add 2 garlic cloves and a pinch of salt. You will end up with a chile paste. Set aside.

Drain the bulgar. Set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed 5-quart pot, saute the onions and red bell peppers in the oil until soft but not brown. Add the powdered mushrooms, cumin, oregano, remaining garlic and bay leaves. Cook 2-3 minutes or until fragrant. Ad the tomatoes, corn, beans, honey, bulgar, chile paste, chipotle, adobo and peanut butter. Add remaining vegetable broth. Bring to a boil then simmer for 1 hour. Sprinkle on the cilantro just before serving.

Sochi salsa

It’s appropriate for me that the Winter Olympics are starting during New York’s Fashion Week, because a group of friends and I look at the opening ceremonies as a giant runway show. As we have for many times, on Friday we will gather to eat, drink and critique the athletes’ ceremonial uniforms as they walk in.

Many of us bring food inspired by the host country, although it’s not required. (One is bringing spanakopita, I found out today.) I have visited Russia and am interested in the country, so I brought out my Russian cookbooks and began considering dishes. There is more to Russian food than borscht.

Then I contacted my friend, Darra Goldstein, the author of “Taste of Russia” and “The Georgian Feast” and founding editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. She wrote a piece on the food of Sochi for Eating Well magazine.

Goldstein writes that Sochi has been a trade crossroads for centuries and was influenced by Greeks and other ethnic groups. (So maybe that spanakopita is appropriate after all.) Dishes often combine Russian flavors with those of Greece and Turkey. For example, she writes, Circassian chicken pairs poached chicken breast with ground walnuts, hazelnuts and cream. In the mild climate – this may the first time palm trees have been seen at a Winter Olympics – citrus fruits, grapes and tomatoes thrive.

Goldstein shared this recipe for a type of Georgian salsa in Eating Well. Sochi is near the border of Georgia. I was thinking of making Potatoes with Walnuts from “The Georgian Feast” for the party, but this sounds pretty darn good. It can be served with grilled meat or vegetables, or simply with crackers.

Adjika

1 large red bell pepper, cored and seeded

1/4 pound hot red jalapeno peppers, stems and most of the seeds removed (she likes to leave some seeds to give some bite but adjust for yourself)

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 large celery stalk including leaves

1 1/2 cups firmly packed cilantro, including tender stems

3/4 cup firmly packed fresh basil

3/4 cup firmly packed fresh dill ,including tender stems

1 tablespoon dried coriander

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

Coarsely chop the bell pepper, jalapeno peppers and garlic and place them in a food processor. Pulse until coarsely ground. Roughly chop the celery and fresh herbs and add to the food processor along with the coriander, salt and vinegar. Pulse just until well mixed; the salsa should still have texture. Transfer the mixture to a container and let sit overnight in the refrigerator for the flavors to meld before serving.

Makes about 2 cups

Shopping and a show

When I’m bored, I like to wander around Grand Asia Market in Cary. I’ll always find something to liven up dinner, and the passing show of shoppers comes with it for free.

Chinese New Year is Friday, so the store was decked in so much red – the Chinese lucky color – and gold that it glowed. As I stuffed bags with pea shoots and Shanghai bok choy, I heard snatches of Chinese, African and Spanish in the crowd sorting through produce. Japanese women were two deep around the self-serve seafood area.

I next set out for Vietnamese fish sauce. I know they have it, but I always have trouble finding it. As I squinted at labels, a young Asian woman with a middle-aged Western lady came bustling up. “Fish sauce? Fish sauce?” the young woman said. “I’m looking for it, too,” I answered. They started on one side of the aisle and I took the other. She found it. “This from my country,” she said, pointing at one brand of the dozen or so there. “But why big bottles? Why no small bottles? But this one good.” Then she excitedly grabbed a different one, whose label had a picture of an anchovy. It uses a “special fish,” she said and is better, although she maintained that the first one was good, too. “Well, I’m going with the special one,” I said. She smiled and nodded.

Frozen Chinese buns in an open case caught my attention, and as I looked them over, a Chinese man came up and said, unhesitatingly, that they were good and come from New York, but that the vegetable ones were old. He pointed out where the dough was dry. “Don’t get those,” he said, and pointed at some pork ones. “Those are good.” So, pork buns it was.

As I was paying for my items, the clerk began talking in rapid Chinese with a woman behind me. I glanced at her, and the woman apologized for the Chinese. Not at all, I said. She said in English, “We were just talking about her pants,” pointing at the clerk’s lacy slacks, “And how I can’t wear that, but she’s so thin, she can.” “Me either,” I said, waving off the whole idea, “But your hat is cute.” “If my hair doesn’t look so good, it’s a good thing to wear,” she replied.

We all laughed and I gathered my bags. “Happy New Year!” the young woman called. “Happy New Year to you!” I said.

Day 5: A book to boost baking

IMG_3097Yes, you can go to La Farm in Cary and simply buy baker Lionel Vatinet’s wonderful breads. But Vatinet’s new cookbook brings you into his mind and heart – although it lacks the delight of his French accent, which remains strong after more than 15 years in the U.S.

This book is both a detailed, user-friendly lesson on making your own breads and an irresistible Valentine. You’ll want to walk into the kitchen and give it a try.

“A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker” (Little, Brown and Company, $35) begins with the story of how learning to bake bread changed Vatinet’s life and gave him a driving purpose. In the instructions, numerous photographs show home cooks how the dough and bread should look at each stage.

He clearly explains why things work the way they do, why certain ingredients are important and other techniques. I’ve encountered too many bread books that are sort of mystical, that lack helpful detail and talk about the “spirit” of the bread. One book suggested that I “praise the dough” before shaping it. I find Vatinet’s approach much more likely to achieve success and give me something delicious to eat. That’s “spirit” enough for me.

You may be able to still find some signed copies at La Farm or local bookstores. But signed or not, those who have an interest in good bread – whether or not they’ve ever baked – will enjoy this book. Although I still wish there was a book-on-tape version with Vatinet reading.

Day 4: Three great stocking stuffers

Every kitchen needs those little things that make life easier, and those are the items that I put in gift baskets or carry along for gifts at dinners or parties. Here are my three favorites. Two are old stand-bys and the third is a new one I was introduced to this year and now use several times a week.

All of these are available at kitchen stores, such as Southern Season in Chapel Hill or Whisk in Cary, and at variety stores.

Long-handled locking tongs: The locking function is key. It allows the handle to fold up tight for storage. I use these sturdy tongs to turn food on the grill, toss greens for salads or stir-frys, lift roasted meats and a number of other things. Mine are about 14-inches long. Oxo/Good Grips makes a good pair.

Mini angled measuring cup: I use this small plastic cup with a spout, which is marked off in tablespoons and ounces, for just about everything. It’s a jigger for cocktails or a scoop for sugar, holds soy sauce or other liquids at the ready to add quickly to a dish (try propping up a regular tablespoon and disaster will ensue). I have to frisk people when they leave my house to be sure they don’t pocket it. Also made by Oxo/Good Grips.

Charles Viancin silicone bowl lid: I received this as a gift earlier this year and it has become a kitchen staple. The surface seals to the lip of most bowls. Environmentally conscious friends will love it because it can replace plastic wrap or foil for storing food in the refrigerator. It’s heat tolerant, so it can go in the oven. It’s great for steaming  foods and is easily washable. And it’s just pretty. You can see what it looks like here.  Although the photos show lifting bowls with the lid, I would not attempt that. Find it at kitchen and specialty stores.

Day three: Emergency snacks

The phone rings. Guess what? Friends are dropping by. In the next 30 minutes.

This scenario is as common as that little drummer boy during this season of the year. You need a quick snack in your holiday arsenal, and this is a good one. It’s a savory alternative to Christmas cookies, and I often make it for New Year’s Eve munching. I keep the ingredients – including an overgrown rosemary bush – on hand year round.

The recipe is from “The Herbal Kitchen” by Jerry Traunfeld (William Morrow, 2005). Be sure to thoroughly dry the chickpeas on towels, because any water will spatter like mad.

Popcorn Chickpeas

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped rosemary

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Drain and rinse the chickpeas in a strainer. Turn them out onto paper towels or a clean dish towel and pat them dry. Pour the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and toss in teh chickpeas. Cook them for 5 to 7 minutes, shaking the pan often. They won’t really brown, but they’ll turn several shades darker, shrink a bit, and form a light crust. Pour the chickpeas back into the strainer to drain the excess oil and then return them to the pan. Lower the heat to medium and add the rosemary and garlic. Stir for another minute or two until the garlic begins to brown. Sprinkle with the salt and a few grindings of pepper. Toss again and pour them into a serving bowl. Serve warm.

Use up more of that rosemary with this cocktail from “The Herbal Kitchen.”

Rosemary Gin Tonic

Makes 1 drink

1 lime wedge

1 3-inch sprig rosemary

2 ounces gin

Tonic water

Lightly crush the lime wedge and rosemary in a 10- to 12-ounce glass with a few strokes of a muddler or the end of a wooden spoon. Pour in the gin. Fill the glass with ice and top off with tonic water. Stir to position the lime and rosemary in the middle of the glass.

Day two: It’s the office Christmas potluck!

Working on my own as I do, my holiday office party consists of feeding the cats and hitting my stash of Moravian cookies.

But when I worked in newspaper offices, I could predict one thing about the Christmas office potluck: The guys would fight over bringing the ice, soft drinks and chips. That left it to the women to provide the real food. Things are different today – I hope – now that more men are into cooking. But back then, there would be near-fights at the sign-up sheet.

Office potlucks attract plenty of little weenies in Crock-Pots and meatballs in sauce, decorated Christmas cookies and mayonnaise-y pasta salads. Vegetable dishes, beyond tossed salads or raw-carrots-and-Ranch-dressing trays, tend to be rare sightings. This easy, do-ahead recipe has been a winner for me in almost every setting, from parties at my house to potlucks, picnics and tailgates. At least one of my friends is making it for her office party this week.

The recipe is from my cookbook “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home,” published by Harvard Common Press. I use herb-flavored vinegar that I make myself, and the flavor adds a nice touch to the salad. You can purchase vinegar flavored with your favorite herbs or use a plain wine vinegar.

Crowd-Pleasing Marinated Green Beans

1/2 of a large red onion, thinly sliced

1/3 cup olive oil

1/4 cup Italian herb-flavored white-wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 pounds fresh green beans, ends trimmed but beans left long

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Place the sliced onions in a colander over the sink.

In a small bowl, stir together the olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper until combined. Stir in the garlic. Set aside.

When the water comes to a boil, add the green beans. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or so, jus tuntil the beans are bright green; do not overcook. Pour the beans and hot water over the onions in teh colander. Rinse under cold running water to cool down. Drain well.

Place the beans and onions in a large bowl or large zipper-top plastic bag. Pour the dressing in and mix with the vegetables. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, stirring or shaking occasionally. Serve cold or at room temperature.

From “Fan Fare: A Playbook of Great Recipes for Tailgating or Watching the Game at Home” by Debbie Moose, published by Harvard Common Press.