Three flavors for spring

The fun and popular Savor the South series by the University of North Carolina Press usually brings out two books in the spring, but this year, there’s a threefer: “Gumbo” by Dale Curry, “Shrimp” by Jay Pierce and “Catfish” by Paul and Angela Knipple.

GUMBO Cover imageIf anyone knows gumbo, it’s Dale Curry, who was food editor for the New Orleans Times-Picayune for 20 years and lives in New Orleans. (Full disclosure: I have known Dale for years through the Association of Food Journalists, and I’m the author of two Savor the South cookbooks.)

I have made gumbo as best as a non-Louisianan can, but the book offers regional takes that I never imagined. Catfish Gumbo or Quail Gumbo, anyone? There is a roux-less gumbo for those who find making roux challenging, as I once did. Curry’s directions for making roux, an essential part of traditional gumbo, are simple but useful. To tell the truth, it’s one of those things that you just have to do a few times and you eventually get it, like riding a bicycle or following knitting directions. But believe Curry when she says do not use a burned roux.

The book includes recipes for some of gumbo’s relations, such as jambalaya – including a recipe for a slow-cooker jambalaya that I’m looking forward to trying out. This is a book of classics from another area of the South that is a good addition to the series.

SHRIMP Cover ImagePierce, author of “Shrimp,” recently became chef at ROCKSALT in Charlotte after years with Lucky 32 in Greensboro and Cary. (More full disclosure: I have met Pierce and welcomed him to the Savor the South sisterhood’s men’s auxiliary; he and Paul Knipple are the first men to enter the fold.) Whenever I encounter a chef-written cookbook, I get concerned that it will have miles-long directions involving hours of prep for those of us without a kitchen full of hired help. Not here. The recipes are creative and accessible, and the stories Pierce tells along with them make you feel like you’ve popped a beer and sat down next to a shrimp-loving buddy.

How to select quality shrimp and freeze it offers great information, as well as reassurance that frozen shrimp is OK, depending on where it’s from. He also clearly explains why buying American-caught shrimp is so important.

Soups, noodle dishes, pick-up goodies like Fire-Roasted Shrimp Tacos, rice dishes like Shrimp Risotto – there’s a lot of variety here. This is a great book to carry to the beach, or make you feel like you’re there.

CATFISH Cover ImageCatfish is a staple in the Deep South, but I wondered how the Knipples, experienced food writers who live in Memphis, would handle an entire book on the ingredient.

On the surface, catfish seems limited to crispy fried plates at fish camps. But they show that catfish can play a role in unexpected places, including Vietnamese and Thai dishes. Coriander Catfish Rolls bring the ingredient to Asian spring rolls. It’s paired with Indian spices in Dodson Lake Samosas. And Delta Paella brings catfish to the Mediterranean classic. Catfish, I barely knew ye before now.

Of course, the book includes precise directions for producing perfect deep- fried catfish, and some traditional sides to go with it such as hushpuppies and slaw.

A tome from Tomatoman

IMG_0369If you truly love tomatoes, good tomatoes, you eventually have to grow tomatoes. Because no matter how good one you buy might be, it won’t be as good as one you pick from your backyard minutes before eating it, when its skin is warm from the sun and its flesh so juicy that it covers you in red when you bite in.

Luckily for tomato lovers, “Tomatoman” Craig LeHouillier of Raleigh has finally produced his long-awaited book, “Epic Tomatoes: How To Select and Grow the Best Varieties of All Time” (Storey Publishing, $19.95).

When I met Craig years ago, he couldn’t park his car in his garage or driveway because both will filled with plants and seeds. Although at that time he was a chemist at Glaxo, his true passion was heirloom tomatoes. Heirlooms – those tomatoes that taste like Daddy’s did, with names and stories worthy of a novel – were dying out in some cases, hard to find in others. Craig decided to save them and popularize them. And he is credited with bringing back the Cherokee Purple, a tomato many connoisseurs consider the Perfect Tomato. He also fed the hunger of area tomato lovers for several years by organizing Tomatopalooza, a free-for-all tasting extravaganza.

A few years ago, Craig went full-time into tomatoes, focusing on a project to create dwarf versions of the often tall and unwieldy heirlooms, allowing container gardeners to enjoy their flavor and variety. He hosts tomato dinners are area restaurants during the summer; find out more by following him at @nctomatoman.

At a signing for the book recently at Quail Ridge Books, the co-founder of Seed Savers Exchange called Craig “a national treasure.” It’s not an exaggeration.

“Epic Tomatoes” is one of those books that gardeners love to get in February when a high of 29 is predicted. It has gorgeous photos and clear instructions that should help those who have never tried growing tomatoes from seed through the process. There are even a few recipes, including a roasted tomato sauce that I’d like to try….but not until July.

 

Forget about cookies

Those of you who think the job is done when a writer pushes the send button on the final copy of the final version of a book, and the manuscript travels down the Internet tubes to the publisher, are living in a sugarplum fairyland. No, my friends with sensible jobs – the work is just beginning at that point. Because after the delight of seeing the shiny covers and inhaling the fresh-paper smell of a box of just-printed books with my name on them comes the work of persuading other people to love them as much as I do and to open their wallets in expression of that adoration. It’s called sales. And most writers became writers to avoid that sort of labor (and to stay far away from math).

Because my newest book, “Southern Holidays: A Savor the South Cookbook” is about – duh – holidays, the past few months have been busy. I had the fun of writing in the book about holidays throughout the year, but the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year’s vortex is, naturally, a big focus.

The variety of book signing called a “sit-and-sign” can be dismal or delightful. The dismal ones are when I sit behind a stack of my creations and a plate of samples for two hours and hardly anyone walks by. At those, I feel like the perfume girls who used to work at department stores pursuing and attempting to spritz fleeing passersby.

(About those samples. John Grisham can show up with just a pen and his wit. But, no, a cookbook author must bring the snacks, too.)

But I enjoy even most sit-and-signs, because I am able to talk to people all day long, if I have to, and have little shame. And because, with luck, they’re highly entertaining, especially during the holiday season.

At a signing I did recently at Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C., the very helpful staff prepared the samples for me (usually I have to do it and haul them from home). They chose a recipe from the Hanukkah section of the book, Sweet Potato Latkes. I had to explain to several curious children what latkes were. In one case, they didn’t get it until I finally said, “They’re like french fries,” and the kids dug in.

I thought Santa Claus had already come after one shopper decided that six signed and personalized copies of my book would take care of the rest of his shopping. Then I saw an actual Santa and Mrs Claus, who were walking down the aisle in front of me, posing with kids for their parents’ raised cellphones. In my best imitation-Jewish-mother voice, I called out, “Hey, Santa, you want a latke?” The dark eyes below the hat brightened, and he grabbed a sample, lifted his beard and ate it up. “Those are good,” Santa said. I swear it’s true, even though I wasn’t able to grab my cellphone camera and verify it.

So, kids, now you know what Santa really wants you to leave him on Christmas Eve.

Sweet Potato Latkes

This recipe from “Southern Holidays: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Debbie Moose, published by UNC Press, uses sweet potatoes instead of the usual white potatoes for the traditional Hanukkah dish. They go especially well with applesauce on top. Grate the onion and potatoes in a food processor to make things go even easier.

2 cups coarsely grated peeled sweet potatoes

1 small onion, coarsely grated

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Vegetable oil

Applesauce and sour cream

In a large bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, onion, eggs, flour, salt, chili powder and cinnamon.Heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.

Scoop out about 2 tablespoons of the sweet potato mixture per latke and place in the hot oil. Don’t crowd the pan so the oil will stay hot. Press the patties gently with the back of a spoon to flatten them out. Fry, turning once, until browned on both sides.

Drain on a wire rack placed over a platter for a few minutes, then transfer to a paper towel-lined platter and keep warm in the oven while you fry  the remaining latkes. Serve with applesauce and sour cream.

Makes 4 servings

Yes, she can can

I am reading a new book and planning my summer pastimes. It’s not a travel book, though. It’s a canning book.

IMG_3119I was canning before canning was cool, when most people looked it as something their grandmothers did, and far too much trouble. Now, it’s hip. Young singles haunt canning sites on Facebook and see the delicious value in making their own items. Chefs boost their eat-local stock by canning their own sauces and relishes.

So any new book about making pickles, relishes, jams and jellies needs to walk a line between the classic favorites – I dare you to feed me something better than good-old homemade bread and butter pickles – and new-wave creativity. “Pickles and Preserves: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Andrea Weigl (University of North Carolina Press, $18) does that.

Classic Dilly Beans and Fig Preserves are next to Soft Refrigerator Honeysuckle Jelly and Salt-Pickled Cucumbers with Shiso, providing basics for those new to canning and intriguing combinations for experienced canners. None of the recipes are so far out as to intimidate, and the variety will amply stock a pantry.

Many people are frightened off canning by the possibility of giving botulism as holiday gifts. But home canning is not difficult, and if you follow simple guidelines and use the proper equipment, perfectly safe. Weigl, who is the food editor for The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., carefully offers well-researched information on the process, along with what not to do and why. (I can’t believe anyone has seriously tried to process canned goods in a dishwasher but the answer from Weigl, and me, is: Just don’t.)

Full disclosure: I contributed a recipe to the book, and have written another in the Savor the South series. I have also begged for figs from Weigl’s neighborhood and intoxicated a book club with Brandied Peaches from her book.

On Wednesday night, March 12, Weigl will talk and sign copies of the book at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, on March 25 at the Barnes & Noble in Cary, and at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on March 19. Other signings are listed here.

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 one: Last-minute shopping

IMG_3092Don’t worry – I’ll help you get it all under control. For the next few days, I’m going to give you great gift ideas for food fans that you can grab locally.

I’m going to start with a book that’s educational and delicious, and will upend your thoughts about a well-known type of food. If you think you know all about soul food, read “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine” by Adrian Miller (University of North Carolina Press, $30). You’ll realize just how little you knew before reading this well-researched and entertainingly written book.

Miller, a lawyer-turned-food-historian that I met through the Southern Foodways Alliance, deftly digs into the roots of African American food and offers thoughtful commentary on soul food’s place at the table. No stereotyping here. And I had no idea that red Kool-Aid possessed such significance.

Miller also addresses the changing nature and definition of the cuisine, as cooks adapt it to new tastes and nutritional issues, while expressing the hope that “soul food can keep its flavor without losing its soul”

This is not a cookbook, but it does contain 22 tested recipes that bring important parts of the story into the kitchen. Give this book to anyone who wants to know more about the culture and roots of an important cuisine.

 

 

 

Using the old bean

IMG_2778I’m certainly a carnivore (and seafood-a-vore) – no threat of veganism here. But like many, I’m trying to include more meatless dishes in my menus for the sake of health and checkbook. I have a couple of problems, though. Cheese is out as a protein source due to The Hub’s dairy allergy. And he dislikes most beans.

So, what am I doing with a cookbook called “The Great Vegan Bean Book”? I’m always in search of good dairy substitutes, and I hoped to find some dishes to add to the occasional-meatless rotation that did not always involve tofu. I have a love-hate relationship with the bean curd.

If you love beans of all kinds, this second cookbook by Durham writer Kathy Hester, published by Fair Winds Press,  will fill your bowl abundantly. Even if you’re working with a limited repertoire, as I am, there’s plenty to like. She begins with useful information on selecting and preparing beans of all sorts, then launches into recipes from breakfast and snacks to dessert. Most recipes include gluten-free, oil-free and soy-free adaptations.

I went looking for recipes using the four Hub-tolerant beans: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, green beans. There are several, including Pineapple Rum Beans over Coconut Lime Sweet Potatoes (using black beans) and Chickpea and Vegetable Lo Mein. The Creamy Chickpea and Rice Casserole intrigued me because casseroles have been off the menu – they’re usually laden with dairy products.

The casserole was easy to make and filling, with the creaminess of the faux sour cream. Hester’s aromatic poultry seasoning mix used in the dish would be good with, yes, actual poultry. I cheated a little – since vegan wasn’t my goal, I used chicken broth instead of water.

The only caution I would make about using this book is to be aware of can and package sizes given. I didn’t notice that the package of silken tofu specified for the sour cream substitute was a different size from the common brand in the supermarket I frequent, causing my sour cream to be not as thick as desired.

Here’s the recipe, which I would definitely make again.

Creamy Chickpea and Rice Casserole

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 small onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups chopped mushrooms

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup chopped green beans or green peas (fresh or frozen)

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas or 1 (15-ounce) can, rinsed and drained

1 tablespoon DIY Poultry Seasoning (recipe follows)

1 cup long-grain brown rice

2 1/2 cups water

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

1/2 cup vegan yogurt or Extra-Thick Silken Tofu Sour Cream (recipe follows)

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or oven-safe pot. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and mushrooms and saute for 5 minutes more.

Add the carrots, green beans, chickpeas, poultry seasoning, brown rice and water. Mix well, cover with an oven-safe lid, transfer to the oven and bake for 1 hour.

Remove from the oven, add the nutritional yeast and yogurt or sour cream, and mix well. Taste and add salt and pepper and more poultry seasoning, if needed.

DIY Poultry Seasoning

2 tablespoons ground sage

2 tablespoons thyme

1 tablespoon marjoram

2 teaspoons celery seed

Mix everything together and store in an airtight container.

Extra-Thick Tofu Sour Cream

1 (12.3-ounce) package silken tofu

1-3 tablespoons water

Juice of 1 lemon

Add the tofu, 1 tablespoon water and the lemon juice to a food processor of blender and blend until smooth, scraping down the sides as you go. Add the remaining 1 to 2 tablespoons water if you need to thin the mixture or if you have a less powerful blender.

 

A taste of the Delta

The new book “Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South” (The University of Georgia Press, $24.95) is a  travel guide, history lesson, foodways chronicle and, most of all, a love letter from author Susan Puckett to a region that is often stereotyped.

Most people think of catfish and the blues when they consider the Mississippi Delta. But Puckett, an Atlanta food journalist, shows that kibbeh and tamales are as much a part of the area’s food as fried green tomatoes.

Thankfully for those of us from hillier areas, she clearly defines the Delta. And she makes a good case for her claim that it’s “The Most Southern Food on Earth.”

A good garnish of recipes share space with colorful descriptions of restaurants and festivals, and the people who share their good food. The book also answers a burning question I’ve had for a while: What the heck are Kool-Aid pickles?

I know people say all the time that a particular book is as much fun to read as to cook from, but that’s really the case here. The detail is excellent, and shows that a lot of work went into this book.

All summer in March

In the neighborhood outside Winston-Salem where I grew up, every backyard had a sizable garden, and every garden had tomatoes. By midsummer, when the tomatoes were flowing into kitchens like red snowballs in an avalanche, kids would be dispatched to leave them on other people’s back stoops. This was the annual tomato-go-round, where my parents would send extra tomatoes to people who had already sent their surplus tomatoes to someone who dropped off their spare tomatoes at our house.

If a book like Miriam Rubin’s had existed then, it would have ground the tomato-go-round to a halt because no one would have been willing to give up a single orb before trying all 50 recipes within it. “Tomatoes: A Savor the South Cookbook” (University of North Carolina Press, $19) includes savory tomato pie, tapenade, salads, soups, pickles, a tomato cake and more.

I’m glad to see that she knows the proper place to eat a tomato sandwich (over the sink) and that Southern-style  tomato gravy isn’t the kind found in Italian restaurants. Canned tomatoes work well in many of the recipes, giving options when summer is over. She also suggests what I’ve been telling tomato fans to do for years: When the avalanche hits, chop up those tomatoes and freeze them.

I believe that a cookbook about peaches in which the first recipe is for peach ice cream has its priorities straight. Such is the case with “Peaches: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Kelly Alexander (University of North Carolina Press, $19).

In fact, the book unashamedly begins with desserts and works its way through other ways to use peaches, including an intriguing Peach Tempura and the green peach salad from Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill (which I have enjoyed). Alexander amply recognizes the wonderful uses for peaches in beverages. And I can’t say that I’ve ever read a cookbook before that quotes Sir Thomas More.

There’s a great variety of recipes. My only wish is that she had mentioned how to freeze summer peaches at home and where frozen peaches might work in some of the recipes. Seems to me they might work in the Tangy Peach Barbecue Sauce if I crave it in November. I am all for extending peach season, and this book makes me want peaches now.

These just-released books are the latest in UNC Press’ Savor the South series of small books on Southern ingredients. This fall will bring books on biscuits and bourbon. And in the interest of full disclosure, I wrote “Buttermilk,” one of the first two books.

A taste of the coast

In the mail today, The Hub and I received the confirmation letter from the place on the Outer Banks where we spend a much-anticipated week each spring. Every year, that letter and Girl Scout cookies keep us going through the messy end of a North Carolina winter.

Now I have something else to help me hold on: “The Outer Banks Cookbook: Recipes and Traditions from North Carolina’s Barrier Islands” by Elizabeth Wiegand. It’s a heartfelt book for those who love that little strip of shifting sand and the good things served there.

There are recipes for everything that comes from the water, from traditional dishes like Hatteras-style clam chowder (no cream) to more modern contributions such as Vietnamese Spring Rolls with Carolina Shrimp or Soft-Shell BLT using soft-shell crabs. There’s information on traditions including Old Christmas and Outer Banks windmills, even a few things I didn’t know about (mullet roe as “Ocracoke caviar”?) Weigand also offers step-by-step instructions for doing your own oyster roast.

Weigand is a veteran food writer who provides clear instructions in her recipes. The book has a nice mix of simple recipes and more complicated ones from coastal restaurants. My only gripe is that the fractions are a little small for my bifocaled eyes.

There are a number of recipes that I’m looking forward to trying, but this one tapped my urge for salty breezes and nothing to worry about but which book I’ll read. I’ll tuck that confirmation letter in my pocket while I’m making it.

Wasabi Sesame Tuna

1 tablespoon wasabi paste (mix equal parts wasabi powder and water) or to taste

1/3 cup soy sauce

4 tuna steaks, 1 1/4 inches thick

1/2 cup black and white sesame seeds

1/4 cup olive oil

An additional mixture of 1 tablespoon wasabi paste as a condiment

Cucumber Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Mix together the wasabi and soy sauce in a nonmetallic bowl.

Place tuna in a shallow baking casserole and pour wasabi-soy marinade over. Allow to marinate for 5 to 6 minutes.

Place sesame seeds in a small, shallow dish. Place each tuna steak on top, pressing to coat each with seeds on one side only.

Heat olive oil over medium-high heat. when hot, add tuna, seed-side down; sear until seeds are browned, about 2 to 3 minutes. Turn tuna over and cook for just another minute, until tuna is still soft and red in center. (It will continue to cook when off the heat.)

Serve immediately with Cucumber Vinaigrette and additional wasabi paste.

Cucumber Vinaigrette

1 cup peeled, seeded and cubed cucumber

1/2 red onion, diced

1/4 each sweet red and yellow pepper, diced

1 red tomato, diced

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch of sugar

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Allow flavors to meld at room temperature for about an hour. Refrigerate any leftovers.