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.



Southern exposure

There are so many Southern-themed cookbooks out now. And while the bigger cookbook world just discovered my native chow, some  writers have been carrying the torch for years. One such author is Jean Anderson, whose 2007 book “A Love Affair with Southern Cooking” is full of heart, soul and history.

Now Anderson, who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., opens the door to Southern-style baking with “From a Southern Oven: The Savories, the Sweets” (John Wiley & Sons, $32.50). The book contains recipes for casseroles with Southern touches, like Orange Chicken Nested in Pecan Pilaf, and plenty of crab and seafood dishes. Anderson always finds at least one recipe with a history that surprises. One in this book is Philpy, a quick bread made in the South Carolina Lowcountry using cooked rice and rice flour. Then there’s Confederate Rice Pudding, from the same part of the world, which includes Madeira.

I love sweet potatoes, and am pleased to see several enticing recipes using them, including Sweet Potato Focaccia, Sweet Potato Corn Bread and Bourbon-Glazed Sweet Potato Pound Cake.

Anderson has written more than a dozen cookbooks, and is a food writing professional whose recipes always work; you can rely on them. She has long been my role model in that area. Others may be jumping on the Southern cookbook bandwagon, but they will have to ride a long way to catch up with Anderson.

More than winter tomatoes

When I think about Florida food, I think of either tropical fruit or rock-hard January tomatoes. But a new book shows that the eat-local movement and artisan food products are as strong in Florida as in other parts of the country.

“Field to Feast: Recipes Celebrating Florida Farmers, Chefs and Artisans” by Pam Brandon, Katie Farmand and Heather McPherson (University Press of Florida, $28) offers stories of small farms, creative producers and innovative chefs, with recipes from all three camps.

Most of the recipes are simple and highlight the ingredients. While a few might be difficult to prepare outside of the Sunshine State – a ceviche that calls for a tropical fruit called longan, for example – the majority of recipes use produce found everywhere.

Several use kale, recently proclaimed a “superfood,” and of interest these days. One uses the green as the base for a pesto and another a spicy-sweet version using balsamic vinegar that I will have to try. If I can’t find sugarcane skewers, I’ll just do the scallops with lime, mint and rum without them – they sound great either way.

Go slow, vegan

The slow cooker often is subjected to mediocre combinations of beef and chicken with various canned soups. But if you mix that beloved appliance with the rising popularity of meatless eating and a little creativity, you have “The Vegan Slow Cooker” by Kathy Hester (Fair Winds, $19.99).

Hester, who lives in Durham, N.C. and writes a vegan slow cooker blog, starts out the book with general advice on successful slow cooking. The soup section most interested me, with recipes like Delicata Squash and Pear Soup. There are also breakfast items, side dishes, pasta, main dishes and desserts. Some recipes are labeled gluten free.

You can find vegan shepherd’s pie and breakfast casseroles. (People love breakfast casseroles.) The Balsamic Brussels Sprouts would be a nice addition for Thanksgiving. If you think too much tempeh and tofu might freak out the people you’re cooking for, you could always, well, cheat. But you didn’t hear that here.

Eat those words

When I was in high school, back when we took tests with stylus and stone tablets, taking the SAT wasn’t a huge deal. Really, I remember being advised to only take it once, and study classes didn’t exist. Now, there are books of all kinds purporting to offer the secret to SAT success. But I’ve found one that, even if it doesn’t guarantee perfect scores, does ensure that the kids will learn to make dinner.

“Cook Your Way Through the SAT” was created by a 14-year-old homeschooler who needed to do an art project and study for the SSAT (Secondary School Admission Test). The recipes incorporate SAT vocabulary words. And the young lady is a relaxed, accomplished cook. See her videos and find more information at her blog, SatGourmet,  here. The book was released in September.

Thanks to Speed Hallman at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication for sending me a note about this.

Southern food meets really southern food

Sandra Gutierrez makes a good case for a culinary combination that I hadn’t thought about. In the Cary, N.C. author and cooking teacher’s new book, “The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes That Bring Together the Bold and Beloved Flavors of Latin America and the American South” (UNC Press, $30), she points out shared ingredients and traditions. Corn meal and beans, in particular, are pillars of both food styles, and each style drew from native, European and African foods.

Gutierrez mentions in the introduction to this user-friendly book that she was born in the United States, then moved with her Latin American parents to Guatamala, where she grew up. (The introduction is full of research and food detail, but I wish I saw a little more of the author’s emotions in it.)

Gutierrez’s pimiento cheese with chipotles and ancho chile powder? Sign me up for that. Stuffing tamales with collard greens brings Southern to Latin food.

The popularity of Latin American flavors should serve this book well. As Gutierrez points out, it was once hard to find ingredients like achiote oil or masa – now, they’re as close at hand as pork rinds and Duke’s mayo. Her experience as a cooking teacher shows in the clearly written recipes.

The story of Sweet Potatoes

I have to like a cookbook that starts with the dessert recipes. It indicates an author who has her priorities straight. And that’s how “Well, Shut My Mouth!: The Sweet Potatoes Restaurant Cookbook” by Stephanie L. Tyson (John F. Blair, $19.95) begins.

I met Chef Tyson and her life and business partner, Vivian Joyner, several years ago at their popular restaurant in the arts district of Winston-Salem, N.C. It’s taken until now for them to get a book together because, well, they’ve been a little busy. The book’s introduction describes the winding road that Tyson and Joyner took which ended in opening the restaurant in 2003. It’s a little long for cookbook intros, but worth the read, because it gives a good sense of how difficult the process is – particularly for minority women.

The recipe for the sweet potato biscuits that I remember from my visit is in the book. As are recipes for such things as Cheerwine-Glazed Country Ham and Sweet Potato, Corn and Country Ham Risotto. Tyson also includes a plea for readers to fry their own chicken – right on. And the lead-off desserts? Lots of pies, in keeping with the casual, homey nature of the restaurant.

Most of the recipes seem accessible, with a few exceptions that might require some time. One is the intriguing Three Little Pigs: Pork loin wrapped in bacon and stuffed with chopped barbecue. Sounds like turducken for pig lovers.

Tyson will hold book signings in the Triangle area in September: McIntyre’s Fine Books at Fearrington in Pittsboro, N.C., Sept. 4, 2 p.m.; Barnes & Noble in Cary, N.C., Sept. 13, 7 p.m.; and Southwest Regional Library in Durham, N.C., Sept. 25, 3 p.m. She will do a signing and cooking demo at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Sept. 3, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

A bloomin’ lot of cookbooks

If you needed more proof that Southern food is hot, look at the number of cookbooks by North Carolina authors that have popped out like the azalea blossoms this spring. One is by longtime Durham, N.C. chef and caterer Sara Foster (of Foster’s Markets in Chapel Hill, N.C. and Durham). Another is by Chapel Hill food writer and cooking instructor Sheri Castle and the third shares recipes from Asheville, N.C.’s popular Tupelo Honey Cafe (yes, the recipe for the sweet potato pancakes is there).

Foster’s cookbook, her fourth, trumpets her Southern roots. “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen: Soulful, Traditional, Seasonal” (Random House, $35) has all the requisite standards: Buttermilk biscuits, fried green tomato BLT, and a whole chapter on pork. Pork must make a substantial contribution to any cookbook that calls itself Southern. There are hints for matching cocktails to hors d’oeuvres, which is so Southern.

The book includes surprising recipes using what I consider an under-appreciated Southern vegetable: Summer squash. When it’s in gushing supply in midsummer, squash gets passed around – and avoided – like a baby with a stinky diaper. Everyone has squash, but no one seems to know what to do with it. Foster uses it in a version of hush puppies, plus as pickles, in a pot pie and soup. Of the three cookbooks, this is the most elegant, showing more than a touch of Foster’s previous life working with Martha Stewart.

Castle’s book, “The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes” (UNC Press, $35). is gorgeous, too. Rather than organizing recipes by course, Castle walks through the garden with chapters highlighting individual vegetables and fruits. Nice to have when the blueberries are pouring in and you’re looking for ways to use them. The organization makes it a bit more challenging to put together a menu, but you do have the serendipity of running into Chicken and Sweet Potato Stew alongside Sweet Potato Rum Cake. Nothing wrong with a meal of sweet potatoes, I say.

The book exhibits Castle’s wide range of experience and expertise, leading to clear directions, especially for the bread many fear to tackle, biscuits. It’s a homey read full of stories, too.

“Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen” by Elizabeth Sims with Chef Brian Sonoskus (Andrews McMeel, $29.99) is as much about life in the mountains and Asheville as the food. The book seeks to identify the food by rooting it in the culture of the mountain town, and it makes for a witty read. The book starts off with recipes for gravys. How Southern is that?

The cookbook recognizes Asheville’s place as a craft brew haven by offering both wine and beer matches for dishes. There’s a laid-back quality to this book that makes it feel accessible.

If you’re only going to invest in one, which cookbook should you buy? That really depends on what you’re looking for and which recipes call to you.

A food lover’s guide to North Carolina

Visiting farmers markets, farm stands, microbreweries and anything else interesting in the food area is part of any vacation I take. I usually research online and print out notes on sheets of paper, which end up flying all around the back seat of the car.

Now there’s a book I can leave in the back seat wherever I go, and it will stay put. “Farm Fresh North Carolina” by Diane Daniel (The University of North Carolina Press, $18.95) is a collection of information on farmers markets, farm stands, wineries, dining locations and more all over the state. Daniel, who lives in Durham, selected the places to include based on her visits to the locations and the experiences she had. You’re unlikely to run out of things to do on vacation – or even with spare time near home – with this book in hand.

It goes beyond simple listings with mini-profiles of farmers and producers, historical facts and recipes. Everyone with an opinion may question the restaurant selections, but I agree with most.

The problem with guidebooks like this one is they can quickly become outdated. Daniel plans to address this issue by posting updates to the book on her website here. However, the book itself will not be online.

Sit down and eat

When I visit a new part of the state or country, I look for a community cookbook. They are great for getting a real sense of a place. And they are full of good home cooking, not cuisine from coiffed heads on TV. Can there be a community cookbook for the entire South, with all its diversity? The Southern Foodways Alliance has proved it can be done.

“The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook” edited by Sara Roahen and John T. Edge (University of Georgia Press, $24.95) brings together recipes and stories from across the region. The SFA, based at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, documents and celebrates the area’s food cultures. I’ve been a member for several years.

These are real recipes cooked by real people, ranging from greens and rice to game and desserts. In the interest of full disclosure: My recipe for Strawberry Jam is included in the Put Up chapter.

You can walk right into this book and hang out for hours, reading the notes and history throughout. When you get hungry after all that reading, there are plenty of classics to try. My eye was caught by the inevitable Southern love of pork and the recipe for Deep-Fried Bacon. Nothing is more appealing than a touch of excess. More restrained folks can sample Corn Fritters, Grits and Grillades or Gumbo z’Herbes, a lesser known Louisiana gumbo packed with greens of all kinds. And you know you’re reading a Southern cookbook when you see an entire chapter on gravy.

Another thing I like about the book is that is has a spiral binding. That means it will lay flat on my counter while I’m cooking instead of needing to use the coffee grinder to press it open. So, dig in.