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.

Greetings from the asylum

If it’s March Madness, then I’m planning to feed the inmates well. When the ACC Tournament starts tomorrow, the odd sausage ball will be thrown here, the occasional adult beverage will be consumed there. But the occasion just screams for dip.

A friend, who is as nutty as I am, hosted a lunch-game viewing a couple of years ago. In an excess of patriotism, she tried to create a Carolina Blue onion dip. It was….um…interesting. It tasted like the usual onion dip, but it’s amazing how the color changes one’s perception of one’s food.

I like a good onion dip, and I’ve been trying to avoid the guilty salt-lick pleasure of the onion soup variety. I came up with this recipe for my new book, “Buttermilk: A Savor the South Cookbook,” published by the University of North Carolina Press. Just keep away the food coloring.

Roasted Sweet Onion and Garlic Dip

1 sweet onion, such as Vidalia

1 head garlic

Olive oil

1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

3/4 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons sour cream

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground mustard

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Lay out 2 doubled pieces of aluminum foil. Place the onion in one piece and the garlic in the other and drizzle both with a little olive oil. Wrap each one tightly, place them on a baking sheet, and roast for 45 minutes to 1 hour. The onion may take slightly longer to roast than the garlic. Remove each from the foil and let cool to room temperature or wrap tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Remove the outer skin from the roasted onion and place the onion in a blender. Press the roasted garlic cloves out of their skins and add them to the blender. Add the dill, thyme, buttermilk, sour cream, salt, pepper and ground mustard. Puree until smooth. Cover and refrigerate.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

A diet in the cards

The Hub and I were on a closet-cleaning binge recently. These binges seem to strike in the winter, when we manage to get bored enough to actually see cleaning as a fun activity. We spent some time mulling over how many editions of Monopoly we really need before ending up keeping them all, from the original through British, San Francisco  and Star Wars versions. Then we found a small deck of playing cards.

Boy, would these cards make a poker game a downer. Each card has a photograph of a snack food along with the calorie count. I might drop my royal flush if I noticed that the seven cashews I just ate were 115 calories. And of course one only eats seven cashews.

There’s pretzels, popcorn, caramels, potato chips (one, 11 calories). A petit four for the queen, a delicate 95 calories. The backs are a pattern of pill capsules.

The Hub recognized the cards immediately. His father was a doctor, and drug reps would leave all kinds of promotional trinkets.

The cards, called an Eska-Deck, were produced in 1969 for SmithKline & French, which later merged with GlaxoSmithKline. Because of the deck’s name, I’m wondering if it was intended to promote SKF’s  late-1960s diet drug Eskatrol. According to what I could find online, the drug, an amphetamine, was removed from the market in the early ’80s by the FDA, but not before it found its way into a Jimmy Buffett song.: “Get a bottle of rum and an Eskatrol and watch the same thing happen to you.” – “Fool Button,” Son of a Son of a Sailor, 1978.

The very same album also includes “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” which brings us all the way back around to food. But none of the Eska-Deck cards include a burger. Fortunately.

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.

Oink if you love BBQ

Great quotes rose like blue smoke during the Southern Foodways Alliance 15th annual symposium recently, which focused on barbecue in all it’s glory. I thought I’d randomly share some of what I gleaned from my notes, but to hear the full real things – including novelist Monique Truong’s lovely tribute to Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge in Shelby, N.C. and North Carolina writer Randall Kenan’s great essay – visit here for podcasts.

“Industrial food production has been wildly successful in making copious quantities of food very cheaply. But in the last 10 to 20 years, sophisticated consumers have focused on the unintended consequences… The expenses are reapportioned. Food is cheap in the shopping cart, but the expense is borne on the backs of animals, the air and water.” – Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, an industry leader in sustainable livestock farming, speaking during the panel “The Politics of Protein and Tomatoes.”

“Consumers are stupid.” – Comment during Q&A after the panel.

“Consumers aren’t stupid, they’re struggling.” – Me, when the previous statement ticked me off.

“Pigs domesticated themselves. If you need meat in a hurry, pig is for you…Pigs can’t be driven and could be fed on garbage. It gave (poor people) meat outside the economy. Pigs gave them freedom.” – Mark Essig, author of the forthcoming “Pig: A Nose-to-Tail History of Civilization,” in a talk on the history of the pig. He also pointed out that we now have fewer farms but many more pigs.

“I AM the pitmaster!” – Helen Turner, proprietor of Helen’s BBQ in Brownsville, Tenn., in an oral history film about her. She received the Ruth Fertel Keeper of the Flame Award. Folks are often surprised to see a woman at the helm of the pit.

“The south of Mexico is coming to the south of the United States…with southern Mexico barbecue. Raleigh is the Ellis Island for Mexico. Types of (southern Mexico) barbecue there that are impossible for me to find in southern California…There’s a shared love of fiddle music….(Southern Mexico) is sort of the Mexican version of Appalachia.” – Gustavo Arellano, editor of the Orange County Weekly in California and author of “Ask A Mexican.”

“I’m going to have to get me a second Spanx,” – comment reportedly heard on the bus after Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen’s luscious all-vegetable lunch.

“America hates an eyeball. We don’t like our food looking back at us.” – Alton Brown, author of the “Good Eats” series of books and TV personality, speaking on “The Science of Whole Hog Cookery.”

 

 

All ears at Fire in the Triangle

The Fire in the Triangle quarterfinal cooking competition Monday night had everything “Iron Chef” but the secret ingredient rising up into the room in a dry-ice fog. There was an ebullient host (Jimmy Crippen of Crippen’s Country Inn and Restaurant in Blowing Rock). There were dramatic introductory videos of the competitors (Serge Falcoz-Vigne of 518 West and  John Childers of Herons at the Umstead). There was “Eye of the Tiger” played at a sound level suitable for an wrestling arena. But the TV show never had this: A dapper member of the state fire marshal’s office in full uniform, who opened the evening by telling us that unattended cooking is the No. 1 cause of house fires. “Stand by your pan,” Jan Parker instructed us. “Or go out to eat.”

What started as one competition to draw diners to restaurants in Blowing Rock has grown to four tilts scattered across the state. You can read more about them here. Besides cooking for professional judges, of which I was one last night, they also serve more than 100 ticket holders. The dishes are blind tasted, and can be anything the chefs choose, from appetizer to dessert. Winners are determined by scores on presentation, aroma, flavor, accompaniments, secret ingredient creativity and execution. The scores are weighted 70 percent on the public’s evaluations and 30 percent on the professional judges’ marks.

The plan is for the winners of the four Fire competitions to vie for an overall title, but not date has been set.

Past ingredients for Fire in the Triangle  have included blueberries, noodles and wontons, beef, cantaloupe and turkey. Monday night’s: Fresh corn from John Hudson Farms in Newton Grove.

The interesting thing about these kinds of contests is seeing the creativity that talented chefs can show when focusing on one ingredient. These were professionals, so every dish was going to be good. But my question throughout: Does this dish make corn the star of the show or relegate it to the back of the chorus? For me, the winning dishes brought corn forward to take a bow while still playing well with complimentary flavors in a cohesive dish.

The desserts were good illustrations of what I’m talking about. One was a firm rectangle of cool corn custard that was sweet but had a strong fresh corn flavor. It was topped with a caramel made from Pepsi, graham cracker crumble and peanuts. The caramel, crumble and peanuts danced with the corn, bringing out the flavor. There was no question this dessert was about corn. In contrast, the other dessert was delicious, but it didn’t tell a story of corn as well. It was a sweet, crunchy tuile made from corn which held a whipped corn cream and was garnished with blueberries, peaches and a corn creme anglaise. For all that corn in the dish, I didn’t get a strong corn flavor (I could only taste the sugar in the tuile, no corn at all). I found out later that Childers made the custard and Falcoz-Vigne the other dessert.

The other dishes: Corn and lobster crab cake with smoky corn chowder and corn and bacon beignet with citrus-ginger herb salad from Falcoz-Vigne (my beignet was chewy); roasted quail with charred corn and blueberry relish, sherry vinegar and thyme from Childers (loved the sauce, balanced dish); corn and pulled duck confit with corn succotash, corn butter mashed potatoes, N.C. peaches and corn barbecue sauce from Falcoz-Vigne (duck was dry, sauce was awesome); grilled pork tenderloin with creamed corn, turnip butter, and peach marmalade and white balsamic barbecue sauce from Childers (excellent overall dish that still said “corn.”)

The winner was Childers, who will go on to compete against the winner of The Oxford vs. Flights contest tonight.

 

Love thy neighbor

My neighbor has been raving about a cookbook for some time. However, it’s not one of mine. It’s “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” by Chapel Hill’s Sheri Castle (UNC Press, 2011). My neighbor has other fine qualities, so I have chosen to overlook his lack of tact.

It’s difficult to blame him, and we are into the time of year that this book is really useful, because it offers many ways with Southern vegetables. For example, I had a load of chard from my CSA box. Sauteed greens with some garlic is great, but I wanted something different. The Greens section of the book offered many tempting options. I went with Greek Shrimp with Spinach, Feta and Orzo – with some modifications, starting with the chard for the spinach. I omitted the Parmesan cheese and used only half of the feta called for, a nod to The Hub’s dairy allergy. I could not find orzo in my usual supermarket, but I did find a box of the cutest miniature bow-tie pasta, called farfarlline.

So, this is an adaptable recipe, obviously. It even tastes pretty good reheated the next day (do it gently, so as not to rubberize the shrimp). And it’s hard to argue with my neighbor.

Greek Shrimp with Spinach, Feta and Orzo

From “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” by Sheri Castle

7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

12 ounces uncooked orzo

4 cups lightly packed baby spinach or stemmed and shredded chard

1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese, divided

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

2 pounds extra-large (21-25 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 teaspoons oregano

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush a glass or ceramic 9×13-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the oil. cook the orzo according to package directions. Drain well in a colander and return to the same pot. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the oil, the spinach, 1/2 cup of the feta and the Parmesan. Spread the orzo mixture in the bottom of the prepared baking dish an dcover with foil to keep warm.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and cook only until they start to turn opaque, about 1 minute. The shrimp will finish cooking in the oven. Arrange the shrimp over the orzo.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the skillet. Add the garlic and cook until you can smell the aroma, about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes, wine, oregano and red pepper flakes. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reduces to the consistency of pasta sauce, about 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the shrimp and orzo.

Bake until the shrimp are opaque, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup of feta cheese and serve hot.

Makes 6-8 servings.

 

There she is, Miss Deviled Egg

miss smoke and fire, miss deviled egg 2012

No swimsuit competition. No earnest speeches about saving baby whales. Just deviled eggs – and beverages. Emerson Beyer and Michael Bruno in Durham invited me to be a judge for for their Deviled Egg Pageant, and how could I resist? Especially since money from tickets to the party and pageant went to Urban Ministries in Durham. The pageant started three years ago as part of a party in their backyard. This year, as part of the fundraising, it was moved to a downtown space and opened to professional chefs as well, and raised around $1,500.

Entrants – 20 in all – were asked to pair deviled eggs with suitable beverages, then add creativity to secure the coveted white satin sash. Creativity, as with Miss Steph laPod: deviled eggs containing octopus. Miss Southern Hospitality went the classic Southern route, with a matching lemony iced tea.

miss veruca salt, a sweet custard take on deviled eggs

Other judges were Amy Tornquist, chef of Watts Grocery in Durham;  Andrea Weigl, food writer for The News & Observer; Stuart White of Bluebird Meadows Farm and Noah Ranells of Fickle Creek Farm, plus Emerson and Bruno.

I paired up for judging with Tornquist, dividing egg halves between us for judging. Twenty is a lot of deviled eggs, let me tell you, and you’ve got to pace yourself. We had standards, and we showed no mercy. Tornquist said of one that included too much sweet pepper jelly that it was “what a Yankee would think a deviled egg is.” Neither of us could handle the deviled eggs topped with Peeps. We gave the person who made meringues shaped like eggs with a lemon sauce points for wit – but those were not deviled eggs.

But there were enough standout examples of high deviled-egg art that there was a lively discussion among all the judges as to the winners in the amateur and professional categories. First place in the amateur category went to Miss Smoke and Fire by Andrew and Meaghan Hutson of Durham, which included eggs with Benton’s bacon and a bourbon margarita. Other winners were Miss Vichy, topped with crunchy fried leeks; and Miss Smoky. The professional category was taken by Miss Pickled Pink by Phoebe Lawless of Scratch Baking, which involved beets. The People’s Choice, determined by guests’ votes, was Miss Fermentation Sensation, three flavors of pickled-and-stuffed eggs.

 

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.