'Tater time

It’s here! I just received an advance copy of my new cookbook, “Potato Salad: 65 Recipes from Classic to Cool.” And on a North Carolina day – 70 degrees in February – that makes you think about a picnic. (Although they’re forecasting snow – snow?? – for Monday. If you ever wonder why Southerners are crazy, look at the spring weather patterns.)

Thanks to the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, and my great editor, Justin Schwartz. The photographer, Jason Wyche, makes potatoes look like rock stars.

(Almost) hands-free baking

The no-knead bread recipe printed in the New York Times last year swept the cooking world, as fans of homemade bread discovered that hands-on effort was not necessary to create a great loaf. I tried the technique myself, and the result was a wonderful rustic loaf with a minimum of effort. Now comes “Kneadlessly Simple: Fabulous, Fuss-Free, No-Knead Breads” by Nancy Baggett (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95).

Baggett explains in great detail the chemistry behind this hands-off technique, and explains exactly why she suggests the steps she does. She notes that the history of this long and slow rising version of bread making actually goes back to the 19th century.

The recipes include no-knead versions of challah, cinnamon sticky buns and pizza dough, as well as classic rustic breads. The detailed directions will reassure both first-time bread-makers and experienced hands. My only suggestion is that total preparation times for each recipe might have been helpful. I’ve had to add in my head the rising times, refrigeration times, etc., to decide when to start the dough. A risky thing, math, since I’m a writer. And it makes my brain hurt. But the smell of fresh bread baking, bread that I practically ignored, eases the ache.

Ready for wastin' away

I’m already looking forward to my first Jimmy Buffett concert in several years – after a streak of about 12 years in a row, I was unable to get tickets for a while and he skipped Raleigh a couple of times. The first Buffett concert I attended was one of the infamous Springfest concerts in Kenan Stadium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Seating was free-for-all, and groups of students arrived towing in kegs and coolers full of margaritas (using the cooler tops as bars). Sharing sorts they were, too.

The second concert was at the Carowinds amphitheater in Charlotte, traveling with the Salisbury Ski and Outing Club. As far as I could tell, the group never went skiing, and rarely participated in any outdoor activities that required hiking boots or tents. We traveled to the concert on a rented bus, with a keg. I acquired a purple Hawaiian shirt for the occasion.

Today, technology has marched on, and I thought of concert preparations when I saw a gadget mentioned on the wonderful Kitchen Gadget Gals web site. The gals offer unbiased reviews of kitchen products, and recently had a preview of hot gadgets for 2009, including a Thermal Blender from Hamilton Beach. Instead of a glass jar, it uses an insulated, non-breakable thermal container which keeps your beverage of choice cold after preparation. The 48-ounce thermal jar will keep drinks cold (or hot) for up to eight hours, the gals say, and has a handle for easy carrying. The price is around $40.

I heart Banyuls

During my Valentine’s Day dinner out with my husband, I met a new love. So sorry, dear.

It was at Bonne Soiree in Chapel Hill, at the end of a meal that already had enticed and satisfied. I ordered pot de creme made with Valhrona chocolate, and had the kind of impetuous idea the romance inspires. I wanted to order a dessert wine with it instead of the usual coffee. I like dessert wine, but rarely order it. It’s often too sweet for me with a dessert, sucking the flavor from the dish.

When I asked for a suggestion, the waiter’s pulse visibly quickened. I could see his smile in the candlelight. He said he knew just what I needed, that would perfectly match the chocolate. He returned with a red wine called Banyuls. I took a sip while waiting for my pot de creme. It wasn’t extremely sweet; rather like port, actually. Good.

The dessert arrived, and sipping the wine with the chocolate turned both into a different experience. One heightened the other, leading sip to bite, bite to sip. Like any wonderful relationship, it’s hard to put into words.

The proprietor of the restaurant told me that Banyuls is made in southwestern France, from grenache grapes, and is well-known as a companion for chocolate. She said any labels are good, but the one she serves, from the Chapoutier family, includes Braille on the label because the maker’s sister is blind.

The next day, I went in search of more. And I found I was not alone in my love – both The Wine Merchant and Whole Foods offered varieties of Banyuls. Oh, well. If I must share my delight, I must.

Chocolate. There is more to say

In today’s News & Observer Food Section is a great story on Triangle-made chocolates. You can read more about Azurelise Chocolates, plus many others – including a Durham confectioner who makes chocolate-covered bacon!

Chocolate. Need I say more?

When chocolate was discovered in Mexico, the ancient Aztecs allowed only two classes of people to consume it: the wealthy upper classes and those designated for human sacrifice, as sort of a last meal. This was among the interesting information from a chocolate fanatic who also has the academic chops – Dr. Gabriel “Keith” Harris of the N.C. State University Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences. You gotta love a man who loves chocolate, a love he confessed to at a Sunday meeting of Culinary Historians of North Carolina.

In his talk, he said he has a big cup of Mexican chocolate (Mayordomo brand, to be exact) every morning. He also has no great affection for white chocolate, although he didn’t go so far as to call it an abomination, as I do.

The highlight of the afternoon was, of course, eating chocolate. We sampled chocolates from Azurelise Chocolates, a Raleigh company started by a former philosophy professor at NCSU, Dr. Reginald O. Savage. Savage, (photo below) who had no food training when he started the company, named it after his daughter. He said he thinks about creative fillings for his dark and milk chocolates, imagining what might go together and then just trying it. The most interesting sample I tasted was the kind he calls Genius Chocolates. No one could guess the filling flavor – it was Guinness Stout. It somehow made the chocolate taste more chocolately. The same thing happened for me once when I made a cake that had the beer in the batter and frosting. You don’t really taste it, but it does something to the flavors.

Savage sells his chocolates primarily through A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, although he also does mail order.

AARPers against Starbucks

As someone over 50, I am ticked at Starbucks. No more decaf after noon? I suppose they don’t want people like me sitting around, listening to Motown on our iPods instead of some moping slacker drivel and reading actual books instead of Twitter tweets.