It was a big weekend for celebrations at Moose Manor. First, we applauded my friend Chuck’s acceptance into graduate school, and the start of a new career life, at Zely & Ritz in Raleigh. The food was great (particularly the Mexican Chocolate Cake with chili ice cream, a dessert that bites back). But you know you’ve had a good time when your wine bill is bigger than your food bill.

My husband, the designated driver, was coherent enough to write down the names of the wines we consumed. They included a sweetish Riesling – I’m usually not a fan of Riesling, but it went well with the tartness of the seviche appetizer, and made the honoree happy. But I haven’t been coherent enough to ask him for the notes.

On Sunday, we spurred the Tar Heels to victory while chomping on grilled burgers, green bean salad and tart slaw. Wings would’ve been great, too. But it felt like a red-meat day. It’s Final Four time, baby!

Also, your humble blogger got a little recognition from The Independent. Thanks, y’all!

Funky food

There’s something about that funky stuff that just makes me get busy in the kitchen. James Brown. Parliament Funkadelic. Funkuponya. It all starts coming out of my radio at 4 p.m every Friday, when WSHA at Shaw University in Raleigh turns the airwaves over to the funkateers, as they call ’em.

Maybe it’s just because it’s Friday. In these parts, on Friday, cocktail hour starts about time the music does. A Hells Belle or a little chocolate martini, some Irish Cheddar to keep me going until the dinner is rocking. But the music is as important as the libations for the quality of the meal.

Tonight, I believe salmon is calling to me, seared on the stovetop with some fruit salsa. Some green beans and asparagus roasted in the oven. Can’t get enough of that funky stuff.

And waiting for the Heels to move on to victory.

The nominees are in

The finalists for the James Beard Awards for restaurants, wine professionals and food writers are in, and there are some North Carolina faces on the list. Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, has received his first nomination ever, for Best Restaurant Southeast. If you’ve eaten there, or met Bill, you know how well-deserved the nomination is.

The other nominees in the category are Hugh Acheson of Five and Ten in Athens, Ga.; Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta; and Mike Lata of Fig and Bob Waggoner of Charleston Grill, both in Charleston, S.C.

Kathleen Purvis, food editor for the Charlotte Observer, is a finalist in Newspaper Feature Writing with Recipes for “The Belly of the Beast,” an article about pig, the beautiful pig. It doesn’t matter who the other nominees in the category are, because they are toast. Nor do they have a food-editor photo that looks like someone’s sexy mom from the 1950s.

While this writer isn’t local, she is a big FOM (Friend of Moose) and has written a wonderful cookbook that I have mentioned here before. Judy Walker, food editor of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and Marcelle Bienvenu have been nominated for their book, “Cooking up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found From the Times-Picayune of New Orleans.” The book grew out of Walker and Bienvenu’s efforts to replace recipes that readers lost in Hurricane Katrina.

The winners in all categories will be announced May 4 in New York City.

In the market for markets?

I love farmers markets. I look for them anywhere I travel, because they provide such a slice of local life along with the food. When I visited Normandy several years ago, I spent the morning in a market in Bayeux that takes over a municipal parking lot once a week. Strings of garlic, sheaves of flowers and cheese – such cheese! – shared space with fresh crabs the size of a VW Beetle and melons with all the perfumes of Araby. At the end of one aisle, children played with rabbits that were not destined to be family pets. Yes, the French take freshness seriously.

I am delighted to see more markets popping up all over the Triangle and North Carolina, especially the ones that focus strongly on local food. Some markets, such as the Carrboro Farmers Market, restrict participation to food produced within 50 miles of the market and sold by the producers, not purchased and resold.

The Growing Small Farms site for the Chatham County office of North Carolina Cooperative Extension has a good list of markets. Find them and visit them. If you don’t care about the much-bandied-about carbon footprint, the food will just taste better, and you’ll get to know the person who grew it. Not to mention that the money you spend (not necessarily more that you’d pay in a supermarket) will stay in the community. Most markets, if not already open, will open in April.

While we’re talking farms, the annual Piedmont Farm Tour, sponsored by Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, will be April 24-25. Dozens of small farms in Orange, Chatham and other counties will be open for tours (a great time for kids). The CFSA is also a great resource for farmers markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture farms).

More markets brewing

The stock market may be shaky, but farmers markets are stronger than ever in North Carolina. Comes word of an unusual collaboration. Carolina Brewery near Pittsboro plans to host a new market starting in early May, according to Debbie Roos, Chatham County agricultural extension agent and small farm guru.

The market’s vendors will offer produce, cut flowers, meat and poultry, cheeses, honey and plants. And you’ll be able to get a fine beverage while snacking on your purchases.

Need more Moose?

I know – like this blog wasn’t enough. But the burgeoning Moose empire has expanded to a second web site. My good friend Jan Norris, a former food editor for the Palm Beach Post, has a great site that’s all about food and Florida. Starting today, I’ll be writing about grilling and outdoor eating for her twice a month. Check it out here.

That's high on the hog

Congratulations to Chapel Hill authors John Shelton Reed and Dale Vollberg Reed, and publisher University of North Carolina Press! Their book “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” is one of three finalists in the American category for the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ cookbook awards. The winners will be announced April 4. I’ve read the book, and its one of those rare combinations of exhaustive research and just, plain fun. Yes, they really did have to eat all that ‘cue – poor things.

I will also note with some regional pride that two of the three cookbooks nominated in the American category are Southern. The second is “Bon Appetit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking” by Virginia Willis, who grew up in Georgia and Louisiana.

V for very yummy

I will never become a vegan. There are too many soft-shell crabs and Camemberts out there waiting for me. Also, vegan dishes – which are more restrictive than vegetarian ones because they contain no eggs, milk or other animal products – often are stereotyped as unsophisticated melanges of beans and tofu.

But chefs are finding that more of their restaurant patrons are vegan or vegetarian, and are requesting suitable dishes. When some of the nation’s best chefs turn their creative energy to the cuisine, the results aren’t wild hickory nut loaf.

Linda Long’s gorgeously photographed new book, “Great Chefs Cook Vegan” (Gibbs Smith, $35) makes vegan sexy. Daniel Boulud’s Zucchini Boxes Provencal with Black Mosto Oil, Red Pickled Shallots and Opal Basil look like veggie petit fours. Thomas Keller’s Salad of Riesling-Poached Tokyo Turnips with Brussels Sprouts, Pickled French Laundry Garden Onions and Toasted Mustard Seed Emulsion is a handful of jewels on a plate.

No surprise that the photos look so good: Long is a professional photographer and spent two decades working in the fashion industry.

Long, who has been vegan for 33 years, was in Chapel Hill on Monday in advance of her class at A Southern Season tonight and a signing at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Wednesday. For the lunch at the Siena Hotel, chef Adam Rose prepared his own vegan dishes, including a wild mushroom lasagna with olive oil-poached tomatoes. For dessert, he prepared Strawberry Lime Soup with Yerba Mate Sorbet, a recipe from Jason Cunningham, executive chef of the Washington Duke Inn in Durham. Cunningham is one of two Triangle chefs in the book; the other is Phil Evans, formerly of Herons at the Umstead Hotel in Cary.

The book shows that vegan cooking doesn’t have to be stuck in the ’60s. Many of the recipes are accessible for a home cook. Chilled Watermelon Gazpacho from Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for example, is simple and beautiful. Erik Blauberg’s Gratin of Berries with Tahitian Vanilla Bean and Dark Rum (called a gratin, but there is no dairy in it) looks like another simple dish, provided you remember to prepare the cashew milk 6 hours ahead.

However, some dishes might be daunting to inexperienced cooks. As you might expect from Jose Andres, one of his recipes requires a cotton candy machine. But the book does show how vegetables can be the star of the show.

Pig and the pork

I received several questions after my most recent column in The News & Observer. A lot of y’all asked how to fry pork chops without turning them into floor tile. Part of it isn’t your fault. Today’s pork, the kind you purchase in the supermarket, is very lean, and it is easy to overcook it.

If you are able to find pork chops from a local farmer who is raising older breeds of hogs, you will get chops with that old-fashioned “porky” flavor and more fat.

The good news with modern pork chops is that it’s safe to cook them to medium – leave the meat slightly pink (160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer). This prevents dryness. I prefer chops with the bone still in. I think this adds flavor, and gives you the lovely experience of gnawing like a caveman. Also, get chops about 3/4 to 1 inch thick.

I took inspiration for frying pork chops from a good cookbook for all frying fans, “The Fearless Frying Cookbook” by John Martin Taylor. He coats his pork chops in cracker meal. I use panko bread crumbs or, if I’m out of those, dried unseasoned bread crumbs. (In a pinch, I once used matzo meal, but I’m probably going to be hit by lightning by several deities for that.)

Season the crumbs with a little salt and pepper, and coat the chops. In a frying pan big enough to hold the number of chops you’re cooking without crowding them, heat about 1/2 inch of vegetable oil. Use medium to medium-high heat. The oil should get to around 365 if you check with an instant-read thermometer. It will take 4 or 5 minutes per side. Ideally, you only turn them once, but if you find that the coating is burning, you can turn several times; also, check your heat. Remember, you’re going for slightly pink meat; cook it all the way through and you’re guaranteed to have dry, chewy chops. I cut in slightly with a sharp knife to test. Drain them on paper towels or on a rack over a plate to maintain a crispy exterior.

Now, pig out!