Shameless self-promotion time

As my Daddy always said, don’t hide your light under a bushel. So I’m letting y’all know that my column “Sunday Dinner” has been named a finalist for Best Newspaper Food Column in the Association of Food Journalists’ national competition. The organization is made up of food writers and editors for magazines and newspapers, plus freelancers like myself (find out more here). The other two finalists, and wonderful folks they are, are Rob Kasper at the Baltimore Sun and Lisa Abraham at the Akron Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio.

To show that it’s not totally about me, I also congratulate Andrea Weigl at The News & Observer for her nomination for Best Newspaper Food Feature – Circulation Under 250,000. My friend Jan Norris of West Palm Beach, Fla. was nominated for her food blog, which I contribute to on occasion.

The award winners will be announced on Oct. 8, during AFJ’s annual conference, which is in New Orleans this year.

While I’m on the Moose Train – hope to see y’all at the signings for my newest cookbook, “Potato Salad: 65 Recipes from Classic to Cool.” They’re at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Wednesday, June 3 at 7:30 p.m., then at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill on Saturday, June 6 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Of course, there’ll be tater salad samples.

They're still good eatin'

In my Sunday Dinner column in The News & Observer on Sunday, I had a lot of fun with song titles that refer to food – especially an old-time tune I like to play on the fiddle, “Squirrel Heads and Gravy.” Someone who should know – my fiddle teacher, Mara Shea – informed me today that she learned that “squirrel heads” are an Appalachian Mountain term for biscuits. I knew about the country term “cat head” biscuits – biscuits as big as a cat’s head. “Squirrel heads” are biscuits smaller than “cat heads.”

That sounds reasonable. But it does take some of the gross-out fun from playing “Squirrel Heads and Gravy.”

Guess they’d be calling my floppy biscuits “flat heads.”

Music to my ears

My husband and I spent last week in Cape Hatteras. We go each May, armed with a suitcase full of books and a lust for finny goodness. Our diet for the week is all seafood, all the time (except for the tomato sandwiches at lunch).

I don’t care for bluefish, but other than that, if it comes out of the water, it can land on my plate just fine. Tuna must have been running off the coast, because restaurant specials on three different days included it, plus the day I visited Risky Business fish market in Avon and cooked in the condo.

I couldn’t really make up my mind at the fish market, so we got a little tuna, some shrimp (freshly steamed on the premises) and tilefish. Tilefish is something you don’t see very often. It’s a thin, white fish, similar in looks to flounder, but with a sweet flavor. I was told the flavor is because the fish eats shellfish, but I’m no expert in fish diet. I seared the tuna on top of the stove in a little olive oil. The tilefish I wrapped in foil with some olive oil, white wine, thin slices of lemon and garlic, and a little oregano. I baked it until it was flaky and tender.

At restaurants, I always get the special (unless it’s the despised bluefish) because that is most likely the freshest and most interesting thing. Using that philosophy, we tried sea mullet for the first time at The Captain’s Table in Buxton – the flavor and texture is a lot like trout.

As we were eating a plate of plump, lightly steamed oysters at the Mad Crabber in Avon, I asked the waitress where they came from. “Out back,” she said, jerking her head toward Pamlico Sound. Just the kind of thing I like to hear.

Green grows the kitchen

It’s all or nothing in the wonderful garden world. Not surprisingly, the first box of vegetables from my CSA at Coon Rock Farm is fluffy and leafy. Spinach, some exotic cabbage and lettuce – lots of frilly lettuce.

In addition, my neighbor-gardener Tom called the other day to ask if I wanted some lettuce from his backyard, before the un-springlike heat makes it bolt and become bitter. I didn’t realize “some” meant three gallon plastic bags full. Next time, I’ll ask for a definition.

I will long for this green stuff in a few months. For now, it makes for monochromatic meals. This afternoon, I’ve been rummaging through cookbooks, looking for ideas. The triumvirate of greens-olive oil-garlic in a hot saute pan (maybe a little chile pepper, too) is heavenly in its simplicity, but some variety would be nice, too. There’s a classic Italian dish that combines greens with potatoes which looks quite promising. Who has some other ideas?

High-flying suds over Fuquay

I’ve lived in Raleigh, N.C. for more than 20 years (plus college time in Chapel Hill, N.C.), and for most of that time, Fuquay-Varina was an object of hilarity. An FM radio jock’s riffs on “Two Flags Over Fuquay” comes to mind.

But the suburban creep that covered the Raleigh area has spread to Fuquay-Varina as well, and not without positive effects. I visited one recently with my friend, Buddy. At the end of a gravel road, at a tiny airstrip, is a pilot who makes beer. In the hangar. Next to his plane.

A discreet sign on the road directs thirsty travelers to Aviator Brewing Company where, on a warm spring day, groups of adults sipping brews, and their kids, heave horseshoes into two recently installed pits. The “tap house” is a corner of the hangar carved out for a handful of stools, a popcorn machine and a wooden bar. Shiny metal brewing vats sit beside the trim blue-and-white airplane. Unless owner Mark Doble is out flying (or working his real job at Hewlett-Packard), he’s there to meet, greet and talk beer while two helpers fill pints using tap handles shaped like wooden propellers.

Lucky for me, one of Buddy’s friends was leaving as I walked in, so I could claim a coveted seat. The place was jammed – maybe 25 or so in the little space. The Eagles were on the stereo, but Buddy says there’s often live entertainment set up between the plane and the vats (Russians playing balalaikas on one occasion, I’ve heard). The beer selections change, but I had the Old Bulldog ESB and Big Bolt Pale Ale – both great, neither too hoppy for me (I’m not into extremely bitter beer). Buddy sampled the Grade 5 Bolt, a mix of the pale ale and a Kraken Stout. Some of the beers are aged in old bourbon barrels.

The tap house is open only Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Doble is not bottling the beer, which means I learned what a growler is – a sort of take-out container for beer. Unfortunately, he was out of them when I was there. But if you don’t want to make the drive, Aviator, open only since last November, is getting local attention. It’s served at the Raleigh Times Bar, Flying Saucer and other spots.

Aviator Brewing is also having a beer dinner at Tir Na Nog in downtown Raleigh on Thursday night, May 7.

CSA in May

It’s community-supported agriculture time again! I’m glad to see more farms and more folks participating. I know that money is tight for many people right now, but investing in local growers pays off in the long run. Please consider it. You’ll also get sustainably produced vegetables with flavor that will lure even those who run from green things.

It’s too late to sign up for most CSA farms – they typically offer shares in January or February for the vegetables you’ll receive through the growing season. But the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association has a good list of local farms, farmers markets and CSA opportunities.

And the lettuce I received this week tastes like nothing I can find at a megamarket. It’s the sweetness and delicacy of spring, and it lasts so short a time. The ruffled leaves taste like rain, to me – the refreshing kind of spring rain on new grass. With a lively crunch that makes eating a salad for lunch feel not at all like the deprivation of dieting.

To come: Greens and spinach. Olive oil and garlic. Couldn’t be easier.