The eating of the greens and soft-shell crabs

It feels like Christmas in April – I picked up the first CSA box of veggies this week. The result: I had enough lettuce

lettuce, green onions, strawberries and more lettuce

lettuce, green onions, strawberries and more lettuce

to make salad for all in the immediate area of Moose Manor, thanks to the ample contents and the three large pots of leaf lettuce I’m growing on the patio. Planning, not my middle name.

Fortunately, I have been on a trend of salad for lunch for several months and I’ve become creative with dressings. I prefer to make my own – it’s easy and tastes so much fresher than bottled dressing (probably less expensive, too). I can also leave out things I don’t want, like a ton of salt or sugar. Herb flavored vinegar, balsamic vinegar, chunks of garlic, shakes of herbs, lemon or lime juice, Dijon mustard, mashed avocado, even a dab or two of barbecue sauce all make nice friends with olive oil.

The CSA alone would have made it a big week in the kitchen for me, but there was also the opening of the downtown Raleigh farmer’s market on Wednesday, on the end of Fayetteville Street near the convention center. Ed Mitchell of The Pit was cooking ‘cue, so the place was mobbed. But as a friend and I slogged through the crowd, I found North Carolina soft-shell crabs. I snatched them up like the pure spring gold that they are and ran home to my kitchen, where I did a little jig of delight and called my husband to share the news.

There was one little thing about these soft-shells: I had to clean them myself. In this case, “clean” means dispatching them to crab heaven, because fresh soft-shell crabs are sold live. The fishmonger had always cleaned them for me before. As oil heated in my frying pan, I pulled the package from the refrigerator and unwrapped it. The crabs twitched slowly, like slightly drunk spiders. I followed instructions: Snip off just below the eyes with a pair of kitchen shears, open the top of the shell and pull out the gills, then snip off a triangular spot on the back.

With that, I had killed my own food for the first time. Watch out, Ted Nugent.

Those old reliable recipes

All cooks have them – the recipes that live in the back of your brain, ready to emerge when you don’t know what to cook. You know they’re good, so you pull them out when you don’t feel up to the time and energy challenge of something new which might require a visit to the lesser traveled aisles of  the Asian market. The list of ingredients is easy to remember and on every supermarket shelf.

Some call these recipes “comfort food,” and I guess they are. They tend to be dishes associated with good feelings and lack of risk, but not lack of flavor. (Maybe Japanese cooks think sea urchin is comfort food, who knows?) I believe the term minimizes the importance of these recipes in a cook’s life and makes them seem, somehow, lesser than other dishes. I prefer to look at them as old friends, and it’s good to spend time with them.

Some new friends become old friends, and a recipe that I cooked last night has done just that. Several months ago, I was in a mood for something new and flipped through “Fresh Every Day: More Great Recipes from Foster’s Market” by Sara Foster (Clarkson Potter, 2005). Foster is the owner of Foster’s Markets in Durham, N.C. and Chapel Hill, N.C. It was a chilly day, as I recall, and the hearty, tomatoey goodness of her recipe for Chicken Cacciatore struck a chord. Now, the recipe has joined the jolly clan in my head. This dish has another quality of a good old reliable: It makes great leftovers.

I have streamlined Foster’s recipe a bit. The original says to first roast the mushroom caps, drizzled with the sherry vinegar, in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes. I’m sure that adds a depth of flavor to the dish, but I skip it in the name of convenience. Yesterday, I used boneless chicken thighs instead of bone-in ones, and it sped up the cooking time. I prepare the dish in a large, non-stick electric frying pan and cover it for the simmering time at the end, to cut down on sauce spatters. Here’s my new-old friend, with thanks to Sara Foster.

Chicken Cacciatore

Adapted from “Fresh Every Day: More Great Recipes from Foster’s Market” by Sara Foster (Clarkson Potter, 2005)

3 tablespoons olive oil

About 3 pounds boneless chicken thighs

1 tablespoon dried marjoram (divided use)

Salt and pepper to taste

1 small yellow onion, diced

8 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 (28-ounce) can chopped tomatoes

1 cup chicken broth

2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf (Italian) parsley

Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)

Heat the olive oil on medium-high in a large skillet. Sprinkle half of the marjoram over the chicken along with a little salt and pepper. Put the chicken in the skillet, lower the heat to medium, and cook until lightly browned on both sides, 3 or 4 minutes. Remove the chicken to a plate.

Add the onion and mushrooms to the skillet and raise the heat back to medium-high. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Add the wine and vinegar and bring to a boil, scraping up the bits from the bottom of the pan. Continue to boil for 2 or 3 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced by half. Stir in the tomatoes and chicken broth. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed.

Return the chicken to the pan. Simmer, covered, for 10 minutes or so, until the chicken is cooked through. Stir in the parsley and remaining marjoram; cook a minute or two. Garnish with Parmesan, if desired.

Serves 4 to 6.

Hail to the chief, y’all

So President and Mrs. Obama are having a weekend getaway at Asheville, N.C.’s Grove Park Inn. At the same time that the N.C. Chiropractic Association is meeting there. This is starting to sound like an old Jimmy Buffett song. (“I’m living in a Holiday Inn full of surgeons, I guess they meet here once a year. They exchange physician stories and get drunk on Tuborg Beer.”) I sure hope the Obamas can get some rest over the sound of all that cracking.

Asheville has moved away from its granola reputation to become a mecca for good, local food. If the Obamas do venture out, I would suggest they visit Tupelo Honey Cafe for the sweet potato pancakes at breakfast, and Early Girl Eatery for just about anything. What are your favorite spots in the Paris of the Blue Ridge?

Om mani padme Moose

I walked into Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., and there it was, right by the door. A shrine. To me.

Well, OK, not exactly a full-blown shrine – there were no burning candles, or people bowing at the particular time that I walked in. But it is a lovely display with all four of my books and my photo, which was appropriated from the famous author wall in the store’s bathroom. Every author craves to be in the Quail Ridge bathroom. Really. (Nigella Lawson’s photo isn’t in there. So what if she sells 20 times the cookbooks I do and has all that fluffy hair?)

This is the biggest thing since my photo went up near the paper towel dispenser, and I thank QRB for putting the books out there. I asked about adding a candle, but the staff thought that might make people believe I was dead. A neon light in the shape of antlers might be nice.

Food news roundup

It’s strawberry picking time! The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) has recipes and a list of the area’s pick-your-own farms. Grab a bucket and head here.

Kathleen Purvis at The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer muses on what makes a great cookbook. Hint: It’s not how many times you yell “Bam!” on TV. See if you agree with her here.

The Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) gives the ol’ raspberry to the idea that the bumpy fruit is hard to grow in North Carolina. Don’t miss the author’s Favorite Raspberry Breakfast Recipe. I definitely share the sentiment. Read it here.

As cook at the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, N.C. for 34 years, Sylvester Murray has prepared food for people from all over the world who come to study at the lab. He his collected his recipes in a book, and the story is in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, here.

Pasta is classic, versatile and just good – and, apparently, preparing it is still frightening to many people. If you seek perfect pasta, look no further than the Dallas Morning News. It’s all explained here.

As the old song goes, “sixteen tons, and whaddya get?” For one Boston bakery, it was a French brick-and-copper oven that weighed that much and cost $90,000. Read about it in the Boston Globe, here.

A team rises in Alabama

Except for NASCAR results on Mondays, I usually stop reading the sports pages after college basketball season is over. There’s no point. Tennis? Golf? As long as my prescription for sleep aids holds out, who needs ‘em? Baseball? That involves sitting outdoors in North Carolina heat and insects. Even with flowing beer, that’s not my favorite thing to do in July.

However, as I scanned a recent section and tried to figure out how to pronounce the name of the new Wake Forest University basketball coach, I noticed an interesting food-related baseball fact. There is a team called the Montgomery Biscuits. The Alabama team beat the Carolina Mudcats this week.

Biscuits? According to the team web site, the name was the pick of a name-the-team contest entered by more than 3,000 people. I know they love their Southern food in Alabama, but I never thought they’d name a team after such a soft and flaky item. Seems not to be the most flattering choice for a tough-guy team,  but it does work with the team colors: butter and blue.

Biscuits are shot from an air cannon during games, and fans can sing team songs leavened with puns.

The team’s mascot is Big Mo, which is described as “a fuzzy orange beast who loves biscuits.” Big Mo looks like a small elephant with arms and white gloves. Fans of the team, which just started its sixth season, can also purchase Monty the Biscuit dolls. Monty resembles a stuffed biscuit with feet and eyes, and what looks like a pat of butter in its mouth. Well, I am making an assumption here – it could be low-cholesterol margarine.

Food news roundup

Some interesting new ethnic restaurants have popped up around the Triangle, including a Filipino place in Chapel Hill. News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) restaurant reviewer Greg Cox has the rundown here.

It looks to me like cookbook author Paula Deen is letting her hair grow out, too, much like your humble blogger. Wonder if she has guys coming up to her in the produce section now, too? (Guys and longer hair – what is it?) See for yourself in a video of Deen’s Charlotte book signing on the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer’s web page, here.

If someone you cook for has a food allergy, you should check out the Feed With Care blog in the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.). Raleigh writer Joyce Clark Hicks writes about struggling to feed a child with allergies, and recipes she has found that work and taste good. It’s here.

At the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal, they’re indulging in asparagus. Whether paired with prosciutto or smoked mozzarella, it’s hard to go wrong with the spring vegetable. Read the recipes here.

For the traditional Jewish deli, it’s “change or die,” as my J-school dean used to say. The New York Times writes about how the old-fashioned deli is evolving, and Neal’s Deli in Carrboro, N.C. is mentioned. Read more here.

The Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune wants to teach us all how to build a better meatball. And don’t you just hate a structurally unsound meatball? The scoop is here.

Party at the market

If you live in West Raleigh, there’s a small gem on the N.C. State University campus worth braving the parking hassles to visit. A completely student-run farmer’s market sets up on the Brickyard every Wednesday during the spring and fall semesters from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.. And, yes, students came up with the idea. All vendors sell North Carolina-produced items. Besides fresh produce, there is exotic ravioli from the Pasta Wench in Boone, roasted corn cornmeal (it has an interesting smoky flavor) from Carolina Grits & Co. in Rocky Mount and other vendors.

On April 14, the organizers are throwing “Localpalooza,” with food samples, music and information on finding locally produced food.

With NCSU’s agricultural roots, a market makes sense; with the stereotype of student eating (pizza and burgers), it doesn’t. Read about how the market came about in my article here. For information on the market, visit its blog here.

Bye-bye yellow haze

The yellow haze of pine pollen lifted this weekend, and even the pink and purple azaleas in my yard seemed brighter. It would no longer require a complete hose-down and wardrobe change to sit outside, so the grill was running. First, grilled asparagus. It’s the only way to cook asparagus. Roasting in the oven is OK; steaming is a waste of a good vegetable. But grilling, with its crispy-smoky goodness – that is asparagus heaven. Don’t bother with the other methods. All the grilled asparagus needed was a little salt and pepper, and a squeeze of lemon.

I got some thick, meaty fillets of North Carolina striped bass at the Western Wake Farmers Market. Those I marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and chopped ginger and garlic. Never marinate fish too long or the texture will become mushy – 15 minutes is plenty. The fish was fairly thick, so it took, maybe 6 to 10 minutes to cook. Better to undercook slightly – and touch up any pieces that need it in the microwave indoors – than overcook fish on the grill.

I put some North Carolina shrimp, boiled in beer and Old Bay, next to it. And a bowl of spring greens (kale, tatsoi, baby spinach, leaves from tender Japanese turnips) sauteed in olive oil, garlic and ginger. A meal that threatened to be healthy, although I wouldn’t hold that against something that tasted so good.

Asheville: Eatin’ town

Something called livability.com has declared Asheville one of the “10 surprising food cities.” It’s hard to tell just by looking around what the criteria are for inclusion – or even what the site, created by Journal Communications in Milwaukee, Wisc., is all about. (A reference to “our friends at Mayflower and United Van Lines” might be a clue; relocation info is offered.) But whatever the site is about, if you’ve been to Asheville in recent years, you know what a great food town it has become. It boasts as many microbreweries in the city limits as the Triangle has in the entire area. Farmers markets and local foods abound. There’s overall good eatin’ and a growing focus on local ingredients. While anyone can put together a top 10 list and declare a place the most whatever in the country, there’s some legitimacy to highlighting Asheville.