Rolling with the wok

chinese burmese chili chicken

Another Wednesday, another recipe from “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” by Grace Young. The Hub is starting to look forward to Wok Wednesdays, to see what will emerge from the pan. It’s interesting that having a virtual cooking class provides more motivation than struggling with the wok on my own, even for an alleged Food Professional like myself. (Follow along with us on Twitter at #wokwednesdays.)

This was a spicy one: Chinese Burmese Chili Chicken, with red and green bell peppers, zucchini, fish sauce and plenty of spice – Anaheim chilies, chili powder and cumin. It continues to surprise me that cooking in the super-hot wok requires so little oil, only two tablespoons in this case. For this recipe, the range hood was up full and both ceiling fans were going as the spices toasted a bit in the bottom.

While the cooking goes quickly, the chopping takes time. It took me about 30 minutes to wash and whack all the ingredients, and put them into their own little bowls – handy for quick addition.

So far, so good with the wok. No danger of it becoming a planter, yet.

What I ate on my summer vacation

pan-frying tilefish

Despite having books that we had not yet read, The Hub and I reluctantly returned recently from Buxton on the Outer Banks. We do three things while we’re there: Read, walk on the beach, and eat seafood until we threaten to grow fins and shells.

We dug into enough steamed clams to pave a driveway. Grilled sea scallops were sweet enough to consider them dessert (until we dug into the bag of Oreos in our condo pantry). The mackerel must have been running that week, because it was the catch of the day at most restaurants we hit, along with some sea trout and bluefish. Mackerel and bluefish are the rare finny creatures that are not to my liking. But my patience was rewarded when we visited a seafood market with a mind to cook dinner. There it was: tilefish.

When I gush to people about this fish, they usually look baffled. Few people have heard of it. (I was delighted to see it at Chef & the Farmer in Kinston the week it reopened after a fire.) The white fish has a sweet flavor reminiscent of shellfish, because that’s what it likes to eat. It’s moist, and difficult to mess up when cooking. I kept things simple. I sprinkled the fillets with a little salt and Barrier Reef Seasoning from Savory Spice Shop, then pan-fried them in olive oil.

We also toted back some spiced shrimp that had been steamed at the market, and added some penne pasta and steamed broccoli.

Add beer on the side. Listen to the waves.

Wok Wednesday No. 1

I signed up for Wok Wednesdays in the hope of overcoming my issues with the cooking implement. Things did not get off to a reassuring start. My new 14-inch carbon-steel wok was, as the directions said, “coated with a food-grade clear protective layer at the factory before shipment.” This had to be removed. Thirty minutes and three SOS pads later, I was grateful I hadn’t bought the mani on Saturday, just the pedi. Is polyurethane “food grade”? Because that’s what appeared to be on my wok.

After eliminating the last bits of the stuff with the aid of C-4 (ha, ha, just kidding, TSA), I consulted our Wok Wednesdays bible, “Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge” by Grace Young (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Young’s seasoning instructions – stir-frying sliced ginger and scallions for about 15 minutes and rubbing them all over the wok – were a breeze.

Our first recipe was a simple one: Stir-Fried Garlic Spinach. it was just, well, garlic and spinach (with vegetable oil, salt and a little sugar). I wondered what the big deal could be. I’ve made sauteed spinach and garlic hundreds of times in conventional frying pans. Honestly, it was different. The deep wok holds copious amounts of fluffy greens more easily than a saute pan. The greens didn’t collect liquid, like they do when I use a saucepan, probably because the wok can get super-hot very quickly. It got hot fast even on my electric range. And it took longer to wash the greens (I threw in some swiss chard, too) than it did to cook them.

Since the wok was there, after cooking the greens I cooked some diced tofu, onions and Japanese turnips in soy sauce, sesame oil and sherry. Frequent visitors here know that I am also attempting to embrace the bean curd. Cooking it in the wok gave it the crispy outside texture I’d been looking for.

Salad couture

The News & Observer’s Andrea Weigl wrote here about her salad-a-day plan to help lose the baby weight. To make a salad a meal, you have to keep things interesting, and Weigl asked for reader suggestions on how to do that.

She overlooked the single spot where good salads can go bad in both diet and flavor: The dressing.

I got on a salad kick a year or so ago. I just started wanting salads for lunch instead of sandwiches. Whatever kind of odd craving this is has continued, and I’ve drawn The Hub into the leafy green vortex. I quickly became disgusted with nearly all bottled salad dressings. Not only are they underground monsters of salt, fat and sugar, but most of them just don’t taste good – especially once you start making your own. Today, I can whip up dressing for two almost as quickly as I could grab a bottle from the refrigerator and shake it until its gelatinous goo manages to become liquid.

The first thing I did was purchase one of those powdered dressing mix-with-bottle sets at the supermarket. I threw out the mixes and had a lovely bottle with a tight-fitting lid, perfect for shaking. You can use any glass jar with a screw top, but this looks nice on the table and pours easily.

Then, I mastered the basic vinaigrette. For math fans, it’s a simple ratio: 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. Add salt and pepper to your liking, shake well. Some emulsion fans (that’s what a vinaigrette is) insist on using a food processor to make it all come together, but that’s too much trouble for a Tuesday lunch. Unless there’s a lot of chunky ingredients, shaking should do just fine.

The oil can be such things as olive oil, vegetable oil, avocado oil or walnut oil. Acids could be wine or balsamic vinegars, lemon juice, lime juice, or a combination thereof. You don’t have to spend a lot on fancy oils and vinegars – your fresh dressing will taste better than the bottle no matter if the ingredients are pricey or not. But you could splurge, if you like, on some good balsamic vinegar or an unusual oil.

Which brings me to the add-ins. You can toss in a crushed garlic clove, dab of Dijon mustard, chopped fresh basil or tarragon, dried herb blends, drained capers, sesame oil, grated fresh ginger, tahini paste, mashed ripe avocado – you name it, pretty much. If you have a reasonably well-stocked pantry and spice shelf, you can come up with a different dressing for every weekday lunch. Homemade dressing will keep in the refrigerator, but I prefer to make just what I need and use it fresh. Let it sit for a few minutes if you’re adding flavors – while you’re compiling your salad is a good length of time.

If you want a fancier dressing, this recipe from “Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen” by Elizabeth Sims with Chef Brian Sonoskus (Andrews McMeel, 2011) is lively and different. You will need the food processor for this one. It’s easy to divide in half if you don’t need so much dressing.

1/4 cup pecans

1/4 cup cider vinegar

1 clove garlic, minced

2 1/2 teaspoons Dijon musterd

2 1/2 teaspoons whole-grain mustard

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons tupelo honey

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup canola oil

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Roast the pecans on a rimmed sheet pan in a 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes, or until the pecans are roasted or slightly browned. Remove, cool and grind in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Transfer the pecans to a small bowl. Puree the vinegar, garlic, Dijon mustard, whole-grain mustard, honey, sugar, salt and pepper in a food processor and while the machine is running, drizzle in the canola oil and olive oil. Remove and pour into a container. Stir in the ground pecans and serve. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 30 days. Makes 2 cups.

New doors opening

Along with notable losses (Magnolia Grill), a flurry of interesting-looking new restaurants are opening soon. In hip, happ’n Glenwood South in Raleigh, Krave is moving into the former Red Room tapas location. It will offer bar-ish food and entrees for late-night eaters until 4 a.m., according to Triangle Business Journal. Owners describe it as a “social media-type restaurant” where menus and order-taking will be by iPads. Hope service isn’t via Twitter, but through actual people.

On the complete opposite of the dining spectrum is Oakleaf in Pittsboro’s Chatham Mills. The focus is on local and sustainable ingredients, and I’m pleased the see the sample menu here includes unusual fish like tilefish, one of my favorites. The children’s menu isn’t the usual chicken fingers and fries, either. (What part of a chicken is the finger, anyway?)

Last dance at Magnolia Grill

soft-shell crab at magnolia grill

A call this morning: Cancellation for Magnolia Grill tonight. The reservation was for 5:30 p.m., but I didn’t care if it was the senior-citizen early-bird special – we got in during its last month. The server meeting was breaking up when The Hub and I arrived, and chef Ben Barker came over to the table. I’ve known him since I was a fairly ignorant new food writer 15-some years ago. I gave him a hug, and said that this certainly won’t be the last time I see him. “It’ll be the last time you’ll see me wearing this,” he said, tugging at his white chef’s coat with “Magnolia Grill” stitched on the front.

The place felt like any other Friday night, with full tables, noise and great food pouring from the kitchen.

lamb with couscous at magnolia grill

The Hub and I considered ordering one of everything on the menu and a large doggie bag, but ultimately decided to narrow our choices. I grab soft-shell crab whenever I see it, so I took the starter of tempura soft shell with a red cabbage slaw; Hub went for smoky grilled shrimp. Since at least one thing I ordered at this last meal needed to be pork (Ben is a man who does love his pig), I got a pork rib chop with cabbage and beans in a sweet sauce. Hub pondered many options (guinea hen? beef short rib?) and came up with lamb and couscous.

All the dishes were perfect. As they’d been at each anniversary, birthday and fun time dinner we’d ever had there.

yes, three desserts

When the dessert menu came, we did something we’d never done before: Ordered three desserts. We felt so naughty, like conventioneers in a city we’d never visit again. Our choices were lemon chess pie with berries, toasted chocolate chip pound cake with banana ice cream and chocolate waffles with mint ice cream. Hub’s favorite was the pound cake. I liked the freshness of the mint flavor in the ice cream – no neon green artificiality. The lemon chess was not teeth-cracking sweet, like some.

The receipt said “Not Afraid of Flavor” across the bottom, just like always. And it made us laugh, like always, thinking about people we have known who are afraid of flavor. On the ride back from Durham, Hub remembered a book on magic he got as a kid. He found it when we got home, and near the end it says: “One of the greatest lessons for any would-be magician: Know when to stop…That way his magic was remembered as a delightful series of surprises, and by stopping before his audience was sated, he knew that he had made a good impression not only for himself, but for his art.”

Thanks for the decades of magic, Ben and Karen.

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.



All good things…

All I could say was “what?” when the news circulated this morning that Magnolia Grill in Durham will be closing on May 31. Chef-owners Ben and Karen Barker said today that after more than 30 years of bringing inventive Southern food to the Triangle, it was time to step back and spend more time with family. You can read more here.

Quitting to spend more time with family is usually the sort of suspect thing a senator says when he gets caught with the babysitter. But for these two, it’s the truth. And they deserve a new turn in their lives, no matter how much it saddens those of us who have enjoyed their meals.

Magnolia Grill was eat-local long before it was cool. Ben started having farmers grow for him when people thought that was the strangest thing ever. Through all the changes in the Triangle dining scene, Magnolia Grill has stayed true to itself, along with seeding restaurants all over with graduates of its kitchen. It’s the only restaurant where I know walking in the door that I will have dessert, because anything Karen has produced will be good.

I can’t imagine that Ben and Karen will disappear completely into time with grandchildren and aging parents, so I look forward to the other ways in which they’ll be a part of the community. For now, I’ll miss you. And all that pork, and Coca-Cola Cake with Peanut Ice Cream.