Everything old is new again

barbecue from skylight inn in ayden, just chopped

As The Hub and I rolled from Ayden, N.C. toward New Bern on the Southern Foodways Alliance High on the Hog Carolina Field Trip, we talked about how foodies didn’t invent “eat local” or heirloom foods. People who care about their food have been eating local and looking for the best for years. The whole weekend illustrated that fact.

In Ayden, we feasted on barbecue from the Skylight Inn – the place with the replica of the capitol dome on top – and sublime sides (plus barbecued chicken)  from Bum’s Restaurant: mashed rutabagas, sweet potato muffins and collards. Bum’s collards were so good, even The Hub liked them. Ate them all. I haven’t been able to get the man to willingly  touch a collard in 30 years. The restaurant grows the cabbage collards it cooks, right at the place. Why? Because the owners couldn’t find collards good enough in the store. They save the collard seeds to plant every year. Been

bill smith and his sisters and nieces serve honeysuckle sorbet

doing it since they opened in 1963.

Sam and Jeff Jones of the Skylight, which has been in business since the 1940s ,  bemoaned the new world of leaner pigs. “Fatter hogs make better barbecue,” Jeff said. So they’re looking for heritage breeds that will keep the barbecue tasting like it should, like the old times. “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit,” Sam said, flatly.

“This is just what everybody was raised up on,” said Larry Dennis of Bum’s.

Same thing with the crab stew and fish muddle that night, both traditional eastern dishes. It’s right out of the water, and you do something good with it. Bill Smith of Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner, who was raised in eastern North Carolina, prepared the crab stew: crabmeat and a whole crab in a gravy-like liquid, all of which is served over a slice of white bread to soak up the juices. Sam McGann of The Blue Point in Duck made the fish muddle. It’s a thick, stew-like blend of

barbecue, fried chicken and sides from grady's barbecue, at grainger stadium

whatever fish is fresh. Ours had snapper and rockfish, and a huge shrimp on top.

Our lunch at the acclaimed Chef and the Farmer in Kinston spoke the same language, just with a different accent. Thankfully for our pork-soaked systems, chef Vivian Howard had decided to go veggie…mostly: watermelon with feta-poblano vinaigrette, fried whole okra with ranch ice cream, ears of corn with ginger-bacon butter, Cherokee Purple tomato sandwich with smoked corn mayonnaise, a small pattypan squash stuffed with a Sea Island Purple Cape bean salad, and buttermilk sorbets with three different toppings (blackberry, peach and what seemed to me strawberry-rhubarb). I do not generally hold with fancifying the classic tomato sandwich, but the mayo accented with tomato without competing with it, which is usually my problem with “gourmet” tomato sandwiches.

The lunch was sublime. But so were the other meals. They all had the same aspirations, whether they were served on Formica counters or sleekly modern tabletops: To find the best flavors and prepare them in the best ways.

Postcards from the field trip:

– Dessert for breakfast: Pig picking cake, coconut cream pie, chocolate pie, peach cobbler with blackberry sorbet, banana pudding and fig cake with buttermilk ice cream. This all before Chapel Hill author Sheri Castle’s talk on desserts for Southern pig pickings. They need to feed a lot and are sweet because Southerners like sweets, Castle said, and the sweet balances the spicy barbecue. Banana pudding became a Southern classic because the South’s ports attracted ships from the tropics, and there’s no season to bananas. Pig picking cake is a, well, more recent development. “I can assure you that no actual food was harmed in the making of this cake,” Castle quipped. The classic cake is made from yellow cake mix, pudding mix, canned mandarin oranges and pineapple, and Cool Whip.

– Dessert after the crab stew and fish muddle was a lemon pie with a crust made from saltine crackers and butter. Smith said people used to think “if you ate dessert after seafood, you’d die. Unless it was lemon. My mother still thinks that.” He was kind enough to bring his signature honeysuckle sorbet from Crook’s as well.

– Johanna Kramer of Durham (@durhamfoodie to Twitterites) is obsessed with corn. Lock up your ears.

– In his talk on sauces, Raleigh author Fred Thompson confessed to affection for both eastern and western barbecue sauces. A brave man, he.

– Having kegs of Mother Earth Brewing beer at home plate, first base and third base did not improve my softball abilities.

See a slideshow of photos from the field trip on YouTube here.

‘Fridge feast

sort of salad nicoise

A refrigerator full of vegetables from the CSA and the farmers market. A weekend out of town looming. Heat.

The result, dinner inspired by salad nicoise, but with some additions. I started with small gold-fleshed potatoes, boiled, and green beans, steamed just until bright green and broken into pieces. Two ears of corn, boiled for just a minute and stripped. I added about a cup of cannellini beans, canned ones, rinsed to remove some salt and drained. And a can of tuna packed in olive oil. Yes, it’s oil. But it tastes so much better than the other stuff. Sorry, Charlie.

I made a classic vinaigrette of olive oil, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar and lemon juice, with some garlic powder. I put more salt and pepper in the dressing than I would for a tossed salad, because all those vegetables would need seasoning.

I tossed the beauties in a pasta bowl with a good soak of the dressing, then tossed in about a cup of halved cherry tomatoes. The salad went into the refrigerator to chill for a couple of hours. When we got ready to eat, I threw in some capers. I’ll take capers over olives anytime.

Some bread on the side, and we were pretty happy eaters. If I’d only found a way to work in the kale…


Big Boss Brewing, Raleigh NC

The Big Boss taproom looked like the kind of place where I shared pitchers of light beer in college: Dark, lots of black wood, TV over the non-nonsense bar, old sofas and armchairs in adjoining rooms. If the TV had been showing “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” I would have been completely transported back to the end of finals – except that the draft offerings were much, much better.

The brewery and taproom is located at the end of an industrial street, but don’t let that throw you. Food trucks often park outside to feed thirsty patrons. When we went, it was American Meltdown, which offered creative grilled cheese sandwiches (unfortunately for the dairy-allergic Hub) and flavored iced teas.

I’ve sampled Big Boss’ bottled beers many times, so I went for the specials, Saucey Pants, Monkey Bizz-Ness and V for Victory, with Blanco Diablo, which is available in bottles but I’ve found sometimes difficult to locate. For me, V for Victory, described as a Vienna-style beer, had a medicinal flavor. Not my favorite. Monkey Bizz-Ness, a Belgian-style ale, grew on me more and more as the beer got a little warmer. I would like to see Saucey Pants, a saison, paired with food because of its intricate flavors. That would be interesting.  I always love a witbier, so Blanco Diablo was a no-brainer.

The genial tap-master knew how to lay out a flight in the retro metal holders, and wrote the names of the beer on them with an orange Sharpie. It was a pleasant trip back in time, with much improved beverages.

Wokking again

I’ve noticed a couple of things in the course of Wok Wednesdays. One, that I need to sharpen my knives. Before I can stir fry, I have to chop – a lot. If you aspire to wokking, get those kitchen knives good and sharp. It will make life easier and get dinner on the table faster. Mine will be on the way to the sharpener tomorrow.

The other thing is just how little oil good stir frying requires, when you have a well-seasoned wok – and mine apparently is on the way to being so. Tonight’s recipe, Chinese Trinidadian Stir-Fried Shrimp with Rum, called for just two tablespoons of vegetable oil. And it was plenty. Nothing stuck.

I have to say, this week’s recipe wasn’t my favorite so far. The ketchup-based sauce reminded me of restaurant Chinese food – a much better version of it, but reminiscent of conventional flavors. I like a little more…oomph.

I decided to peel the shrimp despite instructions to leave the shells on to make them more moist. I dislike dealing with shells in a completed dish. I did squeeze half a lime over the peeled and deveined shrimp and left it for a couple of minutes before cooking. The rest of the lime went into my iced tea and a strawberry cider-soda concoction I’ve been enjoying recently. More on that later.

This is my first time participating in a “group-cook” like this. It’s a great way to explore a technique and piece of equipment that I’d been frustrated by in the past. Read more about the group experience here.

Jubilee, y’all

The British member of the aerobics class I attend and I were discussing the recent diamond jubilee for Queen Elizabeth. This was preferable to doing yet more knee lifts, something the queen certainly wouldn’t be seen doing. She brought up the eternal question about what’s in that darn purse Queenie carries around. It’s everywhere. No matter what she’s wearing – suit, ermine-trimmed robe, gold lame – it’s always the same black patent leather handbag.

As we talked, I realized something: The queen could never be a Traditional Southerner. At the boat parade on the Thames for the jubilee, she had on a lovely white suit trimmed in Swarovski crystals (or so the orating heads on BBC America said) and a beautiful white hat. She glowed like a diamond herself – until the camera swung around to her white-gloved left arm. There was the shiny black purse,  looking like a cowpatty in the snow. Black patent leather after Memorial Day? My grandmother (who lived to be about the queen’s age now) would have drastically lowered her estimation of the monarchy. On the dot of Memorial Day, my grandmother would wrap her black patent leather handbag in tissue paper and put it in the closet, then pull out and carefully unwrap her white patent leather bag. The ceremony was repeated in reverse on Labor Day.

The purse issue isn’t all. My college roommate, a Tar Heel native who has lived in Britain for many years, often bemoans the Brits’ lack of familiarity with the Southern staple, the deviled egg. I don’t know how they have Easter dinners there, I just don’t. And what they do to chicken salad… After the commentators mentioned something called Coronation Salad, I looked online. A recipe that purports to be the 1953 original contains, with the chicken, whipping cream, apricot jam, canned apricots, red wine and tomato puree. Well, I guess you have to make do if you can’t get Duke’s mayo.



Love thy neighbor

My neighbor has been raving about a cookbook for some time. However, it’s not one of mine. It’s “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” by Chapel Hill’s Sheri Castle (UNC Press, 2011). My neighbor has other fine qualities, so I have chosen to overlook his lack of tact.

It’s difficult to blame him, and we are into the time of year that this book is really useful, because it offers many ways with Southern vegetables. For example, I had a load of chard from my CSA box. Sauteed greens with some garlic is great, but I wanted something different. The Greens section of the book offered many tempting options. I went with Greek Shrimp with Spinach, Feta and Orzo – with some modifications, starting with the chard for the spinach. I omitted the Parmesan cheese and used only half of the feta called for, a nod to The Hub’s dairy allergy. I could not find orzo in my usual supermarket, but I did find a box of the cutest miniature bow-tie pasta, called farfarlline.

So, this is an adaptable recipe, obviously. It even tastes pretty good reheated the next day (do it gently, so as not to rubberize the shrimp). And it’s hard to argue with my neighbor.

Greek Shrimp with Spinach, Feta and Orzo

From “The New Southern Garden Cookbook” by Sheri Castle

7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

12 ounces uncooked orzo

4 cups lightly packed baby spinach or stemmed and shredded chard

1 1/2 cups crumbled feta cheese, divided

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

2 pounds extra-large (21-25 count) shrimp, peeled and deveined

4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 teaspoons oregano

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush a glass or ceramic 9×13-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of the oil. cook the orzo according to package directions. Drain well in a colander and return to the same pot. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the oil, the spinach, 1/2 cup of the feta and the Parmesan. Spread the orzo mixture in the bottom of the prepared baking dish an dcover with foil to keep warm.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and cook only until they start to turn opaque, about 1 minute. The shrimp will finish cooking in the oven. Arrange the shrimp over the orzo.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in the skillet. Add the garlic and cook until you can smell the aroma, about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes, wine, oregano and red pepper flakes. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mixture reduces to the consistency of pasta sauce, about 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the shrimp and orzo.

Bake until the shrimp are opaque, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup of feta cheese and serve hot.

Makes 6-8 servings.


There she is, Miss Deviled Egg

miss smoke and fire, miss deviled egg 2012

No swimsuit competition. No earnest speeches about saving baby whales. Just deviled eggs – and beverages. Emerson Beyer and Michael Bruno in Durham invited me to be a judge for for their Deviled Egg Pageant, and how could I resist? Especially since money from tickets to the party and pageant went to Urban Ministries in Durham. The pageant started three years ago as part of a party in their backyard. This year, as part of the fundraising, it was moved to a downtown space and opened to professional chefs as well, and raised around $1,500.

Entrants – 20 in all – were asked to pair deviled eggs with suitable beverages, then add creativity to secure the coveted white satin sash. Creativity, as with Miss Steph laPod: deviled eggs containing octopus. Miss Southern Hospitality went the classic Southern route, with a matching lemony iced tea.

miss veruca salt, a sweet custard take on deviled eggs

Other judges were Amy Tornquist, chef of Watts Grocery in Durham;  Andrea Weigl, food writer for The News & Observer; Stuart White of Bluebird Meadows Farm and Noah Ranells of Fickle Creek Farm, plus Emerson and Bruno.

I paired up for judging with Tornquist, dividing egg halves between us for judging. Twenty is a lot of deviled eggs, let me tell you, and you’ve got to pace yourself. We had standards, and we showed no mercy. Tornquist said of one that included too much sweet pepper jelly that it was “what a Yankee would think a deviled egg is.” Neither of us could handle the deviled eggs topped with Peeps. We gave the person who made meringues shaped like eggs with a lemon sauce points for wit – but those were not deviled eggs.

But there were enough standout examples of high deviled-egg art that there was a lively discussion among all the judges as to the winners in the amateur and professional categories. First place in the amateur category went to Miss Smoke and Fire by Andrew and Meaghan Hutson of Durham, which included eggs with Benton’s bacon and a bourbon margarita. Other winners were Miss Vichy, topped with crunchy fried leeks; and Miss Smoky. The professional category was taken by Miss Pickled Pink by Phoebe Lawless of Scratch Baking, which involved beets. The People’s Choice, determined by guests’ votes, was Miss Fermentation Sensation, three flavors of pickled-and-stuffed eggs.