Grilled and chilled

feta-stuffed burgers on the grill

If The Hub and I keep getting invited to the annual Grillin’ and Chillin’ feed at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, we may have to convert. The Raleigh church holds a lot of food-related events – because Greeks love to eat, for heaven’s sake.

And they have members who know how to make proper dolmades (stuffed grape leaves). No, those weren’t grilled, but peaches were. As were herbed chicken, sausage, pork and the perennial favorite, feta-stuffed burgers. I’ve mentioned those before.

It’s not quite like the old church potlucks from when I was a kid. I don’t remember anyone there passing out lovely cocktails.

The church is gearing up for the annual Greek Festival Sept. 14-16 at the State Fairgrounds. When the festival started decades ago, it was a chance to sample exotic treats. There are more Greek restaurants now, but the home cooking-style food the festival offers is special. See more photos from the event here.

Tomatoes times ten

Ten years of Tomatopalooza – wow. And it all started in a geeky guy’s driveway. The difference today is that Craig LeHoullier is now a full-time tomato-guy, after leaving his chemist job at Glaxo, His interest in collecting and promoting heirloom tomato varieties grew into a passion for preserving and perpetuating these unusual, flavorful tomatoes. He started collecting seeds and growing plants, which he sells at farmers markets.

Slow Food USA has recognized LeHoullier for rediscovering and preserving the Cherokee Purple, which the organization has named to its U.S. Ark of Taste. Cherokee Purple is one of the most popular and more widely available heirlooms, with rich, balanced flavor (not too acid, not too sweet) and meaty texture.

Tomatopalooza started as a way to popularize heirlooms among tomato-growing nuts. This year, as always, visitors were asked to vote on their favorites. I never do – because I’d take any of them home (although I do prefer a more acid-tasting tomato; love that tartness).

Black, green, yellow, white, crimson, even one with a green-and-red tie-dye look. Sweet, acid, bright, smoky flavors. Tiny ruby ‘maters the size of the tip of my little finger (Mexico Midget). Giant Cherokee Purples like softballs. More than 160 varieties in all were on the long tables beneath the welcome shade of trees on an Efland, N.C. farm last Saturday.

I tasted the same variety, called Carbon, provided by two different growers and they didn’t taste exactly the same, like wine produced in different terroirs. Actually, there are many similarities between great tomatoes and fine wine, and both stain your shirt if you’re clumsy.

By the way, despite what many people think, there is really no such thing as a low-acid tomato. All tomatoes have about the same acid content, and differences in flavor are caused by variations in the sugar-to-acid ratio. That means that sweeter-tasting tomatoes have more sugar, not less acid.

LeHoullier also offered samples of what he calls the “dwarf project”: His work with an Australian scientist to tame the heirloom plants, which can grow 8 to 10 feet tall, into four or five-foot home versions that might even work in containers.

To find out more about LeHoullier and his projects (he also hosts tomato dinners are area restaurants and is working on a book) visit here. And you can see more delectable photos here.

Mysterious roadside goodies

A white tent popped up this summer in the parking lot of the Party Beverage store at Powell Drive and Western Boulevard near my house. The first few times I flew by it on Western, I figured it was some kind of beer keg annex, until I saw that it had plants.

It’s actually a little curb market, like the ones that sprang up on the sides of the road when I was a kid in Winston-Salem, N.C.

When I stopped to look around, it was obvious that some of the items were not local (limes, for example). I asked the quiet teen who was manning the stand where the produce came from. He quickly pointed out what was not from North Carolina, and said his grandfather grew most of the rest. I couldn’t get a lot more out of him as he went to help another customer.

The honey was from Mocksville, N.C., and there were corn, cukes, melons and herb plants. I went right for the tomatoes. Wherever the rest of the vegetables and fruits came from, these tomatoes were obviously farm grown, and from not too far away because they were a tumble of tender-skinned heirlooms in pink, red, maroon and bi-colors. Red and yellow cherry tomatoes were displayed like jewels in china bowls.

I bought an assortment of the large tomatoes. They were the best, along with the CSA’s, that I’ve eaten this summer. And now I’ve ruined it for myself because y’all will drive straight over there for these mystery ‘maters. But I’m closer. I’ll be there first.


Not a scream, but a whisper

I have a rule about buying ice cream in the supermarket: I don’t. The first reason is that I will eat it. I will know that it is sitting in my freezer, the carton calling me like Poe’s tell-tale heart. I won’t able to forget it’s there until I consume it all. If I really want ice cream, I must be prepared to leave the house for it.

The second and equally important reason  is that most commercial ice cream isn’t all that good. And I want the fat and empty calories to be worth it.

Then The Hub developed his dairy allergy. It seemed cruel to say “let’s get in the car and go someplace where you can watch me eat ice cream.”

As I lingered by the supermarket freezer case one day, selecting coconut milk ice cream for him (it’s not bad, but it’s not ice cream), I saw that North Carolina now has an answer to Ben & Jerry’s. Front Porch is made in Mooresville, N.C. in a range of Southern food-inspired flavors. The original store, Mooresville Ice Cream Company, has been scooping since 1924.

Then I saw three of the 15 flavors: sweet tea, peach and banana pudding. I felt I should, in the interest of research, sample them. The sweet tea includes chunks of cake and the banana pudding has bits of vanilla wafers. The peach has nice chunks of peach. Each tasted very real. Not too sweet. Not gummy as I’ve found supermarket ice creams to be.

Right now, I’m trying to forget that cartons of the blackberry and butter pecan are in the freezer. But I hear the throbbing.

Pizza night

roasted squash and onion pizza

No matter how many onions I use from the basket in my pantry, the CSA refills them. Now begins the deluge of squash, too. Tonight, I chopped up a bunch of both, tossed them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and roasted them at 425 degrees until the whole lot was caramelized. They became a vegetable pizza.

Some dough, a thin layer of tomato sauce (I hate pizzas that are floating in tomato sauce), the roasties and some vegan cheese for the Dairy-Allergic Hub. The man had missed his pizza before I found a decent vegan cheese, poor thing. I pleased my dairy desires with a side salad of tender tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Yes, I ate cheese right in front of The Hub. Sometimes, I’ve just gotta.

All ears at Fire in the Triangle

The Fire in the Triangle quarterfinal cooking competition Monday night had everything “Iron Chef” but the secret ingredient rising up into the room in a dry-ice fog. There was an ebullient host (Jimmy Crippen of Crippen’s Country Inn and Restaurant in Blowing Rock). There were dramatic introductory videos of the competitors (Serge Falcoz-Vigne of 518 West and  John Childers of Herons at the Umstead). There was “Eye of the Tiger” played at a sound level suitable for an wrestling arena. But the TV show never had this: A dapper member of the state fire marshal’s office in full uniform, who opened the evening by telling us that unattended cooking is the No. 1 cause of house fires. “Stand by your pan,” Jan Parker instructed us. “Or go out to eat.”

What started as one competition to draw diners to restaurants in Blowing Rock has grown to four tilts scattered across the state. You can read more about them here. Besides cooking for professional judges, of which I was one last night, they also serve more than 100 ticket holders. The dishes are blind tasted, and can be anything the chefs choose, from appetizer to dessert. Winners are determined by scores on presentation, aroma, flavor, accompaniments, secret ingredient creativity and execution. The scores are weighted 70 percent on the public’s evaluations and 30 percent on the professional judges’ marks.

The plan is for the winners of the four Fire competitions to vie for an overall title, but not date has been set.

Past ingredients for Fire in the Triangle  have included blueberries, noodles and wontons, beef, cantaloupe and turkey. Monday night’s: Fresh corn from John Hudson Farms in Newton Grove.

The interesting thing about these kinds of contests is seeing the creativity that talented chefs can show when focusing on one ingredient. These were professionals, so every dish was going to be good. But my question throughout: Does this dish make corn the star of the show or relegate it to the back of the chorus? For me, the winning dishes brought corn forward to take a bow while still playing well with complimentary flavors in a cohesive dish.

The desserts were good illustrations of what I’m talking about. One was a firm rectangle of cool corn custard that was sweet but had a strong fresh corn flavor. It was topped with a caramel made from Pepsi, graham cracker crumble and peanuts. The caramel, crumble and peanuts danced with the corn, bringing out the flavor. There was no question this dessert was about corn. In contrast, the other dessert was delicious, but it didn’t tell a story of corn as well. It was a sweet, crunchy tuile made from corn which held a whipped corn cream and was garnished with blueberries, peaches and a corn creme anglaise. For all that corn in the dish, I didn’t get a strong corn flavor (I could only taste the sugar in the tuile, no corn at all). I found out later that Childers made the custard and Falcoz-Vigne the other dessert.

The other dishes: Corn and lobster crab cake with smoky corn chowder and corn and bacon beignet with citrus-ginger herb salad from Falcoz-Vigne (my beignet was chewy); roasted quail with charred corn and blueberry relish, sherry vinegar and thyme from Childers (loved the sauce, balanced dish); corn and pulled duck confit with corn succotash, corn butter mashed potatoes, N.C. peaches and corn barbecue sauce from Falcoz-Vigne (duck was dry, sauce was awesome); grilled pork tenderloin with creamed corn, turnip butter, and peach marmalade and white balsamic barbecue sauce from Childers (excellent overall dish that still said “corn.”)

The winner was Childers, who will go on to compete against the winner of The Oxford vs. Flights contest tonight.


Mother Earth Brewing

beer at mother earth brewing, kinston n.c.

The Hub and I used the Southern Foodways Alliance BBQ Field Trip as an excuse to finally visit Mother Earth Brewing in Kinston, N.C. I’ve enjoyed the brewery’s Weeping Willow Wit at spots around Raleigh and was interested in tasting more. We had 90 minutes to kill between one meal and another. Hey, SFA, if someone had asked me, I would have told you there was nothing to do in downtown Kinston on Saturday afternoon except hit the brewery. So nearly 100 thirsty food fans poured in. The lone bartender was slammed but good natured.

We ordered a tasting flight. “You want all of them?” he said. You bet, we answered. That meant six on the regular printed card with little spaces for the glasses, plus four on the bar to the side.

the rest of the flight

This could be a really short post: I liked them all. Except the Sisters of the Moon IPA, of course. IPAs and I do not play well together. I handed that sample to @DurhamFoodie to help her wash down the ears of corn she snarfed at lunch.

The samples included both a conventional on-tap version of Dark Cloud, a Munich-style dunkel lager, and a nitro pour version, and it was interesting to compare the two. When nitrogen is introduced, the beer typically becomes less carbonated in texture and less acidic in flavor. I certainly noticed both qualities – the beer was as smooth and soft as water, but with a whole lot more flavor. We also compared the conventional and cask-conditioned versions of Second Wind, a pale ale.  Cask conditioning is a process in which a beer retains yeast for a secondary fermentation in a cask in the brewery. The beers are usually unfiltered. The difference in mouthfeel was striking, with the cask-conditioned version being ultra smooth.

The Hub thought a stout using cocoa nibs from Raleigh’s Videri Chocolate Factory in Raleigh, N.C. might be too heavy for a hot June day, but he quickly admitted his error.

The brews change frequently as the brewers experiment and explore flavors. If it wasn’t a 90-minute drive, I’d hop over there regularly to see what’s on tap. Although the taproom doesn’t serve food, it was recently announced that Mother Earth will team up with Chef & the Farmer to open an oyster bar this fall.


Don’t bug me about corn

It was well over 100 degrees here in Raleigh on Saturday. But it was also corn season. Nothing stands in the

fresh corn and black bean salad

way of corn season. My neighbor Tom and I dragged about 25 ears to the patio for shucking prior to freezing. It wasn’t yet hot enough to turn the sweet corn into popcorn, but it was getting there. However, you don’t want to do this in the house, unless you enjoy picking corn silks and shreds of green shucks out of everything in a 30-foot radius.

It’s near the beginning of corn time here, and the corn will likely be a little less expensive when we hit the high season. But the biggest advantage of early corn – besides that it’s here now and irresistible – is that it’s mostly worm free. No dealing with the green crawlies and the mess they make as they chew through what rightly is mine. I don’t like to share with bugs.

Another reason for confining shucking to the yard is that stripping kernels from the cobs will make enough of a mess. I’ve found splatted kernels on light fixtures and the coffeepot before, when the carnage was over. Tom freezes corn both on the cob and off. I prefer it off the cob, because that’s more versatile. When it’s 40 degrees and raining – as it will be in not that many months – the summer corn can bring sun into chowders, corn puddings and muffins.

If you plan to freeze corn, you should blanch it first. This means plunging the whole ears into boiling water for no more than a minute or so. Then drop the ears into a large bowl of iced water, to stop the cooking as quickly as possible. Then use a sharp knife (I don’t bother with corn-shucking gadgets and neither does Tom) to strip off the kernels. I packed them into one-pint freezer bags, because I find that’s a good amount for recipes for The Hub and me. Need more? Just thaw out more bags. Be sure to squeeze out all the air you can when packing the bags.

I ended up with a short bag – not really enough to freeze. That I turned into a salad for lunch. With the corn already shucked, I threw together the salad in 30 minutes, then chilled it for about an hour. This would be good rolled in a tortilla with some feta, too.

Corn and Black Bean Salad

2 cups fresh corn kernels

2 cups canned black beans, rinsed off and well drained

1 small onion, chopped

1 sweet banana pepper, chopped

1 small tomato, chopped

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

Salt and black pepper to taste

About 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

In a large bowl, toss together the corn, black beans, onion, banana pepper and tomato. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lime juice, vinegar, chili powder, salt and pepper. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss to coat them all. Stir in the cilantro. Refrigerate for at least an hour to let the flavors come together.