Jump in, the water’s fine

lavender mint

lavender mint

When I’m thirsty on a hot day, like the ones we’re finally having in the Carolina urban swamp, I find Vintage Raleigh Tap perfectly refreshing. But some people I know (primarily male people, for some reason) simply won’t drink plain, old water. The bulging supermarket shelves dedicated to flavored waters of all kinds bear out my impression. I laughed when I first saw a product in a small flask that allows you to flavor your own bottle of water. We had that when I was a kid. It was called Kool-Ade.

Many of the products also claim they’re making H2O healthier in some way, adding a miniscule amount of minerals of vitamins. What most of them add is a lot of sugar or fake sweeteners. And they add to company

other mint, maybe kentucky colonel

other mint, maybe kentucky colonel


Confirmed agua-phobes don’t much listen when I attempt to convince them that naked water is good. I see them reach for caffeine-free, sugar-free sodas and point out that, except for the color, chemicals and fizz, they’re basically getting what flows from the kitchen spigot. Doesn’t work. And that stuff costs more, too.

Here’s an easy way to refresh yourself or try to tempt the anti-water crowd: Infusing water with herbs. Mint is an obvious choice, and my mint is overflowing. I have two kinds, a conventional type (I think it might be Kentucky Colonel) and a lavender mint with a fascinatin hint of lavender flavor and scent. I grab about a half a cup of each – stems and all are OK – or a whole cup of one kind. Wash it. Put it in a pitcher. Pour about a quart of boiling water over it. Let it sit for 20 or 30 minutes or longer, however much flavor you want. Then remove the herbs. I sweeten mine with a little stevia, or sometimes sugar. Or you could leave it as-is.

The same thing works with other herbs: lemon balm, lemon verbena, other mints; even basil, if you’re adventurous.

The infusion will keep in the refrigerator several days. Mix it with ice if the flavor is too strong for some people, although I can’t imagine who that might be if they’re used to drinking those jelly-bean waters.

Using the old bean

IMG_2778I’m certainly a carnivore (and seafood-a-vore) – no threat of veganism here. But like many, I’m trying to include more meatless dishes in my menus for the sake of health and checkbook. I have a couple of problems, though. Cheese is out as a protein source due to The Hub’s dairy allergy. And he dislikes most beans.

So, what am I doing with a cookbook called “The Great Vegan Bean Book”? I’m always in search of good dairy substitutes, and I hoped to find some dishes to add to the occasional-meatless rotation that did not always involve tofu. I have a love-hate relationship with the bean curd.

If you love beans of all kinds, this second cookbook by Durham writer Kathy Hester, published by Fair Winds Press,  will fill your bowl abundantly. Even if you’re working with a limited repertoire, as I am, there’s plenty to like. She begins with useful information on selecting and preparing beans of all sorts, then launches into recipes from breakfast and snacks to dessert. Most recipes include gluten-free, oil-free and soy-free adaptations.

I went looking for recipes using the four Hub-tolerant beans: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, green beans. There are several, including Pineapple Rum Beans over Coconut Lime Sweet Potatoes (using black beans) and Chickpea and Vegetable Lo Mein. The Creamy Chickpea and Rice Casserole intrigued me because casseroles have been off the menu – they’re usually laden with dairy products.

The casserole was easy to make and filling, with the creaminess of the faux sour cream. Hester’s aromatic poultry seasoning mix used in the dish would be good with, yes, actual poultry. I cheated a little – since vegan wasn’t my goal, I used chicken broth instead of water.

The only caution I would make about using this book is to be aware of can and package sizes given. I didn’t notice that the package of silken tofu specified for the sour cream substitute was a different size from the common brand in the supermarket I frequent, causing my sour cream to be not as thick as desired.

Here’s the recipe, which I would definitely make again.

Creamy Chickpea and Rice Casserole

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 small onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups chopped mushrooms

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup chopped green beans or green peas (fresh or frozen)

1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas or 1 (15-ounce) can, rinsed and drained

1 tablespoon DIY Poultry Seasoning (recipe follows)

1 cup long-grain brown rice

2 1/2 cups water

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

1/2 cup vegan yogurt or Extra-Thick Silken Tofu Sour Cream (recipe follows)

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven or oven-safe pot. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and mushrooms and saute for 5 minutes more.

Add the carrots, green beans, chickpeas, poultry seasoning, brown rice and water. Mix well, cover with an oven-safe lid, transfer to the oven and bake for 1 hour.

Remove from the oven, add the nutritional yeast and yogurt or sour cream, and mix well. Taste and add salt and pepper and more poultry seasoning, if needed.

DIY Poultry Seasoning

2 tablespoons ground sage

2 tablespoons thyme

1 tablespoon marjoram

2 teaspoons celery seed

Mix everything together and store in an airtight container.

Extra-Thick Tofu Sour Cream

1 (12.3-ounce) package silken tofu

1-3 tablespoons water

Juice of 1 lemon

Add the tofu, 1 tablespoon water and the lemon juice to a food processor of blender and blend until smooth, scraping down the sides as you go. Add the remaining 1 to 2 tablespoons water if you need to thin the mixture or if you have a less powerful blender.


From naked ‘taters to ‘tater salad

I endured such a deprived childhood. My mother never made potato salad. She believed that once the potatoes were cooked, she could let ’em go. That’s why I had to write an entire cookbook on nothing but potato salad.

In the course of writing the book, I found that there are some occasions that just cry out for potato salad. Easter is one – the creaminess of potato salad balances the salty richness of the giant ham that sits on every southern table. Another is Independence Day. In this case, potato salad is great because it can be made ahead – in fact, it usually tastes even better if you do it the day before. It’s easily portable for picnics (cooler, plenty of ice). And everyone likes it.

This recipe from my book “Potato Salad: 65 Recipes from Classic to Cool” published by John Wiley & Sons, is different from the usual and will offer a tangy flavor for your Fourth of July potluck. It’s definitely livelier than naked potatoes.

Lemony Dill Salad

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

1 cup chopped celery

1/3 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

2/3 cup sour cream

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons dill pickle cubes

Chopped fresh dill for garnish (optional)

Place the potatoes in a lage pot, add enough water to cover the, cover the pot wiht a lid, and bring to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are pierced easily with the tip of a sharp knife, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and let cool until you can handle them. Peel and cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces.

In a large bowl, toss the potatoes, celery and parsley. In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, mayonnaise, garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, black pepper and dill pickle cubes. Pour the dressing mixture over the vegetables and stir to coat. Cover and refrigerate for several hours to overnight. When ready to serve, garnish with fresh dill, if desired.

Serves 6

The elusive sonker

Everyone thinks that the official food of North Carolina should be barbecue, but I disagree. Our state’s most original food is the sonker.

Never heard of it? Neither had the New York Times, where the origin and definition of sonker baffled writer Kim Severson in this article.

Sonker is not a slump, grunt or any of those other unattractively named fruit-based desserts. Nor is it a fussy, biscuit-topped cobbler. Pie? Absolutely not. And it would never carry so common a name as Betty.

Sonker is unique to Surry County, N.C., in the foothills, and those who were raised there. Over time, they have acquired cobbler- or pie-like qualities, but true sonker is different. My expert source on sonker is “North Carolina and Old Salem Cookery” By Beth Tartan, the late longtime food writer in Winston-Salem, N.C. (my hometown). The book, which was first published in 1955, contains historical information and recipes primarily from the foothills area and the Moravian community of Winston-Salem. A new edition was published in 1992 by University of North Carolina Press.

Beth Tartan (the pen name of Elizabeth Hedgecock Sparks) is pretty clear on sonker. Although no one knows its exact origins, she writes, “Like other items made with dough, chances are a thrifty cook simply put together biscuit or other dough and fruit or sweet potatoes to make a dessert.”

Yes, sweet potatoes. When I interviewed the organizers of Mt. Airy’s annual sonker festival a couple of years ago, they said that sweet potato is the traditional sonker flavor. It’s served with a topping of sugar and milk typically called a “dip,” for some reason. My thought about the sweet potatoes is that, in the days before refrigeration, fruit was perishable. Sweet potatoes would keep even through the winter, and were available to be turned into a dessert.

Tartan’s book adds that sonkers are traditionally large, meant to feed a crowd of farm hands. They are baked in deep pans, and chock-full of filling with a lesser amount of dough.

Try a traditional sonker with this recipe from Tartan’s book. It’s from someone referred to as the “Julia Child of sonker.”

Maxine Dockery’s Sweet Potato Sonker

6 to 8 sweet potatoes

3 to 4 cups sugar

3 to 4 cups self-rising flour

1/2 pound (1 cup) butter

Pastry to cover top of pan


Use a baking pan 11 by 13 inches and 3 or more inches deep. Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of sliced sweet potatoes. Sprinkle with sugar and flour and dot with butter. Continue making layers until the pan is filled. top with a layer of pastry. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 40  minutes or until the pastry is done.

Topping: Stir 1/2 cup or more of granulated sugar into 1 to 2 cups sweet milk. Heat, stirring. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Pour the hot topping over the hot sonker. Serve warm.