A bloomin’ lot of cookbooks

If you needed more proof that Southern food is hot, look at the number of cookbooks by North Carolina authors that have popped out like the azalea blossoms this spring. One is by longtime Durham, N.C. chef and caterer Sara Foster (of Foster’s Markets in Chapel Hill, N.C. and Durham). Another is by Chapel Hill food writer and cooking instructor Sheri Castle and the third shares recipes from Asheville, N.C.’s popular Tupelo Honey Cafe (yes, the recipe for the sweet potato pancakes is there).

Foster’s cookbook, her fourth, trumpets her Southern roots. “Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen: Soulful, Traditional, Seasonal” (Random House, $35) has all the requisite standards: Buttermilk biscuits, fried green tomato BLT, and a whole chapter on pork. Pork must make a substantial contribution to any cookbook that calls itself Southern. There are hints for matching cocktails to hors d’oeuvres, which is so Southern.

The book includes surprising recipes using what I consider an under-appreciated Southern vegetable: Summer squash. When it’s in gushing supply in midsummer, squash gets passed around – and avoided – like a baby with a stinky diaper. Everyone has squash, but no one seems to know what to do with it. Foster uses it in a version of hush puppies, plus as pickles, in a pot pie and soup. Of the three cookbooks, this is the most elegant, showing more than a touch of Foster’s previous life working with Martha Stewart.

Castle’s book, “The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers’ Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes” (UNC Press, $35). is gorgeous, too. Rather than organizing recipes by course, Castle walks through the garden with chapters highlighting individual vegetables and fruits. Nice to have when the blueberries are pouring in and you’re looking for ways to use them. The organization makes it a bit more challenging to put together a menu, but you do have the serendipity of running into Chicken and Sweet Potato Stew alongside Sweet Potato Rum Cake. Nothing wrong with a meal of sweet potatoes, I say.

The book exhibits Castle’s wide range of experience and expertise, leading to clear directions, especially for the bread many fear to tackle, biscuits. It’s a homey read full of stories, too.

“Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes from Asheville’s New South Kitchen” by Elizabeth Sims with Chef Brian Sonoskus (Andrews McMeel, $29.99) is as much about life in the mountains and Asheville as the food. The book seeks to identify the food by rooting it in the culture of the mountain town, and it makes for a witty read. The book starts off with recipes for gravys. How Southern is that?

The cookbook recognizes Asheville’s place as a craft brew haven by offering both wine and beer matches for dishes. There’s a laid-back quality to this book that makes it feel accessible.

If you’re only going to invest in one, which cookbook should you buy? That really depends on what you’re looking for and which recipes call to you.

The Beer Run road trip

the flight at lexington avenue brewing

The hub and I had been hearing about Asheville, N.C.’s microbreweries. There are around 10 in downtown and the immediate area, including Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain, N.C., which produces all certified organic beers. The mountain city and its environs is considered by some to be the second-best spot for craft brews after Seattle. Beers from the oldest and largest brewery, Highland Brewing, can be found in the Triangle, but others are limited to the western part of the state.

We signed up for a Brews Cruise group tour, but it was a slow week and not enough people signed up to make it go. So we struck out on our own. There were five within walking distance downtown, and we started with Asheville Brewing Company. The flight was Rocket Girl Lager, Stuntman Ale, Escape Artist ESP, Roland ESB and Ninja Porter. Rocket Girl had a lot of flavor for a lager, but my favorites were the ESB and porter, especially since I have a low tolerance for hops. The ESB was fragrant and complex, but the porter really gave me something to contemplate with chocolate, coffee and tobacco flavors. It wasn’t as heavy as some porters, which was good, since we had other brews to quaff.

We walked into Jack of the Wood two minutes after it opened. In my prime, I closed down many an establishment, but it was the first time I’d opened one. We sampled three Green Man brews there: porter, ESB and a cask-conditioned IPA that required hand pumping. One advantage of arriving in mid-afternoon: The very knowledgeable bartender had plenty of time to talk to us. I didn’t think I’d like the IPA (the hops thing), and I didn’t, but it was certainly interesting. The ESB had a floral flavor, and the rich porter would be fun to cook with, which they do at Jack of the Wood.

We pressed on to one of the newer breweries, Lexington Avenue Brewery, where they set a flight of seven beers before us. The hub and I thought all seven were sweeter than others we’d had, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it meant the IPA wasn’t as bitter as most. The white ale had no bitterness at all and was really different in its light flavor. I thought the hefeweizen was a bit too sweet and perfumy; I had trouble detecting the wheat flavor. Others in the flight, American pale ale and Octoberfest, were good. But I guess we must be fans of the dark side, because the dunkelweiss and chocolate stout were most intriguing to me. The stout includes chocolate extract, and had a roasty-toasty flavor. The dunkelweizen had hints of cherry and roasted spice. I could imagine both of those flavoring a devil’s food cake.

We hit the wall right about then, so we didn’t make it to Craggie Brewing or OysterHouse Brewing, which offers a beer brewed using oysters. Shell and all.

Keep up with the mountain beer scene with the Beer Guy in the Asheville Citizen-Times. We will need some time to recover before making another run. We can’t research like we used to.