Fish Friday: A cure for Fear of Fish

Those of you who have Fear of Fish, don’t be ashamed to admit it. Every chef and seafood expert I talked to when writing “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast” said that people have it – you are not alone. But….it’s just a little fish. Follow the book’s tips on buying it and picking the flavor you like, things will go swimmingly. (I wrote a fish book, people, I have the right to make seafood puns and I won’t be shellfish about them.)

IMG_2270For this final Fish Friday, I offer this recipe from the book, a good one for the recovering fish-frightened. The sauce is easy to make, and gives some wiggle room by keeping the fish moist and insulating it from the oven’t heat.

Now, go fish! To learn more and find more recipes, take a look at the book. And the Moose is on the loose! Visit Events at to find a cooking class or signing I’m doing near you.

Greek Baked Sea Trout (or sheepshead, grunt, flounder, snapper)

Makes 6 servings

2 cups cherry tomatoes

1/2 cup chopped white or yellow onion

2 medium cloves garlic, chopped

1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for the baking pan

1 tablespoon dried oregano or marjoram

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons capers or chopped black olives

2 large sea trout fillets (about 2 pounds)

Italian bread (optional)

Place the tomatoes in a food processor and pulse to chop coarsely. Do not puree.

Place 1/3 cup olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the tomatoes, onions and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to give up their juice and the onions are soft. Add the oregano or marjoram, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes or until the mixture thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley and capers or olives.  Taste and add salt if needed.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat the bottom of a baking dish with a little olive oil. Place the fish in the dish, skin side down, and spoon the sauce over the fish, making sure to cover it completely. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the fish flakes and is done.

Serve with Italian bread for sopping up the sauce, if desired.

Fish Friday: Shrimp time!

With summer comes wild-caught North Carolina shrimp season, and since shrimp is by far the most popular seafood, I know y’all have been looking forward to it.

Many people don’t realize that fish and shellfish have seasons, just like fruits and vegetables do. Certain kinds are more prevalent at certain times of year, and I offer a guide to seafood seasonality in “Carolina Catch: Cooking North Carolina Fish and Shellfish from Mountains to Coast.” If you familiarize yourself with seasonality, you’ll get the best-tasting, freshest fish and shellfish, and maybe save a little money, because at the height of a season, prices may come down.

Great local shrimp don’t need much fuss and bother, I say. On a hot day, cooked shrimp tossed on a newspaper-covered table to peel and eat is perfect. Here’s how I boil shrimp: pour a beer into a large pot (and open one for myself), add water to cover the shrimp, toss in three or four slices of lemon, maybe a garlic clove, and generous shakes of a seafood seasoning (such as Old Bay). When the combination comes to a boil, add the shrimp and cook just three or four minutes, until they turn bright pink and give off their shrimpy perfume.

To learn more – and get more recipes – take a look at the book. And the Moose is on the loose! Visit Events at to find a signing or cooking class I’m doing near you!

Beer Run: Starrlight Meadery

Aristotle discussed it and Danish warriors in “Beowulf” quaffed it, but is mead beer or wine? At Starrlight Meadery in Pittsboro, N.C., it’s considered wine, although during the thousands of years that mead has been produced the definition has gone both ways.

The Hub and I learned in our tour of Starrlight that mead is made from honey, water and yeast (in this case, a winemakers’ yeast). All the honey comes from North Carolina sources, and the meadery needs a lot of it: It takes 60 pounds of honey to produce one 265-gallon tank of mead. The mixture ferments for two to four months, depending on the sweetness desired in the final product. The resulting mead has similar alcohol content to wine, 12 to 13 percent, and should be handled and stored like wine.

The honey used gives distinctive qualities to the mead produced because the flavor of honey varies depending on what flowers the bees visit and the time of year. Blending the honeys is an art. Starrlight’s flavored meads use concentrates ordered commercially.

We were not sure we’d like any of the seven meads Starrlight makes. Mead is made from honey, after all, and we are not fans of sweet wine. We were surprised. They are not syrupy sweet. Now, if your favorite wine is a big dry Cab, don’t bother. But if you’re open to softer wines, mead offers something different. We tasted (for $5 and you get to keep the glass) Traditional Mead – Off Dry, Off-Dry Blackberry Mead, Traditional Mead – Semi-sweet, Semi-sweet Blackberry Mead, Spiced Apple Mead and Meadjitos, a semi-sweet mead flavored with mint and lime. The traditional meads were our least favorites. Although they had wonderful aromas, like a field of flowers, the bitter edge that honey has came through, to me. The Off-Dry Blackberry is designed to resemble a red wine and smelled like a sherry. The Semi-sweet Blackberry was thicker, like a port, and it could be served in similar situations. Two of our favorites were the apple and Meadjitos. The apple would be great warmed as a mulled wine or combined with hot cider, or cooked into a sauce. I could see the Meadjitos, created to taste like mojitos, over ice on a hot day or mixed with cold seltzer. The meadery was out of the Sweet Peach when we visited; we were told it has been a favorite.

More about the meadery is here. Tours and tastings are offered each weekend, and the shop has medieval-style tankards for quaffing at home, if you are low on dragon-decorated chalices.

Food news roundup

Andrea Weigl’s column in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) explores the fact that the Community Supported Fisheries delivery she signed up for has not been exactly upfront about some of its offerings not coming from North Carolina waters.  Read more here. Weigl believes the misinformation wasn’t intentional. But it raises an issue that has been in the back of my mind. Now that “eat local” has become so popular, some people may begin to view it as a profitable marketing tool. At the moment, consumers must trust restaurants, stores, etc., that the items touted as locally caught or grown actually were. Eaters should continue to ask questions, educate themselves about what is in season and when in North Carolina, and get to know farmers, chefs and producers.

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer examines how Target’s touted low grocery prices really stack up. Grab your cart and head here.

If it’s not hot enough for you right now, fire up some Hot and Sour Soup from Cary’s Super Wok. The recipe is in the Independent Weekly (Durham. N.C.) here.

NestMeg begins exploring German food after producing a truckload of cupcakes.

For generations in North Carolina, ramps were something you ate because you were desperate for something green after the cold winter, and it was an excuse for a festival that drew political candidates and moonshine. Now, ramps are haute. They were all over Manhattan menus when I was there a few weeks ago. Now, LeitesCulinaria urges us to pickle them. In ‘shine, perhaps?

A video of two top New Orleans chefs making crab and corn bisque is a hoot. It’s at the Times-Picayune, here.

And this has nothing to do with food, but y’all should read it. It’s the blog by Scott Huler, North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate, here. This one is about little league baseball, but the blog is usually on just about anything. See it here.


Take ten

If North Carolina residents spent just 10 percent of their food dollars on foods produced locally, it could pump about $3.5 billion a year into the local economy. So say those promoting a “10% Campaign” to boost local foods.

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems, which develops and promotes food and farming that protect the environment, strengthen local communities and provide economic opportunities, recently launched the statewide effort. Among other supporters, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service has designated local foods coordinators in every county to help connect consumers and businesses with local producers. N.C. State University’s dining facilities have pledged to serve 10 percent locally grown or produced foods by 2012.

At the campaign’s website, you can find out where to purchase local foods and other information. Whether you officially sign up to the effort or not, consider where you spend your food dollars.

Beer Run: A flight to Aviator

beer tasting at Aviator Brewing Co.

beer tasting at Aviator Brewing Co.

For our second “beerventure” on Saturday, my husband and I attended the first of a two-part beer class/tasting at Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. Mark Doble started the brewery in 2008 in the hangar next to his plane, hence the name. Last fall, he opened a tap room in downtown Fuquay because so many people were visiting the brewery during the limited hours it was open for tastings. Only one beer is bottled – a stout – and the rest are sold by keg to bars and restaurants or via growler to thirsty visitors.

The beers offered change with the season and the fluctuations of Doble’s creative mind, but 18 are part of the repertoire (not all offered at the same time). The six of us in the class sampled a flight of four beers, progressing from lightest to darkest: Gremlin’s Golden, Devil’s Tramping Ground Tripel, Old Bulldog ESB and BoneHead IPA. When we started, he placed a pint of the Gremlin’s outside in the sun – more on that later.

As in wine tastings, we were encouraged to note the aroma and color of the beers as well as the flavor and compared our perceptions. The Gremlin’s, classified as a blonde ale on the beer family tree handout I received, had a light grain flavor, an overall clean taste and light mouthfeel. It had the lowest alcohol content of the four at 5.5 percent. The beers we tasted ranged in alcohol up to 9.2 percent (the tripel).

Doble offered a geeky explanation of alcohol, carbohydrates and sugar that, frankly, went a little over my head (they guy’s an electrical engineer in his day job, after all). I’ve never been clear on why different beers vary in alcohol percentages, so I called Daniel Bradford at All About Beer magazine in Durham, N.C. Bradford offered two explanations. One is that certain alcohol percentages are traditional for certain classic styles of beer. Before refrigeration was available, alcohol (and hops) served as preservatives. So, Russian imperial stouts, which were shipped across the large country in the days of the czars, are traditionally higher in alcohol. Or, as beer experts term it, “higher gravity.” Alcohol also adds calories, so dopplebock, originally brewed for monks’ nourishment during Lent, are higher gravity. The second explanation is the experimental nature of modern craft brewers, “just seeing what you can do, how far you can stretch it,” Bradford said. As with hot sauces, there are some people who care about the flavor and others who just want to make something so fiery it blows off the top of your head. But the best craft brewers, Bradford said, are interested in the flavor, not just potency.

Glad I cleared that up. Now, at the Aviator tasting, the Devil’s Tramping Ground was smooth and sweet, with little bitterness and a rich amber color. Doble named the beer after the legendary spot in North Carolina where the devil is said to pace about – he said it’s traditional to name tripels after the devil. The Old Bulldog ESB (Extra Special Bitter) was a surprise to me. It smelled like toffee but had a roasty-toasty flavor in the aftertaste. Despite the name, not a lot of bitterness. Fascinating. Doble said that his goal for the BoneHead IPA (India Pale Ale) was to create a beer that screamed “hops,” and it did. It was my least favorite because of that heavy hops bitterness.

After about 30 minutes, he retrieved the pint left on the deck and passed it around. “This is what a light-struck beer tastes like, and it’s going to smell and taste like a beer that’s very familiar to you,” he said, smirking. The group agreed that it smelled like Corona and tasted like Heineken. Yuk. That’s what happens when you have to ship a mass-produced beer many, many miles. Better to stick close to home.

Beer Run: Carolina Brewing Company

My husband and I have taken up a new spring hobby: visiting breweries. There are so many in the Triangle area

carolina brewing company spring bock pint glass

carolina brewing company spring bock pint glass

now, and they’re producing interesting and delightful beers. And it’s a lot more fun than scrapbooking. This past Saturday, we started with one of the oldest local breweries, Carolina Brewing Company in Holly Springs, N.C. It’s been operating for 15 years.

I was astonished at the size of the crowd for the tasting and tour – there must have been at least 100 people packed in around the steel brewing vats. It was the first tasting after CBC’s release of its Spring Bock on March 5, and that’s probably what packed the room. There’s also a liberal definition of the word “tasting.” Unlike tastings I’ve had when visiting wineries, the staff hands you a pint glass and opens the taps.

We sampled the Spring Bock, a seasonal beer that the company will produce for only three months. A pale lager, it had a smooth, fresh flavor with no bitterness – and a 6.5 percent alcohol content. We also tasted the Pale Ale and Nut Brown Ale, which my husband thought was a little sweet. We both avoided the India Pale Ale because we’re not fans of heavily hopped beers (although I like a little more hops than he does). Why do IPAs have so much hop flavor? It’s in the beer’s history. Hops serve as a preservative as well as adding flavor, so when Britain sent beer to its outposts in India, more hops were used to keep it fresh.

We purchased some Spring Bock along with some of the remaining stock of my husband’s favorite, the Winter Porter, a roasty-tasting dark ale. Carolina Brewing Company sells its seasonal beers only at the brewery. For more about Carolina Brewing Company, visit here.

The folks at CBC said that the growth in local breweries has not affected sales, which have held steady even during the recession.

Watch this space for our next brewery visit. We’re too old to do more than one in an afternoon.

Do you heart local food?

Valentine’s Day is on a Sunday (this Sunday, just in case you haven’t made arrangements for that special food blogger in your life). If you want to leave your evening free for other activities, and do something different, consider the “I Love U Lunch.” Slow Food Triangle, The Abundance Foundation and the economic advocacy group Loom are bringing together a list of local food producers including Celebrity Dairy, Scratch Baking, Carolina Brewery and the General Store Cafe in Pittsboro, N.C. The lunch, which will be held from 1 p.m. to -4 p.m. in the historic Chatham Mills in Pittsboro, N.C., will raise awareness of renovations at the mill and benefit the food co-op there, Chatham Marketplace. Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the door (children under 12 are $8), and can be purchased here.

You can warm up for Valentine’s Day and feel good about it on Wednesday, Feb. 10.  Fleming’s Steakhouse at
Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh, N.C. holds  “Wine Wednesday” each month to benefit a different charity. This month’s charity is the Lucy Daniels Center, a nonprofit which provides mental health services for children. From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., five different wines will be available by the glass at the bar at $10 per glass. All of that money goes to the charity.   There’ll also be complementary appetizers.

And while we’re all in a loving mood, don’t forget that it’s CSA sign-up time – show the love to your favorite farmer. Find a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)  in your part of North Carolina in this list at the Growing Small Farms section of the Chatham County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. Thanks to Debbie Roos of the extension service for compiling this excellent resource.