Green grow the spears

I have an intense relationship with asparagus. It’s in my kitchen nearly constantly for the scant few weeks that I can find it. Grilled or oven-roasted, with only a little olive oil and salt, that’s perfection. But I do seek change occasionally. On Sunday, I made super-simple cold marinated asparagus.

First, be sure to steam or boil the asparagus only until it’s bright green. Go any farther, and you’ll have limp mush. This will take mere minutes. The dressing started with olive oil, lemon juice and a dash of white wine vinegar. I added about a half teaspoon of dried lemon peel (you could use freshly grated lemon zest, but I had the dried on hand and it was quick) and generous shakes of a dried-herb seasoning blend that contains chives, basil, tarragon and dill, plus salt and pepper. I toasted about a tablespoon of sesame seeds and chopped up two green onions. While the cooked asparagus (asparagi?) was still warm, I tossed it with the dressing and sprinkled on the onions and sesame seeds. I chilled the mixture for a couple of hours and served it cold.

I will say it again, if you’re using asparagus in a cold salad or marinating it, do not overcook it. Even a little undercooked is OK. I was thinking a cold rice salad with asparagus might be nice, maybe with red bell peppers and Asian touches, like sesame oil.

Food News Roundup

Thank you, Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, for not stooping to using one of the plethora of lame rib puns for the headline on the detailed ribs article here. The photo alone should get you running to the grill. It’s in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), too, plus a recipe here for she-crab soup.

The Feed With Care column in the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) explains how a parent can work with the school of a child with food allergies. It’s here.

A profile of Sara Foster and her new cookbook is in the Winston-Salem Journal. Read more about the founder of Foster’s Markets in Durham and Chapel Hill here.

We’re in the sweet heart of peach season, and Our State magazine has a collection of reader-submitted recipes using peaches here.

Beer here, beer there, beer everywhere. Check out the latest news about beer in the Tar Heel State at NCBeer.

Recipes from the Wisconsin State Fair are in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, here. I know how y’all love those state fair recipes, and it’s still a month or so away from North Carolina’s.

Board up windows and stock up on batteries before a hurricane? Not JaneLear. She got ready by preparing Tomatoes Irene.

Market madness

Most “officially declared” weeks (or months or days) of something are kind of lame. We’re supposed to get all excited because someone decided that it’s National Rutabaga Month, or some such thing. But this week is a week that I can get behind. This is National Farmers Market Week, and if you’re not at one right now, go find one.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there has been a 17 percent increase in the number of farmers markets nationwide between 2010 and 2011. If you could buy stock in them, it would probably be doing better than your 401K is right now.

North Carolina made USDA’s list of top ten states in the numbers of farmers markets, with 217. No. 1 California sports 729 markets. Alaska and Texas showed the most growth in farmers markets during the past year. You can read the entire report here.

A great list of North Carolina farmers markets is here. And the book “Farm Fresh North Carolina” by Diane Daniel (University of North Carolina Press, $18.95) offers information on local food around the state here.

So, if you want to declare it National Rutabaga Month, Beet Week or whatever vegetable you like, that’s fine. Just buy it at a farmers market.

Food News Roundup

There are cold meals for hot days, information on coconut milk and a talk with Poole’s Diner chef Ashley Christensen on her “Iron Chef” appearance in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) today. But the most interesting item for me was the note that A Southern Season, a Chapel Hill, N.C. palace of food delights for more than 35 years, has been sold to a group of local investors. Read more here.  I’ve been wandering its aisles since I was in college, and my roommate and I rode the bus ‘way out from campus to satisfy our rum-cordial chocolate fix.

There is one cold soup that I will not look upon initially with suspicion, and Kathleen Purvis agrees with me. Read her thoughts on gazpacho in The Charlotte Observer, here.

Where else but Asheville? Vegfest, celebrating vegan and vegetarian eating, will be held there on Sunday. Guess you won’t see anyone walking around with the mastodon-sized turkey legs from fairs, but there will be beer – it is Asheville. Read more here.

Speaking of vegetarians, there probably aren’t a lot of them in Louisiana. Tofu boudin – I don’t think so. The Baton Rouge Advocate has a recipe for a tuna burger as a way to liven up the summer burger repertoire here.

Try a Mr. MacGregor’s Spritzer in this article on creative, non-alcoholic mocktails in the Chicago Tribune. No sickly sweet Shirley Temples here.

If you need a kick to your juice – and, with this heat, I sure do – check out the beverage on Green Eats Blog. And if you don’t like that one, here’s another at JanNorris.

Pity the poor restaurant reviewer. No, really. Stop laughing, now. Do you really want to eat out four or five nights a week, and tell your friends what to order….oh, you already do that. Well, read Eatocracy anyway for confessions of restaurant reviewers and a fake name that takes some pop culture knowledge to spot.



Shucking in the kitchen

corn & pepper saute

In thanks for a favor that I was more than glad to do, a neighbor left a dozen ears of corn on my doorstep. What to do, what to do…. I didn’t have time to start freezing it, and I’m trying to keep the freezer light – we’re having work done on the house and it might have to be unplugged at some point.

The fresh flavor of boiled ears is fine, but I was in the mood for something different. I saw a fabulous display of peppers at the State Farmers Market, and decided to put the two together in a quick saute.

I purchased some sweet Italian peppers and some hot cayennes. At home, I took the kernels off four ears of corn. I chopped up half of one cayenne and about three-quarters of the Italian pepper (both were large peppers). I tossed it all together with a little salt and pepper and a chopped clove of garlic. I added some salt and pepper and, at the last minute, some dried aleppo pepper – I love its mildly spicy, slightly smoky flavor.

After a few tablespoons of olive oil heated in a large saute pan, I tossed it all in. Stirred and fried for a few minutes, until the peppers turned color and the corn liquid was mostly gone. I chopped up five or six leaves of fresh basil from the backyard, removed the corn from the heat and stirred it in. The basil fragrance was just the touch the dish needed.

I served the dish at closer to room temperature than piping hot, and it was just as good. And not bad reheated the next day, either.

Food news roundup

Great cooking runs in the family for Mildred Council, the founder of Mama Dip’s in Chapel Hill, N.C. The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) has an article on food projects by her daughter and granddaughter here. Mama Dip’s has been offering fried chicken, fried green tomato biscuits and greens for 34 years.

Part-time carnivores, flexitarians – whatever you want to call them, more people are going meatless…sometimes. The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer says that eating habits aren’t either-or anymore. Reasons for occasional vegetarians include health and finances. Read more here. The article is also in The News & Observer.

Stop the presses – or the bytes, since we’re on the Internet here. Hot news from the Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.): We’re drinking more wine. Well, you have to do something if you’re eating less meat. Read more here.

Being frugal didn’t start with the current recession. Food cultures all over the world have ways to use leftovers, and fried rice is a big one. The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal has tips on making the dish here. One secret: Don’t use freshly made rice.

I often sigh in relief when I remember, at the prospect of a busy day, that I have my slow-cooker. has a great-sounding recipe for chicken with artichokes.

Root vegetable gratin anyone? LeitesCulinaria has your cheesy needs. I’m drawn to photographs of anything covered in crusty, browned, drippy cheese. The dairy-allergic Hub means I am so deprived. Drool.

Back to those plant eaters. The Portland Oregonian has slow-cooker recipes for vegans. Yes, beans. Read more here.

You may not want to look at these pictures of Paula Deen on the Today Show blog before eating. Note how she never spills a drop of that red wine.

Holiday menu time

I am pondering my Christmas menu. I know, y’all probably had yours mapped out weeks ago, but I have lollygagged. I have had the “proteins,” as chefs like to say, set in my mind for a while, but the auxiliary dishes, no.

Christmas Eve will be fried oysters. I roll them in cornmeal because I love the crunch, maybe toss in a little Cajun seasoning if I’m feeling sassy. I think with those, some simple sides like salad, baked sweet potatoes or roasted green beans. Green beans are great tossed with some olive oil and salt, then roasted in a 425-degree oven. I need to remember the horseradish for the oysters’ cocktail sauce (so simple to make your own: ketchup, lemon juice, Worcestershire, horseradish and Tabasco).

For Christmas Day, a huge hunk of meat: Standing rib roast. Once (maybe twice) a year, we deserve it. The main issue is that this beast will take up my oven, at a low temperature, for some time – I use the slow-roast method. Things cooked on top of the stove, like steamed broccoli or sauteed greens, are a good idea. There’s a wild rice casserole recipe that I really like, but requires baking. I may make it the night before and reheat. The recipe is from “Simply in Season” by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert (Herald Press, 2005). I use butternut squash, which is really convenient now that you can purchase chunks in most supermarket produce sections.

Wild Rice Vegetable Bake

1 cup wild rice

2 cups chopped onion

1 cup pearl barley

6 cups sweet potatoes, winter squash and/or parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound mushrooms

1 cup cider or apple juice

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Boil the wild rice gently in 4 cups water for 10 minutes, then drain and place in 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan. Saute the onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter, then add to the rice. Add the barley and stir. spread the vegetables on top of the grains and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour on the juice or cider and broth. Cover tightly with aluminum foil or a lid. Bake for 1 hour.

Serves 6 to 8.

Veg out

Sugar cookies, fried oysters, chocolate cheesecake, spicy chili, crispy sweet potato latkes…I love all the foods that fall out of Santa’s pack this time of year. Yes, even eggnog and fruitcake. Deck the halls with lots of excess, I always say.

But even the most dedicated festive feaster needs a palate cleanser at some point. Last night, it was vegetable soup. I chose the recipe because it would be easy to prepare and serve before two other couples and the Hub and I went to a concert. But it also seemed to hit some cleansing, warming spot with me and everyone else. I’m glad, because I worry about expectations. When you’re a professional food writer, some people seem to think that you prepare lobster risotto with truffle oil every night, or some such thing. Sorry to burst your champagne bubble, but we need our vegetable soup, too.

The soup is so easy: About two cups each of chopped carrots and celery, about three cups chopped onions, all cooked in olive oil in the biggest pot you have (it makes a LOT) until they’re soft, not brown. Add about four cups of chicken broth and about four cups of water, or all broth if you want. Then about one and a half russet potatoes, peeled and chopped, and a can of diced tomatoes. Cook it all about 30 minutes, covered, on a low simmer, then add about a cup of shredded cabbage. Taste for salt and pepper. Maybe a dash or two of garlic powder (not salt, powder; read the label for once). That’s it. There are glorious leftovers in my refrigerator now, waiting to be frozen.

And before you think I’ve already gone over to the January dieting – as I write this, I am munching on my second piece of the day of Moravian sugar cake made by my neighbor, The Queen of Pie. I’ve earned it, after chopping all those vegetables. And I didn’t even deep-fry them in bacon grease.

Food news roundup

Side dishes don’t get any respect. Many people toss a salad, plop it next to a hunk of chicken and call it a meal. The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer today offers easy ways to make sides more interesting. I can vouch for the roasted green beans – put any vegetable in the oven (or on the grill) and it just seems to get better. Read more here. It’s also in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), as is an article on two people who got laid off from their jobs and decided to become farmers. Read about them here.

Usually when you call out for pizza, just the pizza comes to your house. But a Winston-Salem, N.C. man will bring the entire oven to you and cook gourmet pizza on site. Read about him in the Winston-Salem Journal here.

The Independent Weekly (Durham, N.C.) reviews a new book on the history of wine making in North Carolina. Believe it or not, Fayetteville, N.C. used to be a center of fine wine made by a former Confederate general. Read more about the book here.

Parsley  – it isn’t just a garnish anymore. It’s a real ingredient. The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) offers recipes and tips to give the green stuff some respect. Even the much-maligned curly parsley. The article is here.

The North Carolina State Fair is just a few weeks away, and there is always fierce competition in the food and cooking contests. The Dallas Morning News interviews past winners at the Texas State Fair, who provided tips for this year’s competitors. And, boy, do I want a big bite of that cake in the photo. Steal some ideas here.

If canning is too daunting for you, soak fruit in alcohol to preserve it. The New York Times tells you how today. It’s all here.

Meatless loaf

When my husband and I visited Kansas City, MO last month, we started our trip with a large, highly appreciated hunk of meat at Blanc Burgers. The following day, we went next door. Within inhaling distance of the beef was Eden Alley Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant recommended by the same friend who clued us in to Blanc Burger. We felt in an atoning mood. The menu was creative – not loaded with sprouts and lentils. And my dairy-allergic husband was glad to see most items could be made vegan. We ordered a pizza-like item that featured cashew cheese. Cashew cheese was not a hit with either of us – it was more like a thin, orangy-colored sauce with a grainy texture (from the ground nuts, I suppose). But we enjoyed the entrees: a sweet potato burrito with fruit salsa, and spinach-mushroom loaf with tomato sauce. We liked the spinach-mushroom loaf so much – it tasted almost like real meat loaf – that I purchased the restaurant’s (rather pricey) cookbook.

I made the spinach-mushroom loaf last night, and it was as good as we remembered. I have a beef (ha, ha) with the recipe, though. It’s confusingly written and omits some information, such as what kind of tofu to use. I assumed extra-firm. The recipe also didn’t say how to prepare the spinach and mushrooms. I think both should be chopped to work with the other ingredients. Here’s my reworked version. And this makes two ways in which I will eat tofu. Could this be a sign of the apocalypse?

1/2 pound spinach, de-stemmed and chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, diced

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons oregano

1 1/ 2 teaspoons thyme

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 pound chopped mushrooms

2 cups cooked brown rice

2 cups fine bread crumbs (in the canister from the store)

1/2 pound extra-firm tofu, shredded

Tomato Coulee (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the spinach in a large bowl and set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saute the onions, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper, chili powder and mushrooms until the onions are translucent. Pour the hot mixture over the spinach and stir. Add rice, bread crumbs and tofu. Mix with your hands and form it into a loaf on a sheet pan sprayed with cooking spray. Bake 50 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes to let it set. Top with Tomato Coulee.

Tomato Coulee

1 medium onion, chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar (original recipe said 1 tablespoon, but I reduced it)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 (14-ounce) cans diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook onions, garlic, sugar, salt and black pepper until the onions are translucent, then add the tomatoes. Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the basil. Use immediately or cool and refrigerate.