The Deer Hunter

sherlockedThe first time I met the man, it cleared up one mystery.  The second time, it initiated another mystery that’s never been solved.

I love the woods behind my house.  From October to late April I’m out there every chance I get.  It’s my happy place.  After spending so much time back there I feel kind of possessive.magic forestMostly, I’m the lone human of the forest.  So one day when I saw an ATV half hidden out there, it made me very curious.  I was sure I was alone.  Had it been stolen?  Where was the owner?  Was he ok?

A few days later, I saw a man riding on the ATV.  I smiled and waved and figured when we passed each other we nod and continue in our separate directions.atvBut as he approached me, he stopped.  And he asked me for a word.

He had bowhunting equipment.  He said hello, and then he broke my heart.

“I’m sorry.  This is private property, and there’s no trespassing.”

I was poleaxed.  “But I just walk around.  I don’t damage anything.  You own this land?”white hat“My friend’s father does.  I look after it, and he lets me hunt back here. When you’re here you disturb the deer with your white hat.”  The way he said hat, it was like I was wearing rabid badgers on my head. For some reason, he really hated my simple white baseball cap.

“I’ve never seen any signs.”“Every time we put ‘em up, someone pulls ‘em down.”

“Could I visit when you’re not here hunting?”

The answer was no, and it was final.

On the way home, I kept thinking about his words.  There had to be some way I could continue to go into my woods.  I decided I’d find the owner and ask him myself.After a couple hours of research, I discovered the man’s name and eventually found a phone number.  I gave him a call.  I explained who I was, where I lived, and asked if there was any way, under any conditions, I could keep going.

What he told me shocked the heck out of me.no huntingHe didn’t have a son and there was no friend looking after the woods.  Not only was I very welcome to visit his forest, he absolutely did not want somebody back there hunting.

Well.

So, I went back a couple of days later around the same time I’d seen him, and in the same area.  Honestly, I was kind of laying in wait for him.  I felt a stomach-churning mix of nervousness and righteous indignation.Finally, he rode up on his ATV.   He looked like he was going to scold me for coming back, but I didn’t give him the chance.  I told him about my conversation with the owner.

He looked angry, and then he said something I’ll never forget.

“It’s your world, baby, we’re all just living in it.”atv byeThen he rode off and I never saw him again.

Thus, the second mystery.  Why did he lie?  If he had just asked me not to come back there when he was trying to hunt, if he had been willing to share the land, I would never have talked to the owner, and discovered his deceit.

I still can’t figure that out.  I guess he must have thought I’d give up and stay away.give upBut there are two things about me he didn’t know.

He didn’t know how very much I love my woods would hate to stop visiting them.

And, he didn’t know how very dangerous an educated, motivated woman with an internet connection and time on her hands could be.she was warnedThanks for your time.

The Butter To Eat It With

rich kidsWhen the rich and famous are interviewed, very often they say the best thing about fame is the people they meet.

In the past, my response has always been just one word, “Hooey!”

Pu-leez! truck moneyTrucks full of money?  Oh no.

Designers competing to clothe and shoe you?  No sir.

People treating you like you’re a god, and a dating pool chock full of uber-attractive, interesting individuals?  Anything but that!beautiful datingBut people?  Yeah, sure.

Then I started writing about food and such for public consumption.  Ralph Lauren and Zak Posen aren’t yet arm wrestling for my attentions, but through my columns I meet amazing people every single day.  So now I must apologize for my earlier disbelief and the resulting impatience with celebrities.

Anyway; meeting people.costco lineJust about five years ago, I was in line at Costco, and met the sweetest couple, Victoria and Jefe.  They were Puerto Ricans and wonderful cooks of the island’s cuisine.  I went to their house for a cooking lesson for the column, and we became friends.dalaiThey very much remind me of my parents, whose own generosity is legendary.  Once they took me under their wing and decided to be my Caribbean God Parents, they went all in.  We meet for coffees and I almost have to wrestle Jefe to let me pay once in a while.  Every holiday that rolls around I have an adorable greeting note and gif in my email.  They shower me with tons of homemade Puerto Rican foods and extravagant gifts.crazy browniesSo, as often as I can, I make food gifts for them.  They’ve had my famous five-chocolate brownies, my brown butter chocolate chips cookies, and my mom’s magically addictive Christmas cookies.

Last week, we met and I brought them a loaf of my sourdough bread.  To go along with it, I made them Chinese five-spice honey butter.5 spice butterIt’s what is known as a compound butter.  It can be one of your most versatile ingredients in the kitchen.  The butter I made for Jefe and Victoria can be used on toast.  But it would also go great on carrots, sweet potatoes, anything with warm sweetish flavors.  Schmear it all over a ham biscuit.lots of butterI’ll give you the recipe for the butter.  But what I’d like to have happen is for your imagination to be inspired.  Use the butter on something new.  Even something as simple as tweaking the proportions of the recipe I give you.  Get in your kitchen and mad scientist some new butters.

Five-Spice Honey Butterfive spice butter

1 cup butter, softened.

¼ cup honey

½ teaspoon Chinese Five-Spice powder

¼ teaspoon salt

Put everything into bowl of a mixer with whisk attachment.  Whisk until smooth (3-4 minutes), scraping down sides to make sure everything’s mixed.  Check for flavor and add more honey, spice, or salt if needed.

Turn butter out onto a large piece of plastic wrap and roll it up.  Spin the roll holding the ends of the plastic until it’s tight and tube-shaped. Refrigerate until chilled and set.  Makes 1 ¼ cup.A compound butter is kind of like Meryl Streep—very versatile.  Butter is the vessel and the flavor can be anything.  It can be sweet, savory, or straddle the line between.

A Mexican butter with lime juice and zest, cilantro, and chili powder.  Toasted chopped pecans, apricot jam and cinnamon.  Nutmeg, lemon zest, thyme, and gray sea salt.  Champagne, vanilla extract, and crushed, freeze-dried strawberries.thyme butterTake these butter ideas and run with them.  Use the flavors that you and your family love.  Then put the butter on all kinds of interesting foods.

Play with your food.play food

Thanks for your time.

Bull City Brave

duke street explosionMany of you know that Petey, The Kid, and I call Durham home.

Today there was an explosion downtown that leveled most of a block.  One person died, and there were numerous injuries.  The Kid went to middle and high school directly across the street from the site, and in the early ’90s, I actually worked in the building.

The Matthews family is all accounted for and well.  Our larger family of Durham is shocked, hurt, and grieving.  So, as you go about your day, please send a few good thoughts toward the Bull City.bull city collage

Thanks for your time.

When Wishes Were Horses

Honestly, it’s almost like he named himself.machoMy father’s horse, named Macho (Spanish slang for arrogant, extra strength, manly man), wasn’t very tall, but he was sturdy, and built like a dump truck.  He was also quite beautiful; chestnut brown with black socks on all four feet.  His mane was black, thick and stood straight up.

But it was his personality that made him a true original.stallionThe general consensus around the base’s ranch, Lazy R, was that he’d been badly gelded.  So badly that it never even occurred to him that he was, in fact, a gelding.

In his happy little world, he was Thunderhead, Flicka’s proud, untamed stallion son, with the run of the entire west, dominion over his hand-picked harem of mares, and the worship of everybody else.pastureExcept in the case of hurricanes, the horses were always pastured at Lazy R.  When we went to the ranch, we’d grab some halters and leads, then go out into the pasture and bring out our horses.

They were usually happy to see us.  They’d get oats and some treats in the form of carrots or sugar cubes. They’d get groomed and pampered by their people. girl and horseMacho and I were friends.  I adored him, and that half-stallion was firmly convinced that all the attention and affection I gave him was absolutely his due.  One night he actually fell asleep with his head on my shoulder as I rubbed his neck and spoke quietly to him.

So, I had no qualms about going into the pasture and bringing all three of our horses out.

Until one day.leading horseUsually, as I approached our horses and called to them, they’d walk up and stand patiently while I hooked them into their halters.  Then we’d go on to the next horse and repeat until I had all three and we walked out of the pasture to the corral for food and grooming. Like I said, usually.macho and maresMacho was the first horse I got to that day.  He was surrounded by his mares, and looking like he was feeling especially stallion-y.  Really keyed up and full of himself.  Ominously, he didn’t approach me, but backed up a few steps.

I spoke to him in a cajoling yet exasperated way.  He backed up a little more.

I started walking to him, and then, looking me square in the eye, began coming toward me.  Then he sped up to a fast walk.  Then a slow trot, which got faster with each step.  Soon he was coming at me at a slow gallop.demon horseHorses will not run over a human.  It may look like they’re going to, but they will veer off at the last second.  So, I stood still waiting for him to run past, then I’d hook him up, and go after the next one.

There is one exception to the no-running-over thing.  The rule doesn’t apply to badly gelded buttheads who want to be left alone to hang out with their girlfriends and have no desire to be pushed around by an eleven-year-old kid.hell horseHe knocked me down, ran over my prone body, stepped right on that hollow where the collar bone meets the shoulder, and got in one last insult when a hoof flipped up and smacked me right on top of my skull (there is still a horse hoof-shaped indentation on my melon).  He then turned around and calmly walked back over to his pasture groupies. happy horsesIt was weeks before I went into the pasture by myself.

So, if you’ve ever wondered, Gentle Reader, what precisely, is wrong with me, here’s the answer: being hit on the head with a horse changes a person.village idiotThanks for your time.

Lightly Turning to Thoughts of Cake

My feelings toward spring are the very definition of bittersweet.

On one hand, the season ushers in warmer weather, which quickly gives way to the soul-wilting heat, humidity, and bugs for which NC is famous.

But.pink dogwoodOn the other hand, we get dogwood blossoms, and my April birthday, which brings with it obscenely frosted Dewey’s birthday cake.

And the warmer weather brings spring berries to make my strawberry cake.  The cake recipe comes from author Ruth Reichl, and the frosting’s from my mom.

Joyland Strawberry Layer Cakenicky's cakeCake:

2 sticks butter, softened

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs, room temp.

2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons real vanillacake batterPreheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8 or 9-inch round tins.

Cream together butter and sugar until very light and fluffy.  Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each.

Sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.  Mix into butter mixture.  When mixture just comes together, mix in sour cream and vanilla until batter is fully blended.cake in tinsCarefully spoon batter into prepared cake pans and bake for 25-35 minutes.  Start checking after about 22 minutes and remove from oven as soon as toothpick comes out clean, but moist.  Cool in pan 5 minutes and then turn out onto cooling rack to finish cooling completely.

Vanilla Simple Syrupsugar syrup

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Heat sugar and water in pan on stove until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Stir in vanilla and let cool.

Mom’s American Buttercreamstaw buttercream3 1-pound boxes powdered sugar

2 teaspoons salt

3 scant teaspoons cream of tartar

1 cup butter-flavor Crisco

3 egg whites

¾ cup of water (or less)

2 tablespoons vanilla

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

½ cup strawberry jamstraw mixerDump all ingredients except the jam into mixer. Beat ingredients at low until it starts to come together.  Put water in at this point, a bit at a time. Once it gets to creamy frosting and piping consistency, let it go on medium-high for 4 minutes. 

Remove two thirds of the frosting, cover, and set aside.  Add jam to remaining frosting in mixer and let it go on medium-high until it’s completely incorporated and smooth (2-3 minutes).

Assemblystrawberry1-pint fresh strawberries

1 cup white chocolate chips

Brush both cakes generously with simple syrup.

Cut tops off cake so they’re straight and level and put cut pieces into a food processor until they’re small crumbs and set aside.  Slice each cake in half, horizontally.  Pipe one ring around the outside top of three layers as a dam, then fill with strawberry buttercream, and smooth down.  Stack onto cake board or plate, topping with unfrosted layer then put into fridge until frosting firms up.pipingFrost with about half the remaining frosting.  Smooth it as much as you can.  Gently press the cake crumbs around the sides of the cake until it’s fully covered.   

Cut the stem off the strawberries and place, cut side down, onto paper towels.  Melt the white chocolate and dip the bottoms of the berries about 1/5 the way up.  Place on parchment-covered pan and let set and harden.straw cake finishedUsing a large star tip, put a border around the top and bottom of the cake.  Place stars around the top in a decorative manner and top each with chocolate-coated strawberries.  Cover and refrigerate at least six hours or overnight before service.

This cake is spring-y and beautiful and taken to Easter dinner will make you the talk of the day. easter goddessThanks for your time.

Those Darn Millennials!

Are you having a bad day, week, month, year?

Did you arrive at this spot in your life and realize that things aren’t as peachy as they should be?

Does the news of the world frighten and confuse you, and make you wonder what the heck happened?faultI’ve got great tidings for you.  The problem is neither in your stars nor yourself.  You’re not to blame.

Unless, of course you were born between the years 1981 and 1996.

‘Cause it’s all the millennials fault!

80s

I honest to dog dressed just like this.  What the heck was I thinking?

That’s right, the world is a terrible place and it’s all because of the children born in a certain fashionably questionable span of fifteen years.  They have ruined our lives, destroyed the economy, and given all baby boomers varicose veins.  They’re touchy, cranky, and don’t like McDonald’s. millennialThe entire list of previously awesome things that are now atrocious due to millennials is too long to list, but what follows is some of the more hair-raising examples.busted mallShopping malls; the places where we grew up, hung out, met crushes, fell in love, then bought our wedding dresses and rented turquoise tuxedos.  Those whippersnappers now shop online and patronize locally owned small businesses.  They are responsible that those giant cathedrals for the worship of conspicuous consumption, and its ensuing unnecessary credit card debt are quickly becoming empty things of the past.golfersThe game of golf.  For some reason kids today don’t see the allure in dressing in ugly candy-colored matching sets and riding a kiddy car around acres of land tortured with chemicals, chain saws, and mowers into perforated, make-believe Edens so they can hit tiny balls with sticks and pay tens of thousands of dollars a year for the privilege.cerealNext time you run into a grocery store and those thousands of boxes of sugar-frosted, vitamin sprayed, artificially colored and flavored breakfast cereal have dwindled to a mere few hundred, blame those kids.  For some reason they think they’re too good to eat pseudo-food full of ingredients that were created in a lab in Altoona.

The obsession with selfies has the anti-aging industry convinced that the millennials have no interest in what they have to offer.  But, in this case I believe the fear is totally unfounded.  Millennials account for 47% of heavy buyers in a $13 billion cosmetic market.  And more in photo editing apps.its-hard-to-close-up-to-the-age-of-wrinklesThis info has been interpreted that with makeup and filtering no one will ever look old.  Maybe not in a photo.  But remember, the oldest of the millennials are not even forty yet.  The first time a 45-year-old millennial looks into the bathroom mirror in full sunlight after a long night?  Amazon won’t be able to get enough vans full of anti-aging products up their driveways.chamber potsThere are industries that will disappear because young people have no need for the product.  But that’s been happening since folks lived in caves and hunted woolly mammoths with sticks and spears.  When’s that last time you bought a chamber pot or a buggy whip?

These problem children bring something new to the party, though.  They have this beautiful duality of attitude toward differences and diversity.  On one hand, they don’t give a fig about the “otherness” of others.  They don’t judge; it’s not their journey.no judgementBut they are also fiercely protective of each other, their struggles, and vulnerabilities.  It may not be their journey, but they are deeply committed to help make the paths of each other as smooth and safe as they can.

Yeah, they wreck stuff and break things.  But they’re kids and have the capacity for growth.  And, where it counts?  They kinda got it goin’ on.oxfamThanks for your time.

Pearl, We Hardly Knew Ye

i never wantedThis is the column I never wanted to write.

Before I say anything else, I want to state that I am not a picky eater; nor do I have the palate of a preschooler.  But, the favorite food of most people is comfort food, or something from their childhood.  Just sayin’.

dewey's cake

Dewey’s delicious, delicious cake.  My birthday’s in TWO.WEEKS!!!

I’ve made no secret of the fact that my two favorite foods are heavily frosted birthday cake and potato salad.

But because I love tater salad so much, I have very strong opinions about it.  I don’t like it refrigerated. It absolutely has to be a waxy potato, like a red skin, or a Yukon gold.  don’t like celery, and mustard and pickle relish are evil abominations.4Because of having exacting standards for potato salad, there are very, very few store-bought or restaurant made varieties that I like.  I can really only think of four.

There was a deli in La Jolla named Kangaroo that made a version I enjoyed (now closed).  A restaurant in Elizabeth City named Copeland’s at which Petey and I ate at three times a week when we were first married (also closed).  A Greensboro sandwich shop Jam’s, who makes a lemon potato salad.  And, chain eatery Wingstop’s potato salad, called Pearl’s.  It’s full of big chunks of hard-cooked egg, and way too loose, but somehow still a favorite.

jams

They sell a pretty mean Reuben, too.

Jam’s is still open, and so is Wingstop.

But, yesterday when I went into my local Wingstop for some Pearl’s, I was told they’d stopped selling it.discWhich was both a bummer and an opportunity.  An opportunity because I was still looking for a topic for this week’s column.  The same hand that slapped the potato salad-laden fork out of my mouth also handed me something about which to write.  I decided to do some online investigation to make Pearl’s at home.

The case of the missing potato salad.

So, I went all Nancy Drew and found three online clues.  The first was a scrap of a recipe on Pinterest and included honey mustard.  One was a recipe offered by an ‘insider’, that was a basic potato-onion-egg-mayo version.  And seven years ago, Wingstop put a video on YouTube showing the making of their honey mustard tater salad.  The honey mustard was part of their “secret sauce” but they offered nothing more as to its ingredients.wingstop spudTwo things I then knew for sure: the salad was made with russets, and it contained both mustard and relish, so I have to walk back that abomination thing, and the no mustard recipe was a fraud.

I then did some kitchen experimentation and came up with a close-ish approximation.  I’ve also sent a recipe request to Wingstop corporate and will follow up in another column if I hear back.

Pearl’s Wingding Potato Saladwingstop ps4 pounds russet potatoes cooked in boiling salted water until fork-tender

4 eggs, medium-hard cooked, peeled, and rough-chopped

1 small white onion, chopped

¼ cup sweet pickle relish

½ cup Dijon mustard

½ cup Trader Joe’s creamed honey

½ cup mayonnaise

½ cup sour cream

Salt & pepper to tastehoney dreWhen the potatoes are barely cool enough to handle, peel.  Cut all except one into cubes.  Chop reserved spud and put into dressing bowl and give it a smoosh until it’s chunky/mashed.  Add relish, onion, mustard, honey, mayo, and sour cream.  Stir together until well combined.  Season and reseason, if necessary.Add still warm potatoes and eggs.  Mix until everything’s coated.  Season, cover and refrigerate for an hour. Serves 6-8.

So, I’ve decided something.  When it comes to food, I’m going to stop assuming I know everything about my palate, and also that I know anything about everything else.  Standing around with my mouth wide open in shock is getting old, and it just makes me look dumb.gobsmackedThanks for your time.

Hang Out with a Fun Guy (fungi, get it?)

costcoAlthough I have a deep and abiding love for it, I have a complicated relationship with Costco.

It took many years before I could walk into my local warehouse and walk out with only what I need, and not a 50-gallon drum of marinated artichoke hearts and a pallet of golf balls (I don’t even golf).  But still, each time I visit I discover something I’ve never even known existed, but also know in my very marrow, that I can’t continue life on this planet without it.costco coolerI often venture into that house-sized refrigerator where the keep their veggies and come out bearing a giant amount of this or that.  Frequently, it’s their button mushrooms, that come in like a forty- or fifty-pound box.

And when I get them home, I look at them with the same confusion and trepidation with which Petey and I gazed at the newly born Kid.newbornWhat do we do with it now?

Last week, I decided to do a creamy mushroom bake.  I love all three of those words; each one implies something tasty, and used together, connote comfort food heaven.

There were two big stars in this dish.  One’s a tub of Brie.  I love brie but rarely have it around the house because I’m scared I’ll go into a cheese fugue state and run dairy amuck.  It’s the same thing with still-warm Krispy Kreme doughnuts—I just don’t trust myself around them.  I’ve never eaten more than three in one sitting but am pretty sure I could polish off 18 or 20 without batting an eye.kristiesThe other new, but really important ingredient was mushroom stock.  I always discard the stems when I use mushrooms, but this time I tossed them into a pot with 2 cups of chicken stock, a handful of dried mushrooms, and a couple bay leaves.  I then boiled it until it reduced by half, then strained it.

Creamy Brie Mushroom Bakecreamy mushrrom bake½ cup + 3 tablespoons butter, divided

2 pounds sliced button mushrooms, cleaned, stems removed and saved for stock

1 yellow onion, chopped

2 tablespoons dried thyme

¼ teaspoon dried rosemary

½ cup white wine

½ cup flour

1 cup mushroom stock

2 cups 2% milk

½ cup heavy cream

1 5-ounce container spreadable Président Creamy Brie

1 16-ounce box corkscrew pasta, cooked for 5 minutes only

½ cup shredded manchego

Salt & pepper to tasteshroomsMelt 3 tablespoons of butter in large, heavy pot.  Add mushrooms, onion, thyme and rosemary.  Season, then stir to coat.  Turn to medium, cover and cook until the water’s released from veg.  Uncover and cook until the liquid’s cooked out, and mushrooms start to brown.  Pour in wine and cook until dry.  Remove veg and set aside.

Melt rest of the butter and stir in flour.  Cook 2 minutes then add stock, milk and cream.  Stir continuously until it boils.  Take off heat and stir in brie until melted.mushroom saucePreheat oven to 350.  Add vegetables and noodles to pot.  Stir until everything’s coated and veg are evenly distributed.  Taste for seasoning and re-season, if necessary.  Pour into greased casserole dish.  Cover with parchment, then foil.

Bake covered casserole for 45 minutes, uncover, top with shredded cheese, and bake, uncovered for 30 minutes.  Let sit 15 minutes before service.  Serves 8.

The dish was a hit, but it almost got Petey a punch in the nose.The Brady Bunch Vintage Tv GIF by absurdnoiseWhen I told him what we were having for dinner, he asked, “Isn’t this mushroom stuff just like something you’ve made before?”

No, Petey.  It has mushroom stock and brie—it’s totally different.

Husbands.bridegroom

Thanks for your time.