Hail to the chef

In 1939, when King George VI and Queen Mary visited the US, President and Mrs. Roosevelt had a picnic for them at Hyde Park and served hot dogs.

People were shocked, but the king and queen loved it.

In 2016 when the pampered and privileged visit Chapel Hill’s Crossroads restaurant in the Carolina Inn, they can roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and eat roasted peel & eat shrimp; covered with spice and served with green tomato cocktail and comeback sauces.

People are charmed, and everybody loves it.

The surroundings are beautiful and historic, the service is warm but faultless, and the ingredients are top quality and thoughtfully sourced.  But James Clark, executive chef of the Crossroads has no patience for fussy fine dining and the atmosphere it creates.

The Carolina Inn-I kind of expect the Tarleton twins to be lounging on that porch.

I’ve known Chef James since he was hired, about 3 ½ years ago.  When I heard about him, I was very interested in meeting him.  He’s from Elizabeth City, as am I.  And, he attended culinary school at the New England Culinary Institute, in Vermont, which is The Kid’s alma mater.

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The Kid–trying to look demented and done up in NECI gear.

We ultimately met at a reception introducing him as executive chef.  True to Chef, he catered his own wing-ding.  Luckily for every guest in attendance, he catered his own wing-ding.  The first thing he ever fed me was a fluffy, buttery biscuit, and nestled within was a piece of perfectly slow-cooked and rendered pork belly (I stuck one in my pocket, and took it to Petey—who loved it).

Last week he invited Petey and me to the Carolina to celebrate my birthday and sample his new spring menu.  Instead of ordering, I asked the chef if he would choose for us.  Our palates and bellies would be in his talented, capable hands.

Chef divides his menu into “Sharing Plates”, “Small Plates”, and “Large Plates”.  Dishes were set in front of either Petey or me, but we shared everything.

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Clam frites.

The first course was clam frites and his peel & eat shrimp.   The clams were cooked in their own shell and flavored with bacon and fennel.  Also included was a big vessel of fresh-cut fries spiked with tangy yet mellow Carolina Bleu cheese. The shrimp were perfectly cooked, delicious, and messy fun.  They were served with a green tomato cocktail sauce which was developed by his Chef de Cuisine, Jonathan James.

It’s great for all sorts of things.

Green Tomato Cocktail Sauce

Green Tomato Ketchup Base:

green ketchup

4 Cups Green Tomatoes                                                                              

3 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce                                                                     

1 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar                                                                          

3 Tablespoons Texas Pete                                                                                          

½ medium sized onion (julienned)                                                                                 

2 Tablespoons garlic (minced)                                                                                  

¼ cup brown Sugar                                                                                       

¼ cup granulated Sugar                                                                                        

2 tablespoons salt                                                                                                       

1 tablespoon pepper                                                                                                                            

½ cup water

Combine all ingredients in medium heavy bottomed pot, bring to a boil reduce to a simmer. Reduce in volume by half. Cool and blend on high until smooth. If the base is not bright you can add a drop or so of green food coloring to bring back the color.

Cocktail Sauce:

green cocktail

3 ½ cups Green Tomato Ketchup Base                                                            

¼-½ cup Horseradish, depending on taste

Juice from 1 lemon

5-8 dashes Texas Pete                                                                                            

Salt & Pepper to taste

Stir ingredients together.  Makes approximately 4 cups.  Store leftovers in the fridge, or place in zip-top bags and freeze flat.

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The peel & eat experience.

Space prohibits me from divulging more about our meal in this column.  But next week is the sequel with another delicious, do-able recipe from the kitchens of the Carolina Crossroads, and the minds of Chef James and his uber-talented staff.

Thanks for your time.

The fray in the Bay (7)

Three years ago Southern Living magazine named Durham “The South’s tastiest Town”.  With food trucks, restaurants that run the culinary gamut from Elmo’s (776 9th St) to Revolution (107 W Main St), and hotels both new and acclaimed, like the Washington Duke (3001 Cameron Blvd) and 21c Museum (111 Corcoran St), the Bull City has the food thing locked up.

But in April we get a new food-based feather in our cap.

For the first time, from April 18-21, the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series will be holding battles here; at Bay 7 in the American Tobacco Campus (318 Blackwell St).

In a bracket challenge similar to the NCAA basketball championship, area chefs will compete in multiple cities, culminating in the Battle of the Champions in October, at a location which will be announced later.

The rules are exciting, as well as delicious.  Each round will be two chefs and their team competing head to head.  The teams will face off and prepare three course meals centered on a theme ingredient that remains under wraps until the morning of the bout.  Each ingredient comes from a North Carolina farmer or artisan producer.

Normally each team consists of a local chef and their team.  In the past the teams all came from the same kitchen.  But this year there’s a twist; the teams may consist of chefs from three different establishments.  What this means for the diner is that a team could turn out three courses each of which has been spearheaded by an award-winning executive chef.

I think that just upped the game a tad.

But it won’t only be a panel of judges that benefit from this game.  Ticketed guests dine on the six-course meal that is produced.  Then without knowing who produced which plate, and using an interactive app, diners and judges vote, deciding who moves on, and who goes home.

The competition starts in Durham, then moves on to Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington before the Final battle of the champs.

Competitors must be currently employed food professionals.  The participants were chosen on March 10th, and will be announced soon.  If you’re interested in attending, get more information and purchase your tickets at competitiondining.com.

Last week I visited a foodery owned by one of our illustrious Bull City chefs.  I dropped into Nana Taco (2512 University Dr), for a trunk-full of takeout grub.  It’s the brainchild of Scott Howell, also owner of Nana’s (2514 University Dr) and the newly opened Nanasteak (345 Blackwell St).

Petey got one of their ginormous quesadillas with pork butt.  The Kid and I each availed ourselves to the three taco deal.  For around $7.25 (depending on which meats you choose), we got three tacos, rice, beans, and chips.  I always get at least one made with the tender and unctuous garlic beef.  Then I chose from the “dirty meat” category; exotic cuts and critters like duck and lamb.  My child and I dined on pork belly and hog jowl.  The cheek was the best of the three, but they were all heart-breakingly scrumptious.

As always we ordered extra rice and what I believe are the best pinto beans in town.  And although they always have an imaginative selection of beers, I sipped on a pink lemonade while Petey and I watched the end of the first round of the ACC tourney before heading home.

I picked up dessert across the street at Miele Bon Bons.  It’s a bakery/candy shop with everything from wedding cakes to French macarons and out-of-the box chocolates.  I left with eight pieces. Out of many varieties of macarons, I picked crème brule, salted caramel, and pistachio macarons (my favorite).  The candies I purchased were dark chocolate salted caramel, blood orange-balsamic-pink peppercorn, and an Earl Grey confection.  It all came to around twenty dollars, which is a terrific deal for fancy hand-made chocolates.  For the price, it’s a delightful, affordable, every-day luxury.

Durham is a real happening place.  With culinary special events and our local independent food businesses, we are all pretty darn lucky.

Here’s an idea: on your next day off, plan a day trip—in your own hometown.

Thanks for your time.

The great cauliflower compromise of 2016

Sadly, to many people, compromise has become a dirty word.  Concession is considered obscene.  And accommodation is beyond the pale.

After more than three decades of marriage, I have learned the vital importance of finding a middle ground.  Bargaining and accommodation is the reason why I’ve seen most movies on TV multiple times, in ten to fifteen minutes bursts.  Petey will turn on a show, and then wander off to another channel, returning later for another short burst.  Just as I get interested and begin to suss out the plot, I’m whisked away to golf, a religious service or a couple of guys trying to sell me a blender.

 

Wait…Who are those guys? Oh, this isn’t the movie anymore, is it?

 

It normally takes around eight showings before I’ve pretty much seen the whole thing.  But there are always gaps; sometimes they’re minor scenes, sometimes major plot points.

Compromise is also the reason Petey knows the difference between pumps and platforms, eats albacore tuna and uses name-brand toilet paper.

The air was thick with compromise the other night when I made cauliflower.

The Matthews family love cauliflower.   Normally I use frozen because it’s quick, easy, and I can always have a bag at hand in the chill chest.

The default preparation is heated in the microwave and topped with browned butter.  It’s the one half of a favorite meal; road kill and brown butter cauliflower.

 

Not actual roadkill.

 

Now let me disabuse you of the image of me on the highway with a shovel and a bag.  Road kill is Matthews-speak for porcupine meatballs.  They are morsels of hamburger mixed with rice and cooked in a tomato sauce.  Because keeping the orb shape of a meatball is my kulinary kryptonite, I make them into patties.  The Kid declared the sight of them resembled roadkill, and the name stuck.

Brown butter tossed cauliflower is a terrific counterpart to the beefy patties.

But I also really like cauliflower the way my Aunt Pollie cooked it.  She cloaked it in a rich buttery cream sauce, speckled with a dusting of nutmeg.  It’s delicious and addictive, but because it’s prepared with butter and whole milk or half and half, a dish I only enjoy infrequently

The evening in question I was making a pork tenderloin and black rice, cooked with a Caribbean citrus marinade called mojo.  Because of this, both protein and starch would be relatively light so I toyed with the idea of my Aunt Pollie’s creamed cauliflower.

 

Delicious, but maybe a bit heavy?

 

But…I really like it with brown butter, and that cream sauce can feel heavy.  Then my brain turned to compromise.

I decided to try making the cream sauce with brown butter.  The recipe for classic cream sauce is butter and flour cooked together with dairy whisked in.  But roux is just butter and flour.  And I normally use peanut better-colored roux, which coincidently is the color of the solids when I make brown butter.

Brown butter cream sauce

brown butter cream sauce

¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

1 ¼ cup skim milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a saucepan and stir in flour.  Cook until over medium-low heat until it’s the color of caramel. 

Whisk in milk and cook just until it starts to bubble.  Season to taste.  Pour over 16 ounces of nuked cauliflower.  Serves 4.

It turned out tasty, and made with skim milk, felt relatively virtuous.

 

Normally when there’s a compromise, all sides get something, but nobody gets everything they want.  But in this case, I got my brown butter and ate my cream sauce too.

Thanks for your time.

Fifth annual love letter to Durham

Growing up my dad was in the Coast Guard, and we moved every few years.  Some places I liked, some not so much.

This was just another day at the office for my dad…

But thirty years ago, a young couple moved to the Bull City.  And like kudzu, Durham has crept through me and wound itself about my heart.  This town is funky, fierce, and fabulous.  And I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world.

Saturday I had lunch with two high school friends, Lucy, and newlywed Maxie.  We try to set everything else in our lives aside once a month, and meet.

This week was Lucy’s pick.  She chose Dame’s Chicken and Waffles (317 W Main St, Durham).  Fun fact: contrary to my assumption, Dame is not a woman,.  It’s actually the nickname of owner, Damion Moore.  Another fact: they are always swamped.  The wait for a table on a Saturday afternoon was an hour and forty-five minutes.   You can make a reservation online.  Do it.

 

Come hungry and wear comfortable shoes, or–make a reservation.

It was the first visit for all of us, so we each ordered something different to get a bigger sample of the menu.

Here is my biggest takeaway.  Somehow, it was as if they had turned the flavor volume up to 11.  The taste of everything was bright and vivid.  I had macaroni and cheese, which was some of the best I’ve ever eaten.  I could actually taste the pasta; it wasn’t just the scaffolding supporting all the yummy cheese.  The chicken (Lucy and I had fried breast cutlets, Maxie had fried legs) was moist, deliciously crunchy, and tasted like chicken—it wasn’t just texture.

The waffles were really good—crispy on the outside, soft and tender inside.  And each plate came with something they call a schmear.

A schmear is Dame’s take on compound butter.  Here again, the flavors somehow seemed cleaner, brighter and stronger without being overwhelming.  I had almond vanilla, Lucy orange honeycomb, and Maxie had maple pecan.  There was no mistaking any of them.  Each was a delicious example of the respective flavors.

I begged Ms. Ella, who runs the kitchen, for recipes.  No dice.  I even got shot down when I asked which herb was used in the chicken and macaroni and cheese.  Still no dice.  But I really like the idea of the schmear, so I came up with my own, Dame-inspired butter.

Pistachio/Honey browned butter spread

pstachio butter

2 sticks of butter

4 tablespoons finely chopped pistachios

3 tablespoons strongly flavored honey (like buckwheat)

Pinch salt and pepper

Melt butter in a saucepan, and let cook until it’s foamy and starts to brown.  When the solids are a warm caramel brown, take it off the heat and stir in the honey.  Pour into a bowl and let cool and harden.

When the browned butter has gotten to room temp, place into the bowl of a mixer.  Beat the butter, adding the pistachios.  When the butter is fully incorporated either place in a bowl and refrigerate or place onto parchment paper and roll into a log and chill.

Make about 1 ¼ cups.  Use on breakfast carbs, or melt a tablespoon onto a grilled piece of chicken or a pork chop.

After lunch we hauled our over-stuffed, bloated carcasses down the street.  We stopped at Letters Bookshop (313 W Main St).  We each picked up a couple of books, and wanted more.

We then turned to Dolly’s Vintage (213 W Main St), a fun, colorful, whimsical shop full of adorable, affordable second-hand clothing and quirky new items, including a large selection of Durham merchandise.

We then walked around the corner and ended our day together at The Cupcake Bar (101 E Chapel Hill St).  I love this place.  They have 300 hundred flavors and 75 cent frosting shots, for dog’s sake.  I went home with chocolate stout, Irish coffee, and double vanilla minis.  And of course, as always, they were scrumptious.

Five Points was fun and busy, just what a downtown should be.  It made my heart full to be a part of it.  And girl, those folks were turned out.  I saw more cute sweaters, adorable boots, and fashionable outfits than an issue of Vogue.  They were representing Durham right.

Gosh, I love this town.

Thanks for your time.

The magic number

 

Chef James never met a fish he didn’t like.

I’ve been writing food columns for newspapers for almost five years now.  I have hung out with bakers in the middle of the night and listened to a cow’s innards with a stethoscope.  I’ve been taught how to filet a fish by a master (Thanks, Chef James).

I’ve interviewed David Cutcliffe, head coach of the winning Duke Football team.  I’ve gotten to know Vimala Rajendran, an Indian earth mother food activist, and Amy Tornquist, an expert in and lover of Southern food

Chef Amy at her Durham restaurant Watts Grocery.

And I am as excited about sharing this week’s info with you as anything I’ve experienced in my tenure as a food columnist.

A couple weeks ago in Kroger, I picked up a one-pound beef brisket for the low, low, price of $5.

The rule of thumb for tenderness is; the less work that a muscle does, the more tender it is.

The brisket comes from the lower chest area.  Every time Elsie takes a step, or a breath, those muscles are put to work.  Consequently, you can’t quickly cook this meat like a piece of filet mignon.  You’ll end up with beef-flavored bubble gum—and nobody wants that.

It also has a good amount of fat and connective tissue running through it, as well as a pretty healthy fat cap.  Pastrami and corned beef both come from this cut, and neither is known for exceptional leanness.

Every other time I’ve made brisket, I’ve braised it; lowly, slowly cooking in liquid—usually some type of sauce or gravy.  I’ve also cooked it with beans and in pots of barley.

But it was never that tender, unctuous cut that I’ve seen on TV and in good barbecue joints.  It didn’t come out really tough, but it wasn’t meltingly tender.  And it was usually a little dry.

This time, I would travel a different route.  I’d season it heavily and sear it like always.  Then cook it by dry-roasting.  Low and slow.

With the oven set at 225, I took a heavy baking dish, and in it I laid a rope I’d fashioned from tin foil.  I poured in about a half inch of water (this prevents smoking when the fat drips down), and set the brisket, fat side up, in the dish on the foil, to keep it above the liquid while cooking.

Then I inserted a probe thermometer, set to the magic temperature.

At 210 degrees, the connective tissue within the meat has melted, leaving a silky mouth feel, and a tender, juicy piece of meat.

When the brisket came out of the oven, it had shrunk to about half its pre-cooked size.  But the fat cap was a thing of beauty.  It was a crispy, ebony cloak, which when tapped with a knife, sounded hollow and delicious—and it was.

I can’t tell you how long this will take to cook other than to say a long time.  Depending on the size, it could take anywhere from five to nine hours.  Do it on your day off, when you’ve got nothing but time on your hands.

This week, I am also eschewing a sauce.  You could make mushroom gravy, sprinkle it with a spicy vinegar, or slather it with barbecue sauce.  But this cut, cooked dry, low and slow, doesn’t need one.

I may not be your cup of tea (shoot, sometimes I annoy myself), but please, for the love of all that is holy, pick up a brisket and cook this roasted ambrosia.  I pinky swear promise; you will not regret it.

Thanks for your time.

Mumbo gumbo

“Don’t bring your lunch tomorrow, I told my workmates.  I’ll bring food for all y’all I told ‘em.”

nhs buds

Four of my best friends in the world.  From left: Bo, Waldo, Kat, and Kelsi.

That was Bo; one of my very best and oldest friends.

She called me last night at 11:00.  And if you knew Bo, you’d know how very unusual this is.  Petey and I are unqualified, dyed-in-the-wool night owls, but my friend not only goes to bed with the chickens, she’s the one urging them along.

Bo is my kitchen role model.  She’s been a great cook since we were kids.  Her calm and confidence with all things food inspires me to try new things, even when it scares me.

So, when the phone rang, and it was Bo, but a nervous, worried Bo, I knew something was up.  She told me I was the only person that she could call this late at night (I think she must hang out with farmers and milkmen in Elizabeth City).

Those guys are straight-up party animals.

My culinary rock, the strongest, most authentic person I’ve ever known was in a tizzy because she was making gumbo for her colleagues at her new job, and realized that she had no flour for roux.

Roux is a French word, which in English roughly translates to reddish-brown.  It’s a 50/50 cooked mixture of flour and fat.  Roux can be any shade from very light blond to dark, chocolatey brown.  As roux cooks it darkens and the thickening power decreases, so more must be used. I use it almost exclusively when making gravies and thick, cream soups.  My roux of thumb (Roux of thumb; see what I did there?) is normally peanut butter-colored.  It thickens well, and imparts a buttery, nutty flavor to the food.

I use it almost exclusively when making gravies and thick, cream soups.  My roux of thumb (Roux of thumb; see what I did there?) is normally peanut butter-colored.  It thickens well, and imparts a buttery, nutty flavor to the food.

In Cajun cooking, the roux is much more rustic and cooked to a dark, brick color, which colors the food, and gives it a rich smoky flavor.

This is cajun roux.  Go any further and it is burned and unusable.

Well Bo was in the middle of a very important pot of gumbo, and out of flour.  Unfortunately, it was 10PM, and in Elizabeth City there are no 24-hour Kroger stores offering shelf after shelf of various flours for sale.

Well Bo was in the middle of a very important pot of gumbo, and out of flour.  Unfortunately, it was 10PM, and in Elizabeth City there are no 24-hour Kroger stores offering shelf after shelf of various flours for sale.

So what’s a desperate culinary rock to do?

My girl made a substitution.  She used a combination of waffle mix and white cornmeal.

And it worked.

Since you don’t normally get anything hot and spicy from me, she graciously offered to share this recipe for her spicy Cajun gumbo.  I love her make-do roux, but if you want traditional, just use one cup each flour and vegetable oil.

bo's roux

Bo’s make-do roux.

Bo’s Gumbo

gumbo

1 lb. Andouille, sliced

12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into chunks

2 green peppers, chopped

8 ribs celery, chopped

2 medium onions, chopped

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 large can diced tomatoes

1 bag frozen cut okra

2 tsp dried thyme

2 tsp dried red pepper flakes

8 cups (or so) chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

After cutting up the chicken I sprinkle it with salt, black pepper, cayenne, granulated garlic, onion powder, oregano, thyme and paprika, mix it to coat well and let it sit for a few minutes.

For the roux I used 1 cup of oil 3/4 cup of Krusteaz waffle mix and 1/4 cup white cornmeal.

Get it nice and dark.

Brown the vegetables, add Andouille and chicken, cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add can of tomatoes. Start adding roux a spoonful at a time, stirring as you go. Stir in most of the chicken stock.  Add the frozen okra and let it come to a low boil, turn down heat to low and cook for 1.5 hours, stirring every five minutes or so to keep it from sticking. Add more chicken stock as needed. 

Some Andouille is hotter than others so if it isn’t spicy enough you can add hot sauce at the end to your taste.

It is better when served the next day. Most people serve it over white rice but I just eat it like it is.

You cam omit the chicken and add shrimp but only add them after it’s done or they will be little rubber bits.

I hope you enjoy this spicy dish from my friend, the spicy dish that is Bo.

Thanks for your time.

Dinner as the reward of virtue

First, let me admit that I am most definitely no goody-two-shoes, uber-organized, Martha Stewart-wannabe.

I once overheard a woman say that she tries to retrieve her laundry from the dryer before the clothes go cold.  I try to retrieve my laundry from the dryer before the clothes go out of style.

There is, however, one exception.

Growing up, my father was in the Coast Guard.  Their motto is Semper Paratus – Always Ready.   My mother’s personal motto is Clean as you go along.  The result of being raised with these two philosophies is that when cooking, I am a cleaning, prepping machine.

There are few things I love more than getting into the kitchen and knocking out every step of a meal up to the final cooking.

Which is exactly what I was doing the other day when I was putting together a pot of goulash.

I grew up eating goulash.  It consists of hamburger, pasta, tomatoes, and loads of garlic.  It’s also known as American chop suey or beefy mac.

This time I did all the prep, and after adding the pasta, covered it, and took it off the heat.  An hour later I discovered that the residual heat had almost cooked the pasta.  But they were still opaque, and tasted a little doughy.  So later, when we were ready to eat, I cooked it briefly, stirring frequently, until the cavatappi was translucent and tasted cooked.

If you want to cook it right away, instead of taking it off the heat cook it on medium covered for 10 minutes, and uncovered for 10 more, or until the noodles are cooked and the sauce is thickened and clinging to the pasta.

Now-R-Later Goulash

goulash

1 lb. 80/20 hamburger

12 ounces mushrooms

1 onion

2 heads garlic

½ teaspoon bacon fat or vegetable oil

2-14 ounce can tomatoes

1 ½ cups beef stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ cup sherry

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 bay leaves

1 ½ teaspoons dry thyme + ½ teaspoon

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary finely chopped + 2 sprigs

2 teaspoons kosher salt + pinch

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper + pinch

1 pound cavatappi pasta

Roast garlic:

Preheat oven to 350.  Cut heads of garlic in half horizontally.  Lay in piece of foil about 9 inches square. Place ½ teaspoon thyme, rosemary sprigs, pinch of salt, pepper, and oil.  Wrap, and bake for 45 minutes.  Remove from oven and let cool.  Extract garlic cloves from skins and set aside.

Put hamburger into large heavy pot with a cover.  When it’s just about cooked through, add onions, mushrooms, salt, pepper, and remaining herbs.  Cook until the veg have released and cooked out all their liquid.

Add garlic and stir.  Cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add tomato paste and mix in.  Cook until the paste has darkened, and started to stick to the bottom of the pot.  Add sherry, stir to pull up all the stuff on the bottom of the pot.  Cook until the sherry’s cook in.

Pour in tomatoes and juice.  Add beef stock.  Stir in pasta. 

Cover, take off the heat and let sit covered for 60 minutes.

10 minutes before service, put it on a medium burner, gently stirring frequently, so that all the pasta cooks to opaque.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream of Mexican crema.  Serves 8.

So, practicing the virtues taught to me by my parents, I was rewarded with a dinner that virtually cooked itself.

It’s like we dined on instant karma.

Thanks for your time.

The five people you’ll meet in the kitchen (and the one you should be)

No matter what, everybody’s gotta eat.

I don’t care who you are, if you want to keep walking around on this rock, you need to eat.  No exceptions.

But everybody’s different and the kitchen is where these differences come into stark relief.

I have identified the five main types you may run into:

1.)There’s the cook I call “Persnickety Pierre”.This guy can do no cooking unless he is working from a recipe that is practically Byzantine in its complexity.  Every step must be related in intricate, painstaking direction.  Food that should take 30 minutes takes an hour and a half because Pierre can’t keep himself from repeatedly opening the oven to check on the proceedings.

His kitchen is so sparkling clean you have to wear sunglasses in it.  There are enough cleaning chemicals in the cabinets to hold chemistry class.  He has a diverse wardrobe of Hazmat suits.

If he cooks for you, the food probably won’t taste terribly good, but you can be confident of never contracting a food-borne illness at his table.

2.)At the polar-opposite is Lady Laissez-faire.This self-taught, self-proclaimed chef cooks constantly.  There are only two problems.

She can’t be bothered to actually read through a recipe.  Her favorite expression is, “Don’t worry; I got the gist of it.”

No dish is ever truly finished, she never knows how many it will serve, and doesn’t have a clue how to save her leftovers, of which she always has many.

Her other characteristic is a lackadaisical attitude toward substitutions.  Honey for maple syrup is perfectly acceptable.  But Lady L has run amuck.  She will blithely sub out cayenne pepper for paprika, fish sticks for fresh shrimp, and once, in a pinch, gummy bears for mushrooms.  It may rarely be edible, but it’s always original.

3.) And there’s “Can-do Man”.

This is what happens when you consume too many chemicals.

If it doesn’t come in a can, box or bag, he’s not interested.  Kits are where it’s at.  Our guy eats so many preservatives in his food that he will be dead ten years before he starts to decompose.

 

4.) There is also the cook I call, “Finger-on-the-pulse-diet chef”.This miss eats no gluten, carbs, animal fat, refined sugar, or dairy.  If there’s a new diet out there, she has done just enough research on it to be misinformed.  She generously imparts her knowledge with everyone, whether they want it or not.  Priscilla firmly believes that bad diets are the root of all society’s ills.

High cholesterol?  White food’s off limits.

Insomnia?  Go paleo.

Color blind?  Eat capers and licorice, together.

Flat feet? No food with the letter “R” in it.

The funny thing is, our girl has acid reflux, eczema, and could stand to lose 15 pounds.

5.)Our final cook is called “The Frat Boy”.There are two kitchen tools upon which Biff relies.  One’s his microwave; he can heat up Spaghetti-o’s and pop popcorn like a champ.  The other is his telephone.  He’s on a first-name basis with every take-out place in town.  He built a tool shed from pizza boxes.  His fridge contains only beer and duck sauce.  He named his dog “Raman”.

And lastly I hope, you.

Know your recipes, and keep your kitchen clean.  But don’t be too uptight, and feel free to get creative.  Short cuts are ok if used sparingly.  Learn something about nutrition and try to eat right.  And once in a while, take the night off and order in something yummy and a little naughty. Above all, keep cooking, and have fun.

Thanks for your time.

Let the chocolate chips fall where they may

Each year by this point in January, I’m getting mighty tired of all the commercials for gym memberships and advertisements for nutritional supplements.Instead of working out and eating steamed fish, it all makes me want to lie immobile on the couch and eat milk duds.

I might feel that way, but the truth is I do still try to move around some, and eat reasonably well.  But just because I consume fresh fruit and veg and whole grains doesn’t mean I never eat anything just because it tastes good.

And I really do sleep better when I have a few bites of something sweet before bed.  So last Friday night, when, because of the snow and ice I wasn’t sure if we’d have electricity in the morning, I made a pan of brownies.I started with a mix, which I usually do.  But this batch was the best batch I’ve turned out in years.  The Kid and I loved them, which isn’t very surprising.  But the shocker was that Petey really liked them as well.  Not being a self-indulgent choco-phile, he doesn’t usually eat my brownies anymore.  He says they’re “too much” (but where chocolate is concerned, please explain to me what is too much).

I think these were better received because I didn’t go overboard on any one ingredient.  I added espresso, but just enough to heighten the flavor, not give you a coffee-favored punch in the nose.  There were chocolates, but not a surfeit of any one type.  They were salted, but only enough to give each bite the tiniest little salty crunch.

As a woman I can testify to the fact that some days only a satisfying chocolate treat can keep me from committing mayhem on loved ones and strangers alike.  These mahogany-colored confections, accompanied with copious amounts of red wine, would be a huge hit when shared by a group of women.

Best.Book.Club.Night.Ever.Boxed up and tied with a pretty red silk ribbon, then handed over for Valentine’s Day would ensure extra credit (I actually started to write ‘brownie points’ here) for the next 364 days.

I call these “Golf Brownies” because there are 4 (fore, get it?) kinds of chocolate in them.  Unfortunately, Petey doesn’t appreciate the humor of the moniker.  But bless his heart, he’s got lots of other very good qualities.

*Recipe note-For chocolate extract, I use Nielsen-Massey.  It’s available online and at local fancy cooking stores.  Maldon salt, found at the same kind of places, and lately some mega-marts, is a very large, flaky finishing salt for sprinkling.

Golf brownies

golf brownies

1 13X9 family size package Pillsbury milk chocolate brownie mix

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder dissolved in ¼ cup very hot water

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2 eggs

2 tablespoons Hershey Special Dark cocoa powder

1 teaspoon pure chocolate flavor

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1-11.5 ounce bag Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips

1-2 teaspoons Maldon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Put all the ingredients except Maldon salt into large bowl.  Mix well.  Pour into 9X13 pan sprayed with cooking spray.  Liberally sprinkle Maldon salt on batter and bake.

Bake 13 minutes, spin pan 180 degrees and bake for 14 more.

Remove to cooling rack and allow to cool completely.  This recipe makes 2 dozen reasonably-sized pieces, or 6 extra-large PMS pieces.

Truly, brownie mix is one of the greatest benefits of living in this great country of ours.

usa brownies

Mmmmm…America…

You can have them ready for the oven in minutes, and they will obediently bend to your will, mood, and pantry.

For texture, try adding broken pretzels, nuts, or Oreo pieces.  Before baking, drop dollops of dulce de leche, peanut butter, or Nutella on  top.  Then using a sharp knife, swirl it enough to produce a marble-like effect.  Go a little sideways, and mix in crispy bacon, cracked pink peppercorns, or diced, candied ginger.

My point is that sometimes, like when it’s day three of being trapped in in the house with your entire family by snowmageddan, there’s nothing in this word that will do but a freshly baked brownie.                                                       Thanks for your time.

A rye smile

After inhabiting this planet for more than half a century, I have ceased to be embarrassed by the fact that I have the type of sweet tooth that if I let myself, would make it perfectly feasible for me to eat an entire box of Dolly Madison vanilla zingers.Honestly, I’m not exaggerating.  One of my very favorite foods is birthday cake.  And when I say cake, I mean cake only in the sense that it is the scaffolding for mounds of delicious, delicious frosting.

But I am also a bit of a paradox inside a contradiction stuffed in a jelly donut.

I can’t abide a grain of sugar in my iced tea, I order my lattes half sweet, and I like my soft drinks lots more fizzy than syrupy.

Did you notice she has monkeys on her dress?

So, I guess those bi-polar taste buds are the reason why I really enjoy this new treat I discovered last week.

The Kid and I spent the day in Raleigh.  We visited the NC Museum of Art to check out the Da Vinci and Escher shows, and headed over to our favorite capitol city bakery, Boulted (614 W South St, Raleigh).  My child was Jonesing for some of their seeded levain; a crusty, sour loaf perfect for lashings of cultured European butter.  I snagged a bagel-like bialy for breakfast, then spied something called rye shortbread.

We added it to our order.

As soon as we got back to the car, I took a bite of my shortbread.  I was totally expecting a salty, rye/caraway-flavored buttery cracker.  What I got was something entirely different.  It was a lightly sweetened, pecan-studded cookie with the acidic kick of rye.

Once I got over the surprise, I took another bite.  And found that I really enjoyed it.  It would be the perfect thing to accompany a really thick, rich cup of hot chocolate.

I did a little research, and a little experimenting, and came up with this recipe.

Rye-Pecan shortbread

rye shortbread

1½ cups rye flour

½ cup finely chopped toasted pecans

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon baking powder

1 cup butter (softened)

¼ cup Granulated Sugar

3 tablespoons honey

Whisk together flour, pecans, salt and baking powder.  Set aside.

Cream the butter, sugar and honey until just incorporated.

Add the sifted dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Mix on low until it all comes together, but no longer (there’s gluten in rye flour, and you don’t want it to develop).

Roll the dough to ½-inch thick (if the dough is too soft to roll, shape into a disk or rectangle, wrap in plastic and chill until firm). After rolling, cut into bars, circles or desired shape. Cover and chill until hard; 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place cookies on prepared pan and sprinkle with sugar and more pecans, if desired. Dock the center of each cookie with a fork.  Bake until edges are lightly browned, about 20 minutes.

Cool and store, wrapped, at room temperature for up to 1 week.

This recipe makes approximately 20 cookies.

I’m not saying I would regularly pick this cookie over a heavily decorated cupcake, or a Krispy Kreme donut fresh from its honey glazed shower, but this shortbread gets my full confectionary seal of approval.  This new treat definitely has a spot in my rotation.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I suddenly feel the urgent need to see if there is a flashing “Hot” sign anywhere in the vicinity.

Thanks for your time.