Food Chat: Grande Dame Edition

I, and anyone that eats my cooking owe her a debt.

Chefs James Clark, Amy Tornquist, and Jason Cunningham and many other chefs also owe her a debt.

The ‘her’ in question is Nathalie Dupree.

In 1986 a food revolution took place when Nathalie Dupree published her first cookbook; New Southern Cooking.

Traditional Southern cooking is the stew of European and African cultures with the crops and meats available in the South.  It’s the mélange that occurs when lack of funds is combined with surfeit of time.  Her book restored pride in the kitchen heritage of the South and introduced it to a wider world.

Nathalie took traditional Southern dishes and filtered them through the classical culinary training she received in London at Le Cordon Bleu.  She elevated it and transformed it from cooking to cuisine.  And along the way, became a legend.

So much so that in 2011 the premiere women’s culinary society, Les Dames d’Escoffier International bestowed upon her the title of Grande Dame.

As for me, her shows on PBS were my first exposure to true Southern cooking.  I watched her cook with love, pride, and skill.

The weekend of August 5th, Nathalie Dupree will be in Chapel Hill, at Southern Season for a Southern cooking class, and book signing.  Last week, I completely lucked out and had a phone chat with her.

If you’ve never been tele-taught by Nathalie, I highly recommend it.  She’s made hundreds of hours of television on PBS, Food Network, and the Learning Channel.  Many of her episodes are available on You Tube.

I asked her how she feels about the explosion of celebrity TV chefs.

She feels that when Food Network moved from cooking lessons to game shows, something was lost.  One of the few shows she watches is Ina Garten.  Which makes sense, because although one’s from the north, and one’s from the south, they both love entertaining, and respect food.

Besides, believe it or not, Nathalie was actually born in New Jersey, but so very raised in Dixie.

Always the teacher, she gave me some life changing lessons during our chat.

When you come in after a long day and are too tired to think or do what she calls the “pantry waltz” (great term, no?), she suggests keeping a list of easy meals which can be made quickly from on-hand ingredients.

On her list is shrimp and grits (her fave type is Anson Mill’s Bohicket, just like me) and scrambled eggs with cheese and a salad.  Another meal is something I’ve never had, but you can darn well be sure I’m going to very soon—Italian sausage sautéed with either apples or peaches, depending on the season.

She keeps a box of refrigerated pie crust handy.  Then when she has produce looking a little worse for the wear, or drips and drabs of this and that, she makes either a savory tart or even simpler, a free-form galette, a pie with the edges folded over the sides and baked on a cookie sheet.

And instead of a lattice top made of pie crust, shave a zucchini into ribbons and weave them into a lattice.

One of my favorite recipes is from her first book, New Southern Cooking.  Every Southern cook worth their salt and freshly cracked pepper should know how to make it.

Luckily, Nathalie generously gave me permission to share.

Old-Style Pimento Cheese Spread

pimento cheese

12 ounces grated rat or Cheddar cheese (rat cheese is an inexpensive local Cheddar-like cheese.  Hoop cheese fits this bill.)

2-4 ounce jars of  pimentos, drained

1 cup mayonnaise (Nathalie makes her own–but if you’re not up to that, a good quality store-bought like Duke’s, works)

Put all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until smooth.

I’ll let you in a shocking secret about Nathalie.

You know those Anson Mills grits she likes so much?

She cooks them in the microwave.  They cook no faster than stove-top, but it completely eliminates the danger of scorching.  Just mix up your favorites according to the directions, only mix them in a Pyrex bowl and nuke them on high.  Every 10-15 minutes give them a good stir, and keep cooking until they’re done.

And the next time you’re in one of the area’s many fine restaurants, enjoying fried green tomatoes, collards, or corn pudding, you now know you have Nathalie Dupree to thank.

Thanks for your time.

Food Chat: the Art of Southern Cooking Edition

Years ago, Southern cooking was denigrated as the food you cooked if you didn’t know any better.  It was commonly held to be the food of people who had no money and no imagination.  The only thing everyone agreed it had was heart; and lots of it.

It was gathering around Grandma’s kitchen table for Sunday dinner.  It was ‘putting up’ summer vegetables in a kitchen that felt like the inside of a steam iron.  It was desserts that were full of love, fat, and sugar.

But then folks got busy.  In many households, both mom & dad worked all day away from home.  There just wasn’t time, energy or desire to spend all day in the kitchen turning out big, heavy meals.

And as time passed, there were fewer of those old-school grandmas left.  Those recipes and techniques were forgotten.  And we were all the poorer for it.

Then along came Nathalie Dupree, and everything changed.

In 1986 her book, New Southern Cooking was published.  And all that humble Southern fare was reintroduced to a new generation.  And this generation realized that home cooking, Southern cooking, country cooking; whatever you called it, was an important gift from our ancestors.  It was something to treasure and something in which to take deep pride.

It was better than the convenient meals we had traded it for.  Cleaner, tastier, and healthier—to mind, body and spirit.

On the weekend of August 5th, Nathalie Dupree will be in Chapel Hill at Southern Season to conduct a cooking class and a book signing (check their website for particulars).

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to have a telephone food chat with Nathalie (I tried calling her ‘chef’, but she quickly corrected me, “Everybody calls me Nathalie”.)

When I first became interested in cooking, I never missed her PBS show and have quite a few of her cookbooks.  She is one of my very first culinary mentors.

She’s a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, a renowned hostess, a savvy business woman, and a moving author (Get your hands on her essay, “Lover’s Menu”; it’ll break your heart).

She insists that her hundreds of shows; on PBS, The Learning Channel, and Food Network, were education, not entertainment.  And she’s still a teacher, who makes learning completely painless (and plenty entertaining).

She gave me a tip which I will use for the rest of my life when writing recipes.

Unless it’s a baking recipe (which is chemistry that relies on proper proportions for success); she doesn’t list an amount for salt and pepper.  You cannot season unless you taste.  And as the cook, you must taste and determine for yourself.

Nathalie generously gave me permission to share her recipes with you.  I chose one of her specialties; simple Southern vegetables viewed through the lens of a classically trained chef.

Green Black-eyed Peas, New Style

black eyes

2 cups fresh black-eyed peas, and snaps

4 cups boiling water

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons chopped fresh savory and/or thyme

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Place peas in a pot with the water and bring to the boil.  Add butter, and let boil for 20 minutes.  Add the herbs, salt and pepper.  Serve the peas hot and slightly crunchy in their “pot likker”.

Nathalie Dupree started the new Southern cooking movement.  She’s sold over half a million cookbooks.  Her cooking school in Atlanta has educated over 10,000 students.  She’s won two James Beard awards.

She rescued Southern cuisine and in doing so changed the way we all eat and cook.

Thanks for your time.

The Cupcake Column

The Kid has a pretty dim view of cupcake shops.

cupcake lady

After watching many episodes of “Cupcake Wars” on Food Network, a conclusion has been reached; a disheartening percentage of those batter and frosting folk are a mite squirrely.

While they may actually be perfectly nice people, many seem high strung and theatrical.  And worst of all, not very good bakers.

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But, The Kid (and The Kid’s mom) absolutely adores The Cupcake Bar (101 E. Chapel Hill St.).  I asked for an explanation for this exception.

“Because, they’re real.  They’re Durham.”

There is absolutely no higher praise that my born, bred, and Bull City super booster can bestow.  Besides, it’s true.

What sisters Anna Branly and Katie Braam have created in their odd little triangle-shaped space downtown is nothing short of miraculous.  They were pioneers of the downtown renaissance.

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Jessica (left) and Anna packing up a dozen minis for me–after my “shift”.

The space itself is a sunshine-drenched hybrid of history and sleek modernity.  It looks like a bakery and it looks like a slick martini bar, but it also looks like a vintage soda fountain.

The vibe is a combination of casual friendliness and efficient professionalism that works like a buttercream-covered charm.

Then there’s the always scrumptious baked goods.

Each day eight imaginative, playful varieties of cupcakes in both mini and standard-size are baked, frosted, garnished, and put on display.  Offerings such as Mexican chocolate, blueberry (!), or cosmopolitan tempt the senses.

Today I got up early to hang out with owner Anna, and baker Jessica Morek at The Cupcake Bar.  They kindly allowed me to slow down their well-oiled machine and “help” them.  I garnished every cupcake, except for the instructional samples and three  minis that I totally missed.  I only ruined four, or maybe it was five (don’t ask).

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…and I helped!

Here are a few things I discovered.

Anna’s vegetarian, and Jessica doesn’t eat wheat.  Every Wednesday, and sprinkled throughout the week, there’s a gluten-free option.  Vegan show up often, and they’re always meatless.

Co-owner Katie has come up with a genius idea.  When the buttercream’s been made, it’s spooned onto a piece of plastic wrap and then closed up into a large lozenge shape.  When it’s time to pipe, they just drop the whole capsule into a bag and go to work.  The plastic wrap opens inside the bag.  This means easier cleanup and no awkward, messy attempts to fill the pastry bag.  Plus, it saves probably 30 minutes per batch.

This recipe is inspired by the mad scientists at The Cupcake Bar.

Colonial cupcakes with brown butter frosting

Makes approx. 2 dozen standard-sized or 3 dozen minis.

Cake:

cupcake

2 ¼ cups cake flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup butter, softened

¾ cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg

Preheat oven to 375; line muffin cups with papers.

Cream butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.

Sift together flour, salt and baking powder.  Add to batter alternating with milk.  Beat well, then stir in vanilla, lemon zest and nutmeg.

Fill the cups ¾ full and bake for 18 minutes (10-13 for minis), or until toothpick comes out moist but clean.  Let cool in pan.

Brown butter frosting

brown frosting

4 cups powdered sugar

½ cup brown butter, softened

¼ cup milk (or as needed to thin to piping consistency)

To make brown butter, melt butter in small saucepan on medium-low. Keep cooking until butter smells nutty and the solids are caramel-colored.  Watch it closely; it will go from browned to burned in literally seconds. 

Put butter in a bowl and refrigerate until chilled solid.  When ready to make frosting, remove from fridge and let come to room temperature.

Mix the sugar and butter well.  Add milk a bit at a time and mix on high until fluffy (2-3 minutes).

Spread or pipe onto cooled cupcakes.

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I had a full-on blast today, and I shocked myself; rather than devouring a whole bowl, I only had one tiny taste of frosting.

And did you know they’ve only been in their building four years?

I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a Cupcake Bar in my life.

Or maybe I just don’t want to.

Thanks for your time.

Within gitting distance

Before I get started with this week’s topic, I want to give everybody a heads up about something going on this weekend.On Saturday from 12-3PM, the Carolina Inn is hosting a Barbecue Throwdown on their front porch.  There will be eight local chefs (including the Carolina’s Chef James Clark), all trying to wind up the smoke and fire champ.

The event will be hosted by the radio announcer of the Carolina Panthers, Mick Mixon.  And music will be provided by the Gravy Boys.  There will be five judges plus the guests will also vote on a fan favorite.A portion of the proceeds will be going to TABLE, an Orange county charity that helps kids at risk for hunger.  They’re also asking that guests bring donations of non-perishable foods.  You can score tickets at: http://www.carolinainn.com/bbq-throwdown/.  Every ticket enters the holder into a raffle, too.

Petey and I will be there, and hope to see you, as well.

It takes quite a bit to get The Kid to do a characteristically very low-key, practically stationary happy dance.But one thing that mildly thrills my child is eating local.

Dinner last week was a banner meal.  A few weeks ago The Kid gave me a tip that the Durham Co-op had gorgeous, but inexpensive Denver steaks.  No fooling.  I went and scored two pretty specimens for around $6.

On the day The Kid and I made our pilgrimage to the Got To Be NC festival at the state fairgrounds, we also went to the state farmer’s market, in Raleigh.  Unbelievably and embarrassingly, it was our first visit.While there, I bought three jars of D’Vine’s sassafras jelly.  My child was hankering after peaches and strawberries.  On the way out The Kid stopped at one of the meat purveyors and along with a couple of steaks, picked up some fresh shitake mushrooms.

And after another quick trip to the Co-op for some local corn and pancetta, The Kid was ready to eat.

The protein was an extremely rare Denver steak smothered in a shitake mushroom sauce.

The Kid’s shitake sauce

shitake sauce

1 pound shitake mushrooms, cleaned sliced, with stems removed

Fat from cooking steak

½ cup sherry or cognac

1 ½ cup beef stock

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

3-4 tablespoons butter

Salt and pepper to taste

While steaks are resting, turn the cooking pan on medium-high.  Without cleaning pan, add mushrooms, season, and sauté until the liquid releases then cooks out, and mushrooms start to caramelize.

Deglaze with sherry and cook until the pan is dry again.  Pour in beef stock.  Bring to a boil, and let cook until it has reduced to half, and thickened slightly.

Whisk in cold butter until the sauce has thicken and is glossy and smooth.  Add back mushrooms, check seasoning, then spoon over steaks.

The Kid then attended to a side dish.

To make this recipe you need to cut the kernels off the cob.  To do this, stand up the shucked cob on a cutting board.  Run a sharp knife down the cob, slicing off the corn.  This is kind of messy, but the sharper the knife, the neater it will be.  Some people swear by standing the cob in the center of a Bundt pan, but I never noticed a big difference in cleanliness.  After stripping, using the back side of the knife, scrape the cob, gathering the corn juice.

Fresh corn and pancetta

corn pancetta

5 or 6 ears of fresh corn and juice, shucked and off the cob

¼ pound pancetta, chopped

1 shallot, diced

Salt and pepper to taste

Put pancetta in a skillet on medium, and cook until all the fat is rendered and the pancetta is crispy.  Remove and set aside.

Sauté shallots until they just begin to brown.  Then add corn, and turn to medium-high.  Stirring frequently, cook until it begins to caramelize around the edges and the moisture has cooked off.  Remove from heat, check for seasoning, and add back the pancetta.  Serves 2-3.

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The Kid’s finished dish.  Dig those groovy black plates.

I think the only way The Kid would have liked the meal more is if there had been a produce picnic smack in the middle of the Durham garden in which it had been grown.

p rabbit

Thanks for your time.