Fruit of Vroom

Crowley blogMy brilliant idea kind of all started when I inadvertently found a new treat for my Whirlpool-sized pooch, Crowley.

I’m a sucker for the word “Clearance”.  Honestly, I’d buy a case of the bubonic plague if it had a big yellow sticker and was marked down 90%.  I’ve actually found items this way that have become pantry staples (sunflower butter), and other items that I’d give one of my kidneys to find again (Oh, Mrs. Thinster’s Salted Caramel Cookie Thins, where are you?).


But I got a great deal…

So anyway, I eat tons of dried fruit, and found some peaches on a huge markdown.  I eat the chewy kind of dried fruit, but these were of the freeze-dried persuasion.

Most dried fruit is dried by the sun or mechanical means, but with enough moisture left to make it sticky and pliable—think raisins or prunes.On the other hand, freeze-dried fruit is completely desiccated.  The process is known as lyophilization.  Think the crispy, crumbly Styrofoam-like food sold in camping and survival stores and used by NASA and the military.  What I had scored on the sale shelf was freeze-dried peaches.

When I bought them, I figured I’d eat them as little sweet snacks, like candy.  I like peaches.  But the flavor of these peaches shocked me.  I knew they were freeze-dried, I knew that meant that as the ice was drawn off the intensity of their “peach-ness” was magnified; but it must have been by about a million.peach trifleThey were like the taste of every peach I’d ever eaten.  Every can of fruit cocktail, every bowl of cobbler, every Hostess fruit pie had combined to create this huge peach punch to my taste buds.  One bite was my limit.

Thus, Crowley’s new treat—he loves them, in all their peachy glory.

blueberry meringue

A sight to rival Mona Lisa…

Then I saw a recipe for blueberry meringue.  Meringue is a chemical, physical reaction that doesn’t leave room for fiddling.  Add any type of fat, including egg yolk, and the whole shebang will probably never come together.  Add too much liquid, and you get bupkis.  You even need to be careful not to overdo it when adding extract or food coloring.

So, for blueberry flavor, the genius who came up with this recipe used dried blueberries!heliotropWhich is brilliant, because you get buckets of taste and also as a bonus, it becomes a gorgeous heliotrope color.

Yesterday I made one of my strawberry cakes for a friend’s Easter dinner.  After all this freeze-dried fun, I decided to conduct an experiment. cake 2Instead of plain jam added to the frosting, I added only two tablespoons of jam, and also a couple tablespoons of finely crushed strawberries.  It lowered the amount of liquid I needed to use, and made the frosting less likely to get soft and run if the cake was in a warm environment.  I also added a couple tablespoons of the crushed berries to the cake crumbs that I pressed into the sides of the cake.  This turned the crumbs a really pretty, springy shade of pink; almost Barbie-ville.

The success of the strawberry cake got me thinking about what else could freeze-dried fruit do.freeze dried buttersCompound butter.  Last week I talked about flavored butter and encouraged imagination and experimentation.  So, imagine making a fruit compound butter.  What about apples and cinnamon?  For those of you with death defying taste buds, how about habañero/mango?  Here’s one:  An Elvis; freeze-dried bananas, finely chopped peanuts, and crushed crispy bacon.

I believe I’ll have some of that butter on my toast.  Thank you very much.

I am no food genius and not the first person to come up with this idea.  I’m more of a village idiot who discovered something really cool, but also the town crier who’s telling you about it.idiotThanks 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

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.