They call me Tater Salad

Both of us were very happy at dinner tonight.For Petey, there were big, fat, baked pork chops. When I took them from the freezer, I made a rub using coffee salt, freshly cracked peppercorns, ground caraway seeds, thyme, and fresh rosemary.  I rubbed it all over the chops and put them in the fridge to thaw.

When it came time to cook them I tossed them into a bag of flour.  Them I ran them through a pan of buttermilk and pressed pecan pieces and whole grain cracker crumbs all over them.I set the oven to 375 degrees.  I put a little vegetable oil into a shallow baking dish and nestled the pork chops inside.  I inserted a probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thickest chop.

Common wisdom used to be to cook the pork chops until there was no moisture left in the meat.

But there are a few problems with that tactic.  Pork is very much leaner than it used to be, so the meat comes out dry.  And cooking them to a temperature of 160 or so makes the meat come out very dry.  So the end result is pork that is very dry.Did I mention it would be dry?

Even the USDA, historically a very conservative and safety conscious bunch, now recommends that pork only needs to be cooked to 145 degrees.  I cook our pork chops to 140, which gives us a very light pink center.  Even if pink is not a color you want in your chop, 145 will be cooked through, but still juicy, and a radical sea change from the chalk-like 160 or higher.

So that was Petey’s treat.  What was mine?Tater salad.

I don’t remember exactly I lost my heart and mind to potato salad, but I do know that unbelievably when I was little I didn’t like it.  If you’ve read more than one or two of these essays, you know that my two favorite foods on the planet are potato salad and birthday cake.  And even I know that woman cannot live on birthday cake alone—although I’d be happy to volunteer for a study to find out exactly how much birthday cake one can live on.  So if you know somebody in research…Anyway.

My treat tonight was the potato salad portion of the program.  And I was trying out a new recipe.

That’s the great thing, but also most problematic part of potato salad.  When I googled recipes, I got 6.33 million results.  Putting “classic” in front only lowers that number to 1.78 million.  There is no one right recipe.  It varies according to culture, geographical region, ingredient availability, and even mood.


What this means is that there are numerous amazing, delicious versions of the dish.  And there are just as many recipes for dreck.  Mustard, celery, relish?  Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

But, you might think that broccoli or olive oil are abominations.  Everyone has a place at the potato salad table.  So pull up a seat, and grab a fork.

Thanks for your time.

Parma potato salad

parma potato salad3 pounds red skin or yellow potatoes

½ red onion, diced

½ cup pancetta, cut into strips, cooked until crispy, and set aside

3 tablespoons pancetta fat, divided (if you don’t have enough, add olive oil)

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Zest of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup mayonnaise

Salt & pepper

In a large heavy pot with heavily salted water, boil unpeeled potatoes until a knife easily pierces it.  Drain, and let cool.  When fully cool, peel and cut into bite-size chunks.

Place into a large bowl along with onion, and drizzle 2 tablespoons of fat over veg, along with salt and pepper to taste.  Gently stir to coat.  Cover, and let sit at room temperature for thirty minutes.

Make dressing.  In a small bowl whisk together the last tablespoon of fat, Parmesan, lemon juice, zest, thyme, and mayo.  Season, taste, and reseason if necessary.  Cover and refrigerate thirty minutes.

Thirty minutes before service mix dressing into potatoes starting with about ¾ of it, adding more if needed. 

Sprinkle pancetta on top of each serving.  Serves 4-6.

I’ve never said this before, but I can’t even.


All souped up

The Matthews family is pleased and proud to announce that we are Durham’s premiere recipients of the 2017 summer cold.And the only thing I’m pleased and proud about is that none of us has dropped dead—this thing is a doozy.  It makes the Black Death look like a paper cut.

So, at mealtime, I want something quick and easy to get on the table, and we all want something warm and cozy, that makes us feel loved and nurtured.

Chowder is the flannel pajamas of the food world.  But what is the difference between a chowder, and say, a cream of mushroom soup?  Is it the inclusion of fish or clams?

They’re both creamy soups, but a classic cream soup is pureed and not chunky.  Chowder is much more rustic; containing identifiable vegetable chunks and normally made with some type of thickener, like starch, or cracker crumbs or flour.

I use what is called a beurre manié (pronounced ‘burr mahn-yay’; it’s French for “kneaded butter”).  It’s softened butter with flour beaten in.  In hearth cooking this thickener is used because there is no ability to fine tune cooking temperatures, and roux can be more finicky, with very little room for error.  Instead, you can just drop in a knob of beurre manié, adding more as needed.To make it you just take a softened stick of butter and start by adding ¼ cup of flour.  Use a spatula or small wooden spoon, and just like the name says, knead it in, adding more flour until it has taken as much flour as possible (usually equal parts butter/flour).

I start the whole process by rendering pancetta until the fat is released, and the meat’s crispy.  Boar’s Head sell bags of pancetta already chopped and ready to go.  As for the dairy, any type is good, as long as you use at least ½ cup skim milk; that will keep the soup from separating.  And King’s Red & White on Club Blvd in Durham always has bags of sweet delicious shoe peg corn in their freezer.  If I can’t get fresh, that’s what I use.

The soup takes just a bit of work to put together, but once it’s made, it will take just minutes to heat up, or you can put it in a slow cooker and it will be waiting for you.I like making the soup, then having various garnishes available for diners to dress their bowls the way they like.  Some ideas for garnishes are the crispy pancetta, for starters.  Also, shredded cheese, green onions, oyster crackers, lightly poached crab meat, or raw spinach or kale.The Matthews family band are all of legal drinking age.  We have recently discovered a beverage which, when imbibed before retiring, helps to give us a cough-free night of peaceful slumber.  It’s a twist on the homemade cough syrup my mother used to force feed us growing up.

It’s hot, boozy lemonade.  For each serving, heat one cup of water.  Stir in ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice and honey to taste.  Pour it into a large mug and add as much bourbon as the patient desires.  If it doesn’t knock you out, you haven’t added enough.cold bewareThanks for your time.

Corn and russet chowder

corn chowder

1 cup ½-inch pancetta cubes

3 medium sized russet potatoes, cut into ½-inch cubes

2 cups shoe peg corn

1 small yellow onion diced

3 cups chicken stock

2 cups dairy, including at least ½ cup skim milk

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped

Salt & pepper

Beurre manié made with ½ softened butter and approx. ½ cup flour

In a large heavy pot set to medium, render pancetta until crispy.  Remove from pot, leaving 2 tablespoons rendered fat.  Add potatoes, corn, and onion.  Season, add nutmeg, and cook until veg start to brown and get crispy around the edges.

Pour in stock and cook on a low simmer until the potatoes are cooked through (15-20 minutes).

Stir in dairy and bring to a gentle simmer.  Whisk in beurre manié until it is thick and creamy.  Stir in parsley, check for seasoning, and serve with garnishes of your choice.

Serves 4-6.

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:  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.


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.

A Kernel of Truth

Originally published in the Herald-Sun 12/19/2012.

At our house, we are huge fans of carby comfort food.

We have a repertoire of dishes, everything from blue box mac, to an invented dish we call a ‘pasta toss’ (pasta, usually with sautéed veg and lots of lemon and garlic).

When Petey is saving lives at Duke, my baby and I dine alone.  On those nights we love nothing better than to get into our jimmies, and hop onto the couch with a couple of plates of steamy noodle goodness.  Then we dine, while watching a cinematic classic like, “Super Lobster Versus Mega Kitten”.

One night, prowling the Food Network website, I came upon a picture of a pasta dish with corn and green onions.

It looked fresh and light, yet luxurious.  Crazy gorgeous.  It made my stomach rumble.

I copy/pasted the illustration, and emailed it to The Kid, who was ensconced upstairs in the fortress of solitude, with various beeping and blinking devices.

It was given a thumb’s up.  We decided to create our own corn and pasta dish.

We immediately started making plans.

For pasta, we decided on parpadelle.  It’s as long as spaghetti, but as wide as an egg noodle.  The good stuff is as silky as a French nightgown.  It’s eggy and yummy.

For flavoring and fat in which to saute, we decided to go with pancetta.  It’s Italian.  They make it with pork belly, which also makes our American bacon.  It’s cured and rolled. But unlike bacon, which is smoked, pancetta is never smoked, but flavored with peppercorns and other herbs and spices, like rosemary and juniper berries.

Although I am an onion lover, my child is not, so instead of green onions for our dish, we would stir in a handful of fresh chopped parsley.  This would give us both color and fresh bright flavor.

As for our star of the show, corn, a trip to the farmers’ market presented us with a myriad of choices.  We settled on some beautiful sweet juicy ears still in their pale green silky robes.

Some stuff about fresh corn:

As soon as the ear leaves the stalk, the sugars in those sweet kernels start converting to starch.  In two days, about 80% of the sugar has mutated.  So, only buy fresh corn on the day you will use it.  And don’t buy it if it’s been languishing at the grocery store for days. The way to get the tastiest corn is to get freshly picked.

Otherwise, buy frozen.

Don’t be ashamed to be seen in the freezer aisle.  IQF, or individually quick frozen vegetables is the way most veg are prepared these days.  They’re cleaned and frozen as quickly as possible, sometimes within minutes, in buildings just feet from the fields in which they grew.  I promise they will be fresher than the sad, middle-aged specimens declining in your supermarket veggy department.

To shuck corn, quicker and cleaner; drop each ear into boiling water for a count of fifteen.  This will make the silk practically jump off the corn.  To completely eliminate the mess and bother, make the kids do it–outside.

To get the kernels off the cob, just hold the cob upright on a cutting board, and cut down with a sharp knife, turn it, and repeat.  After kernels are removed, scrape down the cob with the back of your knife, to get the juice.

Some folks swear by resting the cob on the opening of an upright bundt pan.  The theory is all the stuff goes only into the pan.  It never works for me.  It is a messy job, no getting around it.  I suggest a drop cloth, and a shower after.

Once we had our components, we set about making our newest pasta toss.  It was a blast conspiring together to create this new recipe.

Happily, all the fevered intrigue paid off.  It’s the perfect, yummy plate to devour while watching “Grizzlygator versus Colossal Hedgehog 2”.  This time I hear it’s personal.

Summer Corn & Parpadelle

Serves four as a side dish, or two as a main.

1 lb parpadelle

¼ lb thick sliced pancetta, cut into cubes

2 cloves garlic, peeled, and smashed, or thickly sliced

6 ears fresh corn, cut from cob (or 12-16 ounces frozen shoe peg, if fresh is not available)

1 shallot, diced

1/3 cup white wine

1 cup chicken stock

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

2 T butter

1/3 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Salt and pepper

Set a very large pot with heavily salted water on to boil.  When it boils, add pasta and cook ‘til al dente. 

In a large heavy skillet, cook pancetta until completely browned on medium-low, and remove from pan. Turn up to medium, and put garlic in.  Cook until lightly golden and fragrant.  Remove and discard. 

Put shallots into skillet, and cook until softened and lightly translucent.  Add corn with juice.  Cook until the liquid is almost gone, and add wine, and stir to coat everything.  When wine has evaporated, add chicken stock, and turn up to medium-high. 

Let it bubble away to thicken, while paprpadelle is cooking.  When the consistency is right, turn off heat, and stir in cheese and butter (called mounting).

When the noodles are done, don’t strain them, remove from water with tongs or a large slotted spoon, and add directly to sauce.  Add parsley, and toss everything together.  If the sauce is too stiff, add a little pasta water to thin it.

Check for seasoning, plate, scatter top with pancetta bits, and serve. 

The Kid called this past weekend, and told me next week’ll be finals for food and wine compatibility class.  The directive is a dish that pairs well with a chardonnay.

Guess what recipe my child is choosing to make for the exam?

Thanks for your time.