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.

Dining Alone

or

Happily Ever After Everybody Leaves

Originally published in the Herald Sun 3/4/2012

The Kid and I have this thing. If we can’t decide what to eat, we employ the “magic wand” gambit.
We close our eyes, and pretend that our imaginary, enchanted, baton has the power to grant us anything our brain-stomach collectives can envision.
A burger from a joint near my junior high, 2500 hundred miles and thirty-five years away. Or waffles from the actual Cinderella castle at Disney World. Maybe guacamole made by Chef Chrissie, my sensai, and the closest thing to a big brother The Kid has (not including the dog).
Then we adjust downward.
Since there’s no winner in the time/space X Prize, I make Del Taco’s hamburger myself (it’s really just a burger with tomato and Miracle Whip). Visiting Orlando is out, but I have a waffle iron, and make a mean sourdough/chocolate chip version.
Choosing guac, though, is dicey.
Avocados are not able to ripen on the tree, so they are shipped, and arrive hard.
“How unripe are they?”
I’m glad you asked.
They’re so new, they think that Angelina Jolie is a heart-stoppingly beautiful movie legend, a humanitarian warrior for the voiceless, a loving partner and mother to biological children and orphans from around the globe.
And not a home-wrecker.
But I recently made a discovery.
Some stores sell a lot of avocados. Some, not so much. Those slower volume stores will sometimes have avocados that have been around for a while, and have done their ripening for you in the produce section. Every once in a while, the universe aligns itself just because you deserve a bowl of Chrissie’s guac (The last time The Kid was home from college, the universe did just that. We gorged ourselves on guacamole for days. Short of Chrissie coming in from Chicago and whipping it up for us, it was a flawless magic wand performance.).
Three nights a week, my ever-lovin’ spouse works overnight at Duke. Before driver’s licenses and New England, The Kid and I used those evenings to investigate personal gastronomic theories, and indulge wand inspired whims.
Nowadays, alone after Petey leaves for work, I break out my private dinner scepter.
Those meals are bound by nothing but taste, mood, and pantry.
I cook for only myself; all the stuff I’ve been craving.
Once, as a little girl visiting relatives in New Jersey, I went to a sleep-over at the house of my second cousin, and her three daughters (There’s “kin” in Jersey, too.)
Back then, in the old days, an authority figure put food on the table, no questions asked. Children’s sole input was the mandatory cleaning of the plate.
In a shocking twist, Cousin Dody put the menu entirely into our hands.
That was the night that the wand and I first met.
We dined on hot dogs, Jiffy-Pop, and root beer. Dessert was rock candy.
Now, I often want childhood favorites. Blue box mac, pb&j’s (apple jelly rulez), mashed potatoes and corn. Last Sunday night, I ate a nutmeg dusted bowl of oatmeal and fruit.
Occasionally, it’s a full-on dinner that I cook from the ground up. Sometimes I go for a diner-style breakfast for supper. Some weeks, it’s chocolate (Or murder. I’ve decided on chocolate.).
Many nights I have salad. Sometimes it’s a salad to make a nutritionist proud. Crisp greens, fruit, veggies, some nuts, a little parm, and a light dressing.
But about half the time, my salad would make the same nutritionist take an extended sabbatical to reexamine their life choices.
There is my very favorite, potato, and all it’s numerous starchy, fatty variations. But a lot of times my rib-sticking dinner salad is pasta based.
This afternoon, I bought a couple of thick, beautiful, ruby red slices of London Broil from the prepped food case at Whole Foods. I knew I had plenty of other salad stuff at home, including about a cup of leftover rotini.
Tonight, I thought about what I wanted. A variety of textures. Cool and not too heavy, but creamy and comforting. And, I wanted to have a balance of all the flavor notes–salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. What resulted was half bowl of pasta to eat in my jimmies in front of “The Supersizers Go” (amazing show on foodtv, check it, home slice), and half lab experiment, selecting items on the fly from my test kitchen that could provide the desired accent.

Performance Art Pasta Salad

1 cup cooked salad-friendly shaped pasta
4 oz cold very rare beef * (deli counter or leftover), sliced length of the pasta, 1/4 inch thin
*vegetarians could substitute grilled portobellos, or tofu
2 cups baby spinach
1/3 cup dried blueberries
1/4 cup roughly chopped, salted pistachios
1/4 cup manchego or very dry English cheddar, shaved into salad with potato peeler
1/4 cup green onions, both white and green parts, sliced very thin on extreme bias
salt and pepper
Dressing:
1/3 best olive oil (best in your kitchen, my best usually comes from Costco)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise (makes dressing feel creamy on the salad, and the palate)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
Whisk together all ingredients until an emulsion is formed. Check on a piece of spinach for seasoning. Lemony things demand more salt, and the juice may be too sour, so that a little more honey is called for. Taste and adjust, please!
Refrigerate for 30-60 minutes before folding into pasta.

Gently toss all ingredients, while slowly adding the dressing. Stop adding it when everything is barely, barely coated. The water from the spinach, and the juice in the steak will contribute lots of flavor, and liquid, to the final dish. Cover with plastic wrap to rest at room temperature. In 15-20 minutes, give it another gentle toss. Check for seasoning, plate, and serve.

To be perfectly honest, after I mixed it but before I had tasted it, I got a little nervous. There were some seriously non-traditional participants and combinations in that salad. But when I tasted it, I was delighted. The flavors worked. The dried blueberries were a little out there, but they were my favorite part. The chewiness was met with nutty crunch and the burst of sour/sweet was a perfect foil for the salty/funky meat and cheese.
This may sound perfectly dreadful to you. But that’s the point. I made it with my own magic wand.
You’re a grownup, it is your druthers. It doesn’t matter if the fantasy banquet for one is to dine on the perfect Waygu steak, champagne-glazed fiddlehead ferns, and fresh porcinis seared in brown butter, or chilling in your underwear, swilling YooHoo and munching Funyuns, while watching the “Prime Minister’s Questions”, the wand is yours, to do with as you wish.
Close you eyes, and pick it up.
Thanks for your time.

Tastes like chicken

I’ve always felt that there are two kinds of people who frequent tea parties (not counting little kids and their guests drinking imaginary tea out of thimbles).
First, genteel ladies and gentlemen who like to get dressed up, and be around other fancy types. I don’t know a whole lot of those people; I mainly hobnob with the sweat suit set.
Next are folks who are just nuts about tea; the history and lore, the various types and flavors. My tea appreciation begins and ends with giant Luzianne bags for pitchers of sun tea. Somehow, I produced The Kid, who is a genuine, over-the-moon tea fanatic. In my child’s pantry are two full shelves dedicated to all things tea.
Last week I discovered a third variety of tea party enthusiast, and also discovered I am one of them.
It’s that enlightened subset who shows up at tea parties for the grub.
I was invited to the Washington Duke Inn (3001 Cameron Blvd.) for tea. Constance Lue, the founder of the Old North State Tea Society, was our guide through the history and etiquette of the phenomena that is afternoon tea.
Here are a few tea facts I’ll bet you didn’t know:
Tea was responsible for much of the suffragette movement. Tea houses were the first respectable venues where a woman could go unaccompanied. High tea, contrary to popular belief, is not an extra-fancy tea, but is a working man’s tea, with a full supper. And my favorite tidbit; one of the welcome benefits of an at-home ladies-only tea, was the opportunity to remove one’s corset, and actually take a nice, deep breath for the first time all day.
At the hotel, in addition to an offering of various teas, we were presented with a three-tiered stand upon which was heaped both sweet and savory treats. There were finger sandwiches, tiny quiche and deviled eggs. On the sugar-coated end of the spectrum were brownies, truffles, chocolate-dipped strawberries and fruit tarts.
In the middle tier, next to the quiche, was a tart filled with chicken salad. Petey is a chicken salad man, I’m not really a connoisseur. But since I’d recently made a batch with a giant roasted Costco chicken, I was eager to sample their version.

Culture and civility abound at the afternoon tea at the Washington Duke Inn, in Durham, NC, held daily. And the food's pretty darn good, too.

Culture and civility abound at afternoon tea at the Washington Duke Inn, in Durham, NC, held daily. And the food’s pretty darn good, too.

Chef Jason Cunningham kindly offered the recipe off the top of his head, which I hurriedly transcribed. So the amounts may be off a bit, but the beauty of chicken salad is its flexible and forgiving nature.

Chef Jason’s WaDuke chicken salad

3 chicken breasts, poached in chicken stock spiked with orange juice, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
½ small red onion, diced
½ bell pepper, diced
Duke’s mayonnaise, to taste
1/2 cup seedless grapes, sliced in half
1/3 cup toasted pecan pieces
Salt & pepper

Toss first 5 ingredients with enough mayo to moisten. Fold in grapes. Season, and taste for seasoning level. Sprinkle top with pecan pieces, so the nut intolerant can remove if needed.

I thought for fun, I’d give you my newest chicken salad recipe, to compare.
My original salad had toasted pecans. But I decided since the WaDuke salad has pecans, I’d switch to pistachios, as a nod to them. The Fairview at the Washington Duke consistently does amazing things with pistachios.

Debbie’s WaDuke-kissed chicken salad

Dressing:
3/4 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons garlic oil (slowly poach 2 cloves garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil until golden, then strain )
Salt and pepper to taste

Whisk ingredients together.

Salad:

2 1/2 cups shredded chicken from supermarket roast
1 ½ tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 shallot, diced
1 ripe Bartlett pear, peeled, cleaned, cut into ¼ inch cubes, and tossed with 1 ½ teaspoons vinegar
½ cup chopped pistachios

Mix together with desired amount of dressing. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate 30 minutes before serving.

You can have chicken salad on dainty, crust-less bread with a cup of tea.
Or, you can eschew the gloves and hat, throw on a sweat suit, load up some Wonder bread, and serve with Funyuns and a bottle of Yoo-hoo.
But regardless of which style you choose, don’t stick out your pinky. That’s actually rather tacky.
Thanks for your time.