Monday, May 31, 2010

We All Cheer for Cheerwine!

After living in North Carolina for three years, I’m becoming familiar with some local specialties. I had enjoyed boiled peanuts in Florida and was thrilled to see them here as well. I love sweet tea. Thanks to Matt and Ted Lee for recommending Duke’s mayonnaise. Cherry Lemon Sun Drop took some time, but it too has grown on me. As has Cheerwine.

Cheerwine is a cherry-flavored soda that was first bottled in 1917. Rowan County, NC, has the highest consumption of Cheerwine. Since it’s a native of Rowan County, that’s really no surprise. I wouldn’t say that Cheerwine tastes like cherry soda. The flavor is hard to describe, so I will go with cherryesque. Once you get accustomed to it, it’s quite enjoyable. Since I live in Rowan County, I frequently run into items made with Cheerwine, most notably Cheerwine slush and Cheerwine cake. The best product that I’ve discovered, however, is the Cheerwine truffle.

Carla and Mark Whaley are the owners of Carla Anne’s Homestyle Cookies in Spencer, NC. After passing Mark and Carla’s booth at any number of the farmer’s markets I’ve been to, I stopped in. The Cheerwine truffles caught my eye. $3 for four truffles? That’s a steal. LA eyed them ominously, but took one anyway. The center of the truffle is a very moist red cake, almost like red velvet, but with the cherryesque flavor of Cheerwine. These are then coated with white or milk chocolate. I inhaled mine. Carla explained that she was asked to come up with the truffles and a barbecue cookie (I didn’t ask) for the Salisbury Rowan Cultural Arts Festival. Cheerwine syrup is purchased directly from the Carolina Bottling Company for the truffles, which gives it a stronger flavor than using a can of the soda. If you’re listening, Cheerwine, you should definitely endorse this product!

Carla and Mark moved here about a year ago from Modesto, CA. They had wanted to get their bakery up and running there, but, as anyone who’s ever met a Californian knows, California certainly loves the regulations. I’m glad they moved here. I wouldn’t have known the joy of the Cheerwine truffle otherwise!

Carla Anne’s sells a number of baked goods, as well, such as cookies, brownies, and cupcakes. I’ve had the chocolate chip cookie. It’s moist, as a good chocolate chip cookie should be. Carla and Mark attend all of the markets in the area—Kannapolis, Winecoff School Rd, China Grove, and Salisbury, and they have a schedule on their website. You actually have to try not to run into them somewhere. You can’t miss their booth—they have a giant banner that says Carla Anne’s. They also have samples of some the cookies and brownies. Definitely buy some of the truffles. If you’re not a fan of Cheerwine now, you will be after you’ve eaten just one of the truffles.

P.S. The Cheerwine website is awesome.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I'm Hot

The theme of Thursday’s farmer’s market in Kannapolis? I’m Hot. That was the conversation heard between all vendors and customers. “How are you doing today?” “I’m hot.” I was wishing that I had a pith helmet with a fan in the brim. Or a spray bottle with the little fan attached. Maybe even an umbrella hat. Anything to provide a smidgen of relief from the day’s heat. I shouldn’t complain. The vendors had to sit out in the heat for three hours. I was only there for 20 minutes.

I had been dreaming of potato salad, so I bought some white creamer potatoes. I’ll admit I picked out some of the smallest ones. I am intrigued by tiny potatoes. I later boiled the potatoes whole, then halved or quartered them (depending on the size) and tossed them with the Stone House mustard vinaigrette while they were still hot. Potatoes absorb more flavor when they’re hot than when they’re cold. After they had cooled, I mixed some Duke’s mayonnaise (my favorite) with a little Stone House mustard and tossed the potatoes in it. I had to restrain myself so I wouldn’t eat the whole bowl right then and there.

After talking to Todd from T&D Charolais on several occasions, I decided it was time to try some of his products. I’m on a budget, but I wanted something that I could eat unadorned (unlike stew meat), so I bought hamburger patties.  I wanted to taste the beef and not all of the other ingredients in a stew. I’m not a fan of the hamburger bun, so I had my burger on toast. My burger actually tasted like beef! It’s easy to forget what beef is supposed to taste like when all you’ve eaten in years is shipped-in, hormonal industrial beef from who knows where. Todd’s beef is all-natural and raised on a ranch in China Grove. I won’t be buying any more beef from the supermarket. Todd’s beef may be a little more expensive, but it’s worth it. And the price difference isn’t that much anyway.

I also decided it was time to procure one of Darryl’s silverware items. The blade of a hollow-handled dinner knife was cut off, leaving the handle much like a bud vase. Then a pin was attached to the back. I bought this for my bag. Maybe I’ll put a flower in it, maybe I won’t. Either way, the pin is unique and I love it. Darryl had made it on request, but the customer never returned, so I got it. It’s one-of-a-kind. Just like me.

I also spent several minutes talking to Joanie, of Ohana Favorites. Joanie makes the apricot mango red pepper jelly that I love. LA has nearly finished the apple butter that he purchased from her. I’ve sampled a few of her other jellies as well. One of the best that I’ve tasted is the lavender chamomile jelly. I don’t care for lavender or chamomile, but the combination works. Joanie also sells cookies and brownie bits. For 50¢, I got a tropical cookie that was made with oatmeal and chopped tropical fruit. It was very sweet, so I didn’t finish it all. The chocolate chip cookies were less expensive, but I was quite happy with my 50¢ purchase. I have a jar of dried tropical fruit, so I may attempt some similar cookies in the near future. Joanie has other products as well, including vegetables and grains, such as quinoa.

While the Kannapolis market is smaller than some of its other counterparts, I still see several familiar faces. Plus it’s closer to my house. While it may not be as close as my local supermarket, I will happily travel the extra distance every Thursday for the rest of the summer to buy what I can. I just need a dairy farmer to turn up!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Proud to be a Kannapple

Kannapolite? Kannapolitan? How about Kannapple? From all the options available to call myself as a resident of Kannapolis, I think Kannapple is my favorite. It reminds me of Snapple. Who doesn’t love Snapple? It’s made from the best stuff on Earth. It’s a fitting tribute.

I moved to Kannapolis less than a year ago, after a decade spent in “the big city”. The rent was cheap and the commute to work was short. The decision made itself. Having been raised in both small and miniscule towns, before moving to the big city, I was ready to feel like part of a community again. The day after I moved in, one neighbor brought me tomatoes from his garden. No one in the cities had done that. Another worked out an arrangement with me to mow the lawn. How neighborly. (I can actually hear her mowing as I type this.) A statement that I’ve heard many times since moving here is that no one uses their turn signal when driving, because everyone knows where they’re going. I think that may be true. I don’t bother anymore.

The downside of a small town is that everyone knows your business. Or what they think is your business. Kannapolis is big enough that it isn’t a problem. But I was determined to feel like a local. My accent alone sets me apart, but I was hoping to be adopted by the community. Once LA signed on as my roommate, we were determined to become “regulars” somewhere. Turns out, that’s easier than we expected.

Due to its proximity, we chose the North 29 Grill as our regular spot. The North 29 Grill is known to many locals by its former name, The Humdinger. That explains why one of their menu items is a burger named The Humdinger. And a humdinger it is. It’s one of our favorites. After a few visits, we were asked our names. A few visits later, our names were remembered and used whenever we arrived. We no longer had to order drinks, as those turned up when we walked in. The food is not fancy, just burgers, salads, fried items. But we love it. It doesn’t hurt that the cook, LB, is so easy on the eyes. The head waitress, Miss Tammy, is our favorite. She once threatened bodily harm to LA if she turned up in one of his videos. LA and I are both far from our families, so a visit to the North 29 Grill is like a visit with an adopted family. And like family, they accept us as crazy as we are.

I didn’t plan on becoming a regular at Acapulco Tacqueria. That happened quite accidentally. Acapulco is in a former fast food joint, and it still has the drive-thru window, plus menu items listed all over the windows. The building next door is a decrepit laundromat. Overall, it’s not much to look at. I wanted authentic Mexican tacos, not the Taco Bell variety. Acapulco has an extensive menu, with your run-of-the-mill Mexican food, as well as the variety less common north of the border. We learned very early on that we don’t like the mole sauce there, but everything else has been good. They have barbacoa on the menu, which I often order. The waitress that we most often get doesn’t speak English, so she will then get an English-speaking waitress to explain to me that they don’t have the beef barbacoa, they only have lamb. The first time I got the speech, I responded that I was fine with that. I was then interrogated. “Lamb. Are you sure? Lamb?” It was delicious. I have recommended it to others, but they always opt for something a little more ordinary. LA and I have gone several times and have even taken another friend with us on occasion. We are always seated in the same booth. One day, I decided to go by myself. When I walked in, the waitress gave me a funny look and said, “Just you?” Yes, just me. No crazy-looking sidekick today!

Now that I have more free time on my hands, I can (and do) visit the farmer’s market as often as possible. I find that the people we meet there are all strong believers in community. I had visited the Winecoff School Rd. farmer’s market once before I moved to Kannapolis, but it was too long of a drive to make regularly. The farmer’s market nearest me at that time was only open when I was at work. I read articles in many food magazines about the wonders of the farmer’s market, and I wished I had more opportunity to go. I’m now making up for lost time. The food magazines all focus on the food that’s available at the market. I go less for the food and more for the people. Everyone there has a passion, whether it’s for growing vegetables, raising cattle, or making jewelry out of spoons. I feel like I’m among brethren when I’m there. That’s a great feeling.

A friend who was raised in Kannapolis told me recently that I know a lot more about Kannapolis and what’s here than she does. Would you like to know where the lingerie store is? How about the pest control building with the giant cockroaches painted on the side? Are you interested in a bust of Thomas Edison? Or the salon with an arrow labelled “Tanning” that points to an empty field? I can even point you in the direction of a bruja. All it takes is an open mind and a willingness to leave the house. The rest takes care of itself. And when it does, you, like me, will be proud to be a Kannapple!

The North 29 Grill is located at 2800 N. Cannon Blvd.  Acapulco Restaurante y Taqueria is located at 530 S. Cannon Blvd. at the corner of Cannon and Fairview.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Old Stone Vino is the Place to Be

Kannapolis has a lot of restaurants, but very few qualify as the “nice” restaurant, or the one you go to for special occasions. A couple of those are only open on the weekends. Where to go when you want a nice lunch or dinner, but don’t feel like going to a chain? Old Stone Vino. Old Stone Vino is in a stonefront house, sitting next to the train tracks. The house was being remodeled when I first came to town, opening a few months later. It would still be a few months after that before I finally decided to check it out.

Old Stone Vino has a beautiful stone stairway leading to the front door, but they have decided not to make use of it. To get to the door requires a long walk up a wooden ramp from the parking lot. I was actually a bit confused when I initially went, since there is another wooden stairway next to the ramp. I haven’t yet figured out where it leads. The beautiful stone stairway is blocked by either a piece of fabric or a patio table. Either way, it’s confusing.

While the stonework on the outside seems to be new, the same thing can only be said for the paint in the interior. In a style typical of older homes, the house is sectioned into many small rooms, each with two doorways. If the doorframes and some other architectural details were not original, the restorer did a fine job. Along with the new paint are some new light fixtures and molding. All the chairs and tables are black wood. Each dining room houses 2 to 3 tables, and all rooms are painted a different color. The effect is not jarring; rather, the colors work well to separate all rooms while providing a unified feel. Patrons are spread out amongst the rooms, which means that you may have a dining room all to yourself. I quite like this. Lunch feels like an intimate affair, and yelling is not required when communicating with your dining companion. Chain restaurants could learn something from Old Stone Vino.

Our first visit was to celebrate LA’s birthday. Old Stone Vino offered an all-you-can-eat lunch menu, with options including salads, soup, and sandwiches. LA and I each started with creamy tomato basil soup, with a spinach salad. The soup tasted like smooth tomato cream sauce, but more subtle. The woman at the table behind us told her friend that she goes there for the soup alone. LA didn’t care for it, but I did, although I wouldn’t go there solely for that soup. Our salad was composed of spinach, red onion, blue cheese, candied pecans, slices of Granny Smith apple, and an apple cider vinaigrette. Never one to enjoy the flavor of a raw onion, I picked all of them out. LA, being smarter than me, asked for his without the onions. While we both enjoyed the salad, the cook was more generous with LA’s than with mine. He got more apples, more pecans, and more blue cheese. In both cases, the cook was a bit heavy-handed with the vinaigrette. Next we both had a steak panini with carmelized onions. The steak was tender, with the sweetness of the onions making for a delicious sandwich. For a side, we both had the macaroni and cheese. When ordering Old Stone Vino’s mac and cheese, you are given the option of the type of cheese you want for it. The macaroni was cooked in a cream sauce, then topped with your selected cheese and baked before being brought out. LA got his with mozzarella, which I felt was too mild. I could feel the cheese but was unable to taste it. He enjoyed it, and that’s what matters. Mine came topped with melted cheddar, for a much more flavorful dish. While both were good, they were also greasier than I would have preferred.

Old Stone Vino recently changed their menu. We gave them a week to work out the kinks, then went for our second visit. Our first visit had been on a busy weekday, but our second visit was quieter. Our server was very friendly, if not a little too forthcoming. Gone was the all-you-can-eat lunch. The waitress explained that it had been very good for the customers, but was not “cost-effective” for the kitchen. Fair enough. We started with the warm artichoke dip, served with flatbread. The dip was a mix of spinach and artichoke hearts, with tangy goat cheese, topped with mozzarella and diced tomatoes. I felt that it needed a bit of pepper to offset the tanginess, but LA disagreed. Although we loaded up each piece of flatbread with dip, we still ran out of bread with a good deal of dip left in the dish. I asked if we could get more bread, and the waitress replied that it was $1, since giving it away wasn’t “cost-effective”. There’s that word again. I let her know that we would make do without additional bread. Old Stone Vino has the creamy tomato basil soup on the menu every day, plus they have a “soup du jour” listed as well. This always reminds me of the truckstop scene in Dumb and Dumber, but I try not to go through that scenario with every service person I encounter. Both times we have been to Old Stone Vino, we’ve been informed that they only have the tomato soup. Maybe this was my lucky day. The server advised me that the chef was making lobster bisque, but she didn’t know how long it would take to be ready. I ordered a club sandwich with a side of soup. Lobster bisque if it was ready, or tomato basil if it wasn’t. It was ready! The club sandwich arrived on three slices of country bread, with thick-sliced roasted ham and turkey, bacon, lettuce, Roma tomato, and pesto mayonnaise. The menu said the sandwich was made with garlic mayonnaise, but I wasn’t going to send the sandwich back to the kitchen because the mayo was wrong. I happen to like pesto mayo. The sandwich was difficult to eat because a) it was huge, and b) the crust was so crisp that I couldn’t bite through it. Not a sandwich to get if you’re there on a first date. If it’s not your first date, go ahead and order it. Just plan on taking part of it home, as I did. The lobster bisque was a light coral color, drizzled with parsley oil. It had a subtle lobster flavor, with a creamy texture interrupted by small pieces of tomato. I offered a taste of the soup to LA, but he opted not to risk impending death by ingesting shellfish.

LA ordered a vegetable flatbread pizza. Before I could even snap a photo, he had a piece of the pizza in his mouth. When I asked for a description, I got “mmmmmm”, which was then amended to “very light, very tasty”. The pizza was fully loaded with spinach, tomatoes, red pepper, onions, and mozzarella cheese. The new lunch menu is considerably larger than its predecessor, with the inclusion of the pizzas and an expanded salad selection. Apparently the chef loves onions—regardless of the type of salad you order, it will have onions on it. The good news is that the menu states that so people like me can order it without the onions. LA also felt it very important that I mention the decorative jar of lemon slices sitting on the windowsill. He was quite obsessed and told me several times to include that. So, for LA: we noticed a decorative jar of lemon slices sitting on the windowsill.

I believe that the restrooms can say a lot about a place. They are easily overlooked, but very important to me. The restrooms at Old Stone Vino were well-maintained and clean, although the men’s was out of paper towels. There was even a choice of hand sanitizer and hand lotion that looked remarkably like mayonnaise. I asked our server if they had recently gotten a new chef, which may have accounted for the menu change. She said that Brandon Turner became chef a few weeks ago and had been working on the menu since. Making it more cost-effective, I’m sure. So far, I’m impressed. My next visit will be for dinner, since they offer free wine-tastings on Tuesdays and live music on the weekends. While Old Stone Vino is out of my current budget on a regular basis, I like knowing that Kannapolis has a good restaurant where I can go when I want to feel like a grown-up.

Old Stone Vino Bistro & Wine Bar is located at 515 S. Main St. in Kannapolis.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Best Mustard Makes the Best Vinaigrette

I have been cooking since I was 9 years old, when I joined my local 4-H chapter. I am professionally trained. But I start to sweat when I am asked to come up with a recipe. It’s not that I don’t have the ability to do so. I am just not a measurer. When explaining to someone how to make one of my dishes, it usually goes something like, “Dump in this until it looks the way you think it should. Add some of that. If it doesn’t taste right, add some more.” It has worked well for me so far. Until I am asked for the recipe.

I was asked to provide a recipe for a vinaigrette using the Stone House Mustard, about which I am always raving. And I did it! I devised a recipe for the vinaigrette that I would be proud to offer to others or with which to have my name associated. When making a vinaigrette (or anything, really) for my own private comsumption, I rarely follow standard vinaigrette measurements, which means using far less oil than what others before me have dictated. Since this recipe was for the sake of the general public, I opted to be slightly less radical. If you’re a vinaigrette purist, do not send me nasty emails about how the ratio of mustard is off, as the whole point is for some of the spotlight to be on the mustard. Please also bear in mind that this recipe was formulated specifically for the Stone House Mustard. If you make it with a different mustard, start with less. If you use a spicy brown mustard or Dijon mustard, you may also want to add a bit of sugar to tame it. The Stone House Mustard is sweet, with a hint of spiciness, which is why I didn’t add any sugar to this recipe. And, if you make this with a mustard other than Stone House and don’t care for it, you have only yourself to blame.

Stone House Mustard Vinaigrette
Makes about 1 ½ cups

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 shallot, minced
2 tbsp Stone House Mustard
½ teaspon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup light-flavored oil, such as canola or grapeseed oil

Combine all ingredients except for the oil in a bowl, stirring until the mustard dissolves. Whisking constantly, slowly pour in the oil. If the vinaigrette separates, whisk it to emulsify.

One of my recommended uses for the vinaigrette is to serve it with spinach, sliced apples or pears, candied walnuts, and blue cheese. That’s actually the salad that prompted the recipe. I like to keep a batch of the vinaigrette in a jar in the fridge. When it’s time for a salad, I give the jar a good shake to combine all the ingredients, then pour over the salad. It will easily keep for a month, which means always having dressing on hand.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Banana Ketchup Makes Food Tasty!

One cold, rainy day late last November, LA decided that he was tired of sleeping on the floor and waking up with carpet bits in his hair. He was ready to buy a bed. A stop at a local furniture store secured him one bed, to be delivered the following day. As we walked out of the furniture store, I mentioned running across the street to the “Oriental Market”. Initially, we were unable to get in and thought the door was locked. A woman let us in and told us that the door was sticking. We sadly discovered that Ventiane Oriental Market was in its last few weeks of business. The shelves were on the barren side. Towards the back, near the freezers that were no longer running, was a large wooden table filled with ketchup bottles. We picked up a bottle, labelled “banana ketchup”. LA made a face. I had read somewhere a year or two before about banana ketchup and its deliciousness. To LA’s horror and dismay, I bought a bottle. We walked out into the rain, where I immediately opened the bottle and stuck in a finger. I wanted to try it. It was delicious. Full of doubt, LA did the same. We walked right back in (after a brief fight with the door) and each bought another bottle.

Although we had tacos for lunch, we ordered a side of fries as a testing ground for the ketchup. French fries had never tasted so good. The meatloaf I made using the hot and regular varieties of banana ketchup garnered a marriage proposal from LA. While I did turn down the proposal, I was able to appreciate the sentiment. It was that good. A friend recently stopped by with a fast food lunch and asked if I had any ketchup. Regular ketchup. He doesn’t know what he’s missing.

If you give someone banana ketchup and ask them to describe the taste, you will invariably hear, “I dunno. Weird barbecue sauce?” Weird barbecue sauce perhaps, but also the best culinary discovery that I had made in quite some time. Banana ketchup is brownish in color, unless dyed red to look like tomato ketchup, and very similar to barbecue sauce in that respect.  The consistency also isn't as smooth. As the name implies, banana ketchup in made with bananas instead of tomatoes. Banana ketchup does not taste like bananas, and you would be hard-pressed to identify any banana flavor at all. Even the taste more resembles barbecue sauce than tomato ketchup. Banana ketchup is a bit sweeter and less acidic and vinegary than its tomato counterpart. Many varieties include no vinegar at all, unlike tomato ketchup.

I felt I needed to do a bit of research on the banana ketchup. Where did it come from, and why had I never had it before? Turns out, banana ketchup, or banana sauce, is the #1 condiment in the Phillippines. The Filipinos are really on to something! They put it on spaghetti and pizza—uses that Americans would traditionally give to tomato sauce. LA decided to try it on noodles and declared it a winner. I prefer the more traditional American roles of French fry partner and meatloaf assistant. I may also be hesitant to use it on pizza or spaghetti because I am running low, and it is not as easily acquired now that Ventiane has closed. The most readily available brands of banana ketchup are Baron and Jufran. Jufran is owned by the H.J. Heinz company, which could mean banana ketchup turning up in more traditional outlets in the U.S. than just Asian markets. Baron is a St. Lucian company. A visit to their website begins with calypso music and lyrics devoted to their variey of products, including tomato and banana ketchups and mango chutney. You’ll be singing the song for hours. Both brands are available on Amazon. Another option for the truly adventurous is to make your own banana ketchup. Recipes abound and can easily be found by doing an internet search of “banana ketchup recipe”. I haven’t made any of these yet, although I’m sure I will be before too long. My bottle is almost empty, and I don’t want to envision a future without banana ketchup.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I Can't Hear You Over the Farmer's Market

80 degrees. Sunny. Low humidity. Slight breeze. Put all of these things together, and you get a fantastic day to go to the farmer’s market. The NC Research Campus farmer’s market opened today, although the name is a bit misleading. It has typically been held on the Research Campus, but this year has moved to a parking lot on Main St. across the street from the Kannapolis train station. LA would be riding the bus from his house, so I was to meet him at the bus stop/train station. Since it was such a lovely day, I decided to go to the market a little early. I drove around Cannon Village, looking for the best parking spot, and I saw a firetruck pulled up in front of the storefronts, taking up several spaces. Maybe someone was hurt or one of the empty locations was ablaze. Fortunately, the fireman had just stopped for some ice cream. It really was a good day for it. I went through the antique store, sat at the bus stop and played Sudoku, then finally decided that I’d been stood up. So I went to the farmer’s market alone.

The market was small, with about 10 vendors, many of whom I recognized from Saturdays on Winecoff School Rd. Darryl Mall was there with his silverware and sculptures, so I took a few more photos of his smaller pieces. Only the larger pieces are shown on his website, and I would like everyone to see how cool his jewelry and smaller pieces are. We did talk a little about his background, as Darryl’s dad is from Boulder, CO. Small world!

The NCRC market even has live music! I didn’t realize this until I was in the middle of a conversation with Darryl, and suddenly I couldn’t hear him over the singing.

Three local bakeries were represented, all offering some handsome goodies. I was highly tempted, but I did not succumb! The jellymaker was there, with her small jars of unusual jellies. She was doing a good business, so I didn’t talk to her today. I’ll have many more opportunities and will be profiling her in an upcoming post.

I stopped and talked to Todd Mauldin of T&D Charolais and stated that he owes me an email! He promised that he would send me additional information about his farm, the history, and their products. I’ll be posting that as soon as possible. We talked a little about the ability to get almost everything you could possibly need at the farmer’s market and my hopes to get all of you readers out of your seats and up to a market ASAP. Seriously, guys, what’s the hold up? You see that I’m meeting some great people, finding some fantastic food, hearing live music. And you don’t even have to pay an entrance fee. I also encourage people to take their kids. We are getting further and further away from our food sources, so I feel it’s very important that our kids understand where food comes from and what it tastes like when it’s grown with love.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Papillon? No, That Was About a Prison Break

I was expecting a dinner guest this evening, which meant that I had to put a bit more than the usual effort into my offerings. “Welcome to my home. Would you like some Pasta-Roni?” would more than likely ensure that the dinner guest did not return. That wasn’t the desired outcome, so I worked up another option. In all honesty, I had an idea in my head in the event of an unexpected visitor. All I had to do was make it. Some of the items in my pantry had been beckoning me—“Make something delicious out of me. I don’t like collecting dust.” Of course, I had been offering excuses to them about why they needed to be patient. They were special and would be eaten when the unattractive items were gone. But a dinner guest deserves something better. Something that looks like I slaved over the meal for hours on end, gently coaxing out flavors and perfecting the presentation. This was a job for Mediterranean Chicken en Papillote!

I love the idea of cooking en papillote, which is French for "in a packet". A big, golden, delicious-smelling packet is brought to the table, with each diner tearing it open to see what magnificence awaits inside. Cooking en papillote is usually done with parchment paper, although aluminum foil is a very common substitute. I have an industrial-sized box of parchment paper, so I use that whenever possible. The beauty of cooking anything in a packet is that clean-up is so easy. All you really need is a baking sheet to hold the packets. Everything cooks in the paper, and you just throw that away at the end of the meal. Food cooked en papillote is also healthier. Enough oil is needed to prevent your protein from sticking to the paper, but the selected foods just steam inside their packet. Very low-fat! The downside to cooking anything in a packet is that you don’t have the ability to check for doneness. It really is a test of faith. If you undershoot it, you have to wrap everything back up and continue cooking. The other possibility is overcooked food. This may not be a problem if you’re cooking only vegetables, but no one wants to end up with dry and rubbery chicken or fish.

My guest was a no-show, but I decided to proceed with the meal. I had been planning dinner in my head for the last 24 hours, and I wasn’t going to miss out simply because I’d be dining alone. I would like to take a moment to congratulate myself on this being a true escapade. Everything was already in my fridge, freezer, or pantry; I didn’t buy a single ingredient for use specifically in this dish. Since this is another pantry meal, I can’t give measurements. Everything is just a guideline for making your own. I eyeballed it to give me a good meat/veg ratio, but you may want to omit or double some of the items. Other herbs, seasonings, flavoring liquids may also be added. Knock yourself out! I wanted to include oregano, but I discovered that I didn’t have any. I guess Herbes de Provence would be an acceptable substitute. That didn’t come to me until after I had scarfed down the chicken, and that was just a hair too late. I know you’re thinking that I should just get on with the ingredient list, instead of rambling on and making you wait. If you’ve never made the parchment packet, you can find step-by-step directions here.

Mediterranean Chicken en Papillote

1 4-6oz boneless, skinless chicken breast half
Marinated artichoke hearts, drained
Roasted red pepper, from a can or jar, drained
Diced tomato (mine was from a can)
Olive tapenade (I used Deb’s tapenade)
Salt and pepper to taste, plus any dried or fresh herbs that you desire
Oil, for the parchment paper

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Using the parchment paper heart or prepared foil, oil just enough so that the food won’t stick. Near the crease, place the artichoke hearts, red pepper and tomato on the parchment. Top with the chicken. Season with salt and pepper, then dollop olive tapenade on top. Fold in the edges of the parchment to completely seal the packet. Fold the end piece of the parchment under the packet. Place the packet on a baking sheet, and bake for 18-20 minutes, until the parchment is puffed up and brown. If you are cooking fish, it only takes 5-8 minutes in a 425° oven. Easy peasy.

I still have chicken and fish in the freezer, so I have the feeling that I will be seeing this dish or a similar one again in the coming weeks. You probably figured this out already, but cooking en papillote really is great for entertaining. All the prep work can be done in advance. Just pop the packets, already on the baking sheet, into the refrigerator, then bake when your guests arrive. They will marvel at your skill and genius as you bring the packets to the table, the smell wafting from them, taunting them with the mysteries that lie within. You don’t have to tell them that it was the easiest thing you’ve ever made. Just revel in the glory.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Copper Ran Away with the Spoon

Today was the opening day of the Tuesday edition of the Winecoff School Rd farmer’s market. It was a cool day, so LA and I decided to walk from his apartment. We went through mud and knee-high weeds, got barked at by several large dogs, crossed over the interstate, and stepped over a few dead snakes and squirrels. The market itself was not nearly so adventurous. Only 10 or so vendors had come, and they still greatly outnumbered the customers. I would like to believe that it was due to the earliness of the hour, as we were there around 4:30, when many people are still at work. Unless you are unemployed like we are and can be there when the gates open. Deb from Deborah’s Kitchen Kreations was there, and this time I did cheat and buy some of her olive tapenade. I also bought some delightful strawberries. I love the concept of strawberries, but I usually find them to be sour. Ever the optimist, I continue buying them in the hopes that I will find good ones. The local, homegrown ones I got today are small, sweet and very juicy. I told the grower that I was going to make sorbet with them, and she asked me what that was. While I was still formulating an answer, she asked if it’s like sherbet. Yes, yes it is.

One vendor there isn’t a grower, a farmer, or a cook, but I like to think his items are still food-related. His name is Darryl Mall, and he makes cool jewelry and household items from spare copper and old silverware. Darryl worked in the construction business for many years and saw all of the scrap copper that was being thrown away. He decided to salvage this and began making pot racks and pot hooks out of this copper. One day, his wife, who is an avid garage-saler, brought home some old silverware. New products were born. Initially Darryl was making jewelry with the silverware, using only the handles, for watches and bracelets. This left him with tops from the many forks and spoons that he’d used. With these, he began making necklaces, napkin rings, and garden sculptures. Darryl’s items are definitely unique. He brings many of his smaller items, such as jewelry, pot hooks, and winestoppers, to the farmer’s market, as well as some of the smaller sculptures. Scrap copper is no longer discarded in the way that it was when Darryl first began 30 years ago, but he uses his contacts from the construction industry to buy copper bits at the same price that the recycling companies pay.

Many people are concerned these days about their carbon footprint, the use of fossil fuels, and recycling. When copper is recycled in a facility, a considerable amount of energy is used. Darryl is recycling the same copper, but in a much more eco-friendly way. His sculptures are far more interesting and aesthetically-pleasing than your typical piece of copper pipe. We saw flowers that included door knobs found at garage sales. Darryl’s items are made using predominately reclaimed or recycled products, which appeals to many people, including me. While you can buy larger pieces on Darryl’s website or through his ebay store, many of the smaller items are only available in his booth at one of the many markets he attends. His items are reasonably priced and impressive in their uniqueness. If you are looking for an unusual gift for a foodie, or someone who seems to have everything, I recommend a visit with Darryl. While you might go for the items, take a moment to talk to Darryl about his hobby. It’s worth it.

Darryl attends the Winecoff School Rd market on Saturdays and Tuesdays, the Harrisburg market on Mondays, and the NC Research Campus market on Thursdays. Plus you can view his wine racks, pot racks, and other large items on his website or his ebay store. With that availability, there’s no reason for you not to give it a look.

With the limited number of vendors and customers, we had an easier time seeing everything that was available and talking to sellers. One vendor had small jars of a large variety of jellies. Some of the jellies were pretty standard, such as mint and apricot. Others, such as dill and lavender, were not. LA bought rose jelly, of which I am quite fond, and apple butter, of which I am not. Being the more adventurous of the two, I bought apricot mango pepper jelly. For the sake of impartiality, I did taste the apple butter. While I don’t care for apple butter, I am quite familiar with it, as my mother is a fan and always had a jar in the house. To me, this apple butter tasted the same as all of the other apple butters that I have ever had. No better, no worse. The rose jelly was a bit tasteless, but it may be different eaten on something other than the end of a spoon. Vince had brought back rose petal jelly from France and given the nearly-full jar to me when he moved from Colorado to Florida. I doubt if any rose jelly will ever surpass that one in my mind, so I may be judging LA’s newly-purchased rose jelly unfairly. We also tasted my apricot mango pepper jelly, making sure that we didn’t get any of the red pepper flakes floating on top in our spoonful. The apricot was the dominant flavor, but the mango was detectable. The pepper flakes didn’t impart any flavor, but they did give the jelly a heat that toned down any sweetness. I was quite pleased with my purchase. The jelly-maker (jellier?) will also be featured in an upcoming post. Until that time, if you have a desire for some uncommon jellies, you will have to go to the farmer’s market and find them.

Maybe I am a food nerd, but I find having the ability to meet with the people growing or making my food to be much more satisfying than a trip to the nameless, faceless supermarket. At the farmer’s market, I have met Deb, Todd, and Darryl, and I will be meeting many more throughout the summer. I recommend going to your nearest market and taking the time to speak to some of the people. They have a lot of interesting stories to tell, and the food’s not bad either.

Monday, May 17, 2010

At Least It's Not Casserole of Meat

What do you get when you cross a chicken pot pie with a shepherd’s pie? Answer: my dinner. The second week of the escapades is coming to a close, and I’m already beginning to run out of creativity and imagination to turn my questionable options into gourmet fare. I could’ve eaten a can of black-eyed peas. Just by itself. But where’s the fun in that? I’m sure no one would want to read about that. I have a cookbook that was given to me by my grandmother, and it includes such post-War classics as “Casserole of Meat”. I’m hardly down to the dregs of my pantry, but I’m getting very bored with what’s available. This is why I made tonight’s version of Casserole of Meat. Or, as I like to call it, a Salute to the Freezer. I heated some of my frozen diced chicken, tossed in some frozen peas and frozen mixed vegetables, added half a can of cream of chicken soup, then topped it all with leftover instant mashed potatoes and baked it until bubbly. As odd as it was, my Salute to the Freezer was better than some restaurant meals that I’ve had. I still have half a vat of minestrone in my refrigerator, so I am loathe to make another dish that will involve a week’s worth of leftovers. Instead, I made a single serving of chicken pot-herd’s pie.

When I started the escapades two weeks ago (!), I thought this would be a lot easier. I said to myself, “I have such a variety in my pantry that I can have something new all the time, I won’t get tired of it, and it will go quickly.” Ha! Who was I kidding? LA was in the same predicament , in that he and I had purchased many of our packaged meals at the same time. He told me over the weekend that he couldn’t stand another boxed meal. Last night, my dinner was Apple Jacks. I did have milk with them, but that still constituted my dinner. It was a welcome change from what I typically consume. I felt like I might actually be intaking vitamins.

I have worked very hard up to this point to stick with my escapades. I resist temptation whenever possible. In the checkout line at the supermarket, LA was eyeing a box of julienne potatoes, and I ordered him to step away. For the sake of our sanity, if not our health, we cannot go down the path of the boxed food again! We must take the road less travelled, for it will make all the difference! My Salute to the Freezer was a welcome break in the monotony of dried starch. Ok, it did have the potatoes on top, but they were remnants of the last package, so I won’t have to eat those again! As determined as I believed myself to be at the beginning of the escapades, I am starting to reconsider. Two additional farmer’s markets will be opening this week. I don’t know that I’ll be able to handle three days of seeing and smelling fresh fruits and vegetables only to come home to Kraft dinner. I want to stay strong. I want to succeed. I want to eat something that tastes good! I think this may be a losing battle. To my credit, I am eating at home much more often and saving money. So I guess I’m still winning. I may lose the battle of the pantry, but I still win, because I will be eating foods that are fresh, delicious, and, best of all, homemade.

FYI, the Piedmont Farmer’s Market on Winecoff School Rd. will now be open on Tuesdays from 4-7pm, as well as Saturday morning. The NC Research Campus Farmer’s Market begins this week and will be held on Thursdays from 4-7pm, across from the Kannapolis train station. I’ll be on Winecoff School Rd. tomorrow night. Tomorrow’s post will be full of photos and I will regale you with stories of fresh produce. It should be a much more interesting post. A bientot!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Amigos Siempre?

I am a Mexican food addict. I could eat Mexican food every day and never tire of it. Authentic Mexican, Tex-Mex, burrito places. I love it all. Southern Colorado, where I grew up, has a very large Hispanic population, and Mexican restaurants abound. My fondness for Mexican food started early, when my parents would take me to La Cocina. I remember La Cocina being a very 1970’s restaurant, with carpeting and old sewing machine cabinets for tables. I also remember the sopapillas. Pillowy squares of dough, served straight from the fryer, with honey to pour inside them. If I do make it to Heaven, I hope it’s just like La Cocina. 70’s décor and all.

El Amigo is the “#1 Mexican restaurant in Kannapolis”, and they have the newspaper clippings to prove it. Why would I not want to eat there? They must have some spectacular food! I know I have high expectations—rice and beans are the first foods I remember eating (unless you count the lollipop that I had at my parents’ wedding). I try to put all of this aside and gauge the food on its own merit. Our visit on Saturday marked the second time that I’ve been to El Amigo. They seem to do a healthy business. I go past El Amigo regularly and have never seen an empty parking lot, even in the middle of the day. That’s a good sign! As always, my trusty sidekick, LA, was with me. I don’t remember the food from our first visit. It was good enough, but nothing stood out. What we both remember is LA taking a drink of his iced tea and our waiter snatching it out of his hand in order to refill it. When we left, the waiter waved and called out, “Good-bye, amigos!” Tea-snatching aside, it was good experience and we enjoyed being considered amigos.

El Amigo provides a comfortable and fun atmosphere, with murals and architectural details to remind you that you are in a Mexican restaurant. As soon as you are seated, the chips and salsa arrive. Our chips were still hot from the fryer. The salsa tastes similar to that at most other Mexican restaurants. My theory holds that there is only one salsa recipe and all Mexican restaurants share it. I ordered the queso fundido to get us started. In my heart, I know that I need to allow the queso to sit a few minutes to cool down enough so that it doesn’t run straight off the chip, but my mind refuses to acknowledge this information. LA and I both dug into it as though we hadn’t eaten in days and promptly dripped queso fundido everywhere. I’ve seen multiple recipes for queso fundido, involving fresh chiles, various cheeses, or no sausage. My personal favorite is the type served at El Amigo: a bowl of melted Mexican cheese, brimming with chorizo, with a layer of copper-colored grease floating on top. You can feel your arteries clogging a little more with each bite, but it is too good to stop. El Amigo’s was a bit salty, which I ascribe to the chorizo used. LA’s first bite garnered the comment, “It tastes like pepperoni gravy. Don’t ask.” I heeded the advice, although I was secretly curious about the pepperoni gravy experiment.

After only a few dips, even before the queso was allowed time to reach the optimum consistency, our entrees arrived. I prefer having a bit more time between appetizer and entrée, but I will always pick food arriving too soon over having to wait for it. LA was insistent upon ordering a quesadilla, but when asked by the waiter what he wanted, he ordered chicken enchiladas. He got two enchiladas in a “ranchero” sauce, with refried beans and rice on the side. The ranchero sauce is a red sauce more commonly known to gringos like you and me as “enchilada sauce”. I didn’t give it much thought until he asked me if I wanted a bite, warning me that they were “bland”. These were cheese enchiladas that were topped with chicken and smothered in red sauce. Different than what I had ever seen before, but I’m an open-minded person. LA’s assessment hit the nail on the head. They were bland. He was also quite convinced that the chicken was from a can, but I was unable to form a full opinion on that subject. While it is true that the chicken didn’t have much flavor, I chalked it up to poaching and a lack of seasoning.

I ordered what the menu called the “BTO California”. Based on the description, I correctly assumed that it was a burrito. I ordered it with the beef, incorrectly assuming that it would be ground beef. The BTO California consisted of a large tortilla filled with rice, refried beans, guacamole, and strips of grilled steak, smothered in white cheese sauce. Basically it was the queso minus the fundido. The steak was very tender, leaving me quite happy that I had made an incorrect assumption when ordering. My burrito had much more flavor than did LA’s enchiladas, owing mostly to the well-cooked and -seasoned steak. I offered LA a bite of it, but, upon hearing the word “guacamole”, he declined. The portions are large, even for the lunch specials. I took half of my burrito home with me (smothered in the extra queso fundido. Is there such a thing as too much cheese?).

My greatest complaints about El Amigo were not with the food or the atmosphere, but with the service. We were seated promptly, our food came out quickly, and our glasses stayed full. All good. But small things add up. Our waiter had a lip ring, which he kept biting. The constant lip biting was a source of great irritation to my dining companion, who self-admittedly looked like an “escaped mental patient”. The waiter splashed LA with tea while refilling the glasses and seemed quite put out when I asked for separate checks. The impression left with both of us was that our waiter did not like his job. While entering the restroom, I had to hold the door for a server who was exiting. I was opening the door and about to step through when she brushed past me, bumping into my shoulder. In my restaurant years, it was an expectation that staff would hold the door for the customers and not vice versa. Maybe I’m old-fashioned that way. LA said that he would not go back to El Amigo because of the food. The food is average or a little better, but it is the service that will keep me from returning. We didn’t even get a “Good-bye, amigos” when we left. I guess the friendship is over.

El Amigo is located at 1776 S. Cannon Blvd in Kannapolis.

Friday, May 14, 2010

He's a Real Fungi

When I was growing up, my parents were of the mindset that simply warning a child of the dangers of society is not enough. No, a far better option is to create a phobia. I will only begrudgingly go into the ocean, as the potential for a jellyfish attack is so great. Don’t even ask about hitchhikers, although my mother will gladly tell you all about that if you’re truly curious. These dire warnings even extended to the foliage in the backyard. “Don’t eat the mushrooms! You could die!” I was an intelligent child, but I was still unable to make a distinction between the wild mushrooms that would lead to my horrible and mouth-frothing death and the canned mushrooms that my mother put in the spaghetti. Mushrooms are mushrooms. Why take chances? In France, autumn brings to the forest scavengers for the best mushrooms. They then take their hard-won selections to the pharmacist, who tells them which are toxic and which are not. No, thank you. Everyone, be it a passing acquaintance or a dear friend, knows that I do not eat mushrooms. As I sat picking the mushrooms out of the above-mentioned spaghetti, my father would say, “I hope you don’t do that in public!” Well, Dad, if I’m given mushrooms in public, I will, in fact, still pick them out. If Thomas Keller handed me a plate of mushrooms that he’d sauteed especially for me, I would take a bite out of politeness. One bite. And I would probably spit it into my napkin when he wasn’t looking. I know many people who feel the same way I do, and many more who think I am crazy for the disdain I feel towards mushrooms.

I would like to clarify my true feelings toward the fungus. I am not generally offended by the taste of mushrooms. I am offended by the texture. I imagine an eyeball would have the same textural qualities. I do not eat eyeballs, therefore I do not eat mushrooms. I often make mushroom gravy to accompany meatloaf. While my dinner companions are raving about the gravy, I am busy pushing the mushrooms to the side of my plate. You know, where the parsley used to be. (Maybe I’m dating myself with that statement, but anyone my age or older remembers the sprig of parsley, and sometimes a lemon wedge, that was sitting at either 1 o’clock or 11 o’clock on the restaurant plate.) Beef bourgignon would not be the same without the mushrooms. But I don’t have to eat them. Stuffed mushrooms are delicious—I can often be found eating the stuffing and leaving the base.

“Have you ever actually eaten a mushroom?” I get asked this all the time. Yes, I have eaten a mushroom. The cause of this is usually someone who feels that they alone have the power to change my mind and cause me to love something that looks and feels like a small, spongy hat. They tell me that they can make me love a mushroom, that they have the recipe that will cause me to shout “Eureka!” and bless them and their mushroom strudel. To that I respond, “Better people than you have tried and failed.” In a battle of wills over mushrooms, I always win.

I wish I liked mushrooms. The variety is overwhelming. Wild mushrooms. Cultivated mushrooms. Dried mushrooms. Chinese mushrooms. The list goes on and on. The vegetarian option at most restaurants invariably involves mushrooms in some form. Even fast food restaurants are beginning to offer portobello “burgers”. That’s not a burger—it’s a salad on a bun. I just can’t do it. I have been told that your taste buds change every 7 years, so you may now enjoy foods that you detested a few years ago. While this may be true in some cases, my taste buds have gone through many revitalizations, and still I cannot eat mushrooms. With one exception.

I was flipping through a Japanese cookbook a few years back, when I came upon an odd-looking creature wrapped in bacon. It looked a bit like a space alien, or maybe an anemone like you would see on the Discovery Channel in a program about the weird and wonderful species living on the bottom of the Marianas Trench. But it was a mushroom. An enokitake mushroom, to be exact. I had never seen anything like it. They were so intriguing. I knew I had to find some immediately.

The enokitake get their name from the tree (take) on which they grow, the enoki (hackberry). In Japan, wild enokitake may still be found in markets. These look similar to the cultivated variety, but the caps are a darker color. In the US, wild enokitake are rarely available. The cultivated variety are much more common, with a flavor that matches the wild variety. Enokitake mushrooms are, in fact, very subtle in flavor. While often cooked in Japan, in dishes such as shabu-shabu, they are frequently eaten raw in the US. I have occasionally seen enokitake mushrooms in the supermarket, usually on the top shelf of the produce section, with many other foreign and infrequently-purchased items. They are more easily found in Asian markets. This is where I first was able to find the mushrooms. I bought them, as well as a package of bacon, so I could make obimake enoki. This is a wonderful and unusual dish that is great for parties. The unusual appearance will appeal to your guests, and the ease of preparation will appeal to you. I guarantee that even die-hard mushroom-haters will be impressed!

Obimake Enoki
Enokitake Mushrooms with a Sash
Makes 24
Adapted from The Cook’s Encyclopedia of Japanese Cooking, by Emi Kazuko (Anness Publishing Ltd., 2002)

1lb fresh enokitake mushrooms
6 strips smoked bacon
lemon wedges and ground pepper, to serve

Cut off the root part of each enokitake cluster ¾ inch from the end, making sure that you do not separate the stems. Cut the bacon strips in half lengthwise.

Divid the enokitake into 12 bunches. Wrap one halved strip of bacon around the middle of the enokitake, so you have an equal amout of mushroom showing on either end of the bacon. Tuck any short stems into the bacon . Secure the ends of the bacon with a toothpick. Continue wrapping each bunch with one halved slice of bacon. You should have 12 wrapped bunches when done.

Preheat the broiler to High. Place the enokitake rolls on an oiled wire rack. Broil for 10-12 minutes, turning as needed, until the bacon is crisp and the mushrooms begin to burn.

Remove the enokitake rolls from the rack. Cut each roll in half in the middle of the bacon belt. To serve, arrange the top half of the enokitake bunches standing up, with the lower half lying on the platter. Serve with lemon wedges and ground pepper.
Why is the mushroom the life of the party?  Because he's a real fungi!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hurray for Soup!

I was joylessly contemplating another meal made from the prepackaged contents of my pantry. Ugh—macaroni and cheese or Rice-a-Roni? I couldn’t bear another meal of dehydrated cheese with a side of sodium. But what were my other options? Then lightning struck! Crushed tomatoes. Canned corn. Elbow macaroni. With some ingenuity and a few other ingredients, I could have minestrone! I excitedly collected everything that I thought might make an acceptable soup.

I wouldn’t call my minestrone “traditional”. I prefer to think of it as Kitchen Sink Minestrone. Everything but the aforementioned kitchen sink went into it. My ultimate goal was to make something that would pass as edible, while being healthier than the majority of my recent meals. Healthier than Tuna Helper? Unbelievable, I know.

My final ingredient list was:

1 ½ tbsp of minced garlic
About 1 cup of frozen Southern-style hash browns
28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
5 vegetable bouillon cubes
2 quarts of water
14 oz can of corn
14 oz can of chickpeas
2 oz elbow macaroni
8 oz of frozen peas
5 cubes of frozen chopped basil (5 tsp)

I heated 3 tbsp of oil in my 7 quart Dutch oven, since I figured I would end up making a very large amount of soup. I quickly cooked the garlic, and then added the hash browns. Right from the freezer. Why thaw? Then I dumped in the tomatoes, chickpeas, corn and the water. I crumbled the bouillon cubes right into the soup. I know they say to dissolve them in the water, but that’s really just an extra step. I brought this to a boil, then reduced it to a simmer and covered it.

After about 30 minutes of cooking, I added the macaroni, which proceeded to stick to the bottom of the pan. Rather than stir the soup, I had to scrape it. Eh, it won’t affect the flavor, and I’m probably the only one who’ll be eating it. I covered the pot again and let it cook for an additional 15 minutes, stirring/scraping occasionally. I then added the peas and the basil. Again, right from the freezer. I let it cook another 5-10 minutes, adjusted the seasoning with salt and pepper, and decided that enough had gone into it.

When I served it (to myself), I topped the soup with a bit of shredded Parmesan cheese and some chopped parsley (from the freezer). To be honest, it tasted better than I expected. I was quite pleased with myself. But did I achieve my goals? I feel a lot better knowing that I’ve gotten some vegetables into my body, as this hasn’t happened too often in recent weeks/months/years. I can also say with no small sense of accomplishment that the soup was edible, and quite possibly even tasty. Another bonus is the realization that I have an option other than dried noodles in a powder sauce. Of course, I did end up with a vat of soup. If anyone wants to partake of the Makeshift Minestrone (oooh, that’s an even better name), come on over!

One final note.  I rarely use spell check, but decided to give it a go today.  Spell check was not pleased with my use of "oooh" and recommended that I change it to "pooh".  Thanks, spell check!

“Cold soup is a very tricky thing and it is the rare hostess who can carry it off. More often than not the dinner guest is left with the impression that had he only come a little earlier he could’ve gotten it while it was still hot."
                            --Fran Lebowitz
                               Metropolitan Life

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Little Taste of Italy (in a can)

I try to support the independent business owner. I frequent local Main Street businesses, whenever possible, rather than the big box stores or chain restaurants. I want to see the small businesses succeed and prosper! Kannapolis has an abundance of small, family-owned restaurants, and I prefer giving them my patronage. The restaurant industry as a whole has a notoriously low profit margin. It can be difficult to make money when the economy is good, let alone when it isn’t. If I find a place that I like, I will keep going back. I will also tell everyone about it, in an effort to keep it in business. If you know either LA or me, you know our local haunts and how much we love them.  In return, I expect the business to make an effort to keep me (or anyone else) coming back.

Palermo’s Italian Restaurant opened for business a few months back. The building had been empty since I moved to Kannapolis, but, in a previous life, it was most likely a Burger King. Where the children’s play area used to be there is now outdoor seating. The terra cotta tile floor and large windows all around especially lend to the fast food feel. The owners have made an effort to improve the décor, with a trellis and ivy around the cash register, traditional Italian-restaurant checked tablecloths, and some new light fixtures. LA feels that the décor is lacking, but I understand that Palermo’s was probably opened on a shoe string. At least they tried to improve the appearance!

LA and I decided to give Palermo’s a try shortly after they opened. Palermo’s has a daily lunch menu for $5.99, which includes an entrée and drink. They have a respectable selection, including chicken parmigiana, lasagna, chef’s salad, pizza, or a variety of sandwiches. We went on a Saturday, and the restaurant was hopping. Most of the seats were filled and everyone seemed happy. LA and I both opted for the chicken parmigiana, which came with spaghetti and a side of garlic bread. Our waitress was friendly, but not overbearing—the kind of service person that I prefer. She kept our glasses filled, which is always a welcome, if not rare, touch. The garlic bread was comprised of baguette slices that had been coated with garlic butter and then baked. They probably would’ve been very good had they not been overcooked, bordering on burnt. The chicken was the pre-breaded and frozen variety that is brought in by a national distributor. While I can’t report for certain that the sauce was from a can as well, I would be shocked if it had been homemade. The taste was fine, but it was quite watery and left a pool of thin liquid beneath our spaghetti. If it is homemade, they should either get a new cook or considering getting it from a can, along with the frozen chicken. Overall, we were satisfied, but not impressed.

We felt that Palermo’s needed a second chance, so we returned last week. We arrived at 1:30 on a Saturday afternoon. No one was there! The surrounding establishments had half-full or more parking lots, and Palermo’s had us. We were greeted at the door and immediately seated. Our waiter appeared and took our drink orders. LA chose not to eat anything, as it may have interfered with the giant bowl of mashed potatoes that he eats every day at 5pm. I, however, was not there for the atmosphere. From the $5.99 lunch menu, I ordered the NY Buffalo Chicken sub, described on the menu as “chicken tenders in a spicy Buffalo sauce, with lettuce, tomato, onion, and ranch sauce”, with a side of fries. Hold the onion and tomato, please. I wasn’t planning to kiss LA later, but we would be riding in the same car, breathing the same air. The buffalo sauce would be bad enough, without the raw onions to top it. The second thing that we noticed (the first being that the place was empty) was the music. It was loud. The volume would have been appropriate for a crowded room, but it was too loud for only two customers. The stereo system was also scratchy. Of great amusement to us was the musical variety. We had Shania Twain, the Isley Brothers, and Andrea Bocelli, to name a few. Not only was the music louder than necessary, but the conversation among the staff was as well. Our waiter was providing details of his previous night’s date to the other server, and we got to hear all about it. Maybe I’m just jealous that someone had a date. The food took longer than expected to arrive, but it was hot when I got it. That’s always a plus. The chicken wasn’t in the typical Buffalo sauce, and this one had a slight Italian-y flavor to it. I chalked this up to oregano in either the chicken breading or the sauce. While it was a very drippy sandwich, it was also pretty good. The roll had been crisped up in the oven, which is a nice touch. The fries were undercooked and undersalted. I can’t speak for anyone else, but my opinion holds that an unsalted French fry is one of life’s great disappointments. French fries are meant to be crispy and salty. Not limp and bland. Speaking of limp, LA wanted me to mention the pickle that came with the sandwich. The notes that I took on that subject are rather succint: limp pickle. For those who don’t know, I worked for three summers in a pickle factory. I know pickles. I hadn’t really planned on eating it; it was just an observation. Overall, we left this visit with the same opinion of the food as we had the previous time. It was satisfying, but not memorable. Considering the price, it’s a good value. It’s essentially the same price as a fast food combo, but you get a better selection. We finally left at 2:15, and no one else had ever come through the doors. I hate to sound the death knell for any restaurant, but it felt to both of us like it was coming sooner rather than later. Since it’s cheap and relatively decent, I would recommend going to Palermo’s while you still have the choice. Just don’t go with high expectations. Think of it more in terms of Italian fast food.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Lot Like Hitting a Telephone Pole

Every Saturday, after going to the farmer’s market, LA and I visit as many yard sales as possible, in a quest for cheap old furniture in need of a little love. A few Saturdays back, we found two end tables for $1 each. Score! We happily paid the sellers our $2, then loaded the tables into the back seat of my car (after chasing a giant spider off of one of them). As we were backing out of the driveway, we were jolted to an abrupt stop. We’d hit something, but what? We thought maybe it was another car. No. The couch sitting on the curb? No. Then we saw the telephone pole that was directly behind the car. We sheepishly drove away, too embarrassed to leave the car to assess the damage. After putting some distance between us and the onlookers, we pulled over. We had to see it. “There must be a giant dent where we hit the pole.” “It’s going to be huge.” We found a small scratch on the bumper that wasn’t there before. We hit the pole with such force that the sunroof opened. We nearly died (of embarrassment, anyway)! Yet there was only a small scratch.

Why am I telling you all of this? I started my kitchen escapades one week ago. I have eaten two meals in a restaurant, and the other 19 at home. 19 meals! Three meals per day, seven days per week, minus the two meals out. Surely I’ve made a large dent in the inventory in both pantry and freezer. I’ve hit it with such force! No, there’s barely a scratch. You have to look closely to see it, and even then, you have to know what you’re looking for. I attempted to eat some “chow mein” last night, but I threw it out. Maybe I’ll give the two remaining packages to LA; he seems to like them. I’ve eaten spaghetti and meatballs, Rice-a-Roni, beets, cereal, bacon. Even Girl Scout cookies and Chex Mix. And I’ve just scratched the surface. Sadly, I’m already tired of my choices. I vow that I will never again buy five packets of instant mashed potatoes, simply because they’re on sale. If I’m smart, I’ll never buy them again, period. I’m trying to consume the least interesting foods first, which will leave the good stuff for the end. As my reward. My logic is that, if I eat the gross stuff to start, I won’t still have a stockpile when I’m through eating the things that I want. You don’t have to agree with my logic. The other option would be for me to give away all the food that I dread having to eat. If I did that, I’m just wasting money that I need right now. And why did I buy it if I dreaded eating it?

None of the 19 meals this week would qualify as interesting to anyone reading this. I didn’t find them interesting when I was eating them. How much can really be said about a roast beef sandwich? I did turn leftover instant mashed potatoes into soup. The result tasted like instant mashed potato soup. I contemplated making something with my nine pounds of butter, maybe brioche. On second thought, I would have to a) eat, or b) find room for the brioche. The butter is just hanging out in the freezer, not hurting anyone, so it may as well stay there until I need to make bread. Or a cake. Or put a whole stick on a baked potato, like the Buttertons do in the commercial.

The most difficult time for me in this first week was our trip to the farmer’s market. They had strawberries. They had tomatoes. They had pie! I couldn’t buy any of it. I didn’t even buy any of Deb’s olive tapenade. Secretly, I wish I’d cheated and bought some of that. The best part of my experiment is the one big lesson that I’ve already learned: it does not make sense for me to buy packaged foods or anything that makes more than two servings. I get bored with it, and it’s not good for me anyway. Once I’m able to buy a variety of food items again, I will buy only what I need. I will not be on Door Knock Dinners; that show isn’t even on anymore. So I can stop stockpiling! Until then, I still have Tuna Helper and Rice-a-Roni waiting for me.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day!

Today we celebrate our mothers, grandmothers, and any special woman in our lives.  I thought it would be appropriate for me to take a few minutes to look back at the women in my life and what they gave to me in the way of physical and emotional nourishment. 

My paternal grandmother, Bertha, (Grandma B.) was a farmer’s wife who raised three children and cooked for her family and all of the farm hands that worked for them. In the small community where she lived, Grandma B. was well-known for her cooking. Anyone attending a potluck or bake sale sought out the goods that Grandma B. had made. She was quite modest about her ability and would tell me, “Even bread and butter tastes better when someone else makes it.” To this day, I still hold up her potato soup as the pinnacle of the potato soup experience. When I visited as a child, she would make me hamburgers or fried egg sandwiches. The fried egg sandwich is still one of my stand-bys, and I even had one last night (while thinking of Grandma B.). Although she had six grandchildren, two of them are much younger than the rest of us. When the four oldest of us were kids, Grandma B. had a dog named Taj. Taj was a farm dog and only allowed onto the back porch of the house or into the kitchen. Grandma B. usually had a full cookie jar, and we would call Taj into the kitchen to feed him cookies. In retrospect, I think she actually baked the cookies because she knew we liked giving them to the dog. And he liked eating them. All of her cats lived outdoors, next to and under the rosebushes, and she would get up in the mornings to make a pan of gravy to take out to the kittens. As great as Grandma B.’s cooking normally was, though, she seemed to struggle with the holiday meal. The family still jokes about the scorched mashed potatoes and dry turkey that we happily drowned in gravy and inhaled every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Towards the end of her life, I asked Grandma B. for her recipe for cinnamon rolls. She was in failing health and was losing her memory, so I wanted the recipe while I could still get it. She brought out a cookbook from 1943, a copy of which both she and my great-grandmother had purchased from a door-to-door salesman during the war. She gave me this cookbook, as well as a locally-produced cookbook, and said that all of her recipes were in them. I later flipped through both books, seeing several different recipes marked “Good” in my Grandma B.’s recognizable script. I did find one for meatloaf that she had marked “Tried”. Grandma B. had a wonderful sense of humor, and, every time I see “Tried” in that cookbook, I laugh and think that it was probably her polite way of saying that it was a miss. Needless to say, I doubt I will ever make that recipe.

Not a cook like Grandma B., my maternal grandmother, Blanche, (Grandma R.) still provided some great memories growing up. In reality, I don’t remember Grandma R. making much of anything. When my cousin, Kari, and I would visit our grandparents, we usually subsisted on toast. Or, we would hold out until early afternoon, at which point Grandpa would say, “You girls want a weenie?” We would enthusiastically answer in the affirmative and find ourselves in possession of a hot dog wrapped in a slice of white bread, slathered with ketchup. For her lack of cooking, though, Grandma R. often had the oven on, with a pan of eggs inside. Not to cook them, though. To incubate them. We would sit in front of the oven like expectant mothers, waiting for the first chick to poke his way out of the shell. “Hurray! We have chickens!” Along with a zoo of furry and feathered friends, my grandparents also had a large garden, full of rhubard, grapes, and raspberries. Kari and I would be sent to the garden with two bowls and the task of picking raspberries. The harvest typically went something like, “One for me, one for the bowl. Two for me, one for the bowl.” We would be purple and nearly sick by the time we took our half-full bowls of berries back in; me covered with mosquito bites while Kari would be hardly touched. Grandma R. would freeze our harvest in 1-quart bags. In the winter, she would take a bag of berries out of the freezer for Kari and me to share. When the berries had only just begun to thaw, we would dump them in a bowl, cover them with sugar, then begin chipping away at the raspberry-ice block with our spoons, too impatient to wait for them to defrost. After the raspberries were devoured, we would fight over the sugary syrup left in the bottom of the bowl. Grandma R. would also make grape jelly, using the grapes from her garden. The jelly with the piece of wax inside the jar that you had to break and pick out to get at the grapey goodness contained inside. I miss that grape jelly. Grandma R. cooks even less now that she lives alone. The last time she turned on her oven, she forgot that she was using it for storage and had to call the fire department when smoke started billowing out. Maybe it’s a good thing she’s not cooking anymore.

I saved the best for last: my mother, Carolyn. My mom enjoys baking, but admits that cooking isn’t her favorite task. It’s pretty obvious if you know her at all. Every Christmas, my mom makes up huge batches of anise-flavored pizzelles, Chex Mix, and banana bread. At a craft sale a few years ago, my mom spotted a vendor with all of her breads baked in small jars. Since that time, my mother always makes hers in mason jars, too. My mom’s jarred banana bread was one of the only things that Grandma B. would eat in her final months. The beauty of baking it in jars is that the bread is sealed and lasts indefinitely. Not that I know how long that is. The bread usually doesn’t make it until the end of the week before it’s gone. My friend Vince raves about it, and he hasn’t had any in several years. To make it, she simply makes up a batch of her favorite banana bread (or any quick bread recipe), then fills the jars half-full, bakes according to the recipe, then puts on the lids while they’re still hot from the oven. I make it this way now, as well. We lived on a farm while I was growing up, my mom worked, and we didn’t have a lot of money, so I learned to appreciate the humble casserole. If memory serves me, one that Mom would make was with ground beef, cream of mushroom soup, green beans or corn, and a layer of tater tots to top it. Just thinking of that now makes my mouth water. My mom’s real claim to fame, in my immediate family at least, is a casserole known as Creamed Tacos. Every naysayer who has taken just one bite has found it to be delicious, albeit a bit unappetizing in appearance. We have creamed tacos on Christmas Eve, birthdays, and any other day that my dad complains loudly that he never gets them. She then calls me to say, “I’m making creamed tacos for your father, since he says I never make them for him.” Don’t feel too sorry for my dad and his pitiful casserole deprivation, since I get the creamed taco phone call several times per year. If I were asked to come up with my best memory of my mom, it would probably be an incident that occurred when I was around nine years old. My mom was driving a tractor, and I was along for the ride. Our dog was running behind, barking, until we eventually stopped to pick him up and let him ride, too. If you know my mother, I’m sure you’ll get a laugh at the thought of her driving a tractor, especially with a kid and a dog as passengers. I know I still do. I love you, Mom!

Creamed Tacos
Serves 6-8, depending on the gluttony of the diners
Adapted from a recipe in the 1975 Karval Country Cookbook.

1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
2 lbs. ground beef
1 14-oz can condensed low-sodium cream of chicken soup
1 14-oz can condensed low-sodium cream of mushroom soup
1 14-oz can green enchilada sauce
1 jar medium taco sauce
1 4-oz can diced green chiles
Non-stick cooking spray
8-10 corn tortillas, torn into pieces
1-2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add the ground beef, then continue to cook until the beef is no longer pink. Add the soups, enchilada sauce, taco sauce and green chiles to the pan. Stir until thoroughly combined.

Spray a 9”X13” baking pan with the cooking spray. Ladle a small amount of the beef and soup mixture into the bottom, just to cover it. Top with a layer of tortillas. Ladle enough beef and soup mixture on top to cover the tortillas, then continue alternating layers of the beef mixture and tortillas. The final layer should be the beef mixture. Top with the cheese. (I get very heavy-handed with the cheese, since I like mine extra cheesy and gooey.) Cover with aluminum foil and bake 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes, or until cheese is melted and bubbling. Allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to Market

Every year, with the coming of spring, I count the days until the farmer’s market opens. While I enjoy seeing, smelling and poking all the seasonal produce, brought by local farmers and growers, my heart skips a beat when I contemplate the various and sundry other items on offer. I frequent the Piedmont Farmer’s Market in Kannapolis, which is conveniently located near LA’s apartment. During the winter, a few sellers turn up for a “tailgate market”, but the full market every Saturday, from May through November, brings in the big guns. Not only can you buy produce, but also birdhouses, a bedazzled butterfly blouse, wine stoppers made out of old silverware, and soaps in every color and fragrance. Meats, cheese, and eggs are available from multiple producers (more on those in future posts). Two bakeries were offering breads and pastries. The market isn’t yet in full swing, which left several stalls unoccupied. The pimento cheese lady was missing, as was the blueberry man. I’m sure they’ll turn up as the season progresses. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

One stall that I was very happy to see occupied was that of Deborah’s Kitchen Kreations. LA and I first encountered Deb’s wares at one of the winter tailgate markets. She was offering lemon poppy seed bread and small-batch mustard. Deb’s lemon poppy seed bread is like a pound cake, but lighter. And more heavenly. Full of lemony deliciousness, without the over-processed and stabilized taste of a store-bought cake. (Entenmann’s, eat your heart out.) Better than the bread, however, is the Stone House Mustard. Deb offers samples, and you will be hooked after one taste. The mustard is sweet, like a honey mustard, but not at all cloying, and with a little spiciness.  LA and I each bought a jar that day and it became the centerpiece for that lunch and several that followed.  I made a vinaigrette using the Stone House mustard and apple cider vinegar. We drizzled (or maybe poured) the vinaigrette over spinach, sliced Granny Smith apples, candied walnuts, and feta cheese that we’d also grabbed at the market. For the sake of full disclosure, the salad is an adaptation of one served at Old Stone Vino, but the salad is delicious whether made at the restaurant or at home. (I would recommend using blue cheese, rather than the feta that Old Stone Vino uses.)  Old Stone Vino also offers Stone House mustard with their cheese tray. This mustard has become a go-to every time I make a vinaigrette. Deb recommends it as a glaze for meats and poultry, and LA puts it on all of his sandwiches. I could go on and on about my love of the Stone House mustard, as it is officially my second favorite condiment (nothing can top banana ketchup), but another of Deb's items merits mention. Today Deb also had an olive tapenade. I love olive tapenade in all its guises. Deb uses a variety of olives and leaves it chunky, more like a relish. You would be correct if you already guessed that I wanted to put it on everything. While the products are fantastic, Deb herself will keep you coming back. She obviously enjoys what she’s doing, and this is apparent in everything she sells. She only began selling her items at the markets in November, so anyone who hasn't gone to the markets since last summer may not be familiar with her. Deb is definitely worth seeking out; she'll be the one in the yellow apron.

Now that I’ve thrown a craving on you for some mustard and lemon poppy seed bread, I do have a bit of bad news. Deb won’t be at the Piedmont Farmer’s Market for the next two Saturdays. She will be in Belmont at the Belmont Garibaldi Festival on May 15, then in Harrisburg for the Harrisburg Heritage Craft Day on May 22. She’ll be returning to the Piedmont Farmer’s Market on May 29. You can call or email Deb to order any of her products , then pick them up at one of the markets she’s attending. If you’re smart, you won’t waste any time in doing so.

Please visit Deb’s website Deborah’s Kitchen Kreations for a calendar of events, to find out a little more about Deb, and to order any of her products. You won’t be sorry that you did, but you may be sorry that it took so long!

We are so used to buying everything from corporate giants or faceless producers that it is gratifying to meet and talk to the person growing, raising, or making what it is we’re eating. “Buying locally” is a catchphrase that we see or hear all the time in magazines, books, and on the Food Network, but I remember the days when that was our only real option. I’m less interested in how far the strawberry has traveled than I am in the person who grew it. Everything tastes better when you know it was raised or made with care and attention. I will be returning to the market every Saturday and possibly Tuesday, and a different vendor will be highlighted each week. Check back to find out what items are available and to read about the wonderful people selling them!