Monday, June 28, 2010

Super G is Super Awesome!

Sometimes two occurrences take place simultaneously that cannot be explained away as mere coincidence.  Fate, destiny, serendipity.  Whatever you want to call it, they happen and you are compelled to action.  My serendipitous moment came when 1) I learned of the Super G Mart's opening in Charlotte, and 2) I ran out of banana ketchup.  Time for a road trip!

The first thing we noticed when we walked in was the smell.  I've found that all "international" markets tend to have the same fish smell.  The second thing we noticed was the huge produce section.  We saw things we recognized and things we didn't.  I saw one woman stuffing handfuls of hot chile peppers into a plastic bag.  Whatever she was making, I was glad I wouldn't be there for it.  We also spent a fair amount of time making fun of herbs that we'd never heard of.  Not so much the herbs themselves, but their names.  Lemons were 7 for 99 cents, which was a much better deal than LA had gotten at his neighborhood supermarket, where they were 75 cents each.

A walk through the meat section of any international or ethnic market can be educational, and Super G Mart's is more educational than most.  I was eyeing pig uteri when I turned around and came face to face with a whole frozen pig.  I think it was staring at me.  Less disturbing, but far more horrifying, were the beef lips.  We couldn't spend too much time pondering those, because we were getting a little creeped out by their appearance.  I didn't get a good look at the variety in the fresh seafood case, as we walked past quickly.  The look on LA's face told me that his morning smoothie may make another appearance if we didn't get out of the area.  I did see live blue crabs, lobsters, and Self Serve shrimp.

In the frozen food section, I picked up a package of shu mai.  I love shu mai.  LA wanted some red bean buns, but all directions where in what I assume was Chinese.  The illustrations on the back led us to believe that the buns could be cooked in a bamboo steamer, a microwave, or a rice cooker.  We couldn't identify any numbers or additional cooking directions, so LA put them back. 

Our favorite aisle was probably that containing the canned foods.  Not because we loved canned foods so much, but because the packaging on the generic brand was so inventive.  The label on the creamed corn had a cartoon corn cob sitting in a creamed corn hot tub, which another corn cob stirred with a giant spoon.  The French green bean can was my favorite:  Two green beans dancing the tango, one outfitted in a stripped shirt and mustache, the other in a pencil skirt and beret.  Another had a mess of beans all wrestling in a ring.  Food labelling doesn't get any better than that.

We hurried past what we called the American Food aisle.  We were there for the strange products with the funny markings on them.  We were successful in the hunt for banana ketchup.  Three large bottles went into my basket.  Any Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, or Hispanic product that you may want can probably be found at Super G Mart. 

Since we were there on a weekend, another product available in mass quantities was the clueless white Looky Lou.  No matter how long and hard you may stare at a label written entirely in Korean, you are not going to spontaneously begin to understand the Korean language.  The English translation will not pop out at you if you look long and hard and squint with one eye, like the 3-D pictures that were available in the late '90s.  If you can't figure out the label quickly, look at the tag on the shelf.  It's in English.  Then get out of the way of people who are actually trying to buy things.  I'm not against the supermarket tourist, but it's only good manners to go during off-peak hours and move out of the way of paying customers. 

I left Super G Mart with three bottles of banana ketchup, frozen shu mai, and a package of tostada shells.  LA left with a head filled with ideas of meals to come.  We'll definitely be back.  Only we may bring our noseplugs next time (and go on a weekday).

The Super G Mart is located at 7323 S. Independence Blvd, in what was previously a Bi-Lo.  While they do accept credit and debit cards, they are not currently set up to accept EBT/food stamps.  A number of signs around the store, including on the doors and all cash registers, will inform you of this.  If you still try to use your food stamps, please know that the cashiers (and other customers) will laugh at you.  It's not like you haven't been warned.

P.S. This post was going to be far more interesting and eloquent, but my laptop turned evil as I was trying to post and I lost everything I had typed.  I apologize for leaving you with the "I hate my laptop" version.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

So, How's It Going?

I've been asked a few times how the Escapades v. 2.0 are going.  Honestly, some days are easier than others.  I find myself craving familiar foods, although they are different than those that I would normally crave.  Last week, I had a mystifying craving for ham.  I broke down and bought some NC-produced country ham.  And it was delicious.  I'm eating less meat, which any dietitian will tell you is a good thing.  I'm also eating a lot more fruits and vegetables--another good thing.  Overall, I'm pretty pleased with myself.

Yesterday, I made a quiche using Miller Produce eggs and zucchini, with Cackleberry Farms' feta.  I also threw in some jarred red peppers that were sitting in the fridge.  I haven't had quiche in ages, but it seemed an appropriate use of the many ingredients I had.

LA bought a smoothie recipe book (I don't know if that would be considered a "cook"book, since nothing is cooked), so we've both been making smoothies left and right.  He's sticking with the more traditional fruit-and-yogurt smoothies, while I'm branching out.  I bought peaches and blackberries, then threw them in with some (organic) vanilla yogurt.  That was a satisfying, albeit crunchy smoothie.  Lesson learned: strain the blackberries after pureeing to get rid of all the seeds.  I made another one, utilizing the lesson that I had learned, and the results were even better.  I made another with cucumber, avocado, and kale.  I didn't realize at the time that my yogurt was vanilla, instead of plain, so it made for an odd smoothie.  Not bad, but not at all what I'd expected.  After buying some plain yogurt, I decided to give it another shot.  This time I added a small can of V-8 that I had sitting around.  The resulting smoothie was a most unsettling color.  While it tasted okay, I think the vanilla version had been tastier.  I should probably stick with the fruits, since those turn out the best.

Lunch today was the result of needing to use up the rest of the kale that I'd picked up on Saturday.  I was planning to cook it with garlic, then toss with spaghetti.  That would've involved at least two pans, and I'm lazy.  I bought some new potatoes from Miller Produce last night, thinking I'd make more Spanish potato salad, but soup sounded like a better idea.  I'm a huge fan of the Toscana soup at Olive Garden (even if it does come out of a microwavable bag), and I had the majority of the items to make something similar.  The Toscana soup has spicy Italian sausage in it, and I was going for a vegetarian version.  A diced onion, quartered potatoes, shredded kale, some water and a little milk all made for a delightful soup.  I got a little heavy-handed with the salt, but it all worked out in the end.  As usual, I measured nothing.  When I make potato soup, I think about the soup that my Grandma B. used to make, and I try to imitate the flavor of hers.  Her soup never included kale or potato skins, but she may have still recognized it.

I've done pretty well in other ways, too.  I'm drinking a lot more water, as well as herbal tea.  The teas I've gotten from "the tea lady", as we call Linda, owner of Indigo Tea Market.  She has a plethora of different teas, my favorite being the Long Island Strawberry, which is a green tea.  The Moroccan mint is also wonderful.  LA mixes the peach tisane with normal orange pekoe to make a flavored sweet tea.  I actually bought a kettle for all the tea I've been drinking.  Yesterday I fell off the wagon and had a Diet A&W root beer.  No sugar and no caffeine, but plenty of other questionable ingredients that caused me to feel guilt for the rest of the evening.  It was, however, the first soda that I'd had in a week and a half!  I've also (mostly) stopped eating sweets.  I've never had much of a sweet tooth, but what little I had is in decline.  I ate one of my beloved Cheerwine truffles, and it was so sweet!  No sweeter than it had been the last time I'd had one, but I'm apparently getting more sensitive to the sweets.  I have to give LA props, too, since he's been eating a lot fewer sweets, and that's really an accomplishment for him (we won't mention the toaster pastries that he bought at the dollar store). 

All in all, this has been easier than I thought, although still a struggle at times.  I'm still getting enough to eat, I'm eating foods I enjoy, plus I'm having to broaden my horizons and try new items and recipes.  I've got garlic scapes waiting for me, as well as an eggplant and a horribly ugly tomato.  Guess I know what's on the menu for dinner!

Monday, June 21, 2010

So Meaty!

In the case of the beef stew, I can’t say which proverbial chicken or egg came first. Did I want to make dinner with as many local ingredients as possible because I’d decided to be a locavore, or did I want to be a locavore after making dinner? Either way, I was determined to make a full dinner for LA and I using as many ingredients purchased from the farmers’ market as possible.

After reviewing the list of items from Scally’s Natural Beef, I settled on some chuck roast. I hadn’t run into Sandra Scally at any of the markets before. I initially planned on getting beef from T&D Charolais, but they were apparently scared off by the storm that evening. Sandra had stuck it out, so I bought the roast from her. She even invited us out to visit their farm. We’ll be making the trip in the coming weeks.

Now that I had chuck roast, I had to formulate a plan for dinner. I still had some creamer potatoes that I’d gotten from Miller Produce. We got to the market late on Saturday morning, so the pickings were a little slim. No carrots? Everyone had sold out. I managed to find a bunch of meager-looking purple carrots from Barbee Farms. I also bought garlic and an onion from them. My dinner was starting to come together. I had gotten some rosemary from Deborah’s Kitchen Kreations, which I could put to good use in the beef stew.

While looking for carrots, we saw that Ohana Favorites was selling cherries. I love cherries. I grabbed a bag and instantly set my mind on cherry clafouti, a French dessert that falls somewhere between a custard and a bread pudding. I told my dinner plans to Joanie, the owner of Ohana Favorites, and she asked if she could move in. The custardy aspect of the clafouti would come from eggs that I’d also purchased from Miller Produce.

For the sake of full disclosure, I do have to admit that some supermarket items were harmed in the making of dinner. I used beef broth that I already had, as well as half a bottle of red wine, plus tomato paste from a tube (just like toothpaste!). Dessert involved sugar, flour, and milk from the supermarket.

The day of dinner had arrived. LA and I would be eating after completing a visit to the China Grove Roller Mill Museum. We learned all about how flour was produced in the last century. The museum was far more interesting than either of us had imagined. The day was exceptionally hot, and we both looked forward to returning home for a hearty meal.

First up was the beef stew. LA was concerned by the sight of rosemary in the stew, but I’d used a light hand. The rosemary enhanced the flavor of the stew without overwhelming it, as rosemary is often known to do. The stew was full-flavored and delicious. How beef stew should taste—meaty, savory, full of meat and potatoes. Even better was the tenderness of the beef. We ate it with a spoon, and it melted in our mouths. We sopped up the remaining gravy with homemade rosemary foccacia.

The clafouti came next. A sprinkling of Cognac and powdered sugar on the top, and it was ready to go. The cherries were sweet, although a little masked by the other flavors in the custard. I was concerned that it wouldn’t be custardy enough, since the eggs I used were medium-sized, rather than the more standard large ones. It didn’t matter. We each had a sizable portion and nearly licked the plate clean. Later that night, I finished off the rest of the clafouti. I told myself that it wouldn’t be as good after having been refrigerated. In reality, I just wanted to eat it all!

After the meal, we tried to take an honest assessment. Had it been cheap? No. Had it tasted differently than it would have using supermarket ingredients? No. The beef was more tender than what I’ve typically found in the supermarket, but the taste was imperceptible. With all that being said, I had to ask myself if it was worth the extra cost. My answer? Absolutely! I felt good afterwards. The meal had been quite hearty and filling, but didn’t sit like a brick in our stomachs. While I hadn’t grown the vegetables or slaughtered the beef, I still got a sense of accomplishment. I’d searched for some of the ingredients, rather than showing up and finding them. Plus, the menu had been modified based on what I found. I had a pseudo shopping list, but it wasn’t as easy to fill as if I’d run to the supermarket for everything.

While future meals may not involve as much thought and effort, I’ve decided that the source will still be the same. The farmers’ market sells everything I need to feed myself daily. If it’s not in season or the vendors are out, I guess I just won’t have it that day. That suits me just fine. I’d rather have a locally-grown in-season tomato than some wilted asparagus from Peru. Sorry, Peru. If I want your asparagus, I’ll just have to eat it while I’m visiting Macchu Picchu. Otherwise, I’ll stick to my local vendors.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Escapades v. 2.0

I watched Super Size Me. I read Fast Food Nation. I was indignant about what I was seeing and hearing, but my indignance slowly waned. I went back to my fast food diet, and, as I’d been warned, I gained weight. I can honestly say that I was living on a fairly steady diet of fast food. Fast food is so much easier than going shopping, picking things out, preparing them, and finally cooking them. Fast food is one stop. You order it, they give it to you, you eat it. It is fast.

I’ve had The Omnivore’s Dilemma sitting on my bookshelf for two years. The book came highly recommended by my friend Russ. He had stopped eating French fries after reading it. I had started reading it, but then walked away. In the course of those two years, every time I’d considered picking it up again, my mind had said, “I’m tired. I don’t want to have to think. Read something that is easy and requires no mental effort.” Whenever my mind puts up an argument like that, I tend to acquiesce. Last week, I decided that the time had finally come. I’d been spending a lot more time at the farmers’ markets, meeting wonderful people who were active proponents of fruits and vegetables and a healthier lifestyle. I wanted to know what my dilemma, as an omnivore, was. Now that I’ve read it, I don’t think I have much of a dilemma anymore.

I learned that one of the antibiotics given to cattle on industrial feedlots is erythromycin. I’m allergic to erythromycin. Is that why I got a stomachache every time I ate beef? Supermarket beef is out. Even if it doesn’t all contain erythromycin, there’s no label telling me which does and which doesn’t. I’ll have to avoid it all. I’m left with natural farm-raised beef. I know just where to find that.

As I’ve mentioned before, supermarket foods travel an average of 1,500 miles to get to me. That’s a long trip. I don’t want my food to be better travelled than I am. I guess that means that I’ll be eating local fruits and vegetables, which have come an average of less than 50 miles to get to my plate. If I don’t need to get meat, fruit, or vegetables at the supermarket, what does that leave? Soda.

But soda’s out, too. Whether you are for or against high fructose corn syrup, the simple fact is that soda provides empty calories. No nutritional value, outside of the sweetener. I’ll stick with water, tea, and juice, thank you. If I’m getting no nutrients, I don’t want the calories. Diet soda doesn’t have any calories, but much of it has caffeine. I’m pretty sensitive to caffeine. I can drink small amounts, but I’ve avoided energy drinks due to the high levels of caffeine. I’ve looked at the labels on diet, caffeine-free soda. Basically it’s brown carbonated water containing a lot of things I can’t pronounce. I could find that for free in some puddle in the street. I’ll pass.

On a recent visit to the supermarket, we mentioned to the cashier that we’d been to the farmers’ market. The cashier replied, “The farmers’ market is so expensive!” I’ve found some items to be more expensive, some less. In the case of those items that are more expensive, I’ll save up the money that I would normally spend on sodas. That should cover the difference. Another noticable difference may be in the overall value. I recently spent $15 for a roast from Scally’s Natural Beef. My mother bought a comparable roast from the supermarket for $10. The one I bought was so tender that I was able to eat it with a spoon. My mother complained that all the roasts she ever bought at the supermarket were tough, regardless of how long or low they’d cooked.

Hmmmm, it sounds like I’m on a new form of escapades. Instead of eating all of the processed foods from my pantry, I will try to stick to local and/or healthy foods. Fresh foods, like zucchini, tomatoes, and blueberries. Local, natural meat and poulty. No soda. I’ve been doing this for about a week, and I already feel a lot better. Hopefully, this version of the escapades, Escapades v. 2.0, will last longer than the previous version. Wish me luck!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Taste of Charlotte

I just got back from the Taste of Charlotte, and, boy, are my arms tired!  Oh, wait...that's not how it goes.  Actually I just got back, and, boy, are my feet tired!  The Taste of Charlotte is in a small area, but we walked up and down it several times.  As usual, LA was with me, and we met a couple friends there as well.  Since it was called "Taste of Charlotte", taste was exactly what I planned to do.  I did a lot of tasting, and it was not cheap.  But I did have some good things and some great ones. 

In order to purchase food or drinks, you need to buy tokens or "coins".  You can buy 7 coins for $10 or 15 for $20.  I started with 15 coins, and ultimately had to buy another 7.  The variety was really quite impressive.  I started with the bacon-wrapped scallops from Brazas Brazilian Steakhouse.  I got two scallops and a skimpy portion of beans and rice.  The scallops were well-cooked, although I'd recommend the chicken or beef and get more for your money.  You couldn't really taste the scallop, so get something more flavorful.  My next stop was Namaste India.  LA and I both got the "vegetarian platter".  The platter consisted of a good sized portion of aloo palak, or potatoes cooked in creamy spinach, with basmati rice and naan bread.  The spinach was quite spicy.  I was unable to finish mine because I ran out of bread and rice and had no more water to temper the spice.  Namaste India's booth was right next to Brazas.  Their real stores actually share a building on Independence Blvd. as well.  I've eaten at both and recommend the lunch buffet at Brazas, as it includes the option of going over to Namaste to load up on some Indian side dishes to go with your Rodizio.

I stopped in for the crab cakes from Dilworth Neighborhood Grille.  The crab cakes were low on crab and high on filler.  They had a subtle spiciness and were served with a mildly spicy remoulade.  I wasn't expecting much from their outward appearance, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Their menu says that they are "award-winning".  Maybe they are better at the restaurant.  They were good enough, but I wouldn't give them any sort of award.  After having the crab cakes, I found that Caffe Siena had a Chilean sea bass cake with curry aioli.  My friend Dawn and I both agreed that this was absolutely delicious.  It blew the crab cakes out of the water (no pun intended).  One large cake was served, full of chunks of sea bass.  I knew I was eating fish and not just filler. 

Ri Ra Irish Pub provided ruben bites and Guiness barbecue wings.  The ruben bite was corned beef with melted swiss served on a piece of bread with what the menu refers to as "marie rose sauce".  I'm not crazy about Thousand Island dressing, but the marie rose sauce was great.  Sweet and a little tangy, but no "islands".  My only complaint with the ruben bite was the level of difficulty in eating it.  The dish was definitely made for a knife and fork, but only a fork was provided.  I gave up and ate it with my fingers, getting sauce all over me.  Luckily, a hand-washing station is located at the north end of the festival, and that's where we'd stopped to finish the ruben bite.  Shelby had also gotten this and had the very same opinion that I did.  She also said cabbage or sauerkraut would have been a nice touch.  Dawn and Shelby shared the Guiness wings and said they were fantastic.  I passed simply because I didn't feel like dealing with walking, crowds, and chicken bones simultaneously.  But the wings were highly recommended.  Soul food always draws me in, and Mert's Heart and Soul was no exception.  Dawn and Shelby are both fans of the restaurant and suggested I get something. I got the Soul Roll, an eggroll filled with black-eyed peas, collard greens, rice, and chicken.  The chicken was unnecessary, as I didn't realize it was even there, and the roll wouldn't have been any less good without it.  If all of the food at Mert's is as good as the Soul Roll, I may have to find my way back there.  I was still eating it while standing in line at another booth.  The young man ahead of me turned around and asked what was in my egg roll.  As soon as I listed the ingredients, he said, "Mmmm, a Soul Roll!  I just had one."

The best item that I tasted was the Avocado Chill from Blynk Organic.  The chill was a very smooth, pureed soup, similar to gazpacho, made with avocado, cucumber, tomato, and lime.  Tortilla strips were added on top.  The day was hot, my feet were tired, and the hordes of people were getting on my nerves.  Yet the avocado soup refreshed me and momentarily took my mind off my complaints.  While everything else I'd consumed cost 3 coins, the avocado chill was only 2 coins.  If I went back, I would spend all my coins on cups of avocado chill.  LA made a horrible face when I finally coaxed him into tasting it, and Dawn and Shelby passed on it altogether. 

I still had 3 coins left.  By this time, I had tasted everything I wanted to taste, plus the lines were starting to get a bit long.  The coins were worthless once I left, and I didn't want to waste any money, so I stopped at Salsarita's and got some beef nachos.  For fast food Mexican, Salsarita's is actually my favorite.  The portions at the Salsarita's booth were bigger than most of the other vendors, which was a selling point in my mind.  So I ended the evening on fast food. 

Charlotte has such a variety of independent restaurants; it would be nice to see more of them participating in the Taste of Charlotte.  I'm not too familiar with the Charlotte restaurant scene, and even I knew of most of the vendors there.  We went there at 5pm today.  Although it was hot, we managed to get there before the crowds really turned out.  By the time we left at 8pm, the place was hopping.  All four of us hate crowds, so I'm glad we all chose to go in the heat of this afternoon, rather than wait until this weekend or even any of the three evenings.  I still recommend going, if you like food.  Just be aware that you'll spend a lot more than you're expecting.

Side note:  many parking garages were advertising "event parking" for $10.  I parked across the street from the Epicentre and ended up paying $7 for the three hours that we spent there.  We only had to walk a block and a half to get to Tryon St.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

End of the Escapades Part I

There are worse things in life than being called a quitter, and I’ve probably been called a few of those things. But now, I am calling myself a quitter, and I am proud of it! I have decided to quit the escapades. Is it the end of an era? Not really. I’ll gladly provide my justification for this decision.

I knew going in that I had a lot of packaged, processed foods which were probably not very good for me. I bought them for the same reason most people do: they were cheap, filling, and quick to prepare. Cheap is still ideal, as I am on a reasonably tight budget. Filling is always a plus. Now that I’m not working, quick to prepare isn’t as high of a priority as it used to be.

While I was still working, I didn’t cook much, even the packaged foods take longer than I was willing to spend. I ate a lot of fast food. When I stopped working and started the escapades, I ate much less fast food and cooked at home. I also realized that I wasn’t losing any weight. You’d think that I would, if I weren’t having McBurgerjangles all the time. But I wasn’t. I actually started gaining. Maybe I’m getting less exercise, since I was often on my feet and walking around the office. I was eating more junk food at work than I ever do at home. I was baffled.

Recently I finally figured out that I was gaining weight because of what I was eating. All the high sodium foods that made me thirsty and all the soda that I was drinking to quench that thirst. A few days ago, I was reading an article on the effects of high-fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Thursday was a rough day, and I did, in fact, have some soda. Those days are over. I’ve given up soda before, but I always return to it to comfort me at whatever high-stress job I accept. I don’t have a job, so I don’t need soda.

Like Morgan Spurlock, in his movie Super Size Me, I also noticed that I had less energy, less desire to do anything, and I was getting fat. Also like Mr. Spurlock, I attribute that to my diet. When I eat fruit and veggies and wash it all down with herbal tea, all that I’ve gotten from one of my many farmer’s markets, I feel so much better. I eat something from the pantry and leave the dishes on the table. I eat something from the market, and I have the energy to clean the kitchen and maybe still write something.

It’s doubtful that I will give up junk food for good. I’m not going to claim to try. I know I will still be tempted from time to time, and I am fine with that. For now, all the processed food in my pantry will either stay there or make its way to a new home. Or get thrown out, since I am not thrilled at the prospect of giving unhealthy food to someone else. Either way, I am proud to be a quitter and look forward to the better health that will come with it!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I Love the Smell of Bread Baking in the Morning

A few weeks back, at a yard sale of all places, I bought three loaves of Pepperidge Farm bread. The kind that is available in any supermarket. The seller was an employee of Pepperidge Farms and had trays of the stuff. I think I paid $1 for three loaves. I froze two loaves for later use, then ate one, then another, until I’m now down to my final loaf. Usually that would mean going to the store to get more (or hope for another bread-themed yard sale), however I’ve decided against it. I’m not giving up bread. I’ve just come to the conclusion that it would be better and cheaper to make my own.

While it may come to a surprise to many of the people who know me, I actually enjoy making bread. Not only do I get to determine what goes in to my bread, I can even use it as a sort of barometer. I hadn’t been outside yet today, but I knew it was humid based on the stickiness of my dough. I had rosemary and Parmesan cheese that I decided to put to good use, along with a healthy dose of black pepper. The reason my friends don’t realize that I enjoy it is because I just don’t do it all that often. In my head, it’s a very time-consuming process. In reality, it takes less time and energy than a trip to the supermarket. The hardest part of making bread is waiting for it to rise. I’m an American, and we like prefer immediate gratification to delayed. The preparation and mixing only took 10 minutes, but I’ve still had to wait through two rises. I want my bread now!

The easiest and best-tasting bread recipe that I’ve uncovered is for focaccia. The name sounds fancy, but belies a simplicity of ingredients. Flour, oil, water, salt, yeast. Plus anything you want to add to it. One of my most popular versions included Cheddar cheese and jalapenos for a Southwest version. Today’s made use of what I had available.

I had barely gotten the bread out of the oven before I had eaten some of it. I opted to forego the more usual sheet of focaccia in favor of small, individual loaves. My whole house smells of freshly baked bread, and I get the smell (and the bread) all to myself. Since my oven will already be in use for roasting potatoes for potato salad, I may as well throw some bread in there too. Who needs the supermarket when I can make the best bread at home?

(Yes, I know it looks like a biscuit.)

makes one 11"X17" loaf

5 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 1/4 tablespoons (1 package) instant yeast
1/4 cup plus 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups lukewarm water (105-110 degrees F)

Combine flour, salt, and yeast in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Combine water and oil and add to the dry ingredients.  With the dough hook, mix on low speed for 1-2 minutes, then raise speed to medium and mix for 5-7 minutes, until the dough is smooth and sticky.  The dough should clear the sides of the bowl but stick to the bottom of the bowl.  Add flour or water as needed.

Line an 11"X17" rimmed baking sheet (half sheet pan) with parchment paper.  Drizzle olive oil on the paper and spread with a brush or your hands to cover the entire surface.  Lightly oil your hands and transfer the dough from the bowl to the pan.  Maintain a rectangular shape as much as possible.  Allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Lift the dough from each end and fold it, letter style, returning it to a rectangular shape.  Dust lightly with flour, loosely cover, and let rest for an hour.  The dough will swell, but it may not double in size.

Drizzle 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over the dough.  Using your fingertips, dimple the dough and spread it to fill the pan, maintaining a uniform thickness.  If the dough springs back as it's being pushed out, let it rest for an additional 15 minutes.  After spreading the dough, allow it to rise for 1-2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.  Place the baking pan in the oven and lower the heat to 450 degrees.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Rotate the pan and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

Remove from the oven and move to a cooling rack.  Allow the bread to cool for 20 minutes before cutting it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Long Live Potato Salad!

Potato salad is one of the joys of summer. While you can eat it in the winter, I always think of it as a summer dish. When we would take day trips to the mountains when I was a kid, my mother would pack fried chicken and potato salad. I’ve never been a fan of cold fried chicken, but I did love potato salad. During my years in 4-H, we would make potato salad in 5 gallon buckets, stirring with a clean arm, since no spoon would reach the bottom of the bucket. I’ve toyed with any number of potato salad variations, searching for the embodient of potato salad perfection.

The French make their potato salad with a vinaigrette and sometimes smoked sausage. This is a great picnic main course. Highly portable, delicious at room temperature, meat and potatoes all rolled into one. Generally, however, I prefer mayonnaise based potato salads. Heavy on the mayonnaise, with a hint of mustard, maybe some chopped egg or even celery seed. But never pickle relish. I don’t do pickle relish.

Today I tried a new potato salad recipe and may have found my new favorite. French potato salad is good, American potato salad is great, and I’m going out on a limb to say that Spanish potato salad may be the best. I bought creamer potatoes and garlic yesterday specifically for this dish, since I’d seen a recipe and wanted to try it as soon as possible. Beware—this is very garlic intensive! If you don’t love garlic, you could reduce the amount used, but that would be a crime. I say get your breath mints ready for later and give this a try! You may be able to get 3 servings out of this, but I only got 2 since I couldn’t stop eating it.

Spanish Potato Salad
Adapted from a recipe by MySocialChef

1 pound small white creamer potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
4 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
½ teapson hot smoked Spanish paprika (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Quarter or halve the potatoes, depending on the size. Toss with the olive oil, ½ teaspoon of salt, and the pepper. Spread the potatoes on a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake the potatoes for about 40 minutes, turning 2 or 3 times, until the potatoes are fully cooked and browned. Allow to cool.

In a bowl, combine the remaining salt, garlic, mayonnaise, lemon juice, mustard, and paprika (if using). Add the cooled potatoes and stir to combine.

Hot smoked Spanish paprika is a wonder to behold, but can be difficult to find. It’s available online, in speciality food stores, and I’ve made a replica in a pinch using chipotle powder and regular grocery store paprika. While this potato salad will still be good without it, the paprika does add a smokiness that cuts through the mayonnaise.

I was willing to share this with my lunch guest until after I tasted it. He was then told that he would only get one bite. His opinion of that one bite? “That is outstanding.” How often do you hear the word “outstanding” used to describe potato salad? In this case, it’s apt. This potato salad is outstanding and will be a staple for the rest of the summer, and possibly through the winter too. I don’t normally like running the oven for almost an hour during the height of summer, but I’ll make an exception for this.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

We Got the Beet

Weaning myself off of junk food may not be the easiest endeavor that I’ve undertaken. I’ve been addicted for quite some time, and old habits die hard. While I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth, I still enjoy sugar now and again. I’ve found a helpful and unlikely remedy for the removal of junk food from my diet: beets.

I often get the impression that the Beet Fan Club is a small but devoted group of beet fanatics. I love beets. I’ve loved beets for as long as I can remember eating them. Canned beets are a cheap and easy addition to salads, but the flavor is often lacking from sitting in the water for so long. At the supermarket, beets are seldom inexpensive. At my local supermarkets, beets are typically sold in bunches of about 3, for $3-4 per pound. Maybe it’s a deal when you figure in the cost of gas to bring the beets to the supermarket and all of the production, but I want more beets for my money.

This past Friday, I bought a bunch of beets from a very pleasant gentleman who was selling the extra that his family had. I gladly spent $1 for a bunch of about 8 small beets. When I came home, I grated one of them and had it with lettuce and vinaigrette. Tasty, but it was still missing something.

I had been thinking about the remaining beets sitting in my fridge and decided that today would be the day for a salad. I peeled the raw beets, which is easier than rubbing hot beets to get the skin off. I put them in a small pie plate, drizzled them with orange juice and salt, and then put them in a 350° oven for about 45 minutes. I wasn’t exactly timing them—I pulled them out of the oven when I could smell the juices start to burn. While they were still hot, I tossed them in a bit more orange juice. I quartered each beet in an attempt to get them to cool faster. I couldn’t wait. As soon as the steam stopped coming off of them, I started popping them into my mouth. Still warm, the natural sweetness enhanced by the orange juice.

I arranged some mixed lettuces on a plate, added the remaining beet quarters, then drizzled it all with the Stone House mustard vinaigrette. This was topped with the sweet and spicy pecans and the creamy feta that I’d picked up at the farmers’ market yesterday. I almost cried as I neared the end of my salad. While I still have more of the other ingredients, I’m out of beets! I don’t know if I’ll make it until tomorrow to get more! The feta producer apologized that he only had the large container of feta and asked if I’d be able to eat it all. As long as I can get my hands on more beets, it won’t be a problem. Who needs candy when there’s sweet deliciousness to be had in a beet?

The Beet Fan Club is always looking for more members. I will be retaining my lifelong membership and may even begin a recruiting campaign. Long live the beet!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

It's Just a Little Kibble

Today being a Saturday, LA and I were off to the Winecoff farmer’s market. We were on a quest for something a little different than the standard produce. LA found out that he would be the owner of a new puppy by the end of the day. To create a welcoming environment for Mr. Piddlesworth (you don’t want to know his full name), LA wanted to buy some dog treats. I wanted feta cheese. That’s the beauty of the farmer’s market—you can find just about everything there.

Away from the main building, Deborah’s Kitchen Krafts was set up under a canopy. Not only does Deb make some great mustard and tapenade, she has expanded into the world of dog biscuits. These are available in cheese, applesauce, and carrot flavors. Deb recommended the applesauce variety, but LA ignored her and went for carrot. A carrot dog biscuit? As Deb pointed out, she had samples. I tried the carrot one. I could see the carrot but not taste it. LA was a bit appalled, but it was basically a thick, very dry cracker. I made him try it too. Homemade dog biscuits have very few ingredients and all of them are found in typical human food. The dryness was the most unpleasant aspect. So yes, today I ate a dog biscuit. A gourmet dog biscuit.

We took our dog biscuits and headed up to the main building. The heat was overwhelming but worsened as we got inside. Today was the busiest that I’ve seen the market so far this season. People were out in force, many with their kids in tow. We stopped and got peaches for later. We headed to the Cackleberry Farms booth (next to Darryl’s Copper Workshop) for feta and some hard Cheddar-like cheese. All I’ve heard it called is “hard cheese”. We’d tasted it before but never bought any. I’m looking forward to some grilled cheese sandwiches.

As we swam through the crowd into the heart of the market, just past the many bins of different soaps, a man collecting food donations stopped us. Not to ask for a donation, but to ask LA how often he changes his hair color. He’d seen him “around the village” and knew it hadn’t been red before. Then he gave me a high-five for my willingness to walk next to LA in public. But he did call me “striking”, so that was a plus.

We stopped by Ohana Favorites and tried some of Joanie’s Hawaiian pepper jelly. It started out sweet, with a taste of tropical fruit, then turned spicy. An added bonus was that it covered the dog biscuit taste in my mouth. We didn’t get a chance to talk to Joanie, as she had several paying customers in her booth. Along with the jellies and cereals, she also has started selling boiled peanuts. I’ll have to give those a try in the near future.

The booth in the back is occupied by Miller Produce. I wanted to get some honey, so that’s where I headed. LA is a bit of a honey-snob and wanted to know what type of flower their honey comes from. Laura Miller explained that they grow beans, potatoes, okra, zucchini, tomatoes and all kinds of other things, so the honey has a little bit of everything in it. She offered us a sample, but we both turned her down. I tasted it once I got home and found it to be very mild, much more so than wildflower honey. And lighter in color.

As we were leaving, I wanted to stop by Harvest Catering’s booth. On Wednesday nights, Harvest Catering offers takeout meals, including a meat, two sides and a dinner roll for $6. This past Wednesday, I had the pot roast with mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese (this coming Wednesday's option is baked ham). I was told that the pot roast was fantastic and wanted to find out for myself. I had to give Sandra my opinion. The pot roast was fantastic. Also, the mashed potatoes included chunks of red skin potatoes and a hint of garlic. Delicious! I didn't initially think I cared for the mac & cheese, but then realized I was inhaling it.  Although it was baked, it was cheesy and not eggy; just the way I like it.  While I was picking up my dinner, I had been talked into some chocolate banana pudding too. Talking me into it didn’t involve much arm-twisting. It was definitely worth the $1.50. During the winter tailgate market, I’d gotten some Candy Apple Jelly from Harvest Catering. I don’t care for cinnamon, and the smell of it was the first thing that hit me when I opened the jar. I forged ahead and discovered some truly yummy jelly. I may be a cinnamon convert. Today I also bought some sweet spicy pecans from Harvest Catering to add to my beet and feta salad. I tried one when I got home. I popped it into my mouth, chewed a little, and thought, “This isn’t spicy at all.” Then it hit me. I take back what I said. They are sweet and spicy and will be an excellent addition to my salad.

With our bag filled with goodies and our constitutions weakened by the heat, we left the market. I was so thrilled to see all the people that turned out today, despite the temperature and humidity. Maybe they had all heard the same piece of trivia that I had: according to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, most fruits and vegetables sold at U.S. supermarkets travel an average of 1,500 miles from their source, whereas farmers’ market produce is usually sold less than 50 miles from where it’s grown. I know how wilted I am after a long trip, and I’m sturdier than an ear of corn or a tomato. I was a fan of the farmers’ market before reading that, and I’m even more devoted now. I’ll be heading over to Harrisburg on Monday, and I hope to see some of you there!

Friday, June 4, 2010

I Like Big Melons

I ventured over the China Grove farmer’s market today with every intention of buying a cantaloupe. I’d gotten a slice last week, but opted not to buy a whole melon. Then I spent the rest of the week regretting my decision. The call of the cantaloupe prompted me to leave the air-conditioned sanctity of my home.

The China Grove farmer’s market is located in the parking lot of the roller mill museum in downtown China Grove. This market isn’t as organized as the Piedmont Farmer’s Market, but it draws a number of local producers, some I know and some I don’t, and has a very informal feel. Carla and Mark Whaley from Carla Anne’s Homestyle Cookies are there, as is Miller Produce and T&D Charolais, all of whom I know from the Piedmont market. I talked to one man who had a small selection of items on a card table. He said they bring whatever they have in excess so it doesn’t go to waste. I bought beets and lettuce from him, and I was tempted to buy some eggs as well. My tote bag was getting a little heavy by that point, so I opted against it.

In the end, I had quite a bounty, while only a small dent was made in my wallet. The final tally?

2 cantaloupes (one for today and one for Sunday) - $3
Tomato – 50 cents
Onion – 35 cents
Zucchini and squash - $1.15
Beets - $1
Lettuce - $1
Oatmeal cranberry cookie - $1.50

Total - $8.50

What did I make with all of this? I grated one beet (after washing and peeling), then tossed it with the lettuce and drizzled with the Stone House mustard vinaigrette I keep in my fridge. A little ground black pepper on top made for a fantastic salad. Hopefully Cackleberry Farms will be at the market tomorrow, and I can get more of their delicious feta. I’d like to have that to add to my beet salad.

I sliced half of the onion, then sauteed that in a little olive oil until the onion was soft. I added some minced garlic that I keep in my fridge, then threw in the zucchini and yellow squash, which I’d sliced into thick half-moons. Once they began to soften, I added the entire tomato, which I had diced, as well as some chopped rosemary that I’d gotten at the market a week ago. I let it cook down until the tomato was soft and the squash was crisp-tender. A little salt and pepper, and it was done. It was just that easy. And that good. The dish tasted so fresh; I was tempted to do like a woman I spoke with at the market and eat the whole lot of it in one sitting.  It may look like a mess, but it was the best tasting dish I've had in weeks.  And that includes restaurant meals.

I didn’t forget about dessert. I had half of the oatmeal cranberry cookie. It’s a big cookie, and I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anyway. My late night snack will be a bowl of cantaloupe chunks that I cut. I’ll probably end up eating the whole cantaloupe in one sitting. After all, it’s what drew me to the market in the first place.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Enchiladas in the Rain

It was a dark and stormy night. Two hungry, wet travellers sought refuge from the rain. A sign beckoned. The place was brightly lit, yet empty. “Do we dare go in?” “I don’t know—it’s kinda creepy.” They had travelled this far, too far to turn away now. They went in…

Or rather, slid in. The rain was coming down in sheets when LA and I pulled up in front of El Campeon, one of Kannapolis’s newest Mexican restaurants. We were both sporting flip-flops, which are not known for their traction. LA nearly took a digger. I nearly peed my pants from laughing at him.

The only signs of life were the two staff members looking out the front door when we arrived, but they scurried back to the kitchen as we entered.  The walls were bright yellow, made even brighter by the overhead fluorescent lighting. Metal wall art hung around the room, in an effort to make a strip mall restaurant feel more like a Mexican casa. The menu was small but had all of the heavy-hitters: tacos, burritos, enchiladas. According to the sign out front, El Campeon has all-you-can-eat tacos for $6.99 from 5-8pm. We studied the menu. The server asked if we were ready to order. Uhhhh, no. Give us a few minutes please. She made a circuit through the kitchen and back out. We still weren’t ready. LA was disappointed that there was no “cheese dip” on the menu. We were, however, both pleased with the salsa. Chunks of tomato and onion, plenty of cilantro.

LA, as usual, ordered a chicken quesadilla. I can always count on him for a thorough and eloquent description of the food. Is it good? Yes. Is it just chicken and cheese? Yes. I don’t suppose there is a lot more to be said about a chicken quesadilla. If there is, LA wasn’t saying it.

I, as usual, ordered the enchiladas rojas. The server asked if I wanted them “with everything”. I didn’t know what everything was, but I said yes anyway. A plate arrived with what I guessed contained my enchiladas. I was sure they were under there somewhere. The everything was lettuce, onion, sliced radish, Mexican crema, and queso fresco. I pushed all of that aside to get a look at the enchiladas themselves. I found four (!) enchiladas filled with chicken that had been simmered with onions. Rather than the typical enchilada sauce served by most Mexican restaurants, these were smothered in a spicy tomato gravy. Spicy may be an understatement. I actually noted “spicier than crap”. I forgot to mention that part when I told LA to try the sauce. I am a little bit of a spice wuss, so it may only be spicy to someone like me (or LA). Take a bite of enchiladas, take a drink of tea. That was my system. I went through a lot of tea. But the enchiladas were delicious. They came with the ubiquitous sides of beans and rice. The rice was fairly flavorless, or it may have been that my taste buds were seared off. The beans were from a can and very salty. I could do without the side dishes.

While we were eating, more patrons came in. One man ordered the all-you-can-eat tacos, and they definitely kept coming. No sides come with it, but I’d be happy with just the tacos and no salty beans or bland rice. For $6.99, it’s definitely a deal. When it was time to go, we asked the server for separate checks. She said “Of course” and walked away. Less than a minute later, she came back and asked if we wanted separate checks. We responded in the affirmative, and she said “Of course”. It was like déjà vu all over again.

I will definitely visit El Campeon again. The all-you-can-eat tacos are a great deal for dinner, as is the lunch buffet. I recommend it as a place to go with friends or family, but the ambience isn’t romantic, so it may not be the best option for a date. Unless that date loves tacos.

El Campeon is located at 900 Cloverleaf Plaza in Kannapolis.