Monthly Archives: March 2010

Confession

There is something you should know about me.  Ready?  Okay…

I haven’t always loved cooking and baking…or the food network channel or, good restaurants, cookbooks or everything else that foodies generally enjoy.  I’ve always loved eating, I grew up around wonderful cooking and I’m fairly certain I came out of the womb with one sweet tooth and a brownie in hand.  However, it has to be said that in my 23 years of life, I did not start spending time in the kitchen (other than eating) or even have my interest piqued by cooking and baking until just a few years ago.

It seems like most cooks and bakers grew up in the kitchen, developing a love for cooking at a young age, and learning how it was done from their family members.  I however, was not the little girl who pulled a stool up next to her mom in the kitchen, wide-eyed and ready to help assemble a cake or learn how to make a sauce.  I was the little girl who most likely pestered and distracted my mom in the kitchen, when I would wonder in periodically to see if the cake batter was done yet and if I could lick the beaters – (which luckily for me, my mom always indulged me).  My contribution in the kitchen did not exceed beater licking  or similar activities, asking when dinner would be ready and what we were having; but merely observing how tasty everything smelled and then leaving the room without offering to help.  (I always ended up setting the table).

There are some things you just inherit in your blood.  I’ve inherited my dad’s insatiable love for desserts, my granny’s passion for chocolate, vintage and her stamina for shopping, both of my parents’ curiosity and interest in morbid things and true crime – (they both used to be journalists), my grandma’s artsy/creative/craftiness, the shape of my mom’s eyes, her impatient nature and her tendency to be late, and the stubbornness that just seems to stem from everyone in my family.  No one has a clue where my brown eyes came from.

As for the cooking gene I never knew I had in me, I think I’ll attribute it to some of the ladies in my family…my mom, my great grandmother (on her side), my granny and my great grandmother on my dad’s side.  My mom has always been a wonderful cook and I could have had so much to learn from her, if only I had been interested in the labor part, instead of just the eating.  It’s fun to talk to her about recipes now, because even her love for food has grown too.  She cooked a lot of the time (and still does), and she’s fearless in kitchen, always ready to tackle something new and most recently, is quite enamored with her KitchenAid pasta-making attachment.  My great-grandmother (her grandmother), was also an excellent cook, and my mom makes some of her old dishes, like her famous coffee cakes (every Christmas morning), her pork roast and gravy and her chocolate cake with caramel icing.  My granny makes the creamiest, and probably the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever had and is a true southern cook.  Although I never got to meet her, my great grandmother (on my dad’s side) apparently made the most incredible fried chicken (she lived on a farm) and chocolate cream pies with honey-drizzled meringue.

But it wouldn’t be fair to leave out a certain little country across the pond.  During the second semester of my sophomore year of college, I moved to a tiny little town I’d never heard of before, called Alsager, located about 40 minutes outside of Manchester England.   I experienced a cultural wake-up call and in my first hour spent in my green carpeted isolated dorm room, I sobbed into my fish and chips, took two bites and threw it away.  I was severely exhausted, jet-lagged, no one was back from Christmas holiday yet, so the campus was empty and I couldn’t figure out my new mobile phone to call my parents.  It wasn’t the fish and chips’ fault.  Luckily I quickly adjusted to British life and loved everything about it.

It was there, I began cooking for the first time.  Now I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that British food tends to be lacking in the flavor department (and the healthy department for that matter), salads are about as scant there as biscuits are (and I don’t mean the cookie).  The Indian food is the most incredible I’ve ever had, and probably gives India a run for its money, but Britain’s native cuisine is not so fortunate.  I was on a small campus and the campus cafeteria was equally small, with a limiting selection, unless you count potatoes prepared five different ways as “variety.” Not to mention, whenever there was something green in sight, it would usually just be some plain greens and unless I wanted to eat them plain, I would have to open a packet of Heinz salad cream, and the name alone is deterring.  What is salad cream?  I tried it once and still never found out – giving it another chance was out of the question.

I have to admit I did love the chips and beans.  I can’t find baked beans like those over here.  All we seem to have are barbeque ones and the ones I had were tomato-based and delicious and paired with some greasy chips, made for some excellent hangover food on Thursday mornings.

Naturally, I got sick of potatoes and started craving veggies and salads and my friends and I decided it would be fun to take advantage of the kitchen on our dorm hall and make up some fun meals.  We made glorious theme salads with everything in them and one night we sautéed some chicken in a creamy sauce with braised leeks and some zucchini.  We even made Mexican one night.  Something was happening to me.  I was cooking, and in a foreign country no less, and I even liked it!

When I returned to the states I started watching The Food Network Channel and I fell in love with Giada de Laurentiis and Tyler Florence, and when I moved off campus for the first time my junior year, I did not let my tiny apartment kitchen stop me from cooking again.  I was given a Rachel Ray cookbook (my first one) and used that as a guide to start experimenting.  (Just so you know, Rachel Ray and I aren’t on good terms anymore.  I was never that crazy about her stuff and honestly she’s a little scary).  My boyfriend even cringes and then runs away whenever he sees her jack-in-the-box smile on the cover of a magazine or hears her voice on TV.  (Sorry Rachel Ray).  I then discovered the foodie world of the Internet and to my amazement, found gorgeous photos and slideshows on Bon Appetit and Gourmet’s websites and was intrigued.  I started flipping through the recycled issues of both magazines that our neighbors had given us, and started tearing out recipes that looked interesting.

And then I discovered food blogs.

One day, I was studying a blog of someone I knew and saw something curious in their blogroll.  I clicked on the link for Smitten Kitchen, and that’s when I think I had my true food epiphany.  I was hooked.  I set my printer on a frenzy, printing off recipes left and right, until I had acquired a collective stack so massive, I didn’t know what to do with, except to properly organize in sheet protectors and file accordingly in a binder.  Well it didn’t take long for that binder to grow.  I had to upgrade to a mega binder, which now houses hundreds or recipes that I have tried and haven’t tried (yet), and I lovingly refer to it as my “Bible.”  Since then, I have been scouring the Internet, falling in love with food blogs, namely Smitten Kitchen and Orangette (my first loves) and putting recipes to the test.  I was becoming a cooking and baking addict and still am, as my passion for it continues to grow, challenging me, thrilling me, frustrating me, and rewarding me almost daily.

When the trailer for Julie and Julia came out, I was also intrigued, and I hate to sound cliché, but yes, I thought about starting a blog myself.  The closest thing I’d ever had to a blog was a Xanga (in high school and part of college), and yes that is embarrassing to admit but I can get past it.  This would be different though.  It wouldn’t be me gushing over guys and concerts and posting mysterious lyrics that mimicked how I was feeling that particular day.  It would be my space to talk about food and other things that matter to me and most importantly, it would get me writing again.  I was inspired (and still am) by these bloggers, especially by the photography of Deb Perelman and the gorgeous, dreamy prose of Molly Wizenberg.  I wanted to take pictures like them, making food like them, and write like them.

I’ve always loved writing and have considered it one of my strongest talents and I used to write for fun all the time when I was young.  Since, I had neglected it, leaving most of my writing to reports and thesis papers, and the occasional depressing poem.  It wasn’t until October of 2009 that I finally got to writing again for me and it has felt so so good.  Not to mention, this food epiphany has shed some much-needed light on a nagging question I’ve been having upon graduation and even before, come to think of it.  What the hell am I going to do with my life?  I’m a drama major and still have a great appreciation for theatre, but not a passion for it anymore, as far as a career is concerned.

Stumbling upon these inspiring food blogs, the Dining section of the New York Times, The Food Network Channel, Bon Appetit Magazine and Gourmet Magazine has been one of the greatest things to happen to me, because it has made me realize what path I am interested in going down.  I no longer believe it is theatre or film.  I now know that it has to be something food-related, it has to be a creative field and it cannot be too stagnant.  I am attracted to the transient and I have great wanderlust, so I want a job that will allow me that.  Since starting this blog, I’ve discovered that more than anything else, I am writing about food and that is what is making me happy.  Cooking it, baking it, photographing it and writing about it.  Most of my alone time now, is spent searching for new recipes to add to the Bible and thinking about what I want to make next, and I love that.  I do not know the exact direction I am heading in and how I am going to get there but I have so much clearer of an idea now than I ever did.

In the past six or seven years or so, I’ve also discovered what distinguishes a good restaurant from a bad one, and that for the most part, I’m safer off steering clear of chains.  It would be a bit of a lie to deny that I am somewhat of a food snob, especially when it comes to restaurants, but I’ve learned and I think it’s for the best.  I mean, there was a time when I considered O’Charleys and TGI Friday’s as my favorite restaurants, although I guess most kids would.  After my parents divorced, my dad had to learn some basic recipes and in his new repertoire, my sister and I actually went crazy over his frozen chicken fingers and popcorn shrimp, canned peas and this boxed rice-a-roni pasta with a packet of herbed parmesan sauce.  Also, I am happy to report that my palate has evolved magnificently, thank God, (my mom is still a little shocked).  I was never a very picky eater, but now I eat a plethora of things that I used to never venture near – like raisins, mixed greens, sun-dried tomatoes, sushi, feta cheese, and the list could go on for miles.  … I’ve come a long way from boxed macaroni and cheese and O’Charleys.

So that my friends, is how a foodie was born.  Who could have known.

Whew.  I did not intend to type you an essay, but it looks as though I have.  I’m off to make some tomato sauce with onion and butter, by Marcella Hazan, via Molly Wizenberg over at Orangette.  Then it’s dulce de leche chocolate bread pudding for dessert.  Bring on the carbs!

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Embracing the Rhubarb

Spring is finally here and I can’t tell you how excited I am about the following things…

  • Bradford Pear Trees, Cherry Blossoms, hydrangeas and honeysuckle
  • STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE.  And not with any of this biscuit nonsense.  Don’t get me wrong, I do love biscuits, like most people, especially being a southerner (it’s practically mandatory).  I might be a touch old fashioned and stubborn on this one, but strawberry shortcake to me, has and will always be pound cake or some light, fluffy equivalent (I don’t mean angel food cake either).  Real cake.  Real whipped cream.  Farm fresh strawberries.  Hold the biscuit for my scrambled eggs and bacon, thank you.
  • Ordering Edna Lewis’ book, finally, because it too is mandatory for spring and summer I think.  I’m excited about making one of her recipes, especially since my mom had the opportunity to interview her when she used to work for the Associated Press.
  • Magnolia Bakery’s banana pudding and sneaking back to the bowl of it in the refrigerator, every five minutes to take another spoonful because it is just that good.
  • Grilling and making this recipe again.
  • Homemade pizza with fresh pesto, grilled chicken, fresh peach slices, caramelized onions and provelone cheese.
  • Eating outside, at Crook’s Corner.
  • Mojitos and more gin & tonics with extra lime, yes please.
  • Vanilla custard concretes with raspberries and blackberries, from Goodberry’s.
  • Making strawberry basil lemonade.
  • Open windows and bare feet.

On another note, I must share that I just made some tuna salad and tried something new.  My mom suggested I mix some balsamic vinegar with the mayo and then mix it in with the tuna and add some raisins, which is exactly what I did.  I also added some crumbled walnuts and diced apple and it was such a refreshing change.  I think I’ll make it like this for awhile (until I get sick of it again).

I’m also excited to bake with some rhubarb, which I’ve never done before.  I’ve never been that partial to it, because while I liked the strawberry reminiscent flavor, the celery-like appearance and texture never quite hooked me.  However, I’ve decided I just haven’t given it enough of a chance and that I should just go ahead and embrace the rhubarb.

Time to take the pups to the park and get some sunshine on this pretty day.  I’ll leave you with a few songs to get you in the mood for spring…

  • Rave On – M. Ward, featuring Zooey Deschanel
  • Blue Sky- Jason Collett
  • Hummingbird – Wilco
  • Sweet Pea – Amos Lee
  • Some other Spring – Billie Holiday
  • Korean Dogwood – Devendra Banhart

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Little Musings

Some little things I have been enjoying lately…

  • The cup of English tea (nothing fancy – PG Tips) and fresh double chocolate chip hazelnut biscotti that is accompanying it as I type this.
  • Nick Drake
  • Sour cream coffee cake, fresh out of the oven and HOT CROSS BUNS from the bakery where I work – they are truly heavenly.
  • Modern Family and the Spilled Milk podcast, because they make me laugh tremendously
  • The Food Network’s new show, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate”
  • Hot Yoga.  Why I (and anyone else for that matter) would voluntarily choose to subject themselves to 90 minutes of strenuous stretching and poses in an 105 degree room, crowded with half-naked people who are literally dripping sweat from head to toe, for an entire 90 minutes is beyond me. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done (so far).  However, I went again today (my second time) and walking out of that studio and into the refreshing cool spring evening, and the way I felt afterwards, my skin glowing and feeling empowered and new made it worth every minute.  I find myself wanting to go back very soon (if my poor joints allow it)!
  • How lovely the weather has been lately, the bradford pear trees in bloom and the fact that I can wear flip flops again and liberate my happy toes and feet.
  • The song “Where the Road Meets the Sun” – by Katie Herzig and Matthew Perryman Jones
  • I am excited about the idea of visiting the farmer’s market, grilling, eating outside, going strawberry picking, and making crumbles, cobblers, crisps and pies and very soon.  I absolutely love spring and summer recipes.  I can’t wait for peach season, corn on the cob, blackberries and cherries.  I long for this time of year, especially since I don’t live in California or France and don’t have access to a farmer’s market all year-round.  It’s hard enough trying to find wild-caught fish around here!  This is totally the kind of thing that sells me the most on moving to Europe.  I’d do it in a heartbeat, just for the markets.
  • Homemade pizza with prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and caramelized red onions – (thank you Ree Drummond).  This is my new favorite pizza.  Really, it’s amazing.  I also adore Ree’s sense of humor and her shameless love for good (not necessarily so healthy) food.  Her blog is one of my favorites and I love her step by step photo tutorials she posts with each recipe.  She’s a cool chick.

Now it’s time to do some flipping (through my boyfriend’s old issues of Gourmet, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit).  Can I just say how awesome I think it is that he even has these in his possession?

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What a Little Moonlight Can Do

(Thank you Billie Holiday, who inspires and serenades me while I write this).  Thank you candlelight and my blackberry & blueberry scented “cat fight” candle, made by A Scent of Scandal.  Thank you puppy dog, who is lazily draped over the couch, next to me and who is snoring ever so sweetly.  This is beginning to sound a little like Goodnight Moon

There are Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes on the baking horizon, in lieu of Saint Patty’s Day (I’ll get to you, my pretties, tomorrow), and I tonight I made a rather involved, not quite worth the time, but delicious Shepherd’s Pie!  I altered this recipe, doubling the wine, cutting back a touch on the garlic, using 2 leeks instead of 4, 4 carrots instead of 5, parsnips instead of turnips and chuck roast instead of lamb shoulder, and I added peas.  Enough about all that though.   I’ve been meaning to tell you about my enchanting dining experience at this little place.

It’s been a few weeks since I dined at Poole’s, but don’t worry, I took notes.  The food was too unforgettable anyway.

Not even the cold, nor the spitting rain could keep folks away from Poole’s Downtown Diner.  My parents and I ducked into this pie shop turned luncheonette, turned trendy downtown restaurant, on a gloomy Wednesday evening.  It was a bustling, vibrant scene, especially for a  weekday in the perk of the dreadful January weather.  It’s located on 426 South McDowell Street, in Raleigh.

Poole’s is a harmonious mix of retro and modern. It’s a long, shotgun small space, reminiscent of most trendy little restaurant gems in big cities, but it delivers big.  Everything is black, cherry red, and charcoal grey and impressively, the original lunch counter has been maintained and updated, with a half-moon shaped, chrome counter bar and vinyl red bar stools.   Retro mint green formica topped tables and red booths are adorned with little candles, giving off a warm red glow.   Some track lighting gives the atmosphere a nice hip vibe, but not “club” hip, it’s classy. There is a beautiful old-fashioned, paneled, embossed tin ceiling, that reminds you of the building’s history.

Don’t be misled by the name, for Poole’s is not your typical diner fare, unless you know of any diner that serves colossal 10 ounce burgers cooked in duck fat.  And you won’t be given any menus either – they’re recorded on large chalk boards on either wall of the restaurant and also above the bar.

Poole’s offers some creative cocktails too.  One in particular piqued my interest – a drink titled “she’s the fastest,” which was a refreshing concoction of grapefruit juice, gin, tonic, and elderflower liqueur.  I loved it so much, I had to recreate it the other night (minus the elderflower liqueur, which I have yet to track down).

After ordering some drinks, we hungrily gazed at the menu on the wall, ready to see what Chef Ashley Christensen had to wow us with.  Butternut squash soup with local honey and toasted pistachio, brown butter scallops with sea island red peas and roasted tomato, roasted chicken with rosemary and mashed yukons…I was sold just after seeing the butternut squash soup, although I will have to try it next time – there were too many other dishes competing for my palate.

We started off with some pomme frites with malt aioli.  I was intrigued but I was also skeptical, since I’ve never much cared for malted vinegar with my fries.  I tend to think it smells like dirty feet.  But I love pomme frites and I love aioli, so I decided to be adventurous and give the malt a chance.  I’m so glad I did, because it was truly heavenly.  The frites were salty, crispy,thin and exactly the way pomme frites should be.  The malt gave the aioli a nice tang and it just paired surprisingly well with the fries.  I was shocked, malt on my fries, and it smells nothing like dirty feet!   I’ve got to try this at home!

I contemplated ordering the roasted chicken, but it was the burgandy braised short ribs with caramelized onions and ricotta gnocchi that won my heart.  I’ve been on a big slow roasted meat kick lately.  The meat was so tender, so flavorful with those lovely caramelized onions.  The ricotta gnocchi was slightly sweet and subtle, but a nice accompaniment to the short ribs.  We also shared the macaroni au gratin (because quite frankly, who can really say no to a macaroni gratin, with gruyere, parmesan, cheddar and heavy cream?)  It came to us in a generous ramekin, complete with a beautiful golden crust of cheese.  It was certainly a highlight of the meal, just like macaroni and cheese for adults.

We were filled to the brim, but couldn’t resist some dessert.  The earl grey panna cotta with huckleberry honey sounded uniquely beautiful but being a true devotee to chocolate, I chose the molten center chocolate cake with dulce de leche and sweet cream.  Dessert can be described in 3 words: Oh. My. God.  It was an incredible trifecta of flavors, with the rich, melty chocolate, the thick and gooey, sweet and salty dulce de leche, and the sweet whipped cream.  It was a dream.

Rarely am I ever as full as I was after that meal and at the same time, still content.  Pool’s may not serve meringue pies and tuna melts anymore, but that is fine with me, because it’s no longer the fifties and as long as gourmet burgers, pomme frites with malted aioli and the macaroni au gratin are on the menu, people will come and I will be one of them.

Ahh it was so delicous and I can’t wait to return.

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The Apples Were Singing

This morning I slept.  I mean I really slept – until 10 AM!  I felt lazy but it was nice, especially after the night I had.  Jay and I ran around (literally) downtown Greensboro for 55 minutes!  It was part of an event to promote Triad Stage’s Around the World in 80 Days, and was naturally called “Around Downtown in 80 Minutes.”  It was so much fun, and we didn’t even mind the cold.  We didn’t win but we came in 7th, out of about 60 two-person teams – not too shabby if you ask me!  I’m not even a runner.  The major incentive of course, was food – first place was a dinner at 223 and also a one night’s stay at the Biltmore Hotel (also in downtown).  So needless to say, we were exhausted from all that running.

A cup of coffee in bed, after a long luxurious sleep is quite an indulgence.  It’s not something I get to partake in all that often.  It reminds me of my trip to LA with Donna, a few years ago, where she had to hold a cup of coffee under my nose every morning, to stir me from my sleep and help me pour my un-morning person self out of bed.  Sometimes, there would even be a donut with that coffee.  (Donna is such a good friend).

This morning we had some steel-cut oatmeal with ramekins of cream (for dipping), and some apples sauteed with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and it was divine – the perfect lazy morning breakfast, simple, rich and hearty.  I’d never sauteed apples like that before but I figured it would be an easy task (which it was), so I just winged it.  I loved how with each sprinkling of brown sugar and more heat, the apples would sing.

We breakfasted over a private screening of Crazy Heart (but you didn’t hear this from me)!  It was a good accompaniment to the oats, with some beautiful shots of giant  midwestern clouds and sunsets over lonely, desert terrain and two solid performances by Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  It reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.

Now, I sit at The Green Bean, finishing my last inch of coffee and listening to the latest episode of the Spilled Milk podcast for some inspiration, but now my stomach is a rumbling and I want to do some braising.

I still have to tell you about my fabulous dining experience at Pool’s and I shall have an Academy Awards dinner party update for you very soon – I can’t wait!

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Macaroons, amaretti torts, and scones, oh my!

I’ve died and gone to sweet tooth heaven.  (I work in a bakery now, you see).  And I absolutely love it.  I’ve only worked two shifts thus far, but have already managed to sample a happy array of confections.  It’s mandatory at the bakery, that you try everything…goodness, what a hard job I have.

The bakery is called Simple Kneads, and is located in downtown Greensboro, tucked away in a charming little ally-way with floral-embellished iron gates and old brick walls.  The bakery is as rustic as it looks – practically everything is organic, made with local ingredients – (few ingredients at that), and they have everything there.  This is a true old school, European bakery, complete with Artisan breads, like asiago peppercorn, harvest curry, parmesan walnut, cinnamon raisin, challah, spelt, and more – most of them containing a sourdough starter.  I am fascinated by sourdough starters.  They are always experimenting and welcoming new recipes at the bakery.  They even make their own ricotta!  I was fortunate enough to try some, as it was being  strained over some cheesecloth, to separate the curds and whey and soon become a ricotta cheesecake – mmmm.

There are croissants contesting to be sold in a boulangerie, they are so good – smoked cheddar ones and chocolate ones.  Cinnamon rolls, buttermilk rolls (endearingly referred to as “crack rolls”), and so much more.  The pastry case is interchangeable, but right now there is bread pudding, carrot cake, lemon bars, cheesecake, (you get the idea).

I tried my very first french macaroon today.  (Not the coconut kind, mind you).  The true macaroon.  The beautiful, delicate, petite and colorful little confection that is practically the French mascot of desserts and is sweeping our nation as I type.  Every Wednesday there are macaroons.  Sometimes they are lavender or pistachio.  Today they were raspberry and almond amaretto, adorably placed on top of a lace doily tray, near the register, begging to be purchased.  I tried the raspberry and finally got what it was all about.  The buttercream was the best part.  I have to say it was a bit too sugary for my liking, a little goes a long way.  I loved the fragility of them.

I felt like the very hungry caterpillar again.  I arrived at the bakery this morning and my breakfast consisted of:  the raspberry macaroon, a sampling of chocolate mousse, a bite of a hot cross bun, a bite of a lemon currant scone, a few bites of schnekel (which I am probably spelling incorrectly), a slice of asiago peppercorn bread with dill and sun-dried tomato butter, and two bites of an amaretti tort with chocolate (which was my favorite).  It was heaven I tell you, moist, buttery, not overly sweet and subtle on the amaretti flavor.

I was really eyeing the freshly made eclairs.  Their flawless ganache coating was beckoning me, but there is time.  I had my sweet tooth fill for the day.

Not having a proper breakfast though, was my downfall.  As I was leaving the bakery, I felt a sugar headache come on, and it was monstrous.  The throbbing kind, almost worthy of being a migraine.  Some leftover turkey bolognese, some aspirin and an afternoon kip did the trick though.  That’ll teach me not to have some eggs with my sugar!  Enough about the bakery (I’ll be back in bright and early).  Until then, I shall dream about amaretti torts…

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