Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

June 9, 2014

Scott Crawford has left The Umstead Hotel and Spa and Herons restaurant to open up two new ventures in downtown Raleigh, Standard Foods and Nash Tavern. Pastry chef Daniel Benjamin is opening a new pastry shop, lucettegrace, also in downtown Raleigh.

Steven Greene was named the Executive Chef of The Umstead today, and he’ll remain in place as the Culinary Director at An, one of the best restaurants in the state. (and yes, I am the “V” in the 5-star review Greg Cox gave An)

All of these gentlemen are good friends of mine, and I’ve written pretty extensively about Scott and Steven, with a couple of mentions about Daniel.

Here’s my story on my first meeting with Scott Crawford.

This is my recollection of the first time I ate Scott’s food at Herons.

I first met Steven Greene when I spent two nights cooking at Herons. He was the Executive Chef de Cuisine, working under Scott Crawford. I also spent some time with Daniel Benjamin while I was there. And I wrote a three-part story on my wonderful experience. Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

And I recently wrote a feature profile on Steven Greene for Walter Magazine.

Good luck to Scott, Steven and Daniel!


The Most Successful Cookbook on My Shelves

June 2, 2014


I have a fair number of cookbooks, but I’m by no means a collector. Compared to many of my friends, I have a relatively tiny collection, and that’s because I don’t use cookbooks that often. For the most part, cookbooks give me ideas. They help me come up with new dishes or combinations of ingredients. Occasionally, I’ll learn a new technique. I’ll even read a cookbook from cover to cover now and then, just because the writing and stories are so good. But for the most part, cookbooks are reference materials, to be picked up now and then for guidance and inspiration.

The first cookbook where I really started to look at how and what I was cooking, the guide that introduced me to Thai cuisine, the book that I’ve followed more recipes than any other book was The Frog Commissary Cookbook by Steven Poses from Philadelphia. An old girlfriend gave me this book as a Valentine’s Day gift over 25 years ago, and it’s as worn out as any cookbook I have. It’s not just dog-eared, it’s dirty. The binding is broken and pages are falling out. I’ve made at least 50 different dishes from that cookbook, and most of them have been great hits. The sour cream apple pie. The Asian chicken wings. The Thai curries. The crab and tarragon and tomato pasta dish. I could go on and on, and maybe one day, I will spend more time highlighting this wonderful cookbook.

But today, I want to focus on Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. I’m not sure I’ve had a cookbook that has been as slam-dunk successful as this one. Everything that I have made from this book has been not just good, but amazing. His recipes have replaced the tried and true dishes I’ve made for years. Chocolate chip cookies? None can compare to the version in this cookbook, and except for having to chop your own chocolate, they’re really simple. His cream of cauliflower soup has become my family’s favorite soup — nothing else comes even close. I now dress my salads totally differently because of this cookbook. The newest item to make our “best of” list is his brownies. Brownies??? Yes, brownies. I mean, I thought I’ve had brownies every different way and had come to the conclusion that it was a dessert that would always be good, but would never be great. Well, these brownies aren’t just great; they’re fucking awesome. Why you ask? Well, it comes down to chocolate and butter. Chocolate in the form of lots of cocoa powder then with dark chocolate chunks added to the batter. And butter? Well, we’re talking about a 9×9 inch square cake pan of brownies calling for THREE STICKS OF BUTTER!!!! Nope, not a typo — there are 12 ounces of butter in this recipe. Even if cut into relatively small pieces, you’re going to get a couple of tablespoons of butter in each brownie. Holy smokes, these brownies are rich. Over the top without a damn excuse but 0h-my-god-they’re-delicious rich. My daughter made these brownies yesterday, and I want more. I’m channeling my inner Veruca Salt because I want more NOW!

 

photo (14)

The brownies are absolutely perfect on their own, or with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. A little soft cream would be great, too, but of course, we topped them with good old fashioned vanilla ice cream. I didn’t want to take the time to get a quality photo, because, well, once again, I’m a little impatient. So you’re stuck with a photo of ice cream hiding the most amazing brownie I’ve ever eaten.

Now I have to figure out what to make out of this book next. Because I’m a bit uneasy about displacing my current favorites. Like his carrot cake muffins. Or beef stroganoff. Ah, hell, I’ll just give in and be thankful that I have a cookbook that I can always turn to, and come out with something extraordinary.

Ad Hoc at Home Brownies

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened alkalized cocoa powder
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (recipe calls for vanilla paste, but I didn’t have any on hand — plain vanilla works)
6 ounces 61 to 64% chocolate, chopped into chip-sized pieces ( about 1 1/2 cups)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9×9 baking dish. Set aside.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt; set aside.

Melt half the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat (or in the microwave), stirring occasionally. Put the remaining butter in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter and stir to melt the butter. The butter should look creamy, with small bits of unmelted butter, and be at room temperature.

In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until thick and very pale. Mix in the vanilla. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients, then add one-third of the butter, and continue alternating the remaining flour and butter. Add the chocolate and mix to combine. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.)

Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester or wooden skewer poked into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs sticking to it. If the pick comes out wet, test a second time, because you may have hit a piece of chocolate chip; then bake for a few more minutes longer if necessary. Cool in the pan until the brownie is just a bit warmer than room temperature.

Run a knife around the edges, and invert the brownie onto a cutting board. Cut into 12 rectangles. Serve with dusted powdered sugar, soft whipped cream or ice cream. The brownies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days, but if they last that long, there’s something wrong.


Cardamom Crumb Muffins

May 30, 2014

Muffins

Cardamom might be the most underappreciated spice out there. Sure, it’s expensive, but not, like, saffron expensive. And a lot of people think it’s this incredibly exotic, inaccessible Indian spice. Exotic? Perhaps. Inaccessible? Pshaw! It has the most amazing perfume, but not overpowering. I made these muffins following Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for allspice crumb muffins (from Baking: From My House to Yours), subbing the cardamom for the allspice. They were a big hit, and I suspect if I had used cardamom that wasn’t a bazillion years old (such as, freshly ground!), they would have been even more scrumptious. They’re very easy, so make them this weekend!

Cardamom Crumb Muffins

For the Streusel:

1/2 cup all purpose flour

1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar

3/4  teaspoon ground cardomom

5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into bits

For the Muffins:

2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup (packed) light brown sugar

1 stick  unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 large eggs, room temperature

3/4 cup whole milk, room temperature

1/4 teaspoon  vanilla extract

Grated zest of 1 lemon

 

Prep: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.  Butter the 12 molds in a regular-size muffin pan or fit the molds with paper cups (or use ungreased silicone muffin pan without paper cups).  Place the muffin pan on a baking sheet.

Streusel:  Combine the flour, brown sugar and cardamom in a small bowl.  Add the bits of cold butter and toss or cut in with a pastry cutter to get irregularly shaped crumbs.  Refrigerate until muffins are ready.

Muffins:  In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cardamom and salt.  Stir in the brown sugar, braking down large lumps.  In another bowl, whisk the melted butter, eggs, milk, and vanilla together until well combined.  Pour the liquid ingredients over the dry ingredients and, with the whisk or a rubber spatula, stir gently but quickly.  Add the lemon zest. The batter will be lumpy.  Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups.  Sprinkle some streusel over each muffin, then gently press the crumbs into the batter with your fingers.

Bake for about 18-20 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean.  Cool on a rack for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the muffins from the pan.


Walter – Places to Eat on Your Way to the Beach

May 23, 2014

IMG_5417

I was asked to write this piece at the last minute because a planned story had fallen through. The idea pitched to me was to write about restaurants worth a drive from Raleigh. I thought that focusing on places east of Raleigh would make the legwork more doable, as I visited these places over a single weekend (except for On The Square, where I went to lunch on a Wednesday). But the Thai restaurant in downtown Goldsboro was undoubtedly the biggest surprise. My kids and I also took all of the photos, many with my iPhone. It was pretty damn cool.

 

http://www.waltermagazine.com/eating-well-on-the-way-to-the-beach/


Walter Magazine — Stanbury

May 23, 2014

I wrote a profile on the founders of Raleigh’s Stanbury restaurant for Walter Magazine’s February 2014 edition. I love to write about people who are successful beyond their imaginations.

 

http://www.waltermagazine.com/the-stanbury-four/


Walter Magazine – Have a Figgy Christmas

May 23, 2014

This is a column I wrote for the December edition of Walter. It’s about my in-laws and their fig obsession. And their giving nature.

 

http://www.waltermagazine.com/have-a-figgy-christmas/

 


Miss Lonelycarts

May 23, 2014

This column was posted in October for Walter Magazine, but it’s not available online.

[POST-SCRIPT] Shortly before Thanksgiving, I received a call from a lawyer I used to work with. He told me that his sister was Miss Lonelycarts, and that she had been fighting a battle with pancreatic cancer. She walked around the Harris Teeter for exercise, using the cart for support.  She was anything but lonely, I learned. A former model. Active in her church. Several days later, Miss Lonelycarts passed away. Here is a link to her obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/newsobserver/obituary.aspx?n=sarah-mckay-munford&pid=168509739&fhid=5774  Rest in peace, Sarah Munford. I wish I had spoken to you.]

I’ve been married for 21 years, but another woman has been preoccupying my mind of late. I don’t really know her, but I can’t stop thinking of her. I want to know to know more about her, to understand why she does what she does. But I’m afraid to talk to her.

And this is not what you think.

I do the weekly grocery shopping for my family every Sunday. I usually try to do it around 10 a.m., when the store is empty because most people are at church. Sometimes I don’t get around to this task until 2 in the afternoon, when things are busier.

But nearly every time I visit my local Harris Teeter, she is there: the woman who haunts me. I am guessing she is in her ’60s, and she is a reasonably attractive woman. The fact that she shops at the same time as I do is not all that unusual. The fact that I noticed her isn’t, either.

What is unusual is that I’ve never seen her buy a thing in the store. I’ve never seen her stop to look at an item on the shelves. In fact, I’ve never seen her put a single item in her grocery cart; the cart might have one item in it, two at the most. But she walks. And walks some more, always with a gentle saunter, and always with a pleasant smile on her face. She’s not there to buy groceries. She’s there for some other reason. Maybe this is her social outlet. Maybe it’s her exercise. I don’t know. But I want to.

Is she a lonely woman? I’ve never seen her stop and talk to a single person in the store, but I wonder if the employees have noticed her like I do. My younger kids have noticed her, too, and they feel sad for her. We initially called her “Miss Lonelyhearts,” after the character in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” but we renamed her Miss Lonelycarts.  I really don’t know if she is lonely at all, but I wonder about her nonetheless.

 

Occasionally, she is not there when I’m shopping, and then my imagination starts to run wild. Is she OK? Did something happen to her? I wonder: Does she do this at the Kroger on Tuesdays, the Food Lion on Thursdays? Then I laugh at myself, wondering why I’m worrying about a woman I’ve never uttered a word to, not even to say, “Excuse me.”

But that’s what makes Raleigh great. We care about each other, even if we don’t have a clue who someone is. I fist bump my favorite bagger at the store, talking about how many days before the NFL season begins. I ask my Whole Foods butcher if he’s seen any good bands lately – we once bumped into each other at a club. And I always make the same joke to the Harris Teeter cashier when the credit card machine asks me if my total amount due is OK. No, it’s not OK; it’s $289! How could that ever be OK? My kids grimace at the joke, but the cashiers laugh.

But it is this woman, this Miss Lonelycarts, of whom I think the most. She’s the one I want to approach and say hello. I am afraid to do that, however, not because I’m wary of engaging a total stranger, but because I don’t want to scare her off. If she actually stopped and looked at some produce, I could say, “Boy, the strawberries look great today.” And the next week I see her, I’d say, “Hey there, Strawberry Woman.” But I’ve never had that chance.

I’ve also thought about “accidentally” running into her cart, then apologizing profusely. That would certainly break the ice and give me a reason, next time we see each other, to say hello and feign embarrassment.

And now, as we approach Thanksgiving, I want to make sure that she has a place to go for my favorite holiday of the year, a place where she can relax, have a good meal, and be around some people who are thankful for what we have. I’m used to taking in the Thanksgiving “orphans,” people I hardly know who have no family nearby.

But I just can’t bring myself to do it. Just like when I was in high school and was horribly intimidated by the pretty girls, I find myself thinking not of the possible good of engaging Miss Lonelycarts, I only consider the bad, that I would scare her away. Or maybe she might be a bit, er, crazy.

In the end, she doesn’t need me to be her white knight, her social savior. She’s happy with her Sunday stroll, looking at the friendly faces at the Harris Teeter. She’s shopping for something, but I might never know what that is.


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