Merry Christmas, Y’all

December 24, 2007

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I’m spending the holidays cooking and eating with my family. We’re making cakes and candies, hot chocolate and eggnog, standing rib roast and popovers, banana pancakes and palmiers, creamy “adult” drinks and punch for the kids. Last night, I made three different stir fries (I’m glad I have 3 woks!) for us and some friends who are actually moving into their newly constructed house this past weekend. Talk about crazy timing.

Anyhow, I’ll have plenty to write about, but for now, have a Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Frolicking Festivus, Delightful Kwanzaa, or whatever the rest of you celebrate. And if you don’t celebrate anything, enjoy your time off from work!


Southern Food, According to Gourmet

December 21, 2007

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I’ve subscribed to Gourmet for at least ten years. I was about to give up on the magazine until they ran a special edition that focused on Mexican and Latino foods, including a great Colman Andrews piece on Durham taquerias.

Yesterday’s mail brought another smile to my face when I realized the January Gourmet focused on food of the American South. Yeah, South. There’s a beautiful essay by the late great Edna Lewis, discovered after her death. There’s a story on Ayden, North Carolina’s Skylight Inn. John T. Edge writes about Linton Hopkins and his struggle to have Atlanta embrace his Restaurant Eugene. And Scott Peacock puts together a great dinner menu of Southern food. These are real people and real places, some friends or acquaintances, and the magazine truly warmed my heart, making me wanting more. That’s exactly what a food magazine should do. So, to all those bashers of Ruth Reichl, watch out — I’ve got her back!


Grant Achatz Cancer-Free

December 18, 2007

When I heard the news a few months ago that Grant Achatz, chef of Chicago’s Alinea, had developed tongue cancer, I was devastated. I had eaten at Alinea in June and was completely blown away by Achatz’s cuisine. The man is so young, so talented, and (as my wife pointed out), so “hot.” Heh. Anyhow, it was essentially a real-world Shakespearian tragedy to think that this young man, the chef of arguably the best restaurant in the country, had an affliction that might result in the loss of his sense of taste, his tongue, or his life.

Good news! I received the following press release earlier today:

It is with a tremendous sense of gratitude and relief that I have successfully completed my course of therapy at the University of Chicago. It was incredibly important to me to remain as engaged as possible at Alinea while receiving treatment, and during that time I only missed 14 services. I continue to stand committed to innovating fine dining long into the future.

At this time I want to thank everyone at Alinea — the staff, investors, and patrons of the restaurant have offered their unwavering commitment and support in ways large and small. The community of restaurants, chefs, and industry professionals who reached out to us was exceptionally gratifying.

Most of all, I must make special mention of doctors Vokes, Blair, and Haraf at the University of Chicago Medical Center, as well as the countless number of medical professionals and support staff there who cared for me. Where other doctors at prominent institutions saw little hope of a normal life, let alone a cure, these doctors saw an opportunity to think differently, preserve my tongue and taste, and maintain a long term high quality of life. Through the use of a new and rigorous chemotherapy and radiation protocol, they were able achieve a full remission while ensuring that the use of invasive surgery on my tongue was not needed.

Onward.

Onward, indeed, and congrats Chef G!


Has Chowhound Banned VarmintBites, Too???

December 18, 2007

Tee hee, I think I might have been indirectly banned from Chowhound, too! I subscribe to the Chowhound South feed, and in the discussion about Poole’s, someone posted this:

While I haven’t been there yet, I do know people who work there & I also knwo it is not supposed to be really a diner, but more like a french bistro & not necesarily country cooking. We may not live in SF, but considering all the people moving here with money to buy the lame condos down town, that is why stuff is expensive. Here’s a decent review with pictures

And then there was a link to my experience of the opening night of Poole’s.

I saw that post on Chowhound earlier today, but it’s completely missing now. Maybe they don’t like me because I’ve asked them why they continue to ban any discussions of Jujube. Or could this be the reason: “Posts which link directly to blog entries without adding any useful information to the site will be removed – copy or encapsulate your blog posts on Chowhound so readers can read and respond within our community.” Granted, that “policy” is addressed to the creators of the blogs themselves, not third parties providing links to others’ blogs.

Regardless, I’m honored. And I love to stir the pot, too! ;-)


Italian Food Commercials Rock

December 17, 2007

One of my favorite food blogs is Bob del Grosso’s A Hunger Artist, and in today’s post, I found something that reminded me of how much other countries strike the perfect balance in their appreciation of food. Here in the US, we’re constantly bombarded with ads touting the nutritional aspects of food, a dish’s convenience, or, god forbid, the sheer size of portions. On one hand, we don’t have much of an appreciation for food at all, whereas on the other hand, we take it way too seriously.

When del Grosso posted this YouTube clip from Italy, I almost fell out of my chair laughing. You could not find a commercial that is more kitschy, more idiotic, yet completely perfect. It takes a serious and iconic food item, Parmigiano Reggiano, and makes it completely whimsical. Call it an “Up With People” for the foodies.

Enjoy, and watch it to the end for the Christmas snow scene.


Ashley Christensen Brings the French Countryside to Raleigh with Poole’s

December 14, 2007

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Crispy frogs’ legs. Calves’ liver with sweet onions. Poached eggs on brioche with a chanterelle gravy. This is the food of the French countryside, food that you could get from a farmhouse restaurant in Normandy. And now you can get it in Raleigh with the opening of Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Downtown Diner. The old Poole’s vibe is still the same, but this ain’t no diner. The huge bar remains, the seating arrangement hasn’t been modified, and it’s as hard to get in the bathrooms as it ever was, but the food is unlike anything you’ll find in Raleigh. Braises. Confit. Thick, hearty soups. And mounds of simple, bright salads. Poole’s has arrived, and if you like rich, heavy French comfort food, you’re in for a treat. Read the rest of this entry »


Pots de Crème? We’ll Just Call It Puddin’

December 10, 2007

pudding.jpgMy wife and I hosted a dinner party for her co-workers on Saturday, and I knew that it was going to be a pretty busy day in addition to the cooking that was needed. I had to come up with a simple dessert that I could make in advance, something fairly light, as the earlier courses were fairly heavy. Plus, my freezer was on the blink, so anything involving ice cream was out.

The solution? Pots de crème (that’s “pots of cream” for you non-French speakers). Traditionally served in dainty and elegant lidded cups, these light custards can be made in a jiffy, particularly if you don’t need to cook the mixture to infuse the flavoring.

Lemon is a natural flavoring for pots de crème, but because Meyer lemons are now available, I used this slightly sweeter and more complex flavored citrus fruit. It took me 10 minutes to prepare the custard, pour it into ramekins, and then left them to bake in a bain marie for a little over half an hour. After chilling, I topped them with a bit of sweetened whipped cream and dusted the dish with some Lemonhead candies that I had pulverized into a powder. Adding an almond and chocolate tuile on the side, and the dish was a perfect ending to a perfect meal. And my guests all told me it was the best pudding they ever had.

Recipe after the break.

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Poole’s To Open on Wednesday — Er, Thursday

December 10, 2007

Ashley Christensen, executive chef of Enoteca Vin, will finally open her Poole’s Diner on Wednesday Thursday. The long-awaited opening has come after Christensen had to essentially gut the kitchen and re-work the interior, making it less kitschy and more tasteful. Details to follow.

Edit: I just learned from Ashley that due to some permitting issues, they won’t be opening until Thursday.


N&O’s Restaurant Reviews Move to 5-Star Rating System

December 7, 2007

Greg Cox, the News & Observer’s restaurant critic, announced in his “Chew on This!” column today that he’s moving to a 5-star rating system. Was this a case of grade compression making it difficult to distinguish the differences between restaurants? Why not a 30 point system, as with Zagat? Or a 100 point one, just like our schools use?

Seriously, though, I don’t care what numeric system a reviewer uses, as long as he or she is consistent. I don’t always agree with Cox’s assessment, but he does a pretty darned good job, particularly for a city and paper of this size.

Meanwhile, Cox also brags about the N&O’s new restaurant website, which is, quite frankly, not ready for prime time. First, there is a problem with duplicate listings. Frazier’s, South and Fins have more than one listing.

Although the geographic scope of the restaurant database has been expanded, as has the number of cuisine types that can be searched, you no longer can search based on the ratings. Moreover, the search results do not list the ratings of the restaurant; you have to click on each listing to find out what Greg Cox thought of the place. I think this is a nice start, but if you’re going to tell the world about your new 5-star rating system, I would like a fairly simple way to determine what are the top-rated restaurants. And by the way, it appears that Cox’s previous 4-star restaurants have all been elevated to 5-star status. Those being

  • Nana’s
  • Fins
  • Magnolia Grill
  • Four Square
  • Bonne Soiree
  • Bloomsbury Bistro

I may have missed others. For the most part, it appears Cox merely added another star to each previous rating, but that’s not always the case. For example, Enoteca Vin, Jujube, J. Betski’s, Herons and Rue Cler each got a 1 star bump. A place like The Big Easy made only a half-star jump to two stars. I’m thinking that the biggest impact the expanded 5-star rating system will have will be on the lower-rated restaurants. It’ll have to be pretty damn bad to get only one star now.


Dining With Myself

December 6, 2007

chopsticks.jpgA friend of mine just got back from Chicago, and when I asked her where she ate, she said that she ordered room service and just stayed in the hotel. The reason was that she didn’t like to eat by herself.

I’m like many people in that I can feel uncomfortable when I eat at a restaurant by myself — particularly when I do it in my home of Raleigh. When I’m on the road, however, I’ve long gotten over the insecurities of solo dining. I explore new places. I take the time to get to know a restaurant, chatting with the waitstaff or bartenders.

Here in Raleigh, however, I’m much less likely to go out by myself. Part of that is that I usually can find someone to go with me, whether it’s a family member, a co-worker, or a friend. Another part is that I’m insecure enough that I don’t really want to be “caught” eating alone by someone I know. It does sort of look pathetic, but again, that’s my own insecurities shining through. If I don’t have a lunch date, I usually go home, as I have the luxury of living 4 minutes from my office. Read the rest of this entry »


Ham for Chanukah???

December 6, 2007

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Photo by NancyKay Shapiro

I’m sure this is already all over the internet, and I know it has nothing to do with the local scene, but it totally cracked me up. Balducci’s, the New York based gourmet food store, recently advertised several hams as being “Delicious for Chanukah.” The “oversight” has since been corrected with the signs now saying, “Perfect for the Holidays,” but I thought y’all might get a kick out of this, too.

As first reported on novelist NancyKay Shapiro’s blog.

And you can also now buy Ham for Chanukah greeting cards!


Death of the Entree?

December 5, 2007

Kim Severson, the fantastic food writer for the New York Times, has an interesting piece in today’s edition about the decline of the entree in American restaurants. People enjoy small plates and like to mix and match their tastes. Look at Jujube’s multi-course offering, the opening of Six Plates, or the huge number of tapas-style restaurants in the Triangle, and you’ll see that this phenomenon is not unique to the huge cities. And frankly, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.

Whether it’s family style, a chef’s degustation of single-bite fare, or tapas, it’s fun to eat this way. It promotes sharing. It encourages experimentation, where you’re not spending 25 bucks on something that you’re not sure you’ll like. Chefs like it, too, as Jean-Georges Vongerichten said, “It’s easier for me to please you with three or four bites.” And frankly, it makes more money for the restaurants.

No, the entree is not headed toward extinction any time soon. And as Severson points out, dining has only featured an entree in the last 80 years, so if it does head to the sideline for awhile, we’ll all be just fine.


Easier No Knead Bread

December 3, 2007

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Anyone who is even remotely interested in food is aware of Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread recipe that became mainstream 13 months ago when Mark Bittman of the NY Times wrote about it. Food websites were agog about this new way to make bread, which required a really wet dough, a long, overnight rise, and baking in a large covered pot. Nearly every newspaper in the country covered the phenomenon of being able to have a crusty loaf of bread without any kneading, with many trying to tweak the recipe to enhance the depth of flavor. Me? I never made it. I even broke down and bought a nice enameled cast iron pot in which to bake a loaf, but for some reason, I just never got around to making this bread.

Last week, however, I read about a new type of no-knead bread. A bread so simple, even a 7 year old could make it. This process also relies on a very wet dough, but you only let the dough sit for a couple of hours. Each batch makes three or four loaves of crusty bread, but you don’t need to bake it all at once. The unused dough can sit in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, and you pull off a portion and bake it when you want.

I gave the recipe to my 7 year old daughter, who has been cooking a lot with our sitter, and I came home on Friday with a bull full of dough waiting for me. I pinched off a couple of grapefruit sized pieces of dough, lightly dusted them with flour, and let them sit on a pizza peel for 40 minutes or so. I popped the orbs into a hot oven with a baking stone, and you know what, my daughter and I ended up with some most excellent bread. And I baked the rest of it tonight, resulting in an even more flavorful loaf.

So, give this recipe a try. If you time it right, you can have fresh bread all the time. And if a 7 year old can do it, I’m sure you can, too.

Recipe after the break.

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