Help Me Grow a Garden

March 10, 2009

gardenI want to grow a garden.

I have never grown anything edible in my life.

I need your help.

Here’s the deal.  I am looking for volunteers to help me grow some vegetables and maybe some fruit.  I don’t have great land next to my house, and I’m not sure it gets enough sun.  The soil might be complete crap.  But I want to grow something.  Anything.  I’ve got 4 workers who happen to be my children, and they can help with the weeding and watering duties.

I need your help because I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to growing things.  I don’t know how to fertilize or till or plant.  I don’t know what should be started as seeds in the house versus in the ground.  I don’t know what items require lots of sun and what can tolerate shade.  I’m clueless about watering.  And I won’t even begin to pretend that I have any idea about organic methods.  Be serious, people.

We can come up with a weekend day that we can commit to the Varmint Garden.  So, anyone willing to help me out???

Pantry Cooking — For a Week

February 19, 2009

pantryThe fine folks at eGullet have initiated a new interactive project: spend a week cooking without going to the grocery store or market.  And no, you can’t load up at Harris Teeter on Saturday just to start this project on Sunday.   My friend Steven Shaw, the Executive Director of eGullet, hatched this plan, but he’s being reasonable, acknowledging some kids will get their lunches at school and there will be instances where you just have to get some fresh goods.  So if you need eggs and milk, it’s OK to get them, but don’t shop for anything else.  Just use the stuff in your freezer and your pantry.

It’s a pretty good concept, as during these tough economic times, it might make sense to do a “clean-up” of your inventory by cooking and eating it, thereby saving you money.  I’d have troubles foregoing all the fresh fruit and veggies I eat, but it’s very doable.

Unfortunately, I won’t be participating in this venture, as I’ll be out of town a fair amount, but let me know if any of you decide to participate.

And here’s more about the project from Kim Severson of the NY Times.

My Favorite Holiday

November 24, 2008

cranberriesThanksgiving is without a doubt my favorite holiday.  It’s non-commercial, revolves around food, and is all about family and friends.  I think another one of the reasons I enjoy it so much is that I want anyone and everyone to come to my house for dinner.  I like taking in Thanksgiving “orphans”, as everyone should eat with a family, regardless if it’s their own.  On Thanksgiving, everyone is family.

One final reason that I love Thanksgiving is that the food I’ll make on Thursday will be quite similar to what I ate as a child.  I cook a lot differently than my mother, but with the exception of a few minor improvements, it’s pretty much what she made 40 years ago.  I don’t show off on Thanksgiving and keep the meal simple.  Here’s our tentative menu for Thursday, which is as ordinary as you’ll find.  But damn, it’s good.

Shrimp cocktail
Roast turkey
Mashed potatoes
Deviled eggs
Carrots with maple syrup
Homemade rolls
Pumpkin pie
Apple pie
Bourbon pecan pie

Everything is made from scratch, but it’s all easy stuff. Did I forget anything? Oh, a little bit of wine, too.

Tell me about your Thanksgiving traditions.

Food Tricks and Lies

September 4, 2008

[Although I often think that my kids are far too picky eaters, my wife reminds me that they're really not that bad.  And when I really ponder the situation, I realize that she is right (what else is new?).  None of my kids loves everything, but for the most part (one of my daughters being the exception), they do well.

That made me think of something I wrote nearly 5 years ago, when my oldest child was 9 and my youngest was 2.  I thought I'd revive this piece, which was originally published on the website for the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters on September 24, 2003.]

“C’MON, TRY the beets. They’re really as sweet as candy! Even better, they, make your pee turn red!” Yeah, those are the words I used not too long ago to get our kids to eat beets. For some reason, the L’il Varmints had a slight problem with putting beets in their mouths. First of all, they saw this veggie get pulled from the dirt at a nearby organic farm. These were nasty, icky, muddy things with hair at the bottom. Second, beets are red, seriously red, with just enough purple to make them unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. Finally, one of the adults at the table already professed that she hated beets. (Why the hell do people do that, right when we’re trying to convince the children how great they are?)

This is not a column about beets or other food that people “don’t get.” This is a tale of what we parents do to get their kids to try new food, to just give it a chance. A story of “try it, you’ll like it.” Most of us parents with normal kids encounter this situation — I’m not talking about children who ate sushi at the age of 4 or truly enjoyed sauteed mushrooms on their very rare prime rib (seasoned with fleur de sel, of course). I’m talking about the Froot Loops and PB&J eating type. The ones who seek out macaroni and cheese, preferably Kraft. Children who expect — no, demand — the blue colored ketchup with their Tater Tots. These are the children I know, my L’il Varmints, God love them. They’re also the children found in most typical households, from Milwaukee to Schenectady to Placerville — and all places in between. Read the rest of this entry »

Most Important Food Story of the Year

August 13, 2008

Andrea Weigl and Shawn Rocco of the News & Observer have put together an article and multi-media presentation that should be required reading for everyone over the age of ten. This is the story of a pig, a cute Ossabaw hog that has made its way to the abbatoir. A pig that will be dinner in a week’s time. The article itself is graphic and gut wrenching, but is as well-written and objective as anything you’ll find. This isn’t a story that you usually see in the food section of a newspaper, with inherent space limitations and over-editing. This is a well-rounded, detailed journalistic piece and includes a side story comparing the small operation of the packing plant used for the Ossabaw with the large, industrial plant of the Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel, NC. This is top notch writing and photojournalism, pure and simple. Rocco’s pictures juxtapose sweet shots of piglets with a scene of “dead pig walking” and a somewhat eery photo of a small plastic pig in the cup holder of the truck taking the pig to the slaughterhouse. Frankly, I have not seen a story as compelling as this in any paper or magazine this year.

As a father of four children, I believe it’s my duty to ensure that my children understand how we get our food. Whether it’s the heirloom tomatoes, the Frosted Mini-Wheat or the barbecue, my kids should know that food production and processing isn’t always pretty. Sometimes, it really hurts.

This story was the second reminder I’ve had of this in the past month. The first time was when we were in Alaska, on a small boat in Resurrection Bay near Kenai Fjords National Park. The primary purpose of the boat trip was to see wildlife and scenery, and boy, did we ever see some sights! However, we also stopped two times to fish, once for silver (coho) salmon and the second for halibut. My 12-year old daughter, who doesn’t eat much meat at all (and absolutely no fish), was looking forward to catching a fish or two. She got really excited when her younger brother hooked a feisty salmon, even though we couldn’t net it. When her 70 year old grandmother brought the first fish into the boat, she was ecstatic. But that was all to change. The crew brought out a small club and brutally and quickly ended the salmon’s life. I hadn’t prepared my daughter or any of my children for that reality. And she couldn’t handle it, starting to bawl from witnessing the cruelty of meat. Just as Morrissey and the Smiths said, “Meat is Murder,” and my daughter just witnessed a killing.

And a small part of me is glad she did.

Many of you are thinking that I’m an awful father for thinking it’s a good thing for your child to hurt, but that’s not the case. I suspect my daughter already had issues with eating meat because of humane reasons, and this incident may make it worse. I know it bothered her later that day when that salmon was on our dinner table, but she saw first hand how the fish gave its life for our nourishment. She knows that the world of food, including fish and other meat, is not pretty. She knows that her chicken drumstick really came from an animal, an animal that was killed to satisfy her hunger. I don’t think she’ll need to go into therapy, thank god, but she’s forever changed. A little less innocent, perhaps. And after many of us read Weigl’s articles, we might be, too.

Edit: Please also read Weigl’s first piece about this particular pig that came out in Sunday’s paper.  Great, great writing.

A Tasty Chicken Burger

August 8, 2008

My wife doesn’t eat red meat.  If it’s got fins, feathers, or shells, that’s OK.  If it has fur, no thanks.  Yeah, it’s sad, but it forces me to be creative, and moreover, it really does make me eat a healthier diet.  So even though I might want to break out the meat grinder and a chuck roast for a fresh, kick-ass burger, more often than not I’ll go to Whole Foods and buy their ground chicken thighs.  The gold standard for a poultry burger is the turkey burger, but frankly, I think ground chicken thighs have more flavor than turkey.  But not enough to make it a tasty burger.

I also don’t care much for those poultry burgers that add flavor with the addition of onions, garlic, worcestershire, feta and three different herbs.  You’ve turned the damn thing into a burger salad, for god’s sake!

So I add two things to my ground chicken: some low-fat ricotta and some McCormick’s Seasoned Salt.  That’s it.  The ricotta adds some depth to the texture of the chicken, some juiciness, and just some overall balance.  If it’s not there, the burger ends up not feeling right in your mouth when you eat it.  The Seasoned Salt will probably be viewed as an abomination to some foodies, but frankly, I love the stuff in this burger (and on oven-roasted potatoes from time to time!).

You mix a pound of ground chicken thighs with about 1/4 cup ricotta and a teaspoon of the seasoned salt.  Gently form 3 patties (wet your hands first, as this stuff really likes to stick to you).  I usually fry up my chicken burgers in a dry non-stick skillet, as this stuff does like to stick (and my grill hasn’t been functional in quite some time).  You don’t want too high of heat, as these suckers, unlike beef burgers, really need to be cooked all the way through.  The burgers will brown and then just start to develop a slight char — that’s when you flip them.

It’s as simple as that.  Is it healthier than a regular burger?  Beats me, as that’s not why I eat them.  Does it satisfy even my 14 year old?  Yup, but he’d still like some bacon on that sucker!

Kayak Soup

July 31, 2008

(Click on any picture for a high resolution version)

Today’s entry is about our great sea kayaking trip with Seaside Adventure Eco-Tours, a small mom and pop outfit in Little Tutka Bay, just across Kachemak Bay from the lovely town of Homer, Alaska.  You need to take a water taxi to get here, but the trip, and the entire experience, are worth the logistical difficulties.  You quickly learn in Alaska that getting from point A to point B often entails travel by means other than an automobile. Read the rest of this entry »

Ginormous Portions in Alaska

July 29, 2008

There’s a t-shirt that you can find in most Alaskan gift shops that says, “Size Does Matter”, showing an outline of the state of Alaska and well within those boundaries, Texas.  It’s a pretty funny t-shirt, particularly if you want to rib one of your Texas friends, but the notion of “bigger is better” is alive and well in Alaskan diners.

We stopped at Rose’s Cafe in Healy, several miles north of the entrance to Denali National Park.  Rose’s is a fairly typical diner, but they really like serving large portions of food.  The entrance area is filled with pictures of individuals who have eaten the one-pound burger (or burgers consisting of several of the one-pound patties — one guy ate a 5 pounder!).  OK, that’s for the crazy people, but Rose’s also has normal sizes, thank god.

My son decides to order pancakes.  The waitress informed him that one would be enough.  One pancake?  For a hungry 9-year old?  She must be crazy.  Well, the picture above shows you that the waitress gave us great advice.

Another example of ridiculous portions comes from the less-than-average, well-past-its-prime, tourist-trap Gwennie’s in Anchorage.  This is really a lousy restaurant, the worst one we visited in Alaska, but the place didn’t disappoint when it came to quantity of food.  My father-in-law decided to eat breakfast for dinner, and he ordered a waffle and a side of reindeer sausage.  We had first had reindeer sausage at our Anchorage B&B, the wonderful Alaska House of Jade, and my father-in-law wanted some more.  Well, he got a lot more.  The amount of sausage he received was so great that it turned his stomach (mine, too).  We hardly touched the stuff.

Not every place in Alaska serves humungous portions, but we didn’t find a place that skimped on quantity.  Maybe size does matter — at least when eating in Alaska.

Dining with the Bears

July 27, 2008

We’re back from our 2-week Alaska vacation, and what a trip it was!  I’ll spend the next week or two posting mostly about some unusual culinary aspects of Alaska, with some occasional scenery thrown in for good measure.

Today, I’ve provided a picture of our group eating lunch at Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park and Preserve, the area of Alaska that required us to land in the ocean surf in a sea plane to view Alaskan brown bears (also known as grizzlies or Kodiaks).  I’ll write a LOT more about this trip, which might be the single most memorable day of vacation I’ve ever experienced, but for now, this will suffice.  We packed our own lunch, consisting of turkey wraps (which minimize crumbs, as you don’t want to leave ANY food for the bears to find, as we don’t want them to establish a link between humans as a food source).

Anyhow, this is what we watched while we dined.  Click on the photo for a higher resolution shot.

Off to Alaska

July 11, 2008

You might have noticed that I haven’t been posting a lot of content lately.  It’s probably going to get worse for a couple of weeks, but that’s not a bad thing.  I’ve been busting my butt, getting ready for a two-week vacation to Alaska.  We’ll be taking planes that land on glaciers and on lakes.  We’ll commune with the bears, moose, and whales.  We’ll spend times in sea kayaks, rafts, and crampons.  Oh, and we’ll eat now and then, too.  When we go fishing, I’m hoping to sample the freshest sashimi I’ve ever had.

Anyhow, thanks for your support, and if I don’t post anything for a couple of weeks, just realize that I’m building up content.  All for you!

Hope You Had a Great 4th of July

July 6, 2008

I got home last Thursday, ready for my 3 day weekend, to be surprised by this cake my daughters made for the family.  They even made the cake from scratch — and it was yummy!

Ice Cream, Uncooked

July 1, 2008

The only ice cream cookbook I have ever owned is the Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book.  I think I got it as a Christmas present along with a Donvier ice cream maker, back in the late 80s, when Ben & Jerry’s was all that and more.  And so I made ice cream — a buttload of it.  Combined with my suddenly sedentary lifestyle, I’m blaming Ben and Jerry for much of my weight gain over the years.  The bastards. Read the rest of this entry »


June 17, 2008

I hosted a small dinner party on Saturday where I planned to make a dinner that really highlighted what was fresh at the North Carolina Farmers Market. I picked up some plums, raspberries and blackberries, as I planned on making a plum tart served with berries. I bought some great looking tomatoes and basil for a basic mozzarella and tomato salad. When I got home, every damn thing started to go wrong.

The tomatoes were not that good. In fact, they were a little mealy. But they had decent enough flavor. So I pureed the tomatoes and strained them in a cheesecloth, collecting the tomato “water.” I then cooked the tomato water, reducing it by two-thirds. I added a bit of salt and served this essence of tomato with the mozzarella and basil and just a drop of aged balsamic vinegar. It was a really great starter for our meal and very light.

The other problem was the plums — they were way too hard to just plop on top of a tart, so I decided to poach them briefly in some riesling. I got distracted for a few minutes, and before you knew it, those plums had disintegrated. Ugh. Rather than making a plum tart with berries on the side, I reversed things, making a classic fresh berry tart with pastry creme (glazed with some wonderful blackberry-rosemary jelly I had in the fridge) and served with a plum-riesling gelato. I ran my plum mush through a food mill and made ice cream out of it. Frankly, this worked out better than my original plan, as the gelato was incredibly creamy, tart and just damn good.

So, when life gives you stewed plums, just make ice cream out of it!

Ego Building 101

May 28, 2008

You’ve already heard about my train trip with my son to DC, but I have a semi-odd side story about that trip. Anyhow, Benjamin and I are sitting on the train, enjoying ourselves, and I manage to get involved in a discussion with a woman in the seat in front of me. She’s probably in her mid to late 50s or so, spending much of the trip doing needlepoint. We talk about France (she lived in Lyon, the lucky devil) and other things that have little substance at all. I tell her what my son and I will be doing in DC. We didn’t introduce ourselves — it was just small talk.

As we pull into Union Station and start gathering our bags, I wish her well. At that point, the young lady sitting beside her, with whom I didn’t exchange a single word and who had spent much of the trip with her computer, looked at me and asked, “Are you Dean?” I pause for a second and respond, “Yes.”

“I read your blog,” she states.

My first thought was, OK, this is very odd. And then she told me that she had read my post about going to DC with my son. She was guessing who I was, but it was an educated guess. My son sort of looked at me like he was saying, “Dad, you’re famous!” Too funny.

Anyhow, we introduced ourselves and went our separate ways. This reader says she’s never posted a comment on the blog before, so I encourage her to do so. I promise I won’t “out” you anymore than I already have.

I’m not sure if there’s a lesson to be learned here, other than there are no strangers on a train. Particularly when you announce your plans to the world in advance.

Being Dad

May 26, 2008

This post isn’t really about food, and that’s just the way I want it. I just spent three glorious days in Washington, DC with my 9-year old son. As many of you know, I have 4 children — 2 boys and 2 girls — ranging in age from 14 to 7. When you have so many kids, you kind of lose sight of the little things. You’re too busy keeping everyone on schedule, with soccer or dance or other school activities. As a lawyer, I spend about 60 hours a week trying to take care of my clients and building (or maintaining) my practice. I get home from the day to feed my wife and me (neither of us really want to eat her cooking). Anyone who is a parent knows it’s a constant struggle to keep track of car pools, doctor appointments, soccer and basketball practices (I coach both sports!), and all the other stuff. Oh, and then I find myself spending time writing about food every once in awhile, too. Frankly, when I get to the end of each day, week, month or year, it seems I really haven’t spent enough time just being Dad. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cost of Corn and Indiana Jones

May 19, 2008

I’m taking my 9-year old son to Washington, DC this weekend, taking the train, seeing the sights. We’ll eat pizza at 2 Amys, find a decent burger and some ice cream, and a Ben’s Half Smoke at the Nats’ game on Sunday. And of course, we’re going to my favorite cinema in the world, the Uptown Theatre just up the street from the National Zoo. The Uptown is very old school, where the screen is so big, it’s curved. I remember seeing Dances With Wolves there ages ago, and boy, it was a memorable experience. I’m going to take him to see the new Indiana Jones flick (yeah, it’s a PG-13 movie, but I think he can handle it). I’ve bought the tickets already and will be sure to get some popcorn.

And then I read this article about how our energy and food policies will likely drive up the price of movie tickets. How’s that? Well, the sales of concessions, and mostly popcorn, subsidize the costs of movie tickets. Without concessions, the theaters would have to double the ticket prices in order to make some money. And now there’s a corn shortage, with approximately 40% of the crop being made into ethanol. Granted, popcorn is different than the corn grown for ethanol, but there’s still a shortage. And with a shortage comes increased prices. So, in order to maintain accustomed levels of profitability, theater owners either have to raise the price of popcorn or theater tickets. The experts predict the increases will come at the box office rather than the concession stand — as much as a buck or two a ticket.

So, when you go to the Raleigh Grande Cinema for the new Will Smith movie in July, and you’re paying 10 bucks a ticket, just remember that it’s the humble ear of corn that caused the price increase.

The Glory of Freshly Laid Eggs

May 2, 2008

I visited the Moore Square Farmers Market a week ago Wednesday (yes, it’s been a busy week for me) before meeting a friend for lunch, and I stopped by the Coon Rock Farm booth. I like Coon Rock Farm, because they’re local, they’re organic and they do things the right way. Many of their vegetables are heirloom varieties, and they raise and sell pasture raised pork. But one of the things I like most about Coon Rock is their freshly laid eggs — from hens who roam freely around the farm. We’re not talking about “free range” chicken eggs, where the chickens have access to the pasture — these chickens spend their days walking about, foraging for food in addition to what Coon Rock feeds them. I think it’s that extra foraged food that makes the difference.

This isn’t a watery, mass-produced egg. The yolks are a deep, rich orange, filled with flavor — they look much more like the eggs you see in France or Italy. The whites firm up quickly and tightly. As a shameless lover of poached eggs, this made my Wednesday night pasta dish so much more unctuous and tasty. Even my daughter, who does not really like egg yolks at all asked me if I can make that dish for her sometime soon.

I’m not a Slow Food zealot. I do most of my shopping at the Harris Teeter, buying industrial-style meat and produce. But my food budget is slowly shifting to the local producers. The artisans. The ones who know how much better sustainable practices are for our environment while truly recognizing that these practices result in tastier food. If it didn’t taste good, I wouldn’t eat it. But these eggs, even at twice the price of the supermarket version, are so worth it. We’re all trying to keep our costs down as the price of gas and food and everything else keeps climbing. But I’m not going to sacrifice on those things that taste good, particularly when that food has been brought to the table humanely.

School of Chocolate

March 9, 2008


My 7-year old daughter, the one who loves to cook, was studying Milton Hershey, founder of Hershey’s chocolate and a great philanthropist. She somehow agreed to build a model of the Hershey School, the history of which I know very little about, but it’s now a cost-free private prep school in Hershey, PA. My daughter had a picture of the original building and was set to build it with her creative mother, when somewhere along the line she came up with the idea to make it out of Hershey’s chocolate. Now that’s a challenge.

Fortunately, my wife’s father is an architect, so he built a cardboard base, and my wife and daughter took over from there. Hershey Bar siding. Roof of Twizzlers licorice (made by Hershey, of course). Windows of the interior of York Peppermint Patties (another Hershey product). Some Hershey’s Cocoa, confectioners sugar and water for glue. I present to you, below the break, the Hershey School in Chocolate. Read the rest of this entry »

Crab Cakes — Part II

February 27, 2008

A few months ago I wrote about the way I make crab cakes. It was a fairly traditional recipe using breadcrumbs, egg, and a little mayo as the binder.

That was the way I used to make crab cakes, because after last night’s experiment, I’m not going back. What did I do differently? I used a binder of scallop/shrimp mousse. Let me explain.

I first heard of using a seafood mousse as a binder in cakes last year in a discussion on eGullet. But I really didn’t think about this again until yesterday, when I had lunch with a chef friend, and our discussion focused on why so many places serve lousy crab cakes. She suggested for a binder using a mousse made mostly of scallops, with a bit of egg and cream added to help emulsify it all. She said that when the mousse cooks, it almost fades into the crab, so you end up with a crab cake that is almost all lumps of luscious crab meat, without any noticeable binder. Read the rest of this entry »

Raleigh Locopops is Open

February 23, 2008

locopop.jpgThe Raleigh branch of Locopops opened yesterday, and I’m one happy Varmint! As I wrote some time ago, Locopops is located at the old Weatherman’s Jewelers on Hillsborough Street, right next to Red Hot & Blue. I had the opportunity to chat with co-owner Connie Semans, and she’s very excited about the new shop. And after having a Cardamom Latte paleta, so am I!!!

1908 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
Open Daily from 12-6


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