Things I Don’t Get

July 1, 2010

I’m about to lose some credibility as a foodie/gourmet/gastronome/whatevertermiscurrentlyinvogue, but I have a confession to make: There are a small number of foods that I really don’t love or fully appreciate.  Foods that some people think are the best in the world, but to me, they’re just OK.  This came to me last night when I had two gorgeous green tomatoes that just came off the vine.  I sliced them thickly, soaked them in buttermilk with some green Tabasco, then dredged in cornmeal with salt and pepper.  I fried them quickly in a skillet until a rich golden brown.  I dug in and, just like every single fried green tomato I’ve previously eaten, they were fine.  Just fine.  Nothing all that special to me, and certainly nothing close to an “Oh my god, this is so good” moment.

I don’t get fried green tomatoes.  And before you tell me, “Oh, you haven’t had mine” or “You need to try so-and-so’s,” let me remind you that I’ve had fried green tomatoes dozens of times from dozens of places.  I always allowed to get myself excited by the hype, and I tried to convince myself that they were fantastic.  But they were just OK.  Nothing all that special, but certainly a good way to get rid of the end-of-season green tomatoes (although making soup out of them is a far better thing to do).

And then I realized that there are other food items that I enjoy just fine, but they’re nowhere nearly as exciting as what others proclaim.

Exhibit B: Soft shell crab.  I first have to admit that I am a soft shell crab neophyte.  I’ve had it before, but I hadn’t even eaten an entire soft shell crab until about a month ago.  It was cooked by Ashley Christensen, whom you all know as my favorite chef in the area.  And I enjoyed it.  But as I was eating it, I was also thinking, “Boy, I would love to have some blue crab or dungeness. ”  I understand that  soft shell crabs are different, in flavor, texture and how they’re cooked, and they’re more sought after because they’re available for only a limited time.  But to me, they’re not so good to cause me to groan in a food-gasm.

Exhibit C:  Fiddlehead ferns.  They have a fine flavor, but again, I suspect these are so desirable because they’re available only for a limited amount of time and they are a harbinger of spring.

Now there are some transient foods that I do get, and how.  Morels are at the top of the list.  As are truffles.  I really like ramps.  And the first of the season’s asparagus.  The height of the summer peach season sees me looking like a fool, with peach juices constantly dripping down my chin.

I obviously haven’t thought long enough to come up with other foods I don’t get, but I’m sure there are plenty.  I just don’t like calf liver, but that’s another story altogether.  What don’t you get?

How Well Do You Know Fast Food?

September 17, 2009

OK, take this test on the top 50 “quick serve” restaurants in the country and see how you do.  I got all but 1 of the top 20 and a total of 28 out of 50.

There are a lot of other interesting quizzes on the Sporcle website.

A Hot Bath a Day Keeps the Berry Mold Away

August 26, 2009

rasberriesHarold McGee has an interesting story in today’s New York Times, focusing on one technique to keep berries from rapidly molding, which is so frequently a problem: he heats them briefly in a hot water bath.  McGee discovered that a 30 second bath in 125 degree water substantially reduces the amount of mold growth on strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, whereas blueberries required 30 seconds in a 140 degree bath.

Most importantly, the quality of the fruit was not compromised.

This is an experiment I need to try, as I can’t tell you how many raspberries I’ve had to toss because of that ultra-fast mold growth.  It appears from nowhere, even in the refrigerator.

Harold McGee, food scientist, is once again my hero.  The geeks shall rule the world!!!

My Pressure Cooker

July 22, 2009

pressureI got my new pressure cooker yesterday, and I had to write something about it.  Of course, I was tempted to use a clever title, such as “Under Pressure” or “Can I Handle the Pressure?” or some other idiotic play on words.  I spared you from that horror.

But now I have this device, a 6 quart Manttra version that I got for 25 bucks.   I wasn’t about to shell out the big bucks on something I don’t even know how to use, a device that could destroy the entire neighborhood if misused — OK, it could put my eye out at least.  I’ve heard how a pressure cooker can cook brown rice in 15 minutes, not an hour.  How potatoes can be read in 6 minutes.  How it will make cheesecake and roasts and an entire Thanksgiving dinner without even trying.  It’s the miracle tool.

Until my buddy Pableaux brought his Red Beans Road Show to the house last month, I’d never even seen a pressure cooker in action.  But then I saw how quickly he could cook a pot of beans, and I started to lust for a pressure cooker of my own.  And now it’s here, ready for action.

So tell me, how should I use it?  Where’s the best website for pressure cooker cooking (and I hate that term, pressure cooker cooking)?  I’m going to use this sumbitch, whether it kills me or not.  And based on what I’ve heard, it just might indeed bring an early end to my cooking.  Or be a revelation.

Interactive Dinner Party — 2009 Edition

July 17, 2009


As I wrote last year, I host an interactive dinner party for my law firm each summer.  The party has several purposes: first, it’s a party, and we’re supposed to have fun.  Second, it’s what we call a “summer clerk event,” meaning that it is designed to allow us lawyers to interact socially with the handful of law students we have working for us over the summer.  These students typically work at two different law firms during the summer before their final year of school, so you want to make sure they have a good time while learning about how the firm operates.  This is the 10th time I’ve hosted this event for my firm, and the demand always exceeds my capacity of 30 seats.

The other thing that this dinner accomplishes is that it puts people in situations a bit different than at a cocktail party or at the office.  I have everyone help with the meal in some capacity.  Some folks prep.  Others cook.  And the ones with a good eye get to plate.  The ones who don’t have much skill in the kitchen serve, clear, and clean.  No different than in a restaurant, right? Read the rest of this entry »

The Triangle Top 50

July 8, 2009

The News & Observer’s Andrea Weigl has put together a list of the top 50 food items/icons in the Triangle, and boy, what a list it is!  And you know what?  There’s no way in hell I could have come close to doing such a great job.  Now mind you, there are a lot more than 50 things on this list as Weigl has a number of groupings, such as women chefs (Andrea Reusing, Amyu Trnquist and Ashley Christensen) as a single listing.

So go to the multi-media presentation and check out the listing.  What did she miss?  What should not be included?

Edit: Oh my goodness, this blog got a mention as #42 on the list!  Thanks, Andrea!!!

Ice Poppin’

June 24, 2009

I’m a huge fan of Locopops, and when I read Andrea Weigl’s recent story on ice pops, I decided it was time to make some myself.  It’s not that the $2 price tag of a Locopops is breaking the home bank, but I recognized that these frozen treats are fun to eat, easy to make, and can be very inexpensive.

And it all started with some forgotten peaches.

I had purchased some peaches for my 13 year old daughter, a peach fanatic if there ever was one.  But she went off to camp, and we had a handful of slightly overripe peaches sitting in a brown paper bag.  I simply peeled them, dropped the chunks into a blender with some sugar and fresh lemon juice, and whizzed away.  I poured the puree into an ice cube tray, wrapped with plastic wrap, and inserted toothpicks.  I figured, “OK, it’s mostly fruit, so this should be pretty decent.”

It was much, much better than decent.  It was perfect.  The flavors of the fruit were enhanced by the sugar and lemon and, I do believe, the freezing process.  This was a funny looking pop, for sure, but it inspired me for something better.  Something more like a real pop.

So off to Crossroads Plaza I headed searching for pop molds.  I found a funny looking rocket mold at Bed Bath & Beyond, but it was about 10 bucks for a mold of 4 pops.  No dice at the crafts stores.  Target was my final hope, and they had some respectable looking star shaped molds for $3.95 (here they are at Amazon for 2 bucks more).  Not what I really wanted, but I had to have something that day.  I had to feed my need.  I was NOT going to wait to get the perfect molds through mail order.  So I bought 3 molds, each of which makes 4 pops.  These molds had plastic sticks/caps, which are a complete waste.  More on that later.

So my next adventure was with some blackberries I picked up at the Durham Farmers Market.  To a pint of berries I added some vanilla yougurt, a bit of cream, about 3 tablespoons of sugar, lemon juice and fresh mint.  After pureeing in the blender, I strained out the seeds and filled my molds, using the plastic stick/cap thing-a-ma-bobs.

That only made 8 pops, so I took some leftover dark chocolate pudding that Phoebe Lawless had brought a couple days earlier, combined it with some whipped cream, and filled four more molds.

The pops froze in a few hours, and after running them under hot water for a few seconds, they came out of their molds nicely.  The blackberry mint cream was divine.  So much fruit.  So much flavor, with just a tinge of mint.  This was an absolutely perfect ice pop, as good as — no, better — than Locopops.  Except for the damn stick.  The design of this stick/cap prevented you from eating the bottom third of the pop, as the cap got in the way.  I had to get a spoon and put the remnants in a bowl.  So the plastic stick/cap was to be eliminated from the process in favor of good old-fashioned popsicle sticks.  I got 1,000 sticks for 4 bucks at Michael’s, so these things are cheap.

My next batch was blueberry lime mint.  Pretty much the same format: Into a blender goes the fruit, some lime juice, sugar, fresh mint, and some water.  Blend.  Strain.  Put in molds.  I then wrapped the molds with plastic wrap, made a slight hole in the top over each mold, and inserted my wood popsicle stick.

Oh, this was so much better.  Easier to eat and handle.  Less chance for a mess.  And the flavor?  Better than Locopops, of course.

Last night was pineapple mint (yes, I have a TON of mint, but when it’s fresh and free, why not?).  I need to try one at lunch, as it looks mighty tasty.

And those chocolate pudding pops?  Shhh.  No one else in the house had a chance even to try them.

J. Betski’s Open for Lunch!

May 15, 2009


I usually don’t report on items like this, but when I saw my friend Jedidiah’s report on New Raleigh, I had to go, “Hurrah” and post it here!

J. Betski’s, Raleigh’s gem of a Central/Eastern European restaurant, is now serving lunch Tuesday through Saturday.  This is huge news for me, as my wife doesn’t really care for their cuisine, but I love it.  And seeing I eat out for lunch a lot more frequently than I do for dinner, I’ll be going here quite a lot.

Click here for the lunch menu.

Herons: New Chef, New Food, New Heart

May 7, 2009

lambHerons Restaurant in Cary’s Umstead Hotel has been a bit of an enigma since it opened a couple of years ago.  It’s one of my favorite dining rooms, with warm wood decor and the most comfortable seats around.  The service has always been top-notch and efficient, although sometimes a bit overzealous.  At one point I wrote that Herons was the most underrated restaurant in the Triangle, but over time, I began to see why folks had a problem with it.  First, dining at Herons was a ridiculously expensive proposition with entrees in the high 30s and 40s.  Second, the food was wildly inconsistent, which could be directly tied to their chefs.  Phil Evans opened Herons, and although he was capable of putting out some good food, I thought he lacked direction and soul.  What I mean was that the food would taste good, but it just didn’t excite me.  I don’t need to be excited with everything I eat, but at 4o bucks, that plate should be somewhat memorable.  The second chef, Paul Kellum, went downhill from there.  I had two meals at Herons under Kellum, and both of them were lackluster, with one dish — Kellum’s version of chicken and waffles — being practically inedible.

I had no reason to go back to Herons, except for a business lunch, perhaps.  And then, with the economy gone bad, Herons wasn’t even a good proposition for business.  Ostentation is out.  Frugality is in. Read the rest of this entry »

Food Blog Code of Ethics

May 1, 2009

A “Food Blog Code of Ethics” has been proposed, and before I begin my discussion of this concept, I want to say, “I’m all in.”

This Code has been developed by Brooke Burton and Leah Greenstein, the creators of the food blogs and  The power of food bloggers is now unquestionable, which I can attest to based on the number of emails I get from restaurants, chefs and their publicists.  Before I started this blog, I didn’t know a single publicist, and now, well, it’s a different story.  I like getting to know publicists.  I like getting to know chefs and restaurateurs and growers.  I like having the access to the behind the scenes actions of local eating establishments.  But I also know that I have an obligation to my readers.  Therefore, when I get comped something by a restaurant, I let you know.  If I’m a personal friend of the chef, I disclose that, too.

I don’t write this blog to get free stuff or because I’m a journalist in search of that untold story.  This blog exists first and foremost because it gives me an opportunity to record and share my thoughts.  Only a small handful of my 260 posts to date could be considered “reviews,” as that’s not what this is about.  It’s about food and fun and family.  I sometimes get serious here, but not very often.  I sometimes work extra hard to ensure my writing is top-notch, but usually what I quickly type ends up on the blog.

But what I do work hard to do is to be fair and ethical.  I try to check out my sources and find independent verification.  I prefer to report facts more than speculate.  I sometimes make mistakes, and I try to come clean when that happens.  And I stand behind my work.  If you want to know who this “Varmint” dude is, just click on the “About” tab.  No secrets.  No anonymity.  Just me, Dean McCord.

This is why I applaud the introduction of this Code of Ethics.  I first learned about ethical guidelines when I was active with eGullet, as the people behind that organization and forum work diligently to hold themselves to the highest standards.  It may make them come off as somewhat dictatorial pricks at times, but that’s not their concern.  They want to be sure that folks follow rules of civility and ethics.

I am here today to announce that VarmintBites agrees to comply with the Food Blog Code of Ethics.  I owe it to you, my readers.  I owe it to the chefs and restaurateurs, and I owe it to myself.  If you think that I’ve failed to comply, let me know, and I’ll take care of any mistakes and let you know if I disagree.

So, local food bloggers, who else is in???

Julie and Julia — The Movie

April 30, 2009

OK, this is a first.  I’m talking about a major Hollywood movie that won’t be released until August.  But when I saw this trailer a few minutes ago, I said, “I’ve got to take Ryan to see this.”  Ryan is my 13 year old daughter, and after seeing Meryl Streep doing Julia Child, I want to go.  Geesh, I might as well just forfeit my manhood card now.

more about “Julie and Julia – Trailer No. 1 – AOL…“, posted with vodpod

Triangle Restaurant Week Coming

April 29, 2009


The second annual Triangle Restaurant Week will be held across the Triangle on May 11-17.  Restaurant Week has been a fixture in other cities for years, where restaurants offer a three-course menu for a low, fixed price.  For the Triangle event, lunch will cost $15 and dinner will be $25.  Many restaurants typically provide a special “Restaurant Week” menu, but other places allow diners to order off the menu, recognizing that they want their customers to experience the full menu.  As I learn more details, I’ll report back here.

Last year, Restaurant Week only included restaurants in Raleigh, but the event has truly expanded by including a number of Durham and Cary-based establishments.

Some of the restaurants that I would consider checking out include Four Square, 18 Seaboard, Jibarra, Il Palio, Frazier’s, and Sitti.  There are currently 48 places that are participating this year, which is fantastic growth.  Go to the Triangle Restaurant Week website for more information.

Grant Achatz to Introduce Southern Molecular Gastronomy to Raleigh

March 31, 2009

Photo courtesy of Alinea

In perhaps the biggest culinary news ever to hit North Carolina, Grant Achatz, the internationally acclaimed chef of Chicago’s Alinea, announced today that he will be opening a new restaurant in Raleigh this summer.  The new establishment, tentatively called “Dixie 41,” will be located downtown in the former Riviera location.  “I’ve always enjoyed cooking with a Southern sensibility,” Achatz stated in a press release, “and I thought that combining the contemporary culinary techniques from Alinea with Southern traditions was a perfect match.”

Achatz described a couple of dishes he was toying with, including one with country-fried tobacco-infused buttermilk orbs.  “It’s a dish that’s truly representative of the South.”  Achatz has also created two new dishes he calls “Hot Sweet Potato Cold Sweet Potato” and “Barbecue Explosion.”  “I based those two on dishes that have become classics at Alinea, but these are highly refined variations.  The Barbecue Explosion is an orb of lard, filled with vinegar foam and a smoked pork emulsion, coated with pork rind flakes.  I expect it will be a big hit.”

Achatz will be teaming up with Greg Hatem’s Empire Eats to create 41 Dixie, with the restaurant going into a vacant Empire property.  “I’ve done burgers, barbecue, Asian and Lebanese,” Hatem stated, “So it was a logical progression to do something a bit more exotic.  Grant had to twist my arm a bit, but when he told me about his version of the Waffle House’s Scattered, Smothered and Covered, served on a pillow filled with country ham air, I was all in.”

John T. Edge, Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, stated, “It was only a matter of time before someone with the epicurean intellect of an Achatz decided to create a Southern movement of molecular gastronomy.  We’re damn tired of everyone thinking Southern food has to be heavy and simple.  It’s just fine for Southern food to be odd and precious, too.”

Achatz had originally hoped that the restaurant would have been ready for opening today, but that date was unrealistic.  “An opening on April 1 would have been best, but we needed to stop fooling ourselves and take our time to get it right.”

Way to Go, Bill!! You, Too, John!! And Kathi, Too!!

March 23, 2009

My buddy, Bill Smith, Chef of Chapel Hill’s Crook’s Corner, received a great honor today when he was named one of the five finalists for the James Beard Award‘s Best Chef  in the Southeast.   Another friend, John Currence of Oxford, Mississippi’s City Grocery, was nominated again for Best Chef in the South.  And Kathleen Purvis, the fantastic food editor of the Charlotte Observer got a nomination, too, for her piece, “The Belly of the Beast.”

I couldn’t be happier for all of these folks, as they are three of the kindest, most generous individuals in the world.  Bill Smith would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.  And Johnny Snack (as Currence is known) was the primary force in the re-building of Willie Mae Seaton’s Scotch House in New Orleans.  Kathi always has a great answer for me when I have a food question.

Additional congrats to Sean Brock of Charleston’s McGrady’s for his nomination as the Rising Star Chef, honoring those 30 and under, and Hugh Acheson of Athens, Georgia’s Five and Ten.  I’ve enjoyed tossing a few drinks back with these guys, too.

All of these folks are members of the Southern Foodways Alliance, the single best food organization in the country.  But more importantly, they’re my friends, they’re great people, and boy oh boy, I hope they win!

Triangle Man v. Food Episode to Air

March 17, 2009

The Man v. Food episode filmed in the Triangle in January will be airing tomorrow night on The Travel Channel.  In this episode, host Adam Richman eats some Time Out chicken biscuits, whole-hog barbecue from The Pit, and then tackles a hot dog eating challenge at The Roast Grill.

The episode will be broadcast at 10 PM tomorrow, March 18.

New Chef Hopes to Make Herons Fly

March 13, 2009


Scott Crawford, the new chef at the plush Herons restaurant in The Umstead Hotel, is my home boy.  Yup, Crawford grew up in the big metropolis of Guys Mills, PA — population 133 (not counting livestock) — which is less than 20 miles away from my hometown of Titusville (the big city with a whopping 6,100 residents).  We’re talking about a mix of small town and country.  Dairy farmers.  Tool and die makers.  Folks generally don’t make it to the big time by staying here, and the vast majority of my high school friends left to explore the country and look for more exciting things. Read the rest of this entry »

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???

Bacon is So Yesterday

February 24, 2009

I never really thought of bacon as a fad, at least among my friends, it’s not. But then, I did notice that a lot more people have been focused on bacon of late.  But here’s a video eulogy for the cured belly, a eulogy that is probably way premature.

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.

Cypress on the Hill — New Chapel Hill Restaurant

February 17, 2009

cypress2Damn it, Chapel Hill gets all the luck.  This small town is already full of great chef-driven restaurants.  Places like Lantern, Bonne Soiree, and Elaine’s.  Then there are the old, great stand-bys like Crooks, La Residence and whatever they’re putting out at the Siena.  And now there’s a new kid in town: Cypress on the Hill.  I just learned about this place today thanks to a tip from one of my readers, and based on the menu, I’m looking forward to a trip to my old college town to give it a try.  Chef Alex Gallis has been Chef de Cuisine at Magnolia Grill for the last five years, and his menu shows his training under Ben Barker: locally-sourced ingredients prepared with a Southern touch.  But I also see that Gallis isn’t afraid to explore new concepts, using Asian ingredients (soba noodles, mizuna, pickled ginger) and techniques, too.

Restaurants with a Southern cuisine have struggled a bit in the Triangle lately, but I’ve come to believe that college towns are where they will still work.  If the food is as good as it appears, I suspect that Cypress on the Hill (COTH? — er, maybe not) will be hanging around for awhile.

Cypress on the Hill is in the old Trail Shop on West Franklin Street, next to Ham’s.  They’re open for dinner Monday through Saturday.  Dinner and dessert menus, which change weekly, are available online.

308 West Franklin Street

Chapel Hill, North Carolina



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