Tuesday, April 15, 2014

American Meltdown wins big at Grilled Cheese Invitational

This post first appeared in Indy Week. See previous story here.

Paul Inserra was right to feel confident about his American Meltdown entries at last Saturday’s Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles. He competed in three categories and was honored in each one.

“All of the melts had some ingredients from North Carolina, which is great,” says Inserra, who called from LAX Monday while awaiting his flight home.

Inserra was especially pleased to have snagged a Judge’s Award for excellence in the Kama Sutra, or “anything goes,” category for American Meltdown’s Hangover Melt. The signature sandwich features homemade pimento cheese, a runny egg and salsa verde in bread from Durham’s Guglhupf Bakery.

In the Honey Pot dessert group, where he had minimal expectations, Inserra took third place for a not-too-sweet combination that tucked sheep’s milk ricotta, toasted pecans and a peach-balsamic compote between slices of buttery brioche from La Farm in Cary.

He also claimed second-place honors for a still-unnamed entry in the Missionary group, which allows just bread, cheese and butter. Inserra amped up his original plan by melting Durham Jack cheese from Cultured Cow inside Guglhupf bread— with a game-changing slice of grilled Havarti seared to the outer crust. “I’ll have to come up with a good name for it because we’ll sell it now,” Inserra quips. “Maybe, Grilled Cheese of Champions.”

Fans get to share the love when American Meltdown resumes its mobile food truck schedule on Tuesday. New award-winning melts will debut on May 1 at the Stuff Your Face Food Truck Dinner in Raleigh. The five-course meal, to be held at City Market’s Cobblestone Hall, will spotlight several vendors and raise money to defray costs of staging Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeo events. Mint Julep Jazz Band will perform.

Emily Wallace on the life and legacy of Eugenia Duke, creator of Duke's Mayonnaise

Emily Wallace will be the guest speaker for Culinarary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public. (Note: The post first appeared in Indy Week).

Emily Wallace is that girl you sat next to in college, the down-to-earth brainiac who saw connections before you did and didn’t stress out when research papers were assigned. Even her doodles were more clever than yours.

Equally intrigued by vast cultural movements and minutia, Wallace quickly distinguished herself in the field of Southern studies— no surprise to those who knew her. She currently serves as communications director for the UNC Center for the Study of the American South and is editor of its acclaimed journal, Southern Cultures.

But what a relief it is to know that, like the rest of us, she can still be caught off guard.

As part of her ongoing research on pimento cheese—her master’s thesis topic, in which varied recipes say much about place and food politics—Wallace ventured last summer to Richmond, Va., to tour the C.F. Sauer Co. plant. It’s where Duke’s Mayonnaise is produced in faithful memory of its inventor, homemaker-turned-entrepreneur Eugenia Duke.

Duke’s mayo has stirred passionate debate over the years, especially during peak tomato sandwich season. Its otherwise mild-manned devotees have been known to argue over fences with neighbors, cast a wary stink eye at plates of deviled eggs at church suppers and even wear their heart’s desire tattooed on their sleeve.

“My drawing was nothing compared to what they showed me,” says Wallace, who reportedly blushed the color of ketchup to learn she was among an ardent subset of Duke’s lovers who expressed their affection via creative arts.

The slather that Duke created in the 1910s, years before women earned the right to vote, has a slightly sweet and distinctive tang from cider vinegar and became a signature of her fledgling Duke’s Sandwich Co. business. The woman-owned enterprise, which by then employed her husband, other family members and locals, expanded in 1923 to satisfy consumer demand for bottled, take-home jars of her mayo. In 1929, when the business became too big to manage independently, she sold it to Sauer. Duke later launched a similar operation in California, cleverly named Duchess Sandwich Co.

To many, Duke’s mayo is one of the things that define Southern cooking, both in homes and some of the most savvy chef-run kitchens. The familiar yellow-capped jar also tends to find a place in the refrigerators of Southern transplants, even among those who grew up elsewhere using Hellman’s or, bless your heart, Miracle Whip.

Wallace learned much about Duke’s and the strong set of emotions it inspires when she prepared a presentation on the topic for last fall’s annual symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which likewise spotlights her creative drawings and informed writing. Her talk generated lively, point by point Twitter relays and spirited analysis. Joe Yonan, food editor of The Washington Post, later published her remarks under the headline Duke’s Mayonnaise: The Southern spread with a cult following. The story includes the recipe for a decadent chocolate cake that uses Duke’s in the moist batter.

Wallace will recount much of her research in a talk for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC). She also will share more recent discoveries from an interview conducted with Eugenia Duke’s great-granddaughter, who lives in Charlotte.

“She’s 86 or 87 now and she remembers how driven Eugenia was,” Wallace says. “I’ve learned a lot from her and have continued to stay in touch, which is rewarding.”

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The passion and inspiration of local food writer Kelly Alexander

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Kelly Alexander (Justin Cook for Indy Week)
Kelly Alexander would like to take a sentimental journey. It's one she's pondered many times. In fact, Alexander has considered the excursion to the point that she can see around the curves of back roads to the places where farmstands sell just-picked produce and jars of jewel-tone jellies. Vital stops include small-town kitchens where home cooks routinely fix meals that could make city chefs swoon.

Much like Clementine Paddleford, a groundbreaking food writer whom she reintroduced to the culinary landscape in the vivid 2008 biography Hometown Appetites, Alexander wants to visit home kitchens in all 50 states to document contemporary foodways. If she lands one of Amtrak's writer-in-residency grants, the Duke Center for Documentary Studies food-writing instructor would like to be among the first to hitch a ride.

On The Great Amtrack Caper, a Tumblr page created to collect proposals from would-be rail writers, Alexander recalls a rapturous story Paddleford wrote in 1949 about the experience of riding the historic Katy Railroad and eating in its dining car:

"We asked newspaper people, housewives, ministers, butchers, grocers, truck drivers, where to go for a really fine meal. We had luck. The consensus was that about the best dinner one could eat in those parts was a dinner on the Katy Railroad."

"Clementine did something that no one else at the time even thought about, which was telling the story behind the food," Alexander says. "She was a trained journalist with an eye for detail that made you feel like you had eaten great food and spent time in someone else's kitchen. How could anyone resist that?"

It's easy to argue that Alexander is a natural heir to Paddleford. She, too, fell into food writing without having a clear sense of where it would take her. As a college junior, she got an assignment to write about something she knew well. Having grown up in a food-loving Jewish household in Atlanta, she knew how to cook. Her descriptive, mouth-watering piece about making an omelet wound up on the desk of Food & Wine editor Pamela Mitchell, who soon after offered her an internship.

Arriving in New York City in the 1990s, Alexander sought out new food experiences and worked an overnight shift at the Hell's Kitchen bakery of Amy's Breads. She didn't know about Paddleford yet— for all her trailblazing, the writer's name all but vanished after her death in 1967—but Alexander's natural writing style celebrated the same sights, smells and illuminating details of place and personality.

Alexander later became a contributing editor at Saveur, a prestige magazine for serious cooks. While globetrotting colleagues explored glamorous culinary hotspots, she specialized in regional American foods and the people who grew and cooked them. Her work there and at other publications, including The New York Times and The New Republic, has earned her considerable acclaim, including a James Beard Award for writing.

Books followed, along with a move to Chapel Hill. In addition to the Paddleford biography, Alexander has co-written two cookbooks with barbecue legend Myron Mixon, edited a collection for Southern Living and penned Peaches, a volume in the Savor the South series published by UNC Press. She contributed an entry on Paddleford to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, which in March earned a 2014 International Association of Culinary Professionals award for best reference book.

Alexander is involved in several major projects, including one with legendary New York City Chef David Burke intended to decode his masterful technique for home cooks. Last month, she joined a prominent roster of culinary professionals as a member of the inaugural The Daily Meal Council, which affords its members flexibility to pursue their food writing passions. Alexander will use the platform to further her exploration of the cultural, social and economic practices that relate to food. It will help her carry on the methods Paddleford used in the years when neighbors shared recipes over picket fences.

"She had a real love of adventure, and a love of food. She was so plain spoken and happy doing what she did," says Alexander, who draws similar satisfaction from her work. "Food writing is what it is today because of her."

As much as Alexander admired Paddleford, however, she is no longer as eager to spend her life living out of suitcases.

"I have something that Clementine didn't have, which is a family," says Alexander, noting that the 12-year-old girl whom Paddleford adopted spent much of her time in boarding schools. "I used to travel a lot more when I was younger and not a mom."

Anticipating that her writing career would taper off when she relocated to Chapel Hill, Alexander toyed with the idea of opening a bakery. "I'm good at following directions and working with constraints, which is part of what made baking so appealing to me," she says. "I liked working at Amy's Breads, where I made muffins and scones, but it was back-breaking work. I messed up all the time. My supervisor was a very tall African-American man who smoked a joint at every break. He would say, 'You're stressing me out.'"

Alexander takes a sip of fragrant chai tea and laughs. "I'm so glad I didn't try opening a bakery here," she says. "Can you imagine competing with [Scratch Baking's] Phoebe Lawless for business?"

Baking for pleasure allows her to keep her professional focus on writing, and specifically on her long term goal of collecting distinctive stories from home cooks in each state.
"I could make things happen faster by doing more on the Internet, but I'm not interested in that," she says. "Going to all 50 states and writing about regional food is a project that will take me 30 years.

"The fact is, I like working on several things at once. I'll probably spend the rest of my professional life working on the Clementine [Paddelford] project, and that's OK. I couldn't let it go it if I wanted to."

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Denver-based Smashburger debuts in Durham; win free entree coupons

Smashburger aims to reinvent the casual hamburger experience with an array of upscale burgers presented with flavorful, healthy toppings. The Denver-based chain, which last week opened its 256th location at Durham’s Pavilion East at Lakeview shopping center on Erwin Road, also serves grilled chicken sandwiches and salads that are superior to most fast food joints.

Smashburger invited a a few dozen people to try its signature sandwiches last Tuesday night, a sort of test run before officially opening on Wednesday. Friendly servers visited tables in the bright eatery to deliver unsolicited but welcome servings of crispy french fries with garlic and rosemary, and thin haystack-style onion rings, both of which were well seasoned and appealingly crunchy. The “veggie fries,” unbreaded carrots and green beans, described as a healthier option, were tasty but glistening with grease. Sides range from $1.99 to $2.99.

The thing that makes a Smashburger different from dozens of other chain options is the way they are prepared. Starting with certified angus beef that is never frozen, burgers begin as loose balls of meat that are placed on the grill atop a pat of sizzling butter. A proprietary tool then is used to, yes, smash the meatball into familiar burger form.

The result is a crisp sear on a burger unafraid to show its shiny curves. Fat imparts essential flavor in beef, and tender egg buns are the ideal conveyance. The 1/3-pound Smash is $5.99 and the ½-pound Big Smash is $6.99 (add-ons, like bacon or avocado, are $1 each).

Classic Smashburger 
The first combination offered to guests was the Classic Smash, with American cheese, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion – plus, of course, secret housemade Smash sauce. More adventurous choices include the BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar, with its tangy-sweet cranberry barbecue sauce, and the Carolina Chili Burger, a regional specialty with well balanced ingredients served on a pretzel bun. The Truffled Mushroom & Swiss, with its distinctive flavor coming from a mayo-based spread, was a favorite at our table.

While the vegetarian Avocado Ranch Black Bean burger generated mixed reviews – it got a solid thumbs-up from me – there was strong consensus that that grilled chicken sandwiches were very good. In fact, they were better than the burgers. Chicken sandwiches are $6.99 each. (Salads were not sampled but sound tempting from the menu descriptions; they are $5.99 each, with optional grilled chicken for an extra $2).

The meal was capped off with a sample of Smashburger’s thick and creamy milkshakes makes with Haagen-Das ice cream ($3.99 to $4.29). The sea salt caramel was slurp-worthy but too sweet. Asking your server to customize a slightly less syrupy version would be well advised. 

Smashburger has offered Eating My Words readers a chance to win a pair of coupons for free entrées at the Durham location. To enter, follow @Smashburger online and enter a comment below by 12 noon Friday, March 21, stating which menu item you are most curious to try. A winner will be selected randomly.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Andrea Weigl's 'Pickles & Preserves' gives food its staying power

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Andrea Weigl will launch her book tour with events at 7pm Wednesday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh and at 7pm March 19 for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Both are free and open to the public.

As surely as the college basketball’s Final Four leads to the return of Major League Baseball, the reappearance of farmers markets is about to spark the season of canning.

Those seduced by the magical transformation of fruit and sugar, or vegetables and pickling salt, know that early spring is a time of joy in North Carolina. Canning jars emptied over winter stand ready to be filled with long awaited rhubarb and strawberries, followed by peaches and berries and, of course, the cornucopia of all things pickleable.

A wonderful new resource is available for home canners, Pickles & Preserves, a book by Andrea Wiegl, food writer for The News & Observer. Perfect for novices and loaded with recipes that experienced canners will enjoy, it is part of the Savor the South series of single-topic cookbooks published by UNC Press.

While she remembers Grandma Weigl canning all sorts of practical foods, Weigl herself started preserving only about eight years ago. “It’s something I always wanted to do, and I was determined to teach myself,” says Weigl, who spontaneously purchased a canning pot and some basics at a hardware store. “I can’t remember now if I made strawberries first, or maybe peaches, but I was hooked.”

Weigl regrets disposing of a stash of her late grandmother’s canning jars—the aged contents had spoiled—but says that generous neighbors came to her aid when she was testing recipes for the book. “We have a neighborhood garden club that is more of a social club, and so many of the ladies gave me jars,” says Weigl, who figures she filled hundreds of them as she mastered the featured recipes. “That was so encouraging.”

Weigl felt like she needed the boost. Her daughter was not quite a year old when she started the labor intensive project, and it sometimes was a challenge to make pickles and preserves while balancing the baby’s needs and working a full-time job.

“I look back now and can’t even fathom how I did it,” she says. “I asked for a year to write the book because I need that to work with what was in season.”
Despite constant testing and a weeklong visit from her mother, during which they made more than a dozen different recipes, Weigl discovered at the end that she somehow managed to miss some key produce. That’s when she picked up the phone.

“I asked people for recipes,” Weigl says. “Sheri Castle was nice enough to share her corn and sweet pepper relish recipe.”

Weigl has nice friends. The book includes recipes from several acclaimed canners, chefs and cookbook writers, including Andrea Reusing of Lantern restaurant; April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter; fellow Savor the South writers Debbie Moose, Kathleen Purvis and Sandra Gutierrez; and Jean Anderson, whose 1976 Green Thumb Preserving Guide was reissued by UNC Press in 2012.

Weigl is especially proud to include Anderson’s summery Yellow Squash Pickles, which she admits she can’t live without. “I absolutely love that recipe and never came across anything like in my research,” she says.

The book includes a useful guide to canning safety, which Weigl presents in accessible terms meant to encourage new canners to take up the practice.
“Canning can be intimidating, which is why I think I waited so long to try it myself,” she says. “If you have a better understand of the why we do certain things, there’s less reason to be afraid.”

Weigl is eager for the return of spring fruits and summer vegetables but admits that the short window in fall when Damson plums arrive is her favorite part of the canning season.

“I also look forward to honeysuckles coming back to make honeysuckle jelly,” she says, referencing the very first recipe in the book. “There’s something about finding your patch of honeysuckle and taking the time to pick four cups’ worth to make jelly that is really satisfying.”

Soft Refrigerator Honeysuckle Jelly
From Pickles & Preserves, a Savor the South cookbook by Andrea Weigl. Copyright 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
Weigel suggests using the leftover honeysuckle infusion to make lemonade.

Makes 2 half-pint jars

4 cups honeysuckle blossoms, packed but not crushed, green parts removed, including leaves and tips
5 1/3 cups cool water
Juice of half a large lemon
2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons instant pectin (also called no-cook freezer pectin)

Place the honeysuckle blossoms in a large nonreactive bowl and add the water. Use a plate to weigh down the flowers so they’re completely submerged. Let sit out overnight.

The next day, strain the juice from the blossoms and reserve. Measure out 1 2/3 cups honeysuckle infusion and place in a bowl. Add the lemon juice.
Combine the sugar and pectin in a large bowl. Stir to prevent lumps of pectin in the sugar.

Pour the honeysuckle mixture into the bowl with the pectin and sugar. Stir briskly with a whisk for 4 minutes until the mixture is thoroughly combined and starts to thicken.

Lade the jelly into clean plastic freezer jars, seal with lids, and place in the refrigerator. The jelly will be soft set after 24 hours and will keep for one month in the refrigerator.

Bull City Food and Beer Experience a marriage of craft beer and fine food

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

The second annual Bull City Food and Beer Experience expressed its name admirably on Sunday as hundreds of patrons enjoyed the experience of thoughtful food and craft beer pairings that put the flavors of food first.

During a panel discussion on the state of craft beer in North Carolina, Sean Lily Wilson of Durham’s Fullsteam brewery said that’s exactly how it ought to be. 

“The point is not to make a wacky beer that takes like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” says Wilson, who admittedly makes a seasonal fruitcake beer, “but to make a great beer that takes a back seat to really enhance the flavor of food and encourage conversation. I really think that’s where the industry is going, and it’s exactly where we want to be.”

While some offerings did not stray far from typical pub fare, exceptional food and beer pairings abounded at the event, which filled two floors and spilled onto the stage of the Durham Performing Arts Center. A portion of proceeds from each $75 ticket will benefit the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.

Without a doubt, the most ambitious and delicious presentation came from Durham’s G2B Gastro Pub and Unibroue brewery of Quebec.

“For an event like this, it’s go big or go home, right?” says G2B Chef Carrie Schleiffer, who presented four upscale nibbles – pork rillettes with fig chutney; Scottish salmon ceviche with walnuts, red onion and cilantro; pear agrodulce; and sugar dough chocolate ganache – to complement the complex light and dark beers poured by a representative of the Canadian brewery.

Other strong pairings included 21st Amendment Brewing of San Francisco, which offered its full-bodied Back in Black and the crisp Sneak Attack to complement the hearty smoked pork belly, sauerkraut and potatoes provided by Vin Rouge. End slices of the massive pork bellies – they started with 60 pounds’ worth – tasted like the best salty candy you could imagine.

The experience of walking upstairs to the second floor was like entering a cartoon in which a snake charmer draws you in. Fortunately, the first station was operated by Billy and Kelli Cotter of Toast. They were steaming mussels in Carolina Brewery’s Tripel Belgian. The mollusks were served in little cups with spicy, buttery broth that made a great shooter on its own.

Spicy seafood also was on tap at Saltwater Seafood Joint’s table, which paired a savory chowder with with Founder’s Brewing Co  of Grand Rapids, Mich. “Durham’s got a reputation now. We’ve got to bring it,” quips chef Ricky Moore. “No more bolgona sandwiches for these folks.”

Patrons were dazzled – and some a bit tipsy – after sampling the fare offered by 30 Durham eateries and 50 brewers. Food was offered in bite-sized portions, with providers happily offering seconds to swooners, and beer was poured as samples in short souvenir glasses.

Courtney Whilden of Chapel Hill had just a sip or two the whole evening. “I’m pregnant but didn’t want to miss this because it was so much fun last year,” Whilden, who was toting a water bottle. “We learned so much about craft beer. I think we drank more beer, really good beer, last year than we ever did before.”

The opportunity to sample a diverse assortment quality beer also was irresistible to Debbie Lidowski of Durham. “I thought beer was just disgusting when everyone was drinking it in college,” says Lidowski, who despised beginner brands like Miller Lite but was glad to stand in line for a pour from New Holland Brewing of Holland, Mich. “I’m so happy there’s been a whole movement of craft beer that’s being celebrated right here in our town.”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reason No. 473 on why you should learn how to can

I've been spending the day happily browsing Andrea Weigl's new Pickles & Preserves, a volume in the Savor the South series from UNC Press. It is a pleasant reminder of the joys of canning, a welcome thought on this day when our windows are open to a sunny and mild March afternoon. 

I am reminded of the contentedness that comes from both making canned goods and sharing them with friends, as well as the simple pleasure of opening a jar of something that tastes as seasonal as the day it was sealed. With such good cheer, could one be faulted for using one's own canning pantry to create a cocktail at 4 in the afternoon?

Sad news on a day last summer halted my plan to make Bill Smith's famous honeysuckle sorbet. Rather than pitch the fragrant infusion, I turned it into a simple syrup and placed filled pint jars in a boiling water bath. I hoped for the best, assuming the delicate flavor would droop.

But, oh, it did not. Combine with muddled mint and lemon, a spoonful of jam, a shot of vodka and a splash of soda, and you've got a taste of summer on a not-quite spring day.

Honeysuckle Sipper

Makes one drink.

2-3 fresh mint leaves
1 slim wedge of lemon
1 generous teaspoon raspberry jam (or other flavor)

3 ounces honeysuckle syrup
2 ounces vodka
club soda

Muddle mint and lemon in a cocktail shaker. Add jam and ice, then honeysuckle syrup and vodka. Shake vigorously.

Strain and pour into tall ice-filled glass. Top with club soda and give it a quick stir. Garnish with a mint leaf. (If it's your first one. Otherwise, forget it.)

Rinse and repeat.