Thursday, February 11, 2016

The First Taste of Pizzeria Mercato


With brown craft paper still on some windows, Pizzeria Mercato made its long awaited debut on Friday. Located about as far from the Carrboro Farmers’ Market as one can roll a winter squash with gusto, the “soft opening” of the much anticipated eatery was an opportunity to test the menu before a friendly group of invited guests. Folks not only contentedly nibbled on free, exceptional pizza, seasonal appetizers and mind-blowing gelato but also put the young wait staff to the test. With the exception of a fourth pizza that arrived long after the first three, a miscommunication that inspired heartfelt apologies, the service was topped only by the pizza. And dessert. And the comfortably artsy decor.
But it’s the pizza that everyone is asking about, so here goes: With the foundation of a thin, chewy crust whose flavor suggests a long and slow fermentation, Pizzeria Mercato easily meets expectations of “artisan” quality. Small surprise from the folks that brought you Magnolia Grill, where Mercato Chef Gabe Barker used to take baby naps on the pastry bench.
Gabe’s confident manner in making pizza came not from the elder Barkers but rather from his stint at San Francisco’s renowned Pizzeria Delfino, where he worked before returning home last year to open his own shop. He adds a Delfino touch – a last-minute dressing of panna, a creamy, slightly sweet sauce – to several of the personal-sized pizzas on the menu.Gabe looks like a tall version of his mother, Karen Baker, and possesses dad Ben Barker‘s deft touch with spare, intensely flavored ingredients. This was immediately apparent from the warm, marinated and roasted olives ($6) and fritti ($8), tender and oozy pimento-cheese-stuffed rice balls that could have been a cliché in less able hands.
As its name suggests, Mercato’s menu will vary seasonally. On this night, options ranged in price from $13 for the Margherita to $17 for the Funghi, a mix of savory mushrooms. Each was carried fast enough from oven to table that the enticing aroma of char made burnt bubbles in the crust a particular delicacy.
In addition to the Margherita, our table enjoyed the Mustard Greens ($15), with fragrant fennel sausage; the Panna ($14.50), garnished with fresh, peppery arugula; and the Carbonara ($16.50), which featured a barely set farm egg atop guanciale, pecorino and a liberal grating of black pepper. If you don’t use some crust to scrape glistening yolk from the serving dish, shame on you.
Dessert options included a trio of ice cream flavors that suggested Karen’s creative signature. The creamy vanilla gelato was luscious, as was the espresso, which was loaded with crunchy chunks of chocolate. The showstopper, however, was a vegan lemon-coconut sorbetto. Everyone we observed who tried it wore the same stunned expression of delight.
Guests could not be blamed for being slightly distracted from the food by the setting, which features rustic chestnut tables and colorful bench seatbacks made from salvaged wood by Jeff Knight of Knight Woodworks and Seth Burch of Durham’s Hollow Rock Construction. Other craftsman finishes were produced by Brian Plaster Design of Carrboro, which created all the metalwork, from the pizza box holder to the bike rack.
This post first appeared in Chapel Hill Magazine.

Dental Assistant: Tom & Jenny's Caramel Is the Sugar-Free Miracle That Won't Hurt Your Teeth or Taste

Tom Thekkekandam pours xylitol-based caramel
into molds in his home kitchen. The caramel
is intended to help teeth, not hurt them.
Indy Week photo by Jeremy M. Lange
For candy makers, Valentine's Day is the second-sweetest sales day of the year, bested only by Halloween. For dentists, it's a different story. No one can ruin the dream of creamy chocolates or sticky caramels quite so easily as the person pressing a metal prong against a weak spot on your tooth. Thanks to a pair of Durham entrepreneurs, including a pediatric dentist, it doesn't have to be that way.
Tommy Thekkekandam and Dr. Sindhura "Jenny" Citineni are the couple behind Tom & Jenny's caramels, which they sell in four-ounce packages at area food stores and in local dental offices. Their blooming popularity has forced the pair to seek out a larger production facility. Billed as "deliciously good for teeth," the treats swap sugar for xylitol, a natural sweetener popular in Europe and Asia. The audacious marketing claim stems from studies that show that the plant-based xylitol can reduce cavity-causing bacteria and enamel-eroding acidity. It's a little candy revolution, just in time for Valentine's Day and National Children's Dental Health Month.
They taste great, too. Unlike some candies made with artificial sweeteners, which can impart a deal-breaking bitterness, Tom & Jenny's have all the rich flavor and velvety mouthfeel of traditional caramel. That was essential for Citineni, whose motivation was to help frustrated parents in search of more tooth-friendly sweets for their kids. The pair first experimented with Gummi Bear-type candies and chocolates, but those options presented costly challenges with flavor and texture.
"When we started doing research, we found caramel was one of the fastest growing food categories," Thekkekandam says. "It was the most ripe for innovation. You could start with small batches, and it's relatively easy to cook."
The final recipes came in collaboration with renowned pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, known to many for his work with Top Chef: Just Desserts. He also spent eight years creating dynamic desserts for Le Bernardin in New York City, earning four stars from The New York Times and three from the Michelin Guide. Those bona fides were initially intimidating for Thekkekandam and Citineni.
"I cringed when he tasted our first samples," Thekkekandam recalls of their first meeting in 2013. They had been home-testing their recipes for years, to the point that the kitchen of their Manhattan apartment was dusted with "white crystalline substances" in a way that reminded him of the drug drama Breaking Bad.
"We knew it was a long shot," Thekkekandam says of Laiskonis, "but he thought they were good enough to work with us."
Laiskonis has built his reputation by transforming real sugar into sweet delicacies. For him, the idea of Tom & Jenny's offered an intriguing alternative.
"While I do normally operate in a world where conventional sugars and confectionery techniques reign, the challenge in breaking down those techniques and formulas and reconstructing them is at the heart of what I do," Laiskonis says. "On top of that, I had a lot of fun helping to guide and encourage such a unique start-up—not to mention all of the insight gained on how different sweeteners influence dental health."
The renowned chef came up with several iterations of the couple's original formula, including chocolate caramel. The final recipe yielded a meltingly tender chew without cloying sweetness. To test the appeal, they set up a table at the upscale Long Island City Flea & Food market. Despite the premium pricing, they sold 300 bags in a few weekends.
Thekkekandam and Citineni met as UNC graduate students. They returned to the Triangle after she completed her pediatric dentistry residency in New York in 2014. She bought a forty-year-old practice, Triangle Kids Pediatric Dentistry, and he quit his consulting job to work full-time on building the candy business.
Currently, Tom & Jenny's caramels come from their state-certified home kitchen, but the couple is in the process of transitioning to a commercial producer. That will allow them to scale up production and expand their product line before Halloween and Christmas—so far, these factors have limited the company's growth.
To expand the product line, Tom & Jenny's continues to consult with Laiskonis and another local pastry chef. Thekkekandam is cautious about sharing too many specifics because other companies, he says, are pursuing similar sugar alternatives, but they do plan to perfect those set-aside Gummi-style candies and chocolates and introduce some fancier confections for adults, including chocolate-enrobed caramels.
Selling more products should enable Tom & Jenny's to achieve another goal—directing more profits to charities that help at-risk children in need of nutritional and dental health. The couple has long been involved with social justice causes, notably the Chapel Hill-based nonprofit Nourish International, which Citineni founded at UNC. The global organization helps communities in extreme poverty advance through sustainable development.
"They have an extraordinary executive director who is driving amazing growth," Thekkekandam says. "Through it and other channels, we hope Tom & Jenny's will soon be in a position to make a bigger commitment to social change."
That would be mighty sweet—even if it's sugar-free.
This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Ponysaurus named in Food & Wine's list of hot trends for 2016

Okra! - PHOTO COURTESY OF PONYSAURUS
Dried okra bar snack (Ponysaurus photo)
Food & Wine restaurant editor Kate Kraderhas included Durham's Ponysaurus Brewing Co. in her 2016 food trend predictions story. Based on a recent visit, she hailed the Hood Street taproom as a "next-level brewpub" that offers creative snacks to complement its craft beer.

Krader especially liked the crunchy dried okra, one of about a dozen snacks kept in temptation-inducing glass jars and sold for a buck a scoop.

"The dried okra is my favorite, too," says Ponysaurus partner Nick Hawthorne-Johnson. He selects the assortment of nibbles, which currently includes another of his favorites, Bugles, the cone-shaped corn snack. "It's more something cool we get to do than a moneymaker."

None of the featured snacks are made on-site or exclusively for Ponysaurus—yet.

"We want to incorporate members of The Cookery into the snack program, but it hasn't happened yet," says Hawthorn-Johnson, who owns the culinary incubator and event space with wife, Rochelle Johnson. "I'm especially interested in bringing in granolas made by Mary Moyer of Double M Baking. She makes a curry granola we really like. We need to make sure it works for The Cookery's members—that it will be sustainable and good for them, too."

While there is no formal pairings menu, Hawthorne-Johnson says he gladly steers patrons toward munchies that pair well with particular brews. 

"The stout and malt balls are pretty amazing together," he says with a chuckle. "We've got wasabi peanuts right now, but we've also got things that are just crunchy and salty and won't get in the way of enjoying your beer."

Hawthorne-Johnson is gratified at Ponysaurus being labeled a "next-level brewpub," as it reflects the ambitions he has with partners Keil Jansen and David Baldwin.

"I'm always thinking about how we'll take where we are to the next level," he says. "It's the pursuit of a more excellent version of whatever we're doing."

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Poole's Diner named in Eater's National Top 38 restaurant list

Ashley Christensen (Indy Week photo by Jeremy Lange)

Poole's Diner has joined another elite cast: Esteemed critic Bill Addison named chef Ashley Christensen's Raleigh flagship to Eater's second-ever National Top 38 restaurant list. It is the only North Carolina restaurant to earn the honor, which aspires to answer the question that drives Addison's work: "'What is essential dining?"

"Poole's is one of the South's great modern restaurants," Addison told the INDY. "The restaurant's macaroni au gratin may be its most famous dish (every time I'm there I spot people ordering only it for dinner), but beyond that decadent icon, the menu revolves with the seasons in precise, always-appealing ways."

Christensen is in New York this week, where she cooked Thursday for Women in the Kitchen, a Southern chef event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Southern Living magazine. Kaitlyn Goalen, director of marketing for AC Restaurants, says Christensen is fine with adoration of the justifiably famous mac 'n' cheese, even though she strives to create new dishes to wow customers.

"We're always grateful and thrilled that it remains on the list of things for people to try," says Goalen, noting the side dish has been on the menu since Poole's opened in December 2007. "It's what Poole's is about—really classic comfort food recipes that are re-imagined, but which still tap into a lexicon of flavor that we're all familiar with."

Addison adds that he admires the James Beard Award-winning chef's creativity and appreciation for local and seasonal ingredients. "I know right where I am and what time of year it is when I eat at Poole's," he says. "Ashley Christensen sets national standards not just in terms of the beautiful food she and her team execute but in her leadership—with seven businesses now under her umbrella—and in her commitment to community with events like Stir The Pot that benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance."

Goalen says the AC team had no advance notice about making the National Top 38 list, though it is bound to make it even more difficult to get a table at the often-crowded Poole's, which does not take reservations. The nod is sure to drive interest in Christensen's six other Raleigh venues too, including Death & Taxes and Bridge Club, both of which opened last fall.

"We're quite excited to be in the company on that list, and thrilled to have a North Carolina restaurant included," Goalen says. "We share it with the whole community of Raleigh. It speaks to how dynamic the food scene has become here."

Christensen has another eatery in the works, a pizzeria scheduled to open next door to Poole's in 2017. And October will see release of her first cookbook, a collection of some 150 recipes. Follow Poole's on Twitter to learn about some of the recipes as they're tested.

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Five Triangle chefs share their secrets for sushi at home



Making sushi at home can seem quite intimidating. You may think you have to buy several varieties of fish, appropriate vegetables and accompanying spices and seeds. You need to cook rice with the right consistency and texture. And you need to have the techniques and tools required to put it all together. 
But, according to four Triangle chefs and one fish supplier, it doesn't have to be so mystifying or demanding, so long as you know what you're shopping for and what you already have. These how-to tips should make your next home sushi experience tastier and a little more homemade.

Perfecting your rice

In sushi, there is no ingredient more important than rice. The name "sushi" even refers to the type of rice used to make a vast array of rolls, plus the pillows used to support glistening strips of seafood in nigiri.
Mike Lee, of Raleigh's Sono and Durham's M Sushi, expected to open downtown this week, says it is essential to use the best available rice—the "super premium" varieties koshihikari or tamanishiki. Available at select Asian markets in the Triangle, they are prized for their inherently sweet, slightly nutty flavor and starchiness. And if you find bags marked "new crop," consider yourself a winner of the sushi Powerball. If you can't find those varieties, says Lee, go for the best Japanese or Korean brands you can find.
"It's sad to see that a lot of sushi restaurants in the area don't pay attention to how important the rice is," says Lee, whose staff makes several 50-cup batches throughout lunch and dinner service. Rice will vary from bag to bag, even in the same brand, based on when it was grown and how long it's been stored. He makes a test batch with every new bag to ensure quality and gauge cooking time.
click to enlargeILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMS
  • Indy Week illustrations by Chris Williams
According to Lee, rice should be rinsed well enough before cooking that water will run clear through it in a colander.
A heavy-bottom pot with a tight lid, like a Dutch oven, is ideal for cooking rice. If you lack patience to watch the pot boil, Lee recommends investing in a high-quality electric rice cooker. (Again, go with a Japanese or Korean brand.) When the rice is done cooking, transfer it to a wide, shallow bowl; wood is ideal, but start with what you've got.
"You have to mix in the seasoned vinegar right away, while it's piping hot," says Lee, who uses a dimpled, paddle-shaped spatula to cut in the vinegar and coat all the grains. "Then you want to cool it down quickly so the excess moisture is controlled. A piece of cardboard works great."
The seasoned rice wine vinegar sold at most grocery stores and even some Asian markets is, like its balsamic counterparts, not authentic. Lee considers most brands a poor substitute for a recipe you can do yourself. The basic ratio is 3 parts rice wine vinegar to 1 part sugar and one-half part salt—or 6 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon salt. Tweak this depending on how sweet you like your rice or if you'd like to add kombu (edible kelp), umami or citrus.
"As long as you keep it close to the basic ratio," Lee says, "you can be as creative as you like."

Pickling your own ginger

ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMSWhen Charlie Deal of Durham's Jujube wants sushi, he heads to his favorite "hidden gem" in the city, Kurama. "It's the last place you'd expect, because it looks like a dated Japanese steak house," Deal says. "But the sushi there is impeccable, especially if you let the guy do his thing."
Though Deal doesn't attempt sushi at Jujube, some of the dishes do come with pickled ginger. He encourages home cooks to dispense with the prepackaged pink stuff and make their own.
"I've always seen pickled ginger being made from young ginger, which I can't always find," says Deal, who was initially skeptical when chef Miguel Gordillo made it with mature ginger. But it worked. "It's delicious, and it's even got a nice texture."
Young ginger can be pickled by just soaking in hot brine. Mature ginger, however, needs to be simmered in brine. Here's how they do it at Jujube.

INGREDIENTS

150 grams ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, preferably with a mandoline
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt3/4 cup mirin3/4 cup rice wine vinegar4 tablespoons white sugar
Combine everything in a heavy-bottom saucepan and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer ginger and remaining brine to a sealable container.

Grating your Wasabi

Early in his kitchen career, a boss tasked Greg Gettles with turning harsh wasabi powder into the thick green paste served with sushi.
"I cried," admits Gettles, now the executive chef at Piedmont in Durham. "It'll light you up for sure. That's why it was such a big deal to me to taste real wasabi for the first time."
Fresh wasabi root looks similar to horseradish but has a vibrant green tint. It's not as hot as wasabi made from powder, which often contains no real wasabi at all.
"There's a surprising sweetness to freshly grated wasabi," Gettles says. "And it should be used soon after you grate it. If you wait until the next day, the flavor will be super muted."
click to enlargeILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMS
Gettles recommends buying wasabi from an Asian market where produce is frequently replenished. Such stores often sell ceramic or sharkskin boards for grating it traditionally, but a Microplane is just as effective.
Still, if the fresh wasabi is a bit more assertive than you like, Gettles suggests taming it with a dash of mirin, or sweetened rice wine.
While he has not served sushi at Piedmont, Gettles has used wasabi to brighten a classic beurre monté, a melted butter sauce. "Finishing it with a little wasabi adds depth," he explains. "Wasabi also pairs nicely with cilantro, so it's great in something like a cucumber gazpacho."
While the plant does not thrive in the Southern climate (or many at all, really), Gettles plans to use locally grown wasabi microgreens in salads this spring and, hopefully, larger leaves later as a wrapper for steamed fish.
"I've got a couple of small farmers set to grow leaves for me," he says. "I've never tried this, but I think the flavor will be unreal."

Picking your fish

Consider yourself warned: Eating raw seafood can cause food-borne illness.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there, and I like to be clear," says Lin Peterson of Raleigh's Locals Seafood, which provides fresh catches for Triangle chefs and home cooks alike. "Just as with raw oysters, there is an inherent risk in eating raw fish in sushi."
Peterson says 99 percent of fish served in sushi restaurants has been frozen to ­-40 degrees Fahrenheit, not only for convenient transport but also to kill potentially harmful bacteria. This is even required by some state and local health departments.
"And there is no such thing as 'sushi grade' fish," he says. "We sell fresh fish, and we know exactly where it came from, when it left the water, when it was cut and when it was sold."
click to enlargeILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMS

If you don't buy your fish from a seller who can vouch for such stock, chances are you should not experiment with uncooked seafood in your homemade sashimi or rolls. If you do, Peterson offers a few tips.
First, choose a whole fish, like black sea bass or Spanish mackerel, instead of a trimmed fillet, which begins to break down as soon as it's exposed to air.
"Grouper and snapper can work, as well as triggerfish and tilefish," Peterson says. "If you like tuna, look for a section of big-eye or yellowfin, which are running now. They have a nice fat content, which makes for great flavor."
Second, keep the fish super cold, preferably on ice. And then, use your best, sharpest knife to cut thin, even slices.
For garnish, Peterson suggests golden rainbow trout caviar from Sunburst Trout Farms, located in the mountain town of Canton, instead of the salty orange beads of salmon roe.

Rolling your leftovers

Freaked out about raw fish? Stop fretting and do what Gray Brooks does: Make sushi rolls at home using leftover proteins, like those last few bites of a great steak.
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMS"When you're eating a steak as sushi, you can stretch what would normally be a snack into a whole portion of dinner," says the Pizzeria Toro chef. "And it's delicious."
Brooks likes making steak sushi for other reasons, too.
"I don't have special sushi knives, and I don't want to have to buy four or five different kinds of fish," he says. "This is just so much easier."
It's best to slice leftover steak straight from the refrigerator, when it's cold and firm. To ensure a tender bite, cut across the grain.
Brooks likes to have an avocado on hand for his steak sushi. Otherwise, he can be spontaneous about making the rolls because he keeps a stash of essentials in his pantry—rice and seasoned rice wine vinegar, mirin, sheets of nori and togarashi, a seven-flavor Japanese chili sauce. He also reserves a bottle of especially good soy sauce for dipping.
"It really is worth spending a little more money to get a high-end soy sauce," he says. "The subtleties are amazing."

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Pittsboro couple’s modern dream home

At a stage of life when many of their friends are downsizing or choosing assisted living communities, Philip and Velma Helfaer eagerly built a new home on the fringe of one of the Triangle’s most prestigious addresses.
News & Observer photos by Juli Leonard
The career psychologists, educators and writers, now 82 and 79, respectively, had spent most of their married lives in chilly Boston and Norway and amid the rugged beauty of sunny Tel Aviv. Two years ago, they chose a 5-acre parcel adjoining Fearrington Village in Pittsboro to build their dream home. It was wooded and quiet, disturbed only by the welcome sounds of wildlife.
The couple had never lived in or even visited North Carolina before but were attracted to the area by its natural beauty, moderate climate and proximity to academia and a major airport. While temporarily renting a house in Fearrington, they connected with an architect and builder who shared their passion for green design. The result is the Happy Meadows Courtyard House, a highly efficient, ultra-modern home with spare, midcentury appeal.
“This project is so special to me because of the way the house interacts with the wildlife,” says Arielle Condoret Schechter of Chapel Hill, who designed the nearly 2,300-square-foot residence to suit her clients’ modest, understated style and keen ecological interests. A key factor was their desire to live in a net-zero home, which, through photovoltaic arrays on the roof, ideally would generate as much – or maybe more – energy than its owners needed to purchase over the course of a year.
“We didn’t quite achieve that this year,” says Philip Helfaer, who checks a program on his computer to review detailed logs of electric energy used and solar energy sold to Duke Energy. He laughs heartily to see a 10-day stretch with no energy usage. “Our energy expenses from December 15, 2014, to December 15, 2015, were $216,” adds Velma Helfaer. “We generated 80 percent of our electricity.”
According to Duke Energy, an average monthly electric bill for a similar size home in the Fearrington area is about $110. Despite an extended cold snap last winter, high heat and humidity this summer and unseasonable warmth this fall, most of their energy expenses came from cooking and cleaning.
AN AVERAGE MONTHLY ELECTRIC BILL FOR A SIMILAR SIZE HOME IN THE FEARRINGTON AREA IS ABOUT $110.
“I’m so disappointed that we didn’t achieve net-zero this year,” says Schechter, who teamed with Kevin Murphy of Chapel Hill’s NewPhire Building to maximize energy efficiency, ensure clean airflow and capture rainwater from the roof to a 1,200-gallon cistern for irrigation. “With a few tweaks, I think we can do it in the future.”
Schechter’s innovative design amplifies the peacefulness of the property by showcasing some of its most serene aspects. The home is centered by a courtyard garden that can be glimpsed from several rooms. Windows capture outdoor scenes as if they were seasonal, wood-framed paintings. Their ample patio contains a burbling, lily-filled water feature echoed by a second pond in the garden. They’ve seen everything from blue heron to red fox enjoying the grounds.
“In the spring, we were wondering if we made a mistake putting the patio pond near our bedroom,” Velma Helfaer says with a laugh. “The bullfrogs are very loud,” adds Philip Helfaer, imitating their robust bleats as a salamander clung to their screened porch, “but it’s wonderful to hear all the sounds of nature.”
The Helfaers spend a good deal of time outdoors, especially in the evening, when they can enjoy twinkling starlight undisturbed by the glare of commercial lighting. When they retire indoors, they leave the heat off at night, allowing ambient conditions to keep the temperature at or above 69 degrees. Fifteen-inch walls and custom-made insulated windows are part of the science behind this seeming magic.
The Helfaers personally selected many of the home’s finishes, including granite countertops and rich accent wall colors. Elsewhere, they pushed Schechter and Murphy to use the most green options available.
Most of the home has poured concrete floors except for the kitchen and exercise room, which feature cork tile with a leathery amber glow. Warm wood details, including cabinets, shelving and convenient window benches, are fashioned mostly from reclaimed river wood or sustainable species. A full wall of cypress boards create a dynamic pattern of undulating grain in their bedroom.
The open pantry off the kitchen contains groceries and their pared-down household goods, including a beloved 40-year-old Champion juicer and her grandmother’s cut-glass water pitcher. A glass bowl is filled with beautiful rocks collected on hikes around the world.
Velma Helfaer has held off on hanging any of the couple’s art collection to date. There is just a scattering of collectibles evident in the home, which is dominated by well-thumbed books and an audiophile’s dream system to enjoy classical music.
Schechter and Murphy ensured that the house could accommodate potential future needs, allowing a guest bedroom to be easily converted into a caregiver’s suite. The overall design balances safety and comfort with green smarts and calming beauty.
“We previously had a place that was passive solar, but it felt like we were living in a greenhouse,” Velma Helfaer says. “It never felt like a place we’d want to spend the rest of our lives in. This does.”

This post first appeared in the News & Observer.





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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Cary's Sandra Gutierrez needs you to eat more empanadas—and wants to show you how to make them

Indy Week photos by Jeremy M. Lange
After a year in which she published two well-received cookbooks and traveled often to promote them in readings, signings and cooking demonstrations across America, Sandra Gutierrez welcomed 2016 in the best way she could imagine: cozied up with family in her Cary home, where she made short-cut collard empanadas with pre-packaged Goya wrappers.
"It's good to know how to make the dough, but these let anybody make empanadas anytime," says the author of Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America, as she tears into one stuffed with a traditional Argentine combination of stewed beef, chopped olives and raisins. "There are thousands of recipes, some of them complicated, but you can make delicious empanadas from leftovers. You can even use eggroll wrappers. Enjoying good food with your family is more important than making every single thing from scratch."
Released last spring, Empanadas empowers home cooks to prepare dozens of the variations popular throughout Latin America. But the Guatemala native is on a timely, relevant quest to broaden the already wide appeal of these portable pies—especially in the South, where fried hand pies have a beloved place in the culinary canon. In both Empanadas and Beans & Field Peas, a Savor the South book published in September by the University of North Carolina Press, Gutierrez delivers recipes with rich historical context that also consider the busy lifestyles of American cooks who hope to get dinner on the table quickly.
By making these recipes more approachable, Gutierrez has become a vital figure in the changing foodways of the Triangle, where authentic Latin fare is finally making inroads in a scene once clogged with gloppy combination plates and stale tortilla chips. In the last several years, more than a dozen restaurants offering and often updating the cuisine of Latin America have become area favorites. Many of them, like Calavera in Raleigh and Carrboro and the new Luna and Makus in Durham, even specialize in empanadas. When Gutierrez first settled in Cary in 1993, she couldn't have imagined such a change.
Gutierrez sat down at home over a batch of empanadas to discuss her career and the changes in cuisine all around her.
INDY: You've published four cookbooks in four years, starting with The New Southern-Latino Table and Latin American Street Food, both produced by UNC Press. To what do you credit this success?
Sandra Gutierrez: I've had fortunate timing to be part of the growing interest in Latino culture.Empanadas was my surprise book; I got that offer three weeks after committing to Beans & Field Peas. Empanadas are trendy right now, but I think they're here to stay because of the influx of Latinos all over the United States. It's only a matter of time before everyone discovers how great they are; I don't think anyone who grew up with Pop-Tarts should have any trouble relating to an empanada.
Americans have the tendency to assume that all Hispanic cultures are similar, but empanadas vary considerably across Latin America. What accounts for this?
Tamales and empanadas are everywhere. Tortillas are not; they're just in Mexico and central America, and then they disappear. But as you travel, you find that empanada doughs are very different. You'll find wheat-based dough, like tender pastries, because it's what the Spaniards brought.
But as the indigenous peoples of the Americas fell in love with handheld pies, the dough began to change. If you go to the Latin Caribbean and Central America, you'll find dough made with plantains, which is gluten free. In Brazil, you find dough made of cassava or yucca—also completely gluten free. In Mexico and Guatemala, you find masa—again, gluten free. Because of this, nearly everyone can eat empanadas.
The empanada is a versatile filling conveyance; surely you've encountered awful Americanized versions?
Nothing terrible, really. Fillings originate from whatever is left over in someone's home. People sometimes tell me my recipes are not "authentic." They are—it's a matter of authentic to whom? The ingredients and seasonings vary based on where you are. Sometimes the dough is baked, sometimes fried. Peanut butter and jelly works in a pastry; apple pie filling also works. It's like a Southern fried pie.
What distinguishes an empanada from a hand pie, then?
The name. The concept exists all over the world, and we have the Persians to thank. Almost every culture has them. You'll find the "pasty" in the British countries, and phyllo is used for spanakopita in Greece. Empanadas lend themselves to being tweaked for American flavors. Americans love pie. What's the saying—we're as American as apple pie? You can add whatever you like. I like to think that any stew can be put in an empanada, any pie filling. A classic combination in Latin America is a white cheese and preserves; imagine that here with local fig preserves and goat cheese. Now that would make a wonderful empanada.
What are some of your favorite area restaurants for Latino food?
MachuPicchu in Raleigh is a great example of authentic Peruvian food. Guasaca Arepa is Venezuelan, and the food is delicious. Cuban Revolution in Durham is great, as is Carmen's Cuban Cafe, over by the airport. They've been there for decades. It's basic Cuban cuisine, but it's the most authentic street food you can find.
What's the best way to identify a restaurant that serves authentic cuisine?
click to enlargeFrom Cary, Sandra Gutierrez has become both an expert in empanadas and an advocate for the area's evolving food culture. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • From Cary, Sandra Gutierrez has become both an expert in empanadas and an advocate for the area's evolving food culture.
The best recommendation you can find is when you go in, it's full of Latin people. For the most part, these are not fancy restaurants. A lot of times they are in strip malls because the rent is cheaper. We're talking about mom-and-pop concepts, and they're not expensive. I especially like La Vaquita in Durham. It's a stand-alone place where you order at the window and eat outside.
It's such a welcome change. When Cary was young and we'd go to Mexican restaurants, I'd always order huevos rancheros, because it was the only thing that was real. But we're moving away from the Americanized, chain-like ideas. Imagine my excitement, my joy and my need or urge to write about and teach everything I know about the different Latin cuisines. I've got so much to share. There is so much to discover.
How did you manage writing two such different single-topic cookbooks at the same time?
I was able to prepare whole meals for my family with recipes from both books, so that helped. My favorite part of the job is the research.
I love to be completely immersed in a topic. Why do we eat what we eat? What are the stories? I'm a learner, and there is no more delicious way to learn than with food. If you only knew how many afternoons I take classes online—history, literature. I have a thirst for knowledge, and I want to share what I learn, which is why I love teaching so much. It's fun for me.
You are a charter member of the new North Carolina chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier, the international organization that advocates for women in the food industry. How do you see its role in getting female professionals in the food industry to commit to the advancement of education and philanthropy through food?
It's such an exciting time to be in the Triangle. So many women are doing remarkable things. Chefs, writers, food scholars—we're all in this area. The most beautiful part of it is that we are a very gregarious community, and everybody is interested in helping everybody else. Les Dames will allow women to help other women in the industry, while at the same time making a difference in their community. We haven't decided where our group will go, because it's new, but there are many opportunities to help through food: teaching children to grow vegetables at school and then how to cook and eat them, or scholarships to get an education in the food world.
There's a lot of need in our community. It's beautiful that a group of us women can come together through our experience and expertise in the food industry.
The Les Dames mission has attracted several influential North Carolina women—including president Colleen Minton of TerraVita; Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in Kinston; Triangle cookbook writers Nancie McDermott, Sheri Castle and Debbie Moose—among others. What does it mean to you to be part of this circle?
It is humbling. These are women who have dedicated themselves to food and have a heart that makes them want to give back to their community. It's good to have women leaders making change and helping. The need is only growing.
It's also great that we have a place where we can network with a common purpose. I see a bunch of professionals mentoring other professionals. That is not perceived to be the norm among women in business. It's usually very competitive, but this is a group of mentors. We all want to help each other and our community. It's something I have never experienced at this level before.
Will 2016 bring a fifth cookbook from you?
I'm not doing another book right away. I'm booked solid through June promoting all of my books and teaching classes. The one part I don't like about all this is the travel. It's given me a new sense of independence, but it also is a chore. It's very worthwhile, though, as I make connections with someone who cooked my recipe or who is interested in what I'm writing about.
I would love more people to join me on social media (Twitter: @sandralatinista). I love the back-and-forth exchange; it keeps everything fresh for me. I get to know what people are looking for. I'm not writing the books for myself. I really do care about what people want to see and learn.

click to enlargeShrimp and Tomato Stew Flaky Pillows (Pastéis de Camarão) - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

  • Shrimp and Tomato Stew Flaky Pillows (Pastéis de Camarão)

Empanada ease

Sandra Gutierrez's Empanadas: The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America collects 60 recipe variations on the hold-able wonders, crisscrossing the region and its varying traditions. Gutierrez offered this recipe—made with cheap, easy, store-bought dough—as an introduction to empanadas at home.
Shrimp and Tomato Stew Flaky Pillows (Pastéis de Camarão) 
Makes 12
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup finely chopped white onion2/3 cup peeled, seeded and chopped plum tomatoes2 tablespoons tomato paste1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, leaves and tender stems1 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste12 ounces peeled and cooked shrimp or langoustines, cut into 1/2-inch pieces12 store-bought empanada discs, such as GoyaVegetable oil for frying
MAKE THE FILLING: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet set on medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until they are golden, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste; sauté for 1 minute. Add 1/4 cup of water and stir well to form a thick paste. Add the cilantro and salt; remove from the heat and let cool slightly. Add the shrimp or langoustines and stir well. Transfer the filling to a large bowl. Cover and let rest for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
ASSEMBLE THE PASTÉIS: Defrost packaged empanada discs overnight in the refrigerator or at room temperature for 35–45 minutes. Place two tablespoons off center on one side of the round wrapper, leaving half-inch pastry border. Fold the top over the filling and seal by pressing sides together with your fingers. Crimp them tightly with the tines of a fork. Transfer them to a prepared baking sheet.
FRY THE PASTÉIS AND SERVE: Fit a large baking sheet with a metal cooling rack; set it aside. In a large skillet with high sides, heat 1/2 to one inch of vegetable oil to 360 degrees, or use a deep fryer. Working in batches, carefully slide the pastéis into the oil. Fry them until they're puffy and golden, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, turning them over halfway through. If the oil gets too hot as you fry and they're browning to quickly, lower the temperature and let the oil cool slightly before frying more. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place on the prepared rack to drain. Let them cool for 1 to 2 minutes and serve.
NOTE: Pastéis are best eaten immediately after they're fried. Freeze them uncooked in a single layer; once solid, transfer them to freezer bags and keep them frozen for up to three months. Fry them without thawing (to prevent splatters) for 3 to 3 1/2 minutes, or until they are golden and crispy.
This post first appeared in Indy Week