Sunday, April 29, 2012

Leftover grains and grillings yield savory breakfast quiche

Mix of leftover ancient grains, grilled chicken and
asparagus combine for a quick quiche. 
I craved something decadently Southern for breakfast and considered my options: perhaps creamy grits with gobs of melted cheese, or farmer's market eggs cooked to a soft sunny-side-up with crisp strips of just-fried bacon, perfect to discharge golden streaks over buttered toast.

But the combined weight of calories and a fridge filled with leftovers made me feel guilty. Inspired by Maria Speck's Ancient Grains for Modern Meals, I had about 2 1/2  cups couscous steamed in vegetable stock with a handful of golden raisins; about a cup of farro, simmered in water and whey from homemade labneh; and a za'atar-coated chicken thigh and asparagus, remains from a delicious grilled dinner.

Combined, I realized I had the makings of a Middle Eastern-inspired quiche. From inspiration to letting it cool just enough to serve, it was on the table in about an hour. I served with this a dollop of za'atar-spiked labneh, but a spoonful of thick Greek yogurt would be just as nice.

Za'atar Grilled Chicken and Asparagus Quiche with Couscous Crust

Use a ramekin to gently press couscous mix into edges.
2 1/2 cups cooked couscous
1 cup cooked farro
1 tsbp. melted butter
Vegetable oil spray
1 grilled za'atar-seasoned chicken thigh
12 spears grilled asparagus
5 eggs
1/4 cup cream
salt, pepper
Labneh or Greek yogurt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Blend room temperature couscous and farro in medium mixing bowl; add melted butter and stir to combine. Transfer to two-piece tart pan coated with vegetable oil spray. Spread evenly with a spatula, then press lightly with a small ramekin, working from center out, to cover fluted sides of the pan.

Cover gently with parchment paper and pie weights (I use a mix of beans and rice), and bake about 15 minutes or until firm and lightly golden on edges. Remove and set on a cooling rack. Lift off parchment and weights then leave undisturbed for 10-15 minutes or no longer warm to the touch.

While you wait, chop grilled chicken thigh into small dice. In a medium bowl, beat eggs with cream. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Distinct bits of couscous and farro form a delicate crust.
Arrange asparagus spears in a pattern, tips toward crust, trimming to lengths as needed at center. Scatter diced chicken between spears then slowly pour in egg mixture. Use a spatula or small spoon to coax egg mixture into any bare spots.

Return to 350 degree oven and bake 12-15 minutes, or until eggs are just set. Remove and let cool on rack for about 10 minutes. If crust has not pulled away from edges, lightly slide the tip of a sharp knife around the circumference to loosen before freeing base from the tart pan.

Lift slices with a flexible metal spatula. Serve immediately with a dollop of labneh or Greek yogurt.

*Note: Za'atar spice blends can be found in Middle Eastern markets and some grocery stores. I am particularly keen on the variety sold by Savory Spice Shop, which has a store in North Raleigh.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Share your kitchen strength to end childhood hunger

Long before some of the most influential members of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina got books deals, they developed their craft making things to contribute to bake sales.

CHOP NC Founder Nancie McDermott
“I love and adore bake sales,” said CHOP NC Founder Nancie McDermott, author of two baking bibles, Southern Pies and Southern Cakes, both published by Chronicle Books. “They're like lemonade stands, only more substantial, and they speak of people happy to be baking, to be sharing, to be eating, and usually to be raising money for something dear to them.”

Events supporting the national Share Our Strength Great American Bake Sale are being held across the country to raise awareness of and end childhood hunger in our nation. Several events are registered for our area, and CHOP NC would like to help you get involved by sharing recipes that can be used for this or future bake sales. In addition to CHOP NC members and distinguished friends, like Virginia Willis, we even persuaded Executive Chef David Gaydeski to share the secrets of the chocolate chip cookies served to visitors at the North Carolina Executive Mansion.

"Bakes sales may seem silly but it shows you the power of people doing a little thing,” said Sheri Castle, author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook (UNC Press) and a recent winner of an International Association of Culinary Professionals award for foodwriting."You make a little something, sell the slice for more than it's worth, and it all adds up. It's a great premise and a worthy cause."

The recipes that follow cover a wide spectrum of regional flavors, from Atlanta-based Willis’ Shortbread Buttons to Sandra Gutierrez’s Chile-Chocolate Brownies, and Elizabeth Wiegand’s coastal Ocracoke Fig Cake to McDermott’s Shenandoah Valley Blueberry Cake.

“I for one am always on the prowl for something a little more edgy: the chipless cookie, the lemon bar made with lime, the gingerbread or even savory item,” McDermott said. “Here’s to chipping in for a worthy cause, coming home with an unexpected goodie for your dear ones, and most of all, to the baking folk amongst us, who make the wheels of the bake-sale bonanza go round and round in the direction of good things for all.”
Blueberry and Pecan Snack Cake
@ 2011 Sheri Castle from The New Southern Garden Cookbook: Recipes for Enjoying the Best from Homegrown Gardens, Farmers' Markets, Roadside Stands and CSA Farm Boxes. Used by permission of The University of North Carolina Press.

This is as a welcome change from a muffin, but just as handy for breakfast, snacks, and lunchboxes. If you nibble on it all through the day, just a sliver at a time, just a wee slice to even up the edge, you can pretend to be startled that evening when the pan is, somehow, empty.

Sheri Castle
Makes 8 servings

Vegetable oil spray
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons stone-ground cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/3 cup whole or low-fat milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 cups fresh blueberries
2 tablespoons coarse sanding sugar, raw sugar, or more regular sugar
1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Mist the inside of a 9-inch square light metal baking pan with the spray. (A dark metal or nonstick pan makes the crust very thick and dark.)

Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. In a large bowl, beat together the butter and granulated sugar until light and fluffy with an electric mixer set to high speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the milk, vanilla, and lemon zest. Use the rubber spatula to gently fold in the berries.

Scrape the batter in the prepared baking pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle the sanding sugar over the batter, followed by the pecans.

Bake until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Place on a wire rack to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving warm or at room temperature. The cooler the cake, the more neatly it will cut.

What else works? You can replace some or all of the blueberries with finely diced peaches.

@ 2011 by Sandra Guitierrez from The New Southern-Latino Table: Recipes that Bring Together the Bold and Beloved Flavors of Latin America and the American South. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.

Sandra Gutierrez
These decadent bars have a rich, moist, and dense texture. The luxurious taste of chocolate will meet your taste buds and the sweetness will seduce your senses. Then slowly the slight heat of chiles will spread across your tongue and surprise you with a tingling sensation. The combination of chocolate and chiles gives the well-known mole poblano of Mexico and the mole de plátano of Guatemala their distinctive flavor. And here, fruity ancho chiles are a perfect match for rich, dark chocolate. The meaty pecans lend an unmistakable Southern touch. These are “grown-up” goodies. Make a batch without chiles for the kids.

Makes 20 brownies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped and toasted pecans (optional)

For the glaze:
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 tablespoon cocoa powder
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon coffee-flavored liqueur
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon chipotle chile powder

Chile-Chocolate Brownies
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a 9x9x2-inch baking pan. Place the butter and chocolate in the top of a double boiler and heat over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they have melted and are well combined. Lift the bowl carefully from the pan so no water droplets come into contact with the chocolate mixture; let cool for 5 minutes and transfer to a large bowl.

Stir in the sugar; add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition; stir in the vanilla. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, ancho chile powder, and salt; gradually add the dry ingredients to the chocolate mixture, beating well until fully combined. Add the pecans. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the center is set and the brownies begin to pull back from the sides of the pan. Cool brownies for 1 hour in the pan.

To make the glaze: in a medium bowl, combine the confectioners' sugar, cocoa powder, butter, liqueur, vanilla, and chile powder; blend until smooth. Place the glaze in a pastry bag (or zip-top bag with a snipped corner), and drizzle back and forth over the brownies. Cut them into 20 bars.

@ Bill Smith, Crook’s Corner. Used by permission of Bill Smith.

Bill Smith at Crook's Corner (Photo: Soleil Konkle)
Butter, flour and parchment paper to prepare a springform pan
3/4 lb. sliced blanched almonds
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
zest of one orange
splash of vinegar
pinch of salt
1 cup (about 8) egg whites
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
Scant half cup of all purpose flour

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Butter the springform pan, line with the parchment, butter the parchment and dust with flour. Coarsely grind the almonds with the orange rind and half of the sugar.

Rinse a mixing bowl with the vinegar and salt. Dump out over the sink. Beat the egg whites in the bowl with the cream of tartar until stiff and glossy. Quickly fold the egg whites into the nuts by thirds. Include the flour in the last fold.

Turn batter into the cake pan and bake for about an hour, until the center is firm and the cake has begun to pull away from the pan. Let the cake cool for about 20 minutes before releasing the springform. Good hot or cold with fruit or fresh whipped cream.

Shenandoah Valley Blueberry Cake 
@ 2011 Nancie McDermott from Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations (Chronicle Books, 2007).

Enjoy this simple, delicious cake for breakfast, a tea party, or a midnight snack. If you can’t pick your own blueberries in the Shenandoah Valley, don’t worry. The cake comes out just fine using fresh blueberries from wherever you are, or even frozen berries from the grocery store.

Makes 1 cake (8- or 9-inch layer, square or round)

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup milk
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (do not thaw)

Heat the oven to 375 F, and generously grease a 9-inch square or round pan.
Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl, and stir with a fork to mix well. In a medium bowl, combine the butter and sugar, and beat with a mixer at high speed until well combined. Add the egg and beat well for 1 to 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl, until the mixture is smooth and light.
Stir in half the flour mixture, and then half the milk, mixing just enough to keep the batter fairly smooth and well combined. Add the remaining flour, and then the milk, mixing gently. Stir in the blueberries.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, and bake at 375 F for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cake is golden, springs back when touched gently in the center, and is pulling away from the sides of the pan.
Serve the cake right from the pan, warm or at room temperature, cut into squares. Or if you made a round cake layer, cool it in the pan on a wire rack or folded kitchen towel for 10-20 minutes, loosen it around the edges, and then turn it out to finish cooling on a wire rack, top side up.    

Mansion Chocolate Chip Cookies
@ David Gaydeski, Executive Chef, with permission of the North Carolina Executive Mansion.

Assortment of cookies served at the Executive Mansion.
Cookies conjure up childhood for me – the wonderful smell of the local bakery where I grew up, setting them out for Santa on Christmas Eve, or bake sales at school. As a chef, they offer unlimited possibilities. A basic dough can be transformed by minor adjustments in proportions or the addition any number of ingredients.

Cookies have been a fixture at the Executive Mansion going back decades. I know the recipes have changed over time, but there’s something uniquely comforting about being in such a beautiful, formal place and biting into a taste of childhood.

Makes 3 dozen
North Carolina Executive Mansion

1 cup (2 sticks) melted butter
2 cups brown sugar
½ cup white sugar
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2¼ cups bread flour*
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 400 F. Cream butter, brown and white sugars together in a large bowl. Mix egg, yolk and cream in a small bowl and add to sugar mixture. Sift the flour, salt and baking soda together and blend in. Gently stir in chocolate chips.

Drop by golf-ball sized rounds onto either a greased or parchment paper lined cookie sheet. Bake for 7-8 minutes or until edges start to brown.

*Bread flour makes for a chewier cookie

Shortbread BUTTONS
@ 2011 Virginia Willis and reprinted with her permission. For more information or about Virginia, please visit

Virginia Willis
These are delicious and incredible. The recipe basically contains just enough flour to hold the butter together. These cookies are perfect along with ice cream or a cup of tea. And, since they are so very indulgent, it’s good to know they freeze exceptionally well in an airtight container.

Makes about 3 dozen

2 cups all purpose flour

1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1⁄4 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1⁄2 cup confectioners’ sugar, more for flattening the cookies

1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Willis' Shortbread Buttons
Heat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick silicone baking sheets. Set aside. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside. In the bowl of a mixer using the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and vanilla; beat until just combined.

Using a small ice cream scoop, portion the cookies about 2-inches apart on the prepared sheet pans. Dip a smooth glass in confectioners’ sugar. Press to flatten to about 1/4-inch thick. Using a wooden skewer, make 4 holes in the center of a cookie so that it resembles a button.

Transfer the cookie sheets to the refrigerator and chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Bake until the cookies are pale golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let cookies cool slightly on the cookie sheet then transfer to a rack to cool completely.  Store in an airtight container up to 7 days.

@ Elizabeth Wiegand from THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK:  Recipes & Traditions from NC’s Barrier Islands (Globe Pequot Press, 2008).

Elizabeth Wiegand is working
on a revised edition of
The Outer Banks Cookbook.
Figs grow profusely in Ocracoke village, perhaps due to the moist, salty air.  Residents tend to place oyster shells around the base of their trees, or add a fish to the soil around them.  Although figs were grown on most Southern homesteads, they are not native to the New World but rather to Asia Minor.  They probably migrated with the Spanish via the West Indies, but perhaps it was a pirate, like Blackbeard, who frequented the port of Ocracoke and left this treasure.
The ladies of Ocracoke are known for their fig cakes, using the preserves they “put up” from all the figs that ripen during the summer.  Some use a cream cheese frosting between layers, others make a tube cake. 
Dale Mutro’s grandmother, Mrs. Ollie Styron Mutro, taught him how to make this version, which uses twice as much fig preserves as the standard Ocracoke recipe.  Dale claims this one is so moist it needs no frosting.   

Serves 10 to 12
Ocracoke Fig Cake

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 2 teaspoons hot water
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup nuts, preferably pecans
1 pint (2 cups) fig preserves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 10-inch tube pan. 

In a small bowl, sift together the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and salt.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Add the sugar and oil. 

Alternately add the dry ingredients with the buttermilk.  Add vanilla, then soda dissolved in hot water.

Gently stir in nuts and fig preserves. 

Pour in prepared pan, and bake for one hour or until toothpick comes out clean.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mama Dip remains a towering presence

Mildred Council will be the guest of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. 

Mildred Council no longer messes with the heavy cast iron skillets at Mama Dip's, the Chapel Hill landmark she opened in 1976 with just $64 in her apron pocket. But she remains a towering figure in the cozy dining room, where she signals dawdling young servers with a glance and attracts excited whispers from diners.

"What are they doing out there," she said, gazing at a gaggle of her wait staff that, like startled geese, suddenly retreated from the door to her wraparound porch. "Move that table," she said quietly to another waiter, gesturing at one that had strayed from alignment. "Someone will trip over that."

Council, who turned 83 last week, is painfully aware of such potential hazards. She tripped last May and steps, slowly but confidently, with the aid of a wheeled walker.  

Not everything in the restaurant, which on Saturday morning was filled with families and regulars, draws the boss's scrutiny. Out of the corner of her eye she spied 5-year-old Brendan Engler-DeSpain of Raleigh tip-toeing toward her.  She beckoned him closer.

"I love Mama Dip's," he finally said, his face shining with joy. "Hmm," said the great-great-grandmother, sizing him up as his dad proudly filmed the encounter on his phone. "You look like you'd be good to hug. Come on over here."

Whether it's a pancake-loving child or a seeker of true Southern country fare, Council greets everyone with the same warmth. It's been like this since she charmed her father by taking over household cooking at age 9. After turning away from the cosmetology career he envisioned for her, she got her first paying job as a cook working as a household maid. She later cooked at a UNC dining hall and several Chapel Hill eateries - including Bill's Bar-B-Q, which was owned by her in-laws - before taking a chance on transforming a failed restaurant into the first Mama Dip's location 36 years ago.

Council's fame spread after UNC Press published her two cookbooks. The first, Mama Dip's Kitchen, was inspired by New York Times legend Craig Claiborne - and fostered by the late Bill Neal, who co-founded La Residence and Crook's Corner and dined at Mama Dip's nearly every Thursday.

"I didn't know who Craig Claiborne was. I thought he was a troublemaker, ordering everything on the menu - even chitlins - and making us all nervous in the kitchen," Council recalled with a laugh. "Why would the New York Times care about me? I was just somebody who grew up on a little farm in Chatham County. I never imagined someone so important would be interested in my food."

Council recalled that Claiborne wanted a little taste of everything and was especially keen on her black-eyed peas.

"We were still over there," she said, pointing across the street to her original site on West Rosemary Street. "We only had about 16-17 seats in the place and I didn't have enough of those little bowls to keep up with him. It wasn't like restaurants today. I only had so many dishes."

Claiborne wrote a glowing review of the restaurant a few weeks later and called to get some of her recipes, a few of which he included in his best-selling books. He pushed her to write down her own recipes - a daunting challenge given she never used measuring cups or spoons. It took nearly 10 years to draft her first book, and several more passed before it was published to acclaim in 1999.

"I learned how to cook in the dump style," Council said, instinctively cupping her large hands as if scooping flour for biscuits. "It was the same way in school. We never had a lot of books. You just had to pay attention and learn. That's just how it is when you don't have a lot."

Council is not surprised by the farm-to-fork movement that is influencing major culinary names and home cooks alike. After all, cooking with locally-grown, seasonal ingredients is both smart and frugal.

"I don't look at is as a health trend. It's more about the beauty of food at its best," said Council, noting, for example, that she never uses canned sweet potatoes for her famous pie. "I think we all should eat more vegetables and less meat. I still enjoy some chicken, but this time of year I start thinking about tomatoes and squash.

"Oh," she exclaimed suddenly, her eyes twinkling behind large glasses. "Next month we should have string beans. Yes."

Mama Dip's menu does feature its share of meat, and plenty of fried food, but for Council that has more to do with hospitality than trendiness. When you eat from her kitchen, you should enjoy yourself. And honey, that means putting down your knife and fork and eating fried chicken with your hands.

"When I traveled to promote the books, I was just amazed by how focused some chefs are about food looking pretty," she said, recalling a meal so artfully prepared that she relied on her publicist for clues how to eat it. "I had no idea where to start. I'd rather people relax and just dig in."

Council has no plans to write any more cookbooks but she does occasionally tweak her menu to include items that tug at memories.

"I've been thinking about adding bread pudding for breakfast," she said, picking a classic that similarly stretches ordinary kitchen staples. "It's the same idea as pancakes, really, but you add raisins and custard and bake it up in big pans. It's just so creamy and good."

The recipe for Council's Rum Raisin Bread Pudding is featured in Mama Dip's Kitchen, and more can be found in Mama Dips's Family Cookbook (2005). A few of her recipes are posted on her author page at UNC Press and others, like her sumptuous sweet potato pie, can be found online.

The first bloom of spring canning

To make room for the abundance to come, I have been faithfully working down the contents of my canning closet and sharing jars of last season's excess with friends and neighbors. I have been scouring recipes books and searching online for something new and different for my first batch. Of course I'd use strawberries - but what else?

I considered the heat of chiles, the sweet bite of balsamic vinegar, shreds of bright green spring basil. Then, with an appeal as enticing as its heady aroma, it hit me: rose petals.

We have a lovely rose bush that was planted years ago at the end of our driveway to mask an abandoned basketball pole, which itself is planted in an absurd amount of concrete. Tim decided to wrap the pole in black mesh and set about training the vines to climb. It resisted at first but is now a bona fide showstopper.

Its heavily perfumed blooms never last inside - the petals usually shrug off in a day -- but this made them ideal for a rose water infusion, which in turn he made a fine base for strawberry juice. It was a two-day process that likely could be condensed, but it was time well spent.

You'll need a jelly bag, an inexpensive and wise investment if you plan to make jelly or syrup more than once. If you don't have one - or have done such a good job of putting it away that you can't find it - you can jerry-rig one from a cheesecloth-lined chinois or colander suspended over a large measuring cup or mixing bowl. I prefer a measuring cup as it's encouraging to watch it fill.

Only use roses from a trusted source where you are certain they have not been treated with insecticide. Choose large, open blooms that pull loose with little effort. Be sure to inspect well for blemishes and travellers. My bowlful had two crawling visitors that I returned to the wilds of my side porch.

This recipe will produce enough juice for two batches of jelly, which eventually follows the basic directions found on the yellow box of Sure-Jel pectin. Combining to save time could result in a doubt batch of disappointment that will never set properly.

Strawberry Rose Petal Infusion
12-15 rose blossoms
6 cups water
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, divided
4 1/2 cup whole strawberries

Lightly pull petals from rose heads and place in water-filled pot. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer, lightly covered, for about 20 minutes. The result should be fragrant, rose-tinted water with color-drained petals that look like wet tissue paper. Move pot off heat, cover and steep 30 minutes.

While mix is steeping, clean and trim strawberries. I used a food processor to coarsely chop the berries. Add remaining lemon juice and pulse until still chunky but juicy. It should measure about 3 cups.

Add mashed strawberries to rose water and return mix to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, lightly covered, about 10 minutes. Let mix cool completely then cover and store overnight in the refrigerator.

Day 2
1 large lemon, juiced
1/2 cup white wine
2 yellow boxes Sure-Jel pectin
9 cups sugar, divided
1 tsp. butter
12 8-ounce jelly jars, or equivalent mix of sizes

Remove strawberry-rose mix from refrigerator and leave on counter until contents are at room temperature. Carefully transfer to jelly bag or cheesecloth-lined colander over a large measuring cup or bowl to catch juice. Resist the urge to squeeze the bag or press the contents to speed the process as it will release residue that will cloud the jelly.

Allow at least an hour to drip - or, better still, leave it on the table and go out to breakfast with a friend. By the time you return you should have about 6 1/2 cups juice. Don't worry if you have a little more or less.

Add the fresh-squeezed juice of 1 lemon, 1/2 cup white wine and enough water to measure 7 1/2 cups total. You will need 3 3/4 cups juice for each of two batches.

From this point on, you pretty much follow the Sure-Jel method detailed on the package insert. First, be sure you have sterilized jars in a large canning pot or stock pot, and place a set of fresh lids in a covered bowl of very hot water to soften. When jars are clean, set them upside down on a clean kitchen towel. Keep your canning pot at a simmer to be ready when you need it.

Pour 3 3/4 cups strawberry-rose petal juice into large, heavy-bottom pot with high sides; I use my pasta pot but others prefer a wider pot with more surface exposure. Using a long wooden spoon or silicon spatula, stir in packet of pectin while bringing to a boil over medium heat. Add 1/2 tsp. butter to reduce foam.

Surface foam is easily removed to reveal clear jelly.
When it comes to a rolling boil, add sugar all at once, stirring well to combine. The mix will take on a glassy sheen at this point, a beautiful sight that is one of the rewards of making your own jelly. Stir frequently until it comes to a roiling boil that cannot be stirred down, then let it rip 1 minute. Seriously, watch the clock or count.

Remove pot to a heat-proof surface and skim any scummy foam with a metal spoon or mesh strainer. I prefer the latter as it allows useful juice to drip back in. Using a canning funnel to minimize spills, quickly but carefully pour into canning jars, leaving about 1/2-inch head space. Wipe rims with a damp cloth to ensure they are clean, then lightly press a warmed lid on each jar. Add screw bands, tightening only until you hit resistance.

Carefully place jars in canning pot, ensuring that the water level is at least an inch above the jar tops. Bring to a full boil for about 10-12 minutes. I usually turn off the heat and leave jars in place for about 5 minutes to settle before removing to heat-proof surface, but if you can't resist, go ahead and pluck them out. Within moments, you'll start hearing pings as the jars complete their seals. If possible, don't move jars until they have cooled.

If a jar does not ping, or its lid does not appear slightly depressed - hallmark signs of successful canning - just put it in the fridge and enjoy it now. The rest can be saved and safely savored for up to one year. I feel obliged to say that for new canners, but no kidding, this stuff is too good to sit around that long.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Sheri Castle earns a culinary crown from IACP

A week ago today, Sheri Castle was in New York City attending a glamorous ceremony. She was seated among some of the most celebrated names in the food world, trying to not dwell on what was about to happen, when her own name was announced as a recipient of a 2012 award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).
Sheri Castle

On Sunday, however, she was back in Chapel Hill, doing laundry and driving her daughter to the movies.

“Back to reality,” said with a laugh. “It’s OK. I’ll never forget how it felt. It was like that deep down from the center of your core grin. To have an award of any kind is such a pleasure, but to be with a group I admire this much really is very special.”

Castle, a founding member of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC), was honored along with a cluster of writers at Gilt Taste responsible for the “Eats Shoots and Leaves” series. Her story, Apple Core Values, was posted in October.  

“It was very gratifying to be recognized by IACP for crafting good recipes,” Castle said. “They gave us each a certificate – a blue certificate in a blue envelope, suitable for framing. Carrying it around that evening really gave me a great deal of pride. People I have admired for years came up to congratulate me and to say what a big deal it is.”

This was one of several awards earned by Gilt Taste, launched less than a year ago by former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl to fill the culinary chasm left by the magazine’s demise. “To be affiliated with them feels so good, and working with Francis Lam is the best,” Castle said. “I’ve never worked with a better editor.”

A few months after the April 2011 release of her The New Southern Garden Cookbook (UNC Press), Castle met Lam at the Greenbrier’s annual Symposium for Professional Food Writers, a major industry event. Lam said he sought her out become a Gilt Taste contributor.

Francis Lam
“I love her smart, approachable way with food, her humor and her voice,” Lam said by email from New York. “The pieces she's done for us all feel like a friend is walking you through her favorite new recipe.”

Castle recalled being intrigued by the theme of “Eating Shoots and Leaves,” which focuses on using the parts of a fruit or vegetable that usually are discarded. She’s invested considerable research and testing time for her next topic, due this week: potato peelings.

“It may run in a few days or a few weeks, so stay tuned,” she joked. “One thing I can say is I’ve learned is that your average three-pound bag of potatoes yields two firmly packed cups of peelings.”

Castle is gratified by the response that being on the Gilt Taste team has brought – not just the IACP award, but also the broad recognition.

“I’ve written things for other publications that I would have thought would get more notice, but people really read Gilt Taste,” she said. “I considered myself very fortunate. It’s too simple to say I was just lucky, but there was a lot of luck involved.”

Lucky is the last thing Castle feels when she sits down to write. “I think a lot of writers are incredibly neurotic, tortured people. I don’t know which causes which,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not that I don’t think my stuff is good, but I’m not one of those people who get excited about looking at a blank page.

“I work out of lot of things in my head before I ever start writing,” she added. “Even in a round room, I’ll find a way to back myself into a corner. If I have 90 days, I’ll use the last nine.”

Castle's demanding schedule is equally responsible for her writing habits. In the last nine months, she has edited two cookbooks, tested recipes for two more, and logged more than 27,000 miles on her trusty Volvo driving to judge contests, teach classes and sign copies of her book.

“It continues to amaze me how much people enjoy the book,” she said, humbly discounting both her skill as a recipe writer and the book’s resurgent appeal for those who support local growers at farmer’s markets. Castle still does occasional demonstrations at regional markets, including the Saturday Carrboro Farmer's Market where she used to be a fixture a decade ago.

“It’s still fun for me, and it’s wonderful to meet people who are fans of my work,” she said. “Actually, I came home with two resolutions from IACP. One is that I have got to tweet more to stay connected with people who are so kind to support me.”

And the other? “To get a phone from this century, which I think will make the former easier,” she said. “I’m about one step up from Dixie cups and string, but I’m working on it.”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

In search of the real Mjadra

My recent search for an authentic Mjadra was as intriguing as it was frustrating. There must be hundreds of variations online, not just of ingredients but even how to spell the traditional Lebanese dish.

Do I use green lentils or brown? White onion or red? Rice or bulghur? Cumin or not?

I supposed I'd know what to do if I learned my way around a kitchen from a beloved sitti, but my culinary heritage includes a thoroughly Americanized bubbie who was not much of a cook and a mother who did not relinquish kitchen control. To paraphrase the old line about what some people make for dinner - reservations - I started to wonder if this was strictly take-out fare.

Absolutely not, declared a co-worker, who entrusted me with a favorite Lebanese cookbook and explained with sadness how so many traditional recipes are lost as families scatter and younger members lack enthusiasm for grandma's efforts. "You'll take care of it," he said, half asking and half convincing himself that he was not making a terrible mistake leaving this treasure in my eager hands.

Not unlike a family Bible, the pages of his dog-earred copy of Lebanese Mountain Cookery are inscribed with notes and calendared accomplishments. Indeed, one of his favorite recipes, for broiled kefta, was marked with a 1999 N.C. State University football ticket. A winning game, no doubt.

His favorite Mjadra recipe, however, came from an unnamed book that - from a photocopied page that reveals the shadow of a coiled plastic binder - looks to have the homegrown provenance of a community cookbook. It offers two variations of the porridgey dish and, while I was encouraged to take liberties, was assured that the first option was the real deal.
I did make a few tweaks, such a brown rice instead of white - or bulghur, which is common to variations  developed in more arid regions. It gave no advice on what type of lentils to use. In my first batch, I used the dark green du puys, which retained a slightly firm bit and delivered an appealing contrast in colors. Next time I decided to be bold with orange lentils, but was disappointed when their vivid color later all but disappeared into the rice.

The first batch was topped with a dollop of warmed tomato sauce mixed with savory homemade caponata. I opted for a more subtle but full-flavored twist the next time by poaching a large, bone-in chicken breast and using the resulting stock to boost the simmering water. Shreds of moist meat joined the tender onions for a simple but luxurious finish.

While Graham, an avowed onion hater, would disagree, I've learned that a key element of a successful Mjadra is the glistening mound of sauteed onions that serve as its crowning glory. As someone who grew up in a household where the aroma of frying onions was far more common than baking cookies, this made me feel an instant kinship with the dish.

I can't boast that my Mjadra is authentic, but it is delicious. I found that a fat sweet onion and bulbous Spanish one worked equally well, but I'm told that a Lebanese cook would favor the former. Don't skimp on the fat when you caramelize the slices and, if you like lot of onion, cook even more if it makes you happy.

Mjardra (Lentil Pottage)

1 cup uncooked French lentils
4 cups water or stock
1 1/2 large onions
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. salt
1/2-1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 cup uncooked brown rice
Maldon sea salt, to taste

Coarsely chop 1/2 onion and sautee over medium heat in 1 tbsp. olive oil with 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper and desired amount of cumin until tender but not browned, about five minutes. Rinse lentils and brown rice, then add to onion and stir to coat. Add water or stock then cover and simmer about 30-35 minutes, or until rice and lentils are tender.

In medium skillet over low heat, sautee the remaining onion, sliced, in 3 tbsp. olive oil. Season with 1/2 tsp. each salt and pepper. Stir occasionally until well browned and tender. Allow yourself a bite of candied goodness, but do save the rest for serving.

Spoon portions of Mjadra onto plate and top with generously caramelized onion slices and a pinch of Maldon.

Optional: Dollop equal parts warmed tomato sauce and caponata over Mjarda, or top with shreds of poached chicken.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Double blessings with hope for 'wok hay'

I can't remember the last time I was so happy to be wrong.

I've been using the same wok for about 30 years. I've been proud of its dark, non-stick patina and felt confident stir-frying countless meals. Sure, I'd flirted with sleek stainless versions and I wondered, as anyone might, if a long-handled model might be more satisfying. Yet I remained faithful.

But I recently realized that my wok's round, Cantonese shape and my standard Western gas range lack the makings of a happy marriage. Memories of soppy, unintended braises and limp vegetables resurfaced like forgotten, but unresolved, arguments. And those stubby, blazing hot metal handles? Let's not even go there.

The only way to breathe life into my old wok, I realized, was to replace it with a new, flat-bottom, carbon steel one designed to make the most of American stoves. I followed the advice of wok guru Grace Young, who was in Chapel Hill last month for a gastronomic feast in her honor at Lantern and a reading at Flyleaf Books presented by Culinary Historians of the Piedmont North Carolina.

Raymond Leung of Classic Silver Wok
1322 Fordham Blvd., Chapel Hill
At Lantern, I had the good fortune to dine with both Young and Raymond Leung, owner of Classic Silver Wok in Chapel Hill. Leung's unassuming shop caters to everyday locals who load up giant bags of Jasmine rice and to culinary superstars like Lantern's Andrea Reusing. Needless to say, I asked for his help in selecting a new wok.

An unforeseen delivery delay postponed acquisition until today, but now that I have it I can hardly believe I fought with my wobbly old one for so long. To season and imbue it with "wok hay" -- the "breath of a wok" Young so eloquently describes -- I decided to give it a double blessing: first the technique Young recommends, and then the method suggested by Leung.

After giving it a good soapy scrub -- the one and only time detergent will come close -- I dried it well and set it on a high flame. Into a shimmering puddle of fragrant peanut oil I tossed in sticks of juicy ginger and swirled it around the pan with a handful of green onions. I then cut the onions into two-inch lengths, added them to the pan and dialed back the flame to medium.

I flipped and pressed the mixture into the bowl until it disintegrated about 10 minutes later, then used paper towel to brush out the crumbs and rub a thin coat of the remaining oil over the pan. The towel came away with a trace of gray, evidence of the wok's manufacturing process.

After the wok cooled, it was time for Leung's technique, which involved a sturdy block of firm tofu diced into cubes. After bringing the pan back to temperature, I poured in a drizzle of peanut oil and added the tofu. The pale white cubes grabbed the remaining gray silt like a sponge, leaving the pan clean and the tofu in precisely the unappetizing condition Leung described.

Now ringed with a pale cast of color, the wok appeared ready for real cooking. Tim had bought several bunches of slender asparagus from the market, as well as sweet spring onions. After heating the wok and quickly reaching the magic moment when, as Young describes, a drop of water vanishes in a flash, I poured in a final tablespoon of peanut oil and swirled the pan to coat. Some minced ginger and thin slices of onion followed, along with a generous shake of Asian Sprinkle. Next came two bunches of asparagus, trimmed into two-inch lengths, and a handful of raw cashews. I stir-fried constantly, about two minutes, until asparagus was bright green and tender crisp.

I thought I was done at that point, but the result was too gingery for my taste. I turned the heat back on, adding about a teaspoon of sugar and a splash of sweetened black vinegar. It cooked just long enough for the vinegar to absorb and evaporate, less then a minute, and gained a restaurant-quality sheen I was pleased to serve. I sighed -- and could almost swear I heard my new wok do the same.

With Grace Young at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.