Monday, June 25, 2012

Competition Dining's secret ingredients: camaraderie and fun

For the past seven years, Jimmy Crippen has been inviting guest chefs into the kitchen of his acclaimed Blowing Rock restaurant, where they have dazzled local diners.

“I’d say to my friends, “Come to my kitchen and let’s play a game,’” said the good-humored entrepreneur, who staged a series of Iron Chef-inspired cook-offs at Crippen’s Country Inn and Restaurant. “Let’s face it: Chefs are performers. You don’t open a restaurant unless you think you can feed people better than someone else can.”

What started as a way to draw customers on typically slow or off-season nights – while at the same time giving highly-regarded chefs a chance to get out of their own kitchens and meet other people in the industry – this year morphed into a series of regional Competitive Dining events. The first was the Fire on the Rock contest in the High Country, in which Chef Michael Foreman of Bistro Roca in Blowing Rock reigned supreme and claimed the $2,000 prize. In April and May, Crippen took his road show to Wilmington, where Chef Andrew Hopper of Chefs 105 in Morehead City emerged as champion of the Fire in the Dock contest.

The Raleigh-based Fire in the Triangle competition launched on June 11 and will conclude on July 31. The sold-out spectacles are held on Mondays and Tuesdays at 1705 Prime, located at 1705 Millbrook Road. The elegant North Raleigh facility is the catering hub of Rocky Top Hospitality, which includes Twisted Fork, Tribeca Tavern and the Daily Planet Café in the new Nature Research Center, among others.

Tonight’s challenge will pit Raleigh chefs Michael Lee of Sono against Dean Wendel of Flights. Competitors are not told what each event’s mystery ingredient is until a few hours before the doors open at 6:30 p.m.  It is selected and sourced in collaboration with the Southern Foods distributing and the Got to Be NC program of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. As with Iron Chef, the special ingredient must be prominent in each course, supplemented only by what is provided in an extensive pantry, and produced entirely on site.

Jimmy Crippen, founder of the Competition Dining series
While chefs strive to impress judges with expertly prepared and plated creations, teams also are responsible for providing an example of each course to about 120 paying guests. Diners get to participate in a popular vote and are encouraged to post comments on Twitter at #CompDiningNC.

In addition to an exhilarating evening of fine dining, Crippen is hopeful that participants will gain a heightened appreciation for the quality of locally sourced ingredients.

“We really try to keep the focus on building an awareness of the amazing resources that our state has to offer,” said Crippen, adding that home cooks also will concoct great meals if they start with fresh ingredient from local growers. “It’s a nice marriage to be able to promote the chefs, the agriculture and the whole sustainable lifestyle.”

So far, required ingredients in the first five weeks of the Raleigh competition have ranged from blueberries and Butterball turkeys to mustard, eggs and cantaloupe. Crippen said he's been impressed by watching chefs work their magic with the day's selection – which, while varied, have not been as bizarre as some previous challenges.

“One of the weirdest things to come out of these was Battle Beef, where you had to use the entire cow,” he recalled. “One of the chefs made a beef tongue bread pudding, which he smartly disguised as ‘Lingua Bread Pudding.’ It wound up getting the highest marks and won the competition for him.”

While Crippen himself has never competed in any of the events, even when they were based in his kitchen, he clearly relishes his role in choreographing the contests.

“I feel like Gene Kelly with an umbrella doing Singin’ in the Rain,” he said. “There’s all the insanity around you, but it’s so much fun you just want to dance with it.”

Monday, June 18, 2012

Win a copy of 'The Truck Food Cookbook' by John T. Edge

John T. Edge will talk about his new book, The Truck Food Cookbook: 150 Recipes and Ramblings from America's Best Restaurants on Wheels, at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., in Durham. The Only Burger food truck, which is featured in the book, will be selling food outside, and Fullsteam will be selling beer inside.
Want to win a copy of his new book? Comment below about your favorite food truck and register (at top right) to receive Eating My Words by email by 4 p.m. Wednesday. The winner will be selected randomly. If you attend the event you can claim it there; if not, it will be *mailed. (*Must have U.S. address if mailing is necessary.)

John T. Edge (Photos (c) Angie Moser)
Food truck culture is fairly new to Raleigh, where wrangling over local ordinances led to a popular presence and fan base developing first in Durham. But the phenomenon of stand-up dining is well established in both major U.S. cities and street corners around the globe, where it sometimes fares better and is more responsive to consumer demand than traditional brick-and-mortar establishments.

Where carts once offered little more than hot dogs and pretzels, full-outfitted truck now provide freshly-made fare that combines a globally-inspired culinary sensibility with the best of local and seasonal food stuffs. Their popularity have even inspired competitive cooking shows on TV, and Durham's popular and award-winning Only Burger was a runner-up on Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race.

Only Burger's fame is on the rise with its inclusion on The Food Truck Cookbook by John T. Edge, a food culture chronicler and one-time owner of a Dunce Dogs, a hot dog stand in Oxford, Miss, where he is director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) at the University of Mississippi.

Edge's insights and engaging writing style has earned one win and five James Beard Award nominations. He also writes the United Tastes column for the New York Times and is a frequent contributor to the Oxford American, Garden & Gun, and NPR's All Things Considered.

The book's 150 recipes serve as testament to the creative diversity on food truck operating across the country. Examples range from Morrocan Chicken Crepes and Fried Yucca with Garlic-Cilantro Sauce to Waffle Breakfast Tacos and Tamarind-Glazed Fried Chick Drummettes. 

North Carolina is well represented by Sweet Potato Cupcakes with Toasted Meringue by Daisycakes, also of Durham, and one of Only Burger's most popular menu options, the messy but fabulous Morning Burger.

Morning Burger by Durham's Only Burger.

Only Burger's Morning Burger
Reprinted with permission of Workman Press (c) 2012 from The Food Truck Cookbook by John T. Edge.

Makes 4 burgers.

4 hamburger buns
1 cup pimento cheese (recipe follows)
1 pound ground chuck
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 large eggs
8 slices Fried Green Tomatoes (recipe follows)

1. Toast the hamburger buns. Spread pimento cheese on the top and bottom halves of the buns. Set the buns aside.
2. Place the ground chuck, salt and pepper in a bowl and knead them gently with your hands until blended, Divide the meat mixture into 4 even portions and form each into a patty.
3. Heavy a heavy skillet or griddle pan over medium-high heat for 1 or 2 minutes. Place the patties in the skillet and cook for 3 to 4 minutes per side for medium-rare.
4. While the burgers are cooking, crack the eggs into a separate nonstick skillet and cook them sunny-side up over medium heat until all of the egg white are cooked but the yolks are still runny, about 3 minutes.
5. To assemble the burger, place a burger on the bottom half of each bun. Top each with a fried egg, 2 slices of Fried Green Tomato, and the top half of the bun.

Pimento Cheese
If you make the pimento cheese in advance and refrigerate it, remove it about 10 minutes before using..

1-1/2 pounds extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1 jar (4 ounce) pimentos, drained and diced
1 small serrano pepper, seeded and diced (about 1 tablespoon or more to taste)
1/3 cup mayonnaise, or more if you like a creamier consistency
1 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt

Place the cheese, pimentos, serrano pepper, mayonnaise, black pepper and salt in a large mixing bowl and stir them together using a large spoon until a spreadable paste forms. If you are not going to use the pimento cheese immediately, place it in a an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will keep for up to 1 week.

Fried Green Tomatoes
Don't reserve these just for burgers.

2 large or medium-size firm green tomatoes
1 large egg
1 tablespoon milk
2 cups panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups canola or peanut oil, for frying

1. Cut the tomatoes into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Place the egg and milk in a small bowl and whisk until well blended. Combine the panko and salt in a separate shallow bowl or on a plate.
2. Heat the oil in a cast-iron skillet or deep sautee pan over medium-high heat until it pops loudly when a few drops or water are tossed in.
3. Dip the tomato slices into the egg mixture and then in the panko, turning to coat them all over. Being careful to not crowd the skillet, carefully add the tomato slices to the hot oil and cook, turning once, until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomato slices to paper towels to drain.

Monday, June 11, 2012

14 years later, a new look at a classic: 'Vegetables' by James Peterson

It's that most wonderful time of the year when tables at farmer's markets overflow with the rainbow beauty of summer produce. There are squash of every shape and color; strawberries, blueberries and plump blackberries; sweet onions and even sweeter corn, and, oh my, at long last, tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes.

But wait. There also are some very odd-looking roots, a peck of unfamiliar peppers and confusing assortment cabbages, greens and herbs. You might find yourself wondering: Where the heck did all this come from? And, more importantly, how in the world do I cook it?

"A lot more vegetables are available now than when Vegetables was first published 14 years ago," said James Peterson, whose classic James Beard Award-winning book had gone out of print. "One of the book’s main purposes is to serve as a sort of reference guide: what a vegetable looks like, how it can or should be cooked, how to trim it."

In the handsomely illustrated new Ten Speed Press edition, Peterson provides step-by-step instructions on, for example, how to minimize waste while trimming intimidatingly bumpy Jerusalem artichokes, how to whittle what looks like dirty sticks onto slivers of stir-fry-ready burdock root, and how to dramatically carve a roasted rutabaga like a roast beef. He also offers new perspective on a comprehensive array of vegetables familiar to most home cooks.

Peterson, who has earned a revered status for a series of intensely researched single-topic cookbooks, wrote the revised Vegetables over a yearlong season of shopping and cooking at New York's bountiful green markets, which serve as an urban oasis for everyone from top chefs to home cooks and those trying to recreate the distinct tastes of distant homelands.

While the first edition of Vegetables impressed critics as comprehensive, Peterson has lushly expanded what he confidently calls "the most authoritative guide" with a staggering array of "new" vegetables, many of which have deep but threatened heirloom roots. While decidedly not a cookbook for vegetarians, it is a desirable addition to the collection of anyone who loves vegetables.

One of the many additions that was new to Peterson was long beans, the aptly-named 12-18 inch green beans that are often used in Asian cooking. His Long Beans with Peanuts and Garlic is one of the more than 300 recipes in the collection.

Peterson cited the giant beans as an example of how even those confident cooking with green beans might be stumped by a long bean, which is relatively tough and needs a longer cooking time. The trick is to cut them into manageable, faster-cooking segments.

 "The Chinese are superstitious cooking some long foods - you'd never break up long noodles, which signify long life - but these are best cut small," said Peterson, acknowledging that wok guru Grace Young (whose recipe for Candied Lotus Root is featured) deploys a similar technique. "If you just steam or boil them, you might be disappointed."

A sizable chunk of the new volume is dedicated to Asian vegetables, especially the many bok choy and seaweed varieties that have made their way from small specialty markets to mega-mart shelves. It also recognizes the impact of Latino consumers, who have created a demand for, among other things, cactus pads (nopales), heritage chiles and delicate zucchini flowers.

While some untried vegetables may poke home cooks outside of their comfort zone, Peterson said there are plenty of unfamiliar options that can be cooked in very familiar ways. Since he doesn't expect even the most ardent fan to tote the nearly 400-page book to the market, he recommends talking to growers and summoning the courage to try new things.

James Peterson
He also urges a light touch in the kitchen to take full advantage of a farmer's hard work without overcooking or masking a vegetable's inherent flavor with too many ingredients.

"People do tend to overcook, and it’s not just applying too much heat over time. They just overdo it," Peterson said. "Culinary students especially tend to over-complicate things. You can see it coming then they all get out the red bell peppers. I think it’s a general insecurity that it’s just not enough on its own."

Peterson concedes that not everything he tested and tasted in the name of culinary completeness is something he'd eat on a regular basis.

“Ugh, taro root,” he said with an unmistakable shiver. “I can’t really say in all honestly that I would go home and cook that. It’s kind of starchy, gooey, nondescript. I thought it should be in there because its become common but a lot of people don’t know what to do with it.”

While some dishes may not be repeated, Peterson was not shy about pointing out some of his favorites. "The onion tart is really very good," he said. “Another one I love, with is somewhat a bit of work, is the potted stuffed cabbage (see related story).”

Onion Tart
Reprinted with permission from Vegetables by James Peterson, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 medium onions, very thinly sliced
1 (10-inch) Tart Shell, baked
2 cups milk
4 large eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Tiny pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Makes 8 first-course servings.

Preheat the oven to 300˚F.

Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the onions. Stir the onions every few minutes until they soften and begin to turn pale brown, about 30 minutes. If the onions start to brown sooner, turn down the heat.

Spread the cooked onions in an even layer in the tart shell. Whisk together the milk, eggs, salt, pepper, and nutmeg and pour this mixture into the tart shell. Bake until the liquids set—you can see this by gently moving the tart back and forth and verifying that the liquid does not move—in 45 to 60 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes. Serve in wedges.

Peterson's next quest: How to tell when things are done

James Peterson has written award-winning and indispensable books on vegetables, fish and shellfish, sauces, baking, splendid soups and countless other single-topic but sweeping subjects. He's earned every culinary award worth having and attracted a huge audience of admirers among elite chefs and home cooks.
James Peterson

So, now that he's released a revised edition of a cherished cookbook, what does he do for en encore?

"I’m working on a book proposal now about teaching people how to tell when things are done," Peterson said during a recent call from his home in New York City. "That’s what people always complain about in learning how to cook. The challenge is that not all clues for doneness are visual."

Quantifying the "doneness" of different foods is a challenge that Peterson will be address through such means as the "touch test" and learning to recognize key sights and smells amid a range of contradictory clues.
“You’ve just got to keep trying until you get used to it," he said with the practiced calm of a culinary school educator. "You have to go into it knowing that you’re going to make mistakes, but that is how you learn. I always suggest using a thermometer to help train yourself.”

The proposed book will benefit experience cooks but be of particular use for newbies. It may prove to be a particular godsend for countless newlyweds who face the terror of preparing their first daunting dinner party.

“I'll never forget, once a person found my phone number and called me to say I ruined her Thanksgiving dinner," Peterson recalled with a laugh. "She said did everything according to directions, which include taking the turkey out of the oven when it’s reached 140 degrees between the thigh and the breast.

“What I failed to do [in the recipe] is warn people that it will be pink, as it should be. This freaks people out," he said. "This person said she threw it all the trash. I thought, ‘You didn’t even eat the breast portion?’ I guess I should have said in the book, if you want your meat cooked more, go ahead, but it will be dry.”

Peterson shared his favorite recipe from Vegetables that is richly sauced and savory - and features the book cover's beautiful image of savoy cabbage.

Potted Stuffed Cabbage
Reprinted with permission from Vegetables by James Peterson, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

1 medium (8-ounce) Savoy cabbage
2 medium onions
5 medium carrots, peeled
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup tomato paste
4 slices stale white bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup milk
4 large cloves garlic
1 bunch parsley, preferably Italian flat-leaf
20 juniper berries
3/4 pounds coarsely ground pork shoulder
4 ounces thick-cut bacon, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup Calvados (optional)

Makes 6 main-course servings.

Select a cabbage with loosely packed leaves so the leaves will be easy to remove. Carefully pull away the leaves, discarding the dark green outer ones. If you can’t peel away the leaves without breaking them, plunge the cabbage in a pot of boiling water for about 1 minute, rinse with cold water, peel off as many leaves as you can. Keep repeating this process until you’ve removed all the leaves. 

Discard the core or save it for soup. Simmer the cabbage leaves in a large pot of boiling salted water for 10 minutes—if you plunged the cabbage into boiling water, you can use the same water—drain in a colander, and rinse under cold running water. Cut any thick ribs or tough sections out of the leaves.

Slice the onions and carrots into rounds about 1/8 inch thick and put in a wide pot or sauté pan with the olive oil. Cook the vegetables gently, uncovered, over medium-low heat for about 40 minutes or until they are tender but not brown. If the vegetables start to brown, lower the heat. Stir in the tomato paste, cover, and cook gently for 5 minutes more. Allow the mixture to cool.

Soak the bread in the milk for 15 minutes.

While the vegetables are cooking, prepare the stuffing. Finely chop the garlic, parsley, and juniper berries. (Crush the juniper berries, before chopping, under the bottom of a pot or with the side of a cleaver.) Work the soaked bread to a paste with your fingers and combine it with the juniper berry mixture, ground pork, diced bacon, egg, thyme, salt, and pepper. Work the mixture with your hands to evenly distribute all the ingredients, but don’t work it any longer than necessary or the mixture will be tough after baking.

Preheat the oven 350˚F.

To assemble and bake the stuffed cabbage, line six 10- to 12-ounce heatproof bowls—preferably bowls with lids—with the boiled and drained cabbage leaves. Leave enough extra cabbage hanging over the outside of the bowls to fold over and cover the stuffing. Divide the stuffing evenly among the bowls and fold over the overhanging cabbage leaves, sealing in the stuffing. Spread the vegetable mixture—including the oil—over the cabbage in each bowl and sprinkle over the white wine and the Calvados. Put the lids on the bowls or seal the tops with a double layer of aluminum foil.

Place the bowls on a sheet pan and bake for 1 hour. These potted stuffed cabbages may be served right away, but they are even better when allowed to cool, saved in the refrigerator for a day or two, and reheated for about 45 minutes, uncovered, in a 350˚F oven.

Friday, June 8, 2012

On Dad and onions: A love story

Graham smooches Dad, who hds been entrusted with his Elmos. That's
 Tim and me before the Wall 'O Fame (Parsippany, NJ, February 1993).

My dad has been gone a long time, but it still makes me sad to count the years. It's easy math, really, because Graham was not even three when he died 18 years ago, just a few weeks before Father's Day.

When I think of him, as I often do, the thing I remember most was his wide grin and big laugh, a great belly jiggler often punctuated by a toss of the head and tears of joy. He was easily amused, my dad, and he did so many things that still strike me as incredibly funny.

The Big Kid, after building the Little Tykes play
gym in the cold while his grandson napped
(Sanford, NC, December 1993)
A thing you should know about Irving Warren was that, while he often splurged on us, his personal style favored frugality. He was a child of the Depression who did not like things to go to waste. He recycled office paper long before it was fashionable, painting glue on one side to make his own note pads. In addition to birthday gifts "too nice" to use and saved for special occasions that never came, we found dozens of glass jars in the garage after he died. Like the ledgers he filled with an accountant's precision, they were neatly arranged in a cabinet, each one containing different sorts of nuts, bolts, screws and nails, not to mention bits and pieces of carefully catalogued miscellany. Waste not, want not.

One night at dinner, which probably consisted of grilled steak and frozen vegetables, he inadvertently combined two of his favorite things. While intending to pour root beer into his drinking glass, he misjudged and tipped it instead into a take-out deli container full of sliced raw onions.

"Irving!" shouted my mother. "What are you doing? Irving!" My brothers and I quickly advanced from nervous silence to howling laughter. Dad just folded his hands and leaned in to peer at the foaming mess with calm acceptance. Slices of sharp, eye-watering onion were taken out a few at a time, gently tapped on the rim to let excess soda dripped off, then arranged on his plate, where he dutifully ate every bite.

I still marvel to think that this unplanned side dish did not choke him with heartburn, but the simple fact is my dad loved onion with just about everything, and this was long before the advent of Vidalias or other sweets he would have contentedly munched like apples.

I don't often need an excuse to tell this story, but I share it today as part of the international #LetsLunch food blog posting which celebrates dads. With this recollection and the ever-popular Lipton Onion Soup Mix dip in mind - it was my mother's go-to for virtually any gathering - I decided to make a dip for dad incorporating these two memorable ingredients: onions and root beer.

The splash of root beer that deglazes a skilletful of caramelized onions - I used one of my mother's favorite pans for good measure - makes this a somewhat sweet dip that stands up well to dark pretzel sticks and salty potato chips. If you'd like to make it more savory, opt for a rich stout or splash of full bodied red wine vinegar.

Root Beer Glazed Onion Dip
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tbsp. olive oil
3 large garlic cloves
2 large purple onions
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 4-inch sprigs rosemary
Cheesecloth and butcher's twine
1/2 cup root beer soda (I used Dad's, a vintage brand he enjoyed)
1/2 cup pecorino romano, freshly grated
8 oz. container of sour cream
Pretzel sticks, ruffled chips

Sautee onions slowly to caramelize. Stop when you get
a nice layer on brown on the pan (above) - but before
the onions burn. Deglazing with root beer (below)
incorporates tasty bits into the mix and cleans pan.
Cut onions into large chunks and place in work bowl of food processor with garlic. Pulse until it is chopped to a fairly uniform coarse texture. Be careful to stop before it becomes a watery puree.

Melt butter with olive oil in skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion-garlic mix and sautee slowly. Wrap sprigs of rosemary in a small piece of cheesecloth; knot with twine then tuck into pan.

Check on mix and stir every 10 minutes or so; remove the rosemary after about 30 minutes (don't worry if a few sprigs escape). It should take about 40 minutes or more to fully caramelize, or even up to an hour if you work with a low flame and a lot of patience. Aim for the point where the onions just start to stick to the pan (above right), but be careful to not let them burn.

Pour in the root beer and, with a wooden spatula, scrape up all the lovely browned bits. Keep stirring until liquid evaporates and mixture thickens.

Remove pan from heat and allow to cool completely. Stir in sour cream, blending well, then add grated cheese and mix again. Transfer to container and refrigerate at least 2 hours to let flavors meld.

Transfer dip to serving dish with chips and pretzels - or whatever you dad would like.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

‘Foodsteps’ from slavery to the rise of Southern cuisine

There are those who say that talk of politics and equality have no place at the table. But for culinary historian Michael Twitty, that’s where the conversation begins.

Culinary historian Michael Twitty will present
"Them Old Slavery Foods: Liberating a Cuisine in
Chains in Antebellum North Carolina"
6:30 p.m. Thursday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.
“The table definitely is the starting point to be more honest with each other and express how we feel about our location and our past,” said Twitty, who will launch his Southern Discomfort Tour with a free talk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. His topic, Them Old Slavery Foods: Liberating a Cuisine in Chains in Antebellum North Carolina, is co-presented by Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) and the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill.

“Whether we like it or not, those of us who study African American foodways face a social-political landscape every day,” he said. “Food helps us define our identity and sense of direction. It preserves a shared timelessness. “

An outcome of slavery, he added, “is that Africans and African Americans, who were marginalized groups, made important and often overlooked contributions to Southern and American cuisine. These are important economic and cultural facts.”

Twitty will document his travels to places where his ancestors were enslaved, “as well as places of cultural memory related to slavery and the development and history of Southern cuisine,” on his blog, The Cooking Gene.  He also tweets at @koshersoul.

As stated on The Cooking Gene website: “We are attempting to dialogue with the white families who owned my family - some of whom I am related to by blood - using food as the medium of communication and discourse. We are looking at the development of African American foodways from Africa to America and from the colonial South to the antebellum and postbellum South using my family tree and family geography if you will as a guide. We’re calling that connection ‘foodsteps’ instead of footsteps to describe those edible connections to the landscape and time.”
Twitty will experience that landscape in a very personal way later this week when he ventures east to walk the Halifax County fields that once were the property of his great-great-great-grandfather Richard Henry Bellamy, a slave owner.

Twitty's great-great-great-grandfather,
Capt. Richard Henry Bellamy,
was born in 1829 in Halifax County.
Born in 1829 as the son of European immigrants, Bellamy was raised to enjoy privileges unfamiliar to the mixed-race offspring he and other well-to-do landowners sired and left behind to be raised, often malnourished, in surrounding communities. Here and in other places where the rambling roots of his family tree survive, Twitty believes he will find living blood relatives.

“I’ve reached out to people who say I can walk the land to see what he saw,” Twitty said. “He led a remarkable life, especially for the time. He was a decorated Confederate captain. He was a graduate of law school from the University of Georgia. He got to be a legislator in Texas.”

Bellamy’s biracial children, by contrast, never travelled further than they could walk. “They didn’t go to school. They weren’t special,” Twitty said. “It wasn’t until they had grandchildren that anyone thought to leave the blinding poverty of the South to go north. It’s a reality that’s part of so many stories.”
Twitty is eager to track kin and find clues to their lives through culinary records, but not all of his living relations and friends entirely understand his quest.

“Some people think this whole project is very strange,” he admitted with a laugh. “People expect me to go to the slave quarters and eat what they ate to learn who I am. By studying Southern-African foodways, my goal is to better understand where I come from. It brings a whole new meaning to ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’.”

Twitty’s travels will take him on a circuitous route from his base in Washington, D.C., to big and small Southern towns that cousins many times removed once called home. To make that possible, a diverse group of sponsors from across the country, but especially in the South, united to support his online fundraising effort. It came down to the wire, but Twitty eventually surpassed his $8,000 goal.

“I am emotionally and spiritually moved by the fact that so many people who do not know me personally gave their money and their time to get the word out,” he said. “It was awkward for me to ask, but it’s all about goodwill and love and vision.”

While Twitty, a devout Jew, is not likely to indulge in all that Eastern North Carolina may heap on a dinner plate, he is eager to experience foods and traditions that with were known to his forebears or are common to his surviving relatives.

“One of my fantasies is to find as receipt book, a sort of recipe collection, from my great-great-great grandfather’s line – maybe a cousin who had a copy of The Virginia House-Wife,” he said, referring to the 1825 guide that became the most influential cookbook of its time. “It would be a sort of Who Do You Think You Are moment, a connection I do not have to any of my black ancestors.”

Twitty has discussed DNA testing with a few family contacts and hopes to broach the subject with others.

“It is a lot to ask, but with their help I hope to peel back the layers to reveal truth,” he said. “For a lot of African Americans, knowing if you came from West or Central Africa, or the Caribbean, is powerful. When they realize that we can help each other by doing this, and that so many supporters have donated money to make it happen, they see how important it is.”

Speaking just hours from the start of his great odyssey, Twitty expressed deep appreciation for his advocates and excitement about how the next few weeks will change his life.

“I have extreme roller coaster emotions,” he said. “There’s one thing in particular that comes to me. One of my grandmother’s brothers died when he was very young. The only thing I know about this young man is that his favorite breakfast was fried baloney, cinnamon toast and orange juice.

“I guarantee you I am the only person who ever thinks about this particular person, but that is part of his immortality,” he said. “By writing down what I learn about my family and our foodways, I hope to preserve it in my own small way.”

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Summer vegetable tart

I have a beautiful rainbow assortment of vegetables this week. Inspired by a photo of a vegetable pudding posted by Bill Smith, who said he used a less-sweet clafouti batter, I decided to give it a shot. There is nothing quite like it in his wonderful Seasoned in the South cookbook, so I consulted with Patricia Wells, who features a Tomato Clafoutis in her At Home in Provence book.

Since I had no cream, I used a little extra low-fat milk. I also used one more whole egg than she suggests because, well, one slipped free when I cracked it with more gusto than intended. While Bill Smith steamed his vegetables first, I kept mine raw. The result was a tender, creamy custard with vegetables that maintained a light crispness and sunny freshness.

Summer Vegetable Tart
1 yellow zucchini
1 green zucchini
1 large tomato
2 purple spring onions
4-5 sprigs thyme
1/2 cup pecorino romano, freshly grated
4 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup low-fat milk
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
several grinds of black pepper
1 ready pie crust

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring pie crust to room temperature and roll lightly to increase circle by about an inch. Transfer to tart pan with removable bottom that has been lightly sprayed with oil. Cover with parchment and pie weights - I use a mix of beans and rice - and bake about 20 minutes.

Remove to rack. After about 5 minutes, remove parchment with pie weights and cool crust.

Using a food processor fitted with a 1/4-inch slicing disk, place tomato in feed tube and slice with light pressure. Transfer slices to a paper towel lined plate; lightly press another sheet of paper towel to surface. Set aside.

Place tart pan atop sheet pan covered with foil. Slice yellow and green zucchini separately. Arrange yellow slices in a concentric overlapping ring atop crust; follow with tomato slices. Strip leaves from thyme sprigs and sprinkle over tomatoes, then top evenly with half the cheese. Next, arrange green zucchini in a ring and top with scattering of onion.

Place four whole eggs and one yolk in a small mixing bowl with milk, salt and pepper. Beat well then pour over vegetables in tart shell. Press vegetables lightly to ensure egg mixture is well distributed. Top with remaining cheese.

Bake about 25-30 minutes or until lightly set. Transfer to rack to cool, lifting base from tart ring after 15 minutes. Serve at room temperature.