Friday, October 19, 2012

Chef Kevin Gillespie dares home cooks to have fun in the kitchen

Kevin Gillespie is a serious chef with a lighthearted mission. He wants home cooks to loosen up and experience the pleasures of cooking.

“So many people get caught up in the idea that cooking every day is hard work, or that going to farmer’s markets is too much effort,” said the burly tattooed chef, who made a name for himself a few seasons ago on Top Chef. “As with life in general, the whole point of cooking is to have fun.”

Gillespie succeeds in his goal to empower home cooks with eminently do-able recipes and approachable technique advice in Fire in My Belly: Real Cooking (Andrews McNeel), his first book, which was released just this week. He will appear at Southern Season in Chapel Hill for a book signing at 3pm Saturday, with a sold-out class to follow at 5pm.

While his TV fame and award-winning Woodfire Grill restaurant in Atlanta gave him the credibility to produce what he disparagingly calls a “chef-y chef” book, Gillespie returned to his roots for the home-style cooking that first inspired him.

As he describes in the opening pages, Gillespie grew up surrounded by cousins on a former dirt road called Sunshine Circle in Locust Grove, Ga. Though he spent countless hours planning his escape from ever-present family and the routine of meals lovingly cooked by his Granny, he now counts those formative years as the foundation of his food ethics and outreach.

“Now, as an adult, I realize how special that opportunity was,” he said. “It’s taught me so much about who I am and what food and family mean to me.”

One of Gillespie’s goals is to get folks to take at fresh look at familiar foods by using them in ways that may seem contrary to logic. For example, the Indian-spiced Not Your Everyday Butternut Squash Soup featured on his website makes use of the tough skin that usually is peeled and discarded. One commenter admitted trepidation: “Will it bite me back or does it soften up enough so that I won’t be applying bandaids to the roof of my mouth?”

I’m hopefully giving a teaching moment there,” Gillespie said. “I’m trying to tell people, hey this is going to produce really amazing results. I want people to trust that I wrote this book, all these recipes, with them in mind. My objective is to build confidence in the kitchen.”

Gillespie accomplishes this through 120 recipes, more than 350 vivid photos and series of essays that eloquently define his culinary point of view. The handsomely produced book – which miraculously lays flat no matter what page it’s opened to – also includes a useful Seasonal Recipe Index to steer users toward making the best use of peak produce and proteins. “The ideal of eating seasonally,” he writes, “is 100 percent dependent on eating local food.”

In keeping with is food-is-fun mantra, Gillespie also includes stories about certain recipes that seems to reinforce Woody Allen’s quip that “80 percent of success is just showing up.” A humorous example is his Overnight Grits with Tomato-Braised Greens, which Gillespie described as the fortunate result of what at the time seemed like a major blunder.

“It’s a wonderful dish and preparation that was a complete accident,” he said with a laugh. “But it turned out pretty cool so we went with it.”

Gillespie writes that his team was preparing grits for a thousand diners with tickets to attend a Slow Food event. The grits were inadvertently left in a hotbox overnight and turned a curious milky brown color, like iced coffee. Daring a taste, he discovered them perfectly caramelized and “100 times creamier than our normal grits. … People went apeshit for them.”

“I’ve served that dish to many a Southerner and many people outside of the South, and everybody loves it,” he said. “It’s proof of good things that happen in the kitchen sometimes when you least expect it, and it can happen for home cooks, too.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

TerraVITA event offers CHOP NC discount

In three years, the TerraVITA Food & Wine Event has grown from a modest one-day celebration of sustainable food practices to a three-day event that features top chefs and growers, cookbook writers and tastings that raise funds for like-minded local organizations.

Colleen Minton
Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) was among the recipients of a grant last year, and TerraVITA organizer Colleen Minton has extended a special offer to members for discounted tickets. Some events are close to selling out, so be sure to order yours right away.

Discounted tickets are available for two events:
  • An all-inclusive ticket (beer & wine pairings included) for The Carolina Table: East Meets West dinner on Nov. 2 for $68 (full price, $78)
  • An all-inclusive pass for the Grand Tasting on Nov. 3 for $55 (full price, $65)
To get the discount, visit TerraVITA's tickets link at Look for the you will see a blue link below the published price that reads "Enter a Password or Discount Code." The CHOP NC passcode is: CHOP12NC

For more information about TerraVITA, read Andrea Weigl's story in the News & Observer.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Finding a sense of place in a forgotten cuisine

John Martin Taylor will be the guest speaker for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) at 7pm Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. He also will be singing copies of the 20th anniversary edition of his book, Hoppin’ John’s Lowcounty Cookbook: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston & the Carolina Coastal Plain (UNC Press) from 12-2pm Tuesday at Southern Season in Chapel Hill.

Much has been made of the rise in popularity of Southern cooking in recent years. There is endless speculation about the best way to make fried chicken and pimento cheese. And let us not, especially on a Sunday, debate whether sugar bowl is permitted to dance with the cornbread, or what constitutes real barbecue.
The commercial homogenization of modern Southern fare may lead some to believe that butter-laden sweets and bacon-wrapped, deep-fried everything formed the primary sustenance of our forebears, no matter when or in what part of the South they called home. In fact, many who lived below the Mason Dixon – and particularly those who survived the lean years after the Civil War – counted themselves lucky to have a plate of beans and rice for dinner.

The contrast between pre-war plenty and the deprivation that followed – including due tribute to the culinary contributions of freed slaves – is eloquently defined in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcounty Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston & the Carolina Coastal Plain. Released to critical acclaim 20 years ago, the out-of-print classic has been reissued by UNC Press with a new introduction by author John Martin Taylor.
“It was important to me for the book to be published by an accomplished university press,” said Taylor during a recent call from his home in Bulgaria, where his husband is the country’s director for the Peace Corps. “It has a great home now and will help to preserve the food traditions of the Lowcountry.”

While Charleston is now a celebrated restaurant Mecca, Taylor said Lowcountry Cooking was written long before its status as a foodie’s dream destination. His research began unexpectedly in 1984 when he noticed a hand-sewn plantation cookbook from 1919 in a trash heap on a Newport, R.I., sidewalk. The discovery pretty much blew his mind.
“I grew up there but I didn’t even recognize this food,” Taylor said, recalling his astonishment. “When I was first writing about Charleston’s food history in the late 1980s, it was pretty much falling on deaf ears.  When I moved back to South Carolina in 1986, you couldn’t find stone-ground grits anywhere. With the exception of hunters, fisherman and farmers, people pretty much lost touch with the land.”

Lowcountry Cooking speaks to the essential question of what is local food and how it defines the lives of those who consume it. His engaging writing recalls the vivid sense of place established by Diana Kennedy and Paula Wolfert. In the manner of a rapturous nonfiction novel, you feel the pride of Mary Clare for her caramel cake as deeply as the humility of former slaves who made belly-filling, soul satisfying meals from the bounty of the land and scraps discarded by wealthy landowners.

“People were insanely wealthy,” Taylor said. “They were shipping 60 million pounds of rice every year and never dreamed it would end. They were not prepared for what hit them.”

In a sense, the cookbook addresses Reconstruction through the lens of rebuilding the ravaged foodways of the South. Food became a social equalizer, with rich and poor eating the same basic items that remained after the combined impacts of war and a hurricane that swept choking salt water into once thriving rice and cotton fields. Indeed, Taylor’s moniker of Hoppin’ John comes from the hearty rice and cow pea dish that became a favorite of both master and slave.

The book also draws clear distinctions between the traditions of Charleston and the humid, subtropical Lowcountry to other Southern cuisines.
“You won’t find any barbecue, the way you do in the Piedmont,” Taylor said. “Because of the climate, things grow there that do not grow elsewhere in the Carolinas. And because of the port, Charleston always had access to things like great olive oil and sherry and pineapples from Cuba.”

Taylor writes that his goal was to “present the sumptuous fare of antebellum Charleston for the modern cook” – a task that included denuding “authentic” recipes offered to him of such modern ingredients as canned soup and margarine.
While the book has been hailed as definitive – the New York Times raved that it “should be on the National Registry of Great American Food” – Taylor demurs that “this is not ‘Mastering the Art of Lowcountry Cooking.’

“It’s my version of the cooking of the time based on the records that remain,” he said. “The food reflected a great fusion of international flavors – especially those of Africa.”
Ports in the Lowcountry are believed to have been the entry point for between 40-60 percent of all Africans in the North American slave trade. In a more hospitable vein, it also was the landing point for immigrants of many faiths, who likewise contributed their diverse food traditions to what remained one of America’s 10 largest cities though 1840.

Before the Civil War, immense tables in Charleston’s fashionable plantation homes groaned with a gracious plenty raised and cooked by slave labor. Rich landowners regularly held grand soirees to ensure their position in society. This sort of conspicuous consumption is evident in menus that survived from the era – vast food orgies that featured not only the Lowcountry’s abundant natural resources but also imported delicacies that regularly flowed through the city’s bustling port.
Post-war poverty brought down the aristocracy, but such advances as the railroad and refrigeration – chilled butter! ice cream! – introduced new prosperity. Later, air conditioning and the highway system beckoned travelers, and corporate money helped to rebuild Charleston as a tourist destination with a renowned reputation for the arts and fine dining.

While Lowcountry Cooking contains about 250 recipes, Taylor said there is one simple dish that truly provides a taste of antebellum Charleston.
“The whole cuisine at once would have to be Chicken Country Captain, but it takes two days to make it right,” he said with a laugh. “But the composed rice dishes, the pilaus, really give you a sense of what defined Lowcountry cooking.”

Carolina Pilau
Published with permission of John Martin Taylor from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston & the Carolina Coastal Plain (© UNC Press, 2012).
Dishes like this one appear in various cultures as pilaf, jambalaya, and just plain chicken and rice. In Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry, they started as pilau, but they’re often spelled perloo (though I’ve seen purloo, perlo and perlau as well). The word is pronounced “PER-lo,” “per-lo,” and “pee-LO,” but that o is a distinctive Charleston sound – and make--people not from here think we are saying “oo.” Some people say, “oo, la, la”; others say “oh, la, la.”

Serves 8
1 3½-to-4-pound chicken
2 quarts water
¼ pound (I stick) unsalted butter
1 large onion, chopped (about 1½ cups)
2 cups chopped celery
2 or 3 large tomatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried
½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups long-grain white rice

Cover the chicken with the water and boil in a large pot, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Remove the chicken from the broth and reserve the broth. Skin the chicken and remove the bones, pulling the meat from the bones. Cut the meat into uniformly sized pieces. Set aside.
Melt the butter in a Dutch oven on the top of the stove, then add the onions and the celery and cook over medium heat until the onions start to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice and the seasonings, adding a little more salt than you might think is necessary. Add the chicken meat, the rice, and 1 quart of the reserved broth. Cover, bring to a simmer, and cook slowly, without lifting the lid, for 30 minutes. Serve with a green salad and corn bread.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Parlez-vous okra?

Folks in the South have long considered okra a classic comfort food, but serious culinary research suggests it might have additional benefits.

In a recent Facebook posting, Atlanta-based cookbook writer Virigina Willis asked famed food historian Jessica B Harris about the capped pods and their infamously sticky yield. The long, seemingly rapturous reply was written entirely in French, but most anyone could detect its alluring tone.

"Her research suggests that, well, it increased stamina for both men and women," Willis said with an earthy chuckle. "It's an equal opportunity vegetable, which is not very common. The insinuation is that is helps the sex drive."

C' est fantastique. For that special date dinner, forget about the oysters. Fix some okra.

Virginia Willis
Willis will have plenty of advice on ways to enjoy fuzzy abelmoschus esculentus when she finishes Okra, a future volume in the Savor the South series produced by UNC Press. The new imprint launched last month with Buttermilk by Raleigh food writer Debbie Moose and Pecans by Charlotte Observer Food Editor Kathleen Purvis.

Okra's potential as an aphrodisiac probably has little to do with its increasingly popularity, even in the north, where those unaware of its charms tend to dismiss is as slimey. "I heard someone call okra the 'new asparagus,' but honestly, I like okra better," Willis said. "When it's super fresh, I even like it raw, cut into slivers for a salad."

Atlanta-based Willis, who summers in New England, said it was much easier to find okra at farmer's market this year than in the past. "We grew our own to be sure, but there was tons of it at the markets," she said. "But you can tell that the farmer's don't seem to know quite white to do with it. They let it get way too large."

Large pods lack the tenderness of smaller ones, which Willis likes best grilled or broiled. While most plants are no long producing as abundantly as they did in summer, okra should remain available at area farmer's markets until the first frost.

Okra Cornmeal Cakes from Basic to Brilliant Y'All
That gives Willis more time to test recipes for the book, which will include about 50 variations on the theme. Though she's previously featured several okra recipes popular cookbooks - see Okra Cornmeal Cakes from Basic to Brilliant, Y'All: Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company  - Willis has become fascinated by the ways it figures into so many different enthnic cuisines.

"It appears clear that anywhere there is okra, there have been Africans," she said. "My research indicates it was first grown in West Africa, but the Department of Agriculture for India says it come from there."

Not surprisingly, Southern cooks also have embraced okra as a native plant. It's as essential to New Orleans chef John Besh's slow-simmered gumbo as it is to the must-have fried side at Mama Dip's in Chapel Hill.

While Okra is not scheduled for release until Spring 2014, Willis is excited about being included in the Savor the South collection.

"UNC Press really is doing great work. I’m thrilled to be part of it," she said in advance of launching the new Salud! Cooking School at Whole Foods-Charlotte with a tantalizing fall menu. "I’m a bit of a history geek so connecting food history and recipes is right up my alley."

For information about upcoming events, or additional recipes, visit