Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Kitchen toys for holiday giving

This post first appeared in the Independent Weekly on Dec. 19, 2012.
Photo (c) Jeremy M.  Lange, Independent Weekly
For the dedicated cook, a partridge in a pear tree doesn't compare to a fine paring knife as the ideal holiday gift. And those three French hens would benefit from basting with a melted block of rich European butter while roasting to a golden glow in your new convection oven.
We checked with area chefs, cookbook writers and specialty food purveyors to see what they would most like to give or receive as a holiday gift. There's still plenty of time to find it or to exchange something lame for something fab. Consider their tips when shopping for your favorite foodie.
Tempted by that novelty whisk with a pink pig handle? People who love to work in kitchens do not necessarily love kitschy kitchen toys, says Jay Pierce, the outspoken chef at Cary's Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen and a contributor to Eatocracy, a CNN food blog.
"I'm pretty picky when it comes to ingredients or gadgets, so I'm not liable to get excited about something that was on closeout at Big Lots or T.J. Maxx," says Pierce, who confesses a passion for Luxardo cherries and chocolate-covered pecans. "I do love antique canning jars, mostly the Italian style with the hinged lid. They're great in small sizes for storing dried ingredients like hibiscus and chiles."
Other food lovers echoed Pierce's sentiments, saying they hope Santa loads his sleigh with simple but distinctive treats this year.
"In the interest of finding a more simple life, I am a huge fan of consumable gifts—especially cheese," says Portia McKnight of Chapel Hill Creamery, which this year earned multiple awards for its Asiago-inspired Calvander cheese. "We love to receive cheese and nuts. Pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, walnuts ... they're all on my Top 10 list."
April Schlanger, co-owner of Cary's eco-friendly Sip ... A Wine Store, would be delighted to receive wine as a holiday gift. She's especially keen on Love Lies Bleeding, a pinot noir by the bio-dynamic producer Dominio IV, and Cuvee du Chat by Beaujolais Villages. "They're sexy and fun and both smell just great," she says. They'd taste especially fine, she adds, served in stemless Riedel Swirl wine glasses. "They never tip over so you can't spill your wine. I'm going to give these to people because they are a really fun conversation piece."
Jonathan Bonchak of Durham's Counter Culture Coffee, who was just named 2013 Southeast Regional Brewer's Cup Champion, hopes for some small-batch bourbon in his Christmas stocking. But when it comes to giving, he prefers presents that are fun but ultimately practical. "I'd give everyone a single-origin coffee subscription, a hand grinder and a pour-over cone so they'll always have really great coffee," he says.
Much like checking a smoke alarm when the time changes, Paul Mosca uses the holidays as a reminder to freshen his spice drawer. "It's a great time to restock the basics and add a few really special items," says Mosca, founder of Raleigh's Elemental Chocolate. "One of my favorites is theMilwaukee Avenue Steak Seasoning by the Spice House. I love it sprinkled over fresh popped popcorn."
Amanda Miller, co-founder of the Chapel Hill-based wholesale operation Dock to Door Seafood, which supplies several top Triangle restaurants, has a somewhat grander plan. If Santa really wanted to surprise her with a dream gift, she muses, he'd send her to England to take classes at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's famed River Cottage cookery school.
"I'd love to take the Catch and Cook class this June," Miller says. "However, the River Cottage Fish Book is a much better fit for our family budget, and it's a gift that I would be thrilled to receive."
Joe Philipose, co-founder of Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours, travels frequently to research and experience creative food trends. He suggests focusing on a hobby or shared interest.
"Enjoying cocktails out can be an expensive habit, but my girlfriend got me everything I need to stock a home bar," he says, noting a favorite item is a set of silicone molds for making large, spherical ice cubes that are slow to melt. "It's been great fun for us both. After all, if I'm going to make one cocktail, I might as well make two so we can enjoy them together."
For Phoebe Lawless, chef-owner of the acclaimed Scratch bakery in Durham, the answer to what she most likes and dreads to receive is the same: cookbooks. "I love getting the ones I want, but the unsolicited titles always languish on my shelves for years because I feel guilty for getting rid of them," says Lawless, who has been spending a little less time in the kitchen since the arrival of her second child, Warren, last month.
That said, she does have a favorite cookbook to give as a gift: The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. "It's full of solid basic recipes that are a great start for the beginning baker," Lawless says, adding it's a good guide for mastery of basic baking techniques.
Don't try slipping any cookbooks under the tree at the Raleigh home of Debbie Moose. "It's been very hard to convince my family that cookbooks are not appropriate gifts," says Moose, author of Buttermilk (UNC Press), which was featured in a recent holiday cookbook list by The New York Times. "I hate to sound ungrateful, but really, enough. I'd rather have a really good bottle of champagne."
Gift giving at the holidays remains a somewhat foreign concept to Vansana Nolintha, who co-owns the uber-hip Bida Manda restaurant at Raleigh's Moore Square with his younger sister, Vanvisa. "Giving objects as presents is quite uncommon in our tradition," says Nolintha, a Buddhist who grew up in Laos. "Our parents liked to give us experiences in meals."
When he does give gifts, he takes special pleasure in sharing the flavors of his homeland. "I think a lot of people are really timid with spices, but this encourages them to play," says Nolintha, who likes to give lemongrass plants. "For me, food should always be associated with joy."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kiss and tell

This post was first published by the Independent Weekly on Nov. 28.

Nama Kiss Fudge (Photo by D.L. Anderson)

Ah, fudge. It's so decadent and seductive. Who can resist a meltingly creamy bite of magically transformed chocolate, with its rich whole milk (or canned condensed), slabs of butter, scoops of sugar and globs of corn syrup?
Well, what did you think was in it? The average 1-inch square of fudge packs nearly 150 empty calories, and that's not counting the nuts, marshmallows or other add-ins that make you drool outside the fudge shop window. Yes, we saw you.
For many of us, especially during this season, the splurge is worth it because, darn it, you're worth it. As you reach for another piece, and another, your mind pleasantly drifts to Yule logs and mistletoe. But soon enough, the feeling of warm nostalgia turns to one of sugary regret. Why does this happen every year? Why can't someone make healthy fudge?
"Fudge does not have to be bad for you," says Andi Wolfgang, a calm and culinarily centered soul who produces raw, vegan, organic fudge at Raleigh's Nama Kiss. The tempting nibbles weigh in at about 87 calories apiece and are soy- and gluten-free.
"Personally, I don't like traditional fudge. It's so sweet, I feel like I'm eating a bowl of sugar," Wolfgang says as she preps a batch of her "superfood" fudge, whose primary ingredient is dried reishi mushroom powder.
Reishi figures prominently in traditional Asian medicine, and increasingly its curative value is being acknowledged stateside as well. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's website notes that it is used as an immune stimulant by patients with HIV and cancer. It also may improve lower urinary tract symptoms in men and have mild anti-diabetic effects.
"Sometimes, when I tell people there is reishi in there, they wrinkle their nose. They are convinced they won't like it," Wolfgang says. "But I've never had anyone tell me they didn't like it because it had mushrooms."
A completely unscientific poll based on a scant nibble of reishi fudge tasted by a pair of male carnivores led to comments like "creamy but mushroomy," while two mostly vegetarian females found an entire square to be "mind-blowingly scrumptious." Nama Kiss claims its product contains natural aphrodisiacs and beneficial life-force energy, so perhaps you need the full dose to truly feel the love.
Wolfgang, who is more of a pescetarian these days, first embraced a raw vegan diet when she was living in Tokyo and studying Japanese. Her sister Angi joined her there, and their cooking became so popular that they starting teaching classes. An impressed client invested in a restaurant to feature their foods.
The sisters next experimented with making sweets, and another investor sniffed a marketing success. "That's how Nama Kiss started," says Wolfgang, noting the Tokyo branch now operates independently.
Angi married a Japanese man and continues to make her home in Tokyo. When Andi returned to the U.S., she followed her parents from Pennsylvania to Raleigh, where they bought a home. Their father, Larry Wolfgang, is amused that his girls have made international headlines for selling raw vegan fudge.
"Hey, I've even done the vegan cleanse," he says proudly. "I thought it was kind of crazy at first, but I've got to admit: I feel better. Eating healthy foods really makes a difference in your life."
That's the reaction Wolfgang wants to inspire in people who figured there'd never again be a place for fudge in their careful diet.
"Much like the boost you get from exercise, the raw ingredients and natural tryptophan gives you a high that doesn't crash," she explains as she pours a glossy stream of velvety fudge from a blender into a pan to set. "We probably tested at least 2,000 variations before we finally settled on this."
Nama Kiss currently offers reishi and dark-chocolate sea-salt fudge but also makes other varieties to order. Prices range from $7.50 for 1/8-pound (four pieces) to $28.50 for a half-pound. The price reflects the high cost of quality ingredients and the fact that every batch is hand crafted.
Because its only "stabilizer" is pure cocoa butter, Nama Kiss fudge is sold chilled but is best enjoyed at room temperature. It will hold a few days on the counter and at least three weeks in the refrigerator.
Except for hot summer months, it's safe for shipping to family and friends who seek treats that meet their dietary preferences. In fact, Nama Kiss is offering a 30 percent discount through the holidays to those who email their orders to