Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Deb Perelman's comforting food and advice generates huge success for debut cookbook

Deb Perelman will share her story and sign copies of  The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook  at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, at Quail Ridge Books, and from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 23, at Flyleaf Books with samples of breakfast recipes provided by Foster’s Market.

As the beloved author of the food blog Smitten Kitchen – and the best-selling cookbook of the same name – Deb Perelman serves up comforting advice and encouragement to millions of devoted fans who view her as a sort of patron saint of aspiring home cooks.

“It’s always a little surprising to do a book tour and meet people,” Perelman says during a recent call from her famously tiny New York City kitchen, where she creates and tests her recipes. “It’s like, OK, you are real people, and there are a lot of you.

“It’s totally surreal and fun,” she adds with a modest chuckle. “It’s nothing like I do in my regular life. Nobody applauds when I walk into my living room.”

Perelman is not a manufactured overnight success, but it is notable that the blog she started just 6½ years ago has more than 4 million subscribers and logs more than 7 million page views each month. Her book, released in time for holiday sales last October, competed well against titles by better-known authors. Richly illustrated with her own photos, it quickly sold out of its first printing of 80,000 copies.
It is now in its fifth printing. 

Interest is being punched up this week by Food52's annual Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, where it is scoring an easy decision against another critically acclaimed work, Roots: The Definitive Compendium, by Diane Morgan. Fans are praising Perelman's accessibility and humor, as well as the clear directions and deep flavors of her recipes.

Perelman is beginning to get accustomed to the acclaim, but she never imagined it would happen so fast or on such a grand scale when she first launched her blog.

"I wasn’t sure what I was doing in the beginning other than really enjoying myself," she says. "I knew there was a readership. I knew I had ‘good numbers,’ but it’s hard to conceptualize what it meant to have millions of followers. It’s not an easy thing to make sense of.”

It makes sense to her fans. Perelman’s appeal is rooted in her low-key, you-can-do-it approach to cooking. Each recipe includes a headnote about how it came to be, why it’s great for entertaining or how even a fussy toddler will eat it – like her own 3-year-old Jacob, whose younger, bibbed countenance is seen chowing down with gusto.

Perelman’s pace quickens and her voice fills with excitement when she talks about developing recipes for her blog. “When I figured out that I could make chicken noodle soup in under an hour on a weeknight, I felt like I had to tell people immediately,” she says. “I love things that solve the dinner time drama.”

One of her favorite challenges is to remake time-consuming traditional recipes in ways that can be assembled quickly. “I made something great for dinner about three weeks about that I really want to share but haven’t had time,” she says of an Italian-style deconstructed stuffed cabbage. “It’s killing me to put it off. I’ve made it three times already and it’s really good.”

The stuffed cabbage recipe finally appeared on the Smitten Kitchen blog early this morning. If you're more in the mood for dessert, Perelman offers her take on a dessert classic.

Tres Leches Rice Pudding
Excerpted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman. Copyright © 2012 by Deb Perelman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Yield: serves 8

1 cup (180 grams) long-grain white rice
¾ teaspoon table salt
1 large egg
One 12-ounce can (1½ cups or 355 ml) evaporated milk
One 13.5-ounce can (17/8 cups or 415 ml) unsweetened coconut milk
One 14-ounce can (1¼ cups or 390 grams) sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (240 ml) heavy or whipping cream, chilled
1 tablespoon confectioners’ sugar
Ground cinnamon, to finish

My list of rice pudding loves is long. There’s the Danish risalamande, with chopped almonds, whipped cream, and a sour cherry sauce, usually served at Christmas with a prize inside— one that I never win, not that I’ve been trying for thirteen years at my best friend’s house or anything. There’s kheer, with cardamom, cashews or pistachios, and saffron. There’s rice pudding the way our grandmothers made it, baked for what feels like an eternity, with milk, eggs, and sugar. And there’s arroz con leche, which is kind of like your Kozy Shack went down to Costa Rica for a lazy weekend and came back enviously tan, sultry, and smelling of sandy shores. As you can tell, I really like arroz con leche.

But this—a riff on one of the best variants of arroz con leche I’ve made, which, in its original incarnation on my site, I adapted from Ingrid Hoffmann’s wonderful recipe—is my favorite, for two reasons: First, it knows me. (That’s the funny thing about the recipes I create!) It knows how preposterously bad I am at keeping stuff in stock in my kitchen, like milk, but that I seem always to have an unmoved collection of canned items and grains. Second, it’s so creamy that it’s like a pudding stirred into another pudding.

The rice is cooked first in water. I prefer to start my rice pudding recipes like this, because I’m convinced that cooking the rice first in milk takes twice as long and doesn’t get the pudding half as creamy. Also, it gives me a use for those cartons of white rice left over from the Chinese take- out I only occasionally (cough) succumb to. Then you basically cook another pudding on top of it, with one egg and three milks— coconut, evaporated, and sweetened condensed— and the end result will be the richest and most luxurious rice pudding imaginable. But why stop there? For the times when the word “Enough!” has escaped your vocabulary, I recommend topping it with a dollop of cinnamon- dusted whipped cream, for the icing on the proverbial cake.

Cook the rice:  Put the rice, 2 cups of water, and the salt in a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil—you should hear the pot going all a flutter under the lid and puffing steam out the seam. Reduce to a low simmer, and let the rice cook for 15 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Remove the rice pot from the heat.
Once the rice is cooked, whisk the egg in a medium bowl, and then whisk in the evaporated milk. Stir the coconut and sweetened condensed milks into the rice, then add the egg mixture. Return the saucepan to heat and cook the mixture over medium-low heat until it looks mostly, or about 90 percent, absorbed (the pudding will thicken a lot as it cools), about 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in the vanilla extract, then divide the pudding among serving dishes. Keep the puddings in the fridge until fully chilled, about 1 to 2 hours.

To serve: Whip the heavy cream with the confectioners’ sugar until soft peaks form. Dollop a spoonful of whipped cream on top of each bowl of rice pudding, dust with ground cinnamon, then enjoy.

Cooking note: If you have 2 cups of leftover white rice, you can skip the first step, and jump in with the egg and three milks.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Long journey brings chef back to Winston-Salem for greatest success

Stephanie Tyson and Vivián Joiner of Sweet Potatoes restaurant in Winston-Salem will be the special guests of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13, at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public. Tyson will sign copies of her book, “Well, Shut My Mouth!

Vivián Joiner and Stephanie Tyson at Sweet Potatoes.
There was a time when Stephanie Tyson felt like her hometown of Winston-Salem was too small for her big vision.  The civil rights movement provoked national headlines at a now-famous lunch counter in nearby Greensboro when she was a baby, but change was coming too slowly for a black female entrepreneur with an evolving dream.
“I just had to get out,” Tyson recalls during a recent phone call from Sweet Potatoes, the popular arts district restaurant she opened in 2003 with partner Vivián Joiner. “At the time, I never imagined being here today, having this place with such a great vibe and so many regulars.”
Convinced her destiny was waiting on a stage in New York City, Tyson left home in the late 1970s for theater school and the Great White Way – which at the time was not entirely hospitable to dark-skinned, starry-eyed Southerners. Particularly a full-figured woman with a lisp.

Frustrated after years of playing mostly mammy roles, she decided to start over in Washington, D.C. It was there that she met Joiner, another seeker who had a knack for corporate management. Tyson enrolled in culinary school to learn how to maximize the kitchen secrets she learned from her beloved grandmother and four older sisters. Then, together, they worked in restaurants around the country – Virginia and South Carolina, and later Florida, Arizona and Maryland – mastering diverse cuisines and learning what it takes to own and operate your own business.
“We talked about coming back to Winston-Salem quite a bit, but we also talked about how the timing wasn’t right,” Tyson says. “At some point, I just said I was tired and wanted to come home. My parents were getting older.”

They set about converting a former rooming house in the arts district into what became Sweet Potatoes. Though civic leaders initially discouraged their efforts, they quickly found a grateful audience of satisfied customers. The grand opening provided bittersweet, however, when Tyson’s father died only days before.

“The people of Winston-Salem surprised me,” Tyson says of the instant and enduring support. “It had been so staid. It was like a lot of large cities that went downhill with the malls opening in the suburbs, but they were embracing change. It worked.”
A good location with a hip décor was one thing. Convincing diners to have a night on the town and pay for food their grandma used to fix was another.

“There weren’t a lot of restaurants that did real Southern food at the time,” Tyson says. “You could get Chinese food here, and plenty of Mexican food. In the last few years, Southern has become more legit.”
Tyson’s award-winning cooking and Joiner’s deft management combine to feed both the bellies and souls of loyal customers. The place offered them a fresh start, along with some hard-luck employees who were given the structured support to overcome bad habits. Word of mouth and solid online reviews have made the 55-seat Sweet Potatoes a destination dining spot.

I just can’t believe how fortunate we are that we get to do what we like, where we’re at, and be successful at it,” Tyson says. “I’m very proud of the food we do and the atmosphere. It’s the music, the feel of the restaurant, the diversity of our customer base. It’s reflective of everything we’ve always wanted in a restaurant.
“It’s kind of an extension of our home. Even if it wasn’t my place, I would go there,” she adds with a laugh. “It really does have a good vibe.”

And it remains busy even though Tyson shared recipes for many of the most-requested dishes in her cookbook, Well, Shut My Mouth! (Blair Publishing) in 2011. The title is taken from a message on a folk portrait painted by a customer that hangs in the restaurant.
Playing off the motto, “Life is short; eat dessert first,” the book amusingly addresses desserts in its first chapter. “I’m not much of a baker but I like banana pudding,” Tyson admits of the recipe shared below, which opens the book. “I make the cookies, too, so it takes a little longer, but I enjoy that. I can focus on that and it gives me a moment to settle down and think.”

Not all menu items have Southern roots, but regional influences do season many of the dishes.  “It’s not fusion cuisine, but I can’t ignore the things I learned before I got here,” says Tyson, noting the Gullah and Creole specialties she learned while cooking in Charleston and Joiner’s paternal Geechee roots.
Among the recipes included in the book is V. V.’s Mamma’s Meatloaf with Wild Mushroom Gravy, Credited to Joiner’s mother, it is described as a budget-friendly, crowd-feeding meal. “We sell a lot of meatloaf, which is really great,” Tyson says. “It doesn’t have the cornflakes anymore, but Vivián’s sister says it still tastes good.”

Cost is important to Tyson, who features local products when feasible but makes no pretense of being a locavore.
“I like to keep the meals consistent, and that’s either very expensive or impossible if you only use local ingredients,” she says. “To keep it reasonable, I may get strawberries from California. And I don’t buy local grass-fed beef because nobody who comes here wants to pay $30 for a steak.”

There is one thing that Tyson always sources locally, and that’s their namesake starch.
“North Carolina has the best sweet potatoes in the country,” she says with pride. “The food we serve is prepared well, with a great deal of love. It’s not organic – but it’s from me organically.”

Tyson enjoys sharing her passion about food and is grateful to have such a strong operation that she and Joiner can step away from the restaurant now and then to promote their book or just take a break.
“Every day it’s like mounting a show,” she says, drawing an analogy to her theater days. “We’re always behind the scenes getting things set. And we’re not done until the curtain falls.

“Everyone has to be ‘on’ all the time. It’s a production every day,” she says with a sigh. “Fortunately, we enjoy the production.”

Banana Pudding
This recipe is reprinted by permission of Blair Publishing from “Well, Shut My Mouth” by Stephanie Tyson (© 2011).

In the restaurant, we make these in individual serving cups. My grandmother would make one individual serving in a big ole bowl (which explains my hips)!

Serves 8 to 10
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Approximately 1 pound ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
Vanilla cookies (see recipe below)
Whipped cream

In a medium-sized bowl, beat the eggs and yolks well and add the sugar and flour. Pour in the milk and place over a pan of boiling water; the pan should be just wide enough to hold the bowl without it being submerged in the water. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring constantly, until the pudding starts to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in butter and vanilla extract.
In a 9x13-inch casserole (or your favorite bowl), layer sliced bananas. Top with vanilla cookies. Repeat for an additional two layers, ending with a layer of bananas. Pour the pudding over the bananas and wafers, then top with a final layer of cookies. Chill and top with whipped cream.

Vanilla Cookies
1/3 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 large egg, beaten
¼ cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons almond extract
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

Cream the butter and sugar. Stir in the beaten egg and milk. Stir in the vanilla and almond extracts and the salt. In a separate bowl, sift the flour and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until smooth. Refrigerate for ½ hour.
Roll the dough into small balls (1 teaspoon) and place about 2 inches apart on a greased sheet tray. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until cookies are lightly browned. Remove to a wire rack and allow to cool.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ben and Karen Barker on their pursuits after the Magnolia Grill

This post first appeared in Indy Week on Jan. 23.
Former Magnolia Grill chefs Ben and Karen Barker are accustomed to being recognized by in-the-know foodistas, especially in and around Durham. They have laid low since last May, when they unexpectedly closed the restaurant they had operated for nearly 26 years. But the stares have intensified since A Southern Season in Chapel Hill posted a Feb. 7 cooking class with the Barkers. It has sold out.
Ben and Karen Barker (Photos by D.L. Anderson)
"I got an email from former customers who wanted us to know they were hungry," Ben says with a laugh as he sips coffee and rubs elbows with his wife in the couple's kitchen. "They read about the class and wanted to know if anything was in the works, if maybe we'd open another restaurant. The answer is no. N-O."
The Barkers, who will mark their 31st wedding anniversary on Valentine's Day, have the content appearance many retirees assume after giving up the grind of their old routine. They take satisfaction in simple pleasures like getting lost in the Sunday New York Times and admiring the vast woods that make their home feel like a vacation retreat.
"Ben's become a bird nerd," Karen says, noting he's bought a few guinea hens that wander about and often bring home friends.
"It is pretty magnificent to be 12 minutes from Chapel Hill-Carrboro but to feel like you're in this supremely rural environment," Ben adds. "We've never really taken the time to enjoy it."
Karen smiles as she watches their wily 4-month-old puppy, Willis, who resembles a mini Bo Obama, loudly gnaw on a chewie. "I know it sounds sappy, but it's been all those things we envisioned when we decided to step back," she says. "It's nice to be able to visit with friends until midnight, go out on a Saturday night and see our grandkids more."
Ben says he was deeply affected when a close friend, younger than they are, experienced health issues in the past year. "It was a signal that we should take advantage of time," he says. "Our folks are all living and we're glad to have time to spend with family. We got to have the day before and after Thanksgiving off for the first time in 30 years."
One of their favorite "discoveries" is a leisurely visit to peruse seasonal offerings at the Carrboro Farmers' Market, where previously they made only brisk stops to claim boxes of pre-ordered supplies. "We walk around, talk with friends and bring home one head of cauliflower and a few chili peppers," Karen says. "You know, like normal people."
The Barkers still cook almost daily, but, as they say nearly in unison, they use smaller pots. As with the iconic restaurant sign, which now lounges in their woods, they've mostly set aside the rich, complex meals featured on the Magnolia Grill menu in favor of more vegetables and grains.
"The restaurant business requires consistency, and you have to pay attention to your audience," Ben says. "Now, we're the audience. We cook what we want to eat."
Cooking more simply, and with protein as "an adjunct" and not the focus, has been a deliberate choice for Ben, who is genetically predisposed to diabetes. It also reflects the reality of no longer having the services of a highly trained prep staff.
The bliss of cooking for pleasure has proven to be inspiring. Ben describes a recent dinner of butter beans and chanterelles harvested last summer from their woods with swoon-inducing detail: the earthy depth of the mushrooms and the creamy, toothsome appeal of the beans.
"You can step away, think about the process for several days and then come back to it," he says of his new cooking routine. "Oh, and there's no telephone involved. No delivery check-in. It's really quite wonderful."
After a 32-day road trip last summer that included stops at 19 cities—only two of which they'd ever visited—the Barkers are content to stay close to home and focus on writing and recipe development. Karen has a feature on rolled cakes scheduled for spring publication in Fine Cooking.
They also want to step up their teaching schedule. "Teaching was always one of the best aspects of being in the business," Karen says. "As restaurant people, we've trained a lot of staff. It's enjoyable to teach people who really want to learn."
They expect to see some loyal Magnolia Grill customers at their upcoming class. They remain grateful for the support, which Ben says let them maintain high standards in the final weeks.
"We could have done more tables, squeezed in more people, but we didn't want to kill everybody," he says. "We wanted to get it over with, but we wanted to do it right."
The only way they'd consider returning to the Triangle restaurant scene would be if their son, Gabe, decided to launch a business here. He currently cooks at Per Diem in San Francisco.
"He's got a position of real responsibility and he's learning a lot," Ben says. "We'd help if he wanted us to, but honestly, right now we're more interested in traveling.
"We'd like to spend a whole week at our beach house, which we've never done in the 14 years we've owned it," says Ben, who enjoys seeing Karen stand in the surf and fish. "We did the math one day and figured that, in a 30-year restaurant career that averaged 50-60 hours a week, we both should be about 80 by now. I think it's time to just kick back a little bit."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Life goes on."

Spiced pecans too good to save for holidays

Year after year, one of our most anticipated holiday gifts is a tin of spiced pecans from my college buddy, maid of honor and enduring confidante Tracey Nichols. They arrived early this year, as did Hanukkah. Despite solemn oaths to make them last more than a day, they were gone within an hour.

When finished, the spiced pecans will have
a crispy, bubbled surface.
And, year after year, we talk about why it’s crazy to only snack on these irresistible nibbles at the holidays.  It’s one thing to cling to tradition, but it’s another to deny yourself the sweet satisfaction of a truly simple to prepare treat.

Tracey agrees and gladly shared her recipe for this month’s #LetsLunch posting. Since we are not the only ones to enjoy her cookery – she also sends cookies, but that’s another story – she wants you to know that it can easily be tripled and baked on two sheet pans for maximum sharing. Or hoarding.

Splurge on whole “fancy” pecans, which deliver a more appetizing presentation than cheaper broken pieces. I guesstimated the bulk of my $10 purchase from a store bin that’s frequently replenished. While the recipe calls for 3 cups of nuts, I had closer to 3½ cups. The sugared spiced mix, congealed with the glue of an exceptionally fresh egg white from my neighbor’s farm, was more than ample to coat to the extra handful.  

The spice mix is well balanced but totally tweakable. Though I adore this highly anticipated gift, I have to admit I gulped in horror to realize it contains ground cloves – second only to anise in my Voldemort of Spices list. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have any, so I substituted freshly ground cardamom. The floral aroma that filled my kitchen was intoxicating.  Next time, I might add a dash of cayenne.

Even though I know I can make these any time now, I probably won’t.  The nuts were delicious, but not quite so perfect as receiving them year after year in the same tin, which I faithfully mail back for refills.

Tracey’s Spiced Pecans
1 egg white, beaten slightly
½ tsp. salt
1 tbsp. water
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 cups pecan halves
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ cup sugar
½ tsp. ground nutmeg

In a small bowl, beat together egg white and water.  Stir in the pecans, stirring until all sides of pecans are moistened.  In a small bowl, mix together sugar, salt, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.  Sprinkle over pecans, mixing well. 

Glossy spiced pecans, before baking.
Cover a cookie sheet with foil and coat lightly with vegetable oil spray.  Spread pecans on cookie sheet and bake in a preheated 300 degree oven for 30-35 minutes.  Stir after 15 minutes to redistribute nuts. When finished, the nuts will shake easily on the pan and have a slightly bubbled, dry crust.

Allow to cool then store in a tin or other airtight container. Will last about a week at room temperature, or so they say.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Outer Banks Cookbook shows how to fix fish without fretting

This post first appeared in Indy Week on Jan. 30.

As a farmer's daughter, Elizabeth Wiegand takes special pleasure in the growing support for the farm-to-fork movement. She especially appreciates recognition of the considerable effort it takes for farmers to make it easier for consumers to enjoy fresh, locally grown vegetables and humanely raised meats.

She's doing her bit to turn the tide in one area that has not caught on with comparable fervor: a boat-to-table wave to celebrate seafood harvested from both the fresh and salt waters that lap our state's shores.

"Even if they know it comes from a very reliable source, some people just don't buy fish because they are intimidated by how to cook it," Wiegand says from the spacious kitchen of her North Raleigh home. "They're convinced it will smell or taste 'fishy.' Or they think it's way too difficult to make a restaurant- quality meal at home."

With the new second edition of her Outer Banks Cookbook: Recipes & Traditions from North Carolina's Barrier Islands, Wiegand is on a mission to prove that fresh fish can be as easy to fix as a grilled steak—or as complex as a great coq au vin. She's spreading the gospel on behalf of some of the most creative chefs on the Outer Banks, as well as home cooks who remember how, before good roads and ferries, they made do with what was caught or grown in their community.

Wiegand counts the region's hardworking fisherman among her heroes because they endure long days and difficult environmental and economic challenges to provide their bounty to top restaurants up and down the East Coast. Increasingly, they're also working with partners to hustle their daily catch inland to a growing number of Triangle markets and community-supported fisheries.

"Eighty percent of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is imported. That is sad and outrageous to me," Wiegand says. "With the wonderful resources we have in North Carolina, there's just no reason to eat fish that's not from here. Well, unless you really crave salmon."

As with the first edition of her book, Wiegand spent many weeks on the coast conducting painstaking research—in other words, sampling exceptional food with her longtime friend and guide Della Basnight, to whom the book is dedicated. Wiegand includes the legendary Hatteras Clam Chowder served at the Basnight family's Lone Cedar Cafe in Nags Head. The recipe traces back five generations to matriarch Dolly Midgett, who was born in 1826 on Hatteras Island.

"I'd have to force myself to go back time and again, listen to all their stories and eat all that great food along the Banks," Wiegand jokes, adding that locals never call their home the Outer Banks. "If you really want to break my heart, make me go back tomorrow."

Wiegand's love affair with the Banks began as a newlywed. The couple spent six weeks at the coast thanks to her husband's family, who owned a beach house.

"Steve loves to fish, and I had to learn how to deal with whatever he brought in," Wiegand says. "My rule was that if he caught it, he cleaned it. I love to cook, but I don't clean fish."

An intuitive cook and a writer who excels at sharing the stories of her subjects, Wiegand sought formal training to boost her abilities and appreciation of fine cooking. She studied in France at the acclaimed L'Academie de Cuisine and Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne, the same place where Southern foods connoisseur Virginia Willis honed her skills.

Wiegand spent weeks focusing on classic French cooking techniques before she experienced a textbook light-bulb moment. "The chef taught us how to make crème anglaise," she says of the delicate dessert cream. "I thought to myself, it's just boiled custard. What am I doing here? We have great food in North Carolina."

Wiegand returned home with a new sense of purpose. She attended major food conferences with the goal of writing a cookbook. At one, she was fortunate to meet the legendary Julia Child, who bolstered her dream with advice to "write about what I know and feature the great foods of my own experience."

After receiving several rejections for a book proposal to comprehensively document North Carolina's diverse culinary traditions, Wiegand was accepted by Globe Pequot Press, which produced the first edition of the Outer Banks Cookbook in 2008.

"They told me to start at the coast and, if it was successful, to do the mountains next," says Wiegand, who did just that in 2010 with The New Blue Ridge Cookbook. "It was a very different terroir, but the chefs and cooks really weren't that different in their approaches.

"Back in the day, it was just as hard to get to town and they had to use what they had," she adds. "They all had great stories about how they honor the local resources."

While she enjoyed her exploration, Wiegand says North Carolina's coast serves as a "salve to my soul." She is putting the final touches on The Food Lovers' Guide to the Outer Banks, a new resource scheduled for May release.

Wiegand is toying with the idea of a Piedmont-based cookbook and one on seasonal cooking in the South. But first, she needs a break.

"I really enjoy seeing great chefs make use of local ingredients, but if I'm not working on a project I'm just as happy staying home and eating in," she says. "If you asked my husband, he'd say, 'Why go out?' Especially if you can get a really nice piece of fish, you can make a great dinner at home."

Recipes printed by permission of Elizabeth Wiegand from The Outer Banks Cookbook, Recipes & Traditions from North Carolina's Barrier Islands (Second Edition, Globe Pequot Press, 2013).

Pan-Roasted Fish

Thick and firm-fleshed fish, such as grouper, mahimahi or rockfish, do best with this quick and easy preparation.

Freshly ground pepper
1 (6 ounce) fish fillets, skin removed
1/2 lemon, juiced
Tomato of fresh fruit salsa, prepared pesto of herbed butter (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Salt and pepper the fish. Sprinkle with lemon juice. If using a salsa, pesto or herbed butter, spread a thin coating on each fillet.
In an ovenproof large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Place the fish in the oil, skinned-side up, sear for 2 minutes; turn the fish over, and sear another minute. Transfer the pan to the oven.
Roast fish for 6-10 minutes, depending in the thickness and desired doneness. (Check with a fork to see if the fish flakes or is no longer pink.) Remove fish to plates and top with salsa, pesto or herbed butter, if desired. Serve immediately.

Margarita Grilled Shrimp

A happy hour on skewers, these shrimp as delicious served as an entree over a bed of greens and chopped red tomatoes or simply pulled from the skewers as an appetizer. You'll need about a dozen short (8-inch) skewers or six to eight long (12-inch) ones.

Yields 4-6 servings (or about 25 appetizers with shrimp alone)

2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined

FOR THE MARINADE1/4 cup tequila
2 tablespoons lime juice
Zest of 1 lime
1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 small jalapeño pepper, minced
2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. canola oil

FOR THE VEGETABLES6-8 cups mixed lettuce
2 tomatoes, chopped
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. tequila
1 Tbsp. lime juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place marinade ingredients in a bowl or resealable plastic bag. Add shrimp and stir or shake to coat. Refrigerate about 30 minutes.
Preheat grill or broiler. If using wooden skewers, soak in water until needed. Thread shrimp of skewers, not packing them too tightly together so they will cook evenly.
Place shrimp on grill (or under broiler) and cook for a total of 5-6 minutes or until pink and firm, turning at least once. Remove from heat.
Prepare a bed of greens and tomatoes on each plate. Whisk together the olive oil, tequila and lime juice, then season. Pour over greens and tomatoes. Divide shrimp skewers evenly and plate them across the plates. Serve immediately.

This article appeared in print with the headline "From the boat to your table."

At PDQ Fresh Tenders, the chicken has never seen a freezer or microwave

This post first appeared in Indy Week on Feb. 6.

Folks who favor fast-food chicken may not realize just how foul their fowl really is. Chopped into unrecognizable bits and processed with sundry unpronounceable additives, these peculiar morsels often are frozen in great blocks for carefree transport around the globe.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
Problem is, according to watchdogs, that consumable called "chicken" may contain only about 50 percent real bird. And it may have been thawed and refrozen into even weirder blobs before cooking, or otherwise mishandled in settings less pristine than your junior high science lab.

Not so at PDQ Fresh Tenders, the North Carolina-based casual dining chain that proudly declares itself a freezer- and microwave-free zone. A play on the phrase "pretty darn quick," the name officially stands for People Dedicated to Quality.

Beasley's Chicken + Honey certainly has nothing to fear from this competition, but PDQ's fried chicken tenders earn their signature status on the menu of the new North Raleigh branch. A bite into the lightly battered portions reveals whole breast meat that remains moist under the crisp, well-seasoned coating. Most diners order them with Cajun-spiced French fries that only hours before were whole potatoes.

Grilled tenders are an option for calorie counters, but they're not as tasty. Those who don't dig the carb-heavy options can graze on lighter salads and sides, such as coleslaw dressed with fresh blueberries and pineapple juice-marinated Granny Smith apple slices served with a portion-appropriate scoop of Heath toffee dip.

PDQ wants customers to know that it relies on whole and fresh ingredients, most of which are methodically rotated through its large walk-in chiller. Lean breast portions are kept in prominently date-stamped cartons alongside Butterball turkey breast slices sourced from Garner and Mt. Olive. Items produced in-house, like an array of sauces and salad dressings, bear both the production date and the name of the employee responsible for each batch.

The accent on accountability is bolstered by order-takers who enthusiastically explain the company's mission to first-timers. To ensure quality, workers discard cooked chicken and fries that have gone unclaimed for 10 minutes and cater to customer requests based on available ingredients: Hold the lettuce, add the house-made candied almonds. There are no breakfast specials or vegetarian options other than chicken-free salads.

Meals also are served through a take-out window, where friendly staff wish you a nice day. Transport takes a modest toll. The fries and crispy chicken steam a bit in go-boxes, and croutons in the grilled chicken salad have a tendency to go a little soft.

The Caesar salad was the one meal that proved disappointing. A big bowl of freshly chopped romaine lettuce came with a generous portion of grilled chicken and grated parmesan—and a small cup of sharp dressing that would have made Caesar's wife gasp. It's surely better with a different sauce (the honey mustard and bleu cheese both were good for dunking fried tenders), but neither the house-made lemonade nor PDQ's creamy shakes erased the bitter aftertaste.

Soft-serve Hood brand ice cream might seem to violate the no-freezer rule, but batches are produced daily and the results are appealing. Prefer something bubbly? PDQ's dining room features a Coca-Cola Freestyle soda station, a high-tech gizmo that not only turns the average soft drink aficionado into a mix master with 100-plus flavor combinations, but also automatically reports and orders syrup refills that look like printer cartridges. Made a mess? Clean up at the community hand-wash station stocked with Yardley's English Lavender soap.

While pricier than McDonald's or Taco Bell, a PDQ meal is no more expensive than one served at Panera or Chipotle, its obvious competition in the fast-casual market. If you like a little community commitment with your meal, know that PDQ regularly hosts fundraisers that benefit local causes. You just might find a high school principal or other local do-gooder helping out in exchange for a generous 10 percent of sales.

In addition to the North Raleigh store, which launched in December, PDQ will soon open eateries in Wake Forest, Cary and Durham.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Try a little tenderness."