Sunday, March 24, 2013

Modern-day Isrealites: Go forth and eat Matzolah

When Moses bid the Isrealites to make bread in haste for their escape from bondage, he could not have imagined the burden he cast upon future bakers and homemakers. On the eve on Passover, we once again struggle with the unwritten fifth question: What can I make without leavened wheat that anyone in their right mind will want to eat?

Many have stepped up to the challenge, and many have failed. But lo, this year, the wise judges at the 2012 Kosherfest competition crowned Maple Nut Matzolah as the Best New Kosher for Passover Product. It is marketed by Atlanta-based Foodman LLC, which humorously dubs the “miraculously nutritious” product “The Trail Mix of the Exodus.The New York Times similarly classified it as “observant.”

While new to the marketplace, Matzolah earns epic street cred through its association with Streit’s, the oldest kosher company still making matzo in its original New York factory. Lightly sweet and addictively crunchy, Matzolah’s ingredients also include Vermont maple syrup, California raisins, almonds, walnuts, pecans and coconut.

While currently kosher for Passover, Maztolah will be available year-round. It is an appealling nosh by the handful and a welcome topping for ice cream. Add some berries and yogurt for a well-balanced, high-fiber breakfast.

Matzolah comes packaged in the familiar cardboard tins that typically convey other Pesach-approved products, such as macaroons, to grocery store shelves. It is available in North Raleigh for $3.99 per 10-ounce package at Harris Teeter; Whole Foods offers a proprietary blend that uses whole wheat matzo for $5.39.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Charleston loquat grows in Raleigh – and may yield Lee Bros. liqueur

About a dozen years ago, we enjoyed our first road trip to Charleston. We’ve never forgotten the city’s many charms and likely never will, since we carried home a tiny memento that now looms large.

“Ah, loquats,” sighed Ted Lee during a recent call to promote The Lee Bros. Charleston Cookbook (Clarkson Potter) when told the tale of our seed-turned-tree. “What a great souvenir. We may be on tour during loquat season, but fortunately I’ve got someone who will collect them for me.”

While Lee’s fruit is harvested from a massive, Confederate-era tree that yields mountains of the small soft-skinned citrus, our loquat started from purloined seeds of fruit picked on the sly. It has taken deep root in Raleigh soil, but it may still pine for home as it’s been stingy about producing fruit since we dragged it past the state line.

Much as we enjoyed the Holy City's sights and experiences - with its battlegrounds and ghost tours, Charleston was our 10-year-old son’s dream getaway – the hotel pool became our favorite place to escape the afternoon heat. Graham discovered he could slip his hand through the fence and pluck handfuls of unfamiliar ripe fruit from a nearby tree.
“Eat this,” he said, offering me a handful of small yellow-orange orbs unlike anything I’d eaten before. I ate one tentatively, then popped several more. “They might be poisonous,” he suggested as I paused briefly mid-chew to consider the idea. “No, I don’t think so,” I said. “But they certainly have a lot of seeds.”

It was, of course, the loquat, a curious citrus that is common to the region and adored by locals for their sweet-tangy taste. Graham was not as fascinated by the fruit as its seeds, which he collected in a plastic bag. He announced that, like great explorers before us, we would take them home and plant an orchard.

Tim dutifully planted a few seeds in a pot, and we were amused when they sprouted. It grew tall and hearty, demanding a new pot every few years and eventually became too huge and heavy to drag indoors each winter.

A few years ago, it finally found a permanent home in a sunny spot where our house meets the driveway. It was maybe three feet tall then; it now nudges the roofline.

Two springs ago we enjoyed our first harvest. We ate them with a homesteader’s enthusiasm, cooking with some but neglecting to save any for canning or other more long-lasting purposes. The following spring, not a single fruit appeared.

Photo of Ted Lee's personal stash of  Loquat Liqueur,
from his Brooklyn kitchen.
A mild winter cruelly encouraged it to bloom early this year, and a subsequent cold snap turned the fragrant ivory blooms brown. We remain hopeful, however, as it appears to be full of buds. If they grace us with their bounty, we will make loquat liqueur from Charleston Kitchen.

Ted Lee says the simple-to-make infusion can be enjoyed in as little as two to three weeks, but it’s best if tucked out of sight to let the fruit slowly surrender its essence.

“Matt and I are really different in a lot of ways,” he says. “He can wait that long. I’m like, look, it’s got a bit of tint and I’ve got some flavor and I’m going to start drinking it.”

Given his exuberance, Lee admits it’s rather odd that he has two Mason jars still packed with loquats and liquor. He promptly emailed this photo as proof.

“It’s important for people to not be put off when the loquats oxidize and turn brown,” he says. “The infusion is tinted yellow and the flavor is like cherry almonds. It mimics that sort of maraschino cherry taste when you add it to Manhattans,” as they suggest in the book. “It’s got a round cherry taste, kind of like a Luxardo.”
Loquat Liqueur
Reprinted by permission of Ted Lee from The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, @2013 by Clarkson Potter.

Makes: About 3 cups liqueur
Time: 3 minutes to prepare, two weeks steeping
4 cups loquats, washed (about 1¼ pounds)
2-3 cups vodka, preferably Ciroc

Put the loquats in a quart-size Mason jar. Top the jar with the vodka and let stand for two weeks before using (many Charlestonians prefer to wait 1 year). The vodka will keep for a few years at room temperature.
Loquat Manhattan

2 ounces (1/4 cup) rye whiskey or bourbon
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) Loquat Liqueur
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Ice cubes
1- to 2-inch strip of orange peel (for garnish)

Pour the rye and the loquat liqueur into a bar mixing glass or pint glass, and shake the bitters on top. Fill the glass with ice. With a bar spoon, stir the cocktail for 15 to 20 seconds using a swift circular motion to avoid introducing bubbles into the liquor. Strain the cocktail into a champagne coupe. (If you prefer to serve it over ice, put 1 or 2 small ice cubes into a rock glass and pour the cocktail into the glass.) Pinch the orange peel over the cocktail to release its oils onto the surface, brush the rim of the glass with the peel, and drop it in.

Lee Bros. and Lucky 32 celebrate Charleston cuisine Thursday in Greensboro

Ted and Matt Lee will participate in a sold-out celebration of their new book, “The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen,” at 6:30 p.m. March 28 with a six-course dinner prepared by Chef Jay Pierce at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in Greensboro. .

The prevailing image of Charleston life is one of gracious leisure: hearty breakfasts of stone-ground grits and light suppers of something freshly drawn from the sea, followed by evenings on the veranda sipping iced tea – or perhaps something a tad stronger, if one needs a restorative to combat the heat.
Growing up in a 1784 townhouse on the famed Rainbow Row, Ted and Matt Lee have enjoyed their share of such blissful days, but not recently. The brothers are just about everywhere else in the near South and beyond to promote their new book, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (Clarkson Potter). They’ve already made several stops in the Triangle but will pause Thursday in Greensboro for a celebration of their new recipes with Chef Jay Pierce at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen.

“We’ve known Jay for years,” says Ted Lee , the younger, glasses-wearing sibling during a recent call from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “He really cares about quality food made from the best local ingredients.”
The Lees’ association with Lucky 32 dates back to 2001, before Pierce was hired. That year the Southern Foodways Alliance launched its first “field trip,” which was held in Greensboro at the O. Henry Hotel. “We were there with our boiled peanuts,” Lee says. “We met so many people who were our heroes.”

They still champion the cause of traditional boiled peanuts – and operate a successful online business where you can order some – but the Lees have become known for other things since then. They were feted by Pierce at the Greensboro restaurant following the release of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook, which won the 2007 James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year.
“We thought our interest in Southern food and his was a great matchup,” Lee recalls, adding that Pierce pulled out all the stops for a memorable evening. “We told him to do his service the way he normally does, that he didn’t need to do anything special. But he was like, ‘No, that’s not how we do it.’”

Thursday’s event will be no different. Pierce will prepare a six-course meal based on 12 Charleston Kitchen recipes, one of which will be tweaked with his signature Voodoo Sauce. Each course will be paired with beers from Fullsteam Brewery. The tab is just $40 per person.

Among the featured dishes is one that would be ideal for the Easter holiday table, roast fresh ham (see recipe below). “It’s dead simple to make, unless you’re one of those people who can’t stand to leave something alone to cook by itself for a few hours,” Lee says. The slow roast maximizes natural flavors and creates an exterior of what the book calls “fantastic caramelized fat.”

“Oh, it’s the best part,” Lee says, admitting to sneaking chunks of the crispy goodness that tastes a bit like pork candy.  The book features an adorable full-page photo of his nephew, Lorenzo, in wide-eyed toddler heaven as he snacks on a bite.
“Charleston is more oriented toward poultry and creatures of the sea, so pork hasn’t always been a big thing for the area,” says Lee, noting the region did not historically embrace the typically Southern culture of smoking or curing pork. “We’re lucky today to have access to heirloom pork from a great purveyor, Emile DeFelice of Caw Caw Creek. He mostly sells to restaurants, but his pork also is sold at farmer’s markets.”

The release of The Lees Bros. Charleston Kitchen follows the 20th anniversary re-issue of a classic earlier this year by UNC Press, Hoppin’ John’s Low Country Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain by culinary historian John Martin Taylor. Lee is quick to distinguish Taylor’s scholarly volume from their more contemporary take of Charleston cuisine.
“John Martin Taylor is a real historian; we’re snoopers,” he says with a laugh. “We like to nose around to find things out.”

The brothers actually conducted considerable research to write the book, which Ted Lee considers an homage to the people and places that make them who they are as food writers. It contains four pages of small-print reference to other writings about Charleston cuisine, plus another for acknowledgments.

“We were born in New York so we don’t have a Charleston grandmother. We checked with a lot of our friends’ grandmothers, though, and with crabbers, fishermen and farmers,” Lee says. “The sense of wonder at the food of the Low Country continues for us. There is a lot of energy there, and the interconnectedness of stories is remarkable.”

An example is the story of Backman Seafood, a small but legendary roadside shop on nearby James Island. Susie Backman was a hardworking entrepreneur who was hailed as the “Queen on Shrimpers” in a six-page feature in Ebony magazine in 1964. Her son, Thomas Backman Jr., continues her traditions today and shared her recipe for conch fritters – another of the items that will be on the Lucky 32 tasting menu.
Perhaps Ted Lee’s favorite connection was created when they met Henry Shaffer, who provides exceptional deviled crab on Fridays to The Wreck restaurant in nearby Mt. Pleasant.  The brothers enjoyed them for years before noticing the menu credited Shaffer.

“We got his permission to do an interview on camera, and it turned out to be an amazing experience,” Lee says. “He is the grandson of the owners of the restaurant Henry’s, which was icon from the 1930s through the 80s. It became like Charleston’s Galatoire. He took us down so many paths that we’d forgotten.”
Lee describes the stories in Charleston Kitchen as “just the tip of the iceberg.”

“We should do a Volume 2,” he says with a laugh. “We completely forgot about including supper clubs. I remember our parents coming back from supper clubs a little bit drunk.
“Once you start talking with people it naturally leads to one thing and another,” he adds. “It was a great way to learn about ourselves through the food and stories of our chosen home.”

Roast Fresh Ham 
Reprinted by permission of Ted Lee from The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen, @2013 by Clarkson Potter.
Serves: 12 to 14
Time: 4 hours 30 minutes

1 (16-18 pound) fresh ham, skin removed with as much fat as possible left on1½ tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh thyme (from about 14 stems)
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary (from about 5 stems)
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons dry white wine
¼ cup half-and-half
  1. Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Trim any remaining skin and excess fat from the ham, leaving a layer of fat up ¾ inch thick. Score the ham all over in a diamond pattern of ½-inch-deep cuts about 1½ inches apart.
  2. In a small bowl, combine the salt, black pepper, thyme and rosemary, pinching and blending the mixture with your fingers until the thyme is fragrant. Pat the mixture all over the ham and into the crevices.
  3. Put the ham, fat side up, on a rack in a large roasting pan and roast for 30 minutes. Decrease the oven temperature to 350 degrees and – taking care to avoid pouring the liquid directly into rendered fat – pour 2 cups of white wine and 1 cup of water into the pan; loosely tent with aluminum foil. Continue to roast, basting every hour, and adding water as necessary, to keep a 1/8-inch depth of juices in the bottom on the pan, until a meat thermometer pressed into the thickest part of the ham reads 145 degrees, about 3½ hours.
  4. Let the ham rest 15 to 20 minutes before carving. Pour the pan juices and remaining 2 tablespoons wine into a small saucepan and simmer for about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the half-and-half, and serve the gravy with the ham.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Win gift set from Savory Spice Shop and create your own inventory

There is something new inside Savory Spice Shop in North Raleigh that is making customers a bit more giddy than usual, and it’s not a sneeze-inducing sniff of hot chile powder.

Cindy and Bob Jones of Savory Spice Shop-North Raleigh
“People come in here all the time ready to buy a favorite spice that they just ran out of, but they get confused when they're in here surrounded by so many jars,” laughs Cindy Jones, who co-owns the shop with her husband, Bob. “We want to make it as easy as possible for our customers to enjoy the experience of selecting great spices - and finding them again when they need refills.”

Jones says it’s easy to identify determined but distracted customers from their body language. They often cluster before the rows of cinnamon, sniffing each varietal again and again. Was it the Vietnamese cinnamon they liked so much last time, or the Ceylon? And what about those six different types of paprika?

“People can really get lost among all the spice rubs. We try to steer them to the right jars,” Jones says, “but, honestly, sometimes we’re not entirely sure what they’re looking for, either.”

Until now. Earlier this year Savory Spice launched an optional program that archives customer purchases online. If a shopper wants their virtual list recorded at the store, a staff member can create a profile and log each purchase with a few clicks. Records will be maintained a minimum of six months.

“It will make the whole experience quicker and a little more personal,” Jones says. “We love it when people take their time to wander the store to experience it all, but we’re here to help our customers find whatever they need.”

Win this North Carolina Living gift set in the Eating My
Words-Savory Spice Shop giveaway contest.
While Denver-based chain has implemented this system at all franchise stores, Cindy and Bob Jones are offering additional benefits for North Raleigh customers. "Cash in the Cupboard" starts the new year by having customers exchange an old spice jar for a dollar off a purchase of their brand. They also occasionally slip a pair of “Savory samples” into shopper’s bag – one for them to enjoy and one to share with a friend.

This branch of Savory Spice – there are four stores currently operating in North Carolina – also makes a point of being very community involved. Its monthly newsletter spotlights new spices and in-store events, including cooking classes. At 6:30 p.m. today they will feature Jenni Field of Garner, who will demonstrate how to make decadent stove top puddings. Garner will live-stream the instruction online via Google+ Hangouts on Air; see details in this Indy Week story.

The Jones’ are familiar faces at local culinary events and support a number of community causes. They also boost area food bloggers by promoting their posts among customers.

Readers of those blogs benefit, too – just as you might in coming weeks. Savory Spice Shop is offer its North Carolina Living boxed set as a giveaway to readers of Eating My Words. The package, valued at $28, includes jars of Carolina High Country BBQ Rub, Park Hill Maple & Spice Pepper, Cape Hatteras Smoked Seafood Seasoning, and Baking Spice. It also includes a nutmeg seed, star anise and a dried chile.

If you’d like to add this collection to your spice cupboard, here are the rules: Before 5 p.m. Thursday, April 4, tell Savory Spice Shop which of their specialty blends you like best, and how you use it. You can do this on their Facebook page or via Twitter. While you’re at it, I would appreciate if you would follow my blog feed (see link at right) and/or join me on Twitter and Facebook.

I’ll join Cindy and Bob Jones to randomly select the winner of the North Carolina Living gift set the evening of April 4. The contest is open to everyone, regardless of where you live. If you are located too far to drive to their wonderful shop, they’ll mail it to you.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

‘Hardcore hillbilly’ finds nexus of Southern food and storytelling

Sheri Castle will be the guest of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 20, at Flyleaf Books. She will talk about the strong link between Southern foods and storytelling and sign copies of The New Southern Garden Cookbook.

A natural-born storyteller and instinctive cook, Sheri Castle poses a classic chicken-and-the-egg conundrum: Which came first, the pencil or the whisk?
Chapel Hill food writer and teacher Sheri Castle
The award-winning food writer and teacher grew up on the fringe of Appalachia in the western mountains of North Carolina, where she tended her grandmother’s garden and learned to cook the seasonal foods it produced in her kitchen. A precocious child, she entered her first recipe in a national contest at age 4. She didn’t win, but it was the start of a journey that led to an appreciation of the strong bond between Southern food and storytelling.
“Because Southern food is so evocative, particularly for a Southerner, it is practically impossible for us to tell you about a food without telling about its context,” she says. “When we tell about a recipe, it’s almost never about the ingredients. It’s about how you found the ingredients, how it works and doesn’t, and who it reminds you of.”
Not surprisingly, many of Castle’s fondest cooking memories track straight up steep mountain roads to her grandmother’s home.
“I am a hardcore hillbilly, and I use the term with the deepest affection,” says Castle, who arrived in Chapel Hill 34 years ago as the first in her family to attend college. “Even as a very, very small child, I understood that there was a connection between who people were and what they ate. I knew I was part of something special.”
As a “mountain kid” eager for adventure, Castle wrote stories and devoured books that fueled her imagination. She also spent quality time sitting on the front porch stringing beans and apples while talking and sharing stories.
“There is a very defined sense of place deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she says, drawing comparisons to distinct rituals of the South Carolina Low Country or New Orleans. “Place defines what you eat, and who you are. I am very thankful today that I grew up with those traditions.”
Her appreciation of the links between Southern food and storytelling was well expressed in her 2011 The New Southern Garden Cookbook (UNC Press)  An in-demand cooking teacher known as much for her wit as her carefully tested recipes, she was featured this month at the prestigious Hilton Head Food and Wine Festival.
Like O. Henry, another North Carolina native, Castle deploys quirky, well-drawn characters to pull you in for an unexpected twist; in her case, a dollop of culinary anthropology.  Her smart humor and astounding baking skills were on full display last summer when she preached to the choir at a decadent breakfast gathering of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s (SFA) “field trip” to New Bern. SFA director and culinary legend John T. Edge watched Castle from the edge of a church community center, where he tried to balance a plate of pie on his knees while laughing with the audience.
John T. Edge
“I admire the heck out of Sheri,” says Edge, who offered a ringing endorsement last week. “She tells honest stories about her people and her place with humility and humor. She's smart, but she's no show off.”
Edge says Castle “reveals truths” with her takes on classics like leather britches, Appalachian-style beans dried on string, and biscuits with chocolate gravy, the latter of which was posted on the upscale Gilt Taste blog. Her contributions to Gilt Taste’s “Eats Shoots and Leaves” column earned her a writing award last year from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Growing up in a remote place with brutal winters gave Castle enough indoor time to imagine herself elsewhere, like the stylish city homes of characters in soap operas that her grandmother enjoyed.
“That’s how I discovered there were people who ate dinner as opposed to supper,” she says. “Even though I knew it wasn’t very accurate, I could see a big difference between what those fancy rich people were eating for dinner and what I saw on my plate.”
Castle’s comment is no reflection of poverty. Rather it was one of a series of incremental discoveries that both beckoned experimentation – as an increasingly worldly eighth grader, she begged for and received The Joy of Cooking for Christmas – and reinforced her appreciation of the plenty at her grandmother’s farm.
When she was old enough to drive down the mountain, she often returned with food stuffs her curious teacher had never seen:  tofu and duck, and broccoli, asparagus and okra. “None of that was agreeable to our growing season, which was more like New England,” she says. “It made me feel good to share things with the woman who taught me to cook.”
Castle trained as a journalist but worked writing technical manuals and advertising. While on maternity leave with her daughter Lily, who will leave the nest for college in the fall, she decided against going back. Her generous employer offered a career transition package that allowed her to attend the Culinary Institute of America.
“I talked them into letting me take cooking classes for a couple of years without doing the whole program,” she laughs. “I cannot image what sort of yarn I spun for them to let me get away with that.”
After taking additional classes in San Francisco, Castle returned home determined to teach people to cook. True to form, she marched into the Raleigh Williams-Sonoma and stated that she wanted to teach there. That was on a Tuesday; four days later, she led the first of countless Saturday classes.
She loved instructing home cooks but the itch to write returned. A satisfied student was an editor at The Spectator, a now-defunct local weekly where Castle was invited to write a food column. She soon was published nationally and carved a career as a recipe tester and ghost writer for big names in the food world.
Recipe testing is more complex than simply trying one and saying whether it’s good or bad, Castle explains. “If you are developing recipes for someone, you have to cook like them, not me. And if the recipe doesn’t work, you fix it.”
While taught to be polite at home, Castle has mastered unimagined levels of tact working with clients – none of whom she can identify due to contractual obligations. She has worked on about 20 book projects, including 13 complete works published under other people’s names.
“I’ve learned how to write not only in the style of my client but in the voice and style of their publishers,” she says. “However, if I knew then what I know now, I’d be a with-er, not a ghoster.  It’s hard because I can’t use any of that experience to market myself.”
Castle says writing her own book was the most taxing of all her projects. She has accumulated enough stories and recipes to fill another collection, but she’s not sure when she’ll start.
“I have never been more proud of anything or done something that utterly sucked my brain out of my nose,” she says. “It really is exhausting. I have some ideas, but it’s the one thing I just can’t talk about.”