Monday, June 3, 2013

Chef Ashley Christensen working on first book

The story first ran in INDY Week.

Ashley Christensen and Edward Lee at a Stir the Pot
event held September 2011 at Christensen's Raleigh home.
Ashley Christensen pre-ordered a copy of Smoke & Pickles, a book by her friend Edward Lee, so she could be among the first to read it.

“You’re immediately engaged based on what a great storyteller he is,” Christensen says of Lee, who she met a few years ago through the Southern Foodways Alliance. “He’s a brilliant writer. His food is beautiful, thoughtful and bold. Those are things that, in combination, create something very special.”

Christensen said she was struck by Lee’s honesty in sharing so many personal stories and how they shaped him as a chef. “As chefs and restaurateurs, you are always on display,” says Christensen, who has welcomed hundreds of strangers to her Raleigh home for fundraising events. “I believe the book will make a lot of people think differently about how they approach the process, about not keeping the public and readers at arm’s length.”

Christensen intends to use a similar approach with her first book. She hopes to sign with an agent this week, a crucial step in getting the project to a top publishing house.

“Ed's and my books will be very different, but I want to share stories as he does to show how my thought process works,” she says. “I learned to cook by throwing dinner parties. It will be based on how that can explode into other things we can make.”

Christensen has been working hard to document the recipes that dazzle diners at Poole’s, Beasley’s Chicken+Honey and Chuck’s. Some already have been featured in food magazines.

“Like Ed, my goal will not people telling people how to measure,” she says. “I want to teach them how to think about cooking, the history of how food got here and why the relationship between chefs, farmers and artisan providers is so important.”

Lee, a three-time runner-up for James Beard honors will be celebrated Wednesday evening by Chef Colin Bedford with a special dinner at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro. The event starts at 6 p.m. Tickets are $85, which includes dinner, a beer tasting, gratuity and a signed copy of Smoke & Pickles.

Strawberry-Basil Martini

I recently acquired a bottle to TOPO Piedmont Gin, which is produced near the Chapel Hill-Carrboro line in a building that used to rattle and hum with the sounds of newspaper production. My affinity for such places is strong, and my historic conviction that all gin smells like Pine-Sol has been shattered by this fairly mild sip – which has been described by those in the know as “not juniper forward.”
Working under the principle of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – a phrase credited to Einstein, whose cocktail preferences remain a mystery to Google (though it did try to connect “Manhattan”)  – I made the bold leap in home mixology by substituting gin in a beverage for which I might otherwise instinctively have reached for vodka.

In fact, thanks to some lovely, suddenly very much in-season strawberries, I specifically created this cocktail in the hope that it would be an appealing complement to gin’s inherently herbaceous nature.

It turned out so good – and was just as promising on the second batch as the first – that I have to admit I forgot to fully document my triumph at the time. Thankfully, the reporter in me reflexively wrote down a few notes, so herewith is my Strawberry-Basil Martini. It takes a little bit of planning, but just a little bit. And if you’re not confident about using gin, try it a splash of your standby vodka. The strawberry puree also is quite good stirred into bubbly soda water.

Strawberry Puree
2 cups strawberries, hulled and chopped
juice of 1 lemon
several strips of zest
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

Place chopped strawberries, lemon juice, zest and sugar into medium stock pot. Toss to coat then cover and allow to macerate for at least 30 minutes.
Simmer on low heat about 20 minutes until syrupy and very fragrant. Turn off heat and remove zest. Add 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar and puree with an immersion blender (or cool slightly then puree in a blender).

Place 5 ice cubes in a sealable quart jar. Pour in strawberry puree. Swirl to blend; when no longer warm, place in refrigerator to fully chill.

Strawberry-Basil Martini
Makes 2

Strawberry puree
Fresh-picked basil leaves
Simple syrup
Make a simple syrup by heating ½ cup of sugar in ½ cup of water. Bring to a low boil and stir until sugar crystals dissolve. Transfer to a small jar and cool; lid jar and transfer to refrigerator.

Place 5-6 basil leaves in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Muddle aggressively.
Fill shaker about 2/3 full with ice. Add 1 jigger of strawberry puree, 2 jiggers of gin and 1 jigger of simple syrup. Shake it like to you mean it.

Strain into two martini glasses and garnish with a small basil leaf. Go outside to admire your garden and say to yourself, “My life is good.” Repeat; or, if for some strange reason you son does not appreciate its subtleties, drink his.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Carolina Crossroads Chef James Clark specializes in obscure fish

Chef James Clark's rose-dotted snapper, served
on a bed of stone-ground grits and dressed
in a sauce of minced ramps flambéd in Pernod.

© Photo by  DL Anderson
This story was first published in INDY Week.
Pity the jolthead porgy. Related to the grunt, it is among the many oddly named fish that, like awkward schoolchildren hoping to get picked for the dodgeball team, watches as its glamorous cousins such as grouper are selected for discerning customers at top restaurants.

But that's not how it works at Carolina Crossroads, the elegant dining room of the historic Carolina Inn at Chapel Hill. Though Chef James Clark has been cooking there less than a year, he has established a reputation for seeking out lesser-known but equally delicious and sustainable varieties that fishermen pull from the waters of the Carolina coast.

"My favorite is line-caught scorpion fish. They've got this hideous face with knobs," he says, demonstrating with a waggle of his large hands near his ears. "Most people won't give them a second glance, but I'm telling you, it's the best–tasting fish in the world."

Like most of the seafood Clark fixes in battered, nonstick pans in the restaurant's large kitchen, scorpion fish—when he's lucky enough to find some—get a slow sauté in light oil and are finished with a scoop of butter. "It cooks like oysters with this sweet cucumber flavor," Clark says with a dreamy look and a quick pursing of his lips, as if to catch the last drop of the memory's succulence. "Really, if you ever see it on a menu or in a market, you must try it."

It takes a brave man to sell fish with funky names to the affluent diners who frequent Carolina Crossroads, but Clark backs up his bravado by preparing unfamiliar eats in classic combinations. The jolthead porgy, for example, is finished in browned butter and served atop a generous smear of celery root purée. Clark adds an aromatic sauté of asparagus and oyster mushrooms, then garnishes the dish with a pearly dab of caramelized onion vinaigrette.

"People won't necessarily drive here thinking, 'Ooh, I hope they have jolthead porgy tonight,'" he says, wiping the edge of the plate to enhance its presentation. "But I don't think anyone who really enjoys fish would mind being served this."

The day Clark drove to Chapel Hill from Myrtle Beach for his cooking interview, he brought jolthead porgy, triggerfish and lane snapper—all procured from Wayne Mershon at Kenyon Seafood in Murrells Inlet, S.C. He had 11 hours to prepare seven dishes for eight people. Among them was a flight of ceviches, though he grew uncertain as to whether a trio of lime-cured raw fish was a smart idea.

"Thank god, it was their favorite course," Clark recalls. "It really built my confidence. I want to use underutilized fish every day. That's my shtick."

He now orders fish through Dock to Door Seafood of Chapel Hill, a wholesale distributor that provides the catch of the day to several top local restaurants. For those wanting to incorporate more under-appreciated fish at home, he recommends developing a relationship with an independent fishmonger or shopping at a well-stocked market with knowledgeable staff.

"The most important consideration when buying any type of fish is freshness," Clark says, urging customers to ask questions and even request a sniff before committing to a purchase. "These are people who genuinely care about what they're doing, and they'll be honest. When you understand more about fish, you're more likely to buy it often."
Inland markets and fine dining establishments are increasingly offering varieties that only a few years ago were considered unsellable outside of the coastal communities where they were caught. This includes versatile triggerfish, which award-winning cookbook author James Peterson heartily recommends ("snatch it up right away") in his encyclopedic Fish & Shellfish; red drum (think of Paul Prudhomme's once-ubiquitous blackened red fish); amberjack; and sustainable varieties of snapper.

Clark recently used rose-spotted snapper to demonstrate a dish for INDY Week. After seasoning lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper, he says to always start cooking "presentation side" down—which in his book means skin-side down. Clark does not slash the thin skin of the snapper, though doing so with other fish may help to prevent it from curling while cooking. Instead, he lightly presses down on the flesh with a wide spoon to keep it flat.

"Please, don't fry a beautiful piece of fish like this," Clark implores as he angles the pan to quickly scoop up foaming butter for basting. "You want to cook slowly on medium heat, which will give you crisp skin and moist flesh. No one wants to eat rubbery fish."

Clark finely minces some boiled ramps and red onion, which he then cooks over a low flame in a small skillet. He dramatically pours in a glug of anise-flavored Pernod to flambé the ingredients, plunking in a great scoop of butter as the flames subside. Noticing how observers were agog at the amount of butter and booze, Clark chuckles. "It's not healthy to eat like this every day," he concedes, "but it's good and it's good for you."

Served on a base of stone-ground grits, the sauced snapper looked a lot like a T-bone. "It's true of a lot of fish," he says. "If you were blindfolded and touched cooked triggerfish, you'd swear it was filet mignon. If I could get more people who eat steak and pork and chicken to just try fish, I know I'd sell a whole lot more of it."
Customers who appreciate his finesse with fish already have forced Clark to make big changes in the way he orders supplies. When he took over the kitchen, fish dishes accounted for about 25 percent of dinner sales. Today, it's about 55 percent.
So how does one sell a grunt to a first-timer? "Some people see these fish on the menu and think they've walked into Iron Chef, but it's not like that," Clark says. "It's all about educating your wait staff. Once they've tasted it, trust me, it's an easy sell."

Warm summer potato salad

This salad was a sudden inspiration to serve as a side dish for grilled pompano, one of the sweetest and simplest to cook sustainable fish to come from Carolina waters. I used vegetables from today's farmer's market foray, plus a jar of creamy garbanzo beans that I recently pressure canned. It was dressed with some basil picked fresh from our garden and a splash of Girard's blue cheese vinaigrette. I considered making my own, but it's light, delicious -- and was staring at me from the cupboard. If you have two extra minutes to spare, feel free to make your own.

Sorry, no photo. I didn't think to get one before dinner and there was barely anything left to rinse out of the bowl afterwards. Serves four hungry people; to turn into a main course, serve over mixed spring greens with extra vinaigrette on the side.

Warm Summer Potato Salad

1 medium spring onion, sliced thin (including some of the green)
1 pint garbanzo beans, rinsed
2 cups cubed carrot
3 cups cubed potato, skin on 
3/4 lb. fresh green beans, stemmed and snapped in half
2 tbsp. kosher salt, plus 1 tsp.
freshly ground pepper
1/3 cup blue cheese vinaigrette (such as Girard's, or homemade)
1 tbsp. white balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp. fresh-picked basil, rolled and sliced thin

Fill a medium stock pot about 2/3 with water. Add 2 tbsp. salt, cover and bring to a boil.

Trim spring onion, keeping a few inches of the green part, and slice thin. Transfer to large bowl. Rinse garbanzo beans; shake off excess water and add to mixing bowl.

Carefully pour carrots into boiling water and cook about 2 minutes, uncovered. Add green beans, stir and cook another 2-3 minutes. Check to ensure that both are tender crisp. Remove with slotted spoon or spider, draining well, then add to mixing bowl. Pour vinaigrette over warm mixture, stir and lightly cover.

Add cubed potatoes to the same boiling water. Cook 4-5 minutes, until  tender but not mushy. Drain in colander, shaking off excess water before adding to mixing bowl. 

Add 1 tsp. salt, a generous grind of pepper, the white balsamic and chiffonade of basil; mix well but try to not crush the potato cubes. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Lightly cover and rest about 20 minutes for flavors to meld. Serve barely warm or at room temperature.