Friday, November 22, 2013

Chapel Hill start remains a key influence for Chef John Currrence

This story first posted in Indy Week.

Chef John Currence’s first cookbook is both badass autobiography and an affectionate embrace of his adopted home of Oxford, Miss. But his first restaurant job as a cook, and the place he reveres for launching his career, is Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.

“Honestly, I had hoped we’d wrap up the tour with a big event there,” says Currence, whose new Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey will be celebrated with receptions on Sunday at The Garden Terrace at Fearrington and Monday at Joule Coffee in Raleigh. (See details below.)

“I'm certainly going to pop myself up to the bar and hug (owner) Gene Hamer and (chef) Bill Smith around the neck. Bill and I never worked together but he’s as much of an influence as anyone else,” says Currence, who attended UNC in the early 1980s. “We’ve always been very good friends. He was one of the few people who used to come see our awful-as-shit band play. He always showed up, which of course endeared him to me to no end.”

It’s a different Bill—Crook’s original chef, Bill Neal—who looms large in the book. While in college, Currence worked in the small kitchen alongside Neal, who is often credited with sparking national interest in authentic Southern cuisine. Neal died in 1991 at age 41, just six years after his Southern Cooking was published by UNC Press and his food was celebrated in The New York Times by Craig Claiborne.

Neal also was known for his irascibility. In the summer of 2003, Times writer R.W. Apple shared an anecdote about his legendary temper in a story about a gala dinner celebrating the late chef’s legacy at the James Beard House in New York.

“Bill loved to create tension, probably to push us,” Robert Sehling, a former Crook’s cook who is chef/owner at Charleston’s Hominy Grill, told Apple. “It got wild sometimes. I've seen people hurl coffee mugs at him.”

One of those people was John Currence.

“I really do hate the fact, more than just about anything, that the last time I saw him it was very unpleasant,” Currence says. “It was an ugly and unnecessary argument.”

The dispute had been simmering for days. Currence had been unexpectedly tasked with turning two large bags of acorn squash into soup that would be a featured dish. The story is referenced in the introduction to the recipe for Roasted Acorn Squash Bisque. What the anecdote omits is that Neal responded to the young cook’s call for feedback with fury.

“It was my first special and I wanted it to be profound and exceptional,” Currence recalls. “I thought it was something I’d be proud to serve, but it was missing something. I called Bill at home and asked what he would pair with it. There was this pause and all of a sudden this barrage of expletives—a tirade like I’d never heard.”

Currence, who casually drops expletives into his own conversation (his Twitter handle is
@BigBadChef), managed to hold his tongue. The next day he arrived before his shift to clear the air, but Neal was in a dark mood because someone left a dog’s water bowl outside of the restaurant. “As soon as I walked in, he started screaming at me again,” he recalls. “I threw a full cup of coffee at him and walked out.”

Despite this dispute, Neal is acknowledged as a primary mentor in Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. It may not be as evident to readers outside of the Triangle, but he is cited more times than any other chef for his lasting influence.

“Bill does still play a role in my thought process,” says Currence. “It’s hard to be in a kitchen and not be reminded of him.”

Many North Carolina references are in the book, including a nod to former Magnolia Grill Chef Ben Barker, “the big brother I never had,” in the recipe for homemade Worchester sauce. In the notes to his Pimento Cheese Fritters, he declares that Chef Ashley Christensen’s pimento cheese is “transcendent.”

Christensen, who is working on her own debut cookbook, has high praise for Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey.

“It’s a yearbook of sorts, chronicling a life of honesty, hard work and joy in the kitchen,” she says. “John is respectful of tradition, yet still inviting to evolution and innovation at the stoves. His food belongs to him, and to all of the people and personalities—from cooks, to critics, to guests—who have been a part of shaping it.

“Even if John wasn’t one of my closest friends, I’d feel like I’d known him all of my life after reading this book,” she adds. “That’s pretty special.”

Cooks & Books: Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey Reception
The Garden Terrace at Fearrington Village, Pittsboro
Sunday, Nov. 24, 3 p.m.
Reception including food, autographed book, tax and gratuity: $85
Reservations: 919-542-3030

‘Snacks with Snack’: Reception hosted by Ashley Christensen
Joule Coffee, 223 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Monday, Nov. 25, 5:30 p.m.
Reception including food and cocktail punches from Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey;
copies of the book will be available for sale: $35
Reservations: 919-424-7442

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Chef Amy Tornquist announces schedule of hands-on cooking classes

Chef Amy Tornquist of Watts Grocery has lost count how many times customers have asked her to teach them how to recreate her dishes at home -- or at least learn how to master some basic culinary techniques. She always demurred, saying she just could not balance the hectic demands of being a restaurant chef, running a catering business, opening Hummingbird Bakery and being a good parent to her young children.

Well, now she can. With the help of Matt Lardie, her catering operations manager at Sage & Swift, Tornquist has announced a series of hands-on cooking classes. Because participants will need to roll up their sleeves and have ample room to work, class sizes will be limited to 10 to 14 participants, depending on the topic. (An exception is a wine and cheese pairings class, which is open to 16.)   

"I have done tons (of classes) but not offered them at our own space," Tornquist says. "It took Matt's leadership to get us going. I like the idea of getting to serve a little wine and feed folks and do more hands-on instruction" than is available at some other venues.

All classes will be held at Sage & Swift, 2595 Whilden Drive in Durham, unless otherwise noted. To register for classes, which are expected to fill quickly, call 919-957-7889. Tornquist welcomes suggests for additional classes to be scheduled in the spring.
Jan. 15: Southern Pies
Tornquist will provide both a history lesson on Southern pies and hands-on instruction on how to make three classics: pecan pie, buttermilk chess pie and sweet potato pie. She and Lardie, who previously worked for her as a pastry chef, will share the secrets behind a perfectly flaky crust. Participants will get to sample each pie and take home both the recipes for each and individual-size pies to enjoy at home. ($50; 12 person limit)
Jan. 29: Pot Roast and Pinot Noir
Warm up with classic comfort foods and well-paired wines. The class will cover three dishes: pot roast, macaroni and cheese, and chili, along with tips for selecting wines to match the menu. Participants will sip and sup while chopping and stirring, as well as take home recipes and doggy bags. ($50, 12 person limit)
Feb. 12: Soup for Supper
Tornquist will teach some of her favorite winter soup recipes along with classic accompaniments to turn a bowl of soup into a satisfying winter meal. Details are to be announced, but think butternut squash and a cheddar scone. Also learn how to make her favorite mulled wine. Participants will leave with recipes and containers of soup to enjoy at home. ($50, 14 person limit)
Feb. 26: Perfect Pairings: Wine and Cheese (Location TBA)
Learn how to assemble a balanced wine and cheese pairing for entertaining or at-home nibbling. Participants will be introduced to some of North Carolina's best artisan cheeses and sample great wines from around the globe. ($50, 16 person limit) 
March 5: Easy Cheese-Making
If you think making cheese at home means pressing a button on a can of Cheese Whiz, get ready to have your mind blown. With assistance from Lardie, who formerly was associated with Hillsborough Cheese Company, participants will learn the basic principles of cheese-making along with recipes for crème fraiche, ricotta and paneer. ($35, 14 person limit)

March 19: Stir Fry 101
One of the world's oldest cooking tools is also one of the most versatile to have in a modern kitchen. Tornquist and Lardie, the latter of whom runs the popular Wok Wednesdays website in collaboration with wok cooking expert Grace Young, will teach how to use a wok to stir-fry, steam, braise, deep-fry food, as well as smoke meats and vegetables. Participants will learn three easy recipes that demonstrate the versatility and simplicity of stir-frying. Registration includes a new wok and wok spatula. ($55, 10 person limit) 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Frances Mayes brings the flavor of Tuscany home for the holidays

Author and cookbook writer Frances Mayes will be the guest speaker at the 7 p.m. Wednesday meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The presentation will include samplings of her freshly pressed Bramasole Olive Oil. The event is free and open to the public.

Frances Mayes (Photo by John Gillooly)
While it may be wrong to judge a book by its cover, Frances Mayes says it’s not a bad idea to judge an unfamiliar olive oil by its price.

“In American cooking, olive oil is still the most mysterious and misunderstood ingredient,” says Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and, with her husband Edward Mayes, last year’s The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. “Italians would never consider using most of what passes for olive oil here.”
Mayes should know. She and her husband have spent much of the past 23 years living on their Bramasole estate in Tuscany, where they tend a grove of 600 olive trees on about 10 acres of rolling land. A 500 ml bottle of their small-batch oil sells for about $30 – if you’re fast enough to order some before it sells out.

“It you haven’t tasted freshly pressed olive oil, you can’t imagine how different it is,” says Mayes, who likens the unadulterated result to heady fruit juice. “When it comes gushing from the press, it looks just like melted emeralds. It has a little kick at the back of your throat for a nice peppery finish.”
Fresh-pressed Bremasole Olive Oil
streams in brilliant green torrents that
Mayes likens to "melted emeralds."
Mayes, who just returned to the couple’s Hillsborough home after completing this year’s harvest, says that premium Tuscan olive oil also provides excellent health benefits. “When it’s first pressed and you have it on your salad, it’s like taking an ibuprofen,” she says. “The chemical compounds are similar. It really does great things for your overall health.”

The rich color and health benefits both fade over time, she says, but olive oil kept in a dark bottle, away from sunlight, will still be good to use after 18 months or more. She reserves fresh-pressed oil for salads and garnish, preferring oil that has mellowed for a few months for general cooking. It is the only oil she uses.
Indeed, Mayes can barely contain her disgust with commercially processed oils, such as canola and vegetable blends. “There is a video on YouTube about canola oil being processed with all these terrible additives,” she says with an audible shudder. “I know Thomas Keller likes to cook with canola oil; I’ve always wanted to send him an email about it.”

Mayes is likewise frustrated that food lovers will splurge on some things but scrimp on quality olive oil.
“People don’t think twice about spending $30 for a bottle of wine at dinner, but they hesitate over a bottle of fine olive oil for their kitchen, which will last a long time,” she says. “There’s just no getting around it: With olive oil, you get what you pay for. If it’s cheap, it’s just no good.”

Mayes says they’ve probably never even broken even on the cost of producing their oil, and likely never will.
“That’s not why we do it. It’s part of life in Italy. To me, it’s like Christmas,” she says. “Everyone gets involved: the mayor, your doctor, your neighbors. We have a big celebration at the end of the harvest, but on a daily basis, it’s so beautiful and peaceful out there. Those old trees are like presences.”

When not in the fields, Mayes has been communing with presences of her childhood for the forthcoming Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. It is scheduled for April 1 release.
“It’s my return-to-my-roots book,” says Mayes, who writes about growing up in small-town Fitzgerald, Ga., a place that makes Hillsborough feel welcomingly familiar. “Hillsborough certainly is more sophisticated, in terms of being literary, but there are many similarities. We’ve lived in a lot of places, but I do feel very much at home here.”

For the past six years, the couple has lived part-time in a restored inn and tavern that was built in 1806. “It sounds really big but it had perhaps two guest rooms,” she explains. “It would have served people doing business at the old grist mill down the road. Also, we’re right on the Eno, so if the water was high and they couldn’t cross, people likely would have come here to spend the night.”
Mayes looks forward to welcoming family and friends to their home for Thanksgiving, where she will roast a traditional American-style turkey as well as a Tuscan-inspired rolled turkey breast.

“It’s simple, really,” she says, noting the recipe is not in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. “You open the breast and flatten it like a book. I cover it with ground turkey and sausage then add other things like spinach and pistachio nuts.”
Roll the turkey breast, making sure to keep the filling well tucked, then wrap with thin slices of pancetta and truss with kitchen twine. “Put it a LeCruest (or Dutch oven) with a little white wine, tuck it in the oven and leave it alone until it’s done,” she says. “It’s moist and wonderful and people are always impressed when it’s sliced. It’s better than any roast turkey I’ve ever made.”

Mayes likes to offer her guests an ample choice of vegetable side dishes, including her Green Beans with Black Olives – a simple salad that can be prepared in advance.
Green Beans with Black Olives
Reprinted by permission of Frances Mayes from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2012)

Serves 8
2 pounds slender green beans, topped and tailed
2 yellow onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4-5 slices pancetta
For the marinade:
¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon pepperocini (red pepper flakes)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves or 1 tablespoon dried
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup black olives, pitted
juice of 1 orange and think strips of peel

Steam the beans just until barely done, about 5 minutes. Empty them into a 9x13-inch baking dish. In a small skillet over medium-low heat, sauté the onions in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil for about 3 minutes, or until completely cooked. Mix the onions with the beans in the baking dish.
Combine the marinade ingredients in a jar and shake well. Pour the marinade over the beans and onions, cover, and let rest in the fridge for 6 hours or longer, turning them over several times.

In a small skillet over medium heat, cook the pancetta in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil until crisp, about 2 minutes on each side. Drain on absorbent paper towels. Crumble the pancetta over the top and serve chilled or at room temperature.




Monday, November 18, 2013

Chef John Besh brings taste of France and Germany to Chapel Hill

This story first posted in Indy Week.
John Besh (Photos by Maura McEvoy)
John Besh book signing event
12 noon to 1:30 p.m. today, Nov. 18
Foster’s Market, 750 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill
In collaboration with Flyleaf Books, Foster’s Market will provide free samples of recipes from Cooking From the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way
Chef John Besh is famous for his inventive takes on classic fare served at his nine restaurants, eight of which are near his New Orleans home. But like the spices that flavor a complex gumbo, the context of Besh’s inspiration is global.

Early in his career, Besh trained with groundbreaking Europeans chefs. He learned to appreciate the unique flavor contributions of local ingredients and how they reflect the cultural values of those who are sustained by them.
Besh conjures the sights and smells of Germany’s Black Forest and the Provence region of France in his new book, Cooking From the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way. Affectionately written and beautifully illustrated, it is an unabashed love letter to those who taught him, drank with him, and ultimately shaped his career.

“I was very blessed to have these experiences, and to retrace my steps to share them with others,” says Besh, who will teach a sold-out class tonight at Sur La Table in Durham. He will sign books from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Foster’s Market in Chapel Hill, which will provide nibbles based on his recipes. (His Thanksgiving-friendly Pumpkin Tian is included below.)

Besh hopes that the book will inspire home cooks to cook more often to gain confidence in selecting and preparing ingredients, and in feeding themselves and others.
“Cooking teaches important life lessons. It’s taken me a couple of decades to figure this out, but it will transform the way you view food – the way you view everything,” he says.  “Too often, there’s almost a snobbery associated with great food. I wanted to be careful to dispel that and bring the humanity back. I don’t want people to not cook because they are afraid of making a mistake.”

Most of the recipes can be made by even novice cooks. This is especially true of the “A Leaf of Lettuce” chapter, which inspired a colorful triple-play dinner at our house with Mâche Salad with Pumpkin Oil Vinaigrette, Roasted Beets in Vinaigrette, and Carrot and Chive Salad with the distinctive crunch of toasted caraway seeds.
Besh approved of my tweaking the salad vinaigrette with walnut oil I had in the pantry instead buying a $16 bottle of pumpkin oil to use just two tablespoons. “Absolutely,” he says. “My message is these are blueprints, starting points, for making great food.”

Still, the man is a world-renowned chef. He peppers the collection with some recipes only the culinarily brave are likely to attempt, such as fat-studded Sülze: Pork Head Cheese. Besh says he includes these to demonstrate how they are both flavorful and sustainable.
“I don’t really expect many people to attempt Wild Boar Head Pate,” he says, referencing a recipe introduced with a startling image of German Chef Karl-Josef Fuchs singeing the dangling beast’s coarse fur with a blow torch.  “I was a little worried that people might look at that first chapter and think, ‘Hell, no.’ One thing I learned from Karl-Josef is that if you are going to take an animal, you must use all of it.”

Besh also draws inspiration from time spent in North Carolina, where he was stationed while serving with the U.S. Marines during the Persian Gulf War. His connection goes much farther back, however. His paternal grandfather ran the dairy operation at the Biltmore Estate for the Vanderbilts.
“He and my father lived in a little white house that used to be where the winery stands now,” says Besh. “Every now and then I return and take pictures of the improvements to show to my dad.”

The Besh family often vacations in small towns in western North Carolina, where he and his brother-in-law enjoy fishing and hunting. “Western North Carolina has been like a second home to us,” says Besh, who caught duck for Thanksgiving last year while canoeing on the French Broad River. “My wife’s family had a place at Lake Toxaway, so we all have strong connections. It doesn’t take much to make us come back.”

Pumpkin Tian
Reprinted with permission from Cooking from the Heart: My Favorite Lessons Learned Along the Way by John Besh/Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Serves 6-8
I’m so pleased by the presentation of this tian, where the shell of the squash becomes the baking and serving vessel that you bring to the table. If you don’t want to bother with the shell, you can bake the scooped out pumpkin and custard in a shallow casserole.

1 4–5-pound sweet pumpkin or Kabocha squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 sprig fresh thyme
Dash of cayenne pepper
Dash of nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs
1 cup cream
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Cut the top off the pumpkin, about 3 inches below the stem, and reserve to serve with the squash. With a spoon, scoop out the seeds. (You can roast the pumpkin seeds for a nice snack: toss the cleaned seeds in olive oil and a pinch of salt, spread on a baking pan, and roast in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown.) Use a spoon to scrape out as much of the pumpkin as you can, leaving the shell intact. Chop the flesh.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the garlic and pumpkin flesh and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin is tender, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme, cayenne, and nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the sautéed pumpkin back into the shell.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, and Parmesan and pour into the pumpkin shell. Place on a baking pan and bake until the top is golden brown and the custard is set, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve right from the pumpkin while it’s still hot.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Vegan/raw diet can be life changer

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Louis Vitello was a chubby kid who grew into an obese adult. At age 25, he weighed 398 pounds and dismissed a doctor's warning that his health habit would send him to an early grave.

"He told me I had 10 years to live if I didn't change my life, so I figured I had time to deal with it," says Vitello, a New Jersey native who moved to Raleigh a few months ago. "I wasn't ready to give things up."
Just days after his diagnosis, however, two terrible things happened. First, an overweight friend suffered a devastating diabetic collapse. After he stayed with the family at the hospital, another friend persuaded him to take a day off to visit. Before Vitello could leave in the morning, the friend's wife called to say her husband had died of a massive heart attack.
"They were both big guys like me, who never thought about how their lifestyle was making them sick," says Vitello, now 31, who has lost and kept off more than 200 pounds by strict adherence to a vegan/raw diet. "I didn't want that to be me."
Tired of fad diets, Vitello developed his own weight-loss plan, first by eliminating processed foods and then focusing on vegetables. A former network engineer, he now works as a wellness and weight-loss coach and teaches classes in healthy food preparation at Whisk in Cary. He also maintains a website, VeganCarolina, which lists vegan restaurants across the state and serves to connect vegans through community-based groups.
"My love of raw foods started with juicing, but there's so much more to it," he says. "I love cooking now, and hope people look at me and see what a vegan/raw diet has helped me achieve."

Friday, November 8, 2013

Let's Lunch: Home-cooked 'pickled' corned beef from Down Under

Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night would keep my mother from her weekly appointment at the beauty shop.

She would seek communion each Saturday under hooded hairdryers with a group of likeminded women. While my dad and brothers were not often among them, many of the men of our neighborhood were assembled a few miles away for Saturday morning services at the Jewish center. Prayers were recited and gossip exchanged with equal fervor, both earning the heavenly reward of a hot take-out lunch from the deli.

At home, we would listen intently for the sound of the storm door between the house and the garage to slap shut. Next we'd hear car keys dropped on the kitchen table. My mother, her hair freshly teased and starched, would shout my father's name as she set down a large brown paper bag with telltale grease stains that would make our hearts race. "Irving," she'd yell. "It's lunch time."

Corelle dishes with golden cornflowers quickly would slide across the table as paper napkins and flatware were set in place. The deli bag, damp from the weight of foil-wrapped packets containing sandwiches piled high with steaming, just-sliced corned beef and pastrami on hearty European-style rye bread, would tear as we all reached inside.

A small plastic tub of sinus-clearing mustard was always at the bottom. My dad slathered it on his special order,  a manly heap of boiled, pickled beef tongue topped with discs of raw onion. After the trauma of once seeing a whole thick tongue sliced at the deli, I had to look away when he savored his beloved treat -- especially when slices that escaped his grasp waggled wordlessly above his plate.

Lisa Goldberg
It never occurred to me that the same thing was happening in Jewish households across the globe. Back then, my assumptions about people in Australia were cartoonish, that they walked around upside down, their feet tethered to the earth and their hair sticking out straight as if dangling from a carnival ride. 

The ladies of the Monday Morning Cooking Club, a Sydney-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving the foodways of their varied Jewish experiences, celebrate their own childhood food memories in their eponymous debut cookbook. The charitable sisterhood also spotlights the experience of generations of women who nurtured their families with ancient recipes tweaked to make use of the ingredients available to the lands where destiny took them -- including the land Down Under. 

While the U.S. edition of The Monday Morning Cooking Club cookbook was released in September, I have been happily cooking from the original Australian edition for the past year. I was lucky to receive a personalized copy last December from one of its chief contributors, Let’s Lunch member Lisa Goldberg, while she was traveling in the American South to learn about our deliciously distinctive fare.

The book’s simple recipe for Sara's Pickled Brisket is suitable for a cut of corned beef anywhere between 2 and 4 pounds; mine was just more than 3 pounds, allowing for a substantial dinner for three and plenty of leftovers.

The meat is covered with cool water and a cup each of white vinegar and raw sugar, plus a small handful of peppercorns and nine bay leaves. I’m lucky to have a tree, so I plucked fresh leaves for the purpose.

After two hours of simmering, the corned beef was tender enough to be lifted by a fork but slide right off. The meat was transferred to a roasting pan, given a good scrub with several cloves of crushed garlic and allowed to rest and cool. Ideally, it should be refrigerated overnight and finished the next day. Since I prepped mine in the morning, I finished the following steps to serve it for dinner the same night.

Mound a pile of 3-4 thinly sliced onions on and around the meat, then drizzle on about ¾ cup of honey and 2 tablespoons canola oil. Place the roasting pan into a preheated 375 degree oven for about 45 minutes, occasionally stirring the onions, until the onions are tender and caramelized.

(Note: In my case, the onions were slow to brown. I removed the meat after 40 minutes and tented it with foil to avoid overcooking, then returned the roasting pan to the oven to give the onions more time to finish.)

The meat sliced easily and the finished dish was assembled on a rectangular serving platter. As if the meal was not rich enough, we served it with a mountain of buttery mashed potatoes and plain, practically penitent boiled greens.  We had enough leftovers to dice and add to hash for a second meal topped with lightly fried eggs, whose runny yolks created golden puddles to sweep up with bread.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Triangle-made Nello's Sauce to be sold throughout the South

This article was first posted in Indy Week.

© Indy Week photos by Justin Cook
Neal McTighe flunked sophomore Italian, but when studying tomato sauce, he did his homework. He researched his topic thoroughly, ensuring that his thesis had all necessary ingredients. He's defended his case countless times, consistently earning high marks.

And now, in what feels like graduation day, he has the piece of paper he's dreamed about: a commitment from the 27-store South region of Whole Foods to stock and sell Nello's Sauce, his line of handcrafted tomato sauces that taste fresh from the vine.

The deal means that all four flavors of the Raleigh-based brand—including the new Provencal Pomodoro —soon will be sold in nearly 100 locations across nine states.

McTighe's business jumped more than 30 percent last month, "and that doesn't even include this new agreement," he says. Nello's Sauce has been available in Triangle Whole Foods stores since summer 2011. He says it is the top-selling sauce at the North Raleigh location, beating even Newman's Own. "It's a really big step for us. I feel like we're finally getting to where we want to be."

Dubbed Nello by Italian friends, McTighe has a particular destination in mind. He wants Nello's Sauce to be the No. 1 artisanal brand throughout the South.

It's a lofty goal for a fellow who grew up in suburban New Jersey, where Italian restaurants, pizza shops and memories of a gravy-making great-grandmother loomed large.

"I've always been interested in Italy, and I've always been obsessed with tomatoes," he says. "A college classroom just wasn't the place for me to make it all connect."

McTighe enrolled in a study-abroad program in Italy. What was intended as a brief cultural immersion became a three-year residence. He became fluent and traveled extensively, making a point to visit his great-grandmother's hometown of Carife, near Napoli. The fresh-tasting sauces he enjoyed there and elsewhere left a strong impression.

McTighe eventually earned his doctorate in Italian from the University of North Carolina. He is an adjunct professor in the Italian Studies division of Meredith College.

McTighe divides the rest of his time between overseeing sauce production at a commercial kitchen space in Hillsborough and conducting in-store tasting demonstrations. "I suppose I could buy ads, but nothing will deliver the conversion rate of getting a spoonful of sauce into someone's mouth," he says. "It really is that good."

While the economic downturn added risk to starting a new business, the timing seems to have been ideal for Nello's Sauce. Just six months after McTighe started testing recipes in his home kitchen in January 2011, the Original All-Purpose Marinara was approved for sale by Weaver Street Market in Carrboro. Other shops soon followed.

Cooked in 55-gallon batches, 14- and 25-ounce jars of Nello's Sauce are still hand-filled by employees. McTighe figures he'll need to invest in an automated system soon to keep pace with growing demand.

To keep customers coming back, McTighe strives to push the boundaries on flavor profiles, which he believes gives Nello's Sauce an edge over stiff competition. In January, they added Hot Pepper Pasta Sauce, an arrabiata spiked with red pepper flakes; the Provencal Pomodoro followed in July. The latter is garlic-free and features classic elements of herbes de Provence: thyme and lavender.

"When we first tested it and told people it had lavender, the reaction was not what we hoped for," he admits. "But when they loved the other flavors, I'd give them a sample of the Provencal and ask them to try to identify the herbs. Not a single person ever guessed lavender."

The floral note is subtle but somehow makes the tomatoes taste more tomatoey. McTighe sources the lavender from Hauser Creek Farm in Davie County. He is searching for a reliable provider of North Carolina-grown thyme.

While he incorporates locally grown ingredients, McTighe gets his meaty Roma tomatoes from a California grower. "I'd love to use local tomatoes, but I need them year-round and I need them to be the same every time," he explains. "Customers expect consistency."
McTighe is developing another distinctive flavor that he hopes to have refined for tastings and production later this year. "The goal is to not be gimmicky but to create great sauces that no one else is making," he says. "It's what makes us memorable."

McTighe, who is accustomed to customers calling him "the tomato guy," says it's a great feeling to know that the brand is having such an impact.

"I was shopping with my dad one day in an antiques store. He was wearing a Nello's Sauce T-shirt and a woman came up to him to ask if he was in any way related to the maker," he says with the satisfied expression of a man who proved there is life after flunking college Italian. "It was awesome."

Sunday, November 3, 2013

In praise of Marcella - and North Carolina shrimp

Like most anyone who enjoys reading and cooking from an especially well-written cookbook, I was saddened by the recent passing of Marcella Hazan. She introduced countless home cooks – who felt themselves to be on a first-name basis with this legend – to the essential flavors of her beloved Italy, often with simple recipes that yielded surprisingly complex flavors.

I’ve read many of the tributes published by leading newspapers and culinary publications, as well as the chefs whose careers were informed by her groundbreaking work. When Cathy Barrow launched an effort to celebrate Marcella’s life on Oct. 26 with a virtual dinner party called Dinner with Marcella, I was in.
Marcella’s confident voice resonates in her many cookbooks, which have endured decades of competition to serve as bona fide touchstones. She conjures the Amalfi coast of her youth and the abundance of local resources with captivating charm and the warmth of a generous grandma sharing lessons in the kitchen.

I heard that voice myself once when, in an undisputed high point of my life, she responded via Facebook to a story I wrote about making her cantaloupe pasta sauce. Her Aug. 11, 2010, comment made it clear that she had browsed this then-new blog:
Thank you, my dear. You write so well. I enjoyed reading your blog and I am very glad the cantaloupe sauce worked for you. I have feelings similar to yours about some aspects of fennel. I loathe it in sausages, which compels me to look for butchers who will make them fennel-free as we do in Italy. On the other hand I adore it sliced very thin, blanched, breaded and fried, or baked with butter and parmesan until it is brown on top. I understand, however, that there is no chance of my converting you. There are insurmountable obstacles for all of us in our gustatory travels.
Warm regards,

Her prickly side was, perhaps, equally famous. With a stern “in my opinion,” Marcella dismissed most American ingredients as lesser in quality to those of her beloved Italy. Sometimes, as with “American sole … [which] really isn’t sole, it is flounder,” she considers available substitutes downright deceptive. “The best one can do with flounder is to take the edge off its awkwardness through the graces of a seductive sauce,” she wrote in The Classic Italian Cook Book (Knopf, 1978).
I heard from that Marcella once, too. I had been following posts from a group of bloggers who were cooking their way through her books. When I commented that I do not care for candied citron, she replied with unrestrained scorn that Americans have no idea what real candied citron tastes like.

I had to admit she was right; a morsel of Italian candied citron has never passed my lips. That said, I know what candied American citrus tastes like and I dislike it just as I do the finest quality marmalade.
Marcella similarly disliked American shrimp, even though it is somewhat endearing when she called them shrimps. In the introduction to Classic Italian’s I Secondi (second courses) chapter, she observed: “But while green beans, chickens and even veal may give roughly the same results here that they do in Italy, there is very little in American waters that resembles Italian fish. Not one of our species of shellfish coincides with an Italian one.”

In the headnote to Spiedini di gameri dell’Adraitico (Shrimp Brochettes, Adriatic Style), she take this claim a step further: “I have tasted many versions of this very simple dish in seafood and Italian restaurants here, but I have never come across any that recall the delicate balance of flavors and the juicy texture of the shrimps that fisherman cook all along the Adriatic.”

OK, Marcella. Game on. I have not enjoyed the shrimp of the Adriatic – which no doubt taste even more divine when eaten in that beautiful setting – but I have great confidence in the plump, flavorful shrimp of the North Carolina coast.

Despite three pages of directions and an illustration, the Shrimp Brochettes recipe appealed to me for its simplicity. Also, we had recently eaten excellent shrimp both locally and in South Carolina while on vacation.
Tim purchased beautiful shrimp from his favorite market that had been driven inland from the coast early that morning. I shelled and deveined them just before lightly coating in a “protective covering” of olive and vegetable oils, fine bread crumbs, garlic, basil and salt. (Her recipe calls for parsley, but I trusted I would be forgiven for using a few leaves of our still-performing basil plant.)

After a 20-minute marinade, I started the broiler to preheat. I followed her precise instructions to thread the shrimp through three points of each curl to ensure that they don’t slip when turner the skewers.

The shrimp cooked quickly, just as she said they would, and not a single one dared to slip. Served atop Isreali couscous cooked risotto-style with chicken broth, Graham pronounced the result the best shrimp dish he ever tasted. The delicate flavor was even better with the wedge of lemon Marcella recommended.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Love the dough: Master baker Lionel Vatinet shares his passion for bread

This article was first posted at Indy Week.

Lionel Vatinet, master baker and owner of La Farm,
teaches bread-making classes at the bakery.
People who shop at La Farm Bakery in Cary might not know what it means that a master baker is running the show, but the dough knows.

In Lionel Vatinet's presence, lively lumps of dough full of bubbling yeast become smooth and compliant.

"You have to show eet who is in charge," Vatinet instructs in his deeply French-inflected voice as he covers a butcher block table with hand-formed boules, batârds and classic baguettes. "You don't want to tear the dough, but you have to work it. You have to love the dough."

Vatinet, author of the new A Passion for Bread: Lessons From a Master Baker (Little, Brown), has been in love with dough since his childhood in France—a fact in evidence from the portrait on the book's title page of him cradling a loaf nearly as big as he is.

Demystifying the experience of making bread is as important to Vatinet as waking at dawn to make it himself for loyal customers. A graduate of the elite Les Compagnons du Devoir Guild, Vatinet holds his teachers in the highest regard for showing him how to convert his passion for baking into a brilliant career that has taken him around the world.

Vatinet has shared his gifts with top culinary students for years, notably at the prestigious San Francisco Baking Institute. He leads bread and pizza classes every month at La Farm and at the Cary home he shares with his wife and business partner, Missy. They recently installed a wood-fired brick oven to expand teaching opportunities.

For those unable to enjoy these hands-on experiences, Vatinet aims to share his expertise and inspire home cooks to become avid bread bakers through his book. The handsome volume contains more than 400 photos that demonstrate step-by-step techniques, as well as his "7 Steps to Making Great Bread."

"When I first said how many photos I wanted in the book, I thought my publisher would faint," says Vatinet. "I want people to learn what dough should feel like in their hands, how good it smells and how much better it is for you than commercial breads. People say they are afraid of yeast and don't believe they can make bread like La Farm. But they can."

A Passion for Bread also contains dozens of popular recipes from the La Farm Bakery, several of which will be prepared by Fearrington House Chef Colin Bedford at a brunch event on Nov. 10.
While La Farm's flavorful breads get a boost from a custom oven that coats the dough with a timely spray of steam—the new outdoor oven features a steam spigot—Vatinet shares tricks of the trade for creating a similar environment in the average home kitchen. He also discusses the importance of using the best local and organic ingredients, such as North Carolina-raised and -ground wheat and local honey, to yield the tastiest loaves.

Vatinet is a key player in the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project. His wheat and rye flours are sourced exclusively from Carolina Ground Flour in Asheville. He plans to add its white flour as soon as the crop is viable.

"This is how bread has always been made in my village in France," he says of the practice of relying on local and regional ingredients instead of cheaper commercial brands. "It is what they call terrior. It's what gives bread its unique flavor, as well make it healthy to eat. It is good for the immune system."

Home bakers may not have easy access to artisanal ingredients, yet Vatinet advises that they purchase only organic and unbromated flours. "The use of bromates has been prohibited in Europe for years," he says. "It has been linked to cancer. I will not use it and strongly recommend that home bakers do the same."

Educating customers, and being educated by them, has led Vatinet to tweak his breads over the years.

"The South is known for softer breads and biscuits, so we had to develop an audience for crusty, chewy bread," he says, cringing at the mention of factory-made, long-lasting soft white bread. "Good white bread is delicious, but I do not think of that as good bread. To me, bread is an everyday commodity not meant to last for weeks."

In a bow to customers who enjoy crumbly cornbread, Vatinet created his hearty Frenchman's Corn Bread with local, stone-ground Yates Mill cornmeal. Cinnamon Raisin Pecan bread is a seasonal favorite. He also makes a moist and savory rye bread that makes Northern transplants feel at home.

"They are called Yankees, no?" he says with a playful gleam in his eye. "We make different breads on different days, and we have customers who come every week to get their favorite. They come in and shout to me, wave their hands. Let me tell you, it is a pleasure to make people happy with bread."