Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Denver-based Smashburger debuts in Durham; win free entree coupons

Smashburger aims to reinvent the casual hamburger experience with an array of upscale burgers presented with flavorful, healthy toppings. The Denver-based chain, which last week opened its 256th location at Durham’s Pavilion East at Lakeview shopping center on Erwin Road, also serves grilled chicken sandwiches and salads that are superior to most fast food joints.

Smashburger invited a a few dozen people to try its signature sandwiches last Tuesday night, a sort of test run before officially opening on Wednesday. Friendly servers visited tables in the bright eatery to deliver unsolicited but welcome servings of crispy french fries with garlic and rosemary, and thin haystack-style onion rings, both of which were well seasoned and appealingly crunchy. The “veggie fries,” unbreaded carrots and green beans, described as a healthier option, were tasty but glistening with grease. Sides range from $1.99 to $2.99.

The thing that makes a Smashburger different from dozens of other chain options is the way they are prepared. Starting with certified angus beef that is never frozen, burgers begin as loose balls of meat that are placed on the grill atop a pat of sizzling butter. A proprietary tool then is used to, yes, smash the meatball into familiar burger form.

The result is a crisp sear on a burger unafraid to show its shiny curves. Fat imparts essential flavor in beef, and tender egg buns are the ideal conveyance. The 1/3-pound Smash is $5.99 and the ½-pound Big Smash is $6.99 (add-ons, like bacon or avocado, are $1 each).

Classic Smashburger 
The first combination offered to guests was the Classic Smash, with American cheese, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickles and onion – plus, of course, secret housemade Smash sauce. More adventurous choices include the BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar, with its tangy-sweet cranberry barbecue sauce, and the Carolina Chili Burger, a regional specialty with well balanced ingredients served on a pretzel bun. The Truffled Mushroom & Swiss, with its distinctive flavor coming from a mayo-based spread, was a favorite at our table.

While the vegetarian Avocado Ranch Black Bean burger generated mixed reviews – it got a solid thumbs-up from me – there was strong consensus that that grilled chicken sandwiches were very good. In fact, they were better than the burgers. Chicken sandwiches are $6.99 each. (Salads were not sampled but sound tempting from the menu descriptions; they are $5.99 each, with optional grilled chicken for an extra $2).

The meal was capped off with a sample of Smashburger’s thick and creamy milkshakes makes with Haagen-Das ice cream ($3.99 to $4.29). The sea salt caramel was slurp-worthy but too sweet. Asking your server to customize a slightly less syrupy version would be well advised. 

Smashburger has offered Eating My Words readers a chance to win a pair of coupons for free entrées at the Durham location. To enter, follow @Smashburger online and enter a comment below by 12 noon Friday, March 21, stating which menu item you are most curious to try. A winner will be selected randomly.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Andrea Weigl's 'Pickles & Preserves' gives food its staying power

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Andrea Weigl will launch her book tour with events at 7pm Wednesday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh and at 7pm March 19 for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOPNC) at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. Both are free and open to the public.

As surely as the college basketball’s Final Four leads to the return of Major League Baseball, the reappearance of farmers markets is about to spark the season of canning.

Those seduced by the magical transformation of fruit and sugar, or vegetables and pickling salt, know that early spring is a time of joy in North Carolina. Canning jars emptied over winter stand ready to be filled with long awaited rhubarb and strawberries, followed by peaches and berries and, of course, the cornucopia of all things pickleable.

A wonderful new resource is available for home canners, Pickles & Preserves, a book by Andrea Wiegl, food writer for The News & Observer. Perfect for novices and loaded with recipes that experienced canners will enjoy, it is part of the Savor the South series of single-topic cookbooks published by UNC Press.

While she remembers Grandma Weigl canning all sorts of practical foods, Weigl herself started preserving only about eight years ago. “It’s something I always wanted to do, and I was determined to teach myself,” says Weigl, who spontaneously purchased a canning pot and some basics at a hardware store. “I can’t remember now if I made strawberries first, or maybe peaches, but I was hooked.”

Weigl regrets disposing of a stash of her late grandmother’s canning jars—the aged contents had spoiled—but says that generous neighbors came to her aid when she was testing recipes for the book. “We have a neighborhood garden club that is more of a social club, and so many of the ladies gave me jars,” says Weigl, who figures she filled hundreds of them as she mastered the featured recipes. “That was so encouraging.”

Weigl felt like she needed the boost. Her daughter was not quite a year old when she started the labor intensive project, and it sometimes was a challenge to make pickles and preserves while balancing the baby’s needs and working a full-time job.

“I look back now and can’t even fathom how I did it,” she says. “I asked for a year to write the book because I need that to work with what was in season.”
Despite constant testing and a weeklong visit from her mother, during which they made more than a dozen different recipes, Weigl discovered at the end that she somehow managed to miss some key produce. That’s when she picked up the phone.

“I asked people for recipes,” Weigl says. “Sheri Castle was nice enough to share her corn and sweet pepper relish recipe.”

Weigl has nice friends. The book includes recipes from several acclaimed canners, chefs and cookbook writers, including Andrea Reusing of Lantern restaurant; April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter; fellow Savor the South writers Debbie Moose, Kathleen Purvis and Sandra Gutierrez; and Jean Anderson, whose 1976 Green Thumb Preserving Guide was reissued by UNC Press in 2012.

Weigl is especially proud to include Anderson’s summery Yellow Squash Pickles, which she admits she can’t live without. “I absolutely love that recipe and never came across anything like in my research,” she says.

The book includes a useful guide to canning safety, which Weigl presents in accessible terms meant to encourage new canners to take up the practice.
“Canning can be intimidating, which is why I think I waited so long to try it myself,” she says. “If you have a better understand of the why we do certain things, there’s less reason to be afraid.”

Weigl is eager for the return of spring fruits and summer vegetables but admits that the short window in fall when Damson plums arrive is her favorite part of the canning season.

“I also look forward to honeysuckles coming back to make honeysuckle jelly,” she says, referencing the very first recipe in the book. “There’s something about finding your patch of honeysuckle and taking the time to pick four cups’ worth to make jelly that is really satisfying.”

Soft Refrigerator Honeysuckle Jelly
From Pickles & Preserves, a Savor the South cookbook by Andrea Weigl. Copyright 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
Weigel suggests using the leftover honeysuckle infusion to make lemonade.

Makes 2 half-pint jars

4 cups honeysuckle blossoms, packed but not crushed, green parts removed, including leaves and tips
5 1/3 cups cool water
Juice of half a large lemon
2/3 cup sugar
4 tablespoons instant pectin (also called no-cook freezer pectin)

Place the honeysuckle blossoms in a large nonreactive bowl and add the water. Use a plate to weigh down the flowers so they’re completely submerged. Let sit out overnight.

The next day, strain the juice from the blossoms and reserve. Measure out 1 2/3 cups honeysuckle infusion and place in a bowl. Add the lemon juice.
Combine the sugar and pectin in a large bowl. Stir to prevent lumps of pectin in the sugar.

Pour the honeysuckle mixture into the bowl with the pectin and sugar. Stir briskly with a whisk for 4 minutes until the mixture is thoroughly combined and starts to thicken.

Lade the jelly into clean plastic freezer jars, seal with lids, and place in the refrigerator. The jelly will be soft set after 24 hours and will keep for one month in the refrigerator.

Bull City Food and Beer Experience a marriage of craft beer and fine food

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

The second annual Bull City Food and Beer Experience expressed its name admirably on Sunday as hundreds of patrons enjoyed the experience of thoughtful food and craft beer pairings that put the flavors of food first.

During a panel discussion on the state of craft beer in North Carolina, Sean Lily Wilson of Durham’s Fullsteam brewery said that’s exactly how it ought to be. 

“The point is not to make a wacky beer that takes like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” says Wilson, who admittedly makes a seasonal fruitcake beer, “but to make a great beer that takes a back seat to really enhance the flavor of food and encourage conversation. I really think that’s where the industry is going, and it’s exactly where we want to be.”

While some offerings did not stray far from typical pub fare, exceptional food and beer pairings abounded at the event, which filled two floors and spilled onto the stage of the Durham Performing Arts Center. A portion of proceeds from each $75 ticket will benefit the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association.

Without a doubt, the most ambitious and delicious presentation came from Durham’s G2B Gastro Pub and Unibroue brewery of Quebec.

“For an event like this, it’s go big or go home, right?” says G2B Chef Carrie Schleiffer, who presented four upscale nibbles – pork rillettes with fig chutney; Scottish salmon ceviche with walnuts, red onion and cilantro; pear agrodulce; and sugar dough chocolate ganache – to complement the complex light and dark beers poured by a representative of the Canadian brewery.

Other strong pairings included 21st Amendment Brewing of San Francisco, which offered its full-bodied Back in Black and the crisp Sneak Attack to complement the hearty smoked pork belly, sauerkraut and potatoes provided by Vin Rouge. End slices of the massive pork bellies – they started with 60 pounds’ worth – tasted like the best salty candy you could imagine.

The experience of walking upstairs to the second floor was like entering a cartoon in which a snake charmer draws you in. Fortunately, the first station was operated by Billy and Kelli Cotter of Toast. They were steaming mussels in Carolina Brewery’s Tripel Belgian. The mollusks were served in little cups with spicy, buttery broth that made a great shooter on its own.

Spicy seafood also was on tap at Saltwater Seafood Joint’s table, which paired a savory chowder with with Founder’s Brewing Co  of Grand Rapids, Mich. “Durham’s got a reputation now. We’ve got to bring it,” quips chef Ricky Moore. “No more bolgona sandwiches for these folks.”

Patrons were dazzled – and some a bit tipsy – after sampling the fare offered by 30 Durham eateries and 50 brewers. Food was offered in bite-sized portions, with providers happily offering seconds to swooners, and beer was poured as samples in short souvenir glasses.

Courtney Whilden of Chapel Hill had just a sip or two the whole evening. “I’m pregnant but didn’t want to miss this because it was so much fun last year,” Whilden, who was toting a water bottle. “We learned so much about craft beer. I think we drank more beer, really good beer, last year than we ever did before.”

The opportunity to sample a diverse assortment quality beer also was irresistible to Debbie Lidowski of Durham. “I thought beer was just disgusting when everyone was drinking it in college,” says Lidowski, who despised beginner brands like Miller Lite but was glad to stand in line for a pour from New Holland Brewing of Holland, Mich. “I’m so happy there’s been a whole movement of craft beer that’s being celebrated right here in our town.”

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Reason No. 473 on why you should learn how to can

I've been spending the day happily browsing Andrea Weigl's new Pickles & Preserves, a volume in the Savor the South series from UNC Press. It is a pleasant reminder of the joys of canning, a welcome thought on this day when our windows are open to a sunny and mild March afternoon. 

I am reminded of the contentedness that comes from both making canned goods and sharing them with friends, as well as the simple pleasure of opening a jar of something that tastes as seasonal as the day it was sealed. With such good cheer, could one be faulted for using one's own canning pantry to create a cocktail at 4 in the afternoon?

Sad news on a day last summer halted my plan to make Bill Smith's famous honeysuckle sorbet. Rather than pitch the fragrant infusion, I turned it into a simple syrup and placed filled pint jars in a boiling water bath. I hoped for the best, assuming the delicate flavor would droop.

But, oh, it did not. Combine with muddled mint and lemon, a spoonful of jam, a shot of vodka and a splash of soda, and you've got a taste of summer on a not-quite spring day.

Honeysuckle Sipper

Makes one drink.

2-3 fresh mint leaves
1 slim wedge of lemon
1 generous teaspoon raspberry jam (or other flavor)

3 ounces honeysuckle syrup
2 ounces vodka
club soda

Muddle mint and lemon in a cocktail shaker. Add jam and ice, then honeysuckle syrup and vodka. Shake vigorously.

Strain and pour into tall ice-filled glass. Top with club soda and give it a quick stir. Garnish with a mint leaf. (If it's your first one. Otherwise, forget it.)

Rinse and repeat.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Let's Lunch: Orange curd tarts fit for Alice

“In the very middle of the court was a table, with a large dish of tarts upon it: they looked so good, that it made Alice quite hungry to look at them--`I wish they'd get the trial done,' she thought, `and hand round the refreshments!' But there seemed to be no chance of this, so she began looking at everything about her, to pass away the time.”
--Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)

This past weekend, we welcomed friends at an open house to meet our almost-daughter-in-law, Angel Barnes, and her relentlessly endearing pup, Pilot. We also had the good fortune to show off Tim’s mother, Dotty, who flew here for the occasion from Ohio.  

We started planning the menu weeks ago and spent the days before the party in a mad dash of housecleaning and cooking. One could not help thinking at the time, “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!” -- which made a particular sweet seem the perfect selection for this month's Let's Lunch topic of "literary food."

I had decided early on to make a batch of sunny orange curd to fill scalloped phyllo tart shells. The oranges were from a package of spectacular Honeybells, a heavenly blend of sweet Dancy tangerines and tangy grapefruit, that we’d received as a gift from my brother.  

The tarts were one of four bite-sized nibbles we made for the dessert table, including strawberry balsamic meringues, mini double-chocolate cupcakes and shot-glass portions of Bill Smith’s justifiably famous butterscotch pudding. The latter required the most frequent refilling to cure briefly heartbroken guests who thought they missed their luscious window of opportunity.

The tarts, however, were so damn good that Tim personally invited everyone to grab a few before they were gone, which happened faster than I imagined. And while I still had plenty of curd, I had no extra shells.

Had I done my homework in advance, I would have better understood the literary implications of offering, and then denying, this potent elixir. According to Scribd. – an online source surely cited by countless college freshmen – orange’s symbolism in literature references “the point of balance between the spirit and the libido; it may be the emblem of divine love or extreme lust.”  

Lesson learned. Make this lovely curd with the best seasonal oranges available – and buy more than two packages of tart shells.

Honeybell Orange Curd Tarts
Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s As Orange as It Gets.

4 tablespoons *Honeybell orange zest (or other seasonal variety)
4 large egg yolks, room temperature
¾ cup sugar
6½ tablespoons freshly squeezed Honeybell orange juice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces and softened
pinch of kosher salt
3-4 packages of phyllo tart shells (such as Athens, from freezer case)

Zest two large Honeybell oranges into a small bowl; set aside.

Juice the oranges. Pour through a mesh sieve to remove any fiber. If you have more than 6½ tablespoons of juice, swig the bonus.

In a heavy saucepan, beat the yolks and sugar until well blended. Stir in the orange juice, butter and salt. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly. Be careful to never let the mixture boil – it will curdle, breaking your heart and forcing you to start over. Scrape sides of pan now and then to ensure thorough blending.

The curd will take on a rich orange color as it thickens to a consistency similar to hollandaise. It should thickly coat a wooden spoon when done, allowing you to swipe a clean stripe and – strictly for scientific purposes – taste its excellent flavor.

Press the curd through a fine sieve if you are concerned about residue, but I never bother. Fold in zest and allow curd to cool. Transfer to an airtight container, lightly pressing a layer of plastic wrap against the curd.

About an hour before your guests arrive, bake the phyllo tart shells according to directions on the package. When cooled, fill each with a generous teaspoon of curd and arrange on a platter. Remember to take a photo prove how pretty they were before they rapidly vanish.

* My favorite source for Honeybells is Cushman's, which operates the easy-to-remember website www.honeybells.com. This year we received a disappointing shipment, which was somewhat understandable given Florida's unseasonably cold winter. A call to customer service yielded a sincere apology and a replacement box that was nothing short spectacular. 

NOTE: Let’s Lunch (#LetsLunch) is a Twitter-based virtual lunch club where anyone interested can join this monthly "lunch date." A topic is posted at least a month in advance, and all posts are made on the same d ay -- typically the first Friday of the month -- by a group of bloggers who range from amateurs to best-selling cookbook writers. Anyone can join at any time. Search for #LetsLunch on Twitter or Let's Lunch on Facebook.