Friday, October 10, 2014

The right words are as important in food writing as ingredients in a recipe

What does it mean when a food writer declares a morsel as delicious? It is as tasty as something that is scrumptious? Does it approach the ultimate threshold of yummy? And if it does for me, will it for you?

Dianne Jacob
Such praise, however well intended, is evidence of lazy writing, says Dianne Jacob, author of Will Write for Food. An admired coach for newbie bloggers and top-selling cookbook authors, Jacob shared inspiring advice during the 2014 International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle.

"Adjectives are the crack of food writing," she said, amusing a capacity workshop with a litany of irksome examples. "Do you need to say that a brownie is chocolately, or fudgy? Grainy would be informative but unfortunate."

Jacob urged attendees to make food come alive for readers by placing their transporting aromas and specific textures in the context of a "good story." It might not require the complete elements of plot, but a little intrigue, a dollop of discovery or the sometimes overwhelming rush of taste memory will keep readers salivating.

“Make your adjectives count,” said Jacob, reading an example that ookily described unappetizing foodstuffs as “slimy” and “murky.” “Those give people images,” she added, raising an arched brow as many of us swallowed uncomfortably.

Jacob urged participants to reflect the vitality they first felt upon experiencing the topic being written about. Actions helps readers move through text as surely as a diner enters a restaurant (what did it look like? smell like?), sits down (cold vinyl or warm brocade?) and considers the menu (elegant old school or a date-stamped copy on a clip board?).

Context is as important to the story as salt is to the soup. Sometimes, it’s even more important. Who hasn’t been caught up in the rapture of a simple vacation meal only to discover that, even with the same wine or illicit cheese, it tastes incomprehensibly dull consumed in your own backyard? Conversely, the grandmotherly warmth of stuffed cabbage from the freezer case can bring unexpected tears of joy at the office microwave.

“Writing, as you know, can be excruciating,” Jacob said. “But it helps if you have fun.”

Jacob said food writers have a special challenge of engaging readers without making them resent the rich experience you really had and the calorie-free one they vicariously consume as a result.

Of the writer’s voice and tone, she said, “It’s got to be you, but maybe you on a little too much caffeine. You have to be a little bit exaggerated to write well but not be obvious.”

Jacobs led the group through two writing exercises, each of which were drafted in about 10 minutes. She stressed the importance of fully engaging your senses to describe a food-related experience.

Several volunteers read their drafts, including me:

I walked through the throng with purpose, away from the tourist mecca of tossed seafood to a shop with equally beautiful, bluster-free fish. I gazed with envy at the clear-eyed salmon resting, unblinking, on a bed of shaved ice. I heard the pitch about how ginormous crabs, bound with rubber bands to restrict their randy behavior, could be on my doorstep within 48 hours.

But I knew what I wanted, and I wanted it now. I spotted my precious as soon as my shoes squeaked on the wet shop floor. It was in a separate case, tucked away for people who knew where to look – people like me, who earned some status from a confident purchase a year ago. It was something I intended to bring home as a thoughtful souvenir, but which I ate in private; snarfed, really. I failed to mention it when I showed off my swag at home like a child with an especially good Halloween haul.

I paid less than 5 bucks for four burnished strips of teryiaki smoked salmon – which tasted for all the world to me like fancy candy that should have cost far more. I felt bouyant and generous, giving a strip to a newly made friend. I chewed and strolled, pausing to take in deep draws of fragrant flowers and thinking how people back home, three hours ahead, my friends who live to eat local, could not imagine my satisfaction.

For information about Dianne Jacob, visit her website. For information about the 2015 International Food Bloggers Conference, click here

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chef Greene debuts elegant fall menu for Herons at The Umstead

Just a few months after he returned to the kitchen as executive chef, Steven Deveraux Greene debuted his fall menu at Herons at the Umstead Hotel for a group of local food writers Wednesday evening. His stunning creations, partnered with a quartet of desserts from new Pastry Chef Evan Sheridan, left little doubt that he is up to the challenge of running one of the state's most elegant and acclaimed dining rooms.

Sommelier Hai Tran got the evening started outdoors on the expansive terrace with a round of fall-friendly drinks, including twists on classics like the Manhattan and the Dark and Stormy -- the latter of which, dubbed the Dark and Stormier, was an especially smooth sip. 

The Umstead's outstanding service was in evidence as suited servers deftly delivered platters of Greene's artfully plated tasting courses. Most are featured on the new harvest-themed fall menu, albeit in larger portions.

Greene said he was particularly pleased with this dish, which was served in a fantastical glass bowl that emphasized its spare beauty. An arrangement of king crab and grape gazpacho relish was doused with a delicate broth of vanilla scented Iberico ham broth poured from small tea pots.  (On the menu, the crab is replaced with Scottish langostines.)

Greene showed good humor with his Poussin Corn Dog, a savory bite of battered, deep-fried chicken set atop a dollop of truffled mustard and peppery yellow arugula blossoms. He said the dish dated back to his first stint at Heron's, before he became executive chef across the street at the stellar An Cuisines.

The beef tartare's bite of fresh horseradish was tempered with lemon confit and tarragon and polished to a glossy sheen with what was described as a beet-dashi veil. A round of buttery brioche cleverly concealed PB, FG and J -- a decadent blend of peanut butter, foie gras and muscadine jelly.

The Lobster Agnolotti was a pocket of squid ink pasta warmed in browned butter and served atop creamed sunchoke. The curiously named Beet Toast was revealed as a moist slice of sorghum bread with a wedge of roasted beet lacquered with a dressing that included vinegar infused with long-leaf pine needles gathered from the hotel grounds.

The showstopper of the evening was the still-warm Calvander Custard, in which Greene mellowed the aged, raw milk Chapel Hill Creamery cheese with more truffle and topped it with slivers of celery and cubes of roasted apple. Lucky guests congratulated Greene on the triumph, which should not be missed when choosing from the menu.

Four bite-sized desserts followed, starting with a creamy persimmon pudding framed with pine nut brittle, candy cap sabayon and date glaze.  It was accompanied by a single macaron shell garnished with a chocolate filled with a luscious calamansi citrus gel, a curl of pomegranate molasses and dusting of edible gold leaf.

The tasting concluded with a creamy chestnut custard with fig jam and toasted milk, and the beautifully plated Autumnal Cake, an appealingly light square of pear cake with roasted pear and walnut powder. If you took your time and savored the latter in small spoonfuls, you were rewarded with the discovery of a golden scoop of caramelina mousse on the bottom.

Guests were sent home with a harvest basket filled with a pair of butternut squash and fresh herbs from the SAS Farm, a mini loaf of Autumnal Squash Bread, and Sheridan's recipe to recreate at home. 

Autumn Squash Bread
By Pastry Chef Evan Sheridan

4 oz/111g maple syrup
2.5 oz/75g sugar
1 whole egg
1.6 oz/46g vegetable oil
6.75 oz/190g pureed roasted butternut squash
1/4 tsp/2g baking soda
1/8th tsp/4g ground clove
1/8th tsp/4g nutmeg
1/8th tsp/4g fresh sage, minced
1/8th tsp/4g fresh rosemary, minced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream the egg with the sugar, oil and maple syrup. Add in the roasted squash.

Sift the dry ingredients, then mix into the batter until just combined. Fold in the fresh minced herbs.

Bake in loaf pan coated with butter or cooking spray for 30-45 minutes or until the bread is firm on the top and an inserted toothpick comes out clean.

Little cookbooks, big results: Short Stack series has a Raleigh connection with Kaitlyn Goalen

Kaitlyn Goalen
(Indy Week photo by Jeremy M. Lange)
Increasingly, home cooks are forgoing expensive cookbooks in favor of finding recipes online or downloading interactive lessons to their e-readers. Why pay for milk, they reason, when they have free access to a highly productive cow?

Amid such frugal thinking, it may seem surprising that Short Stack—a collection of single-topic mini-cookbooks, handmade and stitched with peppermint-striped baker's string—would achieve success in the overstuffed culinary marketplace. These decidedly retro productions have charmed critics and attracted the participation of top cookbook writers and recipe developers.

Reviews have celebrated the creativity of New York City-based publisher Nick Fauchald, a former editor of Food & Wine, and the more than $92,000 the project quickly raised via Kickstarter. Interestingly, however, none of the ample praise has mentioned that Short Stack has roots in Raleigh.

Fauchald's co-founder and editor is Kaitlyn Goalen, who divides her time between Raleigh and Brooklyn. A former writer for Food & Wine and website Tasting Table, Goalen is the founder of Wild Yonder, a Raleigh-based foodcentric outdoor camp experience for adults. The 26-year-old has an even better reason for hanging around the capital city, however. She dates chef and restaurateur Ashley Christensen.

Goalen says she and Fauchald share a passion for vintage cookbooks, especially the giveaways that used to come with a bag of flour or the purchase of a new appliance in the 1940s and '50s. "Producing these small, beautiful, handmade books goes against everything in the industry," Goalen says. "But I think that's exactly why they click with people. You can look through one of these in 10 minutes and know what you want to make."

So far, Short Stack has published 10 titles, the most recent of which is Plums by Martha Holmberg. Previous topics include corn, honey, broccoli, sweet potatoes, grits, buttermilk, strawberries, tomatoes and eggs. Upcoming issues focus on apples and brown sugar.

While several volumes cover the same turf as the Savor the South series of single-topic cookbooks published by UNC Press, Short Stack is not Southern focused. And the slim collections include just 20 recipes each. "They are more like an author's love letter to a particular ingredient than a comprehensive cookbook," Goalen says.

Editions are sold online by subscription and for $14 each at select shops around the globe. Locally, they are sold at Parker and Otis in Durham.

Collection of Short Stack mini-cookbooks at Book Larder in Seattle
Short Stack already has a full roster of books scheduled for 2015 and is considering titles for 2016.

"We're trying to work on how to grow and keep the integrity of the project intact," Goalen says. "There have been times where we could have gone cheaper, or done things a little differently, but our success is validating."

With such a hectic work life, Goalen says she's glad to escape the city and enjoy a more relaxed pace in Raleigh.

"As someone who has only lived in giant cities before, I love it here," says the Los Angeles native. "People in New York seem burnt out, running on adrenaline and ambition. People I meet here are all incredibly engaged in something. They value the integrity of what they're doing and are passionate about collaborating.

"For me, having two communities feels really refreshing," she adds. "Some of our friends see us as having an essence of cool here in Raleigh. You know, cool people doing cool things at half the rent."

The mix of culturally savvy consumers and the natural beauty of North Carolina inspired Goalen to create Wild Yonder with friends Meredith Pittman and Heather Cook. The idea bubbled up while they were enjoying a few beers at the Wooden Nickel in Hillsborough.

"We thought about how great it would be to have a camp for grownups—with bourbon," she recalls with a laugh. "The next day we still were talking about it and decided to give it a shot."

Camps this season have featured games like Capture the Flask and a lesson in How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. "Instead of nasty camp food", we had an amazing meal prepared in advance by Cheetie Kumar of Garland, Goalen says. Live music was provided by Phil Cook of Megafaun and upscale s'mores were made with handcrafted Videri chocolate. A planned sleepover experience last weekend was canceled because of low ticket sales (tickets were $200 and up), but Goalen is optimistic about scheduling several next year. "The ultimate goal is to set up a hotel that will be a full-time project," she says. A location has not been selected but likely will be in or near the Triangle. "It would be a place where we could have programs, but also be a beautiful retreat."

Excerpted from Sweet Potatoes by Scott Hocker. Reprinted with permission of Short Stack.

This bold soup is so simple to make, it's nearly absurd. The recipe is inspired by what we in the United States know at many Thai restaurants as tom kha. As David Thompson notes in his superb cookbook Thai Food, this soup is more like a distant member of the tom gati school, a collection of soups that feature boiled coconut cream. It's fiery, sweet, sour and rich, from both the coconut and the sweet potatoes. I purée the soup for a silkier texture, even though doing so is inauthentic. But then so is using sweet potatoes.

Serves 4

2 small Thai or other hot chiles, stemmed
1 large shallot (about 4 oz.), peeled and thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, peeled
3 cilantro roots, scraped with the edge of a knife to remove dirt (cilantro roots are available at some farmers markets and Asian markets; if you can't find any, substitute 1/3 cup coarsely chopped thick cilantro stems)
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
One 14-oz. can unsweetened coconut milk
1 medium sweet potato (about 10 oz.), peeled and cut into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces
Kosher salt
1 tsp. tightly packed light brown sugar
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp. fish sauce
3 to 4 Tbsp. fresh lime juice (from about 2 limes)
¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves

In a mortar, pound the Thai chiles, shallot, garlic and cilantro roots or stems together with a pestle until bruised (alternatively, pulse 3 to 4 times in a food processor).

In a large saucepan, bring the stock and coconut milk to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add the chile-garlic mixture, sweet potatoes and 3/4 tsp. of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sweet potatoes are extremely soft, about 15 minutes.

Using a handheld immersion blender (or regular blender), purée the soup until it's smooth. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing on the solids. Discard the solids and return the liquid to the saucepan. Bring to a simmer and add the brown sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. Adjust the seasonings, if needed; the flavor should be boldly sweet, salty and sour. Divide the soup among 4 bowls and garnish with cilantro leaves. Serve immediately.

This post first appeared in Indy Week