Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The first-ever Chapel Hill-Carrboro Small Plate Crawl

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    More than 20 restaurants are expected to participate in theChapel Hill-Carrboro Small Plate Crawl, a new dining event that launches Tuesday and continues through Thursday.

    This undertaking marks the expansion of a popular series of events first staged in 2009 in Hendersonville, N.C., by Asheville-based food blogger Laura Huff, or Carolina Epicurean. "It was my way of doing community service," Huff says. "Restaurants were hurting from the 2008 crash. They really needed a way to get people back at their tables."

    Diners were enticed to visit on typically slow nights with budget-friendly small plates of $3 to $10. The promotion not only lured locals back into their favorite spots but also got them to try new ones.

    The Hendersonville event also served to attract food lovers willing to drive for a good deal. One of them was Nichole Livengood, who plays a similar role as Huff in Greenville, S.C. Known there for her work as Gap Creek Gourmet, Livengood helped Huff's effort to expand the small plate crawl to Asheville. Last March, they added Greenville, which boasts another lively culinary scene.

    Now business partners, their success did not go unnoticed. The Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, which supports the annual TerraVita Food & Beverage Festival (Oct. 8-10), signed on as the event's official sponsor, making it easier for Huff and Livengood to recruit popular eateries. A tempting list of featured menu items—ranging from Crispy Arancini ($3) at Il Palio (which has been closed for renovations) to Beet Tartare Salad at City Kitchen ($10) and Black & White Affogato ($5) at La Dolce Vita CafĂ©—is being updated daily.

    There is no fee or registration required to participate in the small plate crawl, but diners interested in winning restaurant gift certificates or other prizes need to download a free app and scan designated QR codes after ordering featured menu items. Chefs and bartenders who get the most votes are also are eligible for rewards.

    Like the debut event that will soon follow in Charleston, S.C., Huff says the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Small Plate Crawl will become an annual event. "We expect it to be even bigger next year," she says. "When restaurants see how successful their neighbors were this year, they'll want to join in."
    This post first appeared in Indy Week

    Wednesday, September 23, 2015

    Carolina Inn's Crossroads reopens with more approachable look, menu

    Sunburst trout filet - PHOTO BY JILL WARREN LUCAS
    • Sunburst trout filet
    Nearly four months after closing for major renovations, the restaurant and lounge at Chapel Hill's Carolina Inn have traded spaces and reopened with a new look and name.

    The Inn announced the planned renovation of Carolina Crossroads—now named Crossroads Chapel Hill— in March at the institution's 90th anniversary celebration. The new digs look so different you might find yourself stopping in the hallway to reconsider your bearings. Conservatively clubby furnishings have yielded to a less formal, more contemporary elegance that trades white linen tablecloths for marble tabletops and understated Rosenthal china. While it should satisfy longtime patrons, the redesign is bound to make Crossroads attractive to younger diners who found the former setting stuffy, too.

    Walls are gone, clearing out the lounge, which now opens onto one of the Triangle's most inviting lawns. The famous Front Porch, which will feature a few more Fridays on the Front Porch music events this season as well as Tailgate'Inn gatherings during home UNC football games, is set with cozy dining tables and outdoor sofas and chairs.

    As before, the fare focuses on regionally sourced ingredients prepared in a mostly Southern style, evidenced by a soft opening late last week. Diners can choose from the bar or restaurant menus, or a mix of each. The affordable all-day bar menu features "sharing jar" appetizers ($5 each or three for $14) like silky butterbean hummus with confit olive and "snacks" ($7–$12) such as the crispy fried green tomatoes topped with a tingly blend of horseradish sauce and crumbled blue cheese. "Plates" range from the Crossroads Salad ($8) to a six-ounce steakburger ($9) and BBQ shrimp po'boy ($12), making Crossroads a reasonable splurge.

    The signature cocktails I tried, the Carolina Lemonade and Blackberry Fizz ($10 each), were not especially memorable, though the server was successful in suggesting wines to complement entrees chosen from the restaurant's dinner menu. A glass of Carletto Pinot Grigio ($9) was just right for the clean flavors of roasted apple, corn and Swiss chard with cider moonshine reduction. It supported a plump, perfectly cooked Sunburst trout filet ($22). And a robust pour of Belltown Cabernet Sauvignon ($10) was a good choice for cutting through the richness of the fork-tender short rib pot roast with lightly roasted fall vegetables ($24).

    There are plenty of other temptations on the menu, including vegetarian-friendly mushroom-and-Carolina-Gold-rice cakes with stewed pigeon peas, pumpkin and braised kale ($18) and wild boar meatloaf with buttermilk smashed potatoes and charred carrots ($23). Next time...

    You'll be able to boast of extraordinary resolve if you're able to push away the dessert menu ($5–$10) without placing an order. We were unable to resist the gingery pear crisp topped with a quenelle of sorghum-butter pecan ice cream and pistachio pie garnished with mascarpone and a drizzle of the inn's signature honey.

    Crossroads is still led by Executive Chef James Clark, who is as happy with the $400,000 behind-the-scenes improvements in the kitchen as he is with the splendid dining room. New refrigerators have been installed and the work flow improved to serve hotel guests and diners who should fill the added seats. The kitchen was closed three days longer than planned because the 40-year-old ventilation system's replacement needed a new steel infrastructure to support its weight.

    "It was frustrating, but it's great now," Clark said while surveying the meals, many of them cooked on his favorite battered old pans."We couldn't get rid of those. That's where all the goodness comes from."
    This post first appeared in Indy Week.

    20th anniversary: Goat Lady Dairy has become a model of long-term success

    Goat Lady Dairy’s Steve Tate,
surrounded by his upgraded facilities

    Goat Lady Dairy’s Steve Tate, surrounded by his upgraded facilities
    Steve Tate explains that there are three kinds of farms.
    There are hobby farms, where owners dabble in growing produce or raising animals with the goal of feeding themselves and sharing the abundance with friends. There are lifestyle farms, where the dabbling expands to active selling—first to break even and then, perhaps, establishing a successful, even sustainable business model.
    “And then there are livelihood farms, which are the only kind you can pass on,” says Tate, co-owner of Goat Lady Dairy, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month in the Randolph County town of Climax. “We’re not quite there, but that’s what we’ve been building toward for the past three years. We want to retire, and we don’t want to just turn off the lights here, which is what happens to so many small farms.”
    It doesn’t appear that it will happen at Goat Lady. During the last half-decade, the Tates have taken considerable steps to ensure that the farm will outlive their tenure on it. In turn, one of North Carolina’s pioneering goat cheese outlets has upped its output considerably, becoming a leader in small-scale cheese production. The journey, though, has rarely been certain.
    The award-winning operation started as a hobby farm in 1984, when Tate’s sister, Ginnie, bought 42 acres of land in northeastern Randolph County. Located about an hour west of Chapel Hill, the abandoned tobacco farm became her refuge from the demands of her job as a nurse administrator.
    She’d grown up on a corn farm in Illinois, so the parcel—complete with a 200-year-old log cabin and barns in ruin—felt like a perfect fit. She originally called it Nubie Acres, a nod to the two pet Nubian goats she acquired while living in Coneta, a tiny community near the state’s eastern end. While living there, she had acquired a nickname for herself as the herd grew.
    “It was unincorporated and didn’t have any rules,” Tate recalls with a chuckle, one of several that bubbles up when talking about his older sister. “When she got home from work, she would take the goats from their pen and walk them through town, like you’d walk your dogs. That’s where she first got her reputation as ‘the goat lady.’”
    click to enlargePHOTO BY JILL WARREN LUCAS
    • Photo by Jill Warren Lucas
    Eventually, in Climax, locals first got to know Ginnie when she opened her farm to the public for basil and garlic festivals intended to help visitors appreciate the importance of small-scale farming. She later held events to demonstrate the appeal of raising affectionate goats and using their milk for cheese. She’d drive around with gleefully shrieking goats loaded into her Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, too.
    “She was a very curious, energetic person,” Tate says of his sister, who died from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 2009, the same year she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Conservation Trust for North Carolina. “You never quite knew where her passion would take her.”
    Agricultural leaders in Raleigh soon began to understand as much after she mastered volume milking and making artisan cheese. By the late ’80s, Ginnie was consulting with experts at N.C. State University and the state Department of Agriculture about turning her hobby farm into a bona fide cheese business.
    “They laughed at her,” Steve recalls. “They said, ‘No one in Central North Carolina wants goat cheese—or even knows what it is.’”
    Confident they were as wrong as the naysayers who believed the U.S. could never produce wine that would compete with European labels, Ginnie forged ahead. Steve says there was just one artisan cheese maker in North Carolina at the time, Celebrity Dairy in nearby Siler City. That provided inspiration, as did a trio of women achieving critical acclaim making goat cheese: Mary Keehn of Cypress Grove in California, Allison Hopper of Vermont Creamery and Judy Schad at Capriole in southern Indiana.
    “She was a pioneer here just as they were in their states,” Steve explains. “They all were eccentric, ambitious women who started making great cheese with little goat herds. She was convinced people would buy good goat cheese, and she was right.”
    Goat Lady Dairy became a licensed cheese-making business in 1995. Steve and his wife, Lee, moved their family from Minnesota to join the operation. They now live in a cabin across the street on an additional 15-acre parcel acquired to give the growing herd more room to roam.
    A decade later, some of those same agricultural consultants and professors invited Ginnie to lead a workshop for farmers who wanted to add value to their farms by producing cheese or other signature products. This amused her.
    “She said she would,” Steve remembers, “but she’d also tell the story how they laughed at her.”
    Indeed, Goat Lady was on the leading edge of the artisanal cheese movement, particularly for North Carolina, which now has at least 30 licensed cheese-producing dairies. Tate believes that moderate weather and exceptional grazing land help North Carolina dairies produce such outstanding cheese.
    “And most of those have goats,” Tate notes of the farms. “I like to say North Carolina has become the Vermont of the South, because we have more cheese makers than any other Southern state.”
    click to enlargePHOTO BY JILL WARREN LUCAS
    • Photo by Jill Warren Lucas
    In July, Goat Lady’s savory Roasted Red Pepper Chevre nabbed an award at the American Cheese Society’s annual conference and competition. Another entrant, Providence, took third place honors, too, bringing Goat Lady’s tally of highly competitive ACS awards to nine. Not bad for a cheese that stemmed from a blunder, says Tate.
    “Our Providence cheese was a mistake. I was trying to make a washed rind cheese, like a taleggio,” Tate explains, laughing as he describes the resulting aged goat milk cheese that, unlike a semi-soft taleggio, is firm enough to grate like Parmesan. “Thankfully, it became something even better.”
    In general, however, Goat Lady has grown more deliberate. While Ginnie Tate lived to see her dream become a successful business, her passing led Steve and Lee to focus on the company’s long-term viability. They intend to sell the farm and retire in 2016. Alexander Kast, Goat Lady’s head cheese maker, and Carrie Bradds, the cheese room manager, are among several parties interested in the purchase.
    “Whatever happens,” Tate says, “the current managers will take a leading role in carrying the business on. It will be part of the deal.”
    This process has been in the works for years. In 2012, Goat Lady launched a major transformation, including a significant building expansion that remade a clay floor goat barn and milking parlor as a high-tech production center. Customized pasteurization machinery and other precision devices allow Goat Lady to better monitor processes and ensure more consistent outcomes.
    A year later, they hired Kast, an internationally trained cheese maker and a former cheese monger and buyer for Southern Season. And later in 2013, a $300,000 USDA Value-Added Producer Grant pushed the business’ consistency and quality even higher.
    “If we hadn’t gotten that grant, I don’t know if we could have made it,” Tate says. “People want to see the romance of local food and farming, but it’s a very risky thing.”
    The risks are yielding rewards, at least. Goat Lady is poised to produce 90,000 pounds of cheese by the end of 2015, a massive jump from 40,000 pounds in 2012. It recently picked up a major new account, Chop’t, a fast-casual salad chain opening soon in Charlotte, with Raleigh and other North Carolina locations to follow in 2016. Tate also anticipates expanding from Whole Foods’ Southern market to the chain’s mid-Atlantic and Rocky Mountain regions.
    Such achievements give Goat Lady plenty of reasons to celebrate its 20th-anniversary milestone. The party started Monday with a dinner for industry partners prepared by an all-star group of North Carolina chefs. And on Saturday afternoon, a public party will welcome fans back to an annual Open Farm Day event. Visitors will be able to meet the farmers and cheese makers, as well as some of the goats that produce the milk for the Goat Lady’s award-winning cheeses. Ginnie Tate, Climax’s Goat Lady, would have liked that.
    “It’s important for people to visit farms and understand where their food comes from,” Tate says, recalling a befuddled tour participant who asked sincerely if they have to kill goats to remove their cheese. “When we change a person’s relationship with food, we change them and the world for the better.”
    This article appeared in print with the headline Getting their goat.

    A day at the farm

    The day started early at Goat Lady Dairy, with head cheese maker Alexander Kast leaving his Pittsboro home around 4:40 a.m. for a 40-minute drive to the bucolic farm in rural Randolph County. Steve Tate’s commute took only about two minutes, from when he filled a coffee cup in his kitchen to when he arrived at his office across the street.
    The pair was working on a batch of its top-selling Lindale cheese, a Dutch-style gouda. They began with 240 gallons of buttery yellow cow milk from Williams Dairy, their neighbor two miles down the road.

    “It doesn’t get much fresher than that,” Tate offered with a grin.

    Pumped into stainless steel vats, it frothed like a child’s bubble bath. After warming and swirling it with a propriety blend of culture and rennet, they expelled much of the milk’s content as watery whey, retained for
    use as pig feed and pasture fertilizer. After four months of controlled cave aging, the process will produce 20 10-pound wheels of smooth, creamy cheese.

    The chevre on which Goat Lady first built its reputation is still produced at the facility. Hundreds of tempting rounds, like the ash-lined Sandy Creek and lightly smoked Smokey Mountain, age in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms. They will be hand wrapped for sale in perfect folds of breathable paper, though the countless logs of fresh chevre are no longer individually rolled by hand. Thanks to the 2013 USDA grant that helped fund Goat Lady’s expansion, the cheese is efficiently piped into shrink-wrapped logs that rest on rolling shelf carts while awaiting packaging.

    The aging room held a few mystery cheeses, too, experiments for established or prospective clients. “It’s going to be a feta—I think,” Tate said, tapping a square of cheese firming up on a top shelf with evident optimism. “Or, who knows? It might be something even better.”

    Thursday, September 17, 2015

    PieBird, Raleigh's pie-only institution, closes, at least for now

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      PieBird, a leader in the revitalization of downtown Raleigh's North Person district, quietly closed its doors Sept. 8. Owner Sheilagh Sabol Cassidy says the business is in the process of restructuring and she hopes to reopen soon.

      Named for the gadget that allows steam to vent from a baking pie, the all-pie eatery launched in March 2011. Bounded by the Oakwood and Mordecai neighborhoods, the North Person Street sector was a different place then, with paper covering the windows of long abandoned storefronts. Cassidy's friends told her she was crazy to invest in a business there, but PieBird's sweet and savory options quickly found an appreciative audience.

      The area is now lined with bustling shops and restaurants. Niall Hanley of Raleigh Beer Garden and the Hibernian pubs opened The Station directly across the street from PieBird in November 2013. Chef Scott Crawford's long-awaited Standard Foods is expected to open around the corner later this month. There's a book shop and a bakery, a wine store and a bike business. And a popular Raleigh-based food truck aims to open its first brick-and-mortar operation nearby.

      "It's a loss for the area. They'll be missed," says Chad McIntyre of the restaurant at Person Street Pharmacy, located just steps from PieBird's locked front door. "They definitely helped get the area back on track as a business-and-residential destination. I don't think it would have been as much of a draw without them."

      This post first appeared in Indy Week.

      Monday, September 14, 2015

      Peach-fig chutney

      I hit the jackpot a few weeks ago at the Whole Foods annual peach sale, where I bought a 25-pound box of Georgia peaches for about $17. 

      Or so I thought. The box was never weighed and I was encouraged to top it off to ensure I had at least 25 pounds. Given how many canning recipes I've completed, I have to believe I brought home a much heavy haul. 

      After making peach riesling jelly, peach mustard, peach raspberry jam and peach butter, I'm glad that I resisted the urge to get two boxes. 

      The project that generated the most interest among friends has been the chutney, which I thought of as a way to feature figs shared by a friend. I couldn't find anything quite like what I was looking for in my canning books or online. I was especially grateful when Sean Timberlake of Punk Domestics, a terrific site for creative canners, offered to take a look at my plan. He pronounced it safe. Now that it's done, I pronounce it delicious.

      The only change I've made to the recipe below is to add more chili flakes. I started with a too-subtle 1/2 teaspoon, which kept the heat at little more than a suggestion. If you're a chili head, by all means use more.

      Peach-Fig Chutney

      4 pounds yellow peaches (about 8-9 cups, peeled and chopped into chunks)
      1 medium yellow onion, minced (about 1 cup)
      1 cup dried apricots, diced
      11/2  cup fresh figs, quartered
      1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
      1 cup white sugar
      1/2 cup brown sugar
      2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
      2 tsp grated ginger
      1 tsp kosher salt
      1 tsp red chili flakes
      zest and juice of 1 lemon

      Place all ingredients in canning pot. Warm gradually, increasing heat to medium for a slow bubble. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching.

      When figs have melted and peach chunks are tender, transfer 2-3 cups of mixture to blender and puree until smooth. Return to canning pot and increase heat to medium high. Stir often and carefully - mixture may generate volcano-like eruptions when stirred - until mixture has become as thick as a jam or preserve. If uncertain, test on a plate or metal spoons well chilled in the freezer. If the sample wrinkles or can be pressed into a clean streak, it's ready.

      Fill prepared canning jars and process in water bath 15 minutes.