Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Comfort me in cooking: Ruth Reichl rediscovers the life affirming call of her kitchen

Ruth Reichl
(Photo by Fiona Aboud)
We've all sought consolation from disappointment in food. For Ruth Reichl, the act of cooking became a life saver of sorts. A glamorous career of writing for some of the country's most distinguished food publications crashed without warning in October 2009, when Condé Nast pulled the plug on Gourmet. Reichl had been the magazine's editor for 10 years, elevating the publication to cult status among its devoted readers.

Obligated nonetheless to a press tour to promote the then-new Gourmet Cookbook, a massive tome featuring more than 1,000 recipes, Reichl repeatedly answered the same questions from bereaved subscribers and curious reporters: How she was holding up? 

Not very well, actually. It wasn't until she got home that Reichl began to feel clarity about her circumstances. 

"And so I did what I always do when I'm confused, lonely or frightened: I disappeared into the kitchen," she writes in My Kitchen Life: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, her new cookbook and memoir. She allowed herself to rediscover and luxuriate in ingredients and techniques set aside during a demanding career. "When you pay attention," she says, "cooking becomes a meditation." 

As demonstrated in previous memoirs Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me With Apples, Reichl has one of the most engagingly familiar narrative voices in food. Post Gourmet, it has connected her with an adoring online community that thrills to her haiku-like daily tweets at @RuthReichl. And now, in a move uncommon for cookbooks, publisher Random House has even issued My Kitchen Life as an audiobook.

"We actually don’t do many cookbooks in audio format because it usually doesn’t lend itself well to being read aloud," says Alex Chernin, her publicist. "We did Ruth’s because of the narrative aspect."

While Reichl's voice becomes an earworm as she shares her story of redemption through cooking, it's equally appealing to hear how she describes each recipe. Instead of listing components, Reichl describes each conversationally in the audio version, as if she was standing by your side. You can practically sense an ingredient's virtual ripeness and heady aroma, as well as hear the satisfying sizzle when it hits oil waiting on a hot skillet. 

Recipes are collected by season, starting with the fall, because that's when she learned that Gourmetwould cease publication. Among the most appealing in this chapter is one that were cooked by Chef Colin Bedford of Fearrington House for a Cooks & Books luncheon, presented in collaboration with McIntyre's Fine Books. 

"Butternut squash is more than merely colorful. It cooks down into a wonderfully textured soup: soft, thick, almost creamy," Reichl says, making it sound irresistibly luscious. "Requiring nothing more than water, it makes the luxurious vegan dish I know."

Butternut Squash Soup
(From My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl Copyright © 2015 by Ruth Reichl. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.) 

Shopping list: 
1 stalk celery, 2 carrots, 1 pound butternut squash, 1/2 pound potatoes

Staples: 1 onion, olive oil, salt

Begin by coarsely chopping an onion, a stalk of celery and 2 carrots; you don’t have to be fussy about this since you’re going to end up pureeing everything. Slick the bottom of a casserole or Dutch oven with olive oil, add the vegetables and let them tumble into tenderness, which should take about ten minutes.

Peel a pound of butternut squash and cut it into 3/4 inch or so cubes. Peel half pound of waxy potatoes (Yukon Golds are good), and cut into chunks of the same size. Stir them into the vegetables in the casserole, add a couple teaspoons of sea salt and 2 1/2 cups of boiling water, cover and simmer until everything is very soft. This will take about half an hour.

Very carefully puree the soup in a blender, in small batches, making sure the top of the blender is secure (hot soup can be painful).

Taste for seasoning and serve drizzled with a few drops of olive oil and/or good balsamic vinegar. A crisp dice of apples on top makes this look lovely and adds a very pleasing note of sweetness. (Diced pickled walnuts also make a wonderful topping.)

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Botulism? Boycotts? Security breaches? Drama arrives at the N.C. State Fair's canning contest

Somewhere in my house, there is a photo of a much younger me, looking stunned to have won a red ribbon on my first try at the Indiana State Fair. I was bested only by my inspiration, the perennial winner Mrs. Imogene Orme.

Other hobbies have come and gone, but my obsessive passion for canning has stood the test of time. I've tested recipes for successful cookbooks and even published a few items of my own. And this year, I've met a new canning milestone: I served as a judge for home preservation entries at the North Carolina State Fair, which concluded on Oct. 25.

I was the only newbie among 18 judges, some of whom have been participating for decades. After receiving directions from contest director Ben Chapman, associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, we were sent off in pairs to pass judgment on blind entries in various categories.

During the next three hours, I tasted about 70 jams, jellies and juices. Even with small samplings, I soon approached a sugar-fueled state of delirium that my colleague expertly diagnosed as "jam drunk." We both confessed relief when certain jars were determined to be outside of the scope of their category—for example, a lovely mashed-fruit jam erroneously entered as a whole-fruit preserve—and thus did not need to be sampled.

While a handful of entries were so exceptional we nominated them for Best of Show consideration, others were so mundane (or awful) that we actually presented no awards in a few categories. 

The reason for this surprising lack of top-quality entries? Changing food safety standards.

Perhaps because I'm a careful canner, worrying about the safety of tasting entries never crossed my mind. But as Chapman soberly warned judges, concerns about just that led organizers to make controversial changes to this year's contest. 

According to Chapman, the North Carolina State Fair is one of only five across the country that tastes nearly all entries. The exception is low-acid foods, which, because of their inherent risk of instability, are judged on appearance only by a pair of food scientists, serving in this role for about 40 years. All other entries were first tested for safe pH levels and then brought to judges. 

To further ensure our safety—and, more broadly, to foster standardized canning processes—all entrants had to cite one of three established sources as the basis of their recipe: the ubiquitous Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, USDA.gov guidelines or So Easy to Preserve, a publication of the University of Georgia's National Center for Home Food Processing and Preservation. "We know that these documents have data behind the safety of their recipes," Chapman explains.

Entrants also had to submit their entire recipe. Some longtime canners, like those who faithfully recreate recipes handed down through generations, balked at having to use a specified source. Many more took offense at having to provide their recipe. A few expressed anger at the lack of trust. Some feared that secret recipes would be revealed. While the updated rules were published in July, the backlash hit its peak in the weeks preceding the October 12th deadline to submit jars for judging. Organizers expected nearly 1,200 entries, but only received about 700. 

Chapman says one irate individual, a longtime participant, even stated the intention to launch a boycott. University and fair officials have advised Chapman to not discuss specifics of what the individual said, but he confirmed that security issues became involved. There was even a brief scare at the fairgrounds when someone tried to enter the closed judging area, though it proved to be a false alarm.

Chapman spent much of his day comparing non-sourced entries to the three guides to determine if they were sufficiently similar to remain in contention. Most were found to have acceptable ratios of ingredients. If such vigilance seems like too much worry over canned fruit, remember 24 cases of botulism, including one death, have been reported in the U.S. this year.

"This happened last spring, right about the time we were talking about the rule changes," Chapman says, adding there also was a troubling case in Ashe County. An experienced canner who ate spoiled carrots suffered severe symptoms for 11 days before her doctor identified the cause. "Botulism is the most toxic, naturally occurring substance we know of. It could be used in terror attacks. One gram of botulism that is crystalized can kill a million people. It's serious stuff."

Previous tweaks to entry rules, likewise made in the name of food safety, also frustrated entrants. Chapman recalls "a similar uproar" a few years ago when participants were required to state how many minutes they processed any entry, an essential clue to knowing whether a jar's contents had enough time to reach the temperature necessary to kill potential toxins. Unlike mold or other visible signs of spoilage, dangerous bacteria is not always so evident.

"We want to keep the tradition of tasting entries, but it's my job to worry about this stuff," Chapman says. "Most people understood the rationale. If some people decide that they can't participate anymore, we'll live with that."

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

At TerraVita launch, food serves as a platform for social change

The sixth annual TerraVita Food and Drink Festival has earned due acclaim for its status as one of the South's best events for deliciously celebrating sustainably grown and produced fare, with special focus on the farmers, chefs and artisans who make it all possible.

This year's Oct. 8-10 festival will launch with a new element that will further distinguish TerraVita. Culinary Capital and Building Community features an all-star panel discussion on how culinary leaders foster positive change through mindful practice of their trade.

Led by Jeff Polish, founder of Chapel Hill-based nonprofit The Monti, panelists will use the storytelling techniques of TedX and Pecha Kucha to share the experiences and passion that drives them to use their celebrity as a platform to serve the greater good. The goal is to guide attendees to consider their own strengths and interests, and how these skills and energies can be leveraged to benefit their local communities.

Panelists include:

Ashley Christensen of Raleigh is chef and owner of AC Restaurants, including Poole's Diner, Death & Taxes, Beasley's Chicken + Honey and Joule. Named Best Chef Southeast in 2014 by the James Beard Foundation, Christensen is an active philanthropist dedicated to increasing awareness and reducing the incidence of child and family hunger.

Margaret Gifford, formerly of Chapel Hill, food advocate and founder of Farmer Foodshare, the influential Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that seeks to connect people who grow food to consumers who most need it. She is now working in New York City with Watervine Impact, which provides resources to benefit public health, food and agriculture enterprises.

Henry Hargreaves of Brooklyn is a professional photographer whose international work compels viewers to consider food and food products in ways that challenge social norms.
Kat Kinsman of New York City is editor at Tasting Table and renown devotee of the French 75 cocktail and the author of "Hi, Anxiety!," a book about her struggles with debilitating panic and determined quest for joy, to be published next spring by Harper Collins.

Virginia Willis of Atlanta is a Southern chef and author of the new Lighten Up, Y'All and Okra, a Savor the South cookbook from UNC Press. She is an eloquent advocate for healthful eating, sustainable farming, and protecting our nation's threatened fisheries.
Mike Moore of Asheville is the former chef/owner of the acclaimed but now-closed Seven Sows Bourbon & Larder and founder of the traveling Blind Pig Supper Club, which has raised funds to support sustainable agriculture and land preservation, as well as charities that serve children and young adults. His next venture will be a restaurant to open next year in Beaufort.

Tickets for this panel are $45. Student tickets are available for $25 each. Students must produce student IDs. Tickets can be purchased for this and all other TerraVita events online at TerraVitaEvent.com.
This post first appeared int WRAL Out and About.

'After parties' give TerraVita fans another chance to revel

The extraordinary collaborative meals presented by some of the best chefs in the South, and the thought provoking discussions lead by artisans and sustainable food advocates, often leave fans of the TerraVita Food and Drink Festival wishing they could stay for just a little bit more culinary magic. This year, they can.

For its sixth annual festival, organizers are opening formerly closed doors with public "after parties" that give lucky ticket holders a chance to rub elbows with trendsetters whose work is changing the way people outside of the South view our gastronomic achievements. It's a chance to connect with thought leaders who will participate in two days of 
Sustainable Classroom sessions, chat with chefs and producers who mindfully usher ingredients from farm to table, and make lasting connections with others who feel passionately about our Southern foodways.
"The events each have their own vibe with great food and drink," says TerraVita founder Colleen Minton. "The after parties we held in the past were small, private gatherings for participants. We're happy to open it up this year so more people can enjoy the experience. They offer a great chance to engage the chefs, distillers, producers, writers, and all-around movers and shakers in a relaxed, low-key environment."

For example, the day need not end with Thursday's traditional Carolina Table: East Meets West Dinner (now sold out). Stars will continue to shine as the evening shifts to Lambs & Clams After Party mode at Weathervane at Southern Season (9-11 p.m., $55). This bash is perfect for so many of us wannabes unable to make the annual pilgrimage to Lambstock, Craig Rogers' celebration of all things lamb for industry insiders at Border Springs Farm in Virginia. For this after party, Lambstock's legendary Lambs & Clams feast, a partnership with Travis Croxton of Rappahanock Oysters, will be recreated with several major players in Southern food and drink.

Among those joining Rogers and Murphy will be Brandon Carter of the soon-to-open FARM Restaurant in Bluffton, SC; Kyle McKnight of Highland Avenue in Hickory (recently named one of the South's best restaurants by Southern Living); Josh Munchel from Counting House in Durham; and Jay Pierce of the Marshall Free House in Greensboro. Beverage options will be provided by Cathead Distillery in Mississippi, Crude Bitters & Soda of Raleigh, Fullsteam Brewery of Durham and Mystery Brewing of Hillsborough, wines from Piedmont Wine Imports of Durham and the fledgling End of the Vine of Chapel Hill, as well as coffee from Winston-Salem's Krankies.

Following Friday's first day of Sustainable Classroom sessions, TerraVita introduces a new dinner event: HILL FIRE: Pits, Spits & Grills (5:30-8:30 p.m., $75). The Carrboro Town Commons will become a pitmasters haven as celebrated Southern chefs grill everything from pig to seafood and vegetarian options. The truly all-star lineup includes: Jason Stanhope (2015 James Beard "Best Chef - Southeast") of FIG in Charleston; Ashley Christensen (2014 James Beard "Best Chef - Southeast") of AC Restaurants in Raleigh; Sam Jones of Skylight Inn of Ayden; Joe Sparatta of Heritage and Southbound in Richmond; Clay Trainum of Autumn Olive Farms in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley; Wyatt Dickson of Pig Whistle and, with partner Ben Adams of the soon-to-open Picnic in Durham; among others. Cary baker Norma Kessler of Sweet Arielle and Deric McGuffey from G2B in Durham will be providing signature desserts.

The Film and Fare After Party (9-11 p.m., $40) will follow at TOPO Distillery. The highlight of the event will be screening of special footage from Original Fare, a PBS series in which globetrotting host Kelly Cox searches "for the best ingredients on earth." The third season of the food and travel program recently launched on PBS stations nationwide. Nibbles will be provided by two great talents based in Cary: Lionel Vatinet of La Farm Bakery and Steven Deveraux Greene of Herons at The Umstead Hotel & Spa, each of whom will incorporate Raleigh's Videri Chocolate and Sunburst Trout from Canton, North Carolina, in their creations. Drink options include craft beer from Cameron Read of Edmond's Oast in Charleston and cocktails byTOPO Organic Spirits and Asheville Distilling Company.

Tickets for these and all other TerraVita events are available online at TerraVitaevent.com.
This post first appeared on WRAL Out and About.