Sunday, April 10, 2016

Merci Train Boxcar Symbolizes French-American Ties

Following World War II, in recognition of American postwar relief efforts, the people of France sent over bnoxcars fliied with gifts to say "thank you."

Far from home and aching for familiar comfort, a young French soldier spied a glimmer of hope on the bloody fields of Verdun. His tired eyes focused on a scrap of aluminum, a shred of military gear that had fallen in northeastern France during World War I.
He allowed his thoughts to wander to fields of clover, as green and promising as any memory of home. In the rare hours when the trenches grew quiet, he scraped the metal until it became a handsome ring with a flourish of clover at its center. Days later, he became one among hundreds of thousands who died in the 303-day Battle of Verdun.
Once a treasured keepsake of the soldier’s family, the ring has spent the past 67 years in the care of the State of North Carolina. It was one of thousands of items generously given by French citizens in 1949 for the French Gratitude Train, also known as the Merci Train.
Residents from every French province donated nearly eight tons of goods, ranging from embroidered handkerchiefs and fine china to toy soldiers and larger-than-life statuary. The effort was patterned after the 1947 Friendship Train, an American goodwill project in which people across the U.S. contributed food to war-torn France and Italy.
Gratitude was at the core of Alice Baumgaertner’s decision to send the ring and a photo of her relative from Paris to Raleigh. Sadly, the photo was lost over the years, along with her loved one’s name. But her gift remains as poignant evidence of the degree to which French citizens credited Americans — especially members of the armed forces, but also those who kept home fires burning — for their liberation from the grip of Nazi Germany.
merci train north carolina
Outside, Merci Train boxcars were decorated with the coats of arms of French provinces and cities.
North Carolina’s boxcar was one of 49 shipped from France to America — one for each of the 48 states, with the contents of the remaining car shared between the Territory of Hawaii and the District of Columbia. On February 8, 1949, the boxcar was welcomed by Gov. Kerr Scott in Raleigh. A parade featured bands from Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, as well as a contingent of French dignitaries. Also participating was R.V. Collie, a Confederate Army veteran who’d marked his 105th birthday two days earlier.
News & Observer editor Jonathan Daniels made welcoming remarks at a ceremony held in Memorial Auditorium. He recalled that the Marquis de Lafayette, a close ally of George Washington during the Revolutionary War, rode up Fayetteville Street in an open carriage in February 1825. “The present occasion is not of a debt being paid, because no debt was owed,” Daniels declared. “But the gratitude of the French people warms our hearts and we are grateful for their friendship.”
The gifts arrived in wooden crates packed floor to ceiling in a 1918 French boxcar known as a “Forty-and-Eight,” a nod to its ability to transport 40 men or eight horses. World War I veterans would have been very familiar with the tight, windowless quarters.
Many of these boxcars have vanished, victims of decay or vandalism, but not North Carolina’s. In the 1960s, after being on display for many years at various sites in Raleigh, it was taken to Wilson by the North Carolina chapter of the Forty-and-Eight Society for restoration. In 1981, the boxcar was transported for long-term loan to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, where it’s now a feature of the museum’s Roundhouse exhibit.
Today, many are surprised by the Merci Train’s story, but its arrival made big headlines in Raleigh. Curious crowds filled the Hall of History, a precursor to the city’s downtown museums, to watch crates being unpacked. Photos show women wearing hats and gloves, eager to inspect handmade lace and delicate demitasse sets, while children crowd to see dolls dressed in traditional French attire. Of particular patriotic interest was a fabric knot made from combed fibers of U.S. and French flags flown from the Eiffel Tower on May 8, 1945 — the day Germany ultimately surrendered.
Photograph from the News & Observer, courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
Decades later, the contents of the boxcar can be viewed as a lens for the suffering experienced by donors, and their hopes for a brighter future. One, identified as B. Levif, sent three framed oil paintings with the humble request that they be given “to a white orphan, to a Negro orphan, and to a Jewish orphan.”
An affectionate gift came from a donor in the French city of Lyon, known for the production and weaving of silk. A community effort produced an elegant wedding gown, complete with veil, headband, and good wishes for a bride.
Despite these heart-tugging appeals, North Carolina officials — as with those in other states — decided not to distribute items to individuals. Instead, objects were provided to local institutions, where they could be enjoyed by the public at large. For example, a woodcut portrait of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was part of a collection sent to Bennett College in Greensboro. Additionally, a mobile museum exhibit built into a trailer visited towns across the state.
Many of the artifacts are stored at the North Carolina Museum of History. The original inventory, written in impeccable script on a legal pad, was later converted into typed file cards. Penciled-in notes indicate that several objects were sent to the Executive Mansion, the official residence of the governor. Loans include small portraits of Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, as well as a pair of vases “hammered from 75mm shells.”
Like the clover ring, the vases were produced by a French soldier in the trenches at Verdun. However, they were given with a full heart by the surviving soldier, Paul Laval of Paris.
It’s remarkable that people across France gladly donated such personal treasures, not knowing what would become of them. “They were gifts of genuine gratitude,” says Katherine Beery, registrar at the Museum of History. “And we take very seriously our responsibility to care for them.”
This post first appeared in Our State magazine.

Five years Ago, Piedmont's Crawford Leavoy Succumbed to Alcoholism in New Orleans. Now, He's Running One of Durham's Best Restaurants.

Two weeks after finishing his first marathon, Crawford Leavoy waits in the starting
chute of Cary's Tobacco Road Marathon. Indy Week photos by Alex Boerner.

Mardi Gras drifts on the calendar. Based on the dates of other nearby holidays, it's not as easy to remember as, say, Christmas, a date children master as quickly as their own birthday.
But Crawford Leavoy remembers that, five years ago, Mardi Gras arrived March 8. What he's blurry about is what happened in the hours, weeks, and even months that came before.
At the time, Leavoy, the current general manager of Durham's Piedmont restaurant, lived in New Orleans. For years, he was at the epicenter of the American Mardi Gras experience, the infamously booze-fueled, bacchanalian launch of Lent, during which the faithful give up something dear. In 2011, a week ahead of the party, Leavoy did what he'd been doing a lot of: he got blackout drunk.
When Leavoy finally opened his eyes around noon the next day, he was not entirely surprised to find himself in someone else's apartment. His head was pounding when he checked his phone to discover dozens of texts from concerned friends, including a few bartenders who had grown weary of watching the charming wine director from one of the city's most respected restaurants turn repeatedly into a foul-mouthed boor. There were messages from his longtime partner, too, a medical student who had spent hours trying to find him at the places he typically got wasted.
For Leavoy, this had become business as usual.
"I would get so annoyed when people told me I was drinking too much," Leavoy recalls over a stiff mug of coffee, one chilly morning at the Durham coffee shop Cocoa Cinnamon, stumbling distance from his office at Piedmont. "I thought, 'That's your problem, not mine.' I was so sick of hearing about it. But after that night, I couldn't ignore it anymore."
Terrified of losing so much that was dear to him—especially Clayton Alfonso, who he would marry in October 2014, and his hard-earned job at August, the flagship of acclaimed chef John Besh—Leavoy admitted something he had angrily denied for years: he was an alcoholic.
If he wanted to remain in his field as a wine director, not to mention grow old with his faithful partner, he needed to make some very severe changes.
Leavoy grew up in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama. A standout on his high school's debate team, he had friends who drank and smoked pot. His only vice was cigarettes. He didn't taste booze until he arrived in Baton Rouge as an eighteen-year-old Louisiana State freshman.
Underage drinking was simply part of the culture on a campus long regarded as one of the country's top party schools. Alcohol loosened Leavoy up to new experiences, like going to gay bars.
"I bought into the idea that having a drink at the end of the day signified that you were taking the necessary steps to becoming an adult," he says. "I was studying political science, but really, it was my minor. Drinking beer became my major."
Soon it wasn't just the end of the day, and it wasn't just beer. Leavoy moved on to whiskey, which, as the country song goes, is quicker for getting drunk. After graduation, Leavoy and Alfonso, who met and started living together at LSU, moved to New Orleans, where Alfonso enrolled in medical school. Leavoy found jobs at fine dining establishments, eventually landing at August. He managed to hide his habit as he rose through the ranks; in just a year and a half, he moved from busboy to wine director.
Crawford Leavoy talks wine with customers Rodney Young and Shaun Monroe during a Taste Carolina gourmet food tour at the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Crawford Leavoy talks wine with customers Rodney Young and Shaun Monroe during a Taste Carolina gourmet food tour at the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham.
"At the time, I was drinking super classy things like flavored vodka with Sprite and a little lime. It was fruity, mysterious," he says, mockingly assigning the lofty descriptors of the expensive wine he served to the customers who trusted his discerning palate. "It got the job done."
Leavoy was good in his role, in part because of his innate ability to memorize facts and recall important details, like what a big-spender enjoyed on his last visit. And, well, there was the free wine.
"I couldn't see it then, but now I realize it was the blurring of the lines," he says. "I would 'taste wine' and 'do research,' while drinking. I got into some interesting social circles."
Not all of them were good. Buddies in the restaurant industry often cover for one another, carrying a drunk friend home or letting them sleep off a bender on the sofa. They're not inclined to get into personal business, like cutting someone off when they've had one too many. Once, a colleague at August did confront Leavoy. It didn't end well.
"He said something like, 'Jesus, it's coming out of your pores,'" Leavoy recalls. "I told him to shut up and mind his own business."
Leavoy worked hard to maintain the act. He served as a volunteer coach for a private school's debate team. He recalls traveling with the team to a big event during an especially stressful time.
"I got the kids to the hotel and thought to myself, 'There has got to be a liquor store open,'" he says. He found a fifth of Knob Creek. "The next day, in probably one of the most embarrassing things ever, the kids had to wake me for the tournament."
Looking back through the lens of intensive counseling and five years of sobriety, Leavoy is astounded he survived without so much as a DWI. He's even more amazed that Alfonso stayed by his side.
"There are a lot of memories of going out after work and getting phone calls at seven in the morning—'I'm leaving for work and you're still out.' I didn't recognize that as a problem," Leavoy says. "I don't know why he put up with it."
For Alfonso, standing by Leavoy was simply the right thing to do.
"Sober Crawford was who I fell in love with. Drunk Crawford was my worst nightmare," he says, recalling Leavoy's final collapse, which came on the heels of a fifth-anniversary celebration dinner at August. "I fought for him to succeed in rehab because that is what a dedicated partner does."
Alfonso appealed to the medical school dean, asking for Leavoy to receive counseling, a benefit reserved for married students. At last, the ordeal opened Leavoy's eyes, forcing him to acknowledge dangerous patterns that he had dismissed simply as the life of a wine director in a party town.
On his way out of New Orleans, and on his way to rehabilitation, Leavoy rode past Mardi Gras parade floats lined up alongside the Superdome.
During a three-day evaluation, his counselor encouraged extended in-patient treatment. Leavoy already demonstrated signs inconsistent with healthy detox. He didn't realize, for instance, that his flu-like symptoms and simmering rage stemmed from a sudden absence of alcohol.
"He told me that if I was agitated or didn't feel right, I might need to go to the hospital. I laughed. I was always on the cusp of flipping out," says Leavoy. "It was the fear of being alone that got me to be aggressive about a solution. Retrospectively, it was one of the most amazing talks I've ever had."
Leavoy had to muster the courage to ask his father for help after learning his insurance would not cover treatment. His father said he would help with whatever he needed. As Leavoy recalls the talk, he pauses, collecting himself.
"I was amazed," he says. "There's so much selfishness in drinking, but that was the most generous thing anyone could have done."
During the first few weeks, Leavoy compared himself favorably to other patients. They struck him as more desperate, further gone. He treated it like summer camp, he says, but he soon started to feel better, like he had some control of his situation for the first time in years.
Piedmont General Manager Crawford Leavoy talks wine with customers Alex Bednar, AJ Miceli and Stephen Paul during a Taste Carolina gourmet food tour Saturday at the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Piedmont General Manager Crawford Leavoy talks wine with customers Alex Bednar, AJ Miceli and Stephen Paul during a Taste Carolina gourmet food tour Saturday at the Piedmont Restaurant in Durham.
Leavoy was more fortunate than many addicts, who come home to find little more than the wreckage of burned bridges. John Besh had held his job, allowing him to return to a good position in a prominent restaurant. Alfonso welcomed him home.
"This was, hands-down, the most difficult thing I have ever had to do," Alfonso says. "But I'm so glad that Crawford got the help he needed and that I stuck through those dark times. We are married and living life to the fullest."
After rehab, Leavoy began running to lose a few pounds. He hadn't run since he was a kid, when he tried out for his middle school track team but was told he was too slow. It strengthened his body and cleared his head, helping him stay clean. He earned membership in a rarified club—getting and staying sober in New Orleans.
"I don't live in a fairy-tale world. Sobriety is a fragile thing, and I am faced every day with a decision of whether to pick up a drink," he says. "There has to be some level of getting right with the world, understanding that you're not at the center of it. You have to accept the world as it is."
In April 2013, Leavoy's world shifted 850 miles northeast when Alfonso accepted a medical residency at Duke University. They came to Durham to look for a house and felt an instant connection with the food community. Leavoy was glad to see plenty of running clubs, too. They had dinner at Piedmont, which had declined as other hot restaurants opened downtown. They were not dazzled, but Leavoy sensed promise.
A month later, Piedmont hired a new chef, Ben Adams, who has since left to launch Picnic. One of the first people Adams hired was Leavoy, who started July 1. The team was a fine one: less than a year later, the INDY raved about Piedmont's astounding turnaround. Two days later, The News & Observerawarded the renewed restaurant four stars.
Surprisingly, Leavoy does not find working in a restaurant with a bar, or buying large volumes of wine, a challenge to sobriety. Though he hasn't had a sip in five years, he pairs wines with food from memory.
"If you're on balance and find your way on the beam, you can do anything you want—including going to bars. Bars do have non-alcoholic options," he says. He's created dozens at Piedmont. "I didn't know that at the time."
Settling in Durham gave Leavoy a chance to return to coaching debate teams. He interviewed at Durham Academy during that first visit and became a part-time coach. In July, he became the highly competitive team's head coach.
"Yes, I have two full-time jobs now," he affirms with a grin. "And I run thirty miles a week."
A year ago, Leavoy decided to step up his running program and finish a marathon. He almost did last fall in Savannah, but race officials shortened the distance by about two miles due to worries about high heat and humidity.
Maybe the temperature was meant to be: on February 28, the fifth anniversary of his sobriety, Leavoy returned to New Orleans to run that city's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. Conditions were good. Leavoy missed his goal of completing the course in three hours and thirty minutes by two minutes, but that was merely a detail. Two weeks later, he ran in Cary's Tobacco Road Marathon.
Crawford Leavoy gets himself prepped for the start of the Tobacco Road Marathon Sunday morning in Cary, NC. - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • Crawford Leavoy gets himself prepped for the start of the Tobacco Road Marathon Sunday morning in Cary, NC.
"The goal of New Orleans was never to have some epiphany about the anniversary or sobriety," he says. "But the fact that the date and location had such significance really was another one of those things that cannot be just a coincidence. I went with the desire to stay in gratitude for what I've been given." 
When Leavoy ran past Jackson Square, he began crying. He was moving past the bars from which he used to stumble at dawn, drink in hand. When he saw his husband at the halfway point, he knew he'd make it.
"I went from falling down in the French Quarter to running through it," he says. "I felt gratitude in ways I cannot describe."

Recovery script

Crawford Leavoy blames no one but himself for becoming a belligerent drunk. But there likely were genetic predispositions pointing him toward alcohol abuse—and an abundance of environmental contributions, too.
"That's New Orleans in a glass," Leavoy says. "A loving bartender will take your messages when you've passed out drunk."
In recent weeks, as Leavoy trained for the Crescent City's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, he has been candid about his sobriety. Still, colleagues in the local culinary community have expressed surprise that an associate widely admired for his ability to recall small details about customers and friends went through such a difficult time.
Hai Tran, the sommelier at Herons at The Umstead Hotel & Spa, was reluctant to consider if his own coworkers struggled with sobriety issues and the proximity to alcohol.
"It really is up to the respective individual if they are able to continue in this profession once they have dealt with such personal demons," he says. "I commend Crawford for conquering his own demons instead of letting it own him."
According to Paul Nagy, an assistant professor at Duke Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, a person's ability to recover from addiction is as "individualized" as someone's ability to recover from heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic conditions.
While it typically benefits recovering alcoholics to distance themselves from triggers, such as easy access to booze in a high-stress workplace, Nagy suggests that becomes less urgent with time.
"One to five years into recovery, many people have developed skills for managing life without substances and ideally experience that life in recovery has become 'worth it' enough to diminish the risk associated with historic vulnerabilities," says Nagy.
Leavoy's experience appears to be a textbook example.
"I was ready to stop lying to everyone, including myself," he says. "People say, 'Man, you got sober in New Orleans?' The bigger thing is I stayed sober in New Orleans, and I'm making a conscious decision every day to stay sober here."
This post first appeared in Indy Week.

The right tools make oyster shucking simple

We’ve been gearing up at Southern Season to celebrate National Oysters on the Half Shell Day on March 31. There’s just one problem: Not all of us know how to shuck an oyster.
We asked Chef Ricky Moore of Durham, North Carolina’s acclaimed Saltbox Seafood Joint to show us – and you – how to shuck oysters like a boss.
“It’s not that hard,” says Moore, who grew up enjoying fresh seafood in coastal New Bern, North Carolina. “The most important thing is to buy the freshest local oysters you can find. Once you find an oyster knife that feels good in your hands, and you learn how to pry open its hinge, you’ll be good to go.”
Moore appreciated the heft and elegance of shucking tools produced by Carolina Shuckers. Each tool is hand-forged by North Carolina artisans Kirk Davis and Michael Waller.
“A good oyster knife is engineered to open a shell like a can opener,” says Moore, who will teach a Chef Meets Farmer class on cooking fresh catch with Locals Seafood on May 16 at the Cooking School in Chapel Hill. “You could shuck oysters all day long with one of these.”
While a heavy glove can protect your hands from injury, Moore prefers to grasp a closed oyster between folds of dishtowel. Be sure to have plenty on hand as they’ll get wet and dirty.
Set the oyster down on the dishtowel with the rounded side up. The indented, hinged side should be facing you. Secure the oyster in place by folding the towel over the shell and pressing down. Poke the point of your oyster knife into hinge, pressing just enough to slide in about ½-inch of the tip. Grasp the knife firmly and twist the handle a quarter-turn until you hear a pop.
“The goal is to keep all that oyster liquor inside the shell,” Moore says as he pulls back the dishtowel and gently pries open the oyster, revealing a plump mollusk surrounded by ocean-fresh brine. Moore uses the oyster knife to scoop under the oyster, releasing it from the shell. If necessary, use the tip of the knife to remove any dirt or shell fragments.
“Next, you want to eat it,” he says with a grin, tipping the shell to his lips as the oyster slid into his mouth. “That’s all there is to it. Just keep repeating until they’re all gone.”
While the oysters were outstanding as is, Moore also suggests trying them with a great hot sauce – like bourbon barrel-aged Red Clay from Charleston – or making a simple mignonette. Once you’ve made the recipe below, feel free to tweak it with different acids (maybe a champagne or sherry vinegar) or substitute the parsley for cilantro or other fresh green.
“For me, the mignonette needs to be a pourable mass; not quite a paste, but you want to drizzle it on and let the oyster liquor loosen it up,” he says. “It brings a fresh flavor that pairs beautifully with the oyster.”
Ricky Moore’s Mignonette
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or a favorite vinegar)
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1½ tablespoons minced Italian parsley
1 tablespoon minced chives
Freshly grated black pepper
Blend all ingredients in a small bowl until well combined, then drizzle over raw oysters.
If the oyster liquor is not salty enough for your taste, add a pinch of sea salt to the mignonette.
Note: As with any raw food, there is some risk associated with consuming raw oysters. Purchase oysters from a reliable seller and avoid consuming them raw if you have a chronic illness.
This post first appeared on Southern Season.

Think Outside of the Box for Passover

There are few things that Melissa Krumbein enjoys more than cooking for her large family at the holidays. Add in the challenge of not using leavened products during Passover and the Richmond, Virginia-based caterer is truly in her happy place.
“There’s no reason to have a boring meal just because it’s Passover,” says Krumbein, who teaches at the Cooking School.
Observant Jews forgo leavened bread during this festival of freedom, which begins at sunset April 22 and continues through the 30th. The act is meant to remind them of the time when Jewish slaves fled Egypt in such haste that they had no time to bake traditional breads. Instead, they made flat matzo crackers, which remain a staple of Passover celebrations around the world.
The first two nights of Passover are ushered in with solemn seders, during which several aspects of bondage are recalled. Among them is the task of eating charoset, a sweetened apple and nut mixture that symbolizes construction mortar. While delicious on matzo, it’s a tasty year-round addition to yogurt or hot cereal.
Krumbein, who owns the Richmond dessert company Let’s Nosh, relies on a recipe first made by her husband’s grandmother, Lillian Gass Nerden. Born in 1910 to a Russian Jewish family that had immigrated to Orono, Maine, she was responsible for caring for her many siblings. Their tight bond lives on today in the family’s Cousin Club, which celebrates reunions across the country and in Canada.
“I can assure you that Lil never made a small quantity of charoset, as the holiday table was always full of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends,” Krumbein says.  “Lil was a wonderful cook. Be sure to make extra, enough to last the week!”
Lil Nerden’s Charoset 
6 red delicious apples, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
3 cups nuts, such as walnuts or pecans, coarsely chopped
3 teaspoons sugar
1½ teaspoons Vietnamese cinnamon
6-7 tablespoons sweet red wine, such as Manischevitz (or Concord grape juice)
Hand-chop apples and nuts to a consistency like rough-cut mortar. Don’t use a food processor for this as the result will be too smooth.
Transfer apple-nut mixture and remaining ingredients, starting with 6 tablespoons wine, to a medium bowl. Stir to combine, adding more wine if needed. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing film to surface of charoset, and chill for at least an hour to let flavors blend. Bring to room temperature before serving.
This post first appeared on Southern Season.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Peanut Butter Lover’s Day is March 1st

Mark Overbay is deeply amused by the notion of March 1 being National Peanut Butter Lover’s Day.

“For me, that’s like having a National Oxygen Lover’s Day,” quips the founder of Big Spoon Roasters, a maker of artisan nut butters in Durham, North Carolina. “Peanut butter has always been, and will always be, a staple of my existence!”

Overbay just celebrated the fifth anniversary of his company, which was the nation’s first maker of small-batch, fresh-roasted, handcrafted nut butters. He drew inspiration the time he spent in rural Zimbabwe with the Peace Corps, where he experienced the extraordinary flavors and textures of nut butters made with local ingredients and ground with stones. Each family added its own unique touches, such as honey, coconut oil or spices.

Overbay takes a similar approach, sourcing the majority of his ingredients from sustainable growers in North Carolina and throughout the Southeast. The current line of 10 flavors is produced on a rotating schedule, with product delivered as soon as it’s packaged. For Southern Season’s Chapel Hill and Raleigh locations, that means it arrives within hours.

While North Carolina’s Triangle region takes special pride in this local product, Big Spoon Roasters nut butters have been earning national praise since their debut. In fact, Food & Wine magazine named its Peanut Pecan Butter as one of the seven best things staff tasted in 2011. The current issue of Teen Vogue raves about the brand’s Cherry Pecan nut butter bars. Overbay does not take such praise lightly.

“We have zero control over what the media covers, but we do have control over how we select our ingredients, how we roast our nuts, how our food tastes, how our jar feels in people’s hands, how we interact with someone who calls our office,” he says. “These are the things we try to do as well as we can.”

The company will mark its fifth anniversary in the spring by introducing a new nut butter flavor as well as a nut butter bar recipe. Both currently are labeled Top Secret.

“The goals that launched Big Spoon Roasters as a business remain our goals today,” Overbay says. “We want to introduce people to the inimitable experience of eating truly handmade-to-order, fresh-roasted nut butter; to be a progressive market force for sustainable agriculture; and to positively affect the communities we touch.

“These are goals we can never exceed,” he adds “but also goals we can pursue and measure every day.”

Visit Southern Season stores for a wide selection of Big Spoon Roaster nut butters or shop online.

This post first appeared on the Southern Season blog.

Pure Parmesan

At Southern Season, when you buy a chunk of Parmesan cheese, you get 100 percent premium Italian cheese chosen by our Cheesemonger in Residence to deliver exceptional flavor and quality. “We’ve heard from customers who are concerned about reports of wood pulp in some commercial brands of pre-packaged grated cheese,” says Dany Schutte, who is based at Southern Season’s Richmond, Virginia, store. “We stock only the best cheeses available from authentic sources.”

As reported by numerous news sources, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating some companies that produce products labeled as “100 percent real Parmesan.” A few brands have been found to contain excessive amounts of cellulose, an anti-clumping additive made from wood pulp, as well as less expensive filler cheese. While not necessarily dangerous for consumption, such products are not consistent with Southern Season’s premium quality standards.
Schutte has selected a Parmigiano Reggiano produced by Giorgio Cravero as the signature cheese available at our stores. The Cravero family has been producing wheels of the highest quality aged cheeses since 1855. “We choose his wheels because he exceeds the minimum requirement of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, flipping and rubbing down his wheels every two days instead of the required two weeks,” Schutte explains. “He also matures them longer. The flavor profile is deeper, nuttier and sweeter.”
The cheese is available in a range of sizes to suit customer needs. While Cheese Departments offer grated cheese for grab-and-go convenience, Schutte recommends grating or shredding the cheese just before use for maximum flavor.
This post first appeared on the Southern Season blog.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The First Taste of Pizzeria Mercato

With brown craft paper still on some windows, Pizzeria Mercato made its long awaited debut on Friday. Located about as far from the Carrboro Farmers’ Market as one can roll a winter squash with gusto, the “soft opening” of the much anticipated eatery was an opportunity to test the menu before a friendly group of invited guests. Folks not only contentedly nibbled on free, exceptional pizza, seasonal appetizers and mind-blowing gelato but also put the young wait staff to the test. With the exception of a fourth pizza that arrived long after the first three, a miscommunication that inspired heartfelt apologies, the service was topped only by the pizza. And dessert. And the comfortably artsy decor.
But it’s the pizza that everyone is asking about, so here goes: With the foundation of a thin, chewy crust whose flavor suggests a long and slow fermentation, Pizzeria Mercato easily meets expectations of “artisan” quality. Small surprise from the folks that brought you Magnolia Grill, where Mercato Chef Gabe Barker used to take baby naps on the pastry bench.
Gabe’s confident manner in making pizza came not from the elder Barkers but rather from his stint at San Francisco’s renowned Pizzeria Delfino, where he worked before returning home last year to open his own shop. He adds a Delfino touch – a last-minute dressing of panna, a creamy, slightly sweet sauce – to several of the personal-sized pizzas on the menu.Gabe looks like a tall version of his mother, Karen Baker, and possesses dad Ben Barker‘s deft touch with spare, intensely flavored ingredients. This was immediately apparent from the warm, marinated and roasted olives ($6) and fritti ($8), tender and oozy pimento-cheese-stuffed rice balls that could have been a cliché in less able hands.
As its name suggests, Mercato’s menu will vary seasonally. On this night, options ranged in price from $13 for the Margherita to $17 for the Funghi, a mix of savory mushrooms. Each was carried fast enough from oven to table that the enticing aroma of char made burnt bubbles in the crust a particular delicacy.
In addition to the Margherita, our table enjoyed the Mustard Greens ($15), with fragrant fennel sausage; the Panna ($14.50), garnished with fresh, peppery arugula; and the Carbonara ($16.50), which featured a barely set farm egg atop guanciale, pecorino and a liberal grating of black pepper. If you don’t use some crust to scrape glistening yolk from the serving dish, shame on you.
Dessert options included a trio of ice cream flavors that suggested Karen’s creative signature. The creamy vanilla gelato was luscious, as was the espresso, which was loaded with crunchy chunks of chocolate. The showstopper, however, was a vegan lemon-coconut sorbetto. Everyone we observed who tried it wore the same stunned expression of delight.
Guests could not be blamed for being slightly distracted from the food by the setting, which features rustic chestnut tables and colorful bench seatbacks made from salvaged wood by Jeff Knight of Knight Woodworks and Seth Burch of Durham’s Hollow Rock Construction. Other craftsman finishes were produced by Brian Plaster Design of Carrboro, which created all the metalwork, from the pizza box holder to the bike rack.
This post first appeared in Chapel Hill Magazine.

Dental Assistant: Tom & Jenny's Caramel Is the Sugar-Free Miracle That Won't Hurt Your Teeth or Taste

Tom Thekkekandam pours xylitol-based caramel
into molds in his home kitchen. The caramel
is intended to help teeth, not hurt them.
Indy Week photo by Jeremy M. Lange
For candy makers, Valentine's Day is the second-sweetest sales day of the year, bested only by Halloween. For dentists, it's a different story. No one can ruin the dream of creamy chocolates or sticky caramels quite so easily as the person pressing a metal prong against a weak spot on your tooth. Thanks to a pair of Durham entrepreneurs, including a pediatric dentist, it doesn't have to be that way.
Tommy Thekkekandam and Dr. Sindhura "Jenny" Citineni are the couple behind Tom & Jenny's caramels, which they sell in four-ounce packages at area food stores and in local dental offices. Their blooming popularity has forced the pair to seek out a larger production facility. Billed as "deliciously good for teeth," the treats swap sugar for xylitol, a natural sweetener popular in Europe and Asia. The audacious marketing claim stems from studies that show that the plant-based xylitol can reduce cavity-causing bacteria and enamel-eroding acidity. It's a little candy revolution, just in time for Valentine's Day and National Children's Dental Health Month.
They taste great, too. Unlike some candies made with artificial sweeteners, which can impart a deal-breaking bitterness, Tom & Jenny's have all the rich flavor and velvety mouthfeel of traditional caramel. That was essential for Citineni, whose motivation was to help frustrated parents in search of more tooth-friendly sweets for their kids. The pair first experimented with Gummi Bear-type candies and chocolates, but those options presented costly challenges with flavor and texture.
"When we started doing research, we found caramel was one of the fastest growing food categories," Thekkekandam says. "It was the most ripe for innovation. You could start with small batches, and it's relatively easy to cook."
The final recipes came in collaboration with renowned pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, known to many for his work with Top Chef: Just Desserts. He also spent eight years creating dynamic desserts for Le Bernardin in New York City, earning four stars from The New York Times and three from the Michelin Guide. Those bona fides were initially intimidating for Thekkekandam and Citineni.
"I cringed when he tasted our first samples," Thekkekandam recalls of their first meeting in 2013. They had been home-testing their recipes for years, to the point that the kitchen of their Manhattan apartment was dusted with "white crystalline substances" in a way that reminded him of the drug drama Breaking Bad.
"We knew it was a long shot," Thekkekandam says of Laiskonis, "but he thought they were good enough to work with us."
Laiskonis has built his reputation by transforming real sugar into sweet delicacies. For him, the idea of Tom & Jenny's offered an intriguing alternative.
"While I do normally operate in a world where conventional sugars and confectionery techniques reign, the challenge in breaking down those techniques and formulas and reconstructing them is at the heart of what I do," Laiskonis says. "On top of that, I had a lot of fun helping to guide and encourage such a unique start-up—not to mention all of the insight gained on how different sweeteners influence dental health."
The renowned chef came up with several iterations of the couple's original formula, including chocolate caramel. The final recipe yielded a meltingly tender chew without cloying sweetness. To test the appeal, they set up a table at the upscale Long Island City Flea & Food market. Despite the premium pricing, they sold 300 bags in a few weekends.
Thekkekandam and Citineni met as UNC graduate students. They returned to the Triangle after she completed her pediatric dentistry residency in New York in 2014. She bought a forty-year-old practice, Triangle Kids Pediatric Dentistry, and he quit his consulting job to work full-time on building the candy business.
Currently, Tom & Jenny's caramels come from their state-certified home kitchen, but the couple is in the process of transitioning to a commercial producer. That will allow them to scale up production and expand their product line before Halloween and Christmas—so far, these factors have limited the company's growth.
To expand the product line, Tom & Jenny's continues to consult with Laiskonis and another local pastry chef. Thekkekandam is cautious about sharing too many specifics because other companies, he says, are pursuing similar sugar alternatives, but they do plan to perfect those set-aside Gummi-style candies and chocolates and introduce some fancier confections for adults, including chocolate-enrobed caramels.
Selling more products should enable Tom & Jenny's to achieve another goal—directing more profits to charities that help at-risk children in need of nutritional and dental health. The couple has long been involved with social justice causes, notably the Chapel Hill-based nonprofit Nourish International, which Citineni founded at UNC. The global organization helps communities in extreme poverty advance through sustainable development.
"They have an extraordinary executive director who is driving amazing growth," Thekkekandam says. "Through it and other channels, we hope Tom & Jenny's will soon be in a position to make a bigger commitment to social change."
That would be mighty sweet—even if it's sugar-free.
This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Ponysaurus named in Food & Wine's list of hot trends for 2016

Dried okra bar snack (Ponysaurus photo)
Food & Wine restaurant editor Kate Kraderhas included Durham's Ponysaurus Brewing Co. in her 2016 food trend predictions story. Based on a recent visit, she hailed the Hood Street taproom as a "next-level brewpub" that offers creative snacks to complement its craft beer.

Krader especially liked the crunchy dried okra, one of about a dozen snacks kept in temptation-inducing glass jars and sold for a buck a scoop.

"The dried okra is my favorite, too," says Ponysaurus partner Nick Hawthorne-Johnson. He selects the assortment of nibbles, which currently includes another of his favorites, Bugles, the cone-shaped corn snack. "It's more something cool we get to do than a moneymaker."

None of the featured snacks are made on-site or exclusively for Ponysaurus—yet.

"We want to incorporate members of The Cookery into the snack program, but it hasn't happened yet," says Hawthorn-Johnson, who owns the culinary incubator and event space with wife, Rochelle Johnson. "I'm especially interested in bringing in granolas made by Mary Moyer of Double M Baking. She makes a curry granola we really like. We need to make sure it works for The Cookery's members—that it will be sustainable and good for them, too."

While there is no formal pairings menu, Hawthorne-Johnson says he gladly steers patrons toward munchies that pair well with particular brews. 

"The stout and malt balls are pretty amazing together," he says with a chuckle. "We've got wasabi peanuts right now, but we've also got things that are just crunchy and salty and won't get in the way of enjoying your beer."

Hawthorne-Johnson is gratified at Ponysaurus being labeled a "next-level brewpub," as it reflects the ambitions he has with partners Keil Jansen and David Baldwin.

"I'm always thinking about how we'll take where we are to the next level," he says. "It's the pursuit of a more excellent version of whatever we're doing."

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Poole's Diner named in Eater's National Top 38 restaurant list

Ashley Christensen (Indy Week photo by Jeremy Lange)

Poole's Diner has joined another elite cast: Esteemed critic Bill Addison named chef Ashley Christensen's Raleigh flagship to Eater's second-ever National Top 38 restaurant list. It is the only North Carolina restaurant to earn the honor, which aspires to answer the question that drives Addison's work: "'What is essential dining?"

"Poole's is one of the South's great modern restaurants," Addison told the INDY. "The restaurant's macaroni au gratin may be its most famous dish (every time I'm there I spot people ordering only it for dinner), but beyond that decadent icon, the menu revolves with the seasons in precise, always-appealing ways."

Christensen is in New York this week, where she cooked Thursday for Women in the Kitchen, a Southern chef event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Southern Living magazine. Kaitlyn Goalen, director of marketing for AC Restaurants, says Christensen is fine with adoration of the justifiably famous mac 'n' cheese, even though she strives to create new dishes to wow customers.

"We're always grateful and thrilled that it remains on the list of things for people to try," says Goalen, noting the side dish has been on the menu since Poole's opened in December 2007. "It's what Poole's is about—really classic comfort food recipes that are re-imagined, but which still tap into a lexicon of flavor that we're all familiar with."

Addison adds that he admires the James Beard Award-winning chef's creativity and appreciation for local and seasonal ingredients. "I know right where I am and what time of year it is when I eat at Poole's," he says. "Ashley Christensen sets national standards not just in terms of the beautiful food she and her team execute but in her leadership—with seven businesses now under her umbrella—and in her commitment to community with events like Stir The Pot that benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance."

Goalen says the AC team had no advance notice about making the National Top 38 list, though it is bound to make it even more difficult to get a table at the often-crowded Poole's, which does not take reservations. The nod is sure to drive interest in Christensen's six other Raleigh venues too, including Death & Taxes and Bridge Club, both of which opened last fall.

"We're quite excited to be in the company on that list, and thrilled to have a North Carolina restaurant included," Goalen says. "We share it with the whole community of Raleigh. It speaks to how dynamic the food scene has become here."

Christensen has another eatery in the works, a pizzeria scheduled to open next door to Poole's in 2017. And October will see release of her first cookbook, a collection of some 150 recipes. Follow Poole's on Twitter to learn about some of the recipes as they're tested.

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Five Triangle chefs share their secrets for sushi at home

Making sushi at home can seem quite intimidating. You may think you have to buy several varieties of fish, appropriate vegetables and accompanying spices and seeds. You need to cook rice with the right consistency and texture. And you need to have the techniques and tools required to put it all together. 
But, according to four Triangle chefs and one fish supplier, it doesn't have to be so mystifying or demanding, so long as you know what you're shopping for and what you already have. These how-to tips should make your next home sushi experience tastier and a little more homemade.

Perfecting your rice

In sushi, there is no ingredient more important than rice. The name "sushi" even refers to the type of rice used to make a vast array of rolls, plus the pillows used to support glistening strips of seafood in nigiri.
Mike Lee, of Raleigh's Sono and Durham's M Sushi, expected to open downtown this week, says it is essential to use the best available rice—the "super premium" varieties koshihikari or tamanishiki. Available at select Asian markets in the Triangle, they are prized for their inherently sweet, slightly nutty flavor and starchiness. And if you find bags marked "new crop," consider yourself a winner of the sushi Powerball. If you can't find those varieties, says Lee, go for the best Japanese or Korean brands you can find.
"It's sad to see that a lot of sushi restaurants in the area don't pay attention to how important the rice is," says Lee, whose staff makes several 50-cup batches throughout lunch and dinner service. Rice will vary from bag to bag, even in the same brand, based on when it was grown and how long it's been stored. He makes a test batch with every new bag to ensure quality and gauge cooking time.
  • Indy Week illustrations by Chris Williams
According to Lee, rice should be rinsed well enough before cooking that water will run clear through it in a colander.
A heavy-bottom pot with a tight lid, like a Dutch oven, is ideal for cooking rice. If you lack patience to watch the pot boil, Lee recommends investing in a high-quality electric rice cooker. (Again, go with a Japanese or Korean brand.) When the rice is done cooking, transfer it to a wide, shallow bowl; wood is ideal, but start with what you've got.
"You have to mix in the seasoned vinegar right away, while it's piping hot," says Lee, who uses a dimpled, paddle-shaped spatula to cut in the vinegar and coat all the grains. "Then you want to cool it down quickly so the excess moisture is controlled. A piece of cardboard works great."
The seasoned rice wine vinegar sold at most grocery stores and even some Asian markets is, like its balsamic counterparts, not authentic. Lee considers most brands a poor substitute for a recipe you can do yourself. The basic ratio is 3 parts rice wine vinegar to 1 part sugar and one-half part salt—or 6 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon salt. Tweak this depending on how sweet you like your rice or if you'd like to add kombu (edible kelp), umami or citrus.
"As long as you keep it close to the basic ratio," Lee says, "you can be as creative as you like."

Pickling your own ginger

ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMSWhen Charlie Deal of Durham's Jujube wants sushi, he heads to his favorite "hidden gem" in the city, Kurama. "It's the last place you'd expect, because it looks like a dated Japanese steak house," Deal says. "But the sushi there is impeccable, especially if you let the guy do his thing."
Though Deal doesn't attempt sushi at Jujube, some of the dishes do come with pickled ginger. He encourages home cooks to dispense with the prepackaged pink stuff and make their own.
"I've always seen pickled ginger being made from young ginger, which I can't always find," says Deal, who was initially skeptical when chef Miguel Gordillo made it with mature ginger. But it worked. "It's delicious, and it's even got a nice texture."
Young ginger can be pickled by just soaking in hot brine. Mature ginger, however, needs to be simmered in brine. Here's how they do it at Jujube.


150 grams ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, preferably with a mandoline
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt3/4 cup mirin3/4 cup rice wine vinegar4 tablespoons white sugar
Combine everything in a heavy-bottom saucepan and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer ginger and remaining brine to a sealable container.

Grating your Wasabi

Early in his kitchen career, a boss tasked Greg Gettles with turning harsh wasabi powder into the thick green paste served with sushi.
"I cried," admits Gettles, now the executive chef at Piedmont in Durham. "It'll light you up for sure. That's why it was such a big deal to me to taste real wasabi for the first time."
Fresh wasabi root looks similar to horseradish but has a vibrant green tint. It's not as hot as wasabi made from powder, which often contains no real wasabi at all.
"There's a surprising sweetness to freshly grated wasabi," Gettles says. "And it should be used soon after you grate it. If you wait until the next day, the flavor will be super muted."
Gettles recommends buying wasabi from an Asian market where produce is frequently replenished. Such stores often sell ceramic or sharkskin boards for grating it traditionally, but a Microplane is just as effective.
Still, if the fresh wasabi is a bit more assertive than you like, Gettles suggests taming it with a dash of mirin, or sweetened rice wine.
While he has not served sushi at Piedmont, Gettles has used wasabi to brighten a classic beurre monté, a melted butter sauce. "Finishing it with a little wasabi adds depth," he explains. "Wasabi also pairs nicely with cilantro, so it's great in something like a cucumber gazpacho."
While the plant does not thrive in the Southern climate (or many at all, really), Gettles plans to use locally grown wasabi microgreens in salads this spring and, hopefully, larger leaves later as a wrapper for steamed fish.
"I've got a couple of small farmers set to grow leaves for me," he says. "I've never tried this, but I think the flavor will be unreal."

Picking your fish

Consider yourself warned: Eating raw seafood can cause food-borne illness.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there, and I like to be clear," says Lin Peterson of Raleigh's Locals Seafood, which provides fresh catches for Triangle chefs and home cooks alike. "Just as with raw oysters, there is an inherent risk in eating raw fish in sushi."
Peterson says 99 percent of fish served in sushi restaurants has been frozen to ­-40 degrees Fahrenheit, not only for convenient transport but also to kill potentially harmful bacteria. This is even required by some state and local health departments.
"And there is no such thing as 'sushi grade' fish," he says. "We sell fresh fish, and we know exactly where it came from, when it left the water, when it was cut and when it was sold."

If you don't buy your fish from a seller who can vouch for such stock, chances are you should not experiment with uncooked seafood in your homemade sashimi or rolls. If you do, Peterson offers a few tips.
First, choose a whole fish, like black sea bass or Spanish mackerel, instead of a trimmed fillet, which begins to break down as soon as it's exposed to air.
"Grouper and snapper can work, as well as triggerfish and tilefish," Peterson says. "If you like tuna, look for a section of big-eye or yellowfin, which are running now. They have a nice fat content, which makes for great flavor."
Second, keep the fish super cold, preferably on ice. And then, use your best, sharpest knife to cut thin, even slices.
For garnish, Peterson suggests golden rainbow trout caviar from Sunburst Trout Farms, located in the mountain town of Canton, instead of the salty orange beads of salmon roe.

Rolling your leftovers

Freaked out about raw fish? Stop fretting and do what Gray Brooks does: Make sushi rolls at home using leftover proteins, like those last few bites of a great steak.
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMS"When you're eating a steak as sushi, you can stretch what would normally be a snack into a whole portion of dinner," says the Pizzeria Toro chef. "And it's delicious."
Brooks likes making steak sushi for other reasons, too.
"I don't have special sushi knives, and I don't want to have to buy four or five different kinds of fish," he says. "This is just so much easier."
It's best to slice leftover steak straight from the refrigerator, when it's cold and firm. To ensure a tender bite, cut across the grain.
Brooks likes to have an avocado on hand for his steak sushi. Otherwise, he can be spontaneous about making the rolls because he keeps a stash of essentials in his pantry—rice and seasoned rice wine vinegar, mirin, sheets of nori and togarashi, a seven-flavor Japanese chili sauce. He also reserves a bottle of especially good soy sauce for dipping.
"It really is worth spending a little more money to get a high-end soy sauce," he says. "The subtleties are amazing."

This post first appeared in Indy Week.