Thursday, October 30, 2008


SWEET POTATOES are one of the Carolinas' biggest crops - NC ranks 1st in its production- and grows well in the sandy soils Down East, as well as in small mountain patches. It was a staple for early settlers, a main food source for the enslaved, and is still craved by most Southerners. Baked and served with a pat of butter is my fav, but others love that gooey mashed version topped with marshmallows. We also love to slice them as fat "French fries," coat them with olive oil and kosher salt, then roast in a hot oven. Roast chunks in olive oil with sweet peppers and onions, and that's a lovely "salad," too. I'm going to try adding some pre-cooked sweet potatoes to risotto. It works with Hubbard squash, so why not sweet potatoes? And, by the way, the microwave is an excellent way to cook just one or two. Just make sure you poke them, so that the steam will release from the skin. Otherwise, it might explode!
Sweet potatoes are natives of Central America, found in the Andes mountains of Peru and Columbia. The Incas called them "batata", and recovered pottery pieces show them growing. They've been cultivated in the South since the 16th century. And don't make the mistake of calling them "yams." Yams were from Africa, and are a white, starchy root that has a totally different texture and flavor.
Poor Man's Food is their reputation, but during the holidays, they get the royal treatment, showing up on Thanksgiving and Christmas tables. Sweet potatoes are actually a member of the morning glory family, and nutritionists love them because they're high in fiber and vitamins A and C. Four times more nutritious when eaten with the skin on? I have to admit I've never eaten the skin of a sweet potato. But experts say one cup of cooked sweet potatoes has as much beta carotene as 23 cups of broccoli. So eat up.
I simply love sweet potatoes for their inherently sweet flavor and easy prep.
In the photo, nestled in the pottery piece made by my friend Missy Manning, are some "new" old varieties. Beauregard was developed in Louisiana, and the Covington was developed at NC State (GO Wolfpack!) and accounts for half of the sweet potatoes grown in the state. Both have rose-colored skins and orange flesh and are readily available at farmers markets. The Oriental (or Japanese, as some call it at the market) has a purplish skin and a very cream-colored flesh, which is much drier than others. I found it best to steam peeled chunks, rather than baking whole. The Old Timey White Batus was also drier with a slightly different flavor, and I wondered if it were not more kin to a yam. These two are "specialties" you need to seek out. And researchers at NC State are also working on a purple-skinned variety, according to the Wall Street Journal.
By the way, the NC Sweetpotato Commission would like you to drop the space between the two words. The national growers' group, the US Sweet Potato Council, apparently realizes the ridiculousness of having the run-on words.
One Johnson County farmer I talked with said he ships about half of his crop to the UK within two weeks of getting them out of the ground. Wonder if this "poor man's food" makes it to the royal's tables?
To store sweet potatoes, do NOT refrigerate. The cold damages them. Place them instead in a cool, dark and well-ventilated place. A root cellar, anyone? Use stainless steel knives, as carbon blades will cause the flesh to darken. For recipes, 3 = 1, or 3 medium sweet potatoes are about one pound, which is about 1 1/4 cups pureed.
I'd love to hear your special way of "fixin'" this glorious root vegetable. Send your comments!

CHEESE STRAWS.........recipe below......keep reading!

SOUTHERN FOODWAYS SYMPOSIUM down in the Delta.........
I belong to a great organization that promotes keeping the good eating going in the South, the Southern Foodways Alliance. Three hundred of us met for the annual symposium down in Oxford, Miss, on the campus of Ole Miss last week. I was delighted to be able to go, as last year a lottery system was imposed because of its popularity, and my number was not called :(
The theme this year was THE LIQUID SOUTH. Translated: what did we drink, and still drink, down South? Needless to say, the sweet brown bourbon poured. So did local brews, like sweet potato beer (delicious, BTW). NC wines, including Biltmore's fine sparkling wine. And spirits, from green corn to sissyshine to fine brown whiskey.
A smaller group started the party early with a "Delta Divertissement," held in Greenwood, Miss. That's where the Viking Range is made, where Viking has a beautiful, hands-on teaching kitchen, and a gorgeous, sumptuous hotel/spa where I soaked up all the comfort I could. So that we would not drink on an empty stomach, we were fed cornbread cracklins, black-eyed pea cakes, drop dead delicious artisan breads made by Donald Bender of Mockingbird Bakery, cheese straws and a wild duck dip complete with buckshot. A favorite was Bender's hominus, a marriage of hominy and hummus, minus the chickpeas. We learned how to make a proper mint julep, a Saint Charles punch in a horse bucket, and what wines to pair with collard greens and other Southern foods from the wine guy at the famed Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. (He suggests wines from Southern France, like the Rhones;, the NE Spanish Priorato from the southern part of Catalonia; and the Italian Nebbiolo, in the northern Piedmont. Note that all of these regions share the same latitude as our South, which means somewhat similar growing conditions - minus humidity, for sure, and minus our clay soil. But they're better bets to pair with pork and peppery greens.
The next four days had us devouring catfish, oysters and other delectables. My very favorite was from Raleigh's own Ashley Christensen, owner/chef of Poole's Diner, who did an appetizer of smoked catfish and chicken liver "rumaki" served on a corn cake. It was dynamite....and I sneaked back twice for more. Another Triangle celebrity chef, Allison Vines-Rushing of Lanterns in Chapel Hill, prepared Oysters Rockefeller Deconstructed with an Eastern flair. I was so proud to claim them! Gumbo, a boned quail stuffed with forcemeat floating in ham broth was out of this world, made by Anne Quatrano of the famed Bacchanalia in Atlanta. She started her Garden Luncheon with Pickled Eggs, Beets and Figs, then served Pickled Shrimp in small glass jars. Unlike the recipe given in THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK, hers used fennel and celery seed, with no lemon. She ended with a caramel bread pudding with a peanut sauce that was out of this world.
Degustations included more bourbon, more wine, samples of a lot of different small brews, and moonshine. I liked the Peach Moonshine, a sissyshine. One of the highlights was meeting the NC legend, Junior Johnson, who addressed his autograph to my parents, NASCAR nuts, which might guarantee me an inheritance! Introduced by Barry Hannah - yeah, that famed, sarcastic and witty writer - Junior spoke to the group, telling tales of how he best out-ran the law, how he got caught, his daddy's legacy, and how now he's making the stuff, legally.

One of the most intriguing young persons attending was Casey Gustowarrow, who is driving the craziest looking bus - a yellow school bus topped by another school bus that's sawed-off and upside down. The crazy thing is that they've got an organic veggie garden growing on top. Casey has driven this bus over 9,000 miles to get the message out that whoever winds up being our next president should plant an organic farm on the grounds of the White House, and perhaps name Alice Waters as White House chef/farmer. There's a petition you can sign online, and I encourage you to do so.

RECIPE - Mary Jackson's Cheese Straws
Elizabeth Heiskell is a caterer who also teaches at the Viking Hands-on Kitchen. She researched the life and recipes of another famed Delta caterer, a black woman named Mary Jackson, who served the white elite for over 30 years, catering right up to the day she died. Her cheese straws have a great crunch and a little bite to them.
These would be lovely with champagne, or as just a little nibble at the beginning of any party.

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 10-ounce block extra-sharp cheese
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 cups sifted flour, less 1/2 Tablespoon flour
No directions were given to us, but here goes my guess:
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Butter or spray a baking sheet.
2. Grate the cheese.
3. Beat the butter until soft and creamy.
4. Sift together the salt, cayenne, garlic powder and flour.
5. Slowly add the flour combo to the butter and blend with a spatula, then with hands knead until dough in the bowl until it forms a ball.
6. Roll dough out on a floured surface until about 1/2- inch thick. Cut with a sharp knife into strips 5-in long, about 3/8 in wide.
7. Place on greased baking sheet and cook for about 6 minutes, or until golden.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


  THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK and I have been traveling the South.  
First was a tremendous weekend in Morehead City for the annual Seafood Festival.  DeeGee's Books had me signing in front of the store, on the street, so that I could watch the folks and their goodies go by.  By far, the one that "took the cake" was a cheesecake on a stick, deep-fried, then dipped in chocolate.  
As expected, there were shrimp and scallop burgers, and lots and lots of beer flowing.  Heard over 125,000 folks attended.  We sold quite a few of THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK.
Since we were staying at the family condo, we got some fresh scallops from our favorite market, Atlantic Beach Seafood, the one with the mermaid on top, run by Sonja and her parents.  I had brought down the last of the pink eye peas I found at the Raleigh farmers market, and gussied them up with some sweet red pepper, sweet onions and a tad of ba
con.   Scallops were quickly browned in a combo of olive oil and butter, just three minutes per side, no touching allowed, then removed from the pan.  Lemon juice was squeezed into the hot butter/oil and the bits and pieces scraped up, then poured over the scallops.  Out onto the screened porch overlooking the ocean and watching the moon rise and Cape Lookout Lighthouse and its 15 second twirl.....and, well, heaven.  A nice, chilled Chardonnay made the dinner just perfect.
Early morning walks found fishermen - and women - lined up on the beach, some with their 
4-wheel drive vehicles backed to the surf.  One fellow caught a ray while I was nearby, and had a dickens of a time trying to get him off his hook.  Others reeled in large flounder - they must be at least 15 OR IS IT 17? inches - and lots of tall tales.  At the dimming of the day, Hubby caught a few, too.  One made a great dinner, filleted, buttered and seasoned and baked with crab spread on top.  

The next week found us at Zydeco Moon cabins in Ashe County for a bit of fly fishing and hiking.  We love that place.  Steaks, then lamb chops, both grilled and enjoyed by moonlight on the porch, and an evening spent with Joe and Sally, owners, and their friend and neighbor, Ben.  We tasted smoked trout I had bought in Asheville from Sunburst Trout near Cold Mountain, with smoked gouda and a smoked chevre.  Sally made Shrimp etouffe, which showed off her native Louisiana cooking skills, with a most delicious Caesar salad made with greens just picked from her certified organic garden at the base of the hill.  I brought the Upside Down Apple Torte I've been working on, which travelled well.  
Over the winter and spring, Sally and Joe cleared an additional 4 acres at the top of the mountain, where they grew squash and tomatoes, esp.  Sally said she had a good year at the Watagua Farmers Market, and also sells directly to a few Farm-to-Table restaura
nts in the area.  Joe was to help Ben the  next morning install a new electric fence to keep deer away from his apples and garden.  We later heard that since it was solar powered, it was not fully charged during that first night, so the deer trampled the posts!
 Steve was not enlisted to help, so he went fishing instead, and caught several decent trout - although sadly for him it's only catch and release after Oct 1st.  That's a native Brown trout in the photo, and considered "large", or so the Hubby insists.  Another day we enjoyed some spectacular hikes in Grayson Highlands, just over the VA border.  
THE OUTER BANKS COOKBOOK was left as a little lagniappe for our hosts, and our new friend Ben left us a bag of Staymans and winesaps which made a great pie and a terrific apple torte.  I'll share those recipes later. 

Another posting soon will make your tastebuds jealous when I tell of all the good stuff I ate and drank down in Oxford, Miss last week.  Stay tuned!