Friday, October 29, 2010

Olive Oil and Vinegar from the Blue Ridge?

One can only wish that olive trees could be grown in the Blue Ridge. However, the Theros family has grown a fine business in Asheville, importing organic olive oil from their own 400-year old trees in Greece that the family has tended for generations.
Theros Extra Virgin Olive Oil is really special. We dipped some crusty bread into a bowlful, and soon were slurping it up.
I loved its taste - pure, full of fragrance, with a bit of a peppery taste. Some of that flavor can be attributed to the salty Mediterranean Sea air, and to its lower acidity - about half that of standard olive oils, so the website claims. It's not co-mingled with oils from other regions, making it pure Greek. That's a big plus, says Spero Theros.

Spero Theros, who immigrated from Messinia, Greece, arrived in Asheville via Minnesotta, where he landed as a boy. His son, Nick Theros, a co-owner, now spends half the year in Greece, tending to the 1,300 trees, harvesting the olives, and seeing to the cold pressing at an olive crushing plant. He even takes friends and family from Western North Carolina to help out.
The oil is then shipped to Asheville, where it's bottled at the Blue Ridge Food Ventures facility. Several local restaurants use and serve Theros, and it's also available at EarthFare Groceries across the state. I bought my bottle at the Manna Cabana in Saluda, NC, and also found some at the EarthFare in Raleigh.
You may also order at the website, by the bottle or case and get it at a much better price.

In the real mountain hometown of the fictional Walton's, in Schuyler, VA, a couple is converting wine into vinegar. I know I've tasted some wines that tasted a bit like vinegar, but that's not the case here.
Finely crafted vinegars are smooth and redolent of the flavor from which they were made. You can almost sip them. This is the quality that Virginia Vinegar Works shoots for. And they are locavores, too, using local wine varietals, the Petit Mansang or Viognier, among others that do well in Virginia's Central and Southwestern wine regions.
Owners Jay and Steph Rostow are also glass-blowers, who wondered what to do with the gorgeous bottles they were creating. Now they know.
They make the vinegars in small-batches, using a traditional method that dates back to 1616 in Orleans, France. It takes three months to convert the wine into vinegar, and another six months to age in oak barrels, which helps to impart the terroir of the grape variety. Then it's filtered before bottling.
Order from the website:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


A couple of weeks ago I found this squash or perhaps pumpkin at a roadside farm stand near Woolwine, VA. (Don't you just love that name, Woolwine?) What's it called? I asked. Permelon, the farmer answered.
Then I saw this bin of Pink Bananas between Fruitland and Hendersonville:

The very next day, at the City Market in Asheville, there were more of these long, cylindrical squash, with a sign that said CANDY ROASTERS.
What gives with all the names?
Turns out they are all of the Cucurbita maxima family, which makes me wonder if the squash were so named because of the faint cucumber scent of its flesh.
I do know that Candy Roasters, Permelons, and Pink Bananas are all prized heirloom squash that old-timers are quick to tell you that of course, they're great for making pies. "Or whatever you do with pumpkin," said one impatient older lady.

The Cherokee people cultivated this squash that migrated to North America, from South America, by the 16th century, and eventually shared the seeds with European settlers. Today, it's still grown all over the southern Appalachians.
Georgia has a variety of Candy Roaster, and sites post "do not confuse with the Carolina Candy Roaster which is slightly different." And vice versa . . . As if one state could lay claim to the delicious orange and sweet flesh. The variety also makes its home in Bangladesh, Burma and India. How's that for traveling around the world?
Part of my trouble in identifying the Candy Roaster aka Pink Banana also known as a Permelon, is that the C. maxima varies so much by shape, size and color. It can be pink or blue or gray. Tubular, round, tear-drop or squat. Most weigh in at 15 pounds, but can grow as large as 250 pounds.

I love roasting veggies, so thought I'd roast the Candy Roaster/Permelon with a sweet onion.
So to best manage this long squash that hung over my cutting board, I chopped both ends off, then sliced open the middle. The scent of cucumber floated up. The center was full of round, plump seeds, and the filaments scraped away easily.
After simply slicing off the outer skin of a couple of those middle pieces and chopping them into bite-sized pieces, I quickly realized I'd have enough to feed an army, more than enough for the three of us. So with the other half, I left the skins on and placed them cut side down in another pan to roast alongside our dinner. I'd use those pieces in a soup the next day.
The chunks of squash were mixed in with a sweet onion also cut into chunks, drizzled with olive oil, and seasoned with salt and pepper. Placed into a 350 degree oven, within about 40 minutes or less the squash was tender and fragrant. After it was out of the oven, I seasoned it again after tasting, and sprinkled some chopped fresh oregano from the garden over the mixture.
Not as sweet as she expected, said my daughter. But good. Very good. And so easy to prepare, too. I like that!

Okay, October should be full of brisk fall days begging for sweaters and soups. This week, records have been set in the 80s. Not exactly a fall soup day, but there was the squash thing I had already roasted.
So I chopped up half of a large onion and sauteed it in a little olive oil. Stirred in some minced garlic. Then I pureed the squash, along with the cooked onion and garlic, all in the food processor, adding a little bit of chicken stock to loosen it up. I then added that puree to the pot, and stirred in some chicken stock until it was the "soupy" consistency I wanted.

Seasonings? It could be the French style, with fresh or dried thyme, esp. But my tastes buds were remembering some "pumpkin" soup from the Caribbean, probably made with a calabash or huge squash, that got its savory flavoring with nutmeg.
Freshly grated nutmeg is very worthy sensory experience. A bit sharp at times, spicy, unlike what you think of as a traditional pumpkin pie spice. A favorite use of nutmeg is grating it over a creamy Painkiller, that tasty cocktail with rum and coconut milk from the British Virgin Islands. And freshly grated nutmeg takes sauteed fresh spinach to a different level.
So the recipe for Candy Roaster Soup? There's one in THE NEW BLUE RIDGE COOKBOOK from the outstanding Asheville chef, Mark Rosenstein. Or, you can just follow the steps I outlined above and wing it, tasting and seasoning as you go.
To top off my soup, literally, we grilled some shrimp wrapped in bacon (all natural, pasture-raised from Hickory Nut Gap Farm), and placed the skewers across the shrimp. All of us wound up dipping the shrimp into the soup. . . a glorious and tasty combination.

I'd say that C. maxima was worth it's weight....for $2 dollars we had a marvelous roasted veggie one night, and a terrific soup, with leftovers, the next. Not matter what it's called, what an heirloom veggie. I'll try a pie from it the next time.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Visit any farmers market these fall days and you'll find a bevy of potatoes, turnips, winter squash and sweet potatoes - all tasty root vegetables. While at the City Market in Asheville (and without my camera, I am sorry to say), I found gorgeous carrots - purple, yellow, white and orange - and Scarlet Queen turnips, a red one that's great for salads or lightly roasted. Kale and other greens spilled out of baskets. Candy roasters, butternut and acorn squash filled the tables, too.
Inspired by all those root veggies, we made a communal dinner after a family hike off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Take a look see below, with the recipe!



Roanoke, VA

Rappahannock Oysters. Golden Trout. Lamb from Border Springs Farm in Patrick County. How local can you get?

And visiting Chef Ed Lee, a James Beard award winner this year and chef/proprietor of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, KY, was pretty excited about working with such fine local ingredients for last week's special dinner. Chef Lee and Executive Chef Joshua Smith shared the menu, alternating preparing the six course menu.

What made this meal such a culinary delight? Using local ingredients with such a global influence, thanks in part to Chef Lee's Korean family background and his New York City upbringing.

A tiny, perfect little quail egg was criss-crossed with tiny strips of duck bak-kua, a traditional Chinese salty-sweet dried meat similar to jerky. Fried kale to add color and crispness. The lamb done "kalbi"-style, a traditional Korean method of marinating, then grilling meat. The final touch for dessert - a damson plum consomme with black sesame paste and basmati sherbet.

LOCAL ROOTS is open for lunch and dinner. Check out their marvelous seasonal menus. 1314 Grandin Rd SW, Roanoke, VA 540 206 2610

We scored a gorgeous eye of round from Hickory Nut Gap Farm at the City Market also. We seared it on the stove top in a bit of olive oil on high heat, to seal the fat and juices, just until it was browned, then placed it in a big roasting pan. Sweet onions, new potatoes, those Scarlet Queen turnips, and the multi-colored carrots were cut into chunks, then added to the pan, along with a green pepper from my daughter's garden. Her roommate also harvested and chopped some rosemary and fresh thyme, which we added with slivers of garlic. Drizzled with olive oil and with several grinds of pepper, the veggies were glistening and gorgeous. Set into a 325 degree oven, stirring occasionally, the veggies were tender and the meat at about 150 after about an hour.
Meanwhile, we laughed, cajoled and teased as we played Apples to Apples. They didn't let Mom win.
The crowd of twenty-somethings that gathered around Bec's table finished off everything in the pan, including the turnips that everyone had sorta scoffed at. Carrots were fought over.
See, it pays to get to your roots, especially with your family around.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Green Tail Shrimp

White Shrimp, known to OBX locals as Green-Tails

It's time to be seduced by some of the sea's most succulent goodies,
the green-tails.
Green-tail shrimp are prized and sought after by chefs and foodies along the Carolina coasts, and we have to wait it out till the fall before the bounty comes in. Just this past week, a marquee at the seafood market at Whalebone Junction in the Outer Banks announced their presence, so I stopped to fill up my cooler. In years past, I've had Atlantic Beach Seafood clean and freeze 20 pounds to last me through the winter, just like many chefs do whose restaurants stay open year round.
The Pamlico Sound in NC is the northernmost border for most shrimp. Core Sound, near Morehead City, and the Wilmington area, at Southport, get loads of shrimp from their waters as well.
Didn't know that there were different kinds of shrimp?
The pink or spotted shrimp are the most scarce and are the first to be harvested in the spring, from April to June. They're most active at night, burrowing into the mucky muck during the day.
There's the brown shrimp, the most plentiful and what you typically find in most seafood markets in the Carolinas, netted from July to November. They are also most active at night in open waters, and that's why you see the big shrimp trawlers out after dark, with the crew anchoring at Lookout Bight and other safe harbors to sleep during the day.
Green-tails, or white shrimp, have a more subtle, sweeter flavor. They like to hang out in brackish marshes, preferring soft, muddy bottoms. Shrimpers start bringing them in during late August and usually their season lasts until the end of November.

Trawler at Wanchese, the ultimate Outer Banks fishing village
Can you believe that shrimp were once scoffed at and considered inedible up until the 1900s? Even though the Native Americans considered them gourmet treats, catching them with weirs or baskets made from marsh grasses and supple bark and tree limbs.
Fishermen along the Outer Banks down to Southport would pick what they called "bugs" -the pesky shrimp - from their nets and throw them into barrels, then trade them with farmers for corn that would be dried and ground into cornmeal. Farmers worked the shrimp into their gardens as fertilizer, so it was a win-win.
Then settlers got brave or hungry enough and finally developed a taste for shrimp. Ice plants in the early 1900s enabled them to keep shrimp fresher for longer periods of time, and that helped sales. By the 1930s, commercial canning improved the status of shrimp, too.
The introduction of trawlers, in 1933, proved to be much more efficient than the long-haul seine traditionally used to net catches from the Pamlico and Core Sounds in NC. After World War II, shrimping became NC's major seafood industry.
Today, you'll see the long-armed trawlers working the sounds or just offshore. "Otter" trawls are traditionally used in deeper waters and catch a majority of the shrimp in NC. A newer trawler, called a "skimmer," seems to be more efficient for white or green-tailed shrimp especially, with a lot less by-catch as well.
Once, out in our little motor boat, we followed behind a shrimp trawler as it culled its catch, just outside the Beaufort Inlet. The kids screamed when they saw several six-foot long sharks gobbling up the goodies in the shrimper's wake.

Green-tails are usually sweet, firm and have a very clean taste.
I was in the mood to grill, but didn't want to overwhelm the subtle taste of the shrimp. So after shelling and deveining, I marinated them in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, salt and Spanish smoked paprika, with a bit of lemon juice. Skewered, they shared the grill with some beautiful, firm yellow zucchini that have been so prevalent in our farmers markets lately.
Easy and quick, and, delicious!


2 pounds shrimp, cleaned, washed and patted dry
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
couple grinds black pepper
juice of half large lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Soak wooden skewers, if using. Preheat grill.
2. Mince the garlic, then while on cutting board, sprinkle with salt. Using the flat side of your chef's knife, press the salt into the garlic, mashing it together. Place in a bowl large enough to hold the shrimp, then add the paprika, black pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Whisk until blended well.
3. Add shrimp to the bowl and stir to coat. Let sit while grill is heating.
4. Place on skewers. Grill on both sides for just a couple of minutes, until shrimp is firm and pink. Eat immediately!

Monday, October 4, 2010


Nothing like a good, juicy burger every now and then. Carolina Foodie made a recommendation to USA TODAY for their travel story about 51 GREAT BURGER JOINTS, one from each state.
Char-Grill has been a favorite since I was a student at NC State. I love the nostalgic music, the car parts sticking out from walls, and how you can custom order your burgers just the way you want them.
Check it out!