Sunday, August 22, 2010

NC Best Dish 2010 Winners


Twenty lucky restaurants in North Carolina presented their very best dishes to a trio of judges, and to their eating public, during the months of May, June and July, as finalists in the Best Dish NC. The judges tried to be sneaks, to be "mystery shoppers," and not let on that they were there to taste and witness each restaurants efforts to present local foods at their finest.
There were two categories - fine dining, and casual dining.
Each restaurant could enter one or more courses for their Best Dish entry, although most wound up presenting about three courses - an evening's worth of delicious eating. Each dish was judged not just on how well and yummy it tasted, but also how delicious it looked, or its presentation; on how creative the dish was; how it and the contest were promoted and marketed; and the use of NC products. The contest is, after all, designed to promote the wonderful foods produced in our state.

Fine Dining Category Winners? What a choice.....all are marvelous choices to spend an evening eating well. But here are the final three....drum roll please......

1st Place
Southern Pines

2nd Place

3rd Place

Isn't it interesting that these three represent three unique regions of North Carolina? From the mountains to the sea, and in-between!


Ashten's chef is Ashley Van Camp, who was influenced by her grandmother's old-fashioned country food. The difference? It was cooked with love, she says. Her winning entrees were Egg Drop Soup with chicken, presented with the poached egg at table; an asparagus strudel; trout with black eyed peas; lamb shoulder stew; and finished off with a dessert of polenta cake with strawberries. Chef de Cuisine Matt Hannon and Pastry Chef Jen Curtis helped pull of this magnificent menu. Ashten's is located in a cozy but hip older building in downtown Southern Pines.



Chuck Nelson heads up the kitchen at Table at Crestwood, and saw the contest as a way of promoting the fresh, local products he loves to use. His first course arrived at the table as a soup dish with a mound of fresh blue crab with basil, and the server swirled a sweet tomato bisque around it. Delicious! A field green salad followed with a log of fresh, local chevre rolled in almonds, with the main course a grilled ribeye steak from Asheville area's Hickory Nut Gap Farm. A cheesecake made with goat cheese and surrounded with a wild berry compote ended this delightful meal. The location was a plus too. The location was a plus, too, as the view was of Grandfather Mountain.

deluxe 1.jpg

Deluxe is also located in a hip, older building, but in downtown Wilmington, just a block from the Cape Fear River. Chef Trinity Hunt's contest winner was fried soft shell crabs from Snows Cut, gathered by Phil Smith, and presented on a veloute of corn with tomato jam as an accent. What a dynamite combination. It looked pretty and tasted divine. Chef Hunt is a Native American who has developed "a keen sensitivity to the harmony between the fisherman and his fish, and the farmer and his farm, and how enlightening the stomach can be for the spirit." This entree certainly was a prime example of that philosophy.

1st Place Bistro 42 , Asheboro

2nd Place Kornerstone Bistro, Wilmington

3rd Place Yancey House Restaurant Yanceyville

Monday, August 16, 2010

LIVE, from Roanoke!

THE NEW BLUE RIDGE COOKBOOK was featured on OUR BLUE RIDGE on WSLS Channel 10 in Roanoke, VA. Check it out! I had four minutes to talk about the book, then four minutes to demo with three different recipes from the book. Do you know how fast four minutes go?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010



The Blue Ridge has got to be one of the most gorgeous places on earth. It's
fertile, too, producing some of the best food in the world.
Last weekend I got to meet my meat.....goats, sheep, cows. I also got to meet
some of the farmers behind all the tasty veggies offered at the Watauga Farmers market.
And, yes, just like a kid I got to pat some very cute, shorn alpacas this past weekend. Stayed away from the donkeys, those cute little thing that farmers use to protect their livestock from coyotes, bears and cougars. Turns out donkeys can be quite ferocious and show their, well, ass!

I also got to tromp down rows upon rows of staked tomatoes, step over and around bright yellow globes of fall pumpkins, cantaloupes and watermelons, and peer into drying sheds of garlic and growing "tunnels" that protect cantaloupes and tomatoes, esp. from rain damage.

Chicken "tractors" and this chicken mobile home provided quite the lovely fowl housing.

The BRWA's annual Farm Tour was such a blast this year, with ten farms spread over 3 counties. Each farm was a model of sustainable farming, an ode to a way of life that these lucky few have embraced.
Apple orchards, honey hives, sunflowers, purslane and potatoes were on display, with farmers talking and explaining over and over to each visitor what their farm was all about. This is a great way to put a face and a place to the food that you eat. I strongly encourage you to find farm tours that are being staged near you, all across the country.

Charles Church of Watauga River Farm in the beautiful Valle Crucis community is one of my favorite farmers. Perhaps he reminds me of my Daddy, the farmer. I just know that he is smart and funny, and to sit and shoot the breeze with him is a delight. A lifetime ago he grew tobacco on his farm, but after the buyout program, he opted for help with the Golden Leaf Foundation to turn his acreage into an organic garden. That takes guts, time and commitment. I admire him for that.
Squash, potatoes, and zucchini were lined up in ice chests for sale. Someone asked about beets, and his helper said, "Oh, I'll go pull you some." Get some for me, I shouted.
How fresh is that?
Charles said too much rain had been a problem for him this growing season. And he will have no broccoli this fall, due to his plant provider. Five acres of broccoli has always been one of his main income-producers. Meanwhile, he has some terrific looking pork products, including a spicy sausage, for sale.
At Tumbling Shoals Farm, Shiloh Avery and partner Jason Roehrig showed us their growing tunnels, as well as the slips of fall crops they had started from seed in their greenhouse. They've cut out that middleman, the plant starter, so they won't have Charles' problem. But that requires a lot of man or woman hours, too. Shiloh is looking forward to December and January when they can actually leave the farm together for more than 24 hours.

I was in a pickle, so to speak, as to what to do with such fresh beets. Pickle them? Roast them for a salad? Or stack them with goat cheese? Or sandwich them between puff pastry with chevre? All of those recipes can be found in my latest, THE NEW BLUE RIDGE COOKBOOK.
I laughed when I remembered my friend who told me that she had never eaten the roots. She thought they were inedible, and so just went for their green tops and threw the dirty things away.

I roasted those babies in a 400 degree oven for about an hour, or until fork tender. Then rubbed them with a paper towel, to keep my hands from turning "beet red," to release them from their skins. So much easier than peeling before cooking.
Now, I'll chill them, then slice them onto a salad with chevre and toasted pecans or walnuts. Or at least what's left of them. I admit I downed a few while peeling. A girl can only show but so much restraint!

Here are two nice pieces about THE NEW BLUE RIDGE COOKBOOK, one about my appearance at the Mount Holly Farmers Market, right outside Charlotte. The other is from the Boston Globe, and all about Tomato Pie. Another blog at another time, I promise.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Manteo Farmers Market, Saturdays 8 to 12
You just have to love a farmers market where you can pull your dinghy up at the dock and get farm-fresh provisions. In Manteo, NC, every summer Saturday morning, farmers and their brokers set up tables under a huge sprawling oak and tents, and barely have time to display the blueberries picked from 50 year old bushes, or cantaloupes from Rocky Hock, or creamer potatoes from Camden County before customers like myself starting buying. Note, go early.
Usually I come home from the Outer Banks laden with freshly picked crabmeat and heads-on shrimp from the Pamlico Sound, or soft shells if they're in season, or fresh blood-red tuna.
This time space in my ice chest was shared with Mattamuskeet Sweets, the sweet Spanish-style onion grown near Lake Mattamuskeet where tundra swans and Canadian geese congregate during the winter. This sweet onion's season was cut short this year due to the hot, hot weather, and then rain that July brought. None were available at any of the markets I checked, and so I called. Out of luck, I made a note to go online and order a box early next summer. Thank heavens my friend Della had a big bag on her porch and shared a few with me.

Not terror, as in pirates swarming the waterfront, but terroir, a French term that essentially means the growing conditions - the "where," the type of soil, the amount of moisture perhaps from being close to the sea, and breezes, the amount of sunlight, etc.
North Carolina's coastal plain, particularly those counties that abut the sounds created by the Outer Banks, our "barrier islands," have a terroir that's particularly good for melons, onions and potatoes.
Rocky Hock is a small community near the banks of the Chowan River, right before it dips down and becomes the Albermarle Sound. The soil there is light and dry, sorta like beach sand, and doesn't hold water. That could be a problem for other veggies, but it's perfect for melons. The last week of June and usually through the end of July is their prime harvesting time. Rocky Hock cantaloupes are sweeter, like I remember the Charentais or Cavaillon melons of France. Their flesh is firm and crisp, and a bit longer-lasting. Ditto for watermelon. I have almost eaten a whole 10-pounder all by myself this last week! Sweet and juicy...dribble down the chin juicy....and did I say sweet, esp in the heart of the watermelon? And with seeds that could help me win a spitting contest (I think seedless varieties are not as flavorful.)
Rocky Hock melons are just about gone for the season, for the same reasons - July was so very hot and wet.

But you can still stock your larder with some of the creamiest creamers and white potatoes from Camden County, a skinny sliver of land that juts from Virginia, bordered by the Pasquotank River which flows into the Albermarle. This northeastern corner of North Carolina is potato country, with over 5,000 acres devoted to growing the tubers. The terroir is similar to that in Rocky Hock, with sea breezes and sandy soil.
Currituck County is tucked between Camden Co and the Albermarle Sound, and faces the beaches up past the last real road in Corolla. Take a ferry over to Knotts Island, and you can find "peaches at the beaches." The last weekend in July is when the annual Peach Festival is held. I apologize for not letting you in on it sooner :>(
My favorite treat this summer is SUN GOLD TOMATOES. Tiny, sweet, "pop them in your mouth now" treats, they made a terrific gazpacho. I was thrilled to find a recipe using them in Thomas Keller's latest cookbook, AD HOC AT HOME. The founder of the famed French Laundry in Napa, Keller is of course a proponent of cooking local and seasonal, although he doesn't mind searching the globe for the very best ingredients and spices.
I took some liberties with his recipe for Sun Gold Tomato Gazpacho, substituting our wonderfully crisp, sweet Southern pickling cukes for Armenian or English cucumbers, the Mattamuskeet sweet for a regular onion, and used a combo of smoked sweet paprika and hot chili pepper in place of the piment d'Espelette, and champagne vinegar instead of sherry. In other words, I used what I could find at my markets and in my pantry.
The result? A gazpacho made in heaven. Creamy and smooth, redolent of that sweet tomato taste. We all loved it.

1/2 cup cold water
1 medium garlic clove, crushed and peeled
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped sweet onion
1 pint sun gold tomatoes (12 ounces)
2 small pickling cucumbers
1/2 large yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/2 large red bell pepper
1 1/2 teaspoon sherry or champagne vinegar, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon chili powder (or use 1/2 teaspoon piment d'Espelette
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper
about 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced chives

1. Place water in a medium bowl and add onions and garlic. Pull out 2 tomatoes per diners, then cut the tomatoes in half, over the bowl, catching any drips. Add tomatoes to the bowl.
2. Peel the cucumbers. Slice one cuke in half, then coarsely chop. Add those to the bowl. You'll use the other cuke as a garnish.
3. Add yellow pepper to the bowl, and toss all together. Let sit and "marinate" for at least five minutes.
4. In the meantime, prepare the garnish. Cut the remaining cuke into a very fine dice. Ditto for the red pepper. Refrigerate, separately, until ready to serve.
5. Transfer the vegetables to a blender (or as Keller recommends, a Vita-Mix). Start on low speed, then increase the speed until the mixture is thoroughly blended.
6. Put a fine meshed strainer over a bowl. Pour the tomato mixture into the strainer and press until all the juices are out. Discard the tomato skins and other veggie remains.
7. Rinse out the blender jar, and then add the strained tomato mixture. Add the vinegar, the paprika/chili powder, and season with salt and pepper. Blend to combine.
8. Then, with the blender running, slowly add the olive oil through the top opening, blending until the gazpacho is "velvety smooth."
9. Taste, and add more vinegar or spices or salt and pepper if needed. Refrigerate in the blender jar until cold, or for up to 2 days.
10. When ready to serve, give it a whirl or two to blend again. Pour the gazpacho into individual serving bowls or cups. Garnish with a sprinkle of the diced cucumber and red pepper, and the tomatoes, halved, saved for the garnish. Serve and enjoy!