A beauty to Farmer’s Daughter Brand Carolina Chow Chow

Our family dinners have often featured roast chicken with whatever seasonal veggies are tasting best at the time to fill out the plate. For Ann’s Mother’s Day dinner, that’s what Juper and I made- roasted chicken with yellow squash and asparagus.

Years ago I had the most regal and handsome Jamaican friend, Winston Stona, who was the principal in the Jamaican condiment company Busha Browne. Winston came to visit us one time in Durham, NC. He brought a jar and said- “banana.” We were having roast chicken that night. Maybe it was his charm, but we fell in love with his banana chutney. Every time I have roast chicken, I miss the banana chutney. We can’t find where to buy it these days.

imageLast night I opened and tasted Farmer’s Daughter Brand Carolina Chow Chow, made by  Everyone at the table commented about how much they loved April’s condiment. It was surely a beauty!

I love many of Aprils products. I may have found my new favorite last night. I want to buy enough jars, so when the weather turns cold, I’ll have someone on hand to enjoy with pork chops and collard greens.image

So many condiments and jarred retail products are dominated by the flavor of the cheap industrial vinegar. April’s chow chow had complexity of flavor that I found fantastic.

Now I have to figure out how I can get some more!

Dark Crusted Bread

I was at Durham Farmers Market yesterday and spotted a a beauty at the Loaf stand. I saw a loaf that had a really dark crust like I love. I ordered a loaf and was very specific that I wanted the dark one. There was a woman beside me who said, “why in the world would you order the dark one?” The battles I had at Whole Foods all came rushing back to me. I told her that I like the dark one because I like the way it tastes. It is also a good indication that the inside of the loaf would not be under baked. The inside of the loaf is called the crumb. The battle I used to fight at Whole Foods was this: If the retail staff always sent back the darker looking loaves, then they systematically trained the bakers to under-bake the bread. My friend Ari Weinzweig at Zingerman’s devised a brilliant solution to this challenge – he charges a little bit – 25 or 50 cents  more for the dark loaves, thus communicating the quality of a dark loaf.

 

 

 

Strawberry-Rhubarb Preserves

In Jennifer H. Lang’s book Tastings: The Best from Ketchup to Caviar Thirty-One Pantry Basics and How They Rate With the Experts, the category I remember most clearly is one in which she discusses jams and preserves. In it the author concludes that there are more bad examples in this category of pantry staples than the rest of them, and I would concur. Why, you might ask, are there so many bad jams and preserves?  I do not have time to tell you all of the reasons, but here are a few of them.

Most product is made with the cheapest possible fruit with a high water content so both the flavor and the texture are compromised requiring copious amounts of pectin to arrive at the final product. Then there is the debacle of “fruit spreads” which are proclaimed to be sugar-free but instead sweetened with grape juice concentrate which then requires so much pectin to make it a non-liquid product that you can’t distinguish one fruit flavor from the next. The overriding issue is the factory-made nature of American jams, which are produced in giant batches with frozen fruit ordered over the phone from the cheapest source without any attention to its quality or variety.

This leads to an expectation that the price for a jar of jam ought to be $1.99, similar to that raised by Jimmy John’s, Subway, Quiznos and the perfectly awful Panera Bread that AmericanSpoonStrawRhubsandwiches should cost $5.00 and no more. Most of what I’ve learned about Jam in my life was in Europe, specifically in German and France. When you tour a european jam production facility you see the kettles and the cooling tunnels, but the crux of what they want to tell you about is the freezer where they store all of their really good fruit that they spend all summer procuring and preparing to use throughout the year to make their jam. Even though these producers make jam all year around, they work hardest during the fruit growing months when they are out making sure they have really good strawberries, raspberries, apricots, etc. to use during the rest of the year when they make their jam.

In the same way we are lucky here in Durham and Chapel Hill to have Neal’s Deli, Toast and Sandwhich to make exceptional sandwiches that cost more than $5.00, we are also lucky to have April McGreger at Farmer’s Daughter in Hillsborough to make exceptional preserves that cost more than $1.99. April only uses fresh local and seasonal fruit, so if you hanker for some strawberry jam this time of year or a more eclectic flavor combination like Wild Thimbleberry or Blackberry and Elderberry, I’ve got the answer for you.

I’ve known about and promoted American Spoon products for 25 years, selling them first in the original Wellspring store in Durham. American Spoon is a small family run operation in Michigan which works every angle of preserve and jam making to arrive at an exceptional product; in fact its a beauty at $8.99! American Spoon cooks all of their preserves in small batches, using copper kettles and wooden paddles, similar to the way the french do it. They use only Michigan fruit known for its depth of flavor. Like the french, American Spoon gathers high quality fruit during its local growing-season such as Early Glow Strawberries, which are known for their intensity and low water content, allowing the jam maker to use little or no pectin. For their Strawberry-Rhubarb Preserves, which I will have open for you to taste at Parker and Otis on Friday, they do not use any pectin as the Rhubarb helps ‘gel’ the preserves.

I was happy to see a shelf with American Spoon jams and preserves at Parker and Otis, and when I mentioned how much I liked the product to Jennings she told me it was her absolute favorite – what she brings home to put on her toast in the morning. While you may not want to invest $9.00 on a jelly for your teenagers’ PB&J, a high-quality and flavorful preserve such as these can turn your morning toast-ritual into a beauty!

Are there things that you don’t like to eat?

When Emily called and said she was bringing the guy she was dating home I immediately came up with a simple strategy… Emily is easily embarrassed and I wanted to do everything possible to make this go good for her, so I decided that I would serve good food, open good wine and not ask any questions. The man turned out to be the guy she married and had a child with and so he’s been back many more times, but I’ve kept my strategy pretty much the same. By watching him I could tell some of the things he really liked so I try to repeat those on his visits. I served him half of a jerked chicken off the grill and in what seemed like 30 minutes – but I’m sure it was more like 45 – nothing was left but bones; every morsel of meat was gone and that made me smile. At an opportune time I took a chance and asked him “are there any things that you don’t like to eat” and he said something unusual that has caused me to think. Vernon said, “I don’t really much care for cold food” – I’m sure he could tell I was puzzled so he added “why would you eat anything cold when you could have something warm or hot?” 

Reflecting on Vernon’s statement, I realized I have a different but similar categoric statement about what I like when it comes to food … I don’t like dry food, or the opposite would be true – I like moist or wet food. I like soups or stews, but they have to have enough broth where you can get a spoon full. I don’t like meat or fish that is overcooked and therefore dry and I simply can’t eat a sandwich that is dry, which is why a slice of home-grown tomato is such an essential ingredient during tomato season, and its also why I love sandwiches with coleslaw on them – it adds extra moisture to each bite. I don’t like sausages that don’t have a coarse grind or enough fat to make them succulent; I like my scrambled eggs soft and I even like wet martinis, although that’s a different thing altogether. (For more on my feelings about Martinis see my Manhattan post)

What are the things you do or don’t like to eat?

Mortgage Lifters

Everything in a food store has a shelf life. Some foods, like bananas, will let you know when they are no longer sellable. Dried beans have two challenges, the first is that customers and merchants alike think they should last forever, and second as they get too old their aroma doesn’t change, nor does their appearance. I recall a post that I did, I believe it was in the early fall, giving people the website of a place in Colorado that I have been buying beans from for years called Adobe Milling.

A couple of weekends ago we had out of town guests from Boston and we were all cooking dinner together on Sunday. We cooked some of Adobe Milling’s white beans, a variety called a Mortgage Lifter, that I’ve really enjoyed in the past, but after hours of cooking these beans I could tell that they were past-crop beans and that they weren’t going to cook back to a buttery bite because they were too old. I apologize if on my recommendation from an earlier post you bought some of these mortgage lifters. When I called the company to complain I ended up talking to the woman in charge of customer service. She pulled up my order and the mystery was solved – she said “Mr. Alexander, I can see when you got your last shipment of beans, and whereas most of the varieties that we shipped you are new crop, the mortgage lifters are from a previous crop because the farmer that grows them had his entire crop wiped out by a storm so we did not have any new crop from him.”

So I was faced with this dilemma … buy some canned white beans, or take a chance on a white bean from the bins at one of the local food stores. I didn’t like the odds on either, and don’t like the taste of beans that have been cooked in a can so I got Leona to take to the internet to see if we could find the beans that I discovered when I was at Whole Foods and we imported from the northwest of Spain. These beans are cooked in glass jars, a method that has been long lost in this country, but is something I would love to see come back.

Leona found, and we ordered the beans in glass from Spain, here are a couple of websites where you can do the same if you are so inclined. The white beans were absolutely delicious … I am trying the chickpeas tonight.

spanishtable.com
www.laespanolameats.com

Adobe Milling told me they are going to give me credit for all of the Mortgage Lifters I purchased – I’d much rather have fresh beans than have my money back, but farming is uncertain and the farmer lost his entire crop so I will have to wait and see if he will have a crop in the summer 2014. If he does I will be sure to post it here.

Most people think it is the Italians, specifically those from the region of Tuscany, who love beans the most. But in fact, in my experience, it’s the Spanish. If you visit the fantastic market in Barcelona the bean vendors are truly amazing. In Europe, the very top-quality beans are called Spanish quality. The head of the Spanish company from which we imported beans in glass jars for Whole Foods told me this – the true joy of a bean is when they have a tender and buttery bite. I can’t prove this scientifically, but over the years I have come to believe that unlike other agricultural crops where smaller is better, the bigger the bean, the thinner the skin and the more tender the bite. These Spanish white beans in glass jars are so good because for one they start with better beans and are cooked in a superior cooking vessel – glass vs. tin cans. Having excellent staples in my pantry is like having money in the bank. Capers, anchovies, and now good beans make it easy to put together a delicious meal.

My first glass jar of white beans was used to make seafood and white bean stew that was slow cooked over the course of an afternoon that yielded an amazing broth. Even with fresh high quality seafood the beans were the stars of the dish.

Shriek – does he know what he’s doing? No.

CarbonaraMany months ago, when I came home from UNC Hospital’s rehab, each evening I was treated to an amazing banquet of meals from family and friends. One of the meals I remember most, and there were two of my friends that would come and cook this for me, was Pasta Carbonara. Farnum Brown would always come with some beautiful guanciale, which he procured at Reliable Cheese and sadly is no longer open. It seemed like Farnum came once a week to make this pasta dish for me … sometimes he made Pasta all’Amatriciana, which also calls for guanciale … and he would usually call and ask what I wanted for dinner – without fail I would always say “Carbonara”.

Chris Hitt, who lived in Italy for a year and is a good friend that I worked with at WFM, would also come and make Pasta Carbonara. He used a special jowl bacon, which is smoked, that he would mail-order for his recipe.

Guanciale and jowl bacon is meat from the same part of the pig but the Italian’s cure bacon, but its not smoked. At some point after both of my friends had cooked Pasta Carbonara for me three or four times I realized they made it very differently, but I loved both of the dishes equally. I decided it would be fun to invite each of them on the night when the other one was cooking so they could see the differences in how each of them approached the dish. I thought they’d be curious and interested, but in fact they were competitive arguing about how to make the dish.

Neither has been to my house to make this dish for months, and the other night I was overwhelmed with a hankerin’ for some and even though I did not have the right pasta shape and I didn’t have guanciale or jowl bacon, I pressed ahead and made something that didn’t approximate either one of their recipes, but at the end of the night I had satisfied my itch for Pasta Carbonara. This post is just to encourage folks that they don’t always have to have exactly what is on the ingredient list or follow some precise procedure. Here’s a kitchen conversation on how I made the dish …

I had a couple of slices of applewood smoked bacon and I cut these up with a chef’s knife, added a tablespoon of olive oil to a cast iron skillet and slowly cooked the bacon. A minute or two into the slow cooking of the bacon I added a couple of cloves of smashed garlic and let them soften in the same pan.

When the bacon had rendered most of its fat I took the bacon out onto a paper towel, discarded the garlic and added a tablespoon of cultured butter to the bacon fat for later use. I find good olive oil, bacon fat, and cultured butter to be a winning trio.

I also added a pinch of crushed red chili – also not called for in Marcella Hazan’s recipe.

Leona diced a quarter cup of flat-leaf parsley and I grated a half cup of parmigiano-reggiano and set it aside. Chris Hitt’s recipe calls for equal parts Romano and parmigiano, which adds an interesting flavor to the dish. I also beat a beautiful farmers market duck egg so it would be ready to pour onto the hot pasta when the time came.

I cooked 300g of Farfalle, a pasta shape that is not the traditional one which is a long cut, either Spaghetti or Bucatini.

While the pasta was cooking I combined the bacon, parmiggiano, parsley and bacon fat from the cast iron skillet, along with a generous amount of fresh cracked black pepper in a large pasta-bowl.

When pasta was done (I used my teeth to test the pasta to see when it is just right … I certainly don’t throw it against the refrigerator), I quickly strained and added the pasta to the bowl and immediately poured the duck egg over it and began to stir. I can hear shrieks coming from all corners … serious chefs, people scared of raw egg, and traditionalists … but this what I did and I was happy with my dish.

For those of you who want to follow an authentic recipe I would highly recommend the following one by the Queen of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Essentials of Italian Cooking 
by Marcella Hazan, 1993, Alfred Knopf 

For 6 servings

  • 1/2 pound pancetta, cut as a single1/2-inch-thick slice, OR its equivalent in good slab bacon
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Romano cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1 1/4 pounds pasta
  1. Cut the pancetta or slab bacon into strips not quite 1/4 inch wide.
  2. Lightly mash the garlic with a knife handle, enough to split it and loosen the skin, which you will discard. Put the garlic and olive oil into a small sauté pan and turn on the heat to medium high. Sauté until the garlic becomes colored a deep gold, and remove and discard it.
  3. Put the strips of pancetta or bacon into the pan, and cook until they just begin to crisp at the edges. Add the wine, let it bubble away for 1 to 2 minutes, then turn off the heat.
  4. Break the 2 eggs into the serving bowl in which you’ll be subsequently tossing the pasta. Beat them lightly with a fork, then add the two grated cheeses, a liberal grinding of pepper, and the chopped parsley. Mix thoroughly.
  5. Add cooked drained spaghetti to the bowl, and toss rapidly, coating the strands well.
  6. Briefly reheat the pancetta or bacon over high heat, turn out the entire contents of the pan into the bowl, toss thoroughly again, and serve at once.

Let’s have a conversation …

LS2502-2959_full… about Braised Chicken Thighs!

This is an experiment (and I like experiments) … here’s what we’re going to try: I’m going to tell Leona how to make braised chicken thighs and because she knows how to cook if I leave something out she’ll know to ask. You should be able to easily make this dish from this text, and remember – one reason that I like this style of cooking is because it does not have to be exact.

So this should make enough for about 2 people for dinner with some left over for one person for lunch, or you can serve three people a slightly smaller serving for dinner.

(♥ Lex’s notes)

What you’ll need:

  • Four bone-in chicken thighs (♥ if you prefer you can use boneless and/or skinless chicken thighs, which will produce a leaner broth)
  • 1-2 slices flavorful bacon (♥ if you don’t eat bacon you can use 1-2 Tbsp of olive oil)
  • One medium onion
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic
  • One fat carrot
  • 1-2 leeks
  • A few ribs of celery
  • A medium turnip
  • A small rutabaga
  • 1-2 cups sliced mushrooms
  • 1 ½ cups baby spinach
  • approx. 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2-2/3 of a bottle of wine (♥ most would use red for this dish but either will work)

One of the most important things for this dish is a pot that can go straight from the stovetop to the oven. (♥ A 5-quart Le Creuset is ideal, a budget-friendly alternative is a cast-iron dutch oven.)

♥ If you’re organized and plan your meals ahead, season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper up to two days before.

Preheat your oven to 225F.

Cut the bacon into 1” pieces (or whatever size you prefer) and render it off in the pot until the bacon has released its fat and is “kinda” cooked. Remove the bacon and use the rendered fat to brown the chicken thighs on all sides. Approx 2-3 minutes should suffice – just long enough to get some nice color.

After browning your chicken set it aside and sauté your diced onion. Add the garlic (crushed or minced), carrot, celery and leeks (ä be careful not to let the garlic get too dark). Add your aromatics of choice (♥ Lex suggests a pinch of red pepper flakes, star anis and a bay leaf; Rick Robinson swears by one clove, and Leona would add a cardamom pod or two) and deglaze with a splash of chicken stock or wine before adding the cubed root vegetables and “kinda” cooked bacon.

♥ You can improvise here on your vegetables … for example in one of my chicken thigh braises I made this winter I used fennel instead of celery. You could also use potato instead of root vegetables, cabbage of your liking – though I’d use Savoy – or alter your proportions. I’d estimate you want about 2-3 cups of vegetables.

Once the veggies have started softening a bit add enough chicken stock to barely cover and bring to a boil. Rest your chicken thighs on the vegetables and put the pot in the pre-heated oven for 3-4 hours. ♥ Chicken thighs are very forgiving and can be slow-cooked for a long while so don’t worry about over cooking them, especially if your oven is at 225.

There are a number of ways to deal with the spinach and the sliced mushrooms, the easiest being to stir them in with the root vegetables, but if you do this they will be cooked within an inch of their life. Being from the south I am used to that with vegetables so it doesn’t harsh my mellow, as Farnum Brown would say.

My friend Peter Roy prefers his spinach and mushrooms with a little more life left in them so here are three alternative ways to not cook them so much:

  1. Approx. 30 minutes before removing the chicken just add the spinach and mushrooms on top and recover for the remaining braise time;
  2. Approx. 30 minutes before the chicken is done take it out of the pot, stir the spinach and mushrooms in with the vegetables and add the chicken back to the mix;
  3. Right before serving, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil, add a little liquid and the spinach and wilt the greens over the mushrooms. Use the spinach and mushrooms as a base to serve your chicken and vegetables on top.

♥ For a base you can also make rice, grits, mashed potatoes, Israeli couscous, or quinoa – whatever suits your fancy!

Cheers!

Cocktails

I’m not a big cocktail guy. With the small capacity I have for alcohol these days I like to save my allotment for wine, but every once in a while I like to go to the Crunkleton in Chapel Hill or make a drink at home – my choice at either venue is a Manhattan. This weekend we had two couples visit from Boston and I made cocktails for our guests.

There are many ways to prepare a Manhattan, the original being a mix of American Whiskey, Italian Vermouth and Angostura bitters.

Other references to a “Manhattan” have it being served in the city by the same name as early as the mid-1800s, where it has been described as a drink made with two dashes of gum (gomme syrup), 2 dashes of bitters, 1 dash of absinthe, 2/3 whiskey and 1/3 vermouth. (William Schmidt’s “The Flowing Bowl”, 1891)

Here’s how I do it:

2oz Rye Whiskey

1oz Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth

a dash of bitters (I like orange bitters)

1-2 real Maraschino cherries from Luxardo

The key to a good Manhattan is using good ingredients. My ratio of 2:1 is influenced by really good Vermouth from Northern Italy.

The Manhattan has been damaged in the same way the true martini has – in the case of the martini I blame James Bond. If a minuscule amount of Vermouth was James’ recommendation then the macho American male decided no Vermouth at all was even better. But straight gin does not make a good drink, and banishing the Vermouth from the martini led people to abandon the gin martini and switch to a vodka “martini” altogether. In my opinion a “martini” without gin and vermouth isn’t a martini at all.

The best martini I ever experienced was at the Drake hotel in Chicago, which was served in an ingenious two-piece beaker, which allowed you to pour what you wanted into your martini glass while also keeping the whole thing cold. If you’re ever in Chicago I recommend you try a martini at the Drake.

In the case of the Manhattan, bartenders have been making it too with less and less Vermouth. If you use good Vermouth – and I do – I think the right ratio is two parts Whiskey to one part Vermouth, you can even go as light as one part whiskey and one part vermouth.

Now for the real Maraschino cherry – not the abomination given to kids in Shirley Temple’s all over America.

A while ago I read this article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/nyregion/30bigcity.html?_r=0) about a strange mystery indeed. An amateur beekeeper in Brooklyn, New York went up to the roof of her building to check out the results of one of her honeybee hives, expecting to find the golden reward of her bees’ labors. Instead she found that her bees were producing a sickly red, cough syrup sort of substance, something that was not only frightening, but also downright mysterious. It turns out, while foraging, the honeybees had discovered a Maraschino cherry factory, and were sneaking in through a window to dine on sugar water and Red Dye Number 40.

I bring up this story, because it points to the appalling result of a counterfeit industry. These days most people’s conception of the Maraschino cherry is the same as the experience of those Brooklyn honeybees, sugar water and Red Dye Number 40. But, contrary to general supposition, the Maraschino cherry has a royal history and the genuine article still exists.

It may be hard to believe, but a true Maraschino cherry starts out sour and bitter. Marasca cherry trees grow wild along the Croatian coast (former Dalmatia), and in the late 18th century, a Venetian merchant by the name of Drioli refined a distillation process of the cherries, gaining renown for his Maraschino liqueur. The cherries and the liqueur became so wildly acclaimed that courts and rulers all over Europe sought after it, with royal households of Austria, Great Britain and Italy even giving the Drioli factory legal rights to the use of their coats of arms. From the beginning of Drioli Maraschino’s success, however, there were counterfeiting operations all over Europe, a legacy that, as alluded to earlier, still exists in abundance today.

Luxardo

That’s how good these cherries can be. They’re worth counterfeiting, after all. While the Drioli factory no longer exists, there are a couple of serious producers still making quality Maraschinos. Luxardo is one of them. In the 1820s Girolamo Luxardo and his wife began distilling cherries in the same town as Drioli. Today Luxardo grows 22,000 marasca cherry trees in the hilly region of northeastern Italy between Padua and Venice. The company harvests their fruit by hand with all the care of a great wine or olive oil producer and then distills it for two years in pot stills. The maraschino liquor is aged for two years before bottling. The fresh cherries are macerated in the aged liquor and packaged in glass jars.

You can’t buy a jar for $1.98. It’ll cost you almost $25. But they’re worth it. And it only takes one or two of these cherries to make an ordinary Manhattan into one you’ll dream about.

You can go on Amazon to buy these cherries, or even better go to my friend Ari Weinzweig’s mail order at Zingermans.com.

Braised Lamb Stew

I really hate recipes. I hate writing them and I hate cooking from them, but I promised to give people the braised chicken thighs recipe because that is so good. Today was supposed to be the day, but when I went into the fridge to find the chicken thighs I had salt and pepper at Whole Foods when I bought them for the braise they were no where to be found – I must have left them at WFM.

Annie had some lamb shoulder that she wanted to make into a stew and we had marinated it in yogurt with lemon juice, so Leona and I made lamb stew today instead of braised chicken thighs – I am not going to give you a recipe for the lamb stew, but I will say that these slow-cooking braises in the La Creuset pots make the house smell so good, and the anticipation is a great thing on a cold day like today.

Our plan is to try the chicken thigh braise on Monday and hopefully we will have something for you to cook from then. photo

Homemade Mincemeat

The annual Mincemeat making has happened and I am very happy with the 2013 iteration. Cindy Cuomo came and helped guide the process this year and document the recipe because I am a hopeless improviser when it comes to cooking and especially making mincemeat. There are not many in the younger generation that will choose a slice of mincemeat pie when offered an alternative. I am convinced part of it is the name, and even as I’ve promised and issued a written statement to the youngsters many times at the holiday gatherings that there is absolutely no meat in the mincemeat pie, they still opt for the Pecan or Pumpkin Pumpkin Pie.

photo

The original mincemeat “post” and recipe

IMG_4947

Mise en place for mincemeat 2013

Mincemeat1

Ingredients in the pot …

Mincemeat2

… with Tart Cherry juice

Mincemeat3

after simmering for 45 minutes

photo

and finally cooled the next day and ready for tasting – yum!

Mincemeat 2013 Recipe

Cindy’s documented recipe for Mincemeat 2013