Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ichthys on Toast

When in Rome, the whole family walked from the Vatican back to our suite near the Piazza Navona. And at a stop along the way, my DH had a conversion experience.

No, it wasn’t the religious kind, despite our being moved by the Sistine Chapel. He had a deep and profound transformation that will forever be part of our family lore. My DH had a piscatorial conversion. On that special day in Rome, down a quiet street, under a canopy, DH joined me in my love and adoration of the Anchovy. I am no longer a lonely voice in the wilderness, asking that these little fish sit only on my half of a pizza, or compulsively ordering authentic Caesar Salads wherever they’re offered, or sneaking anchovy paste in our pasta sauce.

Let me set the scene. We are hot, tired, and thirsty. We’ve been walking in the Italian sunshine for over an hour, and it’s doubtful that we’ll find an open establishment at this late afternoon hour. Then we turn into an alleyway and see it. A shining beacon of comfort and delight, our resting place . . . the Antica Taverna. It is open, it is serving refreshment, and it has a lovely table in the shade. Once we have our water and wine before us, I begin to survey the plates of food served to other patrons. “Let’s look at the menu,” I suggest. “I could nibble on something.” And there, among the primi, are powerful words swimming before my eyes. I make out the most important one: Alici. Simple, unadulterated alici. Daydreaming aloud, I wonder how these anchovies would taste with my chilled vino blanco. DH, feeling content as a cat in the sun, says two inspirational words: “Order them.”

They arrive on a bed of warm arugula, with toast and butter on the side. Spread some butter on the bread, add greens, and place the salty fish on top. Mmmm . . . heavenly. Feeling peckish, too, DH reaches for the knife and makes his own anchovy treat.

Time stops. The surrounding light turns aqua. A tinny chorus of anchovy angels bubble out underwater “hallelujahs.” DH has found his way.

With the fervor of a new convert, DH has been making up for lost time. We now order anchovies everywhere, on everything. We work assiduously to recreate our Roman snack at home. He sings the praises of anchovies to anyone who will listen. “You don’t understand,” he says, echoing his wife in years past, “These little fishies are glorious. They deserve our exaltation, not our scorn.”

Last Saturday, we took a hot trek through Durham, admiring the architectural beauties on Watts Street and letting DH reminisce about his hometown. As a boy he dreamed this house would be his one day--rosy color and all:

Little Pink Houses for You and Me

When our pilgrimage ended with lunch at Toast (, providence had a wondrous surprise in store for him. Behold:

Bruschetta with White Anchovies

These anchovies are of the vinegar and lemon variety, tasty in their own right (though I prefer the briny ones in oil). We also sampled the egg and tallegio sandwich (which I thought would be fried, but it was scrambled).

It was delicious—buttery, salty, with a yeasty undertone, on perfectly toasted bread. DS had the proscuitto, mozzarella, and tomato sandwich (“It’ll be just like a pizza, we assured him).

It had good flavors, but the ham was a little on the tough side. We also tried two crostini: one with warm goat cheese, local honey, cracked black pepper (stellar!!) and the other with peperonata and pecorino romano (fine, but a little uninspired next to the goat cheese gems)

Panini, crostini, bruschetta, yum. Toast is a “slice” of Italy in Durham, helping us keep the anchovy faith.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

My son cycled through the typical boy interests of Thomas the Tank Engine, Superheroes, Captain Underpants, and Pokemon, and his passion for stereotypically male toys was heightened by his Asperger’s. Up until age 4, in fact, he had to be reminded to use female pronouns to refer to girls and women (a language quirk common to those on the spectrum). As a feminist mom, I encouraged him to play without gendered discriminations, so I was thrilled when he requested a tea set at age 3. It turns out that he thought the titular hero in A Bargain for Francis was a boy badger (in this tale, Francis has to best Thelma on some tea-set negotiations). But we did get to have a couple teddy bear tea parties. The only other time DS has patently strayed from boy’s town is when he requested an Easy Bake Oven. His sweet tooth overrides any other categorical ideas he may harbor. I happily and wistfully obliged.

As a five year old, I yearned for an Easy Bake Oven. I dreamt of their small metal cake pans. I coveted the ovens of Tracy and Kit, girls who lived across the street and down the block. I ached to witness the light bulb work its magic. And I longed to eat those tasty little cakes. My mom’s response was, unequivocally, “No.” Reasonably, her argument was that once you have the oven, you have to keep shelling out money to buy the expensive pre-measured mixes. Less than a year later, I began to bake with the real oven, but the Easy Bake version had lodged itself in my heart. Ouch.

DS and I did bake a few treats in his Easy Bake Oven. But, in all honesty, the cakes had a bland, sawdust flavor. And having to worry about a little one getting burned dissipates nostalgia right quick. Plus the new version lacks the retro panache of the EBO in my heart. What retains that retro flavor, though, are my 1957 Betty Crocker’s New Boys and Girls Cook Book and my 1968 Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book. This latter collection has some terrific cookie and cake recipes (as well the inspirations for my Mad Men dinner). And the “junior” cookbook has an ethnographic quality, capturing the strange diet of white middle class kids in mid-century. It provides the secrets to such special delights as “’Ham’ Loaf Hawaiian” (canned loaf meat, mustard, sliced pineapple, and brown sugar), “Tuna and Chips Casserole” (can of cream of mushroom soup, tuna, peas, milk, and crushed potato chips), and an “Italian Pizza” made with Bisquick. Here’s my son’s favorite classic 1950s lunch (made with real cheese rather than the processed kind. . . but the soup is Campbell’s):

But to keep up with DS's sweet tooth, I've turned to these updated kid-pleasers from a recent issue of Bon Appetit.

Is it a brownie or a cookie? A cookie brownie? A brookie? A crownie?

Warning: This recipe far exceeds the capacity of your Easy Bake Oven!

From The Sweet Pea Bakery & Catering: “Brownie-Chunk Cookies” (as translated by me)

2 ½ Cups of flour

1 teaspoon of baking soda

¼ teaspoon of fine sea salt

2 sticks of unsalted butter, room temperature

1 Cup of packed golden brown sugar

½ Cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 Cup of walnuts (I omitted these . . . for the kids)

½ recipe of chilled Old-Fashioned Brownies (recipe below) cut into ½ inch cubes.

Nonstick vegetable spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment. Whisk first 3 ingredients in medium bowl. Beat butter and both sugars in large bowl until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in dry ingredients. Fold in brownie cubes.

Drop spoonfuls on baking sheets, spraying them with nonstick spray as needed. Flatten mounds to 1 inch thickness. Bake one sheet at a time 18-20 minutes.

Old-Fashioned Brownies

5 oz. unsweetened chocolate chopped

1 stick of butter

2 Cups of sugar

1 teaspoons of vanilla extract

4 large eggs

¼ teaspoon salt

1 Cup of flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 13x9x2 inch metal pan with foil. (I’d spray the foil with oil, too, b/c mine got a little stuck). Stir chocolate and butter in heavy saucepan over low heat until melted. Cool.

Whisk sugar and vanilla into chocolate mixture, then whisk in eggs and salt; stir in flour. Spread into pan. Bake until tester in center comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 20 minutes. Cook in pan, then cover and chill overnight.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Butter Me Up

How did I get here? I began this particular culinary journey with an itinerary for health and somehow I ended up in a big vat of creamy fat. There were signs along the way, of course. There always are. The first indicator was my initial impulse to buy leeks. I have, in the past, made vegetable soup from bits of carrot and celery and cabbage that I find in the fridge. It’s a great lunch time meal for those days when I work at home—easy to heat up, filling, healthy, and it gets rid of leftovers.

Instead of leaving well enough alone, though, I had to take it up a notch. I went shopping for soup ingredients, suddenly inspired to make it fancy. I was determined to cook myself some leek soup. Leeks, when prepared right, can have a pleasingly subtle, buttery flavor. How can anyone turn down a vegetable that tastes like butter?

Wait. Scratch that. I have always turned my nose up at vegetable oils masquerading as butter. Are you there, Margarine? Yes, I’m talking about you. When I was a kid, my mother bought margarine instead of butter. This was back in the day when butter was the devil, and margarine was “heart-healthy.” But I always saw through Parkay’s charade. I can believe it's not butter! Especially when it's an unholy, yellow, unctuous substance that leaves a tang of plastic on the tongue!

Sure, Crisco and its kin do make especially flakey biscuits and crusts. And cake-mix cakes, with their partially-hydrogenated fats, do stay moist longer. But butter is better. Modest butter merely seeks the appropriate means of transmission: baked potatoes, fresh bread, and corn on the cob all make friendly devices.

I’m not ashamed to admit that at the impressionable age of 11, I played the King in a theatrical performance of A. A. Milne’s poem “The King’s Breakfast.” Surely it was a character-forming moment to portray a monarch who only wanted a bit of butter for his royal slice of bread.

As you may discern, we’ve taken a slippery detour from leeks (that merely taste like butter) to buttery butter itself. I never made the soup. Instead the leeks aged a few days in my bin, waiting patiently, but never letting me forget them. So while planning my dinner menu the other night, I thought it was merely serendipity that I encountered this yummy recipe for Leeks and Sea Bass in The Zuni Café Cookbook. It’s perfect, I thought. I can put my neglected leeks to use in a healthy dish for DH and me.

It wasn’t until I bought the fish that I noticed that we’d also be consuming almost a whole stick of butter.

Sea Bass with Leeks, Potatoes & Thyme

from The Zuni Café Cookbook, translated by me

For 4 servings:

4 pieces of sea bass fillet, about 6 ounces each and 1 to 1-1/2 inches thick


¾ pound yellow-fleshed potatoes, cut into bite size pieces

1 and ½ Cups diced or thinly sliced leeks

A few sprigs of thyme

1 and ¼ Cups chicken stock

A splash of dry white vermouth

6 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, sliced and chilled

A trickle of white wine vinegar

Season the fish lightly and evenly with sea salt, cover loosely,
and refrigerate, a few hours before cooking.

Preheat the broiler: position the rack 6 inches from the element.

Place the potatoes in cold water to cover, set over medium heat, add plenty of salt. The water should taste as you would like the potatoes. Cook at a simmer until tender and soft around edges, about 5 minutes.

Drain the potatoes and place them in a large oven-proof skillet. Add leeks, thyme, one cup of stock, and splash of vermouth. Set on medium heat and swirl until it simmers. Add 4 Tablespoons of butter, and swirl until it melts. Taste for salt, reduce heat to low, and add the fish. Swirl to baste the fish in the broth.

Making sure no leeks are on the fish or sides of pan, place the pan under the broiler. Cook until potatoes and fish are lightly gratinéed, about 5-6 minutes. The liquid should be bubbling. Turn oven to 500 degrees. Cook until the fish is medium-rare, another 1 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile warm the serving plates.

Transfer fish pan to the stovetop, lift out fish, and keep on warm platter. Swirl the pan, letting the sauce thicken as it simmers. Taste, add remaining butter, and adjust the salt. Let sauce reduce, adding either vermouth or vinegar if needed.

And then we add a load of rich creamery butter

Hmm. Butter. It’s what’s for dinner.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

It Ain’t Wabbit Season, Ducky

Well, dear readers, I’ve cooked my first duck. Such an assertion, thankfully, lacks the ominous ring of “My goose is cooked.” But I’m not going to lie: there were challenges. First difficulty was locating duck legs. Darling Jamie Oliver (if you’re not sweet on him—be ye male or female—you’re either dead or you claim British citizenship), whose recipe I’m following, advocates duck legs. But he also encourages me not to shy away from the purchase of a whole duck.

So I checked my local Harris Teeter. No duck. Weaver Street Market had a frozen duck, but I left it alone. (Truth be told, I’m a little miffed at them for eliminating their fresh fish counter.) On the hunt, I headed out to Whole Foods, feeling confident that their vast selection of proteins would fit the bill (so to speak). Sure, they had a frozen whole duck, too, but I had visions of fresh duck, newly cleavered, and ready to cook. I spoke to the butcher, and it turns out they’re between duck sources. So now I’m fairly convinced that adorable Jamie has an easier time finding duck than I do. Since I wasn’t ready to bag my own waterfowl, I bought the frozen version. And I cut it up myself. Not bad for an amateur, huh?

The other difficulty with duck (connected, I suspect, to its lack of ready availability for consumption) is our American tendency to anthropomorphize it. How many fictional ducks populate our culture, anyway? Donald, Daisy, Daffy, McScrooge, and those three little nephews all come to mind. And I’m not too embarrassed to mention Disco Duck, Howard the Duck, and Ernie’s rubber ducky. When I told my daughter what kind of fatty bird I was preparing, she lamented, “Oh, poor little ducky!” (She didn’t eat any of this duck, but her abstinence is attributable more to her five-year-old pickiness than her budding vegetarianism).

(Although my topic is duck and not chicken, my son wants me to mention that he finds it jarring and bad business when poultry establishments use a talking chicken to sell their fried legs and wings. DS: “What are they suggesting? Is the chicken saying: ‘Please buy a big bucket of me?’” In his view, Chick-Fil-A trumped all competition when it got bovine to shill for them.)

Always amiable Jamie has assured me (in his cute mockney accent) that plums would be “wicked” with this duck. And what do you know? Weaver Street Market has beautiful organic plums on sale. It’s kismet. Me, plums, and Jamie. Lovely jubbly.

Here’s the recipe (in some of my own words) from Jamie’s Dinners:

Sweet Duck Legs Cooked With Plums and Star Anise

4 fat legs of duck (I used 2 legs, 2 breasts, and 2 wings)

4 Tablespoons of soy sauce

3 teaspoons of five-spice powder

A handful of star anise

½ stick of cinnamon (I threw in a whole stick)

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1-2 fresh chilies, deseeded and sliced

16 plums, halved and destined

1 Tablespoons of Demerara or raw sugar

Place the duck legs in a plastic bag with the soy sauce, five-spice powder, star anise, cinnamon stick and olive oil. Marinate them in the fridge for 2 hours (or up to 2 days). Use high-sided roasting pan or casserole, so that the duck legs fit snugly. Place the chilies, plums, and sugar in the bottom the pan, pour in the marinade from the bag, and mix it all up with your hands. Place the duck legs on top.

Cook in a preheated oven at 325 degrees for 2 to 2 ½ hours. Remove the star anise and cinnamon stick, then taste the sauce to see if needs seasoning with more soy sauce.

Cheeky Jamie recommends wrapping the duck and sauce in Chinese pancakes, but all I could find were egg roll wrappers. Alas, they had the wrong consistency. Perpetually cheery Jamie also advises serving the dish with rice or noodles, which I will try next time.

Jamie’s my mate, you know. He’d never steer me wrong.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Pesto . . . Same As It Ever Was

My name is Basil. I failed miserably as an English hotelier.
Pesto is my natural vocation.

We never made it to Liguria during this trip to Italy, but on our first visit in 1990 (before we had children), we stayed a few nights in the region of pesto. The decade of pesto had just come to a close, and the pesto backlash was on the horizon. Many of us may associate the green sauce with the 80s (along with big hair and shoulder pads, two trends I followed diligently). Food fads hit the U.S. with a force that (I presume) misses other cultures. Remember when most menus were overloaded with sun-dried tomatoes? Or when cooks seemed unable to prepare fish without “blackening” it? I guess the current food trend, hitting its crest, is chipotle. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

I rode the pesto wave in the 80s, and then I (along with many others) reached a saturation point. We found pesto on our pizza, our sandwiches, our fish, and our chicken. We forgot the all important motto: “moderation in all things.” Our excessive deployment of pesto was unfair to the mighty basil plant and its magical, heady properties. I learned my lessons. Pesto should never come in a jar. Pesto works best with al dente pasta (I always use De Cecco brand). Pesto deserves to be made at home.

After a few years apart, Pesto and I got back together. When your basil is thriving in the dog days of summer, pesto must be made. And despite the derivation of its name (from pestle), I use a food processor.


2 Cups of Basil Leaves (neither loose nor packed)

1 clove of garlic, peeled (many people add much more)

½ Cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Handful of toasted pine nuts

Coarse salt and ground pepper to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil

In a food processor, chop the basil, garlic, and pine nuts until fine. Add salt and pepper. Stir in cheese and add enough oil until it’s the right consistency. Serve with your favorite pasta.

Put on some Talking Heads, don your artfully-cut sweat shirt, and dig in.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In Which the Professors Get Tummy Aches

I know I promised a blog entry on The Chocolate Fetish (and I will someday discuss my profound and specific opinions about good chocolate and its necessary consumption), but we never actually made it to the shop. The trip to Asheville was, in truth, a trip to Black Mountain for a reunion with three friends from grad school—women I’ve known for almost 20 years. We had so much catching up to do that we talked for fourteen hours straight on the first full day, leaving the cabin only once for a trip to the grocery store, where we purchased such necessities as chocolate chip cookie dough and diet cokes. It was curious and amusing to witness how quickly four middle-aged women with PhDs (who normally eat and serve their families healthy foods) could revert to their co-ed eating habits.

In the course of our many, many conversations, I mentioned how, when I was a child, my mother rarely bought junk food. Not only were we poor, but she was also health-conscious. Plus she didn’t have a taste for it. So, no cookies, or pop-tarts, or cakes, or sugary cereals in my house. But every once in while, she’d get a hankering for potato chips and dip. Since we lived in a flat just above a bodega, the Lays and sour cream were a few short steps away. (The convenience of this store was not lost on me at 7 or 8; I would scrape together coins found in the seat cushions and sneak down to purchase Hostess Pies, Fun Dip, or Good ‘n Plenty whenever I got the chance. I think most of my energy as child was taken up in the dogged pursuit of sweets.) But nothing made me happier than sitting with my mom on the floor of our avocado-green living room scarfing down chips and dip. Store-bought onion dip was acceptable, but the preferred treat was “California dip” made with sour cream and Lipton’s French onion soup. I ate many a bowl of that stuff well before the onions had rehydrated, munching them together with the chips.

Today, potato chips are my greatest weakness. I can resist ice cream, pie, cake, and most cookies; sugary cereals no longer have any appeal. But potato chips, with their crunchy, salty, greasy goodness, never fail to call my name. Currently the favorite is Kettle Chips “Salt and Pepper” flavor, but DH and I still reminisce about “Crunch Taters,” a thick-cut spicy chip that we found at gas station markets in the 80s. When we were in England, a favorite activity was tasting the bizarrely flavored “crisps” they sold: prawn cocktail, steak and onion, ham and English mustard, etc. And in Italy, snacking on chips became a car activity to ease the anxiety of getting lost in a strange land and to provide a reason to stop at the cool Auto-Grills that marked the highways. We ate a brand called “Cric-Croc” (and by some absurd logic that only he understands, “Cric-Croc” became DH's favored way to say “that’s that”).

So this weekend, when four female profs went foraging for food at the Bi-Lo to sustain our talk-a-thon, the Ruffles and onion dip proved an unanimous choice for dinner.

Paired with a dry white wine, of course.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I'm off to Asheville tomorrow morning, where I'm planning a visit to The Chocolate Fetish. I hope to have a full report on the wonders of chocolate when I return on Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I Want Mussels!

Well, not all over my body. That would be uncomfortable. But I would like a big bowl of them to eat, please. These little bivalves are irresistible. And we can get them on almost every corner: Pop’s, Rue Cler, Panzanella, Milltown (and maybe other places I'm forgetting). Panzanella spices theirs up with a peppery local sausage; be sure to dip their focaccia in the broth. Rue Cler offers a French bistro approach, steaming the mussels in white wine. Have a glass of Muscadet and enjoy the best moules frites in the area. Closer to home, Milltown serves them Belgian-style (the mussels are cooked in ale). The quality of Milltown’s food can be uneven, but they usually do the mussels and frites just right.

While in Chicago last spring, we went to a bar that influenced Milltown’s menu (as confirmed by one of the co-owners): Hop Leaf. At this Chicago hangout the house specialty is mussels steamed in Belgian white ale, served with frites and aioli (they serve lots of other hearty fare, too, like organic sausages and crispy duck leg confit). Having done my research on Chowhound, we knew the drill. The bar was packed to the gills when we walked in at 4:45. The restaurant, located in the rear of the building, opens at 5:00. We grabbed a beer, and then staked out a place near the back, ready to queue up for dinner. Sure enough, right at 5:00, all the eager diners in the bar formed a line to get their mussels and frites. We were the second party seated. And our dinner was délicieux!

Usually I avoid “all you can eat” restaurants. None of us should ever eat all we can eat. And I don’t like the economic pressure the concept implies: eat enough to make it a bargain. It’s only a “good deal” if you’re a 350 pound linebacker. But the exception that proves this rule applies to Bouchon in Asheville, where it’s all you can eat mussels on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Not only am I able to consume large quantities of mussels (after all, they’re so light and small), but I also get the chance to have mussels three ways: Parisienne (steamed in white wine, shallots, garlic, and thyme), Indochine (curry, lemon grass, and coconut milk) and Mediterranean (saffron, tomato, roasted garlic, white wine). As long as you only reorder mussels and not fries, you can enjoy the variety and avoid feeling like a 350 pound linebacker.

Mediterranean mussels take me back to Italy, where shellfish accompanies pasta. While in Rome, we had lunch at La Piazzetta in Trastevere, where I had pasta frutti di mer—King prawns and mussels in a light tomato sauce, served with a wide tubular pasta (mezzi paccheri?). Inspired by this dish, I cooked mussels for the first time just last month. I learned that you have to sort through your mussels carefully, discarding any that are wide open, broken, or that fail to close when you tap them. The best place to buy mussels in the area is Tom Robinson’s Seafood (behind Armadillo Grill). Harris Teeter has them occasionally. But for last Sunday ‘s meal I bought them at The Fresh Market (since Tom’s was closed). “What do they taste like?” the checker asked me. “The sea,” I said.

And here’s how we ate them . . .

Spaghetti with Mussels (Spaghetti con le Cozze)
from Molto Italiano by Mario Batali

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 cup dry white wine

2 pounds small mussels, scrubbed and debearded

1 pound spaghetti

¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes

*Bring water to boil in large pot and add salt

*In sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook about a minute. Add wine, raise heat and bring to boil. Add mussels. Cook, tossing until all the mussels have opened—about 4 minutes.

*Cook pasta in boiling water until al dente. Drain well.

*Add pasta to pan with mussels and cook over high heat for 1 minute. Add parsley, salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes. Toss well and serve immediately.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

“O, It’s a Jolly Holiday with you, Bert”

DH likes English food. When I was in graduate school, my family lived in Cheltenham for three years. When we would visit, DH was in culinary heaven. “Bring on the bangers and mash,” he’d exclaim at breakfast. At lunch, I’d hear “More fish and chips, guvner?” in what was presumably an English accent: (Think Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins).*

He knows his Anglophilia puts him in the minority, but he also harbors an interesting theory (that quite a few folks may find mildly offensive). He believes there are profound similarities between the Southern food he ate as a child and English cuisine. I see some truth in what he says—if you focus on the overcooked veggies and the predilection for frying. Southern food, of course, has some roots in traditional British cuisine, but it also has an amazing range and richness due to its African, Caribbean, and New World influences.

There is one sphere where the Brits and Southerners do compete for excellence—in the quixotic world of quick bread. What regional cuisine can top the perfect biscuit? None.

But the Scottish-derived Scone provides its own incomparable pleasures.

DH loves to read Jane Austen, Jasper Fforde (Welsh, I know), and Dick Francis. He (very annoyingly) prefers the British pronunciation of “schedule,” “niche,” and “clientele.” And he adores high tea. He has said, and this is a direct quotation: “I would love to roll around in a vat of Devon cream.” (It must be my good fortune that the clotted stuff is terribly difficult to obtain state-side).

This morning we woke to rain. We couldn’t take our usual walk to Southern Village for croissants and coffee. And what’s more evocative of the British Isles than rain? So it was the ideal day to make my favorite scone recipe. I usually prepare these with dried apricots, but today I used dried cranberries. While plain scones are best served with loads of Devon cream and jam, these are sweet and fruity enough to eat on their own. Eat them warm from the oven. Then eat them later in the day, toasted with butter.

Cranberry Scones

(adapted from a Bon Appetit recipe)

2 cups all purpose flour

¼ cup packed golden brown sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

5 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces

2/3 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup dried cranberries

1 large egg, beaten for glaze

Brown sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix first five ingredients in large bowl. Add butter; rub in with fingers or pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse meal. Make well in center of mixture. Add sour cream and vanilla. Using fork, stir sour cream mixture into dry ingredients until dough forms. Turn onto lightly floured surface. Kneed in cranberries until incorporated (about 10 turns). Flatten into 8-inch round. Cut into 8 wedges.

Transfer wedges onto baking sheet. Brush with egg. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Bake until golden, about 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

So if your partner says, “Kippers for breakfast again, Aunt Helga?” in his “Bart Simpson-does-a-British -accent” (as mine does on a semi-regular basis), you can say: “Nope. But we are on schedule to satisfy the Anglo niche of our clientele. We have scones.”

*If I were British, I'd be included on this blog:

Friday, August 8, 2008

Comfort Cocina

Enchiladas Suizas at The Fiesta Grill

Mexican is my comfort food. When Durham-born DH waxes nostalgic about pinto beans, salmon cakes, and biscuits, I get misty thinking about guacamole and enchiladas. I was born in Dallas, and I spent portions of my childhood in San Francisco and Monterey. When we’d visit my grandparents in Texas, eating out meant either a steakhouse or a Tex-Mex joint. And for some of that time in S.F. we lived squarely in the Mission District. I like all kinds of Mexican food: authentic, Americanized, Rick Bayless-style, and out of a truck. From the tacos my mom makes, to the cheese-covered plates at El Rodeo, to the huge burritos at Carburritos, to the deliciously authentic fare you can get from the stands in Carrboro and the taquerias in Durham. I am thrilled that North Carolina has become such a hot spot for good Mexican food. See the recent write up on “Carolina Cocina" in Gourmet Magazine (available in a pdf at this website:

Only ten minutes away from us is the Baja influenced Fiesta Grill (, where we ate on Wednesday night. I find its no-frills décor charming; the formica tables and huge take-out counter signify that it’s a practical place, ready to feed families, students, and laborers. And they come in droves. The staff is extraordinarily cheerful and efficient. Since we were out with the kids, we got there before 6:00 PM and before the crowds. The place filled up fast. While we munched on chips and two excellent salsas (one medium-hot and thin; the other milder with cilantro and chunks of tomatoes) I watched two waitresses set up a table for customers they evidently knew well—a farmer who looked to be about sixty—and his three grown children, two sons and a daughter. These folks had obviously just finished a day’s work, and the Fiesta staff made sure the patriarch’s drink was on the table before he even sat down. The family then ordered steak fajitas all around. It looked to be a happy routine.

My DS was pleased to opt for an Americano choice: hamburger and french fries. But when he tasted DH’s taco de carne asada, he vowed to order it next time. What a triumph that would be! To have my AS child choose the restaurant’s cuisine over and above an “American” meal! I had the enchiladas suizas. They were very good; certainly better than mine, but I have to confess I’ve had better (in Asheville of all places!). I will say that the leftovers were even tastier the next day at lunch. I’m eager to try the tortilla soup and the whole fried fish. We also had the queso fundido as an appetizer (melted cheese with chorizo, onions, tomatoes, and spices). It was a huge portion, and a little rich for a starter. In addition to his taco, DH had the pork tamale and a chicken enchilada—both excellent:

It's full of joy and cheese. And cheeseness. Shun the non-believer.

But the best dish by far was that taco de carne asada, and I don’t even eat red meat. Well-made tacos do have an addictive quality. And this simple tortilla, filled with steak, cilantro, onions, and hot sauce, not only hit the spot but it also gave DS a brand new craving. Maybe Carolina cocina will become my children’s comfort food. That would testify to our kinship as persuasively as DNA.

Be forewarned. This taco may have magical virtues.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

I Cry Fowl!

Our Kitchen in Italy

My Mom eats chicken, but she doesn’t particularly like it. To me, this is curious. A bizarre quirk of her palate. A strangeness worth noting and perhaps even questioning. When she says, “I’m just not that crazy about chicken,” I always want to argue the point. As if our tastes can be influenced by reason.

I, on the other hand, adore chicken. In fact, I imagine future posts devoted to my personal history with fried chicken, my passion for chicken wings, and how I’ve spent whole days laboring to duplicate the legendary ‘chicken and dumplings’ of DH’s MaMa.

But the chicken on the specials' board today is Roast Chicken. I love me some roast bird.

When in Tuscany (are you noticing a motif here?), we ate most of our meals in restaurants, or picked up ingredients for a quick pasta dish, but we also felt compelled to shop at the butcher’s. On one occasion this translated into bacon for breakfast. But on another afternoon, my friend K and I decided it was time to do some real cooking in our Tuscan kitchen. With children under foot, the smartest bet was a meal that cooked itself. So we bought a big bird from the butcher. (Don't worry kiddies, it wasn't the big bird). All ready to cook . . . except with feet and head attached. Once we’d amused (grossed-out?) the kids a bit with these bits and pieces, I prepared the chicken for roasting.

The real adventure was using an oven that had no temperature gauge—the numbers had rubbed off over the years. I took a wild guess and crossed my fingers. After about fifteen minutes, we could hear the skin crackling. I checked inside, and the bird was already a deep golden brown. I took another wild guess and turned the knob about 45 degrees the other direction. Then we cooked it another 75 minutes. Somehow the Tuscan genii of the kitchen's culinary past had intervened, and the bird turned out beautifully. That first fifteen minutes had magically sealed in the juices, making the meat moist and tasty.

When at home, I follow a slightly different routine (more exact in heat and time), but the results are similar. If you can, get a free-range, organic bird. You will taste the difference.

Simple Roast Chicken

3-4 pound Free-Range chicken

Salt, pepper, fresh rosemary, fresh thyme

1 lemon

1 large yellow onion

3-4 carrots (or a couple handfuls of baby carrots)

10-12 small red potatoes

*Preheat oven to 350 degrees

*Season 3-4 pound bird with coarse salt and ground pepper. Let it rest in refrigerator until ready to roast.

*Take two to three cloves of garlic, sliced, and rub over the chicken skin. Place the cloves under the skin and in the cavity.

*Halve a lemon and squeeze the juice over the chicken and put the lemon halves in the chicken cavity.

*Cover the chicken with fresh thyme and rosemary. Place the rest in the cavity.

*Cover the chicken with foil and cook for 50 minutes

*Slice the carrots into quarter size pieces (or use baby carrots)

*Slice the onion into one inch pieces.

* Halve, or even quarter the potatoes (get them into bit size pieces).

*Combine the carrots, potatoes, onions with some rosemary and thyme, and two tablespoons of olive oil, until coated.

Once the timer rings, remove foil from chicken, add the vegetables to the pan and roast without foil for another 50 minutes. Turn the vegetables with a spatula once or twice in that time.

Raise the temperature to 425 degrees, and let the chicken and veggies get some color for about 15 minutes.

Here’s DH’s plate from dinner:

We’re not food photographers (yet!), but trust me . . . the chicken was excellent.

It made me think that if my mom were here, she’d just have to change her mind about poultry.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Summer Sammie

As I mentioned on Saturday, it’s the season for the perfect Italian sandwich: basil, tomato, and fresh mozzarella. Our flat in New Haven was about three blocks from Romeo and Giuseppe’s (Romeo and Joe’s, it was called), a little Italian grocery store where they made incredibly yummy sandwiches. (I understand it’s now “Romeo and Caesare’s” and that Joe has opened Nica’s Market down the street—the rumor is that R and J had a falling out). At the old Romeo and Joe’s, you couldn’t go wrong with the chicken and peppers, sausage and peppers, or chicken parmesan sandwiches. But the king of them all was the summer treat: “fresh mozz, basil and tomato.”

While staying with some friends in Tuscany at an agriturismo this June, we had incredible meals in the hill towns around us, but some days were spent just lounging by the pool (With five kids among us, it was necessary to take some vacation days from our vacation). The closest town was Asciano, where we’d pick up our supplies from the small vendors along their narrow streets—an initial stop for vegetables at the alimentari, past the congregating men drinking espresso at the café, into the butcher’s shop for fresh meat, and then to the forno for bread. Gathering all the food for meals was a social event even when one lacked good language skills (or perhaps, especially when one lacked good language skills). When my DH selected anchovies at the alimentary, the cheerful lady who ran the shop put complimentary arugula in the bag simply because it went well with the fishies. My running joke with her was my mispronunciation of “peach” as “fish.” (pesca; pesce)

With some quick coaching from our friend S, who can actually speak Italian, I went on my own shopping adventure to buy the makings for our sandwiches. S also urged me to buy only mozzarella di bufala campana—fresh mozzarella made from buffalo’s milk. At the deli I managed to gesture and vocalize sufficiently for the cheese man to retrieve my mozzarella from a special cooler in the back. “It’s the best?” I said in pigeon Italian. Si, delizioso.” And so were the sandwiches.

Here in Chapel Hill, it’s possible to make fresh mozzarella sandwiches with entirely local ingredients, as we did today (if you don’t count the olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper). The tomatoes are from the farmer’s market, the bread from Weaver Street Market, the (cow) mozzarella from Chapel Hill Creamery, and the basil from our own backyard.

That’s eatin’ good in the neighborhood.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

It's the real thing. Really!

I’m not a big drinker of sodas, or “drinks” as they’re called in the south. I do like to have a real Coke occasionally—maybe six times a year. When I was a kid, if my mom let me pick out a soft drink, I went for the odd-ball choices: cream soda, root beer, or orange Fanta. When we would visit my grandparents in Dallas, my grandma would buy big bottles of their local grocery store brand soda, and she’d get the neon fruit flavors, like strawberry and grape. I loved that stuff. (For a very brief period, which she later denied vociferously, my grandma put strawberry soda on her cereal instead of milk! It was probably an early sign of dementia, but as a twelve year old, I thought it was marvelous). All through high school, when I ate at McDonalds (as we were wont to do in our suburban wasteland), I gulped down their non-carbonated orange drink.

Nowadays, I enjoy a Coca-Cola as a treat. And Pepsi won’t do (despite residing in North Carolina). My favorite mode of Coke delivery is the 8 oz. glass bottles that DH’s grandparents used to have in regular stock, ice cold on their back porch. These days, if you buy a six-pack of little bottles, you’re paying for nostalgia. My second choice is a fountain coke, slightly flat and a little watered-down by the ice. For about two years in my late teens, I joined the crowd and drank diet sodas. I distinctly remember my aunt panicking when they banned saccharine; she filled her guest room with cases of TAB. It is true that Fresca tasted better when it had that bitter chemical aftertaste.

I object to the habitual drinking of soda for all the common sense reasons: sodas lack nutritional value, and they are dehydrating rather than hydrating, etc. I object to the drinking of diet soda because I believe we need to be accountable for what we consume. I won’t eat fat substitutes either. I like the real thing, thank you very much. Now studies suggest that diet sodas may be making our nation heavier; they appear to be associated with metabolic syndrome. Meanwhile, Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma has made us all aware of the rampant use of high fructose corn syrup in all processed foods (to wit, corn chips with legs). Regular sodas are, of course, 100% corn syrup.

I only recently became aware that Cokes made in Mexico still use cane sugar. So today I went to the Tienda La Potosina on Rosemary Street, and I bought a couple of Cokes with azucar on the label. And then I picked up a six-pack of little Coca-Colas—Americano-style. Time for a taste-test!

I knew my ds would be on board for a Coca-cola tasting. We managed for about 8 years to keep Ds soda-free. And since he’s picky, he wasn’t much interested in trying them. (Believe it or not, my in-laws, who swig soda like water, actively try to get both kids to drink the stuff. I think DS's initial reluctance struck them as just one more way our family's strange). Around age 9, though, DS got hooked on Cokes. He wants them every time we eat out. And, in all honesty, I’m not very strict with the Cokes when we’re at a restaurant because I secretly believe that a little caffeine helps him focus better. While we were in Italy, the rule seemed to be that whenever the adults had wine, he could have a Coke. So he had Cokes constantly. And they cost more than the wine.

Anyway, back to the blind taste test. At approximately 2:00 this afternoon, DH and DS sampled 2 oz. of Coke-Mexico and Coke-HFCS. And the verdict? DS preferred the Mexican coke, but he thought it was American. DH and I also preferred the Mexican Coke. It’s definitely flatter, but it lacks the odd acidic aftertaste of American Coke.

Word is, if you want to buy sugar cane cokes in your neighborhood grocery store, wait until Passover. Kosher cokes are the real thing!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Baking Memories

Every Saturday morning, once we get our acts together, we head to the Carrboro Farmer's Market. It's the place to be on Saturday, so we're bound to see people we know. Since we tend to be disheveled and unshowered, I wear dark glasses and persuade myself that I'm unrecognizable. At this time of year the tomatoes are magnificent and the aroma of basil is heavy in the air. These sights and sounds typically demand that we make basil, tomato, and fresh mozzarella sandwiches on Weaver Street ciabatta (add a little olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, and you've got a sub worthy of Romeo and Joe's in New Haven). But today it's all about the berries. I promised dd that we'd pick up some juicy blackberries and make blackberry muffins.

Bakers in our family seem to strike every other generation--a pattern I'm trying to break by having my daughter help me in the kitchen. Apparently my grandmother was a crackerjack baker, but by the time she was my grandma, she'd given it up entirely. Since baking was expected of women in her era (and the primary way to have goodies in the home), I think she considered it more work than pleasure. My mother is a terrible baker: she cooks without measuring and cannot follow a recipe. Plus, she's just not that into sweets. So as a child, if I wanted cookies or cake or pie, I made them myself--from about age 6 onwards. My first cupcakes, which I concocted to satisfy a sugar need most acutely felt by six year olds, were blue, hard, and flat as pancakes. I couldn't find the baking powder in the cabinets--what difference, I thought, could a couple teaspoons make? I added the food coloring for extra beauty. Imagine my mother's surprise when she woke up from her nap! To her credit, she actually ate one. I did improve and soon became the official baker of the household, cranking out birthday cakes for my little sister and brother (and myself!), brownies for my uncle, cheesecakes for school fairs, and biscuits for Sunday morning.

From ages 7-9, I spent every Saturday night at my friend Lucy's, just outside of San Francisco. Down the golden hill from her house were oodles of blackberry bushes. We'd spend entire mornings dropping berries in our buckets. After we worked hard for a couple hours, we'd sit down on the hill, covered with scratches and bug bites, and eat our packed lunch of cold lemonade and still-warm burgers (pan-fried that morning) on squishy white bread. Once we returned to the house, our mouths and fingers stained purple, her mom would bake us blackberry tarts and blackberry muffins.

Here's what DD and I made today:

Blackberry Lemon Muffins
(adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home)

2 large eggs
1/2 cup Canola oil
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pint blackberries
zest from one lemon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix the wet ingredients. Stir in blackberries and lemon zest. Mix well. In another bowl sift the dry ingredients and mix well. Stir dry ingredients into wet until just combined; don't overmix. Spoon into oiled muffin tins and bake for 20-25 minutes. Knife inserted in center should come out clean.

Here's how they came out . . .

Friday, August 1, 2008

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin

Yesterday, my ten year old son read my blog entries for the first time, scanning for any mention of himself. When he finished, his first question was, “What’s a foodie?” And I explained to him that it’s someone who enjoys food—who thinks about it, seeks it out, prepares it with care—etc. (I’m sure one could have a long discussion about whether to make distinctions between foodies, chowhounds, or epicures. Or we might address whether “foodie” is an obnoxious term in its overuse, but those topics are for another time) .

So then ds asked me, “What are all the different categories of eaters?” Keep in mind that ds has Asperger’s Syndrome, so it’s not uncommon for him to see the world as a set of patterns and types. Recently, he was quite interested in the various labels ascribed to different generations—“baby boomers,” “Generation Xers,” etc. He is, he has informed me, a member of Generation I—those born after the Internet emerged. It makes perfect sense then that he gets all his information from Wikipedia. And it makes sense that he'd be enormously interested in reading his mom’s blog.

Anyway, I gave him a somewhat lame answer to his question: “Hmm . . . let’s see . . . there are 'gourmands' and 'junk food junkies' and 'picky eaters.'” And then we talked about something else. But his question got me thinking. How many categories of “eaters” are there? There are, of course, the recognized labels of Vegan, Vegetarian, Kosher, etc. And there are the disordered eaters: bingers, anorexics, perpetual dieters. Or we could list other sorts, such as socially conscious eaters, slow movement eaters, processed food eaters, fast-food-only eaters, Bourdainesque nasty bit eaters, smelly cheese eaters, all day snackers, grazers, one-meal-a -day sorts . . . . you fill in the rest. So, in honor of ds's question, I've devoted this post to some notable consumers I have known .

1) ** My brother-in-law eats only meat. He’s not on the Atkins diet, nor has he ever been on a diet. It may not surprise you that he doesn’t eat vegetables or fruit, since there are many people who never shed their childhood palate, but he doesn’t eat bread or potatoes either. He only eats meat. No pizza. No French fries. Just meat. He's strictly carnivorous.

2) ** When I first started hanging out with my DH, many years ago, he cooked one meal for himself. And it was entirely white. In a single pot, he would boil a chicken breast and a potato, and on the side, he’d have biscuits from a can. At the time, I mocked him mercilessly for his culinary expertise in "blanching." And then, about twelve years later, when I was pregnant with my dd, I found myself eating the same diet for three months. If it wasn’t white and salty, I couldn’t keep it down. I ate Boston chicken (yuck), ramen noodles, and mashed potatoes for an entire trimester. Carmen Electra is a b****.

3) ** People who don’t remember what they eat, or eat the same thing everyday, or who don’t care about food. Usually they are runners, and they see food as fuel. I cannot begin to understand these people.

4) **My dd must use a different utensil for every food on her plate. So some meals demand three forks and two spoons. This behavior is akin to the insistence that no single food can touch another food on one’s plate.

5) ** There are the people who will eat non-breakfast foods for breakfast, and the people who won’t. (This is not in the same category of eating breakfast foods for other meals, which most sensible people celebrate. "Yay, pancakes and bacon for dinner!"). My mother happily eats leftovers for breakfast---soup, fish, spaghetti—whatever’s in the fridge. I’ve been known to eat cold pizza for breakfast (a commonplace activity for many), but I usually want a breakfast food that will go well with my coffee (which I take light and sweet). So that rules garlic out.

6) **"Q-zone eaters”—these are folks who perpetually need a “little somethin', somethin'” after a meal, whether it be a bite of your dessert, a midnight snack, or a wafer thin mint. The Q zone is notoriously hard to fill and attempting to satisfy it usually leads to more seeking.