Sunday, April 28, 2013

Wagon Wheel Restaurant

 I've always had a soft spot for the food and traditions of the American South. Hushpuppies, meat and three, grits, she-crab soup are dishes -- though they weren't served in my childhood home -- I grew up revering and wanting to make part of my future home's culinary lexicon.
As a rambling spirit on countless road trips through the south's backroads I tasted these and many other specialties and took to heart the rural tradition of quality cooking from scratch. The way my grandmother cooked and the way I've always been determined to cook myself.
These days I have cause to worry about that precious tradition. In countless grocery stores here in Charlotte I still see self rising flour, mercifully, but only instant grits, no hoop cheese, more ready-made mixes than ingredients.
Sadly the streets are rimmed with more Olive Gardens and Friday's than locally owned home cooking spots. The Wagon Wheel in South Carolina is one such survivor. Though they've "modernized" with a salad bar instead of vegetable sides in the evening they still offer a menu of home cooked traditional entrees -- country ham with redeye gravy, sugar cured ham, pork chops -- along with shrimp, steaks and sandwiches and their specialty, fried squash. Crispy and honestly somewhat bland the squash has an addictive crunch that pairs perfectly with the side of ranch (not homemade) dressing. The country ham was super salty but a great combo with coleslaw (off the salad bar) and the restaurant's homemade yeast rolls.
Was the Wagon Wheel's food itself worth the long drive from Charlotte. Maybe. Was preserving the style restaurant where the bread is homemade and the waitress calls you "dear." worth traveling for? Any day!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bill Spoons Barbecue

Still on the search for quality barbecue here in Charlotte, I wandered into Bill Spoons, a South Avenue restaurant (not a BBQ shack by any means) with fairly good online reviews. Spoons proudly announces that they have been "cooking the whole hog since 1963." What they don't announce is that the hog is not cooked over wood. There is no smoke coming out of Spoons and not much smoke favor in the finely chopped meat, served plain with sauce on the side. But, I do really like their puckery, vinegary slight spicy sauce.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Barbeque In Charlotte

Among Barbeque aficionados North carolina is justly famous for two unique regional sauces. In the Eastern part of the state (I have to admit I'm not really sure where that dividing line is) the meat is sparsely sauced (maybe moistened is a better word) with a "sauce" of vinegar, sugar and chili peppers. To be considered real BBQ in this part of the state whole hogs are slow cooked and then chopped (almost minced) to be sprinkled with the assertive sauce. The meat is the star here with no thick sauce to cover sub-standard cooking. Ask for barbeque and this finely chopped pork is what you'll get. Cool creamy cole slaw with the astringent sauce is one of the culinary world's great combinations. A taste worth traveling for.
In the Western part of the state cooks use a proper sauce, still with a vinegar base but generally sweetened and thickened with ketchup and whatever creative ingredients your pit master deems worthy. At first glance Western NC style will seem more familiar to BBQ eaters from around the country -- heavy sauce on pit cooked meat (pork shoulder not whole hog) -- but the tangy sauce will be a pleasant surprise.
Though on a map -- to me at least -- Charlotte seems on the Western side of the state what I find in the city's restaurants is clearly Eastern.
Though the surrounding areas offer some great tastes, Charlotte itself is not what I'd consider a great barbeque town like Memphis or Kansas City. But I can't help but sample the local fare.
My first stop? Bar-B-Q King, a drive in joint with curbside service. A vanishing icon of Americana. I order from my car hoping for their renown fried oysters only to find there has been a scare and there is no local shellfish. I settle for a BBQ tray (BBQ, perfectly crisp hush puppies and cole slaw)  with a side of crisply fried deviled crab. The "sauce" is certainly tangy, forceful even. The BBQ is good, not great but this place is fun, homey and nostalgic. I'll be back for a chicken liver sandwich next time.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Leftover Parts

Our neighbors raise grass fed cattle. When we pop over to help with a roundup or vaccinate (or sometimes for no reason at all) we often find a butcher paper wrapped package for our freezer. One of the great joys of whole steers nearby is the ready availability of cuts not generally seen in the grocer's case. The kind of tasty fare that peppers European menus, thrifty housewives once cooked with love and butchers keep for themselves.
Tonight's specialty, oxtail. was one I have never cooked before though I've enjoyed it in soups and stews across Spain and Italy. I opted, as I often do, for an Italian preparation -- coda alla vaccinara, a Roman dish where the meat is long stewed with peppery pancetta and fresh tasting celery.
First I simmered the crosscut pieces in water for 10 minutes to make 2 cups of broth for the stew. I stirred 2 TB of tomato paste into the reserved stock and set it aside. Next, in a dutch oven, I sautéed the pancetta in olive oil and then added in the pieces of oxtail to brown on all sides. When the meat was browned I removed it from the pan briefly to make room to sauté chopped onions (I didn't have any carrots so I used both sweet and brown onions), parsley, and 4 cloves of garlic. When the vegetables were browned I added the meat back in and poured about 3/4 of wine into the pan. When the wine was reduced by more than 1/2 I poured in about 1.2 cup or so, S&P and the reserved stock. The stew simmered, covered,  for 2 hours until the meat was moist and tender. As a last step I stirred 6 chopped stalks of celery and let the pot simmer, covered for 15 minutes more.
While the pot simmered I took a idea from boisterous Italian chef Mario Batali and mixed up a quick salad of celery leaves, chopped celery, lemon zest, chili flakes, cinnamon, and S&Pfor a bit fo fresh brightness to top our hearty stew.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Eggs Eggs Eggs

I always feel just a bit guilty when I make eggs for dinner. Somehow feels like I am cheating James just a bit. In other countries where eggs are so firmly associated with breakfast they have no such qualms. Eggs are just another delicious versatile protein. I have to move to that mindset, especially in the spring when our girls are working overtime. Tonight I made a step with an Italian dish called eggs in purgatory -- fresh eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce. Perfect with a bowl of creamy polenta and crisp parmesan toasts.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Springtime Cake

Cool spring days bring fresh strawberries to our local farmer's markets. And citrus is still hanging on. I was trying to use up the overflow of eggs in our fridge (the girls have been super busy) and decided not just on eggs for dinner but a rich, eggy pound cake for dessert.
In one bowl I mixed together 6 eggs, 1/3 cup milk, and about 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract. Into a second bowl I sifted 2 2/3 cups of flour, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt. In an electric mixer I creamed 3 sticks (I told you it was rich) or room temperature butter with 1 TB lemon zest, 2 TB blood orange zest, 1/2 cup white sugar and 3/4 cup brown sugar. When was butter is well mixed I alternated between the flour and egg mixture (ending with the flour) and then stirred in about 2 cups of sliced strawberries tossed with 1 TB of flour.
1/3 of the batter went into my well buttered and floured bundt pan, followed by another 1/2 cup (a heavy 1/2 cup) of strawberries tossed with a heavy 1/2 tsp flour. Another layer of batter (1/3 of the total) covered those berries and was topped with another heavy 1/2 cup of berries tossed with flour. I spread the last 1/3 of the batter on top and baked my springtime pound cake for 1 hour and 10 minutes at 325º.
While the cake was baking I combined 2TB lemon juice,  3TB (maybe it was 3 1/2) blood orange juice and 1/2 cup sugar in a small saucepan. I brought the liquid to a boil stirring to dissolve the sugar to make a tangy syrup to flavor the cake.
When the cake was baked and still warm in the pan I poked holes in it with a wooden skewer and brushed my cooled citrus syrup over the top -- the holes help it sink into the cake. After cooling for 10 minutes I flipped the cake over onto a cooling rack (next time I will turn it over onto parchment paper on a rack as that syrup was pretty sticky) skewered holes in the top of the cake and brushed on the remaining syrup.
Despite the 6 eggs the end result was a moist, tangy fruit filled cake. Just right to welcome and celebrate another spring.

Monday, April 15, 2013

House Favorite A New Way

James loves spaghetti and clam sauce. It's a house specialty. if guests are coming or we need a night feeling special it's our go to meal. It's the same recipe -- clams, butter, parsley, garlic, chili peppers -- but  it's always a little different. Sometimes I start with a bit of cubed pancetta. Tonight I used a hearty red wine instead of white. Always delicious, a house specialty that's ever changing.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Abalone Adventure

April in Norcal means abalone. Divers who have tasted the delicate treat fresh from the sea get geared up for the short, cold water season. We are lucky enough to be friends with two of these ocean adventurers, a father and son team who combined have been diving for close to 60 years, and got invited along for the fun.

After scoping out pretty rough murky water in several of Mike and Josh's favorite diving sites we settled on Stillwater Cove -- not exactly true to it's name this particular day. Although it may be 40 or 50 feet down to where the shellfish are found, abalone divers must "free dive" -- no air tanks -- to reach the rocky habitats. When a diver is lucky enough to find one, the mollusks are pried off the rock and brought to the surface.
The season lasts through the month of April. Each diver is permitted 3 abalone a day and a total of 24 for the season.

Despite the murky water Josh was determined that James and I get our first taste of fresh abalone and kept looking until he retrieved a small sample. Small but legal.

I had never cooked or eaten abalone before. I knew they have to be tenderized but I didn't know how to do it. When I looked a bit skeptical Josh took over. He pounded and pounded and then cut the meat into long, tender slices. I assume he did -- Josh whisked the abalone away and showed up at our door in time for a dinner treat.
Taking our friends advice I pan fried the abalone, breaded in crushed ritz crackers, in butter and olive oil until just cooked through.
Tender, rich, buttery. A clean taste like super fresh scallops but even more delicious. Delicate and delicious. I hope we get invited again!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Search Goes On

While I was in Shanghai completely by accident I fell in love -- completely obsessed -- with the local pork dumplings Sheng Jian Bao. Cooked in massive iron pans until crisp (really almost hard) on the bottom and filled with soup and flavorful meat these mini buns are popular throughout the city and I had never seen them anywhere before. Since that trip I have been looking for more. Trying to re-create that taste.
After reading Chowhound and Yelp reviews for Shau May in Monterey Park I traveled down to the food court style restaurant hoping to find my beloved dumplings. Were these too doughy? The broth too sweet? I can't place exactly what was different but these were a far cry from my street side delight in Shanghai. I'm still looking.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Noodle 101 Express

Noodle 101 is a small LA Chinese food chain specializing, as the name would suggest, in noodle soups, stir frys, and dumplings. But, perhaps their most famous dish is the beef roll. A hot Chinese style pancake (like the more famous scallion variety without the scallions) enclosing thin strips of beef lettuce and plum sauce, the dish is the subject of endless praise and debate on Chowhound and similar food geek websites. After years of reading these missives I finally stopped in for a taste. It may not be as some posters bemoan what it once was, but I have to admit it's pretty darn good. Chewy, crispy, fatty (yes don't forget fatty) with a hint a tangy plum sauce. I'd stop in again.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Grilled Cheese

I can't think of one ingredient -- except for maybe bacon -- that tops off every dish and is always a crowd pleaser. No matter how old we get inside we are all kids eating grilled cheese after school. Pure comfort. Pure joy.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Life Without A Dishwasher

I'm embarrassed to admit it but I've started to think about dinner differently in this year and a half cooking in a tiny kitchen without a dishwasher. At first I cooked dinners as elaborate as I had in any other house. Pots, pans, trays spoons -- whatever it took. I'd decide what I wanted to cook first and pay the consequences with scullery later.
More often then not now I think about the dishes to come when I am planning dinner. If I can roast potatoes in the same pan as the chicken that's a win. If broccoli cooks and gets tossed in olive oil and garlic in the same sauté pan, double win. Soup or stew that can store in the pot to be re-heated for lunch the next day is a favorite. I'm trying to rebel but I am drifting into becoming the dreaded one pot cook.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Weekend Pizza

Easy. Fast. One pan to clean up.
Tonight's version was red onion, artichoke, black pepper salami, raclette and gruyere cheeses on garlic herb crust (okay I admit it -- the dough was from Trader Joe's, James doesn't mind a bit).

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Turkeys Turkeys Everywhere

It's spring and the hills are alive with the sound of gobbling. Everywhere you look flocks of turkeys strut proudly. Toms offer elaborate feather displays, hens scratch the ground for seeds and bugs. These two girls wandered into our backyard orchard (over the fence and into the orchard), said hello to the chickens, had a look around, and flapped away.
Wild turkeys, though native to North America, were not introduced into California until 1877 when a colony was started on Santa Cruz Island. The Department of Fish and Game started breeding and releasing these modern turkeys for hunting in 1928. In the 1950's the department began trapping birds in other states freeing them in California to try and establish a wild population. Mission accomplished. At last count there were more than 100,000 wild turkeys throughout the state.
Though some consider the birds a problem I can't deny I love their rambling walks and their noisy calls.  I love when they stop traffic crossing the road and I love when they come to visit.
Makes me think Ben Franklin might have had a point.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Lentil Soup

We've had a couple days of lovely spring rain. Everything looks so green and bright and the new plants could not be happier. The days are crisp but not too cold, birds are everywhere, the sun takes it's time hiding in the west. The fresh wet days seemed like a perfect time for a soup and salad dinner -- especially with leftover Easter ham ready to be used. I started out as I do with most soups by sautéing carrots, onions and celery in olive oil. I tossed in fresh thyme, chopped garlic, crushed red peppers and S&P. After pouring in 1 cup of lentils, about 6 cups of chicken broth, 1 small can of tomatoes (canned from last year's garden) I left the soup to simmer (after coming to  a boil) for 20 minutes and then added in diced, peeled potatoes, cubed ham and mounds of chopped kale. After another 15 minutes simmering I was ready to bring soup to the table topped with piquant pecorino cheese and zesty garlic flavored olive oil. A wintery dish for a blustery spring day.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A New Spaghetti Dinner

James loves spaghetti. James loves bacon. James loves brussels sprouts. This dish had to be a winner. I started chopped pancetta and rosemary in a hot pan with olive oil and tossed in several chopped cloves of garlic, black pepper and a pinch of red chili flakes. Next I added in about 1/2 lb thinly sliced brussels sprouts and a bit of water and let the sprouts sauté until just about softened. When the spaghetti was cooked I added the drained pasta to the sauté pan along with a good sized hunk of butter (about 2 TB) a dash of lemon zest, grated pecorino cheese and a splash of pasta cooking water. A couple tosses in the hot pan and dinner was served.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


James wanted wisteria to grow and cover our new arbor. It's so hard to pick a variety. There are the very dramatic Japanese wisterias with pendulous flower clusters that can extend to 3' long.  The Chinese species  has similar but more fragrant flowers that generally grow to about 1 foot. American wisterias, although still woody climbing vines, barely resemble their Asian cousins (there are Korean species too). The flowers are round and the vine much more leafy.
I decided on the shorter flowers of Chinese wisteria or Wisteria sinensis -- we want to walk through the arbor after all and 3 foot flowers may be a bit of an obstacle. This lovely light purple flower is a variety called Amethyst. I can't wait to see it tumbling over the rafters of our arbor.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Simple and Quick

A burger smothered in gruyere cheese, grilled onions and mushrooms on a oasty homemade biscuit. All courtesy of my hard working Le Creuset grill pan, a really great Christmas present a couple years back.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Spring Dessert

I think strawberry shortcake is our new guests for dinner, summer dessert. Based on a recipe I found on Epicurious I whipped up these cakey, sweet, super tender biscuits. In the food processor I mixed 1 3/4 cup flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 TB baking powder, 1/4 tsp salt and pulsed in 1/2 stick butter cut into 1/2" chunks until mixed like coarse sand, or maybe just a bit lumpier. Then I poured in 1 cup of heavy cream, 1 heavy tsp each lemon and orange zest then pulsed until the batter just came together. I scraped the dough out onto a lightly floured surface , kneaded once or twice and patted the mixture out to about 3/4". I cut six 3" circles (I needed to re-pat the dough to get all 6) and lined them up on a parchment covered baking tray. I brushed each of the shortcakes with cream and then sprinkled the tops with sanding sugar. After about 20 minutes at 375º my cakes were just a bit golden and ready to cool and be filled after dinner.
Though these sweet cakes would have been plenty good with just fresh strawberries I decided to follow the recipe and macerate sliced berries in a sprinkle of sugar, chopped mint and a dash of orange zest. When it came time to serve dessert I sliced the biscuits in half, poured the strawberries over the cake, added a generous dollop of whipped cream and the top of the shortcake -- garnished with a bit more cream and strawberries. Easy, seasonal, make-ahead, and delicious. The perfect summer dessert.