Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Adventures in Food

Sometimes I fall out of the blogiverse from lack of inspiration, or from boredom.  The past two weeks have been the opposite.  I’ve been so busy having adventures that I haven’t had time to document them all!  An excellent problem to have, and one that I’m sitting down to rectify at 10:30 on a Wednesday night.

Don’t worry, there are lots of pictures.

As my professional/social network grows, I managed to get Miss Chef and myself invited to an oven party.  Perfect for a chef, eh?  The deal is this couple have an outdoor wood-fired oven that they fire up, invite all the neighbors, and have everyone make their own pizzas to cook up.

One of the guys is an artist, working in ceramics.  So the oven has a unique appearance, like a miniature Gaudi home imported from Barcelona.

Chateau D'Ough 10 (6)

You can almost make out the name above the opening: Château d’Ough.  Get it?  It’s a pun on the French “château d’eau,” which is pronounced the same but simply means water tower.  We’re getting all European up in here.

The oven is surrounded by a lush backyard, complete with a huge dining table and granite-topped counters.  It’s a perfect place to gather on a perfect fall evening, so it’s not surprising that it was packed by the time the pizzas were going in.

Chateau D'Ough 10 (11)

Of course, the lighting sucked for photography, but here’s a picture of dinner cooking.  Those foil packets on the right are two heads of garlic I brought for roasting.

Chateau D'Ough 10 (16)

Miss Chef and I had a fun time, eating, drinking and meeting some new friends.  But that was just the start of our weekend.  Of course Saturday was full of markets, interviews and the like.  But Sunday was the big event.  The Piedmont Culinary Guild, a collection of chefs, farmers and other nodes in the local food network, was putting on its second annual Carved event, and Miss Chef and I were both volunteering.

We gather over 25 local chefs in one place, give them each a pumpkin and two hours to play.  The public pays to watch, vote and enjoy some free samples, music and other entertainment.  To be clear, the samples were of locally grown popcorn and pressed-on-site cider, not raw pumpkin.

IMG_20141019_162318_511

We set up two long tables, back to back, halfway down the market.  There were a whole lot of pumpkins to admire and vote on.  This one below was on its way to becoming one of the Wild Things from the Maurice Sendak book.

IMG_20141019_162422_689

 

This is a student at the Art Institute, who just happens to be from Thailand, where they take their fruit carving seriously.

IMG_20141019_163015_594

 

There were no restrictions on props, so there were clouds of dry ice, extra lights…

IMG_20141019_163116_141

 

…and even live fish!  This was my favorite, but it was unveiled very late in the proceedings, after most people had already voted.

IMG_20141019_173638_316

Halfway through the carving, I was dragooned into making announcements—“30 minutes left, buy more voting tickets and stop by our t-shirt table!”—so I didn’t get photos of all the finished products.  This next one ended up being the winner—it was labeled “Spooky Sushi,” and I think its popularity was due in part to the original way he broke the pumpkin down into a tube, which he then sliced into rounds.

IMG_20141019_163031_453

I don’t eat sushi, so I don’t get it.

After a 5-hour shift of hauling tables and chairs and standing on concrete flooring, I woke up sore and stiff on Monday.  But I didn’t have a whole lot of time to waste.  I had deadlines and interviews lined up all week (although my interview schedule keeps changing).  My weekly online stories had garnered the attention of a caterer we know who’s starting up another side business and needed some web content written.  So, bam, I’m a web content writer.  My first freelance contract!

Anyway, I had that draft due, along with my usual Wednesday deadline.  But I had to get them in early, because Wednesday was already packed, with a conference call and two foodie events.

The first event was in Miss Chef’s A la Carte class.  She asked Matt, a sous-chef whose family has a beef business, if he’d sell her half a cow and come in to show the students how to break it down.

Which he did.

IMG_20141022_154248_948

That’s 350 pounds of grass-fed beef.  Matt is more comfortable fabricating pigs, so he recruited another chef, Clark, to help him out.  Miss Chef and another instructor had to lend a hand, too.

IMG_20141022_162150_250

After an hour and a half with several knives and a couple of saws, they had this ready to store in the cooler.

IMG_20141022_163839_782

This is more or less what they call “primal cuts,” which the students will have to break down further into ribs, steaks, etc.  If they can buy entire animals or even primal cuts, they’ll save their future kitchens a lot of money.

My second foodie event of the day was on the opposite side of the food preparation scale.  One of our favorite restaurants, Passion8 (where we got to know Matt when he was sous-chef there), has moved nearer to uptown Charlotte, and tonight was their media night.  They invited all us important writer types to tour the new space, with a glass of Prosecco in hand and elegant hors d’oeuvres coming around.

Again, I had to fight with low lighting.  This is the main dining area—out of three—with the bar behind it.  There are lots of curtains used to separate different sections, which should also help with baffling sound in this high-ceilinged space.

IMG_20141022_185022_573

A view from the “mezzanine” area down to the bar, with the main dining room to the left.

IMG_20141022_185200_344

These were sweet potato chips with a squash crema and some stuff I can’t remember…

IMG_20141022_193920_061

…and this is the whole selection of hors d’oeuvres.  From front to back, tomato & shallot salad on olive oil cracker, braised chicken with apricot and sesame on lettuce, the sweet potato chip, braised pork on house-made foccacia and truffled shortbread with foie gras mousse and muscadine foam.

IMG_20141022_194250_938

Part of the reason I’m bothering with all the detailed ingredients is that tomorrow I have to sit down and write a concise couple of paragraphs about this opening for Creative Loafing.  It’s a quick turnaround time, but I’m feeling generous today, since they just came out with…

…my first cover story!

IMG_20141022_170758

Yup, 2000 words worth of freaky stories collected from some of my favorite chef friends.  Click the picture to read them for yourself.

And now, it’s off to bed.  Tomorrow’s another adventure.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Getting away, and coming back

After our unexciting weekend in Elkin last month, Miss Chef and I wanted to get back to our real mountain adventures and apple picking.  Usually we go for our anniversary, closer to the end of the month, but with her quarter break this past week and a full docket coming up later on, we decided to get out there while the getting was good.

As it turned out, Miss Chef had more preparation than usual for the upcoming quarter, so we really only had one day to play with.  We drove to Flat Rock late on Wednesday, then rose early on Thursday to head out to Skytop Orchard, where we’ve gotten apples the past 3 or 4 years.

It was foggy when we left the hotel, but by the time we arrived at the orchard and headed down—and up, and down—the slopes with our baskets, the skies were clear.  We managed to draw away from the multiple school and church groups full of excited children, and had the Cortland row to ourselves. 

Skytop (2)

Most of the trees were picked out, or had only green apples within our reach.  We had to walk nearly to the end of the row before finding trees with ripe fruit low enough for picking, but in the end, we had more than enough to fill our baskets. 

Skytop (3)

Then we had to carry them back uphill to the store to pay for them, along with several more varieties, to fill Miss Chef’s annual yen for apples.

After lugging a bushel of apples plus two gallons of fresh cider out to the car, we returned empty handed for our reward: hot, fresh apple cider donuts, plush an applelicious slushy.

Skytop (5) 

Yum!

The road down from the orchard is a steep, torturous drive, but having driven it several times made it easier to maneuver.  It also helped that the leaves haven’t turned yet, so I wasn’t distracted by gorgeous fall color.  Who knew I’d ever be grateful for missing the date?

Our next destination was Asheville itself.  We had an hour or so before our lunch reservations at—where else?—Cúrate.  We parked on the street, right next to this fun wall of inspiration.

Asheville 10 (1)

Asheville 10 (3)

This wall has been here for years, protecting a fall-off between two buildings.  Turning it into an artful community conversation exemplifies the character of this city.

After lunch it was my turn to visit a new favorite.

Asheville 10 (5)

My name is Alison, and I am a chocoholic.  And I’m very okay with that.

The day was on the warm side, so we did a little “housekeeping,” to get a cooler and ice to keep our cider (and chocolate) from melting.  After a short break back at the hotel, we returned to Asheville for dinner at Rhubarb.  We’d been wanting to eat here since seeing their menu go up at their doorway on Pack Square, but they’d been closed the one other time we’d had a gap in our eating schedule.  Yes, when we travel, our days are planned around our meals.

I didn’t take any photos inside Rhubarb, but here are a couple I found on the web.

The entry area, with a simple, gaze-pulling display of wooden spoons.

Rhubarb-Asheville-North-Carolina-700

The main dining area is through that arched doorway, and this is the area where we were seated.

rhubarbinside

I’m not sure of the story behind that rough wall, but I spent half the night trying to decipher the lettering barely visible in the patchy green paint.  All I got was “the.”  I think.

The food here is much like what we seek out at home—locally grown, creatively combined without too much manipulation.  Our two favorites were a rabbit-and-leek rillette served with house-made “sel-tine” crackers, and the “Autumn sharing salad.”  A dark green salad with goat cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds was built atop a roasted kabocha squash.  Miss Chef discovered this squash a couple of years ago, but we could never remember the name, always confusing it with kombucha, a fermented tea drink she’s brewed in the past.  Anyway, Miss Chef liked the salad so much she’s stealing the idea for a farm dinner she’s helping with next month.

Stealing is accepted practice among chefs.  I think sounds better if you use the words “inspired by.”

Friday morning we were up and out of the hotel, headed for home.  Miss Chef was anxious to get into the school to rework her menus and recipes—she’d been informed after finishing them earlier in the week that budget cuts meant she had to slash her food costs, a difficult prospect when you’re trying to teach fine cuisine with local product.  I stayed at home to unpack and reassure our pets that the world had not ended and they were not to be abandoned.

Also to prepare for a big Fancy Party.  The local paper I freelance for does an annual Best of Charlotte issue, with both critics’ and readers’ picks for everything from best barber shop to best farm-to-table restaurant.  I’d received a mailed invitation to the VIP pre-party, and thought it was a good opportunity to see my editor and meet some of the other staff.  You see, I met my editor once at a coffee shop back in May, and everything since then has been via email.  I’ve been asked in conversation if I know this editor or that staff writer; people must think I’m dropping off hard copies at the office every week.  I don’t even know where their offices are!

nc music

Somewhere in this entertainment complex north of Uptown sits my editor.

Anyway, neither Miss Chef or I were looking forward to this gala event.  For me, it was mostly because of the cocktail attire.  I didn’t even think I had a dress anymore that would fit me, since I’d moved to mostly slacks or skirts at work.  Fortunately, I had unburied one in my closet, so felt more or less prepared.  But I was still groggy from our quick out-of-town trip, and neither I nor Miss Chef are particularly into small talk over drinks with folks we don’t know.

Sadly, the party lived down to and even beneath our expectations. There didn’t seem to be anyone filling the role of host, nor any plan for the event, aside from a few drag numbers that I mostly missed, due to the poor audio from the stage. I was expecting some kind of welcome, an introduction of the judging panel or an awards ceremony, but after the drag queens left the stage, there was nothing to watch but the crowd. 

Most of the attendees were young, see-and-be-seen professionals that continue to live the college party life after graduation. Miss Chef and I were both surprised not to know anybody there aside from the folks behind a couple of the food tables.The music was far too loud to carry on a conversation, so the idea of mingling and networking was just plain irritating.  I had a couple glasses of wine to help ease my irritation, but it was mediocre, and the only food was small bites from three of the nominated restaurants. Yes, the paper’s staff was nowhere to be found, while the honorees were asked to work the event!    

After an hour of sipping insipid wine and making ourselves hoarse trying to talk over the din, Miss Chef and I absconded for dinner elsewhere.  We went a few blocks up Tryon Street to The Wooden Vine, a tapas and wine bar we’ve enjoyed before.  I let Miss Chef do most of the ordering.

Wooden Vine 10 (2)

My camera wasn’t focusing any better than my eyes, apparently.  At the top, from left to right you see locally-made burrata (seasoned ricotta inside a mozzarella skin), roasted brussels sprouts and braised short rib with hominy corn.  On the bottom, roasted potato, and tortellini with house-made ricotta .

Chef Nick, whom I recently interviewed for an upcoming “Chef Horror Stories” piece, was working his last weekend prior to leaving to open his own place.  He also had a big party in the back of the restaurant, so most of this was not up to his usual level.  The tortellini made me very happy, though.

Wooden Vine 10 (1)

The pea sprouts are from Mindy at Tega Hills.  I delivered those pea sprouts here for a couple of weeks, back in June.  I love seeing the whole trajectory of food from greenhouse to plate.

After dinner we had an easy stroll about 4 blocks to the car.  Though small, Charlotte’s downtown area is really charming at night; much more bustling than the dead business blocks I saw growing up near Cleveland, and of course the weather here is much more benign.

I stopped to take a couple of pictures.

A fountain in front of Capital Grille…

Uptown 10 (5)

…and the top of the Hearst Tower rising in the mist, where Miss Chef searched to no avail for the Bat Signal.

Uptown 10 (6)

It had been a long day, and we both had to remind ourselves it was only that morning we’d arrived back from Asheville.  I was very happy to crawl into my own bed and lay my head on my own pillow.

And while Miss Chef crawled out of bed with the first glow of the morning sun, I stayed put.  Yes, this Saturday I skipped the markets entirely.

I guess that counts as vacation, right?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Teasing the cat

I admit, McKenna has stolen some attention from Rosie.  Not only does she display that entertaining zaniness typical of her species, but she’s just so much more convenient to reach than the poor floorbound dog.

One of McKenna’s favorite hangouts is on the back of the couch.  Aside from offering an ideal lookout for most household traffic, it’s also super comfy, what with the thick blanket that has now become hers.

McKenna 09 (3)

 

When the cat sits there looking so cozy, with her feet sticking out at odd angles, I can’t help but mess with her.

McKenna 09 (5)

Miss Chef and I were delighted when we realized McKenna’s toe pads were going to stay pink.  They’re adorable.

For a few seconds, it seemed she was going to fight back…but then she remembered she hadn’t had her second morning nap yet.

 

Don’t worry, she eventually got to sleep in peace.  For a little while, anyway.

McKenna 09 (7)

 

As for Rosie, now that the cool weather’s rolled in, her favorite napping spot is the cool concrete and street view from the front stoop.

Rosie 09

Part of the benefit is the nosy cat can’t bother her out here.

Or can she?

Pets 09 (3)

Oh well, at least they each have their own space.  Can you imagine a door-to-door salesperson getting past this ferocious menagerie?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Saturday

Most people look forward to the weekend as a time for a little flexibility.  Sure, they may have to run kids to soccer games or tae kwon do tournaments, but they can probably skip part of the usual “shit,shower, shave” routine they face Monday through Friday.

For me, on the other hand, most weekdays are very fluid.  I usually have a deadline on Wednesday, which is often pushed to Thursday.  But I make my own schedule, and if my 8 am walk happens more around 9:30, well, Rosie’s the only one who will notice.

But on Fridays things start revving up.  After getting that week’s blog story up, I suddenly realize (for the 17th time) that I need to figure out next week’s story.  So Friday can be a hectic day of brainstorming, a flurry of emails with my editor, maybe some text messages with Miss Chef to figure out who my best sources will be, and a first volley of communications with chefs or farmers I want to interview.

This past Friday I was working three stories at once.  I called a farmer to ask about growing sorghum and posted a message to Facebook to see if anybody’s using it in their restaurants, emailed a group organizing a farm tour for next weekend, and texted with a couple of chefs to arrange interviews for a late-October story.  Shortly after Miss Chef got back from an afternoon meeting, she received a request from another chef to pick up some pig tails for Saturday, so off we headed to the Hispanic stretch of South Boulevard.  Naturally we stopped for dinner at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant.

IMG_20140919_201554_006

Trust me, my life sounds way more glamorous than it lives.  Not that I’m complaining.  We had a grand ol’ time wandering the aisles of a large Compare supermarket, looking at chicken feet and nance fruit, which neither of us had heard of.  Date night with a chef.

If Friday can sometimes be hectic, it’s because Saturday is by far the busiest day of my week.  The farmers markets are part of my workplace, where I have the best and easiest access to farmers, chefs and other food purveyors.  It’s also the one day I have to get up and get rolling.  While this past Saturday Miss Chef was off to school to gather equipment for a cooking demonstration at Atherton Market, I hit the road before 7:30 to head to our “regular” market in Matthews.

IMG_20140920_091721_473

I had arranged to meet Chef Adam at 8:30 for an interview, but I had several other folks to talk to.  Foremost was Chef Charles, who’s interested in paying for some writing on a new web page he needs for yet another branch of business.  Besides selling at two local markets, this Frenchman with a most American taste for entrepreneurship has a catering business which includes bbq and burgers in the guest tents at Panthers’ home games, as well as elegant meals for executive jets flying out of our busy airport.  Now he wants to start a side/retirement business traveling to his home on Ile de Ré with groups of eight or ten clients, and squiring them through morning markets and evening cooking sessions.

If nothing else, I could learn a thing or two from him about hustling up business.

Besides checking in with Charles, I needed to pick up eggs from Daryl of Walnut Ridge Farm, and make sure he’d gotten a print copy of a recent article I’d written about him and another farmer.  Then I stopped to see Pauline, the market manager, and follow up on an interview and blog story I’d done earlier in the week.  Oh, and I had to deliver those pig tails to Chef Bonaparte, for the catering job Miss Chef was helping him out with that evening.

In the midst of all this, Adam sent me a text at 8:30 that he was just getting dressed, so I also chatted for a while with Michele Lamb, who raises goats, and Mindy at Tega Hills, for whom we’d tried to foster a kitten few weeks ago (sadly, the entire litter succumbed, probably to distemper—at least the mother cat seems to be recovering).  When Adam finally dragged in, I bought him a coffee and and we spent a good half hour talking about filthy grease traps.  Then we were both off to our next round of errands, he to pick up supplies for the restaurant, me to Atherton Market.

IMG_20140920_105012_288

As you can tell, this is a very different market, much more urban and a bit more upscale—in the window you can see the reflection of one of the many shiny new apartment complexes going up in this Southend neighborhood to attract the newest generation of Yuppies (what are they called now?  Hipsters? Dinks? My friends and colleagues?).

Miss Chef and I sort of “joined” this market this year, after I got involved with Friendship Gardens.  This is the only place backyard gardeners like myself can drop off donations on the weekends, and somehow I found myself taking charge of the donation station.  I also made friends with a new baker at the market, after falling in love with his bread and featuring him in my very first (small) print article several months ago.  He actually had a few new customers walk up to his booth with my article in hand, so he’s a fan of mine now.

This is where Miss Chef had headed from school earlier that morning, for a 10:00 cooking demonstration.  When I got there, she’d already started serving up eggplant “pizzas” (small rounds of eggplant coated in breadcrumbs, fried, and topped with veggies) and an apple bread pudding.  Unlike the Matthews market, there is no separate area for these demos, but it seemed that plenty of shoppers found her and stopped to have a bite.

IMG_20140920_115204_067

It just so happens that the donation table is directly across from the cooking station, so we kind of got to hang out together for awhile.  I also managed to buy us both a hearty breakfast from the food truck outside (you can only eat so much bread pudding), buy some chicken and fresh pasta, and finalize another interview for that afternoon with another chef.

Around noon, Miss Chef wrapped up and headed off to her catering gig, while I continued to text, and chat with the market manager’s husband and dog.  I also discovered this interesting product being sold by a farmer I hadn’t met yet.

IMG_20140920_133140_178

It’s called jelly melon, or African horned cucumber.  I snapped this picture because I might be able to use it for another of my weekly blog stories…it kind of depends on how long the sorghum harvest season is, and whether I can fit it all in before they all go out of season.

Which reminds me of another phone call I need to make…

I had to man the station until 2:00, when the market ends, because that’s when we get most of our farmer donations as they close up shop.  Sadly, I only got 1/4 pound of arugula for my troubles, but there’s always next week!  I left a few minutes early to grab a cup of coffee for Chef Nick, in exchange for an interview.  He mans the kitchen at a restaurant uptown, so I had to circle the block to find on-street parking, since I’d spent almost all my cash at the market.  I was lucky to find a spot not far away, and arrived with cappuccino in hand in time for our little chat.

It was after 3:00 when I finally turned the car toward home, and I have to confess that the rest of my day was spent mostly on the couch.  I’m in a mode of letting the garden fend mostly for itself, but it seems I need to do a little pest control patrol.

IMG_20140922_104831_022

I picked a couple of worms off the five broccolis planted in the main bed, and checked that the two remaining brussels sprouts were still doing ok.  The third one just poof! disappeared a week or two ago.  Not a leaf or stem left.  Very odd.

The sixth broccoli plant is doing quite well in the raised bed, filling in the planter nicely.

IMG_20140922_104805_756

The temperatures are starting to cool off, especially in the evenings, so it seems the garden isn’t suffering too much from my benign neglect.  Maybe it’s happy I’m finally leaving it alone, though I did bring this little basketful of goodness to Friendship Trays last week.

IMG_20140918_130913_476

Yep, still bringing in tomatoes, but I’m looking forward to fall already.  As one of the market managers I recently interviewed said, there are two seasons colliding right now, and it’s a great time to eat.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Apple-tacular



Miss Chef and I had an...interesting weekend last week. It involved local travel, wine-tasting, antiquing and apple picking. I've written all about it, but you'll have to hop on over to my food blog, Amuse Bouche, to read it.

Enjoy!