We also took a couple of walks on Christmas morning, so I'll just share a few photos and hope everyone who reads this had a holiday full of love, laughter and light.
|For Miss Chef!|
|Even the taggers are hippies here.|
|For Miss Chef!|
|Even the taggers are hippies here.|
With all my focus on preparing—both logistically and emotionally—for Christmas on my own, I never stopped to think that I first have a weekend without my sweetie! Someone asked me at work the other day what I had planned for the weekend and I kind of stared at her uncomprehendingly.
But don’t worry, I haven’t spent all day playing Angry Birds!
Though my 3-star Advent Calendar streak lives on…
No, I actually rose early today and headed off to the farmers’ market all by my lonesome.
I ran into Chef Luca—no picture of him, since he looked very tired. He said he’d gone to bed around 1 am, and risen before sunrise to get to the Matthews market before coming here. He seemed very concerned about my being alone for Christmas, but was mollified when I told him I had plans to get together with friends.
I didn’t spend long there, since I didn’t have much cash in my pocket. I bought everything from one vendor, a new one for us, from Lincolnton—Clearview Farms. That’s where I ran into Luca; he had ordered Cornish hens from them. I also stopped off at the Bosky Acres booth to chat with Matt and pass on a message to Michele. One of the volunteers from the Matthews market stopped by while I was there, to buy some cheese. (I can’t remember her name, she’s the tall, really young one who set up the online schedule for Pauline.)
As I left the market with empty pockets, I realized I had bought only protein. I finished off the last of my casserole last night, so I wanted some chicken leg quarters to cook tonight.
Oh, but I did have just enough money left over for a little breakfast treat from Nova bakery, of course!
Thankfully the rain and clouds have left for the moment, and we are enjoying bright, sunny weather. I went outside to re-count the garlic sprouts.
Still only 13.
Rosie stayed outside while I was at the market, and has been content to stay out there pretty much all day. It’s great weather for a sunbath.
Every once in a while, though, there’s something worth getting up for…like when the dachshunds got loose next door.
Or when the FedEx man came—he needed barking at. I was happy to be able to meet him at the door and wish him a Merry Christmas. Then of course I had to see what else you ordered!
Really? At least they look fresh this time!
So, you see, I’m keeping busy enough. Your stocking is looking a bit plumper than when you left.
There are a couple more gifts by the tree…
…which continues to add a cheerful beauty to the living room.
I’ve even laid a fire in the hearth for tonight, with a little kindling helpfully provided by the big tree out back. We’ll see if I can manage to get it lit without your help!
Still, I’m looking forward just as much to your return as I am to Christmas itself. And so, I suspect, is Rosie.
I’ve been having an unusually hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year. Perhaps I’m not feeling it because Miss Chef will not be here—she wasn’t able to travel at Thanksgiving, so will be with her family on Christmas, leaving me and Rosie to wassail the yule (or something). The weather was not helping either, wandering around in the 60s under low-slung gray clouds. Bah, humbug. And of course recent tragic events—both local and distant—certainly put a further damper on any Christmas cheer*.
However, Miss Chef and I had made plans earlier this week to go to Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens to see the lights. This is the third year I’ve been (I think), but Miss Chef always had to work on those evenings. December is not a forgiving month for the chef’s schedule, and even though she’s not technically working at the restaurant any more, she is still lending a hand here and there—plus it’s finals week at school. Which is all to say that after a busy week with not much time together, I was looking forward to this evening for the two of us.
*I don’t wish to gloss over or make light of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, but the airwaves--and our minds--are already so over-saturated that I really don’t feel I have anything meaningful to add. Allow me to offer you this bit of escape.
The botanical gardens are only about 15 minutes’ drive from us, though probably a good 30-minute drive from uptown Charlotte. The long, winding entry road is also decorated as you drive in, but as I was driving, I didn’t have the chance to take pictures.
The walk from the parking lot to the main entrance building is worth a stop and shot, though.
Unfortunately, all the photos I took were with my phone, since I neglected to make sure Miss Chef made her camera available for me. (Notice how I didn’t blame her for leaving it on her desk at school? Isn’t that understanding of me?)
I was a bit surprised to see a short line at the door, but it gave me a moment to take this photo and wonder if this is a noun or a verb…
The main pavilion is designed to recall gracious Old South plantation-style architecture. I’m sure any southern belle would appreciate the opportunity to decorate her home with a tree like this.
It must be at least 15 feet tall, and is entirely composed of orchids and tropical greenery. Sorry I cropped off the top; it was hard to get the whole thing in the frame! Also, it was hard to get a picture without someone in front of it. This will be the background for more than one family Christmas card, judging from some of the picture-taking I witnessed.
Beyond this atrium with the tree is an open, round room with a piano magically playing by itself. It’s a new generation of player piano, controlled electronically. I caught the last few seconds of one of the pieces of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite to share with you:
Miss Chef had already procured us a cup of spiced cider and one of hot cocoa, so we were ready to move on outside. We first went to a small garden lit all in white, with an enormous tree behind it dangling blue snowflakes. There was even special lighting to give the illusion of falling snow.
We wandered on through an arbor draped with wisteria created from green and purple lights, open areas guarded by tin soldier forms, and pathways lined with daffodils, sunflowers and others created from lights.
I’m not a big fan of bottle trees, but they take on a whole different aspect when they’re all lit up!
The pièce de résistance of the whole garden is a long promenade along a narrow channel of water, ending in a towering fountain of water. Naturally, it’s difficult to get a good picture without a tripod, but I did my best (with a little post-production help from the computer).
Here’s a picture of the fountain and the two trees behind it—palms disguised as evergreens! I really like the seagull sculpture, too.
We wound up our visit with a turn through the orchid conservatory—which has a lot more than just orchids. For instance, if anyone offers you a Madagascar palm tree, you might think twice before accepting.
There were no lights in here, though other seasonal decorations abounded.
My favorite part of the conservatory has to be the wall of orchids, complete with miniature waterfall.
None of my other indoor shots turned out very well, so I’ll leave you with this of the outside of the conservatory.
Including a browse through the gift shop, we spent nearly two hours there, but it didn’t seem like a very long visit. Maybe next time we’ll spring for the horse-drawn carriage ride and see what other sights the gardens have to offer.
Sunday evening, as I lay draped on our oversized armchair, my nose buried in a book, Miss Chef commented that I hadn’t posted on my blog lately. “I know,” I replied, “But I’m not sure what to write about.”
This afternoon at work, as I sat drowsing at my desk, I popped into my email and noticed that Bossy Betty had dropped off this comment on my last post:
Being an English teacher, BB has a knack for not just asking a question, but creating a writing assignment. I thought I’d take her up on it--indeed, what have I been doing since Thanksgiving?
Answer: stuff. All that stuff that happens while you’re busy making other plans.
Friday after Thanksgiving, not only did we get our tree, but we got it up and decorated. (Please excuse the quality of my photos; they’re all from my phone.)
Oh, but it gets more exciting! That Sunday, I drove an hour for goat poop. As our disastrous garden this past summer attested, it was high time I put something back into the soil, and I could think of no finer dirt food than goat manure—especially since we happen to be friends with a goat farmer. Mom even joined me for the hour’s drive out to Waxhaw, which is a a long time to be driven around for the pleasure of seeing your daughter shovel…stuff.
But I have to tell you, these goat farmers sure are gracious about providing poop. They had already pulled up their wheel loader with a bucket full of the composted stuff, so there was no stink to contaminate my car. And Mr. Goat Lady himself (aka Matt) did most of the shoveling into the double-bags I’d assembled. When they were as full as they could stand, Mrs. Goat Lady (aka Michele) offered an extra feed bag to get every last bit of goodness for the garden. Mom enjoyed chatting with her while we shoveled, and then Michele and Matt gave us a brief tour of the facility.
Unfortunately, I left my phone in the car, so the only picture I have of the whole experience is this:
Hey, that’s about 200 pounds of fertilizer! Goat poop is dense. (Oh, and did I mention…? Their last name is Lamb. Bazinga!)
Don’t worry—we did also offer some real entertainment to the folks, including dinner out at our favorite restaurant (Passion8 Bistro), and an evening at The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged). Then Monday it was back to reality, as Miss Chef and I headed back to work and my parents headed back home.
After all that excitement, I was looking forward Monday evening to a quiet, empty house after five days of company. Just me and the dog, since Miss Chef teaches Monday nights. However, as Rosie and I greeted each other at the door after a long day apart, I heard an odd sound in the vicinity of the guest bathroom. “Did somebody leave the water running?” I said to Rosie. She didn’t answer. Which made it all that much easier to hear the carpet go squish as I walked into the small hallway.
What Rosie wasn’t telling me was that the water heater had blown a connector and was spraying water at the furnace. The furnace didn’t seem to care, and was letting the water splatter on the walls, run down to the floor and ooze on through into the hallway.
I will not go into the details of the panicked call to Miss Chef, the two hours of running the carpet cleaner to suck the water up, the multiple visits from the plumber, the evening showers chez a good friend…nor the gulps we took as we heard the cost of repairs.
No, I’ll just tell you we have a brand-new same-as-cash financing agreement to go along with our new tankless water heater.
Here’s where the old, 40-gallon tank sat (and spewed)—on the right wall you can see the control panel for the new system.
And here’s the new, exterior system (with water barrel and A/C unit for size comparison):
The main benefit of one of these is that you’ll never run out of hot water—it’s heated on demand. That also means it’s more efficient, as you don’t have 40 gallons of water being kept up to temperature 24/7. Surprisingly, the energy savings is not great enough to make up the additional cost of a tankless heater. But since our original tank installation had not been up to code, the cost of the repairs was almost half the cost of this new system. So we bit the bullet and went tankless. (Also, this system means almost zero chance of your water heater springing a leak and flooding out your house. But how often does that happen, right?)
So that, my dears, is what I have been up to—that, and catching up on laundry. But as I struggle to get my focus back onto the upcoming holidays, let me leave you with some prettier pictures, to go with my new background theme.
A couple closeups of the tree…including the lovely ornament I won from Yabu back in September…
…a poor picture, with poor lighting, of the charming wreath my mother made, complete with foliage and berries from our invasive nandina plants….
…and a parting shot of our lights on the outside of the house. Miss Chef decided if we were going to put lights on the house, we were going to do it right, so we have more than we’ve ever had before. She’s still talking about getting on the roof to add something to the center peak, but thankfully she’s a bit overscheduled for the moment and probably won’t get to it…until she reads this post and decides to prove me wrong!
Bonus: if you look closely, you can just see Rosie silhouetted on the lawn. She’s not having any major accidents during the day (knock wood!!!), but still has some minor issues in the evening. I guess we’re kind of maintaining at this point, though I don’t think the red-clover treats are really working.
Yes, the grand feast is over, and now we are faced with a week’s worth of leftovers. Even now I sit here, slightly stunned by a third-day helping of turkey ‘n’ fixin’s. All the same, I’m sharing some of the photos of our fantastic feast.
As usual, the highlight of the dinner was a locally raised heritage breed turkey. Specifically, one of these.
“Lola,” as Carl decided its name should be, lived a carefree outdoor life until Monday. We met Lola Tuesday afternoon, after feathers had been exchanged for chic transparent plastic.
Hello, darling, welcome to our kitchen.
Lola weighed a hefty 20 pounds, and was probably a tom. Which makes the name lots of fun, if you are familiar with the old song by The Kinks.
Well I'm not the world’s most masculine man
But I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man
And so is Lola
Normally Lola would have gotten a long, cold soak in a brine solution, but Miss Chef had to teach on Wednesday and didn’t have time to deal with Lola. It wasn’t until Thursday morning that she started to break down the bird.
Here’s how she removes a whole breast (not for vegetarian eyes).
And a leg quarter.
Wait just a minute, you may be thinking. That turkey’s RAW! Ah, very perceptive, Grasshopper. A few years ago, we moved away from the traditional whole-roasted bird. Not that Miss Chef can’t pull it off (of course she can!), but it just doesn’t make culinary sense to cook the white meat and dark meat together, since they have to reach two completely different temperatures. This was especially true with a free-range heritage bird that wasn’t brined. Free-range birds tend to be a bit leaner and tougher, and without a brine to help retain the juices, the breast meat would have been pretty yucky by the time the legs were done.
Never fear, Miss Chef knew just how to handle it. First, since there were only five at our feast, one breast and one thigh went into the freezer. Then the other breast was seasoned and roasted. The rest of the dark meat went here…
…to be braised in a seasoned stock. This ended up looking like pulled turkey, all luscious bits and pieces.
Once the turkey was taken care of, Miss Chef and her chef friend Maria, got to work on the sides.
In front we have Maria’s succotash, a small pan of corn and the potatoes for mashing. In back is about a quart of braising stock being turned into gravy, another small pan of peas with pearl onions, and the stock pot where the remaining turkey carcass is being turned into stock.
Then there was some action going on in the oven.
On top is the dressing (obviously, no way to stuff the bird, so this was moistened with stock). Middle shelf has beets roasting and Miss Chef’s “I hope I’m remembering this right” green bean casserole. The bottom sheet rack is two kinds of sweet potatoes—white and purple—and some carrots. I should point out the beets, sweet potatoes and carrots were all purchased from the growers at the farmers’ market.
Of course it took hours and hours to bring the feast together. I tried to stay out of the kitchen—it’s pretty small, and two chefs seemed like plenty. I did a few dishes, got the table set, and eventually enjoyed the cheese tray Miss Chef set out to keep me happy.
The crockpot has mulled cider that we got from Skytop Orchard last month. The flowers Mom cut from my front bed. Yes, we still have a few summer flowers blooming here! Galliardia and brown-eyed susans have been big winners in my perennial beds.
Finally, the feast was ready! Behold the shortcomings of the panorama format!
Sadly, I didn’t notice the turkey was still covered in foil until much later, so you don’t get to see the luscious Lola. But you can see the rest—including the double-exposed green-bean casserole. Besides the dishes mentioned above, there are also brussels sprouts and homemade cranberry sauce.
And that, my friends, is how two chefs do Thanksgiving.
And this is how we did our Black Friday shopping.
Oh, and I put seven quarts of turkey stock in the freezer today. Thanks again, Lola.
This installment concludes—finally—my documentary of our trip to the mountains near the end of October. If you missed the other installments, click here to read about Grandfather Mountain, and here to read about Linville Caverns and Falls.
It was nearly a month ago that Miss Chef and I were drawn to Banner Elk by the presence of one her former colleagues. Still, what with Thanksgiving just ahead, it seems appropriate to re-visit the feast we had at Artisanal. This is a pure foodie post, consisting mostly of food pictures…so you might want to grab a snack first.
Let me begin with a little history. Artisanal was originally opened in a smaller venue on the main road through Banner Elk, by a husband and wife team. Though he is originally from this area, and did his training at the Culinary Institute of America, the two met in Charlotte. Unfortunately for us, that’s not where they opened their restaurant.
Within a few years of opening, the chef’s talents were recognized by a very wealthy client, who turned into a patron and funded the construction of a new, dedicated building on a beautiful sweep of land.
You would never know this wasn’t a converted barn. Inside, there is a very obvious horse theme, which only added to my fondness for the architecture.
There are two other life-size horse sculptures by the drive as you approach the building. I believe they and most of this building are made from reclaimed wood.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, Miss Chef’s friend April, and her boyfriend Brian, are sous-chefs here. They work 14-hour days, six days a week, from May through October. It’s very intense, but it enables them to put out extraordinary food.
It was an amazing night for us. Miss Chef had mentioned that this trip was for our anniversary, so April had the entire staff on high alert. They must really like and respect her, because we got the red carpet treatment! The owner introduced herself to Miss Chef at the hostess stand as if we were long-lost friends, and said she was excited we could join them. Well heck, we were pretty excited, too!
After we were seated, and had ordered a drink each, the server told us April wanted to offer us our choice of a bottle of wine. We had already heard a few stories about the sommelier the night before, as they are good friends and live in the same neighborhood, so when Gary came over to find out what we would like, we simply asked him to choose a pinot noir from Washington State. From what I remember, he did a very good job. ;-)
Once we got down to examining the menu, Miss Chef wanted to let Brian (main sous-chef) and April (garde manger/dessert sous-chef) send us out whatever they wanted, but at the last minute I demurred. There were a few dishes I really wanted to try, and was afraid I’d miss out if we didn’t order them specifically. So the waitress asked what I was interested in, and they put together a shared-portion tasting menu that included those, plus a few extras.
Are you ready!? Fortunately for you, we kept a copy of the menu, so I can tell you exactly what each dish is.
The first course was one of the ones I’d wanted to try: Duck confit with house-made ricotta cavatelli. Served with butternut squash, spinach, roasted sweet peppers. Oh…and a flower.
Doesn’t it just look warm and hearty? The temperature outside had been steadily dropping, so this was a rich, welcome taste after a long day hiking the mountains.
Next up was a frisée salad with a quail egg, bacon and vinegar-glazed onions.
Miss Chef was surprised I was interested in this salad, because frisée is usually quite sharply bitter, a taste I cannot stand. But they must source some very young frisée, because there wasn’t a bit of bitterness in this. The richness of the egg yolk played brilliantly against the acid of the vinaigrette.
You may have noticed these photos aren’t the sharpest. That’s mostly because the lighting was fairly subdued—I don’t like to use the flash when taking pictures in a restaurant, so I just set it on low-light, turn off the flash, and hold my breath when I squeeze the button!
Our next course was Maine diver scallops, served with white cheddar grits, chorizo with black-eye peas and a tomato reduction. Yes, scallops and tomato sauce!
As you can see, the tomato sauce is lighter than you might expect, so it provided a light, sweet acidity to cut some of the heaviness of the grits and beans. I really appreciated the way they used typical southern ingredients married with the northern scallops. The fact that it worked so well together is a testament to the talent in this kitchen.
Now we were starting to get a bit full. I forgot to mention that they start you off with house-made bread before your meal begins. That is, three options of house-made breads. There was a yeast roll, a soft herbed scone and a miniature iron skillet of southwestern cornbread with peppers baked in. Though the cornbread didn’t really seem to fit the rest of the food, we did manage to finish all the bread off.
Fortunately, the service was paced slowly enough to give us a slight breather now and then. Here’s a picture Miss Chef took of me “breathing,” using the panorama function of the camera. This covers nearly 180 degrees, from left to right. As you can see, we were given prime seats to catch the action in the open kitchen. You can also see the character of the wood in the wall behind me. Oh, and the concrete box behind me is planted with moss. Pretty cool décor all around.
That’s Gary, the sommelier, standing by the servers’ station to the left of the kitchen. You’ll see him again a bit later.
Meanwhile, Brian and April were putting together a special plate for us. Miss Chef had mentioned her love of foie gras, but they also wanted to send us some of the duck breast I was longing to try. So they did a combo of the two, making perhaps one of the richest dishes I’ve ever been served!
By the way, these are not shared plates; we each got one of them. Here, the mid-rare duck breast is at the top and the foie gras at the bottom. The presentation is a bit messy because we almost forgot to take a photo, and mine was the least bit-into plate!
According to the menu, the foie gras is normally served with a sweet corn coulis, but I think they just used the sauce for the duck dish, a port wine and raisin jus. (Don’t ask me the difference between a sauce, a jus, a coulis, a reduction…I just eat them!) And that’s a baby carrot draped over my foie, not a jalapeno.
Anyway, this was Miss Chef’s favorite dish of the night (mine was the cavatelli). The duck breast had a perfect sear, giving the skin edge of each slice a delicious caramelized crunch, and the foie gras was seared to perfection. Miss Chef thought this was the equal of the dish we had at the Artichoke outside London last year. We really are starting to become those kind of people…
At this point, I was totally sated. I was stuffed. Je n’en peux plus! Remember, we had each had a drink before we knew we were also going to be drinking a full bottle of wine! I tried a second visit to the ladies’ room, hoping walking around a bit might help things. Then the server informed us that April wanted to send us a special dessert. I decided to do some more walking around.
Here’s a closer look at the kitchen.
While I was at it, I decided to shoot a video. The chef/owner walks up to the counter on the left side; Brian shows up briefly on the right around 0:15, bringing a dish up to the expo station. (Lingo note: “expo” is short for “expedite.” This is the final station, where dishes are given a last check, wiped clean, and the last sauces and garnishes are added.)
Miss Chef wanted to show this video to her students, so they can see what a real working kitchen looks like. Notice the urgency in the cooks’ movements in the back. Few students seem to understand that!
Back at the table, getting ready for dessert—there’s a separate dessert menu, which we hadn’t even seen, so we had absolutely no idea what we might get.
When the server brought these to the table, we were so relieved, Miss Chef exclaimed, “It’s the perfect size!”
It’s a bread pudding studded with chocolate chips and topped by house-made coffee ice cream.
Then a second server showed up with this!
If you glance at the upper-right side of the picture, you can see how deep this dish is—at least we only got one to share! Now, let’s see if I can remember what’s on here. From top to bottom, it’s house-made donuts (yum!), a lemon curd cake with butterscotch ice cream…and, um, I think a pumpkin bread thingy with nuts and raisins. I kind of got stuck on the butterscotch ice cream. And you wanna know what’s funny about that? I don’t like ice cream.
(Note to self: ask Miss Chef to get butterscotch ice-cream recipe from April.)
We ate what we could—once I hit that lemon cake and ice cream, my poor bread pudding sat melting slow ice-cream tears. I tried, but…ugh, my stomach hurts just thinking about it! April and Brian thought they were taking it easy on us, since we had already told them of how our friend Luca over-feeds us when we visit his restaurant.
Gee…nice problems to have, huh?
The staff assured us we should take our time finishing up our wine, which we were happy to do. When the bill arrived, it was a shock. Not only had April paid for all our drinks (including a post-dinner cocktail Miss Chef just had to try), but she comped our dessert extravaganza too. As a result, the bill was less than half of what we had expected. I don’t know what Miss Chef did when she and April worked together, but she must have really made an impression!
And yes, I drove home that night. In the fog, slowly.
Oh, but don’t think the story’s over yet! Brian and April were disappointed that we hadn’t had a chance to see the downstairs party room, so the next morning April drove us back over to get a more thorough tour of the place.
The party room has a long table overlooking the ridiculously extensive wine cellar. The floor of the cellar is pebbled—as April explained, it’s to protect accidentally dropped bottles from shattering. Brilliant; who thought of that!?
Think that’s a nice collection of wine? Yeah, that’s just one of five bays!
If you click on the photo, you can see it a bit larger. You might spot Gary there near the left, taking inventory in jeans and a baseball cap. Slightly different from the suit he was wearing the night before.
And if you count, you’ll notice there are more than five bays in this picture. That’s because the last two are the private collection of the wealthy client who financed the building. And here’s the door between the restaurant wine cellar and his private stock.
Yeah, you may think we eat and drink well, but we’ve got nothing on this guy!
Just a couple more pictures…here’s a sitting area next to the party room. I found out later these are all retired saddles. There were more by the stairs. Did I mention there was a theme to the décor?
We also took a tour of the kitchen, but this is the only picture I took.
That’s a heckuva lot of sheet and hotel pans. And saucepans. And stockpots…all the sauté pans I’d seen the night before were All Clad, which cost about $100 a pop. As Alton Brown might say, these are some seriously good eats.
Finally we bid the restaurant goodbye. I took a few last pictures outside…
…and then it was time to get on with our day. We did a little shopping at a pottery store April loves, and probably spent everything we hadn’t spent on dinner the night before. Then it was to pack up and leave.
Yeah, I wish I could stay longer too, little dude…but believe me, we have every intention of coming back!
Want to see more about Artisanal? Click here to visit their website.