Friday, November 28, 2014

Garden Update: Before, After, After

It seems that Thanksgiving is, for me, more than just a time for feasting with loved ones.  Not that I have any problem with the whole feasting part of it.


Say, er, goodbye to Falstaff. He was one of the “lucky” survivors of the 50 turkey poults I saw arrive at Carlea Farm back in July. Running an obstacle course of disease, owls, hawks and coyotes, 27 of the little buggers made it through to November. After four months of slow growth on pasture, gobbling up grass, weeds, bugs and some supplementary feed, Falstaff made the ultimate sacrifice so that we could enjoy a traditional harvest meal together.

As you can see, Miss Chef honored his sacrifice by making him both beautiful and delicious. Thank you, Falstaff.

Now it just so happens that the month of our harvest celebration is also the month best suited for me to ensure future harvests. Even with my first experimental fall plantings in place, the garden bed is mostly dormant right now.


In the back, hiding my slow-growing broccoli plants, is my jerry-rigged row cover.  The material was purpose bought, but the posts are leftover from my raised-bed projects, and the edges are held down by a motley collection of rocks, pvc pipe sections and spare lumber. Most of the greenery you see is herbs—lavender, rosemary, oregano, sage and thyme. There are a few carrot fronds hanging out; they can survive all but the most intensely cold winters. As the trees lost their leaves, I used them to cover the soil in a couple inches of free, natural mulch. Some of my neighbors even helped out, though they didn’t know it.

By the way, did I mention Miss Chef recently bought a pickup truck?


Not only is it super handy to haul home seven large bags of leaves plucked from a neighbor’s curb, it also serves perfectly to gather up some black gold for the garden. As I had two years ago, it was time to head on out to my favorite goat farm, Bosky Acres.

Michele, my favorite Goat Lady, has a herd of about 50 diary goats who provide her with the primary ingredient for soft goat cheese and feta. They also provide an infinite supply of manure, which gets piled up in a back pasture, where it slowly breaks down into rich compost, complete with lots of earthworms. Last time I took advantage of this free garden booster, I had to shovel it into double-bagged trash liners and load them into my trunk. I barely had enough to cover the whole bed with a scant inch of it. With the truck, I was determined to do it right this time.


I had to back Miss Chef’s shiny new truck into a back pasture, next to this grass-covered mound. (You can see the big, open-air goat barn in the background, and Michele’s house on the right.) I didn’t want to transplant all that grass into my garden, so first I had to pull back as much as I could by hand. And here I thought my weeding chores were mostly done for the year.

Then it was time to start shoveling.  And shoveling. I spend most of my days sitting in front of a keyboard, so my arms, shoulders and back were quick to let me know they weren’t feeling up to a whole lot of this activity.


I had to stop for a break after a while. I posted the above photo to Facebook with the quip, “Right about now, I have to ask myself if stamp collecting wouldn’t have been a better choice for a hobby.” One of my northern friends commented almost immediately on the sunlight, which kind of put my aching muscles into perspective. So I got back to shoveling without further whining.

I stopped before I was completely tired and sore, because I knew there was only more shoveling on the other end of this trip. It was hard to judge from the spread-out pile in the bed just how much I had, but I was pretty confident it would at least cover the main garden bed. I wasn’t sure if it would be enough for a couple other side-projects I had in mind.


The truck was parked uphill on soft dirt, and I had a little trouble getting moving. Fortunately, my years of winter driving in Ohio transferred well to Carolina clay. I backed up to a more level starting place and pulled out of there slow and steady, just like up an ice-covered driveway I once knew well.

Of course, I did stop to say hi to The Girls who provided me with such lovely fertilizer. Goats are curious creatures, though, and hard to take pictures of.


“Is that phone tasty?”

Back home, I got out my trusty orange wheelbarrow and got to work. As I spread the compost over my bed, I started getting pretty excited when I saw how rich and fertile it looked. I also realized that I’d shoveled more than I’d realized, and I definitely had enough to put a good two or three inches over the entire garden.


You know you’re a gardener if that picture makes you jealous. However, nature doesn’t like bare earth, so I pulled from my bank of dry leaves to mulch it over once more.


Now, after two hours of driving and as much time shoveling, it looks just like it did before!  If you look at that white pot half-buried in the bed, though, you can tell that the dirt level is higher. But that’s about the only sign of all my hard work. At least for now. I’m hoping that come spring I’ll be able to see the difference in happier, more productive peas, broccoli and carrots.

That was all on the week before Thanksgiving. The day after, my black Friday wasn’t focused on hunting down deals on consumer electronics. It was spent shoveling the rest of that black gold onto some other beds, and creating new ones around our remaining blackberry plant and at the base of my favorite tree out front.


No more weed-whip marks around this baby’s tender trunk. And yup, that’s the truck that made it all possible. Right now, though, I’m mostly thankful I got this job done.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pet Peeve

A friend’s recent post on Facebook dredged up a pet peeve of mine.  It’s still rankling around in my brain, so I thought I’d put it down here.  Not my usual subject matter, but when I started this blog six years ago, this was its original purpose.  (If you’d rather read about another amazing dinner event, click here to read the latest post on my food blog.)

Here’s the video that triggered my disbelief.  You can watch it or not; it’s a bland little instruction manual about folding fitted sheets.  It’s the very first line that caught my attention: “One of the biggest challenges you're going to face in your life is folding fitted sheets.”

Really?  I mean, yes, many people do spend their lives mystified by this modern convenience, but if it qualifies as a major event in your life history, you’re pretty darn sheltered!

This strikes a nerve with me because it resembles the kind of statements you hear on tv commercials all the dang time.  I think I’m particularly sensitive to them because, at an earlier stage in my life, I spent a surprising amount of time watching tv with no sound. 

It was mostly at the gym, where I preferred to listen to music while tracking miles on an elliptical machine stationed in front of a battery of suspended screens.  I might switch to a program that interested me, but was too preoccupied to bother channel-surfing, so got to watch plenty of commercials without their accompanying dramatic music or cheery narration.  Often, I had to imagine what intriguing product might follow shots of dimly-lit rippling sheets, or the fascinating conversation two people could be having to lead one of them to suddenly flourish a tube of medicated cream.

Once this separation of narration and image occurred to me, it was permanent.  So now, even with sound and picture running together, I still pay more attention than most to the smoothly delivered lines drilling into our nation’s subconscious day after day. Do any of these sound familiar?

“Now your pores can be practically invisible.”  Since when has it become shameful for women to display the fact that their skin is a living, breathing organ?  Are visible pores a sign of bad breeding or hygiene?  Do women who replace their skin with plastic become better sex partners?  Are wide pores on the TSA’s list of suspicious signs of terrorist involvement?  I must have missed a memo somewhere.

“Keep tiny hands germ-free and healthy.”  No.  Just, no.  Study after study has shown that children exposed to the horrifying messes of pets and—*gasp!*—the outdoors develop stronger immune systems and fewer allergies.  Yet the makers of disinfecting products continue to meet success with the message that keeping a white-tiled, sterile home is the only way a loving mother would raise her children.  (In spite of all the progress we’ve made, how many Lysol commercials feature Dad wiping down an otherwise spotless counter with a self-satisfied smile?)

“…the luxury and dependability you deserve.”  Really?  Do you know me?  Have you seen the dirty dishes on my counter, the projects on my desk I’ve been putting off, or the unanswered emails required difficult decisions?  It’s not like I’ve led the federal government to a new cost-cutting way of saving lives or feeding the homeless.  I’m not Ghandi, Warren Buffet or even Mary Poppins.  If my personal achievements aren’t relevant, it must be true that you believe anyone able to sit up and pay attention to a tv commercial is worthy of wearing a Rolex or driving a Bentley. So then, why don’t you just give me the damn thing, if I deserve it so much?

Go ahead, next time a commercial pops onto your tv, listen carefully to the assumptions it’s asking you to make.  With practice, you too might separate from the party line, and suddenly find that your list of “needs” gets cut dramatically.  As a bonus, you might even find some entertainment in these ridiculous sirens to our consumerist culture. 

Although I have to admit, my amusement is tempered with frustration when I realize how thoroughly brainwashed most of my fellow citizens continue to be.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Gather: Día de los Muertos

Last weekend was the fourth of Miss Chef’s underground dinners, completing the first year of our seasonal events.  There were a few differences from the other dinners.  First, after dissatisfaction with a couple of people she’d had running “front of house,” we decided I would give it a go this time.

Second, when she told me she’d settled on the Saturday right after Halloween, I said, “You do realize that’s the Day of the Dead.”  And she decided to run with it, the first time we’ve had a theme for a dinner.  Having taught Spanish for five years, I thought it would be a fun, adult way to take advantage of Halloween without overdoing it.


I did up our Facebook and Eventbrite pages with bright colors and this vibrant calavera, and for the first time I sent out the announcements without worrying about whether we’d sell enough tickets to break even.

A week before the dinner, Miss Chef and I were getting a bit nervous.  In spite of many people telling us they were coming, we’d only sold four tickets.  She said if she didn’t have at least six diners, she would cancel it—something I hadn’t even considered since the early days of this Underground adventure.

Then, as always, tickets started selling two days beforehand.  When the dust settled, we suddenly had 22 paying guests to feed.  It felt glorious, right until I realized this just upped the challenge level all the way around.

Part of that challenge lay in the fact that for the first time we’d have to provide all the table settings.  So we took a trek up to Ikea, on the far side of town from us.  Since Miss Chef has always capped the dinners at 30 people, we needed 30 place settings.  Sounds straightforward enough, until you consider that she uses different plates for appetizers, soups, several courses and desserts.  Not to mention the various salad forks, dessert forks, soup spoons, coffee spoons, steak knives, water pitchers, coffee cups….

Anyway, an hour or two later, and we had blown almost all our revenue on hardware.

2014 11 (2)

Oh, and did I mention Miss Chef had bought a truck a few days before?  She’d been wanting to for years, just something small we could use for home-improvement supplies, yard projects and Gather.  When she doesn’t have a kitchen available, she uses our grill, so we needed a way to haul that.  And I can’t complain too hard at the prospect of getting compost or mulch by the truckload, instead of buying those stupid bags from Home Depot.

Anyway, back to Gather.  Our Día de los Muertos event was held at Atherton Market, where I’ve been volunteering and Miss Chef has added to her regular Saturday morning market route.  It was indoors, with plenty of space, and even offered a large sink we could do some washing in.  Our last site didn’t have any hot water available, and the cleanup was just this side of traumatic.  Fancy stoves we don’t need, but hot soapy water is a deal-breaker now.

As soon as Miss Chef had decided to adapt her menu to match the theme, I jumped in with the clever idea of providing blank sugar skulls for our guests to paint.  Lynn, our resident pastry chef, agreed to provide the colored royal icing for the decorations, and it fell to me to make the skulls themselves.  I ordered a mold off the internet and spent an afternoon making them…but then, with our numbers jumping at the last minute, I had to get up early to make a second batch  Saturday morning while Miss Chef was at the markets.


Just two ingredients: sugar and egg whites.  I had no idea how many skulls I’d get out of one 6-cup recipe, so I bought a big ol’ 10-pound bag.  Turns out I only needed about 8 cups total.  Oh well, holiday baking season is just around the corner!

Just a tiny bit of egg white gets the sugar to wet sand consistency, enough to hold its shape when it pops out of the mold.


It was all very easy, once I got the system down.  Of course, the cat had to inspect everything as I was working.


Elbows Paws off the table, Princess!”

The reason I had to get up early for these is that, without a week’s worth of drying time, they had to bake at low temp for four hours to get properly rock hard.


All in all, the whole project went off very well, and I was out of the real cooks’ way right on time.

Although, to be honest, time was in short supply…after a day of prep, we all left late for the market, and weren’t halfway set up when the guests got there.  For my first time as front of house manager, I felt I was doing a terrible job.  Fortunately, most of the guests are also friends, and with a few extra hands, we got everyone settled.

Sadly, I was a little late sharing the story behind the sugar skulls, and some of the guests were too happy sitting down with their first glasses of wine to go play.

2014 11 (12)


2014 11

Miss Chef was feeling a little panicky too, but by the time the salad course came out, I had caught my breath and my stride and was able to start taking pictures.

This was before the salad dish, so not my photo—this is posole soup, which came with a little history, thanks to Miss Chef’s having taught the Latin Cuisine course a few years ago.  This traditional soup was eaten by the ancient Aztecs, as a side benefit of all the meat available after human sacrifices.  When the Catholic priests hit the scene, they insisted on substituting pork for human flesh, as it’s apparently the closest in flavor.  Yum?

2014 11 posole

Next dish—scallops!

2014 11 (4)

22 plates, including one vegan and a gluten-free vegetarian, and no heat lamps!  The scallops were paired with a butternut squash purée and emperor’s rice.  Here’s a picture I stole from one of our guest’s Facebook posts, because I didn’t get one of the finished product.

2014 11 scallop

The beef course was coffee-molasses glazed flank steak with a black bean tamale, cilantro gremolata and crispy fried pepper bits.  The upright garnish is popcorn shoots.

2014 11 steak

I would say this was the general favorite, as the diners sucked this down so fast I barely had time to refill water glasses before it was time to start clearing the empty plates.

Regardless of how tired our feet get or how much our backs may hurt, the guests always seem to have a great time.

2014 11 (18)

Lynn’s dessert was a cream puff with pumpkin and goat cheese mousse, a “swoosh” of chocolate and toasted pecan brittle.

2014 11 (29)

As if this weren’t enough, we had a special guest chef helping out, and he happens to be a self-described Chocolate Guy—he does some work with Callebaut chocolates.  So he put together an after-dinner treat that was so good, most of the guests actually found enough room after six courses to actually eat some of it.

2014 11 mignardise

I was too busy clearing plates, filling water or trying to catch up with dirty dishes to hear what all of these were.  Actually, our Chocolate Guy had spent a good portion of the night washing dishes, which saved my bacon when we needed more dessert forks.  Still, gathering up all the dirty pots and pans, leftover food, remaining supplies, decorations and general trash was a daunting prospect.  By the end, it’s possible that some of our crew may have become just a little hysterical.  (Warning: loud volume, mildly improper language)

Today, almost a week later, we’ve just cleared the last of the clean dishes out of the living room, storing them away in the shed until next time.  Already the sore feet and backs are just a fuzzy memory, and for some crazy reason we’re actually looking forward to the next event in January.

Because when you live with a chef, crazy is catching.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What’s a pig picking?

I asked this question about three years ago, when friends of ours near Boone mentioned it as an annual January event.  It’s what Yankees like me would call a whole-hog roast, ie, kill a pig, cook it up, invite a ton of people to join you in a frenzy of food and drink.

Well, we were never invited to that January event, but this weekend Miss Chef and I enjoyed our second pig picking of the year.  This one was hosted by Lee and Domisty Menius of Wild Turkey Farms, about an hour away from us on the far east side of Charlotte.  Unlike the last one we attended, in Holy City, South Carolina, many of our friends were invited, so this was a true community event for us.

We showed up about an hour late, which is kind of right on time for these kinds of gatherings.  The hosts have done this a time or two before.

WTF pig picking 10 (38)

We trundled over to the long line of tables set up to hold everyone’s side offerings.  Casseroles, greens, salads, beans of various colors and of course an overabundance of desserts, including pumpkin pie and s’mores cake.  Decadent.

WTF pig picking 10 (6)

Almost immediately after room was cleared for Miss Chef’s slaw and my corn casserole, the line at the smoker was officially opened.

WTF pig picking 10 (1)

I didn’t learn until the next day that there was a lamb in there, too.  You can see how I might have missed it, by the time I came through.

WTF pig picking 10 (2)

We got to select whatever chunks of meat we pleased, then have it sauced before moving on to the sides.  Miss Chef and I found seats under an open shelter emptied of equipment for our dining pleasure. 

WTF pig picking 10 (7)

We ended up sitting next to Carl and Leah Wagner, who have raised our Thanksgiving turkey for the past four years or so.  We chatted about turkeys, their youngest daughter’s first year in college and the band of coyotes that’s been coming closer and closer to their property this year.

After filling up on pig, broccoli casserole and loaded mashed potatoes, I felt like taking a turn around the property before stopping by the dessert spread.  On the other end of our dining field, a flock of chickens was enjoying the beautiful fall afternoon, getting in the last few bites before sunset.

WTF pig picking 10 (13)

WTF pig picking 10 (16)

Miss Chef joined me as I headed in the opposite direction, where we’d seen a few pigs when we parked in the field on the other side of the Bobcat.  The pigs were out of sight behind a slight rise, but we did find the farm’s namesakes (sort of).

WTF pig picking 10 (29)

They’re not exactly wild, though they are a little…odd.

WTF pig picking 10 (35)

Lest you think these poor birds are crammed into a filthy, dung-filled crate, notice the trail of feathers in the background?  This entire enclosure is moved, probably at least once a day, so they have access to fresh grass and bugs.

WTF pig picking 10 (21)

I wonder what the turning radius is on that vehicle?

Meanwhile, the pigs must have thought it was dinnertime, so they came wandering up the hill to say…well, this.

Yeah, these free-ranging Berkshires stand surprisingly tall and move more easily than their overbred, overfed pink counterparts.  I think the one on the left was a male propositioning a female on the right.  My nervousness seems to amuse him.

WTF pig picking 10 (28b)

We had nothing more to say to the pigs, so Miss Chef and I wandered back to the party, past a group of skittish lambs…who probably have good reason to be skittish.  They look about the right size for slaughter.  Sorry, guys, but at least you have room to run.

WTF pig picking 10 (18)

As darkness fell, the grain towers were adorned with lights, and a steady stream of people made the short trek to their cars, fetching sweaters and blankets.

WTF pig picking 10 (40)

And then, just as the chill threatened to turn to cold, the bonfire was lit.

WTF pig picking 10 (46)

It’s awfully hard to get good bonfire photos with a cell phone…but a little post-production assistance helps a bit.

WTF pig picking 10 (58)

The distance of these revelers from the fire itself should give you some idea of the amount of heat being put out.  If not, this shot of the tractor and barn up the hill is a good representation.  As they say on Instagram, #noflash, #nofilter.

WTF pig picking 10 (53)

We hung around until the fire burned down to coals, the s’mores fixin’s came out, and most of the party had drifted away.  Eventually we too thanked our hosts with great sincerity and called it a night.  Even the hour drive home in the dark couldn’t erase my sense of grateful well-being brought on by a blanketful of stars and the smoky comfort of a warm fire on a cool night.

Yup, it was another one of those moments when I think to myself, “I must be doing something right.”

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.


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.



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



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



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


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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


…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.


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!


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.