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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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).

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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


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.

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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.

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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…

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

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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?