Ciao

I began this pursuit in Italy, so I suppose it’s fitting I title this post with the Italian word for farewell.

Lately blogging has started to feel like a bit of a chore — at the worst of times, anyway. And at the best, it’s just not exciting me these days like it used to. I find myself procrastinating more and more.

Since A Tarheel Tastes poured forth from my heart and is no way a commercial endeavor, I’m sure not going to force myself to continue if my heart’s no longer in it.

But you know, “Ciao” is a mighty handy word. It can be issued either when parting … or meeting.

So if fancy strikes again somewhere down the road, I might pop back into this space.

In the meantime, I leave you with candied bacon.

I was recently on a business trip at a golf resort in South Carolina where I helped host some sales award winners. Candied bacon was part of the arrival snack spread, and everyone was wild for it.

The hotel even delivered a dish one night to my room. Fortunately, some homemade Cracker Jack was underneath — but I did take a nibble of the bacon. And for all of you bacon lovers out there: Be prepared to be wowed.

I decided to make a batch for my family at Thanksgiving. There are a billion recipes online for candied bacon, all nearly identical and made in the oven. The technique wasn’t at all what I had imagined.

I should have paid attention to my instincts.

Everybody proclaimed the result tasty, but it was not the resort’s brittle, shiny, toffee-like coating.

bacon

So of course I begged the recipe from Chef, and it couldn’t be more simple.

Fry the bacon. Stir, melt and cook white sugar in a saucepan over low heat until it caramelizes, then drizzle over the bacon strips. Let harden. Eat.

That’s it. Easy-peasy.

A big thanks to my handful of loyal followers. Those of you who are local, don’t be strangers. I’m always ready to go grab a bite.

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Easing into winter with bibimbap

Cold weather has returned, and with it my craving for Dolsot Bibimbap.

Say what?!

Most people I know have never partaken of Korean food. Chinese, Japanese and Thai, yes. But not Korean.

My family was stationed in South Korea when I was in college, so I had my first taste of the country’s cuisine way back then — and have eaten it occasionally since, often with family members or other fellow adventurous foodies.

Many dishes are delicious, but Dolsot Bibimbap is always my winter Korean obsession. I ate it for the first time this season a couple of weeks ago at Raleigh’s Seoul Garden, and I anticipate another batch in my near future …

Bibimbap is essentially a rice bowl with many variations. It always contains diced or sliced veggies, often an egg and usually a choice of another protein (beef, seafood, tofu).

If you venture to a Korean restaurant and see the word “Dolsot,” go for that one — it means that the ingredients are artfully arranged and delivered to the table in a large stone bowl that’s sizzling hot from the oven.  Let it sit for a minute so the rice against the bottom and sides of the bowl gets nice and crusty-crunchy, then adorn with chili pepper paste (usually presented in a squeeze bottle and only mildly spicy) over the top and stir it all up, so that the raw egg spreads throughout and is cooked by the extreme heat.

Don’t be surprised if the bowl is still hot even after the bibimbap has all been devoured.

Or most of it, anyway. I’ve never had an order of this dish that’s less than h-u-g-e. And it’s served — as are many Korean entrees — with lots of small little side dishes called banchan. Most seem to be vegetables — some are recognizable, and others are not. Kimchi is always among them.

My mouth is watering just writing about it. Anybody want to join me for a bowl soon?

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The demise of the dawdling blogger

I got a little behind. Then a little more behind. Then a lot behind. So much so that the thought of trying to get caught up was kind of daunting.

It’s certainly not because I haven’t been eating great stuff. Far from it.

So I came up with two ideas to remedy the situation: A one-time systematic catch-up post, and a heartfelt pledge to not ever get so far behind again.

Lots to tell, so here’s how I’m going to tell it:

  • Show a photo.
  • Explain where/when/how/why I ate it.
  • Describe — concisely — what was so good about it.

I’ll wax more eloquently in future. (Not sure whether that’s good or bad, from your perspective.)

#1 

Explain: Standout salad at a Panzanella farm dinner featuring Chapel Hill Creamery products.

Describe: Peppery baby arugula and fresh figs, two all-time favorite ingredients. The buttery, brie-like Carolina Moon cheese lent a buttery richness, and candied walnuts a nice crunch. A perfect, fresh Indian-summer starter that, for me, eclipsed the main dish.

#2

Explain: Lunch at downtown Raleigh’s new Zinda restaurant, a slick, shiny-chic “new Asian” spot. Lots of buddhas (including a waterfall of golden buddhas spilling down a tall red wall) and color-changing lights. (Admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea, ambience-wise.) Exciting, creative, and artistically presented food to match.

       

Describe: Two starters comprised my lunch. First, a colorful-but-plain salad elevated to something more thanks to two ingredients: salty, crisp-fried wafers of taro and a pear-ginger dressing. Then samosas — nicely fried with a typical, satisfying filling. Jewel-bright chutneys were what made this one special: cilantro and — in particular — cranberry mint.

#3

Explain: A hearty fall meal eaten with friends in the Virginia mountains after biking 34 miles — Giada’s Pasta Ponza, crusty bread and salad with a simple lemon juice and olive oil vinaigrette.

Describe: Give the pasta dish a try — it’s simple, cheap, colorful and very tasty. Perfect now that the weather’s cooled.

#4

Explain: I needed a beverage idea for a chilly morning football tailgate party. Smitten Kitchen’s bourbon-spiked milk punch recipe to the rescue.

Describe: Yes, it’s semi-frozen, which seems less than ideal for cold weather imbibing. But the high alcohol content warms you right up. I chose this recipe over others because Deb did the over-analyzing for me, and it uses bourbon and forgoes brandy. It’s like eggnog, only better — trust me on this. (And it’s way easier to make than real eggnog. And less rich and sinful. Kind of.)


#5

Explain: A Matador sandwich from the American Meltdown food truck at this year’s Cooke Street Carnival. This mobile eatery features a variety of gourmet melts that makes choosing just one difficult.

Describe: I picked the Matador that day because of its simple and few — yet high-quality and flavorful — ingredients: Manchego cheese and Romesco sauce on sourdough. Oh, and it was pretty, too, don’t you think?

#6

Explain: 2 starters = 1 lunch at Machupicchu Peruvian restaurant. (You can probably tell I have a tendency toward multiple starters.) The menu is huge and it’s not easy to narrow down choices. So I picked the Tamalito Verde and the Solterito Arequipeno salad instead of a main course.

             

Describe: The tamale was a pretty green color, thanks to the cilantro blended in with the masa.  It was stuffed with cheese instead of meat — a bonus for me. The salad was the Peruvian equivalent of a chopped salad, bright and delicious with lima beans, tomatoes, corn, onion, cheese, parsley and cilantro all tossed in a light vinaigrette.

#7

Explain: Tea sipped with Erin in Asheville’s atmospheric Dobra Tea shop.

Describe: Dobra is one of the coolest tea shops I’ve frequented. Plenty of them offer a variety of teas, but Dobra’s are all served in special pots with particular cups, and are beautifully presented on stylish trays. The tea-makers are in an open area off to the side and it’s fun to watch them work their skills. Erin had a very sweet hot mint tea, and I drank Memories of Prague, a black tea with bitter chocolate served with a tiny pitcher of hot milk.

#8

Explain: When Erin and I strolled through Asheville’s Jewish heritage festival it was tough to decide which goodies to eat. Had we not indulged in a big brunch several hours earlier I’m sure we would have tried more than two items.

               

Describe: The latkes were different than most I’ve had — the potatoes seem to have been almost mashed before forming into patties and frying, as opposed to grated. The texture was unexpected but the taste familiar. The cheese-filled blintzes served with sour cream and gooey blueberry jam were heavenly. Especially eaten on a cold, sunny mountain day.

#9

Explain: Every time I eat at Chapel Hill’s Sandwich I try something different. The plethora of unusual offerings and rotating specials make it easy.

Describe: The Keema Naan (minus the chicken) consisted of warm, pillowy naan folded around chickpeas, curried eggplant, basmati rice, raita and spices. According to the menu, the ingredients are “snuggled-up” inside the bread — an apt description. Indian comfort food.

#10:

Explain: Brand-new BurgerFi’s veggie offering is pretty good — but since Chuck’s is still my favorite I won’t go there. The fries, however, deserve a mention.

Describe: I’m not a huge french fry lover. Thin, slightly crispy Belgian frites with mayo or aioli for dipping, sure. Or German fries in curry ketchup. Um-hum. Well, BurgerFi’s are right up in that same elevated category. I can’t really put my finger on why they’re so delicious. They’re not that thin (but not thick, either). And I’ve had them twice now with just ketchup for dipping (even though you can order them topped with all sorts of fun things). You’ll just have to take my word for it and try some. And throw in a few h-u-g-e onion rings while you’re at it.

#11

Explain: Regular readers of this blog already know how much I love Jubala Village’s Liege waffles. My go-to is the chocolate chip-banana, but once in a while I’ll branch out and order one of the seasonal specials.

Describe: A work of art! And it tasted as yummy as it looks. This seasonal was drizzled with honey and then adorned pinwheel-style with thin slices of pear.

That’s it — and that’s enough! — for now. The next post will be shorter and sooner. Promise.

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Newbies

Cluck, cluck little hen 

I love trying out new places!

New to me, anyway. I guess I can use living in north Raleigh as my excuse for not knowing about seven-month-old Little Hen in Apex.

Or is it Holly Springs? It’s listed various places as belonging to both — and I don’t blame either town for trying to claim this fantastic restaurant. One of the best I’ve enjoyed in the Triangle in a long time.

As is the current trend, Little Hen is a farm-to-table spot. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. The more farm-to-table quality eateries the better.) It’s family owned and on the small side, with a simple and appealing decor peppered with farmhouse elements.

The menu has three main groupings of food: Small Plates, Boards and Mains. The Small Plates section is further divided into cleverly named segments like Grinds (sausages), Parts (wings, pig’s feet, marrow, livers) and Grown (veggies). You choose which local cheese and charcuterie you’d like on your Artisan Board, while the Big Boards contain three or four dishes piled onto a wooden cutting board-like platter. (Plenty for two, it appeared, and I even saw several couples leaving with board-leftover takeout containers.)

I chose two vegetable smalls plates and shared another with my friend. The first colorful dish was sliced charred beets with caramelized red onions sprinkled with finely chopped pistachios. A ball of fried goat cheese about the size of a large truffle offered a nice rich counterpoint to the vegetables.

The second small plate was long slices of grilled zucchini served on top of white beans flavored with bits of basil and feta. Straightforward and wonderful.

Fortunately, the shared small plate turned out to be the most generously portioned and we couldn’t manage to finish it despite its deliciousness: fried sweet potato fingerlings coated in thyme honey butter and scattered with bacon bits.

Full as we were, we shared two desserts. (Because what foodie in her right mind passes up dessert when there’s a dedicated pastry chef on staff?) By far our favorite was a thin slice of dense, dense (flourless, I’m guessing) chocolate torte with “crispy topping” (delightful little chocolatey balls) and cherry ice cream and chantilly cream on the side. What great fortune: a few of my very favorite tastes on a single plate.

I’m trying to figure out when I can next make the 35-minute trek to Little Hen. However, I’m sad to admit it probably won’t be in time to sample two must-haves I spotted on the menu published yesterday, since offerings appear to rotate on and off every few days. (Namely, grilled escarole with blue cheese dressing, walnuts and cherry tomatoes, yum.  And, even better, corn and cheddar spoon bread with butterbeans, summer pepper salad and honey.)

Best to make a reservation — Little Hen is very popular. Understandably so.

Luscious Laotian

Yet another Asian restaurant has opened in the space formerly occupied first by Duck and Dumpling and then Fai Thai. Based on Monday’s experience, I believe (hope, pray) Bida Manda will be around for a long time.

The Laotian restaurant hasn’t even been operating a month, and some work colleagues and I dined there on its very first day of lunch service. Despite its youth, there were no service hiccups or food disappointments.

From what I can tell, Laotian food shares similarities with Vietnamese and Thai — not surprising, if you know your geography from that part of the world. I tried my first, but not last, Thai-or-Laotian iced coffee (sorry, I can’t remember which country). Very strong and very sweet, with cream. It reminded me of Thai iced tea without that distinctive smokiness.

My entree was the deceptively plain-sounding watercress salad. Crunchy, herby and pungent, it was comprised of romaine, watercress, shreds of red cabbage, tofu, hard-boiled egg slivers, mint, cilantro and a peanut vinaigrette. I opted for the tempura eggplant add-on (other choices were lemongrass chicken or soy-marinated beef) — small crispy cubes, lightly fried. Despite it being “just a salad,” the flavor and texture made my tastebuds sit up and take notice. And, as with Little Hen, made me want to return sooner than later. For dinner, this time.

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Another medley

I need to hurry and play catch-up tonight before more sure-to-be-blog-worthy culinary adventures hit (Tampa this weekend, a new Laotian joint next week).

So here goes.

Unintentional vegan 

I think veganism gets an undeserved bad rap in most circles.

Don’t get me wrong: I would never intentionally eat a vegan diet for any hefty amount of time. I know it’s healthy, but it’s just too restrictive for my broad tastes. Vegetarian-most-of-the-time is the best I can do. But to each her own.

However, I learned to cook and appreciate vegan food when my daughter went that direction for a few years. And I discovered that there are lots of fantastic vegan eats — you just have to search them out.

I dined at one of my favorite places during the recent downtown Raleigh restaurant week, and ended up choosing vegan selections for all three courses simply because they sounded best.

See what you think: zucchini fritters, farmers market “sushi” rolls and avocado gelato with grilled lime poundcake.

       

Market’s fritters were satisfyingly crispy-crunchy outside and tender in the center. The
playful sushi was wonderfully textured, colorful and tasty. But the avocado gelato was the highlight.

I was initially a little frightened by the idea of it, but the richness, tongue feel, gorgeous color and surprisingly subtle flavor won me over with the first bite.

I heart maiden cakes

Ever heard of a maiden cake?

Me, either. But my mom enthused so much about the one she’d eaten at Norfolk’s Pasha Mezze  that I had to try one for myself when we went for brunch.

I thought perhaps maiden cakes were a common Mediterranean dish. But Google them and see what you get. Iron Maiden cakes, anyone? Why, no thanks.

As Pasha Mezze, maiden cakes are nicely crisped lentil or quinoa patties served with a big fat slice of grilled tomato and some greens, along with a little mystery “vegan sauce” (see, I’m tellin’ ya … tasty vegan stuff again).

At brunch, the maiden cake becomes one building block of the Maiden Tower dish — the usual suspects, plus toast on the bottom and a fantastically poofy poached egg on the very top. The components are nice and savory, with the creamy sauce adding a lovely contrast.

Sublime sandwich

Important announcement: I have found Raleigh’s best coffee-shop sandwich.

There’s some awesome food to be found in several local coffee shops, and I’ve long loved Jubala Village’s Liege Belgian waffles. For many, many months they were the only food items on the menu. Then came biscuits. And now come sandwiches.

Which is great, because sometimes you just want something savory instead of sweet with your cup of joe.

The grown-up grilled cheese was about as close to perfection as I’ve ever had in that sandwich category.

Sharp cheddar and fresh mozarella (what a great combo!) perfectly melty between two slices of expertly toasted multigrain bread slathered with just the right amount of apple butter. (I don’t like apple butter very much and would never think to put it on a grilled cheese sandwich, but it was a phenomenal addition.)

The little salad of arugula and balsamic reduction was great alongside.

Nirvana.

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Katie bakes …

… and sings, and acts.

A blog post in two parts.

Part one

See these delectable-looking cupcakes? Well, they taste as sumtuous as they appear.

Indulge your imagination for a moment:

Oh-so-light-and-tender mocha cake. Moist and a little crumbly. Topped with luscious, full-fat, espresso buttercream. Caffeine in both elements, for an added zing. Chocolate drizzle to top it all off.

Today’s was my first Katie Cake, but I can promise you it won’t be my last.

Katie Cakes is a local (Raleigh) made-to-order cupcake purveyor. Whatever flavors and designs your cupcake lovin’ heart desires, Katie Cakes can deliver the goods for special occasions like birthdays and showers. Or just to indulge your everyday cravings.

Part two

Industrious twenty-something Katie Bowra is the baker behind Katie Cakes, which is just one of her spare-time hobbies. Recently, you might have seen her or heard her voice in ads. Or if you’re a patron of Raleigh Little Theatre, you’ve likely enjoyed her on-stage talents. Oh, and she also manages to squeeze in a full time job.

In case you’re interested in indulging in Katie’s showbiz and baking genius, I’ve got a recommendation for you: Raleigh Little Theatre’s Divas! (Check out Katie’s video on the event website.)

Katie is one of 11 RLT performers vying for the 2012 Divas! crown. $1 = 1 vote. (And a $35 ticket — which you can specify to count toward Katie’s diva-ship — will buy you an evening of glitz and glamour November 10, when this year’s candidates and past winners will dazzle you with show tunes and catchy choreography.)

But here’s the best part: For an online Razoo donation of $50 of more, you’ll receive a dozen Katie Cakes — any flavor of your choosing — redeemable from mid-November through early 2013.

An outstanding performance and outstanding cupcakes, all to benefit an North Carolina’s longest-running community theatre.

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In search of burrata

Success!

I finally tasted burrata cheese. Just a smidgen, unfortunately. And it only piqued my interest and taste buds even further.

I had lunch with some work friends at Oro (my first visit) downtown last week, and had already settled on my entree when the word leapt out from the simple description of the flatbread: heirloom tomato, burrata cheese, basil.

The flatbread was good — not remarkable, but just fine. All the ingredients were fresh and flavorful. But the little melty bits of burrata … ahhhh.

Little bits, I suppose, because YOU CAN’T FIND IT AROUND HERE! My server asked in the kitchen for me, and reported that Oro’s is imported from Italy.

So how, might you ask, did I become obsessed with it?

It’s all Blood, Bones and Butter’s fault — the Gabrielle Hamilton memoir I’ve mentioned before in this space. I was mesmerized as soon as I read her evocative description of the cheese’s role in her post-wedding celebration:

We spent the waning afternoon hours having chilled Lambrusco and soppressatta tramezzini, all twenty of us packed into that tiny space where Jason, the owner, let us bring in, instead of wedding cake, a large platter of burratta — the soft, custardy fresh cow’s milk cheese from Puglia, which Michele had introduced me to — and thirty silver soupspoons, and for our wedding cake moment, amply photographed, we exchanged big killer spoonfuls of soft, creamy burrata.

I knew after reading the passage I had to have some. And now after my teasing taste I know I need to have some more.

I want to see and touch a whole ball of it, and cut into it to expose the semi-liquid, cream-and-mozzarella-filled center. And I want to eat it in several different ways. Cool, warm, by itself, paired with things.

So if anybody out there knows of anyplace within a few hours I can find this comestible and satisfy my fixation, shout out, please.

photo from the Falls Church Times

 

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