Just the meals, ma’am


What a fantastic trip to the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of my soul’s homes, right up there with Ireland and northern Arizona. But that’s another story for another time. In this space I need to stick to just the meals …

From the tarmac at Sea-Tac I was whisked by my brother and mom to lunch at Salty’s on the water at Redondo Beach in South Seattle. Mom had been before, and I couldn’t resist the Signature Seafood Chowder she raved about.

Similar to plain ol’ clam chowder in that it’s creamy and made with potatoes and clams. But in this case, also scallops and shrimp. A table-side trickle of sherry and sprinkling of fresh ground pepper added the finishing touch. Well, that and the waterside table and sunshine and an excellent local beer. Perfect beginning.

The seafood theme continued with a grilled salmon dinner at my brother and sister-in-law’s Anderson Island lake house. While everybody else was making steak sandwiches and PBJs the next morning for a seaside picnic, I turned leftovers into an excellent salmon salad for my lunch.

After lunch and exploring we pulled up crab traps only to find them filled with female Dungeness crabs, shown in the photo (it’s illegal to keep those). So we re-dropped the traps near the boat dock, a guaranteed Red Rock crab spot — success.

Red Rocks are similar to Dungeness, but their shells and cartilage and harder and sharper — making them more difficult to pick — and they don’t have quite as much meat. (Of course, I can’t personally vouch for the picking challenge. I was allowed to simply enjoy my G&T and keep the pickers company.) Mom proclaimed the Red Rock meat to be tastier than Dungeness, and she used it to make my great-grandmother’s deviled crab casserole. You’ll find the recipe at the end of this post.

On the way from Kelly’s vacation house to a new permanent home in Tigard, we stopped in Portland to eat at a Chowhound-lauded pizza spot on Hawthorne Boulevard. Our appetites couldn’t bear the 45-60 minute wait, so we strolled a few doors down to get in the long but seemingly fast-moving line at the well-named Por Que No Tacqueria. (IMHO, when it comes to tacos, “why not” is the ideal sentiment.)

Funky, casual and mostly open-aired, Por Que No is festooned with myriad south-of-the-border colors and tchotchke.

We all agreed that the food and atmosphere were fantastic — and the price was right.

I had a rum-spiked horchata and two of the specials, a la carte.

It’s often difficult to find a good vegetarian tamale, but Por Que No served the best I’ve ever tasted. The masa was stuffed with potato, anaheim pepper, red onion and tomato, and topped with “red sauce.” A tame — and ultimately misleading — description of an exceedingly spicy dish. It’s a good thing I like heat. As in the kind that had my scalp, upper lip, forehead and under-eye areas sweating freely. I fully expected hot tamale follow-up the next morning, but was pleasantly surprised. Thank god.

My summer veggie taco was billed as spicy, but compared to the tamale it was child’s play. Still very flavorful, what with the stuffing of corn, sumer squash, red pepper, Swiss chard and green beans all sauteed in pepito pesto and topped with salsa de arbol and queso fresco.

The next morning a gaggle of us family members went berry picking at Rowell Brothers Farm.

You might have heard of Oregon’s plentiful salmon or pinot noirs, but maybe not its berries. The part of the state we were in overflows with them during the summer — boysenberries, loganberries, blackberries. We were seeking whatever was plentiful and looked best, which ended up being blueberries, marionberries and raspberries.

Berry season hit early this year, I suppose because of the big heat, and it was the last pick-your-own day at Rowell Brothers.

The blueberries were prolific, perfectly ripe and supersweet. And easiest to pick. You barely had to pluck and they’d pop from the vines.

Next were marionberries — or Marion blackberries — which I’d never had. They’re considered the “Cabernet of Blackberries” and are a large, full-flavored cross between two other varieties. They were not easy to pick, holding tightly to the thorny vines. The kids gave up quickly, so we only picked down one row (much to my dismay — they were fantastically delicious).

And finally, we gleaned the very last of the Cascade Delight raspberries: sweeter, larger, longer and firmer than other more common varieties. The vines had been picked over and we really had to hunt for them. (A lilting “come out, come out, wherever you are” was my niece Riley’s tricky technique.)

All together we managed to pick several bucketsful before the sun forced us out of the fields.

And of course, we ate plenty while picking — most farms have all-you-can-eat-on-the-spot-free policies.

Mom baked a big pan of mixed berry crisp that night, and Kelly made us all blueberry pancakes the next morning using my late dad’s recipe. (Yet another one for you at the end of this write-up.)


Mom and I met a friend for Sunday brunch at a newish place called The Parish, located in  Portland’s trendy Pearl district. The ambience was lovely, with floor-to-ceiling windows, Big Easy colors and flourishes, and jazzy live music.

 

        

The menu featured both traditional and push-the-envelope New Orleans dishes. I opted for one of the latter: local squash blossoms stuffed with fresh goat cheese and topped with cucumber and romanesco squash. It was a riot of flavors and textures. I wished for Italy’s larger versions of the delicious blossoms, and cut them into small bits to savor them longer. The sauce was good enough to beg some of my mom’s baguette to sop some up.

Our last full meal was quintessential Portland: a variety of small plates from one of the city’s food cart “pods.”

Unlike those in Raleigh and Austin, Portland’s portable eateries are known as carts instead of trucks. Which makes sense, as most of the ones I’ve seen there are smaller and more pod-ish.

The Triangle’s trucks are very mobile, moving between special event and regular gigs and spots (like microbreweries). In Austin there seems to be a combination of mobile trucks and those settled outside certain venues or clumped together in small “trailer parks.”

Portland’s Good Food Here was one of the two most highly acclaimed pods. It features more vendors (15!) than any of Austin’s parks, and several places to sit and eat, including a covered picnic table shelter. Like a tiny, funky and slightly edgy foodie neighborhood. Unlike Raleigh’s trucks, most of the carts operate on a cash-only basis — but the pod provided an ATM.

       

Jay and I decided to share an appetizer of Macarena (with spinach, garlic and jalapeno add-ons) from Herb’s Mac and Cheese. But the cook misunderstood and instead gave us a classic version. It was so good neither of us missed the other ingredients. Very, very rich and creamy. One of the better mac and cheeses I’ve ever had.

Next I ordered a prawn baguette from EuroTrash (boasting European and Mediterranean food with sloppy American flair). The bread was stuffed with curried prawns and topped with bright and crunchy cilantro slaw and a zingy sauce. Very satisfying.

Other family members’ dishes included pizza and grilled cheese (for the kids), homemade chips with chorizo and curry aioli, a Bulgogi cheese steak, and seared tuna tacos.

But when it came to dessert, the steamy evening made us all scream for ice cream.

Fifty Licks — wow! What fresh, original flavors. I can’t believe nobody in my bacon-lovin’ family ordered the maple with bacon flavor.

After a few tastes, I was torn between two sorbets, so got some of each in one cup: coconut lemon saffron, and passionfruit with Szechuan peppercorn. Visually, it was difficult to tell them apart, but tasting the difference was a breeze. The passionfruit was super-intense and sweet, and after many bites in a row it was nice to switch over to the more soothing coconut-lemon-saffron. I also tried — and loved — my niece’s Tahitian vanilla and my brother’s … jasmine tea and apricot (or something like that). What a treat — real and high quality ingredients make such a difference.

And finally, I toasted goodbye to Portland with two local (Pacific Northwest, anyway) beers at Bailey’s Taproom — the Pyramid red wheat with fig being my favorite of the pair.

I hope that’s enough to keep you satisfied for awhile, because it is now time for A Tarheel Tastes to go on a serious diet. Summer of excess, indeed.

Now, here are the two recipes promised earlier:

Mimi’s deviled crab casserole

No measurements, sorry. You’ll just have to exercise your good judgment and personal preference, and wing it. (This tastes nothing like the deviled-crab stuffed shells you can find in restaurants along the coastal Carolinas, by the way.)

Mix mayonnaise, lemon juice, yellow mustard, raw eggs and melted butter. Mix in chopped hard-boiled eggs, coarsely crushed saltine crackers and cooked, picked crabmeat. Spread evenly into greased casserole dish, and top with more crushed saltine crackers mixed with melted butter. Bake at 350 until bubbly.

Jim Haggerty’s pancakes

Mix together the following ingredients in a bowl (don’t overmix) and spoon onto a greased pan or griddle to cook:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
  • 2 T. shortening
  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1 t. sugar
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. salt

My brother Kelly makes fluffier pancakes by separating the egg, beating the white and gently folding it into the batter at the end.

And finally, a photo snapped at an Asian market in Tacoma to leave you with a smile. (Idiot fish will be on my tasting menu next time I visit out there, I promise …)

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The rodeo next door

Certifiably unfunky Midtown hosting a food truck rodeo?! Believe it or not, it’s true

Now that food trucks have finally been legalized in Raleigh, I’ve gotten used to seeing them roaming around inside the beltline, making appearances at various downtown events, parked outside brewpubs to help beer aficionados soak up and stretch out their drinking, and dishing up lunch at NCSU’s Centennial Campus.

But Midtown? Right across the street from my stuffy workplace, no less?

After my first few exciting and frustrating experiences with food truck rodeos — delicious food, yes, but also crowds, long lines and sell-outs — I now prefer small events that feature just a few trucks. But I couldn’t not attend today’s lunchtime rodeo, especially considering that it was right next door and 10 percent of the proceeds were being donated to the Payton Wright Foundation in support of families dealing with pediatric brain cancer.

Eight trucks crammed into the parking lot today: Klausie’s Pizza, Chirba Chirba Dumpling, Captain Poncho’s Tacos, Olde North State BBQ, Big City Sandwiches, Philly’s Cheesesteaks, Lumpy’s Ice Cream and Kona Ice.

The longest lines formed quickly at Chirba Chirba (thank goodness I’ve already sampled their fare several times) and Captain Poncho’s Tacos (heavy on the meaty offerings). I’d had my mouth set on Big City Sandwiches since first hearing the truck lineup. It’s only been on the road a few months and serves creative sandwiches named after cities near and far.

The single veg offering on today’s menu was something I’d make at home (hummus and veggies in a wrap), so I found myself eating cold cuts for the first time in years. At least they were high-quality, hormone- and nitrate-free organic deli meats.

My Santa Fe sammie was satisfyingly large, tasty and had a nice kick. It was: smoked turkey, pepperjack, chipotle mayo, mango salsa, red onion, lettuce, tomato and avocado on a nice soft bun.

For dessert, a black cherry shaved ice with creamy deliciousness drizzled on top, courtesy of Kona Ice. (I’m not sure what the drizzle on American snowcones consists of. And while it doesn’t quite measure up to  the sweetened condensed milk topping on Panama’s raspados, whatever it is tastes pretty damn good.)

Yes, the lines and waits were long. And it was sunny and HOT. But the atmosphere was convivial and smiles abounded, conditions that always seem to go hand-in-hand with food trucks.

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Chumbo!

You may have heard the word before. Apparently it has a number of disparate meanings, several of them uncomplimentary terms for people. My favorite (according to the Urban Dictionary) being: A derogatory (mean, rude) name for a ridiculously straight man. Often associated with trailer trash, Chumbo’s tend to be womanizing, beer drinking, steak eating, american football watching heterosexists (homophobics).

But forever after in this space and in my taste memory it will refer to the heavenly concoction created by North Myrtle Beach’s Rockefeller’s Raw Bar. “Ch” for chowder and “umbo” for gumbo.

Imagine one half of a bowl filled with ultra-thick seafood chowder (the creamy kind, with potato chunks) and the other half containing a slow-cooked gumbo. A line of rice divides the two stews.

Sounds like an unlikely pairing, I know. If my mom, uncle and aunt hadn’t been raving about it I never would have ordered the dish.

But I summoned my courage and asked for a bowl as my entree, accompanied by steamed veggies (cooked to watery limpness and lacking in any flavor at all, unfortunately). When I saw some of the others’ tiny little appetizer cups arrive I was glad I’d gone for the bowl.

Turns out a cup would have been just right. It was so rich I couldn’t finish.

The savory brown gumbo was a perfect counterpoint to the decadent chowder. (I could literally feel the heavy cream coating my mouth.) I alternated between eating bites separately and mixing the two together on my spoon. Thank goodness for the balance brought by familiar, bland rice.

Rockefeller’s ambience added to the Chumbo experience. The dark interior is punctuated with mermaids, nautical brick-a-brack, old-school sportfishing chairs turned into barstools, fake palm trees, a touch of low-key rowdiness and a good measure of drinking-to-get-tight. Rockefeller’s is a notch too nice to be a dive but far from a fine dining establishment — comfortable, warm and fun. My kind of place.

Next time, I’ll go for one of the steamer kettles — maybe scallops or lobster chunks steamed in wine and garlic herb butter, served over pasta. With a cup of Chumbo, to start.

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In praise of beer

Here’s a quick snapshot of my beer-drinking evolution:

  • College — Not crazy about the taste (wonder if imbibing Miller Light and Pabst had anything to do with that?) but learned to drink lots of it, primarily to get drunk and par-tay.
  • Just-post-college — Moved up to brands like Molson Golden, Heineken and Sam Adams.
  • Age early-to-mid 20s — Traveled to Europe for the first time, discovered the existence of great-tasting German beers (dunkels and smoked beers and hefeweizens, ummmm), continued to expand my suds palate.
  • 30s and 40s — Hooray for the growth of microbreweries and craft brewers! More palate expansion. Stouts and porters became my favorites.
  • These days — wow! A plethora of exciting beers to try, from across America and across the world. Specialty beer shops, food and beer pairings, entire gourmet beer dinners — in my opinion beer is right up there with wine. (I’m sure I’ll get some flack for saying so. Just my opinion.)

I’ve continued to branch out, and grown to be a big fan lately lately of “unique” beers with lots of flavor — like Scottish Wee Heavies and Belgian dubbels, quads, strong ales and tripels. (One’s usually my limit with those high-alcohol brews. Though I have high-brow tastes, I’m a lightweight when it comes to the buzz factor.) Thank Ninkasi (an ancient goddess of brewing) for establishments like World of Beer and Tyler’s Taproom.

And last week — courtesy of an introduction by my favorite Coquette waiter whose name is escaping me at the moment — I fell for Belgian sours.

He said he loves them just as he’s always adored candies like Warheads and Sour Patch Kids. But I don’t love those types of mouth-puckering tastes. I don’t even like lambics, and they’re only a little sour.

So I have no rational explanation for why Petrus Aged Pale blew my socks off. It’s aged in wooden barrels for at least two and a half years, and is a mellow golden-brown in color and full-bodied and pleasantly sour in taste. Yum!

Two nights later I tried a couple more sours and found another great one: Liefman’s Oud Bruin, a sour brown ale from the Flemish region of Belgium. Again, aged for a long time, and in wood for a good chunk of it.

The only down side of all of this exploration is price. But it’s all a matter of perspective. Isn’t it reasonable to pay as much for a serving of great beer as for a decent glass of wine? (A larger serving, as a matter of fact.)

Those of you who think I’m nuts, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Trot along now, back to your Buds and Corona Lights.

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Inland shrimp burgers rule!

Which is the best shrimp burger?

The one that’s delicious and nearby enough to enjoy on a fairly regular basis.

From my perspective here in Raleigh, then, the nod goes to Silver Lake Oyster Bar in Wilson.

Those of you who know me well clearly understand my passion for the Calabash Seafood Hut’s shrimp burger. (In fact, my mouth starts watering at the mere thought of being able to enjoy one next month when I head to North Myrtle Beach.)

But I’m not writing to compare Silver Lake to the Seafood Hut. They each have their merits.

Tonight I’m lauding a shrimp burger that’s a mere hour’s drive distant — an easy evening jaunt for a good cause: my satiety!

Silver Lake has been in operation since 1969, most of that time under the management of the late Buck Dixon. When the Wilson icon passed away a few months ago the restaurant’s ownership passed into the capable hands of his four daughters.

A couple of friends and I visited last Friday night in part to show our support for friend and co-worker Deborah Dixon Dion, who was on hostess duty over the weekend. Our other motive was the shrimp burger.

For those of you who haven’t had one, it’s just fried shrimp on a bun, supplemented with whatever condiments you choose (for me, it’s cole slaw and tartar sauce). Simple, yes. Which is why the shrimp must be outstanding: the right size, the right seasoning, the right frying style.

Deborah and her siblings are working to update the menu and try out some new specials, and I’m proud to claim the shrimp burger suggestion. They tested it over Father’s Day weekend and its popularity has kept it on the specials board ever since. (I’m crossing my fingers it’ll achieve a spot on the permanent menu …)

Silver Lake boasts a large repertoire of seafood dishes cooked in a variety of styles. As the name implies, it features an oyster bar where shuckers serve the bivalves up fresh. (I don’t care for raw oysters so can’t personally vouch for the bar, but it was full last Friday night.)

I’d enthused so much about shrimp burger delights that all three in our party ordered one. (However, Toby gets demerits for requesting buffalo sauce for his. He’s not from around these parts.)

Heaven!

Oh-so-tender, very lightly fried shrimp that tasted of the sea. Good cole slaw. Plain ol’ burger bun. Old-fashioned, house-made hushpuppies on the side.

I won’t make the trek all the way to the North Carolina coast solely to get a Seafood Hut shrimp burger. But I will drive to Wilson and back as long as Silver Lake keeps serving them.

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Summer scenes


These hot summer days make me sooooooo very lazy. Maybe even too lazy to write, tonight. Some eye candy and your imagination will have to suffice …

Cafe Helios lunch: roasted eggplant, fresh mozarella, basil, tomatoes, balsamic — and a dark chocolate brownie.

Kit Clarke’s amazing organic backyard garden

    

Molasses cinnamon sugar donut and happy chickens at the Saxapahaw General Store

Fun-and-scary patriotic bagel

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June is for foodies

Love that fire

Did you ever wonder why the Iron Chef America competitors confidently begin cooking immediately after the secret ingredient is revealed? (Besides your suspicion — or knowledge — that most “reality shows” are staged and choreographed like mad.)

Well, it’s because that secret ingredient is one among several they’re told about far enough in advance to map out their entire menus. The result is dishes that sing, characterized by a near-perfect interplay between ingredients.

North Carolina’s Competition Dining series, on the other hand, is the real thing, using all home-state-made ingredients.

Local restaurant chefs are matched and provided the secret ingredients mere hours before a large crowd of eager foodies — and a few professional judges — assemble to taste and rate their offerings.

When some friends and I recently attended one of the preliminary rounds of “Fire in the Triangle” we were able to sup on the fare of two fine Chapel Hill restaurants without leaving Raleigh.

The secret ingredient? Asheville’s Lusty Monk Mustard.

Yes, mustard. Can you imagine creating three dishes, including dessert, with mustard? Challenging indeed. (The chefs agreed — one of them even said “never again.”)

Unlike Iron Chef America, all the elements of each dish did not meld quite so perfectly (understandably). But many components were fantastic, the wine was flowing, the company was superb and the competition was exciting.

These were the highlights, from my perspective.

One of the prettiest dishes of the evening — and very tasty, too — was the first course created by Jujube’s Chef DeCarolis, pictured below: mustard-poached pork tenderloin with shellfish confiture, a salad of mixed greens and pickled veggies, and mustard polenta croutons.

Despite the fact that I’m not a meat-lover, the description and appearance of one of Chef Rose’s dishes (from Il Palio) made my mouth water: chipotle mustard duo of skirt steak with sunchoke puree and pickled sunchokes and braised veal cheek with porcini risotto and fruit mostarda. Unfortunately, while the skirt steak’s flavor was nice it was far too tough. The veal cheek, however, was so delectable that I was nearly able to forget it was veal (ugh) cheek (ugh). And the porcini risotto — well, how can you go wrong with that combination?

Another of DeCarolis’s dishes was again prettily composed: lentils at the base, a lamb and pork sausage next, then mustard-crusted duck breast topped with cherries. A crunchy yucca tot was served alongside.

The duck-and-cherries was my favorite savory bite of the evening. The duck was rich and tender and perfectly set off by the saucy fruit.

And finally, my very favorite dish, again by DeCarolis: a mustard mascarpone flan with roasted walnuts and port-currant-mustard compote. Flan is one of my all-time favorite desserts, and this version was so very interesting. The bite of the mustard in the background was a nice foil to the so-sweet flan.

The pro judges awarded the most points to DeCarolis, as did I. But once the crowd’s scores were factored in Rose was crowned the winner. He next competes on July 9. The final showdown is scheduled for July 31.

We had so much fun that we couldn’t wait to buy tickets for later rounds. The following day only two dates had availability, and by the time we got our act together a day later than that, the entire event was a sell-out.

Next year we’ll know to book early and often.

Quack

On my way to an annual Hot Springs camping trip with friends I stopped for lunch with Erin at White Duck Taco Shop in Asheville, home of non-traditional tacos.

If I lived up there it would be hard not to go at least once a week.

My two tacos couldn’t have been more different, yet I don’t think I could say just one was my favorite. The mushroom potato taco was substantial and earthy, with shiitakes and button mushrooms, feta crumbles and romesco sauce. The Bangkok shrimp taco was piquant and crunchy, and featured crisp shrimp, chili aioli and a sesame glaze.

Now, I love me some traditional Mexican tacos, but the selection isn’t always so great for those of us who aren’t crazy about meat. (Thank god for the fish variety.) White Duck, on the other hand, is this mostly-pescatarian’s taco dream come true.

Trading brownies for cinnamon rolls

ArtiSun Gallery and Marketplace in Hot Springs is a little oasis when you’re roughing it at the campground. Lovely crafts, wine and espresso drinks add a nice touch to the tent experience.

But best of all, the shop features pastries baked by a local goddess to whom Jennifer and I would bow down if we ever met her. For several years we’ve throughly enjoyed liqueur- or chocolate chunk-spiked, dark, dense brownies. Disappointed one year when they’d sold out before we arrived, we even called ahead to request them this time.

But alas! The former brownie-maker has been replaced. 2012’s versions were good, yes, but paled in comparison to the ones we so fondly remembered.

However … THE BEST CINNAMON ROLLS EVER were a fine swap.

I’ve never been crazy about the uber-sweet-frosting-laden mall versions that have overtaken America these days.

These, however, were melt-in-your-mouth mini buns with just the right drizzle of frosting and a hearty amount of cinnamon. The 12 I took back to the campground disappeared in minutes.

I wonder what we’ll fall in love with next year?

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