Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mac 'n' cheese

Everyone LOVED this macaroni and cheese when I took it to a luncheon on Sunday. I put it in a casserole and put bread crumbs on top, then popped it under the broiler. I have to say though that I like it best right out of the pan minus the breadcrumbs (which seem a bit fussy to me).

My favorite comfort food meal is mac 'n' cheese with meatloaf. I have a great turkey meatloaf with bacon recipe (the bacon defeats the lowfat purpose of the turkey, but OH WELL!).

This recipe works out well because the the sharp cheddar lends flavor and the monterrey jack lends creaminess. I think it has more moisture in it or something.

Macaroni and cheese:
1 lb macaroni
1 T salt
5 T unsalted butter
6 T flour
1 1/2 t dry mustard (powder)
1/4 t cayenne pepper
5 c milk
8 0z monterrey jack, shredded
8 oz extra sharp cheddar, shredded
1 t salt

Bring 4 quarts of water to boil. Add macaroni and 1T salt. Cook until al dente. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat butter over medium heat in a pot until it melts and turns bubbly. Add flour, mustard, cayenne and whisk to combine. Whisk for about 1 minute. The mixture will darken some.

Gradually whisk in milk. Bring to boil, stirring continuously (so the milk doesn't burn on the bottom of the pan). Reduce heat to a simmer and stir occasionally cooking for 5 minutes. The mixture (aka roux) will be thick like heavy cream.

Slowly add the shredded cheeses, whisking until combined. Season with 1t salt and pepper to taste.

After serving, take a spoon and get out any melted cheesy yumminess remaining in the pot. Lick the spoon, but be sure no one is watching!

Saturday, January 26, 2008 pie crust?

When apples were in season in the fall, I tried several recipes for apple desserts. I tried numerous combinations of apples and just as many toppings and pie crusts. I liked them all but I discovered that a combination of Granny Smith and Mackintosh apples work well together: Grannies are tart and keep their shape while Mackintoshes breakdown into an applesauce-like texture and retain sweetness. As far as pie crusts go, my favorite turned out to be a pie crust from the Cooks' Illustrated geniuses made with vodka. Yes, vodka. Substituting half of the water in the pie crust with vodka allows the dough to be very pliable and totally easy to roll out. Yet the vodka evaporates leaving much less actually liquid in the crust. The result is a delicious, flaky crust that is simple to handle.

I'll never be able to make a pie crust as good as my grandmother's but this one as close to success that I've gotten so far!

Foolproof pie crust from Cooks' Illustrated, November 2007:

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces)
1 teaspoon
table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening , cut into 4 pieces
1/4 cup vodka , cold
1/4 cup
cold water

1. Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no flour uncoated ). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.

2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Italian American in Raleigh

I grew up in a city with a large Italian American community and their delicious restaurants heavy on rich red sauces and great cannoli where the maitre'd packed a handgun. Pasta loaded w/ tomato sauce and cheese is such comfort food!

I noticed a dearth of such places when I moved to the south ten years ago. Even now, I've not found a place in Durham that quite fits the bill.

Last night I joined some girlfriends for dinner at an Italian restaurant in a strip mall in Raleigh called Casa Carbone. The place is nothing to look at and the menu was standard fare, so I was not expecting much, but OMG the eggplant parmesan was GREAT. I finally found my red-sauce-Italian-American-starch-with-cheese- comfort-food fix! I also liked the grouper puttanesca and the tiramisu. The bread wasn't very good and the house salad was basic iceberg with some romaine and cucumber. I can overlook these things for the fried eggplant cooked to sweet perfection and loaded up with tomato sauce and cheese. My friends tell me the pizza is good too.

I will certainly go back next time I need a red sauce on carb fix. If you are looking for upscale or avant garde, don't go. If you require beautiful table cloths and impeccable service, don't go. If you are offended by pats of butter wrapped in foil and "warm" bread that seems suspiciously microwaved, stay home for sure. But if you want to eat delicious eggplant parmesan, then go!

Raleigh certainly has plenty of restaurants worth checking out. I do not understand the parochial mindset that keeps Durham people in Durham, Raleigh people in Raleigh, and Chapel Hill people in Chapel Hill. Get in your car and drive, especially if you want to try something new.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Oxtail soup

The 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking is a lot more fun to read than the 1997 revision. Granted it has recipes for things that would never darken the door of the contemporary cook's kitchen, like sea turtle, bear, opossum and raccoon, but that's what makes it exciting reading!

In case you ever need to fix a bear, be sure you remove all of the fat promptly because it turns rancid very quickly. Then you can marinade it for 24 hours and prepare as you would a beef pot roast. Who knew?

Well, I've not been bear hunting recently but I did decide to consult the 1975 hardback of Joy for an oxtail soup recipe after spying some oxtail in the butcher counter at Compare Supermarket. Oxtail, by the way, is a lovely and impressive description for cow's tail that's been sectioned at the joints with a surprising amount of meat attached.

Next time I will double this recipe because it made only about 3 large bowls of soup that I've had as main course for the past three meals.

Here is the recipe from 1975 ed. Joy of Cooking, page 154 (I don't know what page in the 1997 ed.):

2lbs of oxtail
1/2 c sliced onions
2 T butter
8 c water
1 1/2 t salt
4 peppercorns

Brown the oxtail and onions in the butter. Then add the water, peppercorns and salt. Simmer for 4 1/2 hours.

Add to the oxtail broth:

1/4 c. diced carrots
1/2 c. diced celery
1 bay leaf
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1/2 c. canned diced tomatoes
1/4 c. barley
1 t. dried thyme, basil or marjoram (I like thyme)

Cook for 30 minutes. Chill overnight and degrease. When ready to serve, warm the soup up and slowly add a brown roux of 1 T flour cooked with 2 T butter until dark golden in color. Correct the seasonings of salt and pepper.

If desired, add 1/4 c. sherry to soup before serving.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

How NOT to melt chocolate

Tonight I need to take something sweet to a party. I decided to make some chocolate peanut butter bars which are basically a peanut butter and brown sugar base covered in melted milk and dark chocolate and butter. How hard could this be? The recipe, from Nigella Lawson, doesn't require any cooking except for melting the chocolates and butter. The recipe suggested microwaving the chocolate for a couple of minutes to melt it. I was a little skeptical because chocolate burns very easily in the microwave but I thought I'd give it a try. What an unmitigated disaster that was!

I must confess to having a love / hate (well mostly hate) relationship with the microwave. I see it as an overpriced, large, leftover warmer that is frankly rather scary.

Melting chocolate, especially expensive dark choc that I don't want to ruin, requires a gentle touch. The temperature must be controlled or the chocolate will move past the melted stage to a glop of burnt, inedible goo. I do not have much luck in controlling the temp of food in the microwave. Maybe more experienced people do. Who knows. I prefer the old-fashioned bain-marie technique for melting chocolate. I improvise a bain-marie with the pans in my cupboard by putting some water in the bottom of a pan, letting it come to a rolling boil, and then putting another pan on top of it to melt the chocolate. If you do this, be sure not to let the boiling water touch the bottom of the pan on top.

Since the peanut butter bars didn't turn out so well, I may try some macadamia nut cookies.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Vin Rouge: Bouillabaisse

Last night a friend and I went to the French bistro Vin Rouge for dinner again. My friend had trout amandine which he enjoyed very much the last time we went. I branched out and ordered the bouillabaisse. A very generous use of saffron enriched the delicious broth. The soup included skate, shrimp, mussels, and clams. It was topped with a rouille, a Provençal garnish of pureed peppers, olive oil, garlic and breadcrumbs. The bouillabaisse was so good that I forgot my manners and dipped bread into the broth once I had eaten most of the fish and shellfish.

The sommelier recommended a light red from the Loire.

The service was good. We had a lovely time. I'm so glad that Vin Rouge has improved in the past couple of years. The atmosphere is lovely too.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A good read

I'm reading a good book about food: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It's very informative. I had a fairly good understanding of the vagaries of industrial cattle, pig, and chicken farming, which is why I try to buy local meat from the farmers' market, but I had no idea about industrial corn farming! Pollan basically calls us fritos on legs because of our large consumption of processed corn.

My other favorite food book is Salt: A History of the World by Mark Kurlansky. It might actually be the only book our dipwad head of state has read in eight years, but don't let that deter you.

Monday, January 14, 2008

White bean and greens soup

It's a bit on the cold side, isn't it? Soup is just the ticket for this weather. I really like Italian white bean and escarole soup so it inspired me. Any green works for this dish but how long it cooks depends on which type of green. Spinach only needs to cook a few minutes. Tough greens like collards and rapini need to cook about 45 minutes. I'm not sure an Italian cook would use collards, but I couldn't find any rapini or escarole and the store was out of chard.

Here is the recipe:

6 to 8 cups of chicken stock
2 to 3 cloves of chopped garlic
a healthy pinch of red pepper flakes
a bunch of greens, remove the thick stems and chop
two cans of white beans, drained and rinsed
salt and pepper to taste
garnish with grated Parmesan

Put the chicken stock into a pot and add the chopped garlic and pepper flakes to season the broth. Bring to a gentle boil and add the chopped greens. Cook over a gentle boil until the greens are tender. I used collards which need to cook for at least 45 minutes in order to become tender and to lose the bitterness. Add the white beans and simmer gently until they are warmed through. Adjust seasonings. Sprinkle with cheese if you like. You might even drizzle some nice quality olive oil over it.

My cat likes collards so I saved some for his bowl.

I may try a carrot soup later in the week. Or possibly a curried butternut squash soup.

Sunday, January 13, 2008 the tropics

Sorry to have been away for so long. I was recovering from strep throat and then went to Hawaii (Big Island) to dive and to hang out with my parents who were there for a conference.

The Big Island is an outstanding place with diverse climates and gorgeous natural wonders like the volcanoes, waterfalls, and a reef system. It has been on my list of places to go for quite some time. Apparently it is more laid back, more low key with fewer tourists, and less expensive than the other islands. I've heard that Maui is basically McBeach nowadays but I cannot say from personal experience.

The Big Island was still expensive and Kona is kind of an eyesore with places like Hooters and Bubba Gumps. Who travels 5,000 miles to eat at Bubba Gumps? When I go on vacation I don't want to see the stuff that I can find a mile down the road from my house.

We ate lots of good things. We went to local farmers' markets to pick up fresh fruit whenever we could. We ate a lot of tangerines, bananas (small finger bananas), rambutans, passionfruit, and macadamia nuts. I like the Hawaiian word for passionfruit: lilikoi. Passionfruit juice, tea, and sorbet are everywhere. It's so good! Rambutans are like lychees. My favorite dessert was some rambutan ice cream!

The best food we ate was grilled chicken that we picked up at a roadside stand. It was also inexpensive, by Hawaiian standards, at $7/plate. We ate great Korean food too in a little strip mall restaurant in the town of Waimea. The food at the resorts was fairly forgettable and outrageously expensive.

Two places are worth mentioning. One is Cafe Pesto and the other is the Harbor Grill. Both are located in the Kawaihae harbor area. The food at both places is imaginative and delicious using local ingredients and fresh catch. Neither place has much of a view unless you consider a dock for container ships a view. So all you pay for is the food and service. At Harbor Grill I had pan seared mahi mahi in a citrus beurre blanc. At Cafe Pesto I had a fish called walu in Hawaiian served over a salad of mixed greens. Walu is a delicious buttery fish from the tropics.

The Big Island would be an exciting place for a home cook. The diverse climate offers everything from fresh tomatos, berries, and greens to durian, taro, and pineapple. People can even grow their own coffee! I wonder what it would be like to grown and roast my own coffee.

If you dive and ever head out to Hawaii, I highly recommend Kohala Divers in part because they are not affiliated with a resort , in part because I could drive my car right up to the boat dock and throw aboard my 50lbs of dive gear, and in part because one of the dive leaders is a young woman in what is still a very male-dominated field. GIRL POWER!

I tried to take surfing lessons too, but the waves were not suitable for beginners so the lessons were cancelled both days I went over to the surf school. Maybee next time.

So that's it. I'm home. My cupboards are bare except for Kona coffee and mac nuts so I'd better head to the store. Wonder what I should cook...

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Kelly's Durham Dining Guide

I made this list of good, local places to eat for some newcomers to town. The list is not meant to be comprehensive although I think it covers most of the good places. If not, let me know what I've forgotten.


Q-Shack, 2514 University Drive
Excellent NC style BBQ as well as ribs and
Texas style brisket BBQ. Delicious sweet potato fries, collards, and macaroni and cheese. On the lighter side, they have a great Cobb salad. The best comfort meal in town is their Texas pie: brisket chili served atop fritos or fries with onions, cheese, avocado, lettuce and scallions. Serves beer.

Bullocks, 3330 Quebec Dr off of Hillsborough
Durham institution for NC style BBQ. Delicious hush puppies. Fried chicken is good too. No beer. Baptists don’t serve beer in their BBQ joints.


Cosmic Cantina, 1920 1/2 Perry St
This hole-in-the-wall upstairs on
Perry St has simple but great burritos and quesadillas. It’s usually full of Duke students. Get your food to go unless it is warm enough to sit outside on their patio.

Toreros, 800 W Main St
Standard Mexican fare but better than other places. Good vegetarian options like the bean tostado and spinach enchiladas.

Tonali, 3642 Shannon Rd Ste 1
Gourmet Mexican cuisine using fresh ingredients. Menu changes often. Warm and inviting décor. No velvet sombreros or bull horns hanging on the walls. Delicious fish Veracruzana.

Cafes and bars with good food:
Foster’s Market, 2694 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd
Great for breakfast or lunch. Foster’s has a lot of outside seating when the weather is nice. Good coffee and a selection of wines, candies, bakery items, and other sundries. Very good ginger cookies, scones, and macaroons.

Guglhupf Bakery and Café, 2706 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd
Bakery sells fresh, artisan breads and pastries daily. Delicious croissants, foccacia, and muesli bread.

Federal, 914 W Main St
Great selection of beers on tap and in bottles. The food is much better than standard bar food. The daily specials are always excellent and a good value. The fries are great and seasoned with garlic and parsley. The grilled cheese sandwich cannot be beat, especially with a side of fries.


Thai Café, 2501 University Dr Ste 10
The first Thai restaurant in
Durham opened only a couple of years ago. Warm, inviting décor with full bar. Crab angels are a yummy starter. Good Pad Thai, tom yum, and all dishes can be made with tofu.

Pao Lim, 2505 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd
Pacific rim cuisine served. Delicious dal soup as a starter and very good salmon dishes.

Twisted Noodle, 4201 University Dr
Another Thai restaurant that opened a few months ago. The food is better in quality and value than Thai Café but the atmosphere and bar are not as inviting.

Sitar Indian Palace, 3117 Shannon Rd
Best Indian restaurant in
Durham. Indian buffet served on weekends.


Rue Cler, 401 E Chapel Hill St
Coffee shop and bakery items served throughout the day. Go for beignets and coffee for a very unhealthy but tasty breakfast. Weekends brunch is served. In the evenings Rue Cler offers a fixe prix, three course menu for $25. It changes often. The standard menu features traditional French bistro fare like steaks frites.

Vin Rouge, Ninth Street and Hillsborough
Love the croque monsieur and escargot! Pricey but good menu. Dark, sexy atmosphere.

Italian and pizza:

Pizza Palace, Guess Road
The oldest pizza restaurant in
Durham moved to a new location on Guess Road, but it is still a dive. The pizza is great though, especially the ones with white sauces and garlic. The crusts are thin and crisp.

Cinelli’s Ristorante, 607 Broad St
Atmosphere is not great and neither is the service, but the pizza is good and so are dishes like the carbonara tortellini, pasta with vodka sauce, and pasta Cinelli with white beans and escarole.

Pop’s, 810 W Peabody St
Upscale Italian in an old warehouse space serves delicious mussels, gourmet pizzas, inventive pasta dishes, and meat dishes like chicken cooked under a brick. Good wine list and tasty desserts. Generally the service is very good.

Satisfactions, Main St in Brightleaf Square
A large beer selection and good pizza. It's a fun place to go watch some hoops, drink a beer, and have some pizza with friends.

Nouveau Southern:

Piedmont, 401 Foster St Ste B2
The chef is known for his preparations of pork and beef. The portions are huge. For brunch on the weekends order shrimp and grits or the pork chops with eggs.

Watt’s Grocery, 1116 Broad Street
The newest upscale restaurant in
Durham. The chef uses fresh, local ingredients for preparing updated North Carolina cuisine. The atmosphere is modern and warm. Brunch is served on the weekends.

Alivia's, Main Street and Gregson
The best coffee in town thanks to a very impressive Italian coffee machine and a supply of great beans. It's good for breakfast and lunch. Dinner is pricey but usually pretty good. Service isn't exactly stellar. Brunch on the weekends is a small menu but good.

Fine dining:

Magnolia Grill, 1002 Ninth St
The crown jewel of fine dining in the Triangle region. Go if you parents are paying or for a special occasion. Ben Barker, the head chef and owner, is most competent with starters and fish. His wife Karen is the pastry chef who does wonderful creations. The service is very good.

Nana’s, 2514 University Dr
On par with Magnolia Grill as one of the leading restaurants in the region, Nana’s has been a Durham institution since 1992. The chef and owner, Scott Howell is a top chef in the Triangle. For a special dinner, order the chef’s tasting menu and the wine pairings. It’s also fun to sit in the bar for a glass of wine and a salad or a dessert. Also good service.

What's good for a sore throat?

Sorry for not blogging of late. After returning to Durham from spending Christmas with my family, I have succumbed to strep throat.

I've been using it as an opportunity to eat Hagen Dazs. I found a great flavor I've never tried before: Sticky Toffee Pudding! It is vanilla ice cream with brown sugar cake and toffee swirls. MMMM.

I have also been eating soup but I am too tired to fix it myself so I've been running down to Thai Cafe for tom yum. The broth is not only tasty but it feels good on my throat. Unfortunately one symptom of strep, besides sore throat, is lose of appetite. I wasn't hungry enough to eat all of the shrimp in the soup, but my cats really enjoyed it as a treat!

Hopefully I will feel like cooking and eating again soon.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Eve: slow cooking Italian

Happy New Year's! I hope 2008 is a good one for all.

Yesterday I made a slow cooking meat ragu to go with pasta for a dinner party last night. A dinner party is my favorite way to herald in another year. Nothing beats good food and good company.

The meat sauce turned out great. Three hours of cooking turns simple, fairly inexpensive ingredients into a rich, luxurious sauce. I had to go to three stores to find pancetta. Kroger over by Home Depot off of 15-501 had it. You can substitute bacon for pancetta in a pinch. The pancetta and proscuitto are the most expensive ingredients. While they do add a lot of flavor, they could be omitted or replaced with bacon.

I adapted the recipe from Italian: Slow and Savory. I doubled the batch in order to feed a crowd. I think this would easily serve 10.

6 T butter
6 T olive oil
2 stalks of celery chopped
2 carrots chopped
2 onions chopped
2 cloves of garlic minced
4 oz dried porcini rehydrated in 1 c water and chopped
1 lb beef chuck or brisket chopped
1 lb pork shoulder chopped
4 oz pancetta or bacon
4 oz proscuitto
4 T tomato paste diluted in a bit of water
1/2 c. tomato puree
2 c. red wine
2 c. beef stock
2 c. milk
salt and pepper to taste
unsalted butter
Parmesan cheese

Cook the veggies and garlic in the olive oil and butter until they are golden, about 10 minutes. Add the meats and cook until they are no longer pink, about 15 minutes. Add tomato paste, tomato puree and wine. Cook about 15 minutes until the wine is mostly absorbed. Add milk and stock. Simmer on low heat for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Stir occasionally and add more stock if needed. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve over pasta and garnish the sauce w/ a pat of butter and some grated Parmesan cheese.