Alfa Road Trip Day 5: Grady’s Barbecue, North Carolina (EATS)

August 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

  
This small, scrubbed clean family operation is an hour and 20 minutes from Raleigh and an hour inside the middle of nowhere. It’s run by a wife and husband team, Gerri and Steve Grady. 

  
We had the chopped pork with two vegetables. The pork is, according to ‘cue experts, an exemplar of eastern North Carolina style ‘cue: chopped fine with bits of skin, which had the texture of well-cooked chicken cartilage (something I think is delectable, for those of us who eat all the animal parts).

  
When I saw the option of a veggie plate on the menu, I wondered who in the world would come to a barbecue place to order vegetables? But then I ate a spoonful of the butter beans and got it. They’re the best I have ever had, cooked with fatty ham hock, resulting in a creamy, salty concoction I could eat over a bowl of rice.

  
We also ordered the squash, as it was taped onto the menu, which signaled to me it was a late addition thanks to fresh squash on hand.
  
The yellow summer squash was caramelized with onions to sweetness and had plenty of black pepper to add a spicy kick. We ended with perfect sweet potato pie. The filling was creamy yet light, bright orange, and just sweet enough. Gerri makes the sides; Steve makes the ‘cue and the pie.
  
When we went up to the counter window to tell Gerri how delicious everything was — especially those butter beans — she said she’s known around here for her butter beans. She insisted with a smile that we take her business cards, noting she does catering (smart), sign the book (especially when she found out we’d come all the way from NYC), and come back soon. Can’t wait.

  
Info:

Open only 10am-3pm or 4pm depending on the day so plan accordingly

3096 Arrington Bridge Road, Dudley, NC 28333. 919-735-7243

More to the story at the NC BBQ Society

Our First Alfa Road Trip: Eastern Shore, Maryland

July 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

We’ve been wanting to go on a road trip in the 1960 Alfa Romeo that the hubby restored from a rusted shell back in high school. This summer we finally took the plunge in this beauty.

  
We spent our first two days driving along pretty country roads and relaxing on the eastern shore of Maryland. We visited historic Chestertown, where we saw the hamlet’s oldest house, circa 1739 and owned by Sarah and Esau Watkins. An elderly lady walking her dog called out when she saw us, “I like your hat!” Three minutes later, we saw her again and she said, “I still like your hat.” Friendly folks!

  
We drove on to the tiny town of St. Michaels, on a claw of land jutting out into the Chesapeake Bay, along the tranquil waters of the Miles River. After a breakfast of a Miles River omelet, stuffed with Maryland lump crab, spinach and tomatoes… 

 

…we walked the gardens at the Inn at Perry Cabin, observing our insect friends… 

 

…picking blackberries and admiring the state’s flower (the black eyed susan) and the zinnia garden. 

 

We lazed about on the lawn and admired the hidden greenhouse…

  
…before walking to town to eat our five o’clock snack of a wood-fired margherita pizza and rose.

 
For dinner, we ventured to t at the General Store, where we dined on deliciously charred peaches on arugula with Marcona almonds and blue cheese, Maryland-made sage sausage atop mashed potatoes, and biscotti ice cream made in nearby Oxford with a raspberry tart. We also sampled the t’s teas; Matthew went for Slim and Tone, while I went for chamomile sweetened with local honey. An excellent start to the road trip.
  

Blackberry Farm in Pictures

June 19, 2011 § 12 Comments

I’m spending this summer in Nashville, Tennessee, helping the new Commissioner of Education to create a three-year strategic plan to improve educational outcomes for all K-12 students in the state. Although the work will be intense and I’m away from my San Francisco garden, I’m soaking up what I can of the food culture here in the Volunteer State.

First up: Blackberry Farm near Knoxville, a celebration of locally-produced food, where the hubby, our friends, Jim and Katie, and I ate an enormous amount of Benton’s bacon, gorgeous tomatoes and other fresh produce grown on-site, and as you likely guessed, the best BLT I’ve ever sunk my teeth into. For you, our time in pictures…

The barn, where we indulged in many dinners and bourbons

The garden where the produce begins

What's the chicken thinkin'? Will my eggs be breakfast or will I be brunch?

Beautiful beans

John, Master Gardener, picking chard for our next meal

Volunteer sunflowers in the Volunteer State

Oregano and bachelor's buttons, whose petals will be tweezed for garnish

Serious tools for serious meals

Charming, unique and lovely

Is There A Crisis in Home Cooking?

November 3, 2010 § 9 Comments

Is it true that fewer and fewer of us are cooking at home?

Recently I read a poll by Harris Interactive finding that nearly 60% of Americans eat at least half of their meals out each week.

And last week, I attended a conversation between Mark Bittman, The New York Times food writer, and Ruth Reichl, author of multiple food memoirs and former editor-in-chief of the sadly now-defunct Gourmet. The dialogue encompassed a number of topics about food today, but the thing that struck me most was a conversation about this strange dichotomy in our society, where on the one hand we’re more food-obsessed than ever — watching shows like Top Chef, salivating over food porn and dishing about the hot restaurant in town — yet on the other, fewer people are cooking at home, from scratch, on a regular basis. Bittman and Reichl noted that people seem to feel that if they can’t make the restaurant-quality dishes they see on the Food Network, what’s the point?

But the thing is, that’s not the point. Home cooks generally don’t, and maybe even can’t, cook like restaurant chefs (I certainly don’t!): they don’t have a line of cooks, each focused on some minute detail like shaving carrot ribbons, they don’t have all day to put dinner on the table and they don’t have a restaurant-grade kitchen and clean-up staff.

The point of cooking at home is not to feel like you’re in a restaurant (because if it is, why not just go to one?), but to create food, from scratch, that is so much better for us, in myriad ways:

  • It’s cheaper and healthier
  • It strengthens your connections, to what it takes to make good food, to recipes that are favorites of family and friends, to your partner or child that’s helping you prepare and serve the meal (or who’s at least enjoying eating it!)
  • If you buy local ingredients, it helps to sustain your economy and community

At the farmers’ market

To be fair, we’re all busy, and it does take time to shop, prep, cook and present a meal. You can’t cook food from scratch in 10 minutes or less, unless you’re eating a salad with few ingredients, and even then — you’d have to be pretty speedy to wash, chop and assemble that fast.

But it is possible to cook healthy weeknight meals in 30-45 minutes or less from scratch, especially if you have access to fresh, local ingredients that don’t need much fussing to taste good. And, if you eat less meat, which many argue is better for you and the environment (click here for more info on that topic), that cuts down on cooking time too.

Romanesco broccoli, Dirty Girl Farm stand

Spurred on by the Bittman-Reichl discussion, I wanted to share:

  • How we menu plan and shop for the week
  • Our actual menu plan for this week — plus a link to a lot of other menu plans
  • A recipe for one of the meatless menu plan dinners that can be made in 30 minutes from scratch — and that even my husband, who generally insists on eating animal protein at every meal, enjoys (I’ll share this in a post later this week; this one is already quite long!)

I’m posting this now for three reasons:

1 — I’d love to know if the Harris poll, Bittman and Reichl are right — are we facing a home cooking crisis where fewer of us are cooking from scratch? Or do you cook at home regularly?

2 — If you don’t cook at home regularly, I’m hoping this post and the tools within it might inspire you to plan and cook some healthy, simple and tasty meals at home this week or next

3 — If you do cook at home regularly, I’m hoping this post might inspire you to go to the farmers’ market this week, try something new and bring it home for dinner. (If you live in S.F., you could head to one of the markets listed here.)

Winter squash at the Castro Farmers’ Market

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MENU PLANNING AND FOOD SHOPPING

Here are the three easy steps we take weekly to plan and shop for our meals:

1 — Plan how many meals I need to make: Every Saturday morning, I use this template (Menu Plan & Farmers Market List) to map out how many meals we’ll eat at home. Some weeks, you might be traveling, or have work or social lunch or dinner plans, so this helps you see how much food you need to buy and cook so that it doesn’t go to waste.

2 — Go to the farmers’ market: I like to see what’s in season before I decide what to cook. While it may seem weird to go shopping without deciding your ingredients first, this method leads you to eat what’s freshest that week and to try new things (for example, we tried sunchokes this week — amazing! More on that soon). And by using the meal plan template, you know the volume of food you need to buy (e.g., 10 servings of fruit; vegetables for two people for five dinners).

3 — Decide on dishes and go to the grocery store: Armed with a bagful of produce, I write down in the meal planning template what dishes to make. So, if I nabbed a great end-of-the-season eggplant, I’ll make Indian baingan bharta if we’re going meatless, or moussaka if we want some meat. Then I’ll write a grocery list to buy the remaining ingredients (dairy, eggs, meat, cereals) — and I’ll write them in the order I walk through the store so I can get in and out in 30 minutes. Here’s the completed menu plan template and grocery list: Menu Plan Completed & Grocery List.

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ACTUAL MENU PLANS

You saw above our menu plan with what we’re eating this week. You’ll see that I usually cook enough for dinners so that we have leftovers for lunch. Here’s a link to This Week For Dinner, a blog where the writer posts her weekly menu plans every Sunday and her readers post theirs (click here). Lots of ideas!

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How many times per week do you cook at home?

How do you approach menu planning and food shopping?

Candy’s Capacity to Connect – Food Traditions (Part 2 of 2)

October 31, 2010 § 16 Comments

Much to my disappointment, my husband and I don’t get trick-or-treaters at our house. It’s perched atop a steep hill; you have to lean into the incline and be in pretty good shape to reach the peak without huffing and puffing. Not exactly an easy feat for a five-year-old in a costume carrying a heavy bucket of candy.

But we went for a walk today, on Halloween, and we saw our fill of trick-or-treaters with their parents, siblings, friends, cousins. Luke Skywalkers and elephants and witches zigzagged from door to door, excited and hopped up on sugar, collecting even more candy in their pumpkin-shaped pails. It was fun to observe these kids keeping a tradition alive, having a blast with their families and friends, and to see the adults’ inner children — and their own creative costumes — emerge.

In this age of rising obesity and diabetes rates, much of the discussion around candy and refined sugar is about how awful it is. And I agree that too much of anything isn’t good for you. But most things in moderation are fine. And with the holiday season now in full swing, there’s nothing like biting into a delectable confection — whether it’s a Milky Way or home-made toffee — to conjure up memories of traditions that you’ve shared with family or friends.

One of our family traditions: my mother-in-law, Anne Lynn, creates 350 pounds of Christmas candy every year.

There are many awesome things about this tradition, even beyond that 350 number. For example:

The 30 or so varieties — including butter brickle (hard toffee coated in chocolate and walnuts), peanut butter cups, pretzel cups (crushed pretzels in white chocolate), chocolate-covered cherries, chocolate-dipped pretzels, butterscotch-coconut marshmallows and Christmas-tree-shaped peppermint patties. Anne Lynn has a core set of recipes that she makes every year, and she experiments with a few new ones based on flavor combinations she encounters in chocolate shops while traveling.

Making pretzel cups

The sheer volume of production that’s somehow executed in six weeks in your average home kitchen, with a four-burner stove and a normal amount of counter space. But once candy time comes, the kitchen and dining room are given over completely to confection creating, and as my mother-in-law says, “You’ll be really lucky if you get to eat anything but chocolate.” She’s not kidding. It’s a good thing they have a grill out back.

The straightforward system Anne Lynn uses to determine who she’s going to give the candy to. Every year, she gets out her yellow legal pad with last year’s list. Anyone who was particularly helpful, or kind, to her or her family gets added — even if it’s the woman at the department store she met only once, but who went out of her way to assist. Anyone who didn’t write a thank-you note gets crossed off — even if it’s a long-time friend. Simple, efficient and based on the Golden Rule.

But perhaps the most awesome thing is seeing how many connections and fond memories have been formed over the years because of the candy. Thirty years ago, Anne Lynn’s elderly next-door neighbors invited her into their kitchen to teach her how they made their Christmas candy. She made half a pound that year. Anne Lynn carried on their tradition, keeping their varieties — and now that they’ve passed away, in some small way, them — alive.

When Anne Lynn expanded from half a pound a year to ten, her mother would come over, and they’d crank out the ten pounds in a single day. Now, her brother and sister-in-law, kids, nephew, niece, their significant others and friends travel from as close as a few miles away to as far as thousands of miles away to help out and learn in the candy kitchen.

The master chef teaching her nephew to make peanut clusters

Convening at the candy kitchen is a chance for family and friends to re-connect to Anne Lynn and to each other, and in some cases, to form new bonds.

Teamwork: sprinkling walnuts from the bowl onto butter brickle

Friends of ours who’ve never met Anne Lynn but are smart enough to write thank-you notes receive the candy for Christmas, and when they finally meet Anne Lynn, there’s an immediate spark. When we wanted a family tradition integrated into our wedding, Anne Lynn was gracious enough to make a few trays of candy, and our guests still talk about how much they enjoyed the sweets.

Anne Lynn’s chocolates at our wedding

As the holidays approach and many of you prepare to drive or fly to visit relatives or dear friends, consider this:

Is there a food tradition you remember fondly? Your dad’s deep-fried turkey, your grandma’s mushroom stuffing, your aunt’s pumpkin bread with a cream cheese swirl, your friend’s cardamom cookies?

Could you ask that person to teach you to make it when you see them? Could you make the time to reconnect with a tradition and with a loved one, carrying an old custom, a new memory and a stronger bond into the future?


A Tour of Two Food Traditions: Chocolate & Pizza (Part 1 of 2)

October 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

I love learning about the foods my friends and family enjoy: what they grew up eating and how that’s informed whether and how they cook and what they eat today; tastes that were formed as children or emerged or shifted in adulthood; dishes and traditions served at holiday tables and the nostalgia and appetite that float to the surface as they recount those tales. Occasionally, people share with me their grandmother’s cookbooks, some neatly organized into binders, others collections of scribbles in yellowing notebooks. In Italy, people share their family’s limoncello recipe.

Hearing these stories can give you insight into not just people’s eating habits, but also into the people themselves — the food and family traditions that they’ve sustained across generations, and in turn, their values and passions.

In Italy, I was struck by seeing, time and time again, food traditions that had been preserved, often within the same families, for 75 to 200 or more years.

Today I invite you to experience two of those Italian traditions…

THE OLDEST SWEETS SHOP IN ITALY

You’ve arrived at Milan airport, bleary-eyed after an overnight flight from JFK on which you didn’t sleep much because the guy next to you got a little (okay, a lot) drunk and talked to himself quite loudly for the entire seven hours. But excitement overcomes your fatigue, because this morning you’re driving 2 1/2 hours to Bologna to visit the oldest sweets shop in Italy, opened in 1796: Antica Casa Majani.

You’re armed with a GPS device, but there’s this curious glitch where the names on the device don’t seem to match any of the street signs. You get lost multiple times and at one point drive smack-dab into the middle of a pedestrian piazza (where none of the perambulators were perturbed by a car in their midst), but you laugh it all off, determined to find the shop. Then, thanks to an extremely kind hotel concierge who draws you a map and, perhaps lacking confidence in your ability to wind your way down side streets successfully, walks you to your destination. Finally, you duck under a stone archway and float into a cloud of hazelnut and chocolate.

The Majani shop in Bologna

There you manage to communicate with the shopkeeper in your broken Italian and animated hand gestures, sampling their famous Fiat candy, first created in 1911 to celebrate the launch of the Fiat Tipo 4. The traditional version is a cube of chocolate layered with hazelnut and almond cream; they also sell one shaped like a little car, as well as bark-like scorza, the oldest existing form of edible chocolate, and bars of hazelnut-studded chocolate.

Majani was among the first chocolatiers to produce solid chocolate. Given the attention to detail and commitment to quality evident in the neatly-kept, gorgeously arranged shop and the candies themselves, you can see why Majani hasn’t changed their chocolate-making technique since the Tipo 4 was a new car.

THE FAMILY PIZZERIA

Not wanting to drive in Southern Italy…

Traffic in a massive intersection with no stoplights. Awesome.

…you hop on a train from Tuscany to Naples for the next leg of your trip. People warned you about the insane driving (true), the garbage mounds on the sidewalk (true) and the mafia (untested!), but it’s not so different than NYC. And, you’re only going to Naples for two reasons: (1) as a base camp to visit the Pompeii ruins 30 minutes away and (2) to eat a really good pizza.

After seven hours trekking around Pompeii, you’re tired and hungry. You walk a few blocks from your hotel and take a chance on a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, Ristorante Marino.

You and your traveling companion order two glasses of the house red, and your waiter (who, you later learn, is the owner/manager) advises you to order a carafe; it’s cheaper. It arrives in a ceramic jug. You start to wonder if this is going to be like one of those places that serves beer in buckets in the U.S.

The Marino wine pitcher

But the wine is a good solid one, and all of the other customers are clearly locals. When your pizza arrives, you are not disappointed. The crust is impossibly thin and tender in the middle and expertly cooked on the edges (not too charred, not too raw) to a crispy-chewy consistency, with a pleasing dash of salt that enhances the flavors of the simple and fresh toppings. And the generously-sized pizza is only four euros!

Pizza with cherry tomatoes, basil and mozzarella

The pizza maker, Ciro, and the owner/manager, Luigi, see you snapping photos of your meal and naturally, their interest is piqued. You learn that the pizzeria was founded in 1934 and originally Luigi’s grandfather’s; now, his father and uncle own it while he manages it. They invite you inside to watch how they assemble a pizza…

Ciro, the master pizza maker, doing his thing

…and deftly slide it into the wood-fired oven to cook for just a few minutes before serving it, piping hot, to customers.

The apprentice placing the pizza in the oven

The passion for making perfect pizza is palpable. In fact, Luigi tells you that the apprentice came all the way from Japan to learn how to make pizza here. Luigi brings you one, then two, glasses of his family’s limoncello on the house, asks if you’ll email your pictures to them and welcomes you back anytime. You leave feeling a little bit like family.

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This is Part 1 in a two-part post about keeping food traditions alive. Check back later this week for Part 2 — a tradition my family is keeping alive. It involves 300 pounds of chocolate.

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Antica Casa Majani, on Via Barberia at Via Tagliapietre near Piazza Galileo, Bologna. The best landmark is Piazza Maggiore, about 6 blocks away.

Ristorante Pizzeria Marino, Via Santa Lucia 11/81/20, Naples, Italy. 081-764-0280.

Fortune Sides With Those Who Dare — What I Discovered at Frog Hollow Farm

September 19, 2010 § 1 Comment

It was 59 degrees in San Francisco, the city shrouded in mist and fog. But as soon as I got on Route 242 at Walnut Creek, heading north to Concord and then east to Brentwood, I entered a completely different microclimate: the block of gray fog gave way to a bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, and the sun warmed the air to a toasty 80 degrees.

I drove through what looked like a standard-issue, nicer Bay Area suburb, passing by a Starbucks and a golf course, before heading east out of town on Route 4. Quickly, shopping plazas gave way to farm fields, quilts of green lining the two-lane road. I turned right just past a cemetery and rumbled down a narrow gravel lane, following an irrigation canal to a circular drive that announced the presence of a two-story shed-like building.

I’d arrived at Frog Hollow Farm for my tour with Farmer Al, which all started with my solo attendance at the Food Heroes event a week prior.

I didn’t know what to expect. And, since I wasn’t a journalist writing an “official” story on the farm, or someone in the food business with a particular learning objective, I honestly didn’t know how to approach the visit. But when Farmer Al invited me to hop onto his golf cart for a leisurely ride around the 133-acre orchard, I eased into simply being me: asking lots of questions whose answers I was curious about.

Somehow, two hours passed, apple pie was shared and the farm’s marketing director’s birthday was celebrated before I left to drive back home. I learned a lot about what it takes to run an organic orchard in California. But the biggest thing I learned is applicable in any career and life path: how important it is to take risks; how true it is that fortune sides with those who dare.

Farmer Al has achieved what many devotees of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and participants in today’s dialogue about the “corporate-ized” food system worry is extremely difficult to accomplish: he runs a profitable, organic, small family farm, and has for years. He sells a bulk of his produce locally via groceries, farmers’ markets and a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program (plus a portion through mail order). Farmer Al’s view is that his farm is profitable in large part because of his willingness to take risks.

“Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.” –Louis Pasteur

First risk: Going into farming at all. Farmer Al’s training was in education, not agriculture. He wanted to go back to the land, and 34 years later, he grows and sells, as Frog Hollow Farm’s tagline says, “legendary fruit” (and in my opinion, the plums and pluots, now in season, live up to their claim). Now, Farmer Al is the first to say that he got lucky on the terroir (the special characteristics that the geography imparts to his produce) of the plot of land he chose for the farm. But as Pasteur said, sometimes discovering the next thing in your life happens when you’re ready to turn an accident into an opportunity.

Personally, I have experienced this first-hand: if I hadn’t decided to leave my last job to figure out how to create a more balanced, joyful and fuller life, I never would have discovered my newfound passion for edible gardening or rediscovered my love of cooking and writing. I didn’t plan to love gardening or get back into cooking and writing, but I did purposefully keep my mind open and ready for whatever might capture my imagination. And if I hadn’t, I’d never be writing this very line.

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” –Seneca

Second risk: Farmer Al leaves his fruit on the tree, on average, three days longer than other farmers do to allow an extra 5-10% of sugar to form so that when customers buy his fruit, it has a riper, sweeter flavor, distinguishing it from much of the other fruit on the market. Most farmers will pick sooner so they don’t risk waste from fruit dropping off the tree or becoming too ripe to sell.

This idea has been a theme of sorts for me over the past eight months that I’ve taken off of work. There are so many things I didn’t know how to do eight months ago — shoot a gun, make and can jams and preserves, do a headstand, make a good pie crust, bake tres leches cake, grow vegetables, figure out creative ways to defend my strawberries from the critters — that I probably wouldn’t have learned to do if I had approached each opportunity to do them with the mindset, “Why?” instead of what I did, which was, “Why not?”.

“There is the risk you cannot afford to take, [and] there is the risk you cannot afford not to take.” –Peter Drucker

Third risk: Farmer Al vertically integrated his operation. Typically, 75% of the fruit grown can be sold wholesale to groceries and direct-to-consumer through farmers’ markets and the CSA. Much of the remaining 25% is perfectly good fruit, but because it may have a surface scar or a slight bruise, or be a bit over-ripe, it can’t be sold through those outlets. So Farmer Al spent the funds to build a gleaming commercial kitchen to craft conserves, jams, olive oils, tarts and dried fruit products — meaning that what would otherwise be waste is transformed into tasty and value-added products.

For me, not taking the risk of taking a year off of work would have been dangerous. Not spending days learning about S.F. microclimates and the fact that artichokes grow a heck of a lot better in this city than do tomatoes, or trying different pie crust recipes until I found one that was buttery in taste and flaky in texture, would have meant significantly less happiness in my life. And ultimately, given that we all have this one life to live, can any of us afford to forgo the small joys we can discover and incorporate into even the busiest of daily lives?

“The universe will reward you for taking risks on its behalf.” –Shakti Gawain

Now, let’s be clear: while Frog Hollow Farm is profitable, Farmer Al doesn’t appear to be a wealthy man by U.S. capitalist standards. He works hard, and he’s plowed his profits back into his business to enable its continued growth and success; the trade-off is that he, his wife and two kids still live in a very modest trailer on the farm. But, at least from the perspective of an outsider who’s spent a few hours with him, he’s rich in other ways: he’s built a reservoir of agricultural and managerial knowledge; he has his health and a lovely family (his wife, Becky, runs the commercial kitchen and makes a mean pie crust); and he’s found — and cultivates — his calling in life.

“The joy is being part of the full circle of creating food and sharing it with people.” –Farmer Al

Yeah…I can’t sum it up much better than that.

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What risks have you — or do you WANT to — take?
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