Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Kiawah Island/ Charleston Gems

Why Kiawah Island is Special

Kiawah has the most natural beaches I have ever seen. It has wide beaches and preserved natural areas. The interior is covered with luscious vegetation and the houses of muted colors blend in. You can rent bikes and leave your car parked for the week, if you are content to stay on the island. Protected bike paths run from one end to the other.

The most special part of my week there was the very close encounter with a group of dolphins. We walked down the beach to the park at the end and soon found dolphins surfing the shoreline for fish. At one point, two actually beached themselves on the sand to catch a fish flying out of the water and could see their glistening pink bellies. What a rare view. After they had their fill of fish, a few hovered near us, peaking at us most curiously.

Local Eats

Renting a house gives you the option to cook some meals during your vacation if you wish. If you go that route, I highly recommend stopping at the Rosebank Farms stand on the way in. Warm weather allows for a long season of produce. This is also a great place to buy fresh fish.

I heard that the resorts have great restaurants, but I did not venture to any of those. I doubt the locals eat there. I opted to treasure hunt in the nearby towns and I did find some jewels in Folly Beach and Charleston.

Head over to Taco Boy in Folly Beach. Look for the funky blue door entrance. Try the very simple and fresh fish tacos. It made me wonder why we don't have these places at home. http://www.tacoboy.net/

For breakfast, you must try Joseph's Restaurant in downtown Charleston. Get there when they open or expect an hour wait. It has to be really good to be worth a wait for breakfast for me, and I was glad I waited. The sweet potato pancakes blew me away (yes, I've had them before, but never this good). And, these people know how to cook grits! They only serve breakfast and lunch. They stick with what they do well and business is good! Rachel Ray has eaten here.  http://www.josephsofcharleston.com/

I've saved the best scoop for last. I found a place called Alluette's Cafe, a soul food restaurant, during my online research before the trip. But I didn't know anything about it. We punched the address in the GPS and headed off. It's in downtown Charleston, so we expected a regular restaurant in the tourist area we're familiar with. But we didn't recognize the direction the GPS led us and it didn't look like the greatest part of town. We arrive at a tiny pink building and wonder if it's really open. We look in the window and it's very curious. No customers, which is usually a terrible sign. My traveling companion gave me a look that clearly said, "I don't know about this".

Still, we had called to make a reservation, assuming any downtown restaurant would be busy on a Saturday night. So we walked in, and found a very friendly chef (a one man show). He told us that he had just pulled foccacia out of the oven. The place smelled wonderful and he brought us some bread as we sat down. Things were looking up. There's a sandwich menu from lunch and a dinner offering of around 4 specials on the chalkboard. But it's flexible, as the chef offered to see if he had some trout in the frig to offer. Then he sat down with us to make friendly conversation and talk about the specials. The experience was very much like having a personal chef at our service. We ordered the grouper with caramelized onions, cooked in wine with a side of okra fried rice. It was perfection.

The focus of this restaurant is holistic soul food and you will certainly taste the love. Be sure to make a reservation. It's required for dinner. The owner and restaurant have been written up in Southern Living and most recently, O Magazine. Reservations may soon be hard to come by. http://www.alluettes.com/

Things to Do

Visit the Charleston Tea Plantation and purchase the only local tea to be found in the US. It is literally the only one. Sample the tea in the gift shop and buy plenty to take home.

Take your dogs to a leash free park on the beach. There are two. They can run to their heart's content.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Saxapahaw Surprise

Saxapahaw is a tiny town between Chapel Hill and Burlington, NC. They have great outdoor concerts and farmer's markets in the summer. Otherwise, there isn't much to be found in this town until recently when the general/ convenience store added a grill. Normally, I would never drive by a place like this and think it was a good idea to stop for dinner. What a surprise. On their website, they claim to be a "little store with a big mission". The general store does a great job of using local and hormone free meats and vegetables. Every night, they have a chalkboard of specials like Asian pork spare ribs with collards and mashed potatoes or salmon with asparagus risotto. They also have an extensive sandwich, salad and pizza menu. I recently tried the "saxy pizza"; a white pizza with artichokes and roasted tomatoes. Delicious. Try breakfast as well. There is always a supply of bakery goods, excellent local coffee and full plates of eggs, biscuits and potatoes.

This is the first place I've tried duck fat fries. If you watch Anthony Bourdain's show on the Travel Channel, you've heard him rave about duck fat fries. As an occasional splurge, try them for the rich flavor that brings out the roasted potato flavor. Not your ordinary fries. You'll see what I mean.

The general store's slogan should be "come as you are and eat well". There's no pretentiousness about this place and it's hard to believe you can find gourmet food in such a location. You'll run into all sorts of people, which is part of the fun. And it's common to hear the chef singing while he works, which is indicative of the happiness ingredient that makes this place successful. This place is definitely off the map and a true locavore's treasure, but it's worth the hunt. http://saxapahawgeneralstore.blogspot.com/

Monday, February 22, 2010

Closer than Paris

I feel lucky to have found this gem of a place. I have no idea why the only authentic artisan European baker in the country landed in Cary, NC, but I am certainly glad. Sure, it's a forty minute drive from my house, but I always say "it's much closer than Paris". I found out about Lionel, the baker, by taking a bread class at Southern Season in Chapel Hill. What a find. Check out LaFarm Bakery's website: http://www.lafarmbakery.com/.

Many others have found it as well. What started out as just a small bread shop expanded into a full bakery with a cafe with awesome breakfast and lunch offerings. It's now packed on the weekends. I highly recommend the french toast. It's the closest thing I've found to the best I ever had (Petunia's in New Orleans). At lunch, you can't go wrong with any of the sandwiches made on the wonderful breads. And there are plenty of sweets to chose from to finish off a savory lunch.

            Asparagus & Proscuitto Tartine
Quiche Lorraine with side salad

Croque Monsieur with side salad

If you're feeling adventurous, you can take bread making classes from Lionel at the bakery (LaFarm Bread Classes). You can even find some recipes on his website and blog. But if you're like me, you can use the hands on instruction. It is definitely an art and a skill to be respected. Also, you can buy the natural flour and yeast in bulk for your home baking needs.
I am happy to report that I successfully made a loaf of country French bread at home (from the recipe I received in class). It was a little tricky, didn't result in the most beautiful loaf and my technique needs practice. However, it tasted wonderful. And that's what really counts with home baking anyway.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Revelations in Tuscany

Why Spannocchia is Special

Perhaps this is the place that really started it all for me; this fascination about slow food. I had the chance to visit this centuries old sustainable farm two years ago as a part of Liberal Arts course (http://goglobal.uncg.edu/). Imagine staying in a castle, roaming the land during the day and taking classes in olive oil, wine and honey. Everything you eat is from the farm, with the exception of cheese and maybe bread, but all foods are local and whole. Think of it as a processed food detox. You might never go back, which I would consider a success story.

The Spannocchia experience is open to everyone; not just students. They offer many interesting programs during the year, but you can also simply stay (http://www.spannocchia.com/). The people are warm and obviously committed to the history and mission of the farm. They will give you a tour of the gardens and animals. You will meet the happiest pigs you have ever seen. Watch the basket of produce walk a few feet from the garden to the kitchen and tranformed into fantastic dish on your dinner plate.

On this trip, I began taking pictures of food. I tried to keep a food journal as well, but it was hard to keep up with all of the great food by the end of the week. This was just a simple lunch, but crazy good: bread salad, cabbage and canteloupe.  

I highly recommend taking a cooking class. Here I am with Daniela after we learned to make gnocchi, saltimbocca and tiramisu. Some of the programs offer multiple cooking classes. If you would like to send money, I would be happy to check that out and write a full review (hey, it was worth a shot).

The best souvenir I puchased was their cookbook. You can also buy it online. At the time of the post, they had sold out of the second edition, but will soon offer a third, so stay tuned (http://www.spannocchia.com/shop). I will warn you that you need to read between the lines a little. A few details got lost in translation. Still, you will learn to cook true Tuscan food, which has no resemblence to any American version of Italian cuisine that I have come across.

I finally did it. So, I bought a pasta making machine off of Craig's List at least a year ago. Since then, it had not left the box because I was afraid of impending pasta failure. I'm happy to report that I finally actually made homemade spinach and ricotta ravioli with sage butter sauce. It takes a little time to get a hang of the pasta rolling technique, and I recommend having help until you become a pro, but the end result was well worth the effort. It will melt in your mouth. It's so good you could just serve it with a little olive oil.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Soup-er Delicious

I love soup not only because it is comfort food and a great way to squeeze veggies into your diet, but also because it is super efficient cooking. It always makes plenty of leftovers and I really enjoy having containers of various soups in my freezer to choose from. I consider it essential for lazy week day supers. I start cranking out the soups when my supply of frozen tomato sauce from our garden bounty gives out.

Here are three of the many soup recipes from the Biltmore cookbook.

Sweet Potato Mulligatawny (pg. 95)

With a list of 21 ingredients, this is by far the most complicated soup I've attempted. The prep alone is going to take some time, so don't start this one if you're already hungry. But it is worth the effort. Sweet potatoes, chicken, orange juice, sherry, coconut milk and lime juice are just a few of the stars. I did not expect a soup with the Indian flavors of cumin, curry and coriander seeds in the Biltmore collection, but I found it very interesting. If you prefer a vegetarian soup, there's plenty going on so that if you omit the chicken, you still have a lovely and complex blend of flavors.

Country Chicken Soup (pg. 137)

This soup is made from the classic combination of onions, celery and carrots with the additions of chicken, black-eyed peas, sage and spinach. I'll admit that it turned out tastier than it read on paper. It's always amazing when the simplest recipes turn out to be the best. I questioned the use of chicken bouillon instead of broth because I hardly ever use it. But, it gives you a wonton soup base taste, which seems to go better with these ingredients than a watered down broth flavor.

Truffled Potato and Leek Soup (pg. 138)

This one is made with potatos, leeks, fennel, Chardonay, lemon zest and juice and a few other seasonings. I substitute evaporated milk for the cream to make it a little lighter, but this soup will still almost stand up like mashed potatoes. And you can always count on nutmeg to work its flavor magic. A salad with a citrus vinegrette dressing would compliment it nicely. You meat lovers might add some bacon crumbles on top.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Biltmore Breakfast

Many of the recipes in the winter section of the Biltmore cookbook are breakfast items. Perhaps that is because the days are shorter and when it is cold outside, who wouldn't rather stay in bed with a delicious breakfast or brunch? They are ultimate comfort foods, after all, no matter what time of day you serve them.

 Pumpkin Pancakes with Toasted Pecan Butter (pg. 160)

These are much tastier than your regular home cooked pancakes; definitely restaurant worthy. The recipe only calls for 1/4 cup of pumpkin, so they are not overly flavored. The special touch is the toasted pecan butter made with a little maple syrup and vanilla. Make the butter ahead so that it has time to chill. In fact, you can prepare that and mix the dry ingredients the night before for faster morning pancakes. I did find out that it's important to thoroughly sift the baking powder so that it does not clump, so don't skip that step.

Chrorizo Bread Pudding with White Chocolate Cheese and Scallions (pg. 147)

Here's another dish you can make ahead. It reheats well. It is heavier than a normal breakfast, so I think it makes a great brunch item. I used foccacia bread instead of croissants, which will be my preference when I make it again. The spongy bread texture works well with the cheese and eggs. If you buy a sausage with spices, adjust or leave out the cayenne pepper that the recipe calls for.

Homemade Cinnamon Rolls (pg. 159)

I can drool just looking at them. This is one of my first bread related ventures, so I was very impressed that they turned out so well. The dough is light and fun to manipulate. You make the dough in a mixer, let it rise, roll it out into a rectangle and brush a cinnamon/ butter/ sugar mixture all over. Then roll it into a log, slice into individual rolls, let rise again and bake. It takes some time, but all really good things do. And it makes your house smell wonderful.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Eat Yourself Silly in Asheville

Why Asheville is Special
In my humble opinion, Asheville is the best city of restaurants in North Carolina. The only trouble I have when I visit (at least twice a year) is fitting in enough of my favorites while still allowing time to try one or two new places that always seem to be popping up or that I just haven't gotten to yet. It's a good thing I don't live there because I might never cook (yes, really). The trend of farm to table restaurants with simple, yet wonderful food at reasonable prices has really taken off here. It's what speaks to me.

There is also a great eclectic vibe in this city. Artists are drawn there. Diversity is the norm. It's a cultural haven in the middle of the Bible belt. The dress is funky casual and you can't tell most people's status by their wardrobes. It's just a cool place to be.

Where to Stay
It's great to stay downtown where you are an easy walking distance to all of the shops and restaurants and don't have to worry about parking. I can recommend the Renaissance (http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/avlbr-renaissance-asheville-hotel/). Rooms are nice and the hotel service is good. I'm excited about a new downtown hotel that I have not had a chance to try yet: Hotel Indigo (http://www.ichotelsgroup.com/). It looks very modern and they are pet friendly (although I have not checked out the associated fees). I have also stayed at the Crowne Plaza (http://www.ashevillecp.com/) specifically because they are pet friendly. It's just a short drive from downtown and it's a tricky route until you get the hang of it. There is a golf course on site in case you're into that.

Local Eats
Go hungry. Take leftovers home with you (plan ahead and pack a cooler). There are so many great choices, that there's no way I'll come close to covering them all in this post, but here are some of my favorites. Sorry I don't have pictures of scrumptious food from my last trip, but check out the individual websites and I guarantee you will be drooling.

The Chocolate Fetish (http://www.chocolatefetish.com/) It's a European style chocolate shop and I always make the time to stop by. These are no ordinary truffles. Try the key lime pie flavor with graham cracker crumbs on the bottom.
Cucina 24 (http://www.cucina24restaurant.com/) Real pasta and authentic Tuscan dishes like wild boar over noodles as a special. Close my eyes and I'm back in Italy unlike most NC "Italian" restaurants.
Early Girl Eatery (http://www.earlygirleatery.com/) This place has loyal followers, especially for breakfast. Be prepared to wait for a table unless you order takeout instead. Breakfast is great, but I really love their lamb, which is from a local farm and very reasonably priced.
Laughing Seed Cafe (http://www.laughingseed.com/) Vegetarian fare. Very good. You won't believe the sloppy jo (even if you don't usually like tofu). Ordering several tapas is also a great meal idea.
Over Easy Cafe (http://www.exploreasheville.com/) A local turned me onto this place and now it's my favorite breakfast spot (not just in Asheville, but anywhere). The coffee is very good and they always have interesting specials as well as omelets, biscuits, pancakes, etc. They also serve lunch and you can order from either menu at any time.
Tupelo Honey Cafe (http://www.tupelohoneycafe.com/) Very well known and loved and it's always crowded. Be prepared to wait, or offer to sit at the bar for quicker seating. This place has been written up quite a bit. The sweet potato pancakes are unbelievable, but really everything on the menu is good.

Beyond Downtown...
Rezaz (http://www.rezaz.com/intro.html) Located in Biltmore Village, Rezaz is one of the best restaurants I've ever experienced. It's a little pricey, but more than worth it. You can not go wrong with anything you order. Top your meal off with a large cup of cappuccino.
Sunny Point Cafe (http://www.sunnypointcafe.com/) This cafe is in West Asheville. Most tourist information won't tell you about it, but the locals know. Great place for a sandwich or salad. A lovely garden right behind the building supplies some of their ingredients. You can't get more fresh and local than that.

Things to Do
  • You are going to need some exercise to balance with all of that eating. Luckily, you are right in the middle of the blue ridge mountains. Hop on the parkway for a scenic drive and you will find plenty of places to hike or bike.
  • Check out the Asheville Outdoor Center (http://www.paddlewithus.com/) to kayak or raft the French Broad river or rent bicycles.

  • A trip to Asheville is not complete without visiting Biltmore Estate (http://www.biltmore.com/). Tour the mansion, visit the winery for some history and a tasting, eat at one of the restaurants. There are also plenty of seasonal events and outdoor activities.
  • Try the downtown open drum circle on Friday nights. (http://www.myspace.com/ashevilledrumcircle
  • If you are up for a day trip on a windy drive, go to Hot Springs for a dip in a natural spa. Make a reservation before you go. (http://www.nchotsprings.com/)
Side Bars
  • Parking in downtown is free on Sundays, although there are no signs to tell you so. Spring and summer are great times to visit. Peak time is around the fall leaves season, when it will be crowded.
  • Here's a good website for general Asheville information: http://www.exploreasheville.com/