Monday, May 25, 2009

A rambling ode to spring and life in general...

So, it appears as though I may be inching steadily closer and closer to my goal of writing about food for a living. These past few weeks have been a beautiful whirlwind, and I am constantly reminded of how fortunate I am to live in such an amazing place. I thought that Asheville had it going on culinarily speaking before, but now I am truly blown away by the passion and thoughtfulness of the people around me that are making this place such a haven for foodies.

My morning began with an interview with the extraordinarily gifted Susi Gott Seguret, the force of nature that directs the Swannanoa School of Culinary Arts (SSCA) over on the grounds of Warren Wilson College. Susi spends much of her time in France (we spoke via web cam), but makes magic when she returns to Asheville. The SSCA is a yearly event that features all sorts of kitchen workshops headed by incredible (mostly local) talent. She spoke about the recent truffle festival in this area, and that led to a conversation about the culinary gold to be found in these parts. Though most of our markets don't exactly offer the selection of bizarre animal organs that can be procured in her neck of the woods, we do have access to an astounding array of humanely raised meats and heirloom veggies -- something to be proud of. Susi is bringing molecular gastronomy pioneer and mad chemist Herve This to Asheville to kick off this year's SSCA with some really intriguing demonstrations. Check it:

Already moving beyond the tremendous wave of inspiration he sparked with
Molecular Cuisine, his current innovations are with a new science called “Note by Note Cooking”, where each specific flavor in each dish represents a note which, coupled with other flavors, compose a musical piece and, together with a sequence of dishes, make up a symphony for the palate.

I can't tell you that I understand exactly what the heck that means, but it sounds fascinating. Susi says that all of the classes are very immersive and open to all skill levels. I highly recommend checking them out if you are in the Asheville area (or can manage to be this summer) -- and yes, registration is still open. Look for my interview with Susi in the next issue of Verve.

I also spent the past few days kicking it around Green Hill Urban Farm interviewing a farmer, Mike Fortune, who has his hands very full with several acres of land where he farms bio-dynamically and organically right on the edge of urban(ish) West Asheville. Mike, at age 30, is part of a wave of young farmers in this area that are highly dedicated to the stewardship of the land that has fallen to them. We will be featuring Green Hill on the cover of the Mountain Xpress on July 17th, and it should be worth the read. Green Hill is just another one of those places in Asheville that feels like a bustling hive of creativity, and despite its serving a large number of CSAs, feels more like a thriving community center than a business. I'll likely post a podcast of the interviews from my session on the farm -- they will make an entertaining listen. Learn more about Green Hill here:

Today I also had the fortune to visit with Sally Eason of Sunburst Trout Farms, the burbling trout streams of which are fed by waters that flow downstream from the pristine Pisgah wilderness. She was a pleasure to talk to, and the interview I had with her will form a great story for the upcoming food-centric issue of Verve. The farm itself is absolutely stunning -- the kind of place where butterflies are flitting around a backdrop of a million shades of green. Today there was even a double rainbow. It was almost stupidly beautiful. The trout that are netted in the streams on the property are gargantuan as far as trout go, and they are gorgeous in color due to a specially developed, patented all-natural hormone and animal byproduct-free feed that the fish are given. While many fisheries add all kinds of nasty things to the feed to give the flesh of their fish color, Sunburst gives their fish the same antioxidant found in blueberries to make them look like this:

This was tonight's dinner. Yes, indeed I said a blessing -- been blessing this food all day. Incidentally, everything on this plate is local, save the cooking oil and butter that I used. You better believe that there's some butter on this plate. What we have here is some gorgeous Sunburst trout (thank you, Sally!) with white wine and brown butter over local purple potatoes tossed with Green Hill dill and more butter. Over on the other side of the fish is some garlic-sauteed kale, also from Green Hill (thank you, Mike!). Yes, I eat like this by myself. There is absolutely no reason to reserve meals like this for special occasions, especially when there is so much good food around us. Plus, it only took 20 minutes tops to put together. Spring/summer food, especially fresh, just-from-the-ground food doesn't need much -- a little garlic, salt and pepper and -- yeah -- butter. Get yourself to the farmers' market! For dessert I'm eying that strawberry cobbler that I made from the abundance of berries in my garden. Thank goodness for simple pleasures.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Taking a breath...

Holy Moly, whatever angels watch over writers who need work have been extremely kind! I apologize for the lack of posts, but expect to be ready to start tending to the Scrappy Gourmet blog in about one week from today. In the mean time, please check out my articles in the current issue of Verve magazine, Bold Life and in the upcoming as well as current issue of Carolina Home and Garden Also, on the 17th of June, check out the Mountain Xpress for my cover story about Green Hill Urban farm, a 4-acre biodynamic and organic farm in the heart of West Asheville.

Friday, May 15, 2009

To all my Asheville people...

A young local girl -- only 9 years old, to be exact -- has been diagnosed with Graves disease. She is going through some very aggressive treatment and, as you might imagine, it has become quite costly on her young family. I will not even get into our health care system on this blog, as that's not what this is about, BUT...
Anyway, the wonderful folks at Sunny Point bakery and cafe have decided to pull together to raise some money for this family. If you haven't been to Sunny Point yet, I have no idea what you've been thinking. Get your butt over to West Asheville. I know that this is short notice, but the benefit dinner -- yes, dinner only -- is this coming Monday, May the 18th, from 5-9pm. A portion of all of the proceeds from food sales will go to the family. The servers will be donating 100% of their tips. Yep. As my friend Kelly-Anne said, "It is a reminder of how blessed we are to belong to such a supportive and wonderful community." Indeed. Visit this link for more information:

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

By the way...

I promise this blog will be about something other than chicken soon -- even some vegetarian meals to come!

How to juice a chicken...

Mmmm. Chicken juice. Alright, all kidding aside, see all this?

That's almost a gallon of chicken stock. It's pretty concentrated, as you can tell by the color. Do you have any idea how much a gallon of organic chicken stock costs in the store? An absolutely ridiculous amount, considering that it's essentially made from scraps. Make no mistake, though, this is liquid gold to a serious home cook. It livens up pasta sauce, rice and tons of other grains. Risotto cannot exist without chicken stock -- and risotto is astoundingly cheap to make if you know make your own stock. Risotto, trust me, is on my agenda to show you.

Ready to make chicken stock?
Here's what you need:

A deep stock pot
your leftover chicken frame (picked over bones), cleaned of all stuffing
2 onions
3 small carrots
3 celery stalks
2 bay leaves
I also like to throw in thyme as it is crawling all over my yard, but this is non-essential.

Instructions: Throw everything in the pot (removing peel from onions to keep the bitter away), cover with cold water (a gallon and a half, approx.), bring to a boil, turn down heat, simmer for several hours or until you have to leave the house or go to sleep or something. That's it. Really. You don't even have to chop anything up small. I cut the onion into 1/8's and break the carrots and celery up with my hands. And you thought this would be hard.

Set a colander over a deep container and pour the stock through the colander. Toss out your solids. You are done with them. Do not, as I did groggily one morning, pour half of your stock down the sink reserving the solids before you realize what you are doing. Oh, you think, who would be stupid enough to do that? Just you wait.

Cool stock down as quickly as possible by setting it in a sink full of ice (this keeps it from staying at a dangerous temperature for too long and breeding harmful bacteria). After cooling, put into containers and freeze what you won't use right away -- don't forget to label with the name and date!

So, to be clear, this is essentially what got me started on the roasting whole chickens thing in the first place. It is so nice to have cheap food for a week and, as an extra bonus, have nearly free chicken stock on hand all of the time. Plus, I promise that you will feel like a bit of a culinary bad ass once you start making and storing all of your own stocks -- and that is worth plenty in its own right.

Lazy girl's supper...

Most evenings, you likely stumble home tired and the last thing on your mind is cooking, especially when it's hot. Say, for example, you also have a half picked-over chicken lurking in your refrigerator because some writer convinced you that you would get a million uses out of it. What's for dinner? This:
A nice bed of lettuce, some chopped tomato and some chopped avocado make a great summertime meal -- especially for a girl like me who tends to eat more than three meals a day. Add some dressing, serve with good bread and you're done. You could add some cheese if you wanted to. I like my salads kind of spartan, however. If anything, though, I'm trying to teach you to be loose and use whatever's available, so just go for it.
I'm going to throw out a few more ideas for the roasted chicken, tell you how to make a stock and then leave the yard bird alone for a little while. I think that you get the picture. HOWEVER, should you have any requests for recipes or need to find yet another use for chicken, please do not hesitate to ask. I will indeed take requests, especially if you bribe me.
Chicken ideas:
Chicken tacos with rice and salsa
Chicken pasta with pesto and tomatoes
Chicken salad sandwiches
Chicken Caesar salad
There, so I've given you at least five different ways to use up your bird. Be creative -- it's how you learn. Plus, if you learn to stretch your food with cheap ingredients, it can go far. Think, for example, about adding plenty of celery, grapes and onions to your chicken salad. After about a week, pull the rest of your chicken if you haven't used it off of the bones, pack it into a Ziploc, label it with a sharpie (include the date) and stick it in the freezer. Now you have chicken for future chicken salad. This may seem obvious, but most people that I know do not use their freezers enough. Learning how to not throw away food is a big step toward saving money and -- get this -- freezers are more efficient when full.
By the way -- the bones are not trash! Next I'll tell you how to make stock.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Chicken chicken chicken, I'm a finger-lickin' winner

So, now that you have this giant bird that you've brined and roasted (if you have no idea what I'm talking about, check the archives for brining and roasting), what do you do with it?

The legs make great individual meals with a simple starch and veg. The picture at the top of this post is a chicken leg that I simply ripped off the bird with my hands 30 minutes after it came out of the oven (sounds kind of primal, doesn't it?) accompanied with some bacon Brussels sprouts and brown rice. Think you don't like Brussels sprouts? Try this recipe:

This is what you need: 1 onion, 2 garlic cloves, a sprig of fresh thyme, 3 thick pieces of bacon, a good chunk of butter and, of course, some Brussels sprouts. I'm not very keen on exact measurements unless I'm baking, hence the pictures. You'll need salt and pepper and cooking oil, too.

Get a pot of salted water boiling (about 1 1/2 T of salt should do) Meanwhile, chop the very bottoms off of the Brussels sprouts, then slice them in half. Once you've done this, throw them in your boiling water and blanch them just until they turn bright green. Have a bowl of iced water waiting for your sprouts. Once they turn bright green, drain the sprouts, then toss them into the iced water to make sure that you shock them into not cooking any further.

Now, chop your garlic, thyme, then start cutting your onion. Slice the top off, leaving the root intact. Then place it sliced side down, and cut the onion in half through the root. Pull the peel off, then slice each half fairly thinly, say 1/4 inch, keeping each slice about the same thickness. Next, chop the bacon into little pieces.

Heat 2 pans on medium heat. Throw the bacon in one, a little oil in the other. Heat the oil for a second, then add the onions. The bacon will render its own fat, so it doesn't need any extra lube. Let the onions cook for a bit, stirring them once in a while so that they don't burn. Cooking them slowly will caramelize the sugars. You want to cook the onions until it they are a nice, nutty brown. If things start to burn a bit, turn down the heat -- all stoves are different.

Almost done here, still need to get a bit darker.

The bacon needs to be stirred around, too. Once it gets close to crispy, pull it off the heat. It will continue to cook a bit in its own fat -- don't discard the fat, that's the good part! When both onions and bacon are done, combine and set aside.

Next, heat the butter up over medium-high heat in a heavy, large pan that is big enough to accommodate the Brussels. Let the butter get nice and brown without burning it -- brown butter tastes nutty and extra yummy. Then throw in your Brussels and the garlic. You don't have to stir them too much. In fact, letting them brown brings out a nice, toasty flavor.

Then add your onion and bacon mixture to your sprouts, along with the thyme. Let cook together for a bit, and salt and pepper to taste.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Now to cook the bird...roasting your chicken

So, by now your bird should have been brining for a good many hours. If not, start with the recipe for brining in one of the previous posts. I've tagged everything on this blog, so all recipes should be easy to search for. Drain your bird (ie, pour the whole mess, brine and bird, into a colander and let the brine run down the drain. The brine has served its purpose. Make sure you bleach out your sink after draining). The next step is trussing. Luckily all of the birds that I buy from my local whole foods market are pre-trussed like this guy over here. That saves a ton of time, and I think trussing is just messy -- I always feel like I'm flinging around raw chicken, which is something that you don't want to do. By the way folks, make sure to wash your hands often when you mess with a raw bird. Need to learn how to truss a chicken? let this guy tell you:
The reason you want to truss a chicken is to pull everything tight into a little package so that it cooks more evenly. Once you've got your bird bundled, set it in a roasting pan and make your rub. This is what I like in my rub:

black pepper, thyme, lemon zest, garlic salt, smoked paprika

Once again, whatever floats your boat as far as flavor goes. Think about what you like to eat with chicken and go for it. It's hard to screw up.

First, pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees.
Ok, so if you are going with my rub, grind some pepper into a bowl, just a couple of tablespoons.

Next, zest a lemon into the bowl. Hopefully you have a microplane. If not, go get one. They rock for grating hard cheeses, citrus, chocolate, whatever. Set the lemon aside -- you're going to stuff it in your bird with some onion or garlic, or whatever juicy ingredients you have sitting around that go with poultry, like celery, carrots, apples, etc.

Add a tablespoon of smoked paprika. If you find this difficult to source, join the club. I order mine online, but you will probably be able to find some in your local specialty store. Regular paprika is just fine, I just like the smokiness -- it kind of gives the chicken a rotisserie flavor.

Add some chopped fresh herbs if you have them. If you don't go grab some pots, some starts and some soil and get on it! I have thyme all over my yard. It's a great, hardy and drought-tolerant ground cover.

Add some olive oil, I'd say about 1/2 a cup.

Stir to make a paste.

For the stuffing that's going to fill up your bird and give it flavor, cut a lemon into quarters, then also quarter half an onion. That's likely all that you will need. If you still have room after you stuff that into your chicken cavity, you can always add some garlic cloves.

Throw that all together in a bowl, then add a couple of spoonfuls of your paste and mix. Skip this step if you don't feel like doing it. It's almost just a ritual for me.

Now stuff the chicken!

Place the chicken breast up in the pan.
Now rub the chicken with the paste that you made. Don't forget to keep washing your hands and be careful of cross-contamination! I like to sprinkle the garlic salt over the top of the bird last.

Ready to go...
I'm a cheat. My oven has its own meat probe that plugs into a sensor the oven wall. I set it so that the heat stops when the thermometer says that the chicken is 170 degrees by the thigh bone. You can easily check the temp of your bird as it cooks with any meat thermometer. I am easily distracted and can justify the extra expenditure for the digital probe in the lack of burnt food. At any rate, 170 is the lowest temperature that most cookbooks recommend that you cook chicken. I think that 170 is a perfect temperature for moist meat, even though you might spy a tiny bit of pink near the bones, which is nothing to worry about. Go up to 175-180 if you like your bird a bit dryer around the breast, the dark meat falling off the bone. My big bird took a little over an hour to get to where I thought it was perfect. Again, make sure that you stick your thermometer in the thickest part of the thigh, right down near the bone. The Joy of Cooking says to figure 1 hour for the first 4 pounds, an extra 8 minutes for each additional pound. If your bird weighs less than four pounds, make sure to check it earlier.

The finished product! Let it rest so that all of the juice doesn't run out when you slice into it...about 20 minutes.

Open letter to my neighborhood (written while waiting for the camera to charge)

Hi neighbor! Yes, you, the one with the lawnmower seemingly surgically attached to your hands. Well, I know that we haven't formally met yet, but I just wanted to tell you something. Your lawn? It's SPECTACULAR. I mean, really, really immaculate. It's so amazing that you can totally put the lawn equipment down now and give yourself a well-deserved break. Your grass could not get any more perfect, I swear to you. I know it's been raining an awful lot lately, and boy -- isn't it pesky how water makes things grow so quick? I know, but here's the thing. Every time that it stops raining and I want to go sit on the deck and listen to the birdsong that enticed me to move out here in the first place, there you are -- chopping madly at that brand new hundredth of a centimeter as though if you stop there will be a grass uprising. You know what? Your dedication is truly admirable, it really is, but I have to let you in on a little secret. Do you know how many times I've cut my grass this year? Once. Yep. And no one has gotten lost in the wilderness of my yard or been taken over by giant lawn bugs. I mean, most of you probably aren't that impressed by the state of affairs behind my house, but I don't mind. I've got other things to think about, but the problem is that it's kind of hard to hear my thoughts over your YardMaster5000. I have some ideas, if you're interested. What if you dug up that grass and planted other food? Wouldn't that be a hoot? All you'd have do do is weed, pick and eat. Do you know what the best part of all that would be, besides the sheer enjoyment and the green factor? It's all done relatively quietly. Just saying.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Down to business...brining your chicken

Want to make a delicious, tender, juicy bird with a perfect, crispy skin? Of course you do! I've gone over the economic benefits of buying whole just makes sense if you have the time. Think you don't have the time? You do. I swear you can find it if you try.

So, see this fat bird right here?

That big boy, locally raised, free range and all that good stuff only cost me $7.41. For that we'll end up with 2 legs, 2 wings, enough breast meat for several meals, then the leftover pickings for making chicken salad or pasta or whatever. Oh, don't forget about the gallon of homemade chicken stock you can make to have on hand for risotto, pasta sauce, couscous, whatever. The sky's the limit. The trick is not to get sick of chicken, but then that part's up to you. At least you're eating.

Moving on.

What you want to do first, to ensure that your bird is nice and juicy, is brine it for as long as you can stand it. I like a good 24-hour saltwater bath, but if you start your bird early in the day it potentially could be ready to cook for dinner. The longer it brines, the more flavor it soaks up and the more tender the flesh becomes. It's up to you. I pop mine in the brine as soon as I bring it home from the store.
Here's how to do it yourself.
You need:
soy sauce
That's it. Super easy. First, plunk your bird in a deep pot and cover it with cold water.

I'm sure you know how to do that without a picture, but I just wanted to give you a little something to look at. To the pot, add some salt, about a cup if it's table salt, a cup and a half if it's Kosher. I never measure, just throw it in there.

Add some peppercorns. You can even skip this if you want. Sometimes I throw a little juniper berry in there, or some herbs, whatever has flavor. Again, up to you. Add some soy -- I just pour until the water changes color, maybe 3/4 of a cup. Then chop the garlic in half, throw it in the pot. See how easy it is? Five, ten minutes, tops.

Then throw it in the fridge for a few hours (like 24). I posted a picture of my refrigerator contents because some people (like me) are kind of voyeuristic about that sort of thing:

So, you may notice that some recipes call for boiling the brine first and then cooling it down, I guess to help impart more flavor from whatever you're putting in the brine. I think this is just a waste of time. Believe it or not, I don't exactly live in my kitchen -- or have any desire to. Next I'll show you how to cook the thing. Go out and get your bird! Oh, and a meat thermometer if you don't already have one.

No one ever said the NYT wasn't elitist at times...

I love the New York Times. I really do. I especially like Frank Bruni, the food writer for the NYT. However, this article kind of made my blood, well, not boil...but definitely heat up a bit.

The premise: cook a meal for six for -- wait for it -- $50! I get that the chefs were trying to make some higher-end dishes and multiple courses which is in and of itself a challenge anyway. Come on, though, really? In today's economy the whole concept comes off sounding a bit ridiculous and short-sighted. Here's a quote from Bruni:

Less than $8.50 a person for a full dinner? I didn't see how this budget allowed for much strutting, not even from home cooks as gifted and resourceful as these two kitchen goddesses.

Sadie at had this to say about it:

Not only is $50 for six no challenge to a cook on a normal budget (see: any issue of Taste of Home), not only is such a "competition" an insult to those of us who adhere to such constraints, not only is the raillery of the contest precious and irritating, but, the menus are too intricate for the average working person to tackle. Not the point? Maybe not - but it's a further bit of alienation for those of us who cook as a daily
Word. No, really, it's exactly this mentality that makes people nervous about getting in the kitchen. If it's so tough to feed a group of six for under $50 a meal -- and make it good -- why bother? For that matter, how do you think large families do it? Some of them are likely eating crap food (well, a lot, if the Duggars are a fair model), but many are subsisting on good food for much less. I know that the New York Times' target audience might not be the food stamp crowd, exactly, but how about a little awareness of the economic difficulties that a large group of people are staring down on a day-to-day basis? No matter what your target demographic, journalists should maybe start edging toward more responsible reporting to stay relevant in today's economic climate, no?

With that, check what I bought at the store for just a little bit over the budget of the chefs in the article. It's all organic, too. I'm gonna show you what to make with all of it, eventually:

All of this will make much more than a few meals. You'll notice a whole chicken back there, a New York strip and a pound of bacon from the meat case. Tons of veggies, fruits, a loaf of bread, a pound each of split peas, arborio rice and Great Northern beans. Yum. You know why the money went so far? The entire haul consists of whole foods. Whole foods are cheaper because with processed foods you're paying for the labor and processing, and with whole foods, the processing falls on you (I know, I said this wasn't rocket science). Time really is money.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

What is the Scrappy Gourmet?

First, a bit of background. I have worked with food in one aspect or another since, well, I could work. I cooked professionally for a while, but now I mostly just write about food and cook for the people I love. Writing is so much easier on the knees then cooking in a restaurant -- and doesn't carry quite so much of the rock star lifestyle with it. A few more years of being a chef and my liver likely would have jumped ship.

Being the type that is always hungry (if you know me, you know that I can put away an astonishing amount of food for a person my size) and also quite independent, I taught myself to cook at a young age with whatever I scrounged out of my parent's refrigerator. Whatever I scrounged out of my parent's refrigerator, mind you, was generally wholesome and delicious. I am fortunate to have grown up in a family where the kitchen was always full of good things. My family is all about food. We talk about lunch and dinner at the breakfast table. All of our gatherings center around enjoying life's gustatory pleasures.

So, food is something I mull over quite a bit. It's definitely part of my make up. I love its potential to cause such amazing reactions in people, if done right. I saw a really cool photo essay in Gourmet magazine that captured the looks on diners' faces as they enjoyed food cooked by some upper-echelon hot shot. Rarely do you see such expressions of raw ecstasy on peoples' faces -- food helps us let down our guard, settle in and let it all go.

So, with cooking and eating being such a central focus in my life for so long, it just feels natural and easy to whip up good food on the daily. Most people I talk to feel that this is not the case for them. Either they can't find the ideas, they don't have the time or know-how, or they've been intimidated by culinary cognoscenti into thinking that good food is tough stuff. It really doesn't have to be.

Therein lies the intended purpose of this blog -- to share what is easy for me, and should be easy for everyone else with a little bit of patience, intuition and confidence. Times are tough these days -- we are all aware of that. People are beginning to turn inward, focus on self and home, family and friends because these are the things that become most important when everything else seems so precarious. What a great time to learn how to cook well and on a tight budget. I'm sure I'll veer off on a tangent or two, but I'll try to stay focused. Oh, and why am I the Scrappy Gourmet? It comes from my doing crazy things like pulling shrimp shells out of the garbage to make shrimp butter, or taking home the picked over Thanksgiving turkey carcass to make stock. My parents jokingly call me the "trash police."

My first order of business is sharing something that has become routine for me -- making a silly amount of food out of one whole chicken. I've come to learn that many people find roasting a whole chicken to be intimidating, but it's really very simple and extremely rewarding. A large, local, organic fryer from your local whole foods market should run around $8. Brine it, truss it, roast it and you have at least a half dozen meals and a gallon of chicken stock...I'll get to the hows soon enough. Right now that big old bird is brining in the refrigerator, just waiting for me to pull it out and roast it to crispy perfection. Tomorrow, then.