15 Minute Pasta Primavera

15 04 2013

Apologies in advance. Laptop is at work and I’m not. First attempt at writing blog post from so-called smart phone. How smart? We shall see. Taking liberty of writing in bullets since doing this on phone. Already thinking the photo thing will be a problem. Oh well.

Really good eats, this. Use any pasta you like. Delicious part is the fffffast sauce. Serves 2 or one hungry girl who took the leftovers for lunch today.

1/2 pound Cooked Pasta drained, 1/4 cup cooking water reserved.
2 cloves Garlic, chopped fine
1 large Heirloom Tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons Good Olive Oil
1 cup Fresh Spinach
1/4 cup Parmiggiano Reggiano, grated
Zest and juice from 1/2 Lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat sauté pan with oil over medium heat. Add garlic and tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes are soft. Add spinach, lemon juice, and lemon zest and cook, stirring often, until spinach is wilted. Toss in pasta and cooking water and cook while stirring to coat pasta. Turn off heat, stir in Parmesan, and dig in.







This Veteran’s Plea: Not One More Damn Day

9 04 2013

This is my second marathon blog post in as many weeks, the last being about a day in the life of area chefs in a competition.  From a larger view, that was fluff piece; this is a very important topic.  I hope you will read this all the way through.  It’s very important to me and my fellow veterans that more people listen to the whole truth, the ugly truth, about how things are for us.  My apologies for the length of this article, but I have been abbreviating this story long enough.

Brothers and Sisters at ArmsUnited States Flag

I just finished reading a very good book by Luis Carlos Montalván entitled, “Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him.”  Tuesday is the golden retriever’s name.  Luis suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) along with the after-effects of various physical wounds including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI); Tuesday is his service dog.  It is a compelling story about Luis’ personal experiences before, during, and after his deployments to Iraq, but mostly after.  It is a story that needs to be told over and over again until the cold, hard truths in the middle of this story are heard and understood by the majority of people in our country.

I have heard it said that the truth is whatever you perceive it to be.  In other words, our perception of things is the truth to us in that moment, whether it is really true or not.  I sometimes find myself taking for truth things I hear on the television or read on the internet; if it all seems to fit with what I already know, I often don’t question it.  But when things don’t seem to fit, I have a habit of digging around for more information.  After reading this book, I think Luis and I have that in common, that burning need for the truth.

As a 22-year veteran of the Army, I can tell you unequivocally that there were times when I found myself surrounded by so many lies I didn’t think I could find the truth.  At moments like those, I used to say, “It’s a good thing I’m wearing boots.”  There were lies told to protect classified operations; there were lies told to avoid stepping on important toes; there were lies told to save asses (can I say ‘asses’ on here?  Too late.); there were lies told to preserve the integrity of the lies told before; then there were lies told just because it became a way of life for some people.  When things got a little soft underfoot, you learned to stop asking questions – unless you were me.  I never stopped asking questions, and that path was definitely the road less traveled and a bumpy one.  In 2001, I had finally had enough and declared I would not do it for one more damn day, after being faced with yet another instance of gender discrimination with nothing to be done about it without becoming a target for more lies and harrassment.  On August 1, 2001, I left the active service with 16 years of Active Duty and 4 years of reserve service prior to that.  I was officially in the Reserve for two more years, though I did not actively serve.  Twenty-two years and not one more damned day.

Luis speaks in the book of several examples of where the lies – or sometimes benign neglect – of the leadership caused extreme difficulties for the soldiers at the end of the line, including him and his Soldiers.  I have no doubt that it was exactly as he says it was; that there are others who questioned him and essentially called him a liar when he wrote about these things after leaving the Army does not surprise me one bit.  I experienced similar circumstances during my service.  That Luis was attacked by certain members of the media and was victim of a character assassination is, sadly, de rigueur for anyone who dares to speak the truth of the leadership failures in the military and our government at any level.  It’s the old smoke-and-mirrors defense; we don’t have to answer those allegations, we can just discredit the accuser and people will stop listening to them.  Better yet, they might just shut up and go away to stop the personal attacks.  I was heartened to read a story that spoke the truth, a story to which I could relate.  I am not alone in my experience; Luis has been there, too.

We Take Care of Our Own. 

It seems that Luis and I also share a deep disappointment in the United States Army, or perhaps in the topmost leaders of that organization and the politicians to which they report.  Like Luis, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater; I love the Army and believe in its mission to defend our constitution.  But like Luis, I was abandoned by the very organization to which I had devoted my life.  I continue to be abandoned by our government by inadequate and often inaccessible medical care through the Veteran’s Administration (VA).  I am working full time, but I can’t afford private insurance.  As a certified-by-the-VA 50% Service-Connected Disabled Veteran, Title 38 of the United States Code (Federal Law) says I am entitled to 100% free medical care from the VA for the rest of my life.  They even sent me a book to outline the care I am entitled to receive; too bad I can’t actually get it because of where I live, and because they don’t have the resources to provide it (I live 2 hours away from the nearest full-service VA Hospital because this is where I work).

I am not “on the dole.”  Unlike most people receiving Medicaid, I earned that medical care as a benefit for illnesses and injuries incurred in the line of duty in service to my country for 22 years.  But it takes me 5-6 months of waiting to see my primary care provider, and I have to drive 2 hours to Fayetteville, NC to get my eyes checked or have a mammogram.  If I get sick with anything urgent, I have no medical resources.  The VA is obligated to provide it to me in their facilities; the nearest facility that can see me on short notice is in Fayetteville.  If I am taken to the emergency room here in town, the bill is mine to deal with.  I don’t go to the doctor; if I am feeling bad or hurt myself, I deal with it and hope for the best.  At least I have my needed medication; that’s more than many veterans.

There are an increasing number of people just like me, many without even the meager resources of the VA to call upon.  For that, our government and its money-eating programs and policies is responsible.  They are spending all of our tax money creating new programs instead of funding the ones they already have.  Not to discount the needs of others in similar circumstances (the working poor that are not disabled veterans), but the government is legally obligated to take care of me under a long-standing law, not some new policy.  They are not doing it.  Why are they writing new laws for more services of this ilk for the general population when they can’t even sustain the programs they have for Veterans?  (The services are being cut even more under the so-called Sequestering process, which is akin to a bankruptcy reorganization that our government is undergoing.  Just this week President Obama pledged more money for VA services, but where it will come from no one knows.)

soldier-flagNo Man Left Behind.

About this we could talk for hours, or at least I could.  Instead, I just want you to know that there are hundreds of thousands of veterans in my situation, many who have PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that they cannot substantiate to the VA because the paperwork wasn’t done properly while they were deployed.  In yet another twist of betrayal, the Army encourages Soldiers to “suck it up” when they are hurting rather than seek medical treatment; this absence of a medical paper trail later makes it hard to get the care to which they are entitled under law. Those that can substantiate their problems administratively are waiting as long as 2 years for the VA to review their claim.  Even soldiers who lose limbs can be left waiting for up to 2 years for their VA claim to be reviewed while they suffer, unable to work or feed their families, having to apply for welfare because the VA has yet to look at their claim.  Veterans who lose limbs in the line of duty are entitled to adequate compensation to live on under Title 38; but if they have to wait 2 years to begin to receive it, how will they survive in the interim?  They have been left behind.

If you’ve heard on the news that the VA has fixed their administrative problems and they are all caught up on the paperwork, you have been fed a lie.  I have a friend who retired from the Army about 21 months ago who is still waiting for the VA to review her claim; her last tour in Afghanistan was extremely traumatic and she knows she needs help, but she can’t get it.  She finally found a private counseling firm that is taking her on as a client and working with her on payments.  Another friend who retired the year before had her claim reviewed at the 2-year point.  My friends are lucky; they also have health insurance through TRICARE since they are retirees and can get their care through other sources.  Many thousands of us are not that fortunate, and many are far worse off than me.  I am already “in” the VA system, such as it is; getting in is seemingly insurmountable for some veterans; 2 years might as well be 20 years, so grave is the impact of that wait on their health and well-being.

Their battle will not end with a review, either.  They will likely have part of their claim denied and will have to file an appeal and wait again.  This is a standard outcome with VA Disability Claims; it took my original claim 14 months to be reviewed, and part of it was denied even though the paperwork was in order.  It took me getting a review by a different VA office to get my claim processed (which I was only able to do because I had moved and jurisdiction over my claim had changed as a result).  It is an uphill climb to get into the VA system.  That Luis was accused by a reporter of ‘faking’ his injuries after the VA had processed his claim is laughable; if the VA said his injuries are for real, they most certainly are and he likely suffered many indignities to secure that ruling.

Why Haven’t We Heard About This?

There are those, such as Luis, who have spoken out.  Like Luis, they all paid a high personal price for their honesty and suffered attacks on their characters or just weren’t believed.  If they happened to also have an addiction problem or have had scrapes with law enforcement (both very common among troubled, untreated veterans), they were ignored as not credible.  Also, Soldiers are trained to keep quiet, not to air the Army’s dirty laundry in public.  It’s part of the culture; we talk about it amongst ourselves, but never out in town.  Like victims of physical abuse, we just don’t talk about it to outsiders.

The major media outlets will not cover stories like wounded Soldiers being abandoned by the government.  They need access to government officials for their feature stories; they can’t risk alienating them by covering unsavory stories of government inadequacy or failure.  Instead, the media outlets run stories showing happy endings, help received, high-tech prosthesis donated, and modified homes built by Habitat for Humanity for our wounded warriors.  This is all great stuff, but if the government just compensated these wounded warriors in a timely manner like they should, they wouldn’t need to have a house donated.  You won’t see a story like Luis’ on any of the big National TV news programs.  There is simply too much to lose for them to take on a story of this nature and magnitude.

Just use Google and search for “Veterans waiting for Benefits.”  The stories are out there with reputable news sources, they just don’t make the National news because it is politically unsavory.  All roads lead back to Congress and the White House, and the media does not like to shake that tree too hard.

Make Some Noise.

Just because you don’t hear it on TV doesn’t mean it’s not true.  Likewise, just because you read it in print doesn’t make it so.  Talk to a veteran and ask her what her experience has been, and research it for yourself.  The truth can be found in the words of those living in this situation.

If you are as outraged about this abandonment and neglect of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines as I hope you are, talk about it.  Tell everyone you know.  Help us raise awareness.  Maybe you can even write a letter or email to your Congressmen asking them to do something about it.  Nothing gets done in this country without public outcry.  Many of these Troops cannot or will not speak for themselves, lest they be perceived as ‘weak’.  They defended your freedom and your life; maybe you could make some noise for them in their time of need.

To our Government, I send this plea:  Please don’t leave me and my fellow veterans without our earned health care, not for one more damn day.

Why blog when someone will do it for you?

3 04 2013

Hey there!  Long time no post.  Again.  It’s getting to be a pattern with me, yes?

Ah, well, why stress?  As it turns out, someone else blogged for me today, so no need to blather on here.  Go visit the Port City Foodies blog and read about my opinion.  I mean really, does anyone care what I think?  Don’t answer that.

I will be at the finale of Fire on the Dock tonight as a so-called “pro” judge.  That just means my vote counts for slightly more than the average diner, but not enough to tip the win or loss one direction or another.  So I am just one of 120 voters tonight, and I am looking forward to the tasty creations of the last two competitors standing in this regional battle, Gerry Fong and Clarke Merrell.  Their long day began about 3 hours ago; I wish them both the best!

I did such a good job of maintaining this blog (NOT) that my boss gave me another one to maintain (uh oh).  You can check it out over here where there actually is a recipe that I posted today.  One way or another I will get around to all of this…I swear.

JoshPettySeaBassCroquetteParting Shot, prepared by Chef Josh Petty of Sweet ‘n Savory from Battle Striped Bass at Competition Dining’s Fire on the Dock:

Striped Bass & Pancetta Croquet with Fennel Salad, Oyster Mushrooms, Chiffonade Collard Greens, Tricolor Pepper Sofrito & Lobster Dill Cream

My Opinion:  Creative and well-executed!

Under Fire: In the Competition Dining Kitchen

21 03 2013

Competition Dining is a cooking competition here in North Carolina that is the brainchild of Jimmy Crippens.  It celebrates all things food in North Carolina, pitting chefs from five regions in the state against their neighbors in a cooking competition featuring North Carolina grown, raised, or manufactured products.  As Jimmy likes to say to the diners, who are also judges in the competition, “This competition is about three things:  The Farmer, The Chef, and You.”  On any given evening, diners blindly taste their way through six dishes – three each from two competing chefs – voting as they go in categories such as presentation, aroma, taste, and the use of the secret ingredient du jour.  If you would like to know more about how the competition works from a diner’s standpoint, read the articles here and here and here.

IMG_1705Today, I have been granted access to the kitchens at Fire on the Dock, the Coastal region’s segment of this statewide competition.  I have asked to follow two chefs through this competition from the moment they receive word on the secret ingredient until the winner is announced.  Jimmy very graciously allowed me to follow two competitors who have earned their way to the semi-final rounds this year, a rematch of sorts from last year’s semi-final round between these very same toques: Chef Joshua Woo of YoSake in downtown Wilmington, and Chef Gerry Fong of Persimmons in New Bern.

There is no doubt that both of these gentleman can cook, as they have already proved by making it this far.  But this competition is about a lot more than just cooking.  Past battles have faced many calamities out of everyone’s control, such as cakes that didn’t rise from too-cool ovens, custards that didn’t set in warm refrigerators, and a myriad of other bumps in the road.  The chefs and their teams must find a way to serve three courses to the “Joes and Pros” on time no matter what.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Having a positive attitude is one of the keys to success in competition.

This is my insider’s look at a day in the life of the chefs in this delicious Statewide Competition.  Let’s get cooking, shall we?

3:00 AM:  Jimmy Crippen, Emcee and Mastermind of Competition Dining, woke up and started his day, beginning with traveling from Fort Lauderdale, FL to Wilmington, NC. (He made me put this in here; I have no personal knowledge of its truthiness.)

8:00 AM:  Charging the battery on my laptop.  Ticking off my packing list:  Laptop – check; Power cord – check; Phone (camera) charger – check; Notepad – check; Three pens – check; Tea bags – check (I never leave home without them).  I think I’m all set.

I wonder what Teams Woo and Fong are up to right now?  I know that they are not packing their laptops and phone chargers – these devices are prohibited for competitors.  They may, however, be packing up some binders of tried and true recipes, which are permissible in the kitchens.

As for me, I’m off to my day job to make sure everything is set so that my absence will not be felt.  It’s a cooking class night for us, and one of our star chefs is in the house.

10:15 AM:  Pick up coffee from Port City Java; run into Chefs Josh Woo and Dan Crissey getting coffee.  See you down there!

12:00 PM:  Chefs assemble to get briefing and word of tonight’s secret ingredient.  The chef teams share a table and wait pensively through administrative announcements, anxious to get going.  Announcements include this list of basic rules:

  • Try not to serve the same proteins
  • Menus are due to Chef Referee at 3:30pm.
  • Chef Ref Stan Chamberlin

    Chef Ref Stan Chamberlin

    Chef Ref Lawrence is not in the house today; the original Chef Ref Stan Chamberlin, formerly of Crippin’s Country Inn & Restaurant, will be officiating.

  • No signature dishes from your restaurant
  • You must be escorted to the bathroom or pantry truck after 5:30pm.  (Apparently, there have been spies loitering around hoping to get insider information from team members.  Leaks.  Drama.)

12:10 PM:  Secret ingredient is Hillsborough Cheese Company Cheeses, specifically Goat Feta, Goat Chevre, and Cow’s Milk Farmer’s Cheese.  Each team has 10 pounds of each cheese.  (I’m thinking that’s a lot of cheese.  Sixty pounds of cheese, 120 diners – that’s a half pound each.  Or maybe a pound for me and .4917 pounds for everybody else.)

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12:20 PM:  The teams raid the Pantry Truck provided by Pate-Dawson/Southern Foods and start pondering their menus.  I notice a lot of eggs going in the Team Fong cart, and some decidedly porky looking products going upstairs with Team Woo.

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12:45 PM:  I feel a bit like I am in a broadcast booth at a radio station as I sit here in the southern part of the dining room that has been partitioned off to provide us with working space while the Red Hat ladies whoop it up with a luncheon on the other side (those ladies can party – they were even singing at one point!)  Team Fong is on the balcony just outside the window hashing out their menu, while Team Woo works theirs out in the kitchen.

1:00 PM:  Both teams are settling into the kitchen, dividing up tasks and work space as they continue to refine their menu concepts.  They are playing it very close to the vest, not wanting to divulge their ideas to me yet.  So instead of prying about the food, I get personal.

Team Woo: IMG_1732

Chef Joshua Woo:  Josh is having fun cooking with his team, but he is very focused on the food.  I sense he is taking this competition very seriously.  He’s all business as I try to chat him up, and we end up talking pork belly.  No personal sharing today; he has a job to do.  I may not be nicknamed “Chef Bacon” but I love me some pork, too.  Yes, Josh, I will take a picture of the pork belly.  Focused.

Chef Rebeca Alvarado Paredes:  As pastry chef at manna, Rebeca has made quite a reputation for IMG_1736herself in her short time in Wilmington.  A graduate of Johnson & Wales Pastry School and a youngun’ to this grandmother, Rebeca is nonetheless a focused professional in the kitchen who seems to truly enjoy her work.  She plied me with samples.  I stood closer.  She knows my sweet tooth is in charge because I eat her desserts regularly; it’s an unfair advantage.  Fortunately, I too am a professional and cannot be bought.  Oh wait, I’m not voting.  Well, even if I was, a little bit of caramel-soaked brown butter cake and a smidge of deliciously smooth, creamy panna cotta would not sway my vote.  No way.

Chef Dan Crissey:  Dan has worked alongside Josh Woo for many years before entering the Corporate world at Whole Foods in Wilmington as Supervisor of Prepared Foods.  Dan brings a big smile and can-do attitude to Team Woo today.  There was also a little story we shared about Josh in which I knew the beginning – a tasting menu with bite size food and full size drink pairings – and Dan knew the ending from later that same night.  Wilmington is a small town.  If you don’t know what you are doing, someone else always does.

Team Fong: 

IMG_1730 Chef Gerry Fong:  Bringing a little bit of his Chinese roots to his cooking, Gerry focuses on using local products to create modern dishes with a nod to tradition.  He says it feels good to be back in the kitchen for a rematch with Josh – the pair met last year in the semi-finals of this same competition.  He’s not looking ahead too far, though, saying “I’m here to have fun and put out some great food for 120 diners tonight.”

Chef Mark Turner, Executive Catering Chef for NCSU: Mark and Gerry have been friends for years, having met when working for a food service supplier years ago.  He says he’s come to help his buddy cook tonight to have fun and hopefully get one battle closer to the coveted red chef jacket.  He says, “Gerry is a natural; He’s IMG_1754extremely talented.”

Sous Chef Terrance Guion – Terrance is working as Gerry Fong’s understudy at Persimmons.  Before that, he was working at Wendy’s.  That transition was a short distance but a world apart.  Of working with Gerry he says, “It’s great.  I love my job.”  He credits Gerry with teaching him what he knows about cooking and solidifying his interest in a culinary career.

2:12 PM:  As the teams get focused and work on building flavors for their dishes, it seems one team is a bit ahead of the other in menu planning.  Both teams have nailed down their desserts and have them well underway.IMG_1758

The Fong team has a clear concept of their first and second course, with cheese taking a prominent role as expected in this competition.

The Woo team seems unsure of what their first and second courses will look like, though they have decided that Pork Belly, Bacon, Pancetta, and Shrimp will be seen on the plates.  With little more than an hour until their menu is due to Chef Referee Stan Chamberlin, team Woo is deferring their decisions until tasting their way through the options.  So the pork belly is rendering, the shrimp are being peeled, and the bacon is staged.  We shall see what becomes of this soon…the clock is ticking!

Fong Menu thus far:  1st – Trifecta of Cheese with Feta & Andouille Wonton, Arancini di Riso, and Fried Farmer’s Cheese Stick; 2nd Veal, polenta; 3rd – Lavender Goat Cheese Ice Cream

Woo menu thus far: – 1st – Ravioli? 2nd – Pork Belly w/Feta?  3rd – Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Braised Fruit and Mixed Nut Brown Butter Cake


2:39 PM:  This author can certify that the Pistachio Lavender Ice Cream is totally awesome – thanks Gerry!  Shhh.

IMG_17312:52 PM:  Lunch arrives for the Competitors – Pulled pork sandwiches and tater tots.  (Well, what did you think they eat, foie gras?)

3:01 PM:  Team Woo throws in the note pad and goes back to the pantry truck to brainstorm ideas for two of their three dishes.

3:24 PM:  The BlueWater Staff is polishing silverware and setting tables in preparation for tonight.

3:30 PM:  Both Teams have committed to menus and are forging ahead with cooking.  Team Woo is still waiting to decide on finishing touches of their platings until things are further along.  Uh oh.  Not a good sign.

IMG_1728 IMG_1725 IMG_1721 IMG_1722 IMG_1720 IMG_1724 IMG_1713IMG_1737  A lot of cooking has been going on in this kitchen.  Much of the preparation is complete, though many of these dishes require multiple cooking processes.  The arancini from Team Wong, for instance, started as risotto traditionally begins: in a pan on the stove with liquid being gradually added whilst near-constant stirring was taking place.  Now the risotto has cooled, balls are being formed, cheese is being stuffed into the middle; soon they will be breaded with panko, and eventually fried before being served.  Similarly, Team Woo has seared then braised their Pork Belly, which will be served with cheesy grits cakes in a couple of hours.

5:00 PM:  I am impressed with the calm in the kitchen, everyone focused on the myriad tasks before them, yet managing to smile and be courteous to each other and to me.  I know they must be feeling the pressure of the clock ticking, but they are all doing a great job of keeping calm and carrying on.  Consummate professionals, all.  But seriously, it’s just a bit too quiet for my tastes.  I think I’ll go out to the dining room – they have music playing now.

5:38 PM:  Desserts are being portioned, raviolis are being par-cooked, sauces are being reduced, and all the components of the plates to be served are taking shape.  Except for the sweat rolling down backs, everyone here is still cool as a cucumber.  All this calm is unnerving.  Why isn’t anyone freaking out?  Probably because I am not competing; that would lead to some serious freaking out.

5:46 PM:  The dining room has been transformed, and the wait staff is standing by.

IMG_1733 IMG_1739 IMG_1740 IMG_17476:00 PM:  Judy Royal, official social media guru for the competitions, has arrived and is setting up her makeshift studio from which she will tweet and Facebook all the action of tonight’s battle.

6:15 PM:  The guests start to arrive and are ushered into the bar while the staff fills water glasses.  In the kitchen, plates are being counted and items for plating are being staged.

6:30 PM:  Team Woo works out plating for their second course, gives it a taste, then takes a supervised break from the kitchen with Chef Ref Stan.

7:08 PM:  The dining room is fully seated and the ceremonies get underway with Christi Ferretti and Jimmy Crippen officiating.  Word has it that Christi may become the official mistress of ceremonies for Fire on the Dock next year.  Wait – is Jimmy already abdicating his new career?  Seems new to me, but he has been building this thing for years.  Being in five places at once is exhausting, I know.  Keep us posted, Jimmy.

7:25 PM:  Managers appear with headsets.  Chef Ref calls for service.  White shirted servers line up.  The first plate leaves the kitchen.

Blur.  Blur.  Blur.

8:12 PM:  Grown man: “Is that Broccoli Rabe?  It’s Yucky.”  Me:  “No, it’s Rappini.”  Belly laughs as I think of my 8 year old grandson.  Grown man’s wife says, “That’s not going to be in your article, is it?”  You betcha.

Blur.  Blur.  Blur.

8:56 PM:  h.its Tech Staff Member:  “Ma’am, have you been voting this evening?”  Diner:  “No, was I supposed to?”  More belly laughs in the staff work room.

Blur.  Blur.  Blur.

9:25 PM:  The last plate leaves the kitchen.

9:40 PM:  Chef teams are introduced and recognized.  Chef moms are introduced and recognized – they are so sweet!  Vote tallies are announced…no.  Technical difficulties.

9:50 PM:  Vote tallies are announced…and the winner is Team Fong!

As I congratulate the winners, attempt to console the losers, and rush home to let my dog out, I reflect on the day overall.  All of these cooks busted their butts tonight to feed a room full of people who were judging the product of their labor.  That is what this program is all about – the farmer, the chef, and the diners.  In every competition there are so-called winners and losers; but winning and losing are just words assigned to describe the outcome of this game.  I could see the disappointment on Chef Woo’s face, hear it in his words as he asked me – probably because I had been there all day, certainly not because I am an expert – “Where did I go wrong?”  It doesn’t matter, my friend.  It’s in the history books now.

This competition is indeed a game.  While there is a little bit of money at stake, and recognition for the state and regional winners, it is not life; it is just a day in the life.  Today both chefs will likely don their jackets and aprons and head into the kitchens that they oversee on a daily basis.  There they will probably sigh in relief that they are back in their comfort zone.  They will likely prepare meals for their customers, push some paperwork around, place some orders, perhaps hire or fire some staff, maybe work on crafting their menus for spring and summer since the season change is upon us.  Tonight, both will go home to their families.  Tomorrow they will do it all again.  That is their life, not this one night in this competition.  These chefs make a difference every day in the lives of their family and friends, and in the food they lovingly craft and serve to happy customers.

I hope all the competitors had some fun and will remember the funny moments, the team work, the experience.  I hope Team Woo will hold their heads high and be proud of the results of their work.  It’s all good, guys.  Really.  Thanks for letting me be there.

I think a diner last evening said it best, just before the results were announced:  There are no losers here.

For the menu, pretty food pictures, and official results of Battle Hillsborough Cheese, visit this link.

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Porking Around Wilmington & Chicago…and Ponzu

8 03 2013

Hello My Dear Readers!

Sorry for yet another long pause in the white noise that is my so-called foodie blog.  You probably slept just fine without me.  But here I am, back to annoy you.  While I was away, I wasn’t merely chained to the stove at work like usual; they actually IMG_1677extended my leash and let me go to Chicago for a trade show.  When I returned from freezing my tail off up north, there was a bracing cold 30 mile per hour wind blowing here in coastal North Carolina that seemed to have followed me back from the Windy City.  My apologies to my neighbors.

It seems that March is shaping up to be all about pigs in my corner of the universe.  I’m thinking about bacon, belly, barbeque (which to those of us in this part of NC means pulled pork shoulder or butt with a vinegar sauce), chicharones, lardo, all manner of charcuterie – pretty much anything that comes from our cleft-hooved friends.  So let me share with you some of the porky highlights going on ‘round here.

‘Prince of Pork’ Packs his Pouch:  We got word that Chef Kyle Lee McKnight – most recently manning the stoves at manna in downtown Wilmington – is departing our fair city to run the kitchens of a new venture in Hickory, NC.  Kyle has been dubbed the “Prince of Pork” by locals because of his work with Bev Eggleston to create “outrageously fine swine” including delicious artisan charcuterie crafted by Kyle and made from Iberico hogs (the delicious breed made famous in Spain).  So what happened is that local star chef Keith Rhodes and local food blogger Kyle McKnightextraordinaire Liz Biro planned an event to bid Kyle farewell and this coming Sunday, March 10th, some of us will be enjoying a 10-course tasting menu in his honor featuring – you guessed it – pork!  (If you want to join us, click here to see if tickets are still available.)  We are starting with chicharones and ending with bacon and waffle ice cream – are you jealous yet?  Serious respect amongst industry folks in our town for Kyle…can’t wait to see where his future takes him.

Chocolate Wins (on anything):  On March 4th, the Fire on the Dock battle between Chef Brent Poteat of 22 North on Wrightsville Beach and Chef Pat Greene of Elijah’s downtown featured Heritage Farms Premium Pork.  Though the evening’s victory went to Brent, the diners seemed to really dig Pat’s Seasoned Collard Green Pork Soup with Candied Bacon.  I think the idea of featuring pork in a soup is genius;porksoup it’s certainly not on my Top 10 list of things to make with pork, but the scores were pretty high.  Way to go, Pat!  At the end of the evening, it seems that you get more points with chocolate crème fraiche cake than with pork roulade (didn’t anybody tell Pat that, while not required, dessert has won these battles for many a chef?)  It looked like a tasty battle and I am sorry I missed it.  Perhaps I will see Brent in the final four coming up at the end of the month.

Mangiale il Maiale (Eat the Pig):  I couldn’t help myself, I had to work pork into a cooking class.  So I came up with an ode to Florence, Italy and surrounding countryside for a cooking class I am conducting on March 26th.  I’m calling it Flavors of Florence and I’m serving an anitpasto of Calamari Salad with Basil, Mint, Grape Tomatoes, and Shallots; Spaghetti tossed with a spicy Roasted Red Pepper Sauce; tender Marinated Pork Chops with Red Wine Mushroom Sauce; and simple but stunning individual Puff Pastry Fruit Tarts with Chantilly Cream.

Happy as a Pig in…Wine?:  While in Chicago for a trade show scouting the latest, greatest kitchen tools for our store, I had the opportunity to dine at The Purple Pig, a happening little place on North Michigan Avenue in the heart of the Windy City.  I arrived early, which is to say that there was no line yet, though nearly every seat was full on this Sunday evening.  Since I was alone, they squeezed me into a bar stool at what they call “The Chef’s Counter,” behind which most of the cooking takes place in this pork-centric culinary haven.  Next to me, the Expediter on my side of the counter was in constant eye contact with the Chef de Cuisine who called out near-constant orders to the cooks on the line and tasted nearly everything before sending it out to the diners.  Here, Chef Jimmy Bannos Jr. and crew craft some of their own charcuterie and transform all parts of the pig into delicious creations that are carefully prepared and beautifully presented.  It was a friendly place with more than reasonable prices for the quality; my tab for the evening came in under $50 for four courses.  The wine list is extensive and well chosen, hence the color purple in the name on the door.  I was so excited about the cheese and charcuterie course that I failed to snap a photo for you, and the same thing happened with the beets – sorry.  I did, however, sneak one of my neighbor’s marrow bones; I have a tiny twinge of regret for not ordering them myself.  But everything I had was fabulous:  Lingua Agrodolce with Quadrelo (both house made); Salt-Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese and Pistachio Vinaigrette; “JLT,” an open faced sandwich with Pork Jowl, Tomato, dressed Frisée, and a fried Duck Egg; and I stole off into the frigid night with Grandma D’s Chocolate Cake with Almond & Orange Marmaletta.  You must visit this approachable and delicious place when next in Chicago – you will not regret it!

IMG_1689 IMG_1688 IMG_1686 IMG_1685 IMG_1681 I am sure there are more porkified events going on, but that’s what I have to report for now.  So get in the spirit and start porking around – the possibilities are endless!  Here’s a little recipe to get you started.

P.S. The Ponzu keeps in the fridge for a month or so and makes boring Chinese take-out on those busy evenings a whole lot better!

Ponzu-Orange Marinated Pork Tenderloin

2 cups Ponzu Sauce (recipe follows; or use store-bought)

Juice and Zest of 1 large Orange

½ cup Canola or Vegetable Oil

1 Pork Tenderloin, trimmed, silver skin removed

Combine ponzu, oil, juice, and zest in a Ziploc bag.  Add the tenderloin to the marinade, squeeze the air out of the bag, close and refrigerate for 2 hours.

Preheat your grill or grill pan over medium-high heat.  Sear the tenderloin for about 2 minutes per side.  Reduce heat to medium and grill an additional 5 minutes per side.

Remove from heat and tent with foil.  Rest for 5 minutes.  Slice into 1” thick rounds and serve.

Serves 4.


Ponzu Sauce

2/3 cup Lemon Juice, more to taste

1/3 cup Lime Juice, more to taste

¼ cup Rice Vinegar

1 cup Soy Sauce

¼ cup Mirin (or 1/4 cup sake and 1 tablespoon sugar)

1 3-inch piece Kelp (konbu)

½ cup (about ¼ ounce) dried Bonito Flakes

Pinch Ground Cayenne Pepper

In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Let sit for at least 2 hours or overnight. Strain. Just before using, you might add a small squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice.

Cover and refrigerate.

Makes about 2 ½ cups.


Be a “Docker” – The Fire is Lit!

11 02 2013

I love my job.  I didn’t always, but circumstances have led me full circle back to the place I once left because I was very unhappy – and it is completely different than it used to be.  I consider myself very lucky to be able to do something to pay my bills that also brings me fulfillment on a more personal level.  I am all too aware that not everyone has the opportunity to do what they love for a living; I feel blessed.  Other people seem to notice, too, as they comment about how both I and my place of employment seem to be thriving.  It’s a good fit.

I have been privileged to witness another good fit in the person of Jimmy Crippens and the cooking phenomenon that is Competition Dining NC.  Knowing well that it takes a team of people to make a success of any venture, I am sure that Jimmy jimmycrippenswould be quick to tell me that he is far from a one man show; it takes a small army of people to make this fantastic program work.  Yet, when I think about this competition and the dining events thereof that I have enjoyed, I think first of Jimmy.  He is the face of these competitions, the Master of Ceremonies, the champion of the cause who spearheaded the move to make it what it is today; he is the one visible constant over the years of building a local cooking competition into a statewide program.  He seems the perfect person to be the face and voice of this movement; it’s a good fit.  I have to assume he loves his job, too, because this stuff is hard work that invades your consciousness nearly 24 hours a day; he has to be passionate about it or he could not muster the stamina that it requires to make it a success.  By the way, Jimmy has had another job – another life entirely – that he has now decided to put in the rear view mirror to permit him to embrace this program full time.

The competition that Jimmy and countless others have no doubt made sacrifices to usher into its current state is officially known as the “Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series.”  It’s mission is to raise awareness regarding the origin of the food that we consume; to support local and regional growers, manufacturers, and artisans who create our food here in North Carolina; and to showcase the talents of the chefs and restaurateurs who use these products to create the tasty dishes we consume when we dine out.  Along the way, it has also grown to incorporate other matters of interest like kitchen fire safety and small production, affordable wines that pair well with fine foods.   For me, it has been a lesson in the seemingly endless array of fabulous products that are grown or created in North Carolina.  I had no idea we made so much stuff right here in our state!

Last year, I wrote about how the events work from a diner’s perspective.  What I have been thinking about lately is what it is like from the competing chef’s perspective.  While I have not been in the kitchens of this competition, I am acquainted with some who have.  The feedback that I have received makes it clear that this competition is about so much more than just cooking; it is a long, hot, grueling day in the kitchen that starts with the announcement of a secret ingredient mere hours before dinner service.  For a competing chef and her team, it is every bit as much about creativity, leadership, teamwork, comraderie, humility, focus, and determination as it is about cooking.  If anyone thinks that being a good cook alone makes you a shoe-in to win this competition, I can point you to a lot of chefs who will tell you otherwise.  It’s a competition of character and stamina as well as cooking; taking yourself too seriously will not lead to success.

Last year, the kitchens used for the local edition of this program that we know as “Fire on the Dock” were small; the competitors had no choice but to work with and around each other to get their food to the dining tables.  From what I am told, the competitors who worked well together communicated their needs for space and time to each other, budgeted time with certain equipment so that everyone could get their work accomplished, and even helped each other with plating.  The ones that did not play well together did not fare well and, more importantly, didn’t enjoy the experience.

There will be a winner and a loser from each battle – that is a fact.  Some of the margins of loss are by mere single-digit point CompDiningNC2013spreads.  The losers, it could be said, are not really losers; they just weren’t the statistical winners.  It is a very subjective voting process and 70% of the votes are made by “average Joes,” as Jimmy refers to them.  It is important for the chefs to remember the basics when devising their menus: We eat with our eyes first, so plating is important; but the taste and texture are ultimately the deciding factors for 70% of the dining room.  I think most of us understand that pretty plates with several components are more difficult to create.  But only the pro judges – 30% of the vote – are likely to know the skill involved in creating a particular dish.  The chefs are well advised to play to the masses and just not worry about the pro judges like me.

Yes, that’s right.  These kind folks have asked me to serve as a “Pro” judge at the final three events of Fire on the Dock this year.  Clearly, they are using the term “Pro” very loosely.  Yes, I know a good bit about food and cooking, and I teach cooking classes and manage a kitchen store.  But many of these competitors have extensive culinary education and experience that, by comparison, put me firmly into the “amateur” column.  Really, who am I to judge?  Maybe they just love me for my blog.  Well, no matter, I appreciate the opportunity to participate in these great events that celebrate all things food in North Carolina.  I hope the competitors remember to have some fun while they are cooking their hearts out for my dining pleasure.  Make some memories, chefs!

If you happen to be within a reasonable commute of the Wilmington area, I hope you will join us for one of these delicious home-grown dining events and be happily labeled a “Docker” by Jimmy, like me.  I promise good food, great entertainment, and perhaps some Bluewaternew friends while you enjoy the fantastic views of the intracoastal waterway from the top floor of Bluewater.  Make a mini vacation out of it while you are at it; the rooms rates are very reasonable this time of year and a walk on Wrightsville Beach in the relative peace of February or March is priceless.  Maybe you can even have dinner at one of the competitor’s restaurants during your stay.

The brackets have been announced and the cooking starts next week on February 18th; events are filling up fast, so visit the website to make your reservations today before it’s too late!

If you can’t make it to Fire on the Dock, be sure to attend one of the events when this delicious road show comes to your corner of North Carolina.  Find the full schedule at http://www.competitiondining.com; follow them on twitter at @compdiningnc and like them on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/CompetitionDining

Fire it up, Wilmington!  See you at “the Dock!”

Wilmington for Foodies: Groceries, Gadgets, and Gurus

27 01 2013

Now, I may be a bit biased in my views, but what I am about to share with you here are some of the best places to shop in Wilmington for foodies like me, plus a couple of folks you should know about who can keep you in the foodie loop.  That I happen to manage one of the stores I recommend may seem like a conflict of interest; since I am not being paid for my opinion, I don’t have any ethical qualms about it.  Chalk it up to confirmation that I love my job!  The opinions herein are strictly those of the author, and you know what they say about opinions.  Don’t take my word for it – visit these stores and judge for yourself.


If you live here, I am sure you are aware that we have an abundance of grocery stores such as Food Lion, Lowes Foods, Harris Teeter, The Fresh Market, even Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s that both opened last year.  Personally, I need nothing from Trader Joe’s, though I do stop into Whole Foods once every month or so for some bulk goods that I don’t find elsewhere.  Also, their produce is reasonably priced and includes hard-to-find items.  Their cheese selection is possibly the best in town, though it is expensive.  I do most of my standard grocery shopping at Harris Teeter – canned goods, paper products, frozen items, etc.  But the best in local produce at this time of year when the Farmer’s Markets are not operating is at La Huerta, located at 830 S. Kerr Avenue.

LaHuerta1LaHuerta2 LaHuerta3Spanish for “The Garden,” this wonderful place is a haven for delicious, fresh produce.  Also to be found here are some great Mexican-style cheeses, dried chilis and spices, cookies, canned goods, dried beans, and cured meats.  Much of their product comes from North Carolina growers and purveyors, so in many cases you are buying a local product from a local retailer – the ultimate in shopping and eating local.  La Huerta doesn’t have everything – if you want watercress and endive, you are not likely to find them here.  It is, after all, a Hispanic market that caters to the Mexican and Latin-American population of the area.  But a visit here will not disappoint you, and will likely inspire a meal or two as you gaze at all the lovely ingredients.

Among the unexpected treats I found at La Huerta recently were a delicious Oaxacan rope-style cheese  that had the texture of part-skim mozzarella and some lovely side bacon from hogs raised right here in North Carolina.  The cheese was super delicious when I baked it up inside puff pastry pinwheels – it seemed to be more flavorful melted.  The bacon I baked on a sheet pan to render off much of the fat, then dipped the crispy slices in melted chocolate and served it with a red Bordeaux at a wine pairing class last week.  Mm mm mm.  I also found green tomatoes in the dead of winter y’all, and you know what I did with those.  You don’t?  Where you from, Shug?

SaigonMarket1 SaigonMarket2 SaigonMarket3

From La Huerta, you can head up Kerr Avenue toward Market Street and visit Saigon Market & Tatyana’s European Delights in Kerr Station Village.  Saigon Market, 4507 Franklin Ave., is practically a landmark in Wilmington; if you like to cook and you live here for any length of time, someone will send you there for something.  I confess to sending a good many people there when they are in search of obscure or  Asian ingredients.  I personally go there as much for the experience as anything else.  I love to look at all the products, read what I can of the labels that may or may not have an English translation on them, and decide what strange new product I am going to take home to sample.  I haven’t had the privilege of traveling to the Far East, so Saigon Market is as close as I have been to an Asian cultural experience.  Also, they often have delicacies like quail eggs that you can’t find elsewhere in town.  The other eggs, the ones without cartons or labels?  You should really ask about those.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  I love pork Lumpia (Filipino-style egg rolls) but not the laborious process of making them, so I buy the frozen ones here.  If you need chopsticks, or rice bowls, or those functional little shovel-style soup spoons used in Asian restaurants, they have those too.  Fresh produce is limited to the most common ingredients used in Asian cooking, but it is top notch.  Mung bean sprouts, Napa cabbage, bok choy and much more is cleaned and bagged on the premises, refrigerated and ready for you to use.  Open seven days a week until 7pm, Saigon Market is a feast for your senses!

Walk around the corner from Saigon Market and enter a little corner of Eastern Europe right here in Wilmington.  Tatyana’s boasts an unimaginable assortment of items for such a small space – pickled veggies of all sorts, beverages, candies, cookies, sausages, just about anything you can think of from tatyanasthe old country.  Fresh foods and baked goods are also available. Monday through Saturday 10am to 7pm and Sunday 12-5pm, Tatyana’s is ready to serve you with delectable treats from Russia, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, and beyond.  If you don’t live here, no worries!  Tatyana’s website has a virtual shopping cart – they will ship to your doorstep.

Using La Huerta as our starting point once again, you can head the other way on Kerr Avenue, between Wilshire and Wrightsville Avenues, where you will find Tienda Los Portales.  This supermercado has a bevy of Mexican foods and products.  If you need masa harina for your tamales, LosPortalesSupermercadoor just better prices on grocery items (like crema or tortillas) than you can find elsewhere, give this store a try.  Pick up some fresh-baked cookies and bread, or a piñata to fill with candy for the kids at your next party.  It’s a little bit of home for the Latin Americans in our community, and the rest of us “gringos” are welcome, too.

A few more essential links:

Fresh Bread and Amazing Desserts:  La Gemma Fine Italian Pastries

Hard-to-find cuts of meat, yummy fresh-prepared foods, and much more:  Pine Valley Market

Organics, Vegetarian, and Vegan Specialties:  Tidal Creek Co-Op


I have to tell you about the store I manage – The Seasoned Gourmet, located at 1930 Eastwood Road.  We don’t carry fresh foods like these other fine establishments; rather, we carry the tools and shelf-stable ingredients you need to cook at home.  We have a large assortment of kitchen tools and gadgets – I’m going to go out on a limb and say perhaps the largest selection in Wilmington.  Cookware, cutlery, bamboo boards and accessories, and bakeware abound in our modest space.  Oils, vinegars, seasonings, and flavorings anchor one section of our space.  We do a brisk gift basket business, and I know they are the best looking gifts in town because I have shopped around.  We hand-tie all of our gorgeous bows, and we build the gifts to your specifications.  Shipping and delivery are no problem.

TSG (598x800)Coffee & wine are a big part of our business, too.  We have a coffee club that is free to join and has been around since our inception in 1994; members enjoy a free pound for every 10 pounds purchased, any coffee combination, any length of time.  We offer fine coffees from Carolina Coffee Company which is roasted right here in Wilmington.  We also have a hand-selected array of boutique and small production wine, about 150 different labels on any given day, ranging from $6.99 to $289 per bottle.

The Seasoned Gourmet boasts an ever-growing assortment of local and regional products, from the iconic Goodness Gracie Heavenly Toffee Cookies to all-natural cookies for your dog from My Porch Dawg.  Mama Lou’s, Off the Hook, Outta the Park, Pluto’s, Bone Doctor’s, and Mother Shuckers are but a few of the sauces on our shelves.  8th Wonder Seasoning, Carolina Candy Company, Salem Baking Company, Polka Dot Bake Shop, Heide’s Homemade Buttermints, Old School Mill, Shirley’s Peanut Brittle & More, Cat Daddy’s, The Peanut Roaster, and Old Log Cabin (Berry Towne Crafts) are but a few of the other local products on our shelves. 

The Cape Fear Food & Wine Club, which meets at The Seasoned Gourmet, offers cooking classes and wine pairing classes to members and their guests.  In addition to store staff, the Club hosts some of the best chefs in Wilmington who offer recipes and instruction culminating in chef-prepared meals.  It’s a chance to get up close and personal with the folks behind the stovesIMG_1342 (478x640) at your favorite restaurants!  The Club is a one-of-a-kind offering in Wilmington, teaching classes in  a kitchen equipped with residential equipment, just like at home.  From hands-on techniques classes (knife skills, soufflés) to demonstration classes with themed dinner menus, the club has something for everyone who enjoys cooking.

We like to say that we are “Wilmington’s Complete Culinary Experience,” and we want every visit to our store to reflect that sentiment.  We have wine and food open for sampling nearly every day, so be sure to ask if you see something you want to taste.  The Seasoned Gourmet takes phone orders for gift baskets and many of our products can be ordered through our website, which is still under construction.

The prices are more than reasonable at all of these places.  I may be a store manager, but I live on a budget like everyone else these days, hence the crappy tree house apartment I complain about often on this blog.  These are the places I shop because they have the best product for the price, and I am all about quality.  I want the best value possible for my hard-earned money.  These stores offer just that.


For the up-to-the-minute scoop on what’s going on in the Wilmington Food Scene, two indispensable resources come to mind. Port City Foodies (@portcityfoodies), a blog hosted by the Star-News and driven largely by a hard-working guy named Paul Stephen (@pauljstephen), definitely has its finger on the pulse of all things food in Wilmington.  Another reliable resource is Liz Biro (@lizbiro, @lizbirofoodtours). This lady knows everyone who’s anyone in food in the Port City and can hook you up with a tour to see the best of the best in action.

That’s it for my insider tips to the best foodie finds in Wilmington for now.  Get out there and Eat Wilmington!


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