Mountains. But with Piedmont food.

That’s my stipulated answer to the question: mountains or beach? Because you’ve gotta be one, right?

I love Asheville, North Carolina. Tim and I lived there, for a little over a year, back in 2001-2002. It was there we met some of our nearest and dearest friends, there we fell in love with living right smack dab in the middle of mountains. The town is full of nostalgia for me; but it has changed much in the years since we left, losing some of its edge and becoming frightfully polished (in some ways). But I left part of my heart there when we left, and when I get to go back — usually a couple times a year — my soul still heaves an almost audible sigh of contentment as I drive around the curve on I-240 and get my first glimpse of the small city. It just feels better to be there. I don’t know why. But that’s the only way to describe it.

This weekend, it was even better, because I was there with the explicit purpose of spending time with friends who I wish I could see more often; we all live in different cities now (just one remains in Asheville, though we all met there), and the times we can be together are few and far between. My friend Sonja has a husband who generously offered to take himself and their two children out of town for the weekend so that we could fill the house with all of our estrogen and compulsions (a summary of how he put it). There was only one boy — my friend Megan’s four-month old. He and my Wee One hit it off marvelously, in that way that infants generally do (i.e., completely oblivious to each other). Not only was I in one of my favorite places with some of my favorite people, but it also managed to snow a little. Snow — it’s that fluffy white stuff that falls from the sky in places other than Athens, Georgia. There were only a couple of disappointments this weekend: my little one’s nasty cold (she’s still recovering), and our dinner out.

We had a sitter for one night — Saturday. We discussed our options, and finally landed on trying a new restaurant. There had been murmurings of praise from the locals for a new place (how new? who knows), Limones. We took a look at the website, and it sounded promising; the head chef is from Mexico City, then trained in San Fransisco in French-inspired California cuisine. Sounded good to me; I’ve harped many times on the loss of Lula in Knoxville, and the concept and flavors rang that bell. The reservations were made.

The restaurant was quite cozy in its renovated early-20th-century shotgun storefront downtown. No sombreros hanging from the rafters; just warm wood-tones and mirrored walls. Atmosphere? Check. Our local friend raved about the margaritas, so we decided to try a couple different ones; a classic, and a blood-orange. Before they arrived, our server brought us a plate of thick slices of an airy, salty white dinner bread, with a side dish of herbed olive oil.

Hmmm… okay. I’m cool with fusion. Was a bit looking forward to a homemade salsa, but sure. Knock your French-Californian socks off.

The four of us discussed our plan of attack, munched on our olive oil and bread, and when the margaritas arrived, pounced. The blood-orange margarita was divine. It had the classic citrus that we all love in that drink, but with a sweeter twist. I wasn’t as impressed with the traditional lime margarita; something in it reminded me of a mix. I’ve been much more impressed with my margarita with Kristin, or the ones made by Scott and Cassia, homemade-margarita-makers-extraordinaire.

The plan was to split a few appetizers and a couple entrées. Sonja and I, as the only meat-eaters in the group, would share a BBQ Pork Quesadilla with Hot-Sweet cabbage relish, and Megan and Cass would enjoy the meatless Sweet Potatoe-Truffle Empanadas with tomato-Serrano jam. In addition, Megan and I shared an order of Plantains and Guacamole (how I love, LOVE plantains — maduros, or sweet ones, as opposed to the chip-like tostones. They are really very easy to make; I’ll post on them someday).

So everything arrived; and all was well-received. I didn’t get to taste the empanadas, but our BBQ Pork quesadilla was really quite nice. It could have used a bit more of the cabbage relish, and the pork filling seemed to be heaped in the middle of the tortillas, leaving for skimpy last bites, but overall it was quite delicious. I tucked away in the mental roladex to try something similar at home. The plantains were solid, but nothing dramatic; classic sweet maduros, with homemade(?) tortilla chips and good (albeit straightforward) guacamole. First course? Check. Things were on track.

For the main course, the vegetarians were going to split a Wild Mushroom and eggplant Chile relleno with ricotta, jicama salad, carrot-habanera sauce, cumin-lime crema and pineapple-ginger salsa. My side of the table ordered a Cornmeal N.C. Trout with papaya crab salsa, haricot verts and carrot habanero sauce. And here, my friends, is where the meal went downhill faster than a 401K. Just a look at our trout was foreshadowing for disappointment; a very large fillet of fish, coated in cornmeal, sitting on a bed of white rice, with a tiny mound of something on top, and a very skimpy swirl of something on the edges of the plate. I’ve plated prettier dishes for my five-year-old on a Tuesday night. The visual proportions were totally wrong; would flavor proportions fare any better? Indeed they did not. It pretty much tasted like shake-and-bake trout sitting on a bed of white rice. No complexity, no spice, nothing remotely interesting. I didn’t speak at first, wanting to avoid ruining my friend’s potential enjoyment by a verbal subjective slam. But she ate, looked at me, and spoke the verdict I was thinking. There’s just not much to this (or something to that effect). Indeed, there was not. There was a conspicuous lack of visual appeal, flavor, and creativity. What a disappointment.

I watched for a reaction from the other side of the table, where the wild mushroom relleno was being tested. Its consumers had a similar reaction as mine; their tastebuds were being handed sheer boredom. I had a hard time understanding how a dish could achieve such mediocrity with a name so long; but then went back to my dish, and quickly decided the question wasn’t worth my effort. Especially since it would take most of my energy to finish dinner.

The killer was that a few minutes later, I heard our server at a nearby table, recommending the trout. I fought off the urge to stand up, walk over, and ask her to tell me what exactly she liked about it. Was it the fact that it was indisputably a fish? Because that’s about all it had going for it. We thankfully were able to spare the table next to ours; one patron saw that we had the trout, and asked us how we liked it, as she was considering it. We urged her to revisit the menu, and not to bother with the rellenos, either.

I have to say: not many things in this world are more frustrating to me than expensive food that is done poorly.

As you can imagine, we skipped desert. The night before, I had stayed home with a sleeping baby while the rest of the girls had gone to hear some music at the Grove Arcade. On the way home, they stopped at French Broad Chocolate Lounge, and picked up some delights: a cup of hot chocolate with cayenne pepper, and a quartet of truffles — lavender, strawberry and balsamic, orange, and raspberry. All of the above were delicious; we were in agreement that the favorite truffle was lavender (I hear from Rebecca that they serve lavender hot chocolate as well — that’ll be my choice next time). We briefly considered a second swing-by, but after such a disappointing dinner, my appetite was somewhat deflated, and the only thing that beckoned me was the half-full bottle of red wine that awaited us at the house.

So, about the title. The Piedmont is the geographic area where Athens is located. It is part of a same-title region that encompasses more of the South than northeast Georgia, an area bordered on the north by the Appalachian mountains, and on the east by the coastal plains. In general, I’m not fond of the Piedmont; it’s just not the mountains, and remember in the first paragraph when I said that I left part of my heart there? The relatively flat Piedmont just can’t compete. Except for the food, the food in this town that I love. What will I do when I have to leave this place, and leave these eateries, these glorious options, behind?

Why can’t Athens have mountains? Or four seasons? Or on the flip-side, why not convince Hugh or Peter to take their business to Asheville, and while they’re at it, find my husband a job there? Maybe, because then, there would exist too perfect a place. And then, I might have to find something new to complain about.

Because it’s all about me, you know.

Stop reading if you’re an ethical vegetarian.

Just trying to protect you; no disrespect intended. Although, I have a feeling that if you were offended by the consumption of animals, I would have lost you long ago. With my guttural desires to shout devotion to a well-cooked pork shoulder from the tabletop of a fine restaurant, and all.

My news: we have our grass-fed cow. And although the purpose of the cow’s demise was our consumption, I feel good about it for a few reasons: 1) “Bessie” didn’t have to break a leg; her voyage ended quickly, without her even knowing what happened; 2) we have supported local agriculture by purchasing the cow and having it processed locally; and 3) we split said cow about 10 ways, involving that many households in a process that has given us an opportunity to be physically involved with each other’s food and sustenance (albeit a bit loosely).

I’m really not intending disrespect to vegetarians by the title of this post. I have (briefly) considered the practice of vegetarianism at various points in my life, and while I’ve never been fully convicted of any ethical reasons to make that leap, it has been a thought that simmered in my mind more than once. In short, I don’t take lightly the subject of eating animals (although — if you visit my house — you will walk into a living room that is covered by a cowhide rug that I purchased at Ikea; this rug has induced surprise in more than one of my guests — maybe I look like an ethical vegetarian?). I like the chapter in Omnivore’s Dilemma that addresses this debate; while I don’t agree with all of Pollan’s reasoning, I land where he lands. That, and the fact that I don’t know if I could live the rest of my life without eating bacon.

I have to say, though: I’ve loved it. The cow. The one that ate all that grass, and now partially fills a borrowed deep-freezer in our basement. Some surprises:

  • The cow was smaller than we anticipated. The “hanging weight” (I learned this and another new phrase: “on the hoof,” which refers to the total weight of the cow before, well, you know) was 614 pounds, which is a smaller steer. This just meant that all of us ended up with less meat than we anticipated, which is fine, since we can get another cow whenever we desire.
  • The percentage of ground beef to other cuts was much higher than we thought. We were expecting about 60% of the meat to be in the form of ground beef, and the rest to be roasts, stew meat, and steaks. What we ended up with was more like 80% ground beef, and very few steaks and roasts. We had so few steaks, we couldn’t split them, and are planning a grilling party for everyone to partake together (again, physically involved in each other’s food). Anyway, that’s a lot of ground beef. I’ve had to try a few new recipes to utilize, but it’s been good to stretch the ol’ menu imagination.
  • The meat (especially ground) is much fattier than anticipated. You always hear the words “grassfed” and “lean” in the same sentence, it seems. We were warned about just how lean it could be. But apparently, when processing, they added fat back into the ground beef, and our estimates put it at around 75-80% leanness. That’s pretty fatty on the ground beef scale.
  • It was a bit pricier than we thought, around $3.30/pound. That’s still cheaper than grassfed beef at the grocery, but about 50% more than we were expecting to spend.

But I have to say: so far I’ve loved the experience. The beef tastes great; we’ve only been less-than-wowed by some burgers we grilled (they are easy to burn because the high fat content causes the fire to leap up and scorch the burgers). I made a pot roast that was the best I’ve ever made, and it was from the most basic recipe in the Joy of Cooking (sear the roast, sauté a mirepoix, add some red wine to the pot, and let it cook slowly for a few hours). I’ve used the ground beef to make meat spaghetti sauce, skillet lasagna, and Pakistani Kima (a curried beef dish from the More With Less cookbook). It’s been better than comparable cuts from the grocery so far — but, I think we all think the real test will come with the steaks. I’ll keep you updated.

I encourage you to look for a similar setup in your locale, if you’ve not already. Even if you can find a local (think, within 100 miles) farm that raises grass-fed beef and sells the cuts, you can usually get a good price on a whole cow. It was work, organizing all the families and splitting it up; but you certainly don’t have find 10 families (and we won’t, next time) — and the work was worth it. You can also arrange to have a smaller ground beef ratio, which we will also do next time; for this one, we had given the instruction to get “as much meat as possible” from the cow, which is why we ended up with that high ground ratio. In the future, we’ll ask for more steaks and roasts. If you live around Athens and are interested in doing this, contact me and I can get you the info on where we got ours, and even set you up with some people that might be interested in splitting another one. Also, if you’re concerned about space, keep in mind that a regular-sized top-freezer will hold about 100 pounds of meat. Of course, that’s without anything else. But it gives you a frame of reference.

In other news, I’m taking the wee one with me to Asheville this weekend, for a somewhat-annual “girl’s weekend.” As always for this event, much discussion has centered around where and what we’re going to eat. I’m experimenting, for the first time, with freezing scone dough — I’ll bake them tomorrow morning without having to give too much pre-coffee thought to pea-sized clumps of butter. We’re planning dinner out one night, and haven’t decided if we’ll hit one of our old faves, such as Tupelo Honey or Early Girl, or try something new (to us), like Limones. And — before you ask — no, I don’t like Salsa’s, or Laughing Seed, but that explanation deserves a post all it’s own; it’s sort of like admitting that I don’t like Cecilia’s cakes.

Details to follow!

Happy Saturday

I’ve mentioned before that we, meaning Tim and I, don’t really pay much attention to the holiday typically celebrated on February 14. But when you have children, pink and red construction paper hearts are inevitable, and are in fact welcome. We assembled Disney Princess cards (it’s somewhat futile, fighting the princess thing, but dammit if we don’t try) for the school party, and opened cards from grandparents. Our favorite activity, though was decorating cookies at a party for that purpose, masterminded by our friend Caroline (and thanks to Kelly for documenting the event). No, they aren’t quite material for next year’s Martha Stewart Living February cover, but don’t they look delicious all the same? And they are; made from scratch from a Charleston family recipe used yearly for the same event. I’ve eaten one already, and it’s not even 9:30 am.

We all brought home plates to give away, to neighbors or other worthy souls (and who’s not?). At least, that was the intention. We’ll see if they make it that long.

It’s hard to be cynical when cute little hands did a lot of the work (although grownup hands did more). What? Do I hear drips of water melting from my ice-cold heart? That’s what homemade sugar cookies will do.

Pickled red onions

I’ve mentioned these more than once, and figured it was about time they got their own post. The little flavor-boosters deserve it, working so hard to enliven recession staples like Brazilian black beans (guess those guys need a post, too… so many good meals, so little time!).

Aren’t they pretty in pink? Something happens when the purple color inherent in the red onion meets the ruby hue of red wine vinegar. As they sit and meld, the onions turn bright pink. And without a drop of FD&C red#3.

Before you pickle-haters recoil in horror, let me describe in detail: remove from your mind anything resembling a brined cucumber. Because I am not the biggest fan of jarred dill pickles; sure, I’ll eat them on an occasional burger, or maybe chopped up in a tuna salad. But, even when pregnant, I’ve never opened up a jar and started crunching (ahem… Nan). I occasionally eat other “pickled” things, like okra or radishes; and the pickled banana peppers I ate recently atop a pork shoulder at The National were like little gems of vinegarized glory. These red onions, probably like several of the other vegetables mentioned, are pickled quite simply in a mixture of vinegar and sugar. They are tangy-sweet, with a touch of heat (from either jalapenos or black peppercorns). They are a wonderful topping for Mexican-type-fare, making interesting the most straightfoward quesadilla, and also do wonders for cooked beans. I’ve used them in sandwiches, or to top huevos rancheros or a tofu sauté. Most important, though: they are ridiculously simple to make, don’t require canning, and keep for quite a while in the refrigerator, making them useful to top a variety of dishes for a couple or more weeks.

I implore you to try them. If I could, I’d whip up a batch, and send a small jar to all who read — because tasting will make you a believer. There is a great recipe for a large batch in Molly Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook (the recipe is hard to find in the book — it’s on the same page as “Just White Beans,” on p. 60 in my edition). It uses 4 red onions, cider vinegar, and whole peppercorns; it fills a quart Ball jar to the brim, and lasts for many weeks. I used to make this version, but now my refrigerator space is more limited, so I’ve been making them in smaller batches, as-needed. I’ve combined Molly’s recipe with one I saw in Cook’s Illustrated; here’s my small-batch version:

Pickled Red Onions

  • 1 red onion, sliced thinly
  • 1 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp whole peppercorns

Place onions in a medium heat-resistant bowl. In a small saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, salt, and peppercorns; bring to a simmer, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, and pour vinegar mixture over the onions. Cover loosely with foil, and allow to sit until cool to room temperature, about half an hour. Use immediately, or store in an airtight container (in the liquid) in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Inauguration night at The National

It’s no secret, my favorite restaurant in Athens, if not the universe. Five & Ten is a place that changed our dining-out lives from the very first time we went. I’ve been brought almost to tears, on multiple occasions, by tastes of heaven enjoyed in their accessible dining room. Once we experienced it, all other restaurants became a disappointment; so we stopped eating out at the others, instead putting that monthly budget into a savings account, so we could afford to go all-out at the eatery once every 3 months. An anecdote of my near-idolatry: a crisp fall afternoon a few years ago, I ran into the head chef (Hugh Acheson) and, upon recognition, was so starstruck that I stood in the wine shop and pointed at him, mouth agape, totally speechless. As he looked quizzically at the stranger pointing directly at him, and as I came to my senses and found my voice, all I could say, in a barely audible whisper of awe, was, “You’re the chef.”

So a couple years ago, when we heard murmurings of a new restaurant opening with our beloved Hugh at least partly at the helm, we got excited. The story we heard was that his sous chef from the Five and Dime was branching out, starting a new place called The National. We went the first weekend they were open.

The restaurant is beautiful, warm, and comfortable, without an ounce of stuffiness. Oilcloth table covers overlay white linen cloths, lending a unifying white horizon line without the fear of that accidental drop of red wine marring a previously spotless table. It was exactly the level of charm and comfort we had come to enjoy at 5&10; and for the first weekend, the food wasn’t bad. If I remember correctly (it has been a while), the menu was heavy on Mediterranean inspiration. Hummus, pizzas, and the like. It was solid in flavor and execution (the hummus was the best I’d ever had); but it was no 5&10. We went a few times over the course of the next year or so, and while I was never wildly disappointed, I was also never wowed, and always thought of it as a nice restaurant that might make it to the top of the list, in another town — a town woefully without an experience like the one we have right down the street.

So Inauguration night, Tim had a dinner meeting at The National, and I was graciously extended an invitation to join by the powers that be. The mood that night was festive — everyone was charged with the excitement of the historical day. It was frigidly cold, by Georgia standards, and I was thankful to sit down at the table, warm in the cozy atmosphere, and have a glass of red wine poured for my taking. Tim and I had checked out the menu online earlier in the day, and were both encouraged by and excited about the prospects.

The specials were what won our heart, start to finish. For a starter, I’d had in mind to try the patatas bravas, or homefries with spicy-tomato sauce and aioli; but our server convinced us to instead opt for a pizzette, which is exactly what it sounds like — a small pizza. The special one for the night was topped with roasted grapes, gorgonzola, arugula (say no more!), and walnuts. And I’ve had pizzas similar to this before, but somehow this one was better. I was too concerned about getting my second piece of a somewhat communal appetizer without appearing stingy to pay attention to the actual reasons this pizza was able to put a spin on a somewhat done combination. Oh, well. I hadn’t been planning to write about the night; I was caught off-guard.

But that phrase doesn’t begin to describe what was done to us by our entrées; if the appetizer caught us unaware, the main course delivered a knockout punch. Again, two specials: a duck breast and a braised pork shoulder. Over the course of the two weeks that have passed without my being able to sit and fully write about this experience, I forgot many details. So I called the restaurant, and posed my predicament of needing a memory-refresher to the person who answered the phone. He took my name and number, and later that day I got a call from Peter Dale, the chef (not to be confused with The Chef [see paragraph 1], but I was still a bit flustered, speaking on the phone with a person who can create food like what we ate). He was happy to oblige; once he began talking, it was like I could taste it all over again.

The duck breast was scored and crisped in the pan, then finished off in the oven. It was served beside red rice (which is a French variety that is heavy on the starch, making for a creamier texture) with dried currants and pine nuts. Roasted baby carrots, fennel and leeks accompanied the perfectly-cooked duck, with an herb salsa verde (I believe the herbs were mint, basil and parsley) and a pomegranate jus (Peter explained how they made this, and it included a heavy reduction and the addition of pomegranate molasses; but I can’t remember the exact process). As I type this, I think to myself man, it sounds like a lot was going on in that dishalmost too much. But it wasn’t too much. Not at all. It was just right. I started with the duck, and became more startlingly aware of how good it was with each passing bite. I lost the ability to keep up with conversation (we were at a table of 12 people). Even though Tim was verbalizing his characteristic grunts of approval over the pork, I was secretly wondering how to keep the duck all to myself. But alas, we made our half-way switch, and it was a good thing.

The pork shoulder was pre-braised, then crisped in individual portions — and this process must have been the secret to its scrumtrulecent texture. Fall-apart tender, with the added bonus of crispiness in every bite. Served aside: red beans that had been braised in ham scraps and a romaine/cilantro slaw (vinaigrette-based), with an avocado sauce, topped with pickled banana peppers. The pork left me with real, gutteral feelings of pity for the rest of our table, almost all of whom were eating fish (which I’m sure was also quite tasty). It was a moment when I was so happy to be carnivorous and un-kosher, I almost stood on the table and shouted my message to the masses. I’ve mentioned before that I have a bias against cilantro; but I didn’t even know it was there — which tells me it was used in moderation, and in a definitive supporting roll. The pickled banana peppers pushed the whole dish over-the-top, and made it something wholly new and exciting.

The National. It’s not what I thought it was. It has come into its own; probably a long time ago, and I missed the transition. But still, it’s good to know. The knowledge leaves me shaking my head, wondering how in the world a town the size of Athens can support this much incredible food. There are handfuls of cities with not a single restaurant even in the same ballpark as some of our eateries, and here we are with two incredible destinations for high-end dining, and a handful of excellent options for your weekly take-out. I know the town is known for its music history, but what defines it now, for me, is the food. We probably won’t be in Athens forever, and the day we leave will be a sad one for many reasons; but up near the top of the list will be the culinary experiences that will continue, on a nightly basis, without us.

Which leads me to the conclusion: if someone could just get that good bakery going, we might not ever leave.

Done right

Can’t you just taste it right now? I know I said I’d get a latté, but I was feeling a bit frothy.

Please, for the love of all that is buttery and flaky: If you find yourself in Chattanooga, pay a visit to Niedlov’s. It is artisan bread and pastry done with love and pride. It’s the best ingredients, with real hands doing much of the work. It’s not a chain; not a machine (though they do have some of those). It’s just some folks who loved bread, and decided to do it well.

They occupy a renovated warehouse storefront near Main Street, downtown. The aromas of old wood floors, coffee, and freshly-baked everything will warm you to your core when you walk in the doors. Take for yourself a chocolate croissant, a cinnamon roll, or a whole wheat blueberry muffin. Better yet, don’t fuss over decision-making; just take all three (or a baker’s dozen, one of everything) — you can eat them over the course of the day (ours didn’t make it out the door). It’s good, old-fashioned carbs, back when those things were innocent, and actually considered part of a normal diet. Because they are, when eaten sensibly.

The people are friendly, and if they aren’t swamped, are happy to talk about bread. Doesn’t everyone want to do that?

How I miss having a good bakery in Athens.