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Category Archives: locavore

September Saturday

There are few things more enjoyable than a Saturday in September, especially if you live in (or visit) Western North Carolina. Today was all warm sun and wind; almost no humidity; and a sky the color of “the blue-tiled walls near the market stalls”* that we only get in the fall when the faded chambray sky of summer is flooded with a fresh infusion of bright blue.

No one needed anything from me today, so I caught up with an old friend and we gave ourselves over to the enjoyment of a September Saturday. We started with lunch at the Apple Crate Cafe** in Waynesville–a charming little restaurant just off the main road, and brimming over with apples and angels in its decor. My friend and I both opted for a tuna melt and a side of baked potato salad, and were delighted to find RC Cola among the fountain drink choices. When you visit–and I hope you’ll do it soon–be sure to check out the restrooms (“hens” or “roosters,” depending on your equipment); they’re just as nice as the restaurant itself!

 

We ran a couple of errands and one of our stops netted me, unexpectedly, the particular Webkinz one of my nephews has tried to find for months. (His birthday is next week, so now I’m all set!) We went downtown  next, and I remembered how much I always enjoy my visits to Waynesville. It’s just half an hour west of Asheville, but like Hendersonville (see my last post), it’s a world away.

Stopped in at Vin Wine Bar on Church Street; talked to the owner and picked up some info on next Saturday’s excursion to the Rockhouse Winery in Tryon, NC. Vin hosts a ladies’ wine club that meets monthly, I believe, and this is a club-related outing (there are a few spaces left; call 828-452-6000 for more info).

Then it was on to Barber Orchard (2855 Old Balsam Rd. in Waynesville; 828-456-3598), which feels a little like driving into the past. The older part of the building is all field stone rockwork, with a newer shed and packing area built onto the side. A long line of old apple trees screens the view of Highwa 19-23, and the trees were loaded with a bumper crop of purple-red fruit that makes you wonder which old heirloom variety they might be. There are plenty of apples for sale at the moment, including Cortland, Honeycrisp, Gingergold, McIntosh, and Golden Delicious. Other produce included locally grown tomatoes, cantaloupe, field corn, white and red potatoes, squash, muscadines, and plums. Barber Orchard is also known for its fresh-baked apple cakes, apple fritters, cookies, pies, cider, and cider slushies–plus pickled okra, dilly beans, and more kinds of pickles and jams and preserves than you can shake the proverbial stick at. (When a Waynesville-dweller brings a Barber Orchard apple cake to a staff meeting or office potluck, co-workers have been known to fight over even the crumbs left on the plate!)

Two apple turnovers, a bottle of cider, a half-peck of Honeycrisps, a jar of pickled okra, and a sample of fresh cider later, my friend and I parted company and I headed home with the top down, the radio up, and a downright satisfied smile on my face at the September-ness of it all.

* I’ve been on an Al Stewart kick lately, and I have his 1976 classic “Year of the Cat” to thank for that description of the color blue.  Thanks, Al (and happy “Time Passages” for your birthday yesterday)! watch?v=QM7LR46zrQU

** For more reviews on the Apple Crate Cafe: http://local.yahoo.com/info-13357050-apple-crate-cafe-waynesville

Apple-icious Festival

Hendersonville Apple Festival

Hendersonville Apple Festival

Hendersonville holds its annual Apple Festival on Labor Day weekend each year. Booths line both sides of Main Street, which is closed to vehicle traffic, and it’s open season on all things apple-related: apple crafts, apple foods, apple gadgets, and lots and lots and lots of apples.

We went last night, and it was practically perfect, from the weather to the not-impossible-to-navigate crowds. The Buddy-K Big Band (http://www.buddykband.com/) was swinging in front of the gold-domed courthouse; a hit-or-miss engine was cycling and popping as it pulled the crank for homemade ice cream; the evening air was redolent with ubiquitous festival smell of fried peppers-and-onions. I opted for hand-cut french fries drizzled with salt and vinegar, then shared a fried apple pie a la mode (vanilla ice cream courtesy of the hit-or-miss engine, of course).

It’s a friendly festival, and very family-oriented. None of the booths sell alcohol, and everything closes fairly early. Small-ish town America at its finest, and a very different experience than the festivals in Asheville. (More Mayberry, less Haight-Ashbury, you might say.)

We rounded out our evening with a stop at one of the many tents selling locally grown apples (Hendersonville is famous for its apples, by the way).  We stuffed a half-bushel bag with every available variety from Mutsu and Empire to Jonagold, Honeycrisp, Gingergold, Cortland, and Red Delicious. The bag weighed a ton; it was like carrying a sleeping three-year-old back to the car.

Are there more exciting festivals in the Southeast? Probably, but not many that are sweeter–in every sense of the word.

Fleeting Figs…

A fig in the hand...
A fig in the hand…

Fresh figs are some of the most fragile and fleeting fruits I’ve ever seen. One website suggested you have approximately 12 hours from the time you actually dislodge the fig from the tree before you lose control of it (i.e. it turns to mush).

My fresh figs had a lifespan of about 48 hours all together, but many of them didn’t have that much staying power. I ate them, styled them for photographs, shared them with my family, then hit the fig-wall: time to do *something* with the fresh figs before they liquified and ran out of the basket.

I had dreams of caramelizing them and canning the results: tidy, pint-sized rows of golden-brown goodness lining the shelves of my kitchen, waiting to be opened up and spooned out over fluffy buttered biscuits while snowflakes whirl outside the window…but that involved finding canning jars, prepping figs, and dealing with my mother’s hippopotamus-sized pressure cooker, which I always assume will explode, showering anyone in the vicinity with glass shrapnel and geysers of liquid hot “figma” (like magma, only made of figs and sugar).

Freezing, then, was the best option. This still requires prepping the figs, but has no real opportunity to register on the Richter scale of my imagination. (“Asheville locavore blows a gasket–literally–in freakish home-canning accident!”) The fig-related websites (there are more than you might think) suggest boiling figs in a simple syrup before freezing. Hmm…sounds like I should just make fig sauce (like apple sauce, obviously, but with figs) and freeze that. I could still have the buttered-biscuit-snowfall-fantasy, even though freezer containers are 1) not as attractive as canning jars, and 2) even if they were pretty, they’re still hidden in the freezer.

I begin sorting figs, slicing off the stem end and “fig butt” of all those that haven’t either burst their skins or grown cobwebby white mold whiskers. (A fig is really just a fragile little bag of juicy fructose waiting to become a science experiment–eek!) There are still a lot of usable figs, and the ones that scare me go into a separate bag for the neighbor’s hog Brutus. (I’ve seen how and what he eats; I don’t honestly think he’ll mind a few fig whiskers.)

Once all the figs are in the pot, I add a cup or so of orange juice, the juice of one lime, a half-cup or more of brown sugar, a tablespoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of dried orange rind, and a shake-shake-shake of an orange liquer for good measure (or “innacurate measure,” if we’re being technical about it). I turn the burner to medium and wait, stirring occasionally.

A couple of hours (and some adjustments to sugar and cinnamon) later, I have a pot full of beautiful fig sauce, boiled down to caramel-thick perfection, with a million golden seeds catching the light. So good, so worthy, as it were, of buttered biscuits on a winter’s day. As soon as it cools, I’ll put it in sturdy storage containers and bury it in the permafrost zone of the freezer. Pure fig heaven, waiting to be resurrected from from the depths of its artificially Arctic interment to live again at the breakfast table!

Big Fig Pig

Fresh figs!

Fresh figs!

 

That’s me: a big fig pig. Fresh figs call my name this time of year (who knew they could speak?), and they call it LOUD!

I never knew how good figs could be until I tried fresh ones. Until a few years ago, my fig experiences were limited to Fig Newtons and such, which aren’t bad, but not exactly memorable, either, at least to me. (I know there are rabid Newtonians out there, including my dad, and I’m delighted for you. Chew on!)

A friend brought fresh figs to work in 2005. She left them in the copy room, which is what we do with whatever goodies we want to share with the office. (Examples include lots of squash and zucchini in season; chocolate-peanut-butter “buckeyes” when Ohio’s football season starts; King Cake from a co-worker’s family in New Orleans around Mardi Gras; Christmas “thank-you” baskets from vendors–yeeha!)

So I look at the fresh figs with some curiosity, wondering how they compare to (what I consider lackluster) Fig Newtons. They’re small-ish fruit with brownish-purple skins, rounded at one end and tapering towards the stem at the other. Some are slightly cracked, hinting at their juicy interiors. They’re intriguing, they’re something I want to try, so I sink my teeth into fig flesh–

Good golly day! They’re unbelievably good! Like rain and sunshine somehow caught up together in a fragile skin, bursting under the least pressure to reveal their ripeness. No wonder painters are always trying to capture them in still life studies! No wonder Italians are always wrapping them in prosciutto or baking them into once-a-year-fig-delicacies–I, too, could spend the all-too-brief fig season doing nothing but indulging in fresh figs. And I’m supposed to go back to my desk and keep working, as nothing has happened? I want to run out in the streets of Asheville, shouting out my fig joy!

I eventually return to my desk, of course, with my mind full of the possibilities of figs: what can I do that best showcases their character and my newfound admiration for them? Dollops of chevre? Anointment with balsamic vinegar? Carmelization to preserve their perfection behind glass? These are the questions that distract me from PowerPoint and send me into a covert fig-googling operation…

Seven-Mile-A-Minute

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My last post ended with a thought about “sinister simian henchmen,” a.k.a. any creepy monkey that works in cahoots with an organ grinder, or a one-eyed spy for the Nazis in Cairo (Raiders of the Lost Ark), or most recently, Captain Barbosa’s chittering little undead sidekick in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (and the second and third films in the series, as well).

I don’t know why I find monkeys disturbing rather than charming; some people find them delightful and even keep them as pets. (Eek!) The last time I went to the circus, there was an act featuring baby baboons on bicycles, and it was all I could do to stay seated and not run out of the arena. Even the clowns were preferable to watching those sharp, wild, little faces (complete with funky bone ridges like the Klingons) furrowed in concentration on their task. 

So…scary monkeys and late summer have combined to put me in mind of one of the scariest short stories I ever read: “Where The Summer Ends” by Karl Edward Wagner. I found it years ago in a compilation of scary short stories, and read it mostly because, as a friend once said, “if something has text on it, I’ll run my eyes over it.” After a moment or two, of course, I was completely hooked and couldn’t put it down.

The story is set in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is about two hours west of Asheville on Interstate 40. Wagner catches the tone and the texture of the town with ease as he begins to spin a tale of late summer days swollen with humid heat and dank, overgrown kudzu on a dead-end street. You can practically smell something dark and sinister beginning to bulge out of the pages. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, but I will say there’s *something* in the kudzu, so beware!

After reading that story, I pay more attention to kudzu than I used to. The road from my house to anywhere else passes between banks of the stuff for some distance. This time of year, it’s thick and lush and green…and it grows so fast you can almost see it lengthening into new stems and leaves (the better to clutch you with!) as you pass. My great-grandmother called it “that old seven-mile-a-minute” because it grows so fast and claims its territory in such a hurry.

Believe it or not, kudzu produces flowers in the summer–very pretty purple blooms that tend to shy away from sight under a layer of vines. They smell sort of purple, too, but you only know this if you drive around in smellovision (see the post from June 4) and sniff it out. Some locavores harvest kudzu; it turns up as jelly and pickles and a very fine “flour” that beats cornstarch for its thickening properties.* It’s a popular ingredient in handmade paper (whirl it up in a blender and smooth the fiberous pulp over a flat surface to dry in sheets) and it’s used as livestock fodder in Japan (from whence I believe it originated). Did the Boy Scouts really introduce kudzu into this country, using it as roadside ground cover to stabilize banks and hills along the new interstate system, which was one of their national projects in the 1950s? Could be true; could be an urban myth. Regardless, it’s here–especially in the south–and probably here to stay. And if you read Karl Edward Wagner’s take on kudzu, you’ll stay out of it!

*If you are planning to harvest kudzu for any sort of gustatory project, look for a patch  well away from the road. Public right-of-way kudzu tends to have been heavily sprayed with herbicides for years upon years, and that’s not an ideal situation for ingestion.

I-Scream Truck

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As I drove down a back road in western Buncombe County today, I heard a strange sound, sort of like a giant music box, being slowly…wound…down…one…note…at…a…time. It was sad, wheezy, mechanical music, and totally out of place in such a rural setting.

I immediately spotted the source: a pale green panel van with multicolored dots painted on the sides. Of course! An ice cream truck, blaring its siren song to bring children out of the woodwork, dollars clutched in sweaty summertime fists, craning their necks for a glimpse of the frozen treats in store for them.

Did I mention that ice cream trucks give me the creeps? Like clowns, they exist for the amusement of children–supposedly–but I find them more jarring than joyful. A truck with no windows that lumbers around town, promising sweets to children? More like a mobile version of “Hansel and Gretel, ” if you ask me. Remember the Kid-Catcher from Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang? He’s the sort of character you expect to see driving an ice cream truck–and he’d probably be wearing a clown suit. Horrors!

I think I have this Steven-King-induced-terror of ice cream trucks because such trucks are exactly what the monsters (human or otherwise) that people his stories would drive. He probably didn’t write a story about a haunted ice cream truck simply because it would have been too obvious–a King-cliche, so to speak. (King, of course, did indulge in a bloodthirsty clown in It , which is a much scarier book than it is a movie.)

Maybe ice cream trucks have this effect on me because I didn’t grow up with them. My house was way up a secondary road (probably a tertiary road, truth be known) and I can remember the Bookmobile passing by on occasion, but no ice cream trucks. I knew about them, had even seen one in West Asheville once, but it was not part of my childhood. And why is their music always wheezy and clangy? Why does it have a Pied Piper “come along children; follow me over this cliff” sort of feel to it? Like an organ grinder, grinning as he cranks the handle of some unspeakable hurdy-gurdy to ensnare unwary children and draw them closer to the clever hands of what appears, at first glance, to be nothing more than a tame monkey…

See what I mean? Creepy!

I spent a semester at UTEP (that’s the University of Texas at El Paso–Go, Miners!) many years ago, and loved to go to Gussie’s Tamales across town from the campus (2200 N. Piedras Street). Gussie’s is a locavore’s dream: hand-made tamales in a variety of flavors, and so good you could practically roll in them. You place your order at the counter, pay very little, and in return, receive steaming packets of corn husks wrapped around masa that’s been filled with a variety of fabulous ingredients (my favorite was the green chicken).

Four of us made a Gussie’s run one particular evening and took our tamales to a nearby park so we could sit outside and enjoy the warm weather. We were just digging in to our Gussie’s haul when I heard something odd: a few wheezy notes that sounded like a merry-go-round on the skids. There were no other people around, and we were down in the park, fairly far from the main road. I heard it again, a little closer: DUM…dee…DUM…dee…wheeze…dee…dee. Getting closer. The others heard it, too.

Then we saw it: a white panel van, no windows, lurching toward us, bleating its demented little ice cream song, one labored note at a time. We looked at each other, then back at the truck, watching it weave closer, coming toward us through the empty, twilit park, tweedling its increasingly terrifying tune.

That was it for me. “I don’t know about y’all, but I want to get away from that thing,” I said, beginning to fold the corn husk back around my half-eaten tamal*. The others looked at me, looked at the truck–and began a wild scramble for the car. Doors slammed, I gunned the engine, and we were gone in a squeal of protesting tires. The park road formed a loop, thank goodness, so we bolted out the other direction instead of confronting what had suddenly become the “I-Scream Truck.”**

We roared around a couple of curves and I slowed down to look back. The truck was still there, just a pale blur in the growing dark, but the music was still audible: DUM…dee…DUM…dee…wheeze…dee…dee. My passengers shrieked “go!” and we tore out of the park and headed back to the comparatively well-lit security of our dorm. The tamales were still good when we ate them, but our enthusiasm for them–and certainly for ice cream–was diminished for quite some time.

* Yes, tamal is the singular form of tamales (plural). There is no such thing as a “tamale,” but everyone knows what you mean, so don’t worry about it. I’m officially a word-nerd…in two languages!

** Absolutely no offense is intended to what I’m sure are the very nice drivers of ice cream trucks and the very nice people who dress up as clowns or work as organ grinders. I’m sure there are children (and adults) who are not frightened by you–or your sinister simian henchmen–in any way!

Weird trivia: The UTEP mascot is a burly, bearded miner known as “Paydirt Pete.” 

Chicken, Fried (Part II)

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Chicken in various stages, pre-fryingMy mother, \

Pan full of frying chickenNicely browned pieces, ready to go into the oven.

So you’ve got your chicken (fresh or frozen) cut up in pieces, with the skin removed. Standard pieces are breast, thigh, leg, wing (some people include the back and neck, I’ve been told, and others leave the leg attached to the thigh).

Pour some milk (maybe 1 1/2 – 2 cups; can be regular, skim, goat, buttermilk–whatever) into a shallow dish, add an egg, and whip it in slightly (nothing fancy–just a few turns with a fork). This makes what my grandfather called an egg wash (sometimes made with water, etc.). Dip each piece of chicken into the egg wash, then into flour. My mother always puts flour in an old bread wrapper, then drops the chicken into the flour and “floofs” it around to coat the chicken. She uses self-rising flour, which has a little bit of salt added, for extra flavor. (This flour-coating is akin to dredging, but the confines of the bag make it go a little faster.) 

Once you’ve got several pieces of chicken to this stage, put them in a hot skillet (about 1/2″ of cooking oil or shortening, heated until it almost smokes) and let them begin to brown. (Yes, fried chicken is, indeed, fried–in hot fat.) While these pieces brown, get more chicken pieces milk-washed and floured. (You can do them all ahead of time, but the flour sinks in and some pieces might need to be re-dipped.) If you’re worried about handling raw chicken, all I can tell you is be careful and wash your hands and table afterward.*

Turn the chicken in the pan, allowing it to brown on both sides. You’re not trying to cook it all the way through–just get the flour browned and the flavor sealed in. After each piece comes out of the skillet, put it in a regular baking pan–it will finish cooking in the oven. Pour the used cooking oil into a sturdy dish (not plastic!) and allow the “brownings” to settle to the bottom. Wipe out the skillet, add more oil, bring it up to temperature (hot-but-not-smoking) and start the process over. By the time you’ve cooked most of your chicken, you can use the leftover oil for the last pan and save the “brownings” (would be drippings if it were from a roast) for gravy (if you’re a cream-gravy-with-fried-chicken afficianado).

Bake chicken at about 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, but start checking it before the time is up. Dark meat takes a little longer than white to cook, so be sure to poke around for done-ness.

Fried chicken is traditionally cooked on top of the stove, but if you’re cooking for more than a couple of people, it takes forever to cook skillet after skillet of chicken. The stovetop method also uses more grease and allows the chicken and its breading to absorb more.

It sounds like a lot of steps, but this recipe is pretty simple (egg wash, chicken, flour, oil) and amazingly good. It doesn’t have a lot of seasoning, but it doesn’t need it–you can salt and pepper to taste at the table. It’s not greasy, either; the baking dries the breading and makes it tender-crispy rather than hard-fried or soggy.

There are lots of good fried chicken joints in the world, and I’ll gladly chow down on Bojangle’s or KFC or any of the other million places you can go…but there’s just no fried chicken like my mama’s, made with her own hands and her daddy looking over her shoulder from that big old diner in the sky. (Can’t wait to try THAT menu someday!)

*For those worried about safe handling (i.e. inviting “Sam & Ella” to your chicken fry!), plan on washing your hands and utensils thoroughly after you finish frying the last batch and before you put it in the oven. My mother keeps a little jug of water-and-bleach by the kitchen counter–just like her father did–and uses it for cleaning up after working with fresh meat (especially chicken). Don’t forget to wash the faucet handles of the kitchen sink–chances are, you touched ’em with your chicken hands at some point!