Escape to the Big City: 36 hours in Asheville

I should escape to Asheville more often.  It is about 5 times as large (population of around 87,000 compared to 18,000) and feels like a big city compared to Boone. But mostly it feels bigger to me because it has lots more great restaurants!  While there are a handful of restaurants in this area that consistently make good on the promise of wonderful food, there were as many within walking distance of my hotel in Asheville.

As the conference at which I was presenting a paper was at the Renaissance Asheville, I stayed there and was very pleased with the location.  I hadn’t had time for the kind of dining research I enjoy doing before traveling so I did a quick Yelp search on the first evening to see what might be within easy walking distance.  To my delight, I discovered that Cúrate, a tapas bar at which I’d shared several good meals, was only a few blocks away so I strolled on over.  At 7ish on a Thursday evening, a couple would likely need a reservation but my hope that a lone diner could find a seat at the bar without a wait was realized.  In the past, I’d dined at a table and ordered Sangria or a beer.  Sitting at the bar though, it was clear that a cocktail was the way to go.  I’m crushing on bourbon drinks these days — Cúrate’s Old Fashioned did not disappoint.  I befriended the traveling salesman sitting next to me, a self-proclaimed foodie who, it turned out, had grown up in Biloxi, the next town over from my hometown Pascagoula on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  His father had run Austin’s Style Center in Pascagoula in the seventies.  I think my mom’s purple hot pants suit came from there.  We’d each eaten a Cúrate a few times so shared our thoughts on what we’d enjoyed in the past and picked out some new items on the menu.  My ongoing obsession with charcuterie meant that I had no choice but to start with the tabla de jamón, a lovely selection of Spanish cured meats including jamón serrano fermín, jamón ibérico fermín and jamón ibérico de bellota. Delicioso. My dining companion then convinced me to try the pulpo a la gallega, a warm octopus dish served with yukon gold potato purée.  I finished with an old favorite, berenjenas la taberna —  wild mountain honey drizzled fried eggplant.  Better than dessert.  Great meal, fine company, with a lovely glass or two Prino Finca  Villacreces — what more could a solo diner want?

French Broad Chocolate
French Broad Chocolates

On Friday, I had plans to go with my lovely friend Brenda to hear some music at the Altamont later in the evening. With time to kill after the conference and despite the storm clouds brewing overhead, I went wandering around the area, making stops at French Broad Chocolates and the Asheville Wine Market.  Boone and Blowing Rock both have nice little wine stores, but nothing with the selection, including some great deals, of this place. Then the bottom fell out of those storm clouds. I slogged through the rain with my bags of wine and chocolates, ducking into every available doorway, and made my way back down the street to Rhubarb.  My friend Elizabeth at my1stwordwaschocolate had recommended Rhubarb and Yelp concurred.  Again, a reservation would likely be need for a party of two or more but the Chef’s bar was an excellent option for an early dinner for one.

Enjoying an Old Fashioned at Rhubarb's Chef's Bar
Enjoying an Old Fashioned at Rhubarb’s Chef’s Bar

Indulging my two preoccupations, I immediately ordered an Old Fashioned and Rhubarb’s chacuterie plate, the House Cure, along with their Preserved Plate of pickled vegetables.  Pickles, pig and whiskey — a divine combination.

Charcuterie at Rhubarb
Charcuterie at Rhubarb

The bar was quiet so I entertained myself idly chatting up the kitchen staff and watching them prep for the dinner rush while I dried out from the drenching.

I was intrigued by the name of this dish — LG Pack Square Cheese — so had to order it. It turns out that LG is  short for Looking Glass Creamery and Pack Square is their creamy brie style cheese.  I thought that it would somehow resemble a fancy grilled cheese sandwich.

LG Pack Square Cheese
LG Pack Square Cheese

The warm cheese, served with apples, pickled kumquats and a sweet vinaigrette, was a dainty little treat which in no way resembled a grilled cheese.  I finished my glass of wine — a Monticello Vineyards Cab — and savored a small piece from my chocolate stash.  It was a pretty close to perfect rainy Spring evening.

My final meal of the trip was Saturday morning brunch at Limones, a low-key restaurant with jazzed up traditional Mexican food, recommended by my friend Rebecca. Everyone else in the restaurant was enjoying a cocktail so I ordered up a Blood Orange Margarita made with Herradura Silver Tequila and Grand Marnier.  It was, ummm, very refreshing. Limones Huevos Rancheros April 2015

After my series of small plates over the last couple of days, I decided to dive in and order a big plate of Huevos Rancheros. I loved that my perfectly fried sunny side up eggs were served with all kinds of goodies on the side — guacamole and sour cream, salsa, a little slaw, some black beans, and fried potatoes.  I did not have a hangover, but if I had, this would have been the cure.

I’m up for another trip sometime soon.

Fast and Easy Sausage Pinwheels

fast and easy sausage pinwheels 2As the holidays are coming to a close, I’m not looking forward to the early morning hassle of  getting my kids out of bed on chilly winter mornings and ready for school.   They are 15 and 17 now, but they might as well be 5 and 7 as far as our morning routine goes. We pray nightly for the 6 o’clock AM phone call announcing a 2-hour delay.

I’m not exactly a morning person and my kids seem to have inherited that gene.  It is painful for me to get up before seven (yes, I am really a wimp).  I have to remind myself that it only hurts for a minute. They do not buy this philosophy however and inevitably drag out putting their feet on the floor for a good five to twenty-five minutes.  Then they can’t find their clothes because are still on the bathroom floor, having failed to magically levitate down to the laundry and wash, dry and fold themselves.  Don’t get me started on the socks.

All of these shenanigans do not leave a lot of time for breakfast.  And yes, I know that they are making their problem my problem.  I generally have much better boundaries, but when it comes to a filling school morning breakfast with sufficient protein, I just can’t let it go.  I need something that needs little tending, is tempting hot or at room temp, and can be eaten in the car if needed.

I grew up eating these sausage pinwheels and still love them.  Fortunately, my boys do as well.   They are  super easy — make ahead, freeze and throw  in the oven to bake as needed.  Warren Buffet is now in charge of making them after repeatedly depleting the supply in our freezer.

Fast and Easy Sausage Pinwheels

Ingredients:

Directions:

  1. Dust a pastry or large cutting board with the flour.
  2. Unroll the Crescent sheet, gently give it a few turns of a rolling pin, then use your fingers to square it up.
  3. Break the raw sausage up and sprinkle it over the pastry sheet.
  4. Use your hands to press the sausage into a thin layer that almost completely covers the pastry sheet.  Leave only a half-inch on the edge closest to you uncovered.  The sausage should be spread all the way to the other three edges.
  5. Roll it up length-wise starting with the edge closest to you.  Roll it as tightly as possible so there will not be gaps between the sausage and dough.
  6. Put the log on a cookie sheet and freeze for approximately 30-45 minutes until it is hard enough to cut through without the log losing its shape. Check it at 30 minutes, then every 5-10 minutes. Do not freeze it solid or you will have to wait for it to thaw out a bit.
  7. Using a serrated knife, cut the log into 1/3 inch slices. One log should make about 35 slices.
  8. Place the slices back onto the cookie sheet and freeze solid.
  9. Store the frozen slices in a freezer bag until ready to serve.
  10. To serve, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the frozen slices on a lightly greased cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes until the sausage is cooked and the pastry is golden brown.

Yield: Approximately 3 dozen
Prep time: 30 minutes + 30-45 minutes in the freezer
Cook time: 15-20 minutes

These tasty pastries also make a perfect knosh to go with your Bloody Marys at brunch or  a quick appetizer to serve with cocktails.  It is not too late to make a batch for New Year’s Day!

Stops Along the Way: Cork & Bean, Bryson City, NC

A few weeks ago I took a Saturday afternoon paddling trip down the Tuckaseegee River* in a canoe   It was a gorgeous day, warm in the sun and chilly in the shade.  My friend and his daughter are both experienced whitewater paddlers. I have mostly flat water kayaking experience on lakes, bayous and creeks so was pretty much just along for the ride.  After my initial horror that I would be spending the afternoon on my knees in the front of the canoe, my leg muscles and I relaxed and enjoyed the trip, picking up some paddling pointers and lingo along the way.  We spent the night at a group camping area in the Nantahala National Forest and had a fun time sitting around the campfire sipping red wine and listening to the kids tell jokes.

corkandbean1

  On Sunday morning, the weather was cool and drizzly so I headed for home early.  By mid-morning, I was starving so pulled off at the Bryson City exit, just outside the Smoky Mountain National Park, in the hopes of finding something good to eat.   I parked and spotted the Cork & Bean, but the restaurant didn’t start serving for another twenty minutes or so. Wandering down the street and over the bridge, I found a place that looked promising, but had a long line of people waiting to eat.  I’d rather spend my time window shopping than waiting so headed back up to the Cork & Bean, and am really happy that I did!photo-12

The Cork and Bean is located at the corner of Main and Everett street in the former Bryson City Bank building. It’s ambience is perfect for Sunday morning brunch — casual, a little bit of elegance combined with a little bit of funk:  Cabin-style wood paneling, moose folk art, fabulous old dark wood arched top windows and very cool wrought iron chandeliers.  The front room of the restaurant, where the bar is located is furnished with small tables as well as a cozy sitting area.  In addition to a good selection of wines and seasonal beers, the bar serves organic, free trade coffee and espresso,  mimosas and bloody marys.

The back room, the main eatery, is a little less less so, but still interesting and pleasant.  I was seated at a table in the corner by the window — a great spot for dining alone.  After ordering an ice coffee and some fresh orange juice, I turned my attention to the menu.  The restaurant prides itself on serving as much organic and locally-sourced foods as possible.  They are known for their crepes — both breakfast and dessert.  There were a number of enticing dishes on the brunch menu, but I only had eyes for one…

158 I had stopped in the pottery shop across the street to kill some time while waiting for  it to open.  The artist working there recommended the Eggs Benedict.  I didn’t need to be told twice!  Mine arrived with a side of stone ground grits.

Cork and Bean’s Eggs Benedict is slightly untraditional — a toasted english muffin topped with well poached eggs and rich hollandaise sauce served over a bed of fresh spinach with slices of bacon, ripe avocado and tomatoes on the side.  So much goodness!  It was a beautiful plate of food.  And I loved that the dish included more than token good-for-you fruits and vegetables to alleviate my guilt (just a little) about the poached eggs and hollandaise sauce.  I relished every bite.

I am not sure if I had been to Bryson City before that day.  I had in my mind that the town was one of the little tacky tourist traps that dot the Smoky Mountains.  And while there may be some of that in the summertime, the town itself is quite charming. With its many inns, lodges and B&Bs, it would be a lovely spot for a little romantic weekend getaway in the spring and fall.  And if it were my romantic getaway, I’d definitely plan on making more than one stop at the Cork and Bean.

*That is not me in the kayak, but the video gives you an idea about the scenery and water hazards!

Cork & Bean on Urbanspoon

Brunch for Two: Spinach Salad with Scallops, Mango, Avocado and Candied Macadamia Nuts

scallop salad 1

Brunch is my new favorite way to entertain.  In the past I have hosted big, somewhat lavish brunches — tables full of friends and family, noshes to nibble with a Blood Mary or Brandy Milk Punch  before the main event, dessert and coffee afterwards, much fun but a lot of work.

My brstrawberriesunches these days are much more relaxed — one guest, fresh fruit and bubbly, a dish which can be mostly be made beforehand, more fruit and bubbly for dessert.

This Spinach Salad with Scallops, Mango, Avocado and Candied Macadamia Nut is perfect.  The nuts can be candied and the dressing blended the night before leaving you free to sip champagne and enjoy your guest until just before you are ready to serve.
Spinach Salad with Scallops, Mango, Avocado and Candied Macadamia Nuts

Ingredients:

For the Macadamia nuts:

  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 cup whole Macadamia nuts
  • 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Cooking spray

For the dressing :

  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1/2 cup sliced peeled mango
  • 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated peeled fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon cilantro
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

For the scallops and salad:

  • 2/3 pound sea scallops
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 4 cups baby spinach
  • 2/3 cup diced avocado
  • 2/3 cup diced mango
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion

Directions:

For the Macadamia nuts:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°.
  2. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.
  3. Combine the sugar and tablespoon of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the macadamia nuts. Toss so that the nuts are thoroughly coated.
  4. Spread the nuts onto the baking sheet  and sprinkle with the salt.
  5. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes, stirring once.
  6. Spray a sheet of foil with cooking spray.
  7. Remove the nuts from the oven and immediately scrape them onto the sheet of foil. Spread  the nuts evenly on the foil.  When completely cooled, lightly chop the nuts and set them aside.

For the dressing:

  1. Combine  the the water with the mango, lime juice, olive oil, ginger, and cilantro in a food processor. Blend until smooth. Set dressing aside. Note that this will make more dressing than needed for two servings of salad.

For the scallops and salad:

  1. Dry the scallops gently but thoroughly between two layers of paper towels.
  2. Sprinkle the scallops with the salt and pepper.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.
  4. Add the scallops and sear for about 2 minutes on each side. Be careful not to overcook!
  5. Arrange 2 cups spinach on each plate. Top the spinach with half the scallops, 1/3 cup mango, 1/3 cup avocado and 1/8 cup red onion.
  6. Drizzle each salad with 3 tablespoons of the dressing and sprinkle with 2 tablespoons chopped nuts.

Yield: 2 servings

Cook time: 12 minutes                                                                                  

Prep time: 30 minutes

Makin’ Bacon

This post is a bit of an experiment — can I pull content, recipes, photos, etc. of my favorite posts on Another Marvelous Meal and plonk them down here?  The answer appears to be yes.

Homemade bacon…  not something you made in a 1970s home economics class, but how hard could it be?  Answer: ridiculously easy.
Making bacon is one of those things I likely never would have tried had it not been for 2011’s Charcutepalooza Challenge and the charcuterie bible,  Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking and Curing.
I cut my big slab of locally-sourced pork belly  into three pieces (one 2 pound piece and two 3 pound pieces) so I would be able to fit each into a regular 1-gallon zip-lock and ultimately, into my Char-Broil Vertical Gas Smoker.  I stashed the 2 pound chunk in the freezer for a future project (Bahn Mi!).
I mixed up a cure for the bacon using my pink salt and Ruhlman’s basic cure:

Ruhlman’s Basic Cure

Ingredients:
  • 1 pound kosher salt
  • 8 ounces sugar
  • 2 ounces pink salt
Directions:
Whisk together the salts and the sugar.
For one of the 3-pound pieces of pork belly, I made a sweeter cure by adding 1/4 cup of dark brown sugar to 1/4 cup of the salt mixture. Then, I dredged the pork belly in the cure and bagged it in the zip-lock, squeezing out the extra air.
For the other 3-pound slab, I made a savory cure by adding 3 crushed bay leaves, 5 smashed cloves of garlic, and a tablespoons of crushed black peppercorns to 1/4 cup of the salt mixture. After dredging the pork belly in the cure, I bagged it in a separate zip-lock and squeezed out the extra air.
The two bags then spent a week in the fridge. I flipped the bags daily to redistribute the cure.  After 7 days, I rested.  Not really — I took  the chunks of pork belly out and rinsed off the cure. Then I fired up the smoker, using whatever I had on hand — 3-4 pounds of mesquite-flavored charcoal along with some hickory chunks and chips and smoked the bacon on a very low heat — around 125 degrees — for about 7 hours.
Sweet bacon:
Savory bacon:

This isn’t necessarily the kind of bacon you want to slice thin and fry up for Sunday morning breakfast — although that will work.  This is special bacon.

Cut it into thick lardons and serve it withsalad with lardons and soft eggsartisinal greens and soft  eggs.

Or make a lovely hash with sweet potatoes and apple.

Next up: Irish bacon.

My unofficial review of knife & fork

knifeandforklogomenuI didn’t take any pictures.  I don’t have a copy of the menu, although it changes daily so would only be illustrative anyway. I can’t remember the name of our charming and knowledgeable server.   I do know that I’ve been to Knife & Fork twice in the past couple of months, once for dinner and once for brunch, and that  most every morsel that I’ve put into my mouth has been divine.

The Spruce Pine, NC restaurant is owned by Nate Allen, the chef, and his wife Wendy.  I first heard of it a couple of years ago at the Asheville Food & Wine Festival where the finals of the WNC Chef Challenge, which Nate won, were being held.  A month or so later, I read about the chef and his restaurant  in Cooking Light magazine when he was given their Small-town Chef Award for 2011.  I’d been wanting to visit the restaurant and try his very inventive, farm-to-table food since.

Chef Nate clearly shares my fascination with charcuterie.  At Sunday’s brunch, I couldn’t help but order his confit chicken neck with asparagus, poached egg and grainy mustard. Everything about the dish was done well — the confit was meltingly tender and finished so that there were plenty of crispy bits.  The split stalks of asparagus were cooked perfectly, bright green and tender, sauced with the yolk of the poached egg.  With a slice of grilled bread and some grainy mustard, I was one happy diner.

On both visits, I’ve ordered the excellent house made charcuterie which comes with three varieties, a little salad and some grilled bread with spicy honey mustard.  I can’t decide which was my favorite — the  grilled rabbit liver or the pork terrine.  Both the pork rillettes and the rabbit rillettes were also heavenly.

The restaurant’s wine list has a carefully chosen selection of reasonably-priced bottles as well as a nice selection of wines by the glass.  You can’t order alcohol before noon on Sunday in Spruce Pine, but the charcuterie platter arrived just in time for a glass of a nice red blend of Paso Robles varietals, Troublemaker Blend 6.

I am looking forward to visiting this place often.  Hopefully my next trip —  during which I’ll order a number of new dishes, take lots of pictures and try another glass of wine or two so that I can write my official review — will be soon!

 
Knife & Fork on Urbanspoon