The Most Successful Cookbook on My Shelves

June 2, 2014


I have a fair number of cookbooks, but I’m by no means a collector. Compared to many of my friends, I have a relatively tiny collection, and that’s because I don’t use cookbooks that often. For the most part, cookbooks give me ideas. They help me come up with new dishes or combinations of ingredients. Occasionally, I’ll learn a new technique. I’ll even read a cookbook from cover to cover now and then, just because the writing and stories are so good. But for the most part, cookbooks are reference materials, to be picked up now and then for guidance and inspiration.

The first cookbook where I really started to look at how and what I was cooking, the guide that introduced me to Thai cuisine, the book that I’ve followed more recipes than any other book was The Frog Commissary Cookbook by Steven Poses from Philadelphia. An old girlfriend gave me this book as a Valentine’s Day gift over 25 years ago, and it’s as worn out as any cookbook I have. It’s not just dog-eared, it’s dirty. The binding is broken and pages are falling out. I’ve made at least 50 different dishes from that cookbook, and most of them have been great hits. The sour cream apple pie. The Asian chicken wings. The Thai curries. The crab and tarragon and tomato pasta dish. I could go on and on, and maybe one day, I will spend more time highlighting this wonderful cookbook.

But today, I want to focus on Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. I’m not sure I’ve had a cookbook that has been as slam-dunk successful as this one. Everything that I have made from this book has been not just good, but amazing. His recipes have replaced the tried and true dishes I’ve made for years. Chocolate chip cookies? None can compare to the version in this cookbook, and except for having to chop your own chocolate, they’re really simple. His cream of cauliflower soup has become my family’s favorite soup — nothing else comes even close. I now dress my salads totally differently because of this cookbook. The newest item to make our “best of” list is his brownies. Brownies??? Yes, brownies. I mean, I thought I’ve had brownies every different way and had come to the conclusion that it was a dessert that would always be good, but would never be great. Well, these brownies aren’t just great; they’re fucking awesome. Why you ask? Well, it comes down to chocolate and butter. Chocolate in the form of lots of cocoa powder then with dark chocolate chunks added to the batter. And butter? Well, we’re talking about a 9×9 inch square cake pan of brownies calling for THREE STICKS OF BUTTER!!!! Nope, not a typo — there are 12 ounces of butter in this recipe. Even if cut into relatively small pieces, you’re going to get a couple of tablespoons of butter in each brownie. Holy smokes, these brownies are rich. Over the top without a damn excuse but 0h-my-god-they’re-delicious rich. My daughter made these brownies yesterday, and I want more. I’m channeling my inner Veruca Salt because I want more NOW!

 

photo (14)

The brownies are absolutely perfect on their own, or with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. A little soft cream would be great, too, but of course, we topped them with good old fashioned vanilla ice cream. I didn’t want to take the time to get a quality photo, because, well, once again, I’m a little impatient. So you’re stuck with a photo of ice cream hiding the most amazing brownie I’ve ever eaten.

Now I have to figure out what to make out of this book next. Because I’m a bit uneasy about displacing my current favorites. Like his carrot cake muffins. Or beef stroganoff. Ah, hell, I’ll just give in and be thankful that I have a cookbook that I can always turn to, and come out with something extraordinary.

Ad Hoc at Home Brownies

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened alkalized cocoa powder
3/4 pound (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-tablespoon pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla (recipe calls for vanilla paste, but I didn’t have any on hand — plain vanilla works)
6 ounces 61 to 64% chocolate, chopped into chip-sized pieces ( about 1 1/2 cups)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a 9×9 baking dish. Set aside.

Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, and salt; set aside.

Melt half the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat (or in the microwave), stirring occasionally. Put the remaining butter in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter and stir to melt the butter. The butter should look creamy, with small bits of unmelted butter, and be at room temperature.

In a bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle, mix together the eggs and sugar on medium speed for about 3 minutes, or until thick and very pale. Mix in the vanilla. On low speed, add about one-third of the dry ingredients, then add one-third of the butter, and continue alternating the remaining flour and butter. Add the chocolate and mix to combine. (The batter can be refrigerated for up to 1 week.)

Spread the batter evenly in the pan. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a cake tester or wooden skewer poked into the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs sticking to it. If the pick comes out wet, test a second time, because you may have hit a piece of chocolate chip; then bake for a few more minutes longer if necessary. Cool in the pan until the brownie is just a bit warmer than room temperature.

Run a knife around the edges, and invert the brownie onto a cutting board. Cut into 12 rectangles. Serve with dusted powdered sugar, soft whipped cream or ice cream. The brownies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 days, but if they last that long, there’s something wrong.

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Magnolia Grill to Close

May 2, 2012

I just received and email from Karen Barker of Durham’s legendary Magnolia Grill. She and her husband, Ben Barker, both Beard award winners, will be closing the restaurant at the end of the month.  Here’s the email:

Friends , Colleagues & Professional Associates –

Karen and I have had the extraordinary luxury of cooking together every day for the last 30+ years. There is no way to convey how rewarding it has been to share our pursuit of this craft, but…

it’s time to do something different.

We will close Magnolia Grill on May 31, 2012.

We are not sure what’s next but we are going to take a break and see.

We have all our parents, all 80 years old, or nearly. We want to see them more. We have two grandchildren we’ve barely spent any time with; we want to see them more. We have co-workers we’ve been around more than our sons – it’s time for that to change.

Thank you to every one who’s given us the opportunity to learn from you, to feed you and be fed by you, to share with you, to experience the exhilaration and conviviality that has been our life in food. We’ll always be indebted to each and every one of you.

Thank you,

b2 & Kay

I’m very sad that we will be losing this amazing restaurant. It’s the one place where I said, “I am simply not capable of cooking like that.”  But I am also happy that Ben and Karen will be moving on.  I wish them all the best, and I suspect we’ll hear more from them.


Mandolin — Coming to Raleigh

November 18, 2011

Wow. A new chef-driven restaurant is about to open in Raleigh, and I’m really excited by it. Mandolin is the name of Chef Sean Fowler’s establishment, located at the intersection of Oberlin and Fairview in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood.

This is what I know about Mandolin: nothing. Well, I’ve seen their menu, which is Southern-inspired. I’ve looked at their website. But I know nothing about Sean Fowler. Or any of the staff. Even when a menu looks promising, as this one does, I reserve judgment until I taste the food. But for some reason, I just like the vibe that these folks have created. I really WANT to taste this food. And based on the Open Table reservation system, it looks like they open next Tuesday.

Raleigh needs more of these type of restaurants. I can’t wait to try it.


John Fleer — Rock Star — Stir the Pot

September 13, 2011

It seems that VarmintBites has turned into nothing more than a means to publicize fundraisers, but when one is on the Board of Directors of two different organizations having food-related fundraisers, well, you can understand.

So, this Sunday and Monday we’re having another Stir the Pot, those fantastic events hosted by Ashley Christensen to benefit the Southern Foodways Alliance. I’ve attended most of these events, and they’re a ton of fun, but this week is different.

This time, the guest chef of Stir the Pot is John Fleer, Rock Star. Yes, that’s the term used by John T. Edge, the Executive Director of the SFA. That’s a term I’ve heard Ashley Christensen use for him. Could it be because he was the celebrated chef of Blackberry Farm, one of the best inns in the country?  Or that he left Blackberry at the height of his career and notoriety so he could do something that allowed him to spend more time with his familly? Like work at Sunburst Trout or take over as chef at Canyon Kitchen in Cashiers, NC.

Yes, those are good reasons to call him a rock star (and I’ve had his food — it’s rock star quality). But the real reason to call him a rock star is that he acts like one, and I have pictures to prove it. It’s been 4 years since I took these photos, and at the time I said they wouldn’t see the light of day, but I’m changing my tune. I’ve got pictures of Fleer chugging Southern Comfort. I’ve got pictures of him stealing a kid’s bicycle (OK, he just rode a bike laying on the street). No, I don’t have a photo of him passed out, but I can try.

The problem is, you don’t get to see these photos unless you attend one of the Stir the Pot events. The fancy, five-course dinner with wine pairings prepared by Chef Fleer is at Poole’s Diner on Sunday night at 7 PM.  The Monday evening potluck is at Ashley Christensen’s home (Brunswick stew, beer by Foothills Brewing, a drink by Fox Liquor bar, and wine donated by Eliza Kraft Olander. The Sunday dinner is $150 per person plus tax and tip, whereas the Monday potluck is $35 per person plus a side dish or dessert that celebrates your sense of place, wherever that may be.

Reservations are required and space is limited. Call Poole’s Diner at 919-832-4477 to reserve your spot for either or both nights.

So go ahead and sign up. And maybe these photos will end up on display.


An Amazing Event for an Amazing Organization

September 12, 2011

You like Herons restaurant in the Umstead, don’t you?

And you love the Shimmer Wall, Marbles Museum and the cool ring sculpture on the lawn behind the North Carolina Museum of Art, right (it’s called Gyre, for what it’s worth)?

Well, what would you think about an event where that particular artist, Raleigh’s own Thomas Sayre, and the Herons’ chef, Scott Crawford, combine forces for a once in a lifetime event? An event where Chef Crawford, and some other amazing guest chefs (including Colin Bedford from the Fearrington House and Matthew Medure of Jacksonville, FL) create food inspired by Sayre’s art? Where the chefs and the artists come together and talk about how they inspire each other?

This event — Expressions, A Celebration of Food and Art —  is happening on Friday, September 23rd at the Umstead Hotel and Spa. This event benefits the Lucy Daniels Center, and I need you, my readers, to step up and buy a seat or two. You’ll be the recipient of some amazing food and wine that will knock your socks off. You’ll learn about the creative process for chefs and artists. And you’ll be helping out an amazing organization — the Lucy Daniels Center — the Triangle’s leading provider of mental health services to children.

I’m begging you to come to this event (I’m the chair of the board of the Center), and you won’t regret it. Heck, if you buy a seat at this dinner, I’ll double your value. I’ll cook a special dinner for anyone who buys a seat and mentions that they heard about it through VarmintBites. So, that means you get the dinner at Herons and then a dinner at my house. Yes, the Herons dinner will be better, but mine won’t be too shabby, either.  We’ll have to work out the logistics, but if 24 people buy seats and mention my site, then I’ll have to figure out a way to cook another dinner for 24. Yes, I might have to break it into three dinners of eight, but we’ll get it done.

To buy tickets online, go here: https://jtsuther.wufoo.com/forms/expressions-registration/  And when you list the guests, mention “Referred by Varmint” to be added to the dinner list. We’ll follow up with you.

If you have questions, call the Center at 919-459-1611 and ask for Patti Wilt.


Help Stir That Pot

August 12, 2011

OK, admit it. Ashley Christensen is a rock star. Not just Raleigh’s rock star, but she has national attention now. We’re just lucky to have her here.

So when Ashley Christensen supports a cause, like she does with her Stir the Pot events for the Southern Foodways Alliance, it must mean a lot to her. And because I’m a member of the board of directors of the SFA, well, dammit, I want you to join Ashley, me and a bunch of other great people this Sunday and Monday.

If you want some kick-ass, high end food and wine, get a reservation for Sunday’s special dinner at Poole’s featuring chef Ed Lee of Louisville, KY’s 610 Magnolia. This guy can flat out cook, so this will be an incredible dinner (with fantastic wine, of course).  The dinner will cost you $150 plus tax and tip, but the money goes to the SFA’s documentary film initiatives.

But in this economy, I understand if you can’t swing a big ticket item like Sunday’s dinner. So just plan on joining us at Ashley’s lovely home Monday evening for the “Industry Potluck.” Make something tasty, and then bring it and a check for $35, and you’ll get to rub elbows with a lot of local food celebs, including chefs and food writers.

So, what’s your excuse? Pick up the phone and call Poole’s at 832-4477 to make your reservations. See you soon!


Ashley Christensen on Iron Chef America July 24

June 9, 2011

Ashley Christensen, chef and owner of Raleigh’s Poole’s Diner, will be on Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” on July 24 at 10 PM.  Christensen chose Iron Chef Bobby Flay as her competition, which was recorded some time now. Although some news leaked out that Ashley was on Iron Chef, the details have been highly confidential, including the outcome.  I believe she is the second local chef to appear on the show, as Walter Royal of the Angus Barn beat Cat Cora in 2007 several years ago.