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!


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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.

The Best Meal I Ever Cooked

December 21, 2011

Those of us who like to cook and eat can remember so many meals we’ve enjoyed, restaurants we’ve visited, tastes we’ve shared, dishes we’ve created. We remember meals with family and loved ones. We remember the roast chicken in Barcelona, the cheese steak in Philadelphia, the fish boil in Wisconsin, and the white beans in Florence. We tend to rank these meals: What were my top 10 dishes of the past year? What are my favorite restaurants in the Triangle?

But sometimes, an ordinary meal, something you’ve made or eaten dozens of times can be elevated by the circumstances. That is what happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

My father is 79 years old. He has had two open heart surgeries, suffered from emphysema, and a few years ago, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The effects of the cancer, the emphysema and then the radiation treatment left him with very little lung capacity and is on oxygen 24/7. It tires him out just getting dressed. Singing, the one activity he loved to do, is no longer an option. His vocal chords were damaged during one surgery and he doesn’t have enough breath to get out even a few notes. (And let me tell you, my Dad could flat out sing).

Quite frankly, living is quite difficult for Dad, and one of the other things he loved to do, eating, is also a chore. It tires him out. The flavors aren’t the same. Consequently, he’s lost about 35 pounds in the last six months.  I really don’t know how much longer he’ll be around.

I made it down to Florida a few weeks ago and spent a couple of days with my parents. My Dad’s spirits were pretty good, but he wasn’t eating that much. We went to a local Italian restaurant, and he ate a small slice of pizza. That’s all.

But he asked me the next day, as he always does when we’re together, if I could make some foccacia. He loves that simple flatbread, with some rosemary, olive oil, and sea salt.  I told Dad I’d be happy to make it, and I’d cook him dinner.

I decided on a simple dinner. Filet mignon, baked potato, roasted asparagus. For dessert, a molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. I knew that my Dad would appreciate the thought, even if he couldn’t eat it.

Dad ate 3 sizable pieces of foccacia that day. I was very pleased that he enjoyed it and was able to eat so much. But then he ate the filet. And half a potato. And about 8 spears of asparagus. And the entire freakin’ dessert. He ate it all. He ate more in one meal than he had probably eaten in the prior three days. And I made it for him.

I’ve cooked a lot of great meals in my life, but this one tops them all. It wasn’t technically perfect. It wasn’t fancy. But it nourished my Dad. My sick Dad. And, after the meal, he sat back, looked me in the eye, and said, “Delicious. Thank you.”

My First Garden

April 28, 2011

I’ve never had a garden.  The only thing I’ve been able to grow is children, and the jury is still out on how good a job I’ve done with that.

Back in 2009, my wife gave me a garden for my birthday present, whereby she and a friend would transform a hill behind our house into a small, flat plot that gets enough sun over the course of a day to make a viable garden.  Due to some complexities of life, they didn’t actually build the garden until last fall, but it’s been ready for me this spring.  We have a couple of rain barrels nearby, and I was ready to go. We tilled it twice, adding some nice horse manure to the soil, and I started planting seeds a few weeks ago.

I planted turnips, lettuce, beets, carrots, lettuce and cauliflower.  Last Sunday, I planted 7 different heirloom tomato plants (thanks, Matt and Andrea!), a pepper plant, and from seeds, zucchini, cucumbers, watermelon and cantaloupe.

The first plants are doing remarkably well.  I’m amazed at how bright and beautiful the beet leaves and stems are, and the lacy carrot tops are great.  The turnips are thriving, as is the lettuce.  The cauliflower is coming along slowly, but I’m thinking it will do fine.

The weeds are a royal pain, of course, but I really am loving this process.  I check this garden in the morning.  I check it when I come home for lunch and then when I get home at the end of the day, like there might have been a magical growth spurt in the few hours I was gone.

I’m not much of a turnip eater, but I’m almost counting down the days before those suckers will be ready to pull, as they’ll be the first crop to mature.  I know I’ll get some greens before then for salad, when I thin out the crops, but I want the full vegetable.

I love this garden, and I can’t believe it’s taken me 47 years to get one.

Heaven is a Place on Earth — Border Springs Farm

December 22, 2010

Seeing your 10-year old daughter hold a one-day old lamb  makes a father’s heart melt.  Watching a border collie gather and herd sheep, driving them from one hilly pasture to another, all at the command of a shepherd’s whistle, causes one to stare in awe.  Witnessing hundreds of lamb, running free on hundreds of acres, nestled against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, brings an inner peace to the observer.  This is the way it should be.  This is the iconic American livestock farm.  This is heaven on earth.  This is Border Springs Farm.

Craig Rogers is one of the most interesting individuals I ever met.  He used to teach engineering at Virginia Tech.  He was once the Dean of the School of Engineering at the University of South Carolina.  He routinely quotes Shakespeare and refers to himself as a shepherd.  And now, he and his wife, Joan, run Border Springs Farm in Patrick County, Virginia, raising Kathadin and Texel sheep, a handful of turkeys, and the coolest dogs in the world.

The sheep are pastured on about 1,000 acres at the base of Bull Mountain, close to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Craig is doing his best to raise the tastiest lamb around.  Yes, that’s the reality of a livestock farm — these cute little lambs will be slaughtered.  Their lives are short-lived.  They will end up on our dinner plates.  But I cannot possibly imagine how lamb could live a better, more carefree life than what they do on Border Springs Farm.  And the restaurant industry is taking notice, partly because the lamb is so damn good, partly because of how they are raised, and partly because of the drive of Craig Rogers, who knows the power of face-to-face marketing.  His lamb can be found in Sean Brock’s restaurants in Charleston.  One of his first customers was Bryan Voltaggio of Top Chef fame.  Ashley Christensen of Raleigh is a fan and has served Craig’s lamb in Poole’s Diner.  Rogers personally delivers his lamb up and down the east coast, and more and more chefs are taking notice.  This guy gets it.  He knows what these great chefs want, and he delivers.  Literally.

When I took my 10 year old daughter and 11 year old son to Border Springs a few weeks back, I was pretty sure that the kids would have a fun day.  I had no idea that I was about to create a beautiful memory of a day that will stay with me forever.  I can’t get this place out of my head.  The hills.  The sheep.  The turkeys and horses and even a donkey.  And the dogs, oh, those dogs!

There are two kinds of dogs at Border Springs (not counting the Jack Russell Terrier that lives in the Rogers’ house): Border Collies and the Livestock Guardian Dogs.  Each type is amazing in its own right.  You’ve seen the Border Collies do their thing before, rounding up the stray sheep, driving them through gates from one field to another, responding to the different calls of the master’s whistle.  A long two-toned tweet sending the dog to the farthest point of the flock, running clockwise in a pear-shaped manner, to pull the sheep together.  Several short peeps cause the dog to slow down.  And, of course, the shout of, “That’ll Do,” to let the dog know he’s done well.  Witnessing a Border Collie in action is nothing short of magical, an amazingly orchestrated interaction between dog, master, and sheep.  I couldn’t help but leave my jaw hanging as I watched Jake, a national champion, round up sheep who had no desire to be rounded up.  It was amazing.  It was almost spiritual.

The livestock guard dogs are no less amazing.  These are the big sheep dogs, the Pyrenees, the Wolfhounds.  These are the dogs that live with the sheep, the ones who greet your car as you drive into the farm.  If you remember the old Looney Tunes cartoons with Ralph E. Wolf and Sam Sheepdog — well, these are the sheep dogs.  They’re here to protect the sheep, against coyotes, but more often than not, against neighbors’ dogs.  These are dogs that will immediately kill a coyote or dog attacking the sheep, but they will nuzzle up against a 10 year old girl walking among the lambs.  They’re majestic animals, intimidating on one side yet completing comforting on the other.

The appeal of Border Springs is that it has it all.  The pastoral scenery, the choreography of dog/man/sheep, the story of the Shakespeare-quoting shepherd/engineer.  And, by the way, the lamb is incredible.  I’ve now had leg of lamb smoked over cherry, lamb shanks braised in red wine, and ground lamb burgers, and I’m sold.  I figured the stuff would be great if Sean Brock were using it, and I hope to see more restaurants offering Border Springs lamb.  I’ll certainly enjoy eating it when they do, but I’ll really love having that lamb revive the memories of this special place.

Ashley Christensen’s Take on Barbecue — With Fullsteam!

November 4, 2010

As I wrote earlier, Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner is preparing a very special barbecue dinner to benefit the Lucy Daniels Center.  This won’t be any ordinary barbecue, however.

Ashley cures the pork for 3 days, with a special rub of salt and other herbs and spices.  This turns the pork into the most amazingly succulent swine you’ll ever taste.  But then she slowly smokes that pig over nut wood (typically pecan) for hours and hours, until a nice, crust is formed and the meat is redolent of that sweet smoke.  Of course, she has her own take on sauce.

You know it will be good.  No, you know it will be the best damn barbecue you’ve ever had.

But there will also be beer.  And we’re talking about beer that was created to be served with barbecue: Fullsteam’s Hogwash, which is a hickory-smoked porter.  We’ll also be serving the Fullsteam Carolina Common, a lighter beer for those who prefer it that way.

And as far as side dishes are concerned, you won’t be disappointed.  Don’t expect some limp green beens or dried out corn sticks.  There will even be a special Brunswick Stew.  And banana pudding so good, it’ll make you want to smack someone.  I mean, kiss them.

We will have some of Ashley’s roast chicken for those who don’t eat pork.  And if you’ve had that chicken before, it’s the best.  Anywhere.

But I need you to buy tickets to this dinner.  Yeah, it’s pricey, but it’s for an amazing cause.  The Lucy Daniels Center is the Triangle’s leading non-profit provider of children’s mental health services.  Why is this a big deal?  Because in this economy, with so many people unemployed, it’s harder than ever on children.  And parents don’t have the resources to pay for the help their kids’ needs.  The Lucy Daniels Center provides some sort of financial assistance to 90% of the families who receive care.  A large portion of those families receive care for free.

So I ask you — No, I BEG you — please go to the Lucy Daniels website and buy tickets to the dinner. Or call Patti Wilt at 919.459.1611. You’ll have a great meal.  You’ll enjoy the beer.  And you’ll know you’ve done something very special for families in need.  And there’s nothing better than that feeling.  Not even the banana pudding.

Buy tickets thru PayPal here:

Or call Patti Wilt at the Lucy Daniels Center at 919.459.1611

Adults are $75, kids under 14 are $35, and all but $25 is tax deductible.  Sorry, no beer for the kids.

Southern Pies — The “Must Have” Cookbook

September 30, 2010

We all receive gifts from time to time.  A bottle of wine, a nice piece of pottery, or a cookbook.  On Sunday, my dear friend Nancie McDermott gave me a copy of her newly published “Southern Pies.”  I have all of Nancie’s cookbooks (as she has been so kind to give me copies of them), and through these books she’s taught me a ton about Asian cooking and Southern cakes.  I’ve enjoyed the books, as they’re very accessible and interesting, and all of the recipes have been winners.

But of all these gifts, this one — this book of pies — is different.  This is not only a gift commemorating a birthday, but it’s a gift for everyone.  It’s a gift from Nancie to the cooking world.  Hyperbole?  Judge for yourself, but if you take a serious look at this book, you’ll see what I mean.

Last night after dinner, I finally got a chance to sit down and take a look at Southern Pies, and my first impression is that this may be the first time I’ve had a cookbook that makes me want to make every single recipe in it.  I’m totally serious about this.  Of course, there are the expected chess, lemon and coconut pie variations, but there are a number of very interesting pies of which I’ve never heard: green tomato pie, sliced sweet potato pie, vinegar pie, bean pie, and a plum custard pie.  There are fruit pies that have added substantial amounts of cream to them.  Rhubarb and scuppernong grapes are featured.

I’ve always been a huge pie lover, but I’ve gotten away from baking them in the past year.  That’s all about to change.  I’ll be sure to chronicle my pie baking escapades here, and I suspect my kids are about to learn how to make pie crust.

Thanks again for this wonderful gift, Nancie.  It will be treasured for a long, long time.

Birthdays and Cakes

September 28, 2010

Our family celebrated two birthdays this past weekend.  My youngest child, Clara, turned 10 on Saturday, and for her birthday dinner party, we had fondue.  She and five of her young friends feasted on cheese fondue with bread and summer sausage, an oil fondue with filet mignon and shrimp, and then chocolate fondue with strawberries, marshmallows, and pound cake.  The girls had a blast, and we loved following up behind them, eating the scraps.

My birthday was on Sunday, and my new tradition is to cook tacos for family and friends (and to serve a lot of tequila).  So I had 5 different types of taco fillings: Braised short rib with morita chiles; Smoked pork shoulder (with a rub of achiote, garlic, cumin, sour orange, salt, Mexican brown sugar, chipotle, and oregano), Braised chicken thigh with mustard greens, tomatillo and jalapeno; Flash fried shrimp; and Eye of Goat beans from Rancho Gordo.  I also made 4 different salsas, some pickled onions, guacamole, and other accompaniments.

It was a great weekend, but the true highlight from a culinary sense were the cakes.  I’m not talking about the amazing coconut cake that my sister-in-law made (thanks, Doro!) or the fantastic one brought by my friends at Crumb, but the two birthday cakes.

My daughter is currently obsessed with the film, “Alice in Wonderland,” and that was the them of her party.  Thus, my wife decided to make Clara an Alice in Wonderland cake.  Clara’s godmother drove up from Augusta to help, and two of our kids (along with one of their friends) all contributed in the final project.  The cake itself was a pound cake, and they used a buttercream icing.  They also made figures with fondant and gum paste.  It took them quite a lot of time, but the end result was quite spectacular.  I particularly love the top of the cake, where you see the legs of Alice as she is falling through the rabbit hole.  Absolem the caterpillar is very cool, as are the Cheshire Cat, the playing cards, and the White Rabbit.  I still can’t believe my family made this.

Clara’s birthday cake was a team effort, but mine was made solely by my 15 year old daughter, Ryan.  She knew I was making tacos for dinner, so she, of course, made me a taco cake.  Look at this thing!  I don’t know how she came up with the idea, but it was truly incredible.  I’m still breaking out into a huge grin when I think about that big ol’ taco.  And it was tasty, too!

These cake-making skills did not come from me.  I am quite competent at baking, including cakes, but I suck at decorating.  I’m happy if I just get the frosting on it evenly.  But my wife has turned into a gifted decorator, and my kids appear to be following in her footsteps.  And I love it.