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.


Beurre Fondue — The Medium for Spring

April 27, 2010

When spring rolls around, I think of asparagus and ramps and morels.  But I also think of butter.  Lots and lots of wonderful butter, but not in the way you might suspect.  I think of beurre fondue, the butter and water emulsion that I prefer to use to cook these wonderful spring goodies.

You may not have heard of beurre fondue unless you’re a culinary school grad or a food geek, but you know about it if you’ve ever heard the term “butter poached.”  This is what Thomas Keller uses to butter poach his lobster, although I think he uses a slightly more concentrated form of emulsion.  He calls it beurre monte’, but I really can’t figure out if there’s any difference between these butter sauces.

Regardless, I first learned about beurre fondue 10 years ago when Tom Colicchio’s first book, Think Like a Chef, came out.  This is one of my all-time favorite cooking books, as so much of it focuses on technique, flavor profiles, and other culinary basics.  Beurre fondue is just butter that has been emulsified into boiling water.  The technique is simple: Get about half to 3/4 of an inch of water boiling in a small saucepan. Whisk in unsalted butter about a tablespoon at a time. Continue adding the butter until you’ve added anywhere from 12 to 16 tablespoons. If droplets begin to form, add a bit more water, as that’s a sign you’ve evaporated too much water.

Now, take some asparagus, peas, fish, mushrooms, whatever and poach it at a very gentle simmer in this ultra-rich sauce (transfer it to a wider skillet). You’ll end up with the most delicious, decadent (but seemingly light) dish you can imagine.

Some folks par-cook their food first and finish it in the beurre fondue, but I love to cook it from beginning to end.   I particularly like to cook morels in this sauce, as the final flavor is heavenly.  I recently made a dish of mahi-mahi with morels, shallots and local asparagus, with all the vegetables cooked in the beurre fondue.  I served the dish in shallow bowls, making sure there was plenty of the butter sauce to go around.  It was spring on a plate and one of the best tasting things I’ve ever made.

Looking for Strawberry Shortcake?

April 21, 2010

My friend Andrea Weigl, the food writer at the News & Observer, wrote about strawberries today and included my recipe for a ginormous strawberry shortcake that I discussed a couple of years ago.  Click here if you want to go to that old story.

Pressure Cooker Risotto

January 27, 2010

Ever since I bought my cheap pressure cooker, I’ve been exploring ways to use it in getting dinner to the table more quickly. This is important to me, as I often don’t get home from work until 7 or so, and I don’t want to spend an hour or two putting together a nice meal. I’m trying to eat more high fiber foods, such as brown rice, so the pressure cooker allows me to cook that rice in 20 minutes, rather than an hour.

Last night, I tried making risotto in the pressure cooker.  That’s right, risotto, which traditionally takes 20 to 30 minutes of constant attention.  But not in a pressure cooker.  You cook it for 8 minutes, without stirring.  And damn it, if it didn’t come out perfect!

Now you still have to cut up your vegetables for the soffritto.  Last night I used shallots, fennel, garlic and carrot.  I browned some boneless chicken thighs in the cooker, removed them, added the soffritto, and cooked for a couple of minutes.  Add the rice, stir to coat, some wine, chicken stock, and then the chicken.  Seal the cooker and cook for 8 minutes.  Release the steam, stir in grated cheese and butter, and serve.

This risotto was absolutely perfect.  Creamy and rich.  The starches from the arborio rice released into the broth, which surprised me.  I thought that the dish would be overly watery, but it wasn’t at all.  And the chicken was nicely cooked, too.

I may never make traditional risotto again.

Pressure Cooker Rissotto

  • 1-1/2 cups aborio rice
  • 2-1/2 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 pound boneless chicken thighs
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and finely diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 Tbsp butter

Heat oil in pressure cooker without lid over high heat.  Salt and pepper chicken thighs and brown in hot oil.  Remove chicken from cooker and add shallot, carrots and garlic.  Stir for 1-2 minutes.  Add rice and stir for another minute.  Add wine, stir, and then add stock.  Add browned chicken thighs (including any exuded juices), bring to a simmer, and seal pressure cooker.  Reduce heat to low and cook for 8 minutes.

Release pressure, remove lid, and stir in cheese and butter.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Serves 3-4.

Wood-Fired Paella

July 15, 2009


I’ve eaten a fair amount of paella in my time, and frankly, I never really got the appeal.  I mean it’s rice, protein and vegetables, all with a slight saffron flavor.  It’s usually dry, insipid, and quite frankly, not worth the trouble to make.  I’ve had two paella pans, or paellera (and correct my Spanish, please, as I’m probably using the singular form of the word instead of the plural), and I’ve done paella in the oven, but I never really enjoyed it.

Until now.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Best Recipe Site

April 23, 2009


A Twitter update from Mark Bittman led me to what is likely to be the best website for recipes on the internet:  Why is this so great?  Because it is an independent search engine that can search all of the main recipe sites, such as Epicurious, the Food Network, CHOW, and Recipezaar.  Because each result can be filtered by source, cuisine, time and more.  Because they have a toolbar that you can add to your browser.  Because you can examine the entire list of ingredients on the results page without leaving the page. is a creation of Food Network’s parent company, Scripps, and it has many of the features of another freestanding search site, Project Foodie.  But the interface of is far more user friendly, and the ability to easily examine ingredient lists makes it a lot easier to sort through recipes.

I love, but I’d like to hear your feedback, too.

Bacon Popcorn Perfected

March 24, 2009


This past weekend I ran some tests.  First, I used duck fat to pop some popcorn.  It was a noble experiment, with the duck fat adding a barely noticeable flavor to the corn, but it wasn’t life-altering (which was disappointing, as I currently have 8 pounds of duck fat in my fridge).

So then I tried popping the corn in some bacon grease that I had rendered from that morning’s breakfast.  Again, the grease added a very subtle bacon flavor to the popcorn, but it wasn’t enough for me.

And then the proverbial light bulb went off.  I melted some more of the bacon grease.  I then ground up a slice of crispy bacon into a powder (a spice mill or coffee grinder works well here).  I put the popcorn in a paper bag, poured the bacon fat over it, and shook it vigorously in the bag.  I then added the bacon powder, shook it again, and ended up with exactly what I was seeking: popcorn that wasn’t soggy or heavy, but with a fair amount of bacon flavor.  You could taste corn and bacon, which was the balance I was seeking, and I’ve now found a new snack for the Varmint household.

I’m not going to give you a recipe for this, as anybody knows how to make popcorn.  But here are some tips.

First, render the bacon fat over low heat, and then strain it through a paper towel to get rid of the sediment that can burn.

Then be sure to cook your bacon until it is very crisp.  I’ve heard that freezing the bacon can facilitate turning it into powder form.

Pop about a half cup of popcorn in 3-4 Tbsp. of filtered bacon grease.  Don’t use high heat, as bacon fat has a fairly low smoke point.

Put the popcorn in a large paper grocery bag.  Drizzle about 2-3 Tbsp. of melted, filtered bacon grease over the popcorn and shake vigorously to distribute the grease.  Add the bacon powder and shake some more.

Eat.  With lots of beer.