Friday, December 2, 2011

A Milkshake & Taco Reunion

After an inadvertent absence from our eating adventures, GWG recently met up at Nanataco to rekindle our love of food at a place we had yet to try. After hearing mixed reviews from several sources, we wanted to see for ourselves with the hope that a couple of months might have worked out some of the kinks.

The converted garage building gives the restaurant a unique setting with bright walls that are a reminder of its previous resident, The Fish Shack. On this lunch break the weather was ideal for throwing up the garage doors, creating a transitional indoor/outdoor space. Business was steady during our visit and we noticed a mix of customers, from moms n’ babes to 9-to-5 escapees.

The menu offers variations on standard Mexican American fare (quesadillas, burritos, tacos, etc), while giving the opportunity to customize your meal with a variety of less expected ingredients (such as goat cheese and “dirty meats”). With so many combinations we studied the menu carefully, and then decided on a selection from across the board.
To start, we couldn’t pass up the chili relleno stuffed with goat cheese, spinach and veggies. This ended up being the overall favorite, largely because of our shared fixation for goat cheese. The breading was coarse but crumbly, creating a nice texture against the soft pepper and slightly sweet interior. Served with crisp lettuce, pico de gallo and a handful of chips, the combination of flavors made this dish stand out. We both agreed it could easily work as a meal in itself.

For our main dishes one of us went for the torta with duck meat and the other chose the fish tacos. The torta was a crisp sandwich layered with lettuce, tomato, jalapeno mayo, guacamole and duck. The meat – billed as house smoked – was very flavorful when eaten alone, but the combination of condiments overwhelmed the sandwich. The crispy bread was a nice alternative to the more common tortilla dishes.
Fish tacos are a classic and best kept simple-Nanataco’s version does a nice job of sticking to this principle. Available fried or grilled, we went with grilled served on durable, homemade corn tortillas. The fish was soft and flaky with a subtle seared flavor, and topped with tasty mango salsa and a touch of lettuce to add a nice sweet and crunchy contrast. This is a dish we would order again.
To round everything out and fill in for the margaritas that we skipped, we tried two of the milkshakes—roasted plantain and Mexican chocolate. The plantain version was very subtle with a nutty but bland flavor that faded quickly on the tongue. Normally big fans of Mexican chocolate, the second shake was dominated by cinnamon, hiding any hint of chocolate and creating what tasted like a liquid atomic fireball without the heat. While there was something enjoyable about moving between the cool, sweet taste of the shakes and the spicy, exotic flavors of the food, we think they might work a little more on the flavor combinations.
Overall, we had a nice experience, but there seems to be something lacking in a few of the details. The salsa bar looks nice but didn’t blow us over—the salsa verde was one of the more flavorful we’ve tried but the pico was pretty standard and the chipotle was overwhelmed by a bitter taste. The taco dish was served with a standard side of beans and rice—the black beans were adequate but the rice was bland and had congealed into the shape of the scoop from which it was served. However, none of this was enough to scare us away and the possibilities on the menu will be enough to lure us back.

Beyond that, it was a nice reunion over enjoyable food and GWG is excited to be back at the eating game!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Baozi & Bubble Tea at Li Ming's

If you haven’t checked out Li Ming’s, it’s hardly a surprisethis Asian supermarket has been tucked away in a dying shopping center off 15-501 for less than a year, surrounded by plenty of culinary competition (3400 Westgate Dr). The day we visited for lunch, the sign was covered with plastic making you wonder if it had just opened or just closed. But go past the door and you find a grocery of specialty Asian foods including a hot bar and bakery counter serving up authentic Chinese dishes, pastries, and drinks. One of us had been before and helped guide the other on what to order to get a well-rounded flavor experience.

On recommendation from previous experience, we visited the baozi counter (steamed buns with filling in the center). We were quickly sold on the buy five get one free offer and ended up with a selection of six—one custard, one shrimp, two sweet black bean, and two pork.
For somebody who’s never seen or heard of a steam bun, at first sight it looks like uncooked dough. The outer texture is a little unusuallight, moist and slightly sticky breading with little, if any flavorbasically serving as a pillow cushion for the flavor inside. But this soft breading serves as a contrast to the heavier filling you find in the middle. Many of the flavors are sweet including the black bean and custard, giving the baozi a dessert or pastry quality. Li Ming’s is the only place we’ve found in this area with steam buns and we think that’s reason enough to visit again.
Our next venture into the unknown was bubble teaone of us was already a fan but the other was again trying something for the first time. Available in a long list of flavors, these drinks are made to order and served in a sealed plastic cup that you puncture with a wide straw. We chose the black bean flavor with tapioca and enjoyed the chilled, coffee-like taste. The tapioca floats at the bottom of the cup in little chewy balls that are sucked up through the strawinteresting but a little distracting in such a constant stream.
For our main course we went for their lunch special which allows you to select three items from the hot bar served with rice for under $6. Not everything was labeled but the staff helped us identify some of the dishes we couldn’t quite discern. The menu offered meat and vegetarian options prepared in spicy and mild sauces including chicken, pork, tofu, and eggplant selections. We chose two tofu dishes, one fried and one soft, as well as eggplant. Our three choices were hard to distinguish visually but the flavors were distinct and enjoyable, with a nice variety of textureswe split the plate between the two of us (along with our steam buns and bubble tea), and left feeling very satisfied. It was also a pretty quick and affordable option for a lunch break.
If you enjoy international cuisine or have a taste for something you can’t find on every menu, check out Li Ming’s and see if you can create your own culinary adventure. Also, check out Carpe Durham's previous post here and don't forget cash if you want to order from the counter!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

My Dear N.C. State Fair,

The season of my love is finally here, although the fond memories never left. October brings you back to the Raleigh fairgrounds, where my heart and stomach can once again be filled with your guilty pleasures for eleven whole days. This year I want to make it official and declare my deep fried love to you.

Oh fair one, the mere thought of you awakens my senses. The sweet scent of your funnel cakes and roasted corn waft through my mind, igniting my appetite for you; and even when you smell like a farm animal, my love remains. Your screams echo from the rides in the sky, reminding me of the thrills you bring to townno number of tickets could put a price on my love for you. At night you light up my eyes with your colorful fireworks display, shining down on the sea of people who travel near and far to be with you.
(Last year, one of us even had a wedding photo shoot at the fairgrounds!)
If food is the way to a person’s heart, then I must be love sick (or is that a sugar high?). Your inventive menu of fried delights fills cravings I never knew I had, arousing my taste buds and leaving me more satisfied with each bite. At every turn your tasty temptations taunt me, making me want to get my hands on your turkey legs and take a bite out of your country ham biscuits. You are the candy apple of my eye, and I could just eat you up.
Like a pig race you run through my mind, and every fall I put all my money on you. I'd spend my last dime to win you a giant stuffed gorilla at the ring toss and a Thanksgiving bird at the turkey shoot. When I'm out of money I'll stand in line to get your free hush puppies and samples of the state's best products.
N.C. State Fair, you complete me (and my daily calorie allowance). Year after year, it keeps getting better and I want to grow old and fat with you. Last year I introduced you to my closest family and friends and they’ve given us their blessings. This year I hope you will honor my love letter to you and accept me as the ambassador to your deep fried ways.

Love,
P.S. Why would we make great ambassadors? Because we have the passion, the appetite and the experience to showcase the state fair in all of its glory. It would be an honor to have this opportunity to cover the fair (and our home state of N.C.) with a sense of humor, curiosity and pride.
We know the fair is about more than foodit's a showcase of the state's culture, commerce, tradition, and spirit. GWG is ready, and more than willing, to share new and familiar experiences with those who will visit the fair for the first time as well as the regulars.

We look forward to the new memories this year's fair will bring as well as the renewed sense of love we feel with each visit.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Top Notch Meal with Top Chefs

It's not often the GWG venture to Raleigh, but when we do, you know it's for good reason. Last night we made the trek out to Poole's Diner to have dinner with two former Top Chef contestants, Kenny Gilbert and Erika Davis, and other local food bloggers, eatRaleigh and DurhamFoodie. It was a fantastic night filled with enjoyable conversation and scrumptious food.
The two chefs and their crew had just flown in from Florida for their appearances at the Southern Ideal Home Show this weekend. We enjoyed the chance to talk to them about their experiences on the show as well as their current food endeavors.

Chef Gilbert appeared on season seven of Top Chef and is currently the executive chef at Nippers Beach Grille in Jacksonville, Florida. We were told his Mac & Cheese Mondays are legendary and we'd love to make it down to see just how much cheesy goodness these GWG can stomach in one evening.

Chef Davis was a contestant on the first season of Top Chef Just Desserts and is now working as the executive pastry chef at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club in Jacksonville, Florida. Erika's tales about life behind the camera didn't spark our interest in being on a realty tv competitionlet's just say it's long days with little rest.

We all met up at Poole's Diner, which if you've never been, you've probably at least heard about it as it gets a lot of attention from the food community. Formerly opened as Poole's Pie Shop back in 1945, you can still catch a glimpse of the old diner under the modernized décor. The menu changes based on what is available locally and seasonally and includes the types of dishes you might see served up on Top Chef.
Heirloom Tomatoes with Marinated White Acre Peas, Cornbread and Basil
The menu is handwritten on chalkboards which is a nice touch but can be a bit frustrating if your eyes aren't great or you are in a large group. We shared the liver paté and pimento cheese appetizers among the table and then GWG split the Heirloom Tomato Salad and a side of creamy Mac & Cheese for our main course (there actually ended up being at least four orders of Mac & Cheese at the table, if that says anything).
Mac & Cheese
To end on a sweet note we ordered a couple of dessertsthe Brown Butter Pears with almond crumble and Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Mousse and Ginger Anglaise. Although the menu is a bit more upscale than most places we visit, it still felt accessible and we enjoyed all of our dishes.
Brown Butter Seckle Pears with Pastry Cream, Beet Gel, Almond Crumble & Stevia
Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Mousse and Ginger Anglaise
The Southern Ideal Home Show is going on this weekend at the Raleigh Fairgrounds, and the chefs will be making appearances both days. We were given an idea of the menus they will be offering up during their demonstrations, and believe us, you want to get there and try it for yourself!

Friday, September 23:

1:00 pm
Top Chefs Duo "Heat Up" Cooking Stage Savory meets Sweet!
Presented By: Chef Erika Davis & Chef Kenny Gilbert

5:00 pm
Chef Kenny "The Beast" Gilbert Fan Favorite Temps Your Taste Buds!
Presented by: Chef Kenny Gilbert

Saturday, September 24:

11:00 am
Top Chefs Duo "Heat Up" Cooking Stage Savory meets Sweet!
Presented by: Chef Erika Davis & Chef Kenny Gilbert

3:00 pm
Just Desserts...Sweet Treat!
Presented By: Chef Erika Davis

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pigging Out at The Pig

After a failed attempt to visit the recently “reopened” Hector’s in Chapel Hill, GWG was forced to wing it and instead found ourselves doing what we do best (pigging out) at a place appropriately named The Pig. Tucked away in a small shopping center off of Weaver Dairy Rd., this barbeque spot greets you with a metal pig sculpture that hints at what’s insidea place that knows the nuts and bolts of serving up good hog.

When you step inside, the combination of counter service, chalkboard menu, and help-yourself silverware create a no frills atmosphere that’s just right for eating various interpretations of pig. The menu includes traditional barbeque options, from chopped pork to brisket, as well as large variety of other pork-inspired offerings and southern favorites. On our visit, featured items included a Mexican Dog and Veal Pâté with Pork Rinds. Surprisingly, the restaurant also offers regular vegetarian choices, although we did not give those a try this time around.
According to the website, The Pig serves whole hog barbeque, working with NC farms to offer hormone-free, pasture-raised pork. After reviewing the menu, we had a hard time narrowing down our choices and ended up with quite a spread. The hardest decision may have been our sidesthe South is well represented with staples including collard greens and fried okra, and it didn’t seem you could go wrong in picking your pork pairings (the veggie plate is definitely worth considering).

We knew we had to try the barbeque so we ordered a small tray which includes slaw, pickles and hushpuppies. Going off the size of the order, we wonder what the large looks likemaybe it really is the whole hog. The meat was a bit dry but add a bit of vinegar-style sauce and a splash of hot sauce and it stands up very well, particularly for Eastern style barbeque. All of the side items were great and provided a nice collection of textures and tastesthe slaw is creamy, the pickles are homemade and a bit sweet, and the hushpuppies melt in your mouth.
Just because it’s not an every day opportunity for us, we decided to try the Veal Pâté with Pork Rinds. When the dish was served the rinds were still popping from the hot grease (think pork pop rocks). Taste and texture wise, they seemed like bacon puffsairy and crunchy with a fatty flavor. The rinds were also served with a side of mustard to add contrast to this meat on meat appetizer. Spreadable meat is always a bit suspect and we were hesitant to take our first bite. It was an adventurous item to try, but the pâté was a bit gamey for our taste and one or two of these seemed like enough.
If you’ve followed GWG from the beginning, you may have noticed favoritism toward particular sides that are common down South. When cheese grits are on the menu we can’t seem to pass it up, as well as fried green tomatoes which we’ve tried in various styles and even learned how to make ourselves. We also went for the baked beansbarbeque’s second favorite sidekick behind slaw.
The grits had an unidentified hot spice that made them a little different, and although we enjoyed them the thick texture was a little dry and clumpy. The baked beans were cooked with bacon and had a nice smoky flavor while the fried green tomatoes were cut slender and heavily fried. We agreed that the sides were unique and flavorful while staying true to the selections of a traditional barbeque restaurant.
It’s probably funny to hear us order when we go out for a blog mealsome people look at us with surprise when we order a crazy, excessive, and sometimes bizarre combination of menu items. We got a bit of that reaction at The Pig when, at the last minute, we decided to add the Mexican Dog to our order, and we ended up being glad we did. The dog consisted of chorizo covered in salsa and cheesesimple and delicious. This is an item that we can imagine picking up on the way home for a fast, filling meal.
While we can’t say we had much that qualified as healthy, it all qualified as tasty. We can see this as our designated spot to take out-of-towners for a taste of the local ‘cue.

Friday, September 2, 2011

For the Love of the Game (and Food)

Summertime in Durham doesn’t feel complete until you make it to at least one Durham Bulls' baseball game. With the season winding down, GWG joined up at DBAP to catch up, enjoy some ballpark grub, and pull on the home team as they took on the Charlotte Knights. Admittedly we may have paid more attention to the food than the action, and one of us may have spilled a $7 beer on the field. But despite a rather devastating final score, a photo op with Wool E. Bull had us in high spirits.
 Our intent was to survey the concession stand offerings at the ballpark, particularly after hearing about a few vendor changes this year. Once we reviewed the handy concession map at the back of the game guide, we realized our options were a combination of reliable chains and traditional baseball fare. We decided to keep with tradition and ordered up two Bright Leaf footlongs, loaded tater tots, fried pickles, and a couple of Carolina Brewery ales to wash it all down.
 The lines can be pretty long so plan to miss at least an inning while you wait –we recommend a tag team effort if you are ordering from several vendors. You might also hold out for the Dollar Night promotions when several classic snacks are available for only $1 each—otherwise, plan to spend about $20/person for a full meal. Everything we ordered was good but nothing really blew us out of the park, mostly due to the fact that none of it seemed particularly fresh from the grill or fryer. 

That being said, a hot dog really completes the baseball experience and these were the original, southern red variety—one served Carolina style with BBQ and slaw on top, and the other topped off with traditional toppings from the condiment bar (ketchup, mustard, relish, sauerkraut). Be sure to grab extra napkins and possibly a fork as the bun may fall apart before you even pick it up—that was our experience in both cases.

For our final indulgence we went for dessert and caught the donut stand just in time. We ordered ours all the way (cinnamon, powdered sugar and chocolate), and watched as the donuts floated and flipped through the grease. The mini donuts come by the dozen and ours were the freshest (and likely fattiest) snack of the night.
Other food options that we did not try out include The Pit Authentic Barbecue, Papa John’s, Moe’s Southwest Grill, Chick-fil-A, and Rita’s Italian Ice. Plus, don’t forget the peanuts, popcorn, cotton candy and other treats that are hustled among the stands.

At the end of the night, comfortable weather, a great turnout, and food for way more than two left us feeling fully satisfied.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Don't Toss This Garbage Out

Wimpy’s Grill is nobody’s secret. It has been well covered by several respected, high-profile sources—Man vs. Food, Our State magazine, and Carpe Durham have all given this diner their stamp of approval. But it’s also the kind of place you might miss if you aren’t looking for it, particularly in a food landscape that’s always got something fresh and new. So we decided to step away from the new kids on the block, and go back to basics at a place that started flipping patties long before Durham became a foodie haven.

In particular, we were curious how Wimpy’s holds up amongst the wave of gourmet, fancy pants burgers that go for at least twice the price. The burger makeover trend has moved this classic finger food from the backyard grill to the chef’s kitchen, topped with any and everything imaginable (think Tribeca Tavern, Bull City Burger, Red Robin).
Wimpy’s version of a themed burger would be the Garbage Burger—a loaded, double-decker cheeseburger sporting every available accoutrement. But it’s less about a theme and more about maxing out the capacity of the bun—how good can a burger be if a little something doesn’t escape as you eat? And at a price of about $6.99, we couldn’t pass up this steal.

It’s fairly common practice to tweak a dish to fit your tastes and preferences—if you are tempted to do that when ordering the Garbage Burger from Wimpy’s, DON’T! Everything on the burger serves a purpose and all the flavors combined to make one heck of a good sandwich.

Here’s the breakdown: bun, pickles, tomato, lettuce, chili, slaw, onion, ketchup, mustard, mayo, bacon, cheese, ¼ lb patty, cheese, ¼ lb patty, and bun. No, that’s not a typo, there are two ¼ lb patties and double cheese on this beast.

It felt kind of like a delayed passage into the grown-up world to eat a burger with any and everything, including a few condiments we wouldn’t normally go for—and now we know it’s just meant to be. While messy, this burger hits every spot on the tongue—with each bite you get some combination of sweet, salty, juicy, tangy, crunchy, cheesy, tasty, greasy and wonderful. It hits the spot without feeling fussy—all of the add-ons are essential, layering to create an All-American treat.
To serve as a control, we also got a single cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato—your standard-issue grill food with a side of fresh, crispy fries. The main test of any burger is in the meat, and even the simplest Wimpy’s burger makes the grade with fresh ground beef. The cherry cobbler looked less appetizing than it really was and offered up flaky crust and sweet cherries. The cobblers are made fresh daily and vary by day.
At the end of the day we decided it’s not exactly apples to apples comparing Wimpy’s to the upscale burger market. It’s kind of like an Ivy League vs. a state school—you’ll get a good meal either way but one feels like a better deal, served with a bit less pomp and circumstance. It also has a lot to do with expectation—sometimes you’re in the mood for tradition and sometimes you want something unexpected. That being said, we add our stamp of approval to Wimpy’s Grill.

A few things to know if you go—the A-frame building does not offer seating so most people grub in their cars; it is also a cash only establishment. If you're stopping by, do yourself a favor and get the Garbage Burger..all the way.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ruby Revisited

It’s easy to get spoiled living in a region with a top notch, thriving food scene—before you know it you’ve become one of those food snobs who used to make your eyes roll. You start seeking out the unique spots and locally grown dishes and suddenly you’ve written off your old fast food habit, readily forgetting the existence of the chain restaurants that gratify herds of Americans.

But is it possible to strike a balance—enjoy and support the local scene while still indulging in the collective food culture that many of us grew up on? We were recently given the opportunity to try out a new selection of cocktails served at Ruby Tuesday, and found ourselves surveying a familiar place from a more discriminating point of view. Inspiration flows freely when you are writing about new, hip places with unique personality, but could we find that in our visit to Ruby Tuesday?
Our main purpose was to try the summery line of VeeV cocktails now on the menu at Ruby’s. VeeV is a liquor made from the Açaí (ah-SIGH-ee) fruit grown and harvested in the Brazilian Rainforest and according to the website, is the world’s first Açaí Spirit. Sporting a tagline of “a better way to drink,” this beverage comes packed with nutrients that you probably aren’t thinking about while it’s going down. It is also marketed as an all natural, sustainable product.

We each tried two of the cocktails at happy hour as well as a couple of appetizers and desserts that ended up being quite a meal. Below is a description of the drinks and thoughts on each:
  • The Watermelon Martini—made with VeeV Açaí Spirit, Grey Goose Vodka, fresh watermelon, cranberry and watermelon juices. Some martinis are sinfully sweet but this one was well-balanced with a natural watermelon flavor; martinis aren’t our beverage of choice, but we didn’t leave a drop.
  • Açaí Mojito—made with VeeV Açaí Spirit, freshly muddled mintfresh, squeezed lime, agave nectar, and pomegranate served with a stick of sugar cane. Absolutely refreshing—a nice, fruity take on a classic.
  • Pomegranate Margarita—made with premium Cuervo Gold, POM Wonderful, VeeV Acai Spirit and organic agave nectar. A sweet and effective drink.
  • Superfruit Cooler—made with Veev Acai Spirit, Aboslut Berri Acai Vodka, Elderflower Liqueur, fresh cucumber, and organic agave nectar. Made with slices of cucumber, this was the top pick for the beer and whiskey drinker among us.
We admit that before this visit, our impression of Ruby Tuesday stopped shortly after the signature salad bar. So, when we tried a few of their menu items, we were pleasantly surprised.
Informed that the jumbo lump crab cake is a recipe from the founder’s wife, it came well seasoned with generous bites of crab and a tangy dipping sauce. The fresh guacamole dip was sizeable and made with jalapenos giving it a touch of heat—served with pico, salsa, and chips. We believe it includes unlimited chips, but we ate too fast to find out. Finally, to accompany our final sips we went for the dessert menu—Double Chocolate Cake and Blondie for Two. Pretty self-explanatory and fairly standard offerings, they both served their purpose well.

So what is the final verdict from two burgeoning foodies who acknowledge that they will eat almost anything? Coming from the marketing industry we can be a bit skeptical of the sales pitch, but from our experience we think the product stands up. In light of the restaurant’s image overhaul with a focus on fresh, higher end ingredients, we enjoyed giving it another try. While it’s a polished presentation with mostly predictable results, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you do it well. And of course there is always that salad bar.

P.S. We found it kind of cool that a big company found our little blog and reached out to let us try their product. Thanks to Ruby Tuesday and VeeV as well as Zuri Hadi and Seth Baker for the experience!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Durham Spirits Company – Top of the Class

Katie Coleman whet her culinary interest cooking for her parents during a period when she was living at home looking for new direction. She found her place in the kitchen and hasn’t looked back, honing her skills at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Now in Durham, she is helping others try on the chef hat through a variety of classes offered through her business, The Durham Spirits Company. Several courses stood out to us, but we thought “All About Tomatoes” was fitting for the summer and perfectly scheduled in the peak of tomato season.
Also an instructor at The Art Institute in Durham, Katie’s personal venture takes people away from a classroom setting and into her historic home near downtown. Equipped with a modern, pimped-out chef’s kitchen, the space has all the bells and whistles needed for effective instruction and demos while keeping a southern charm that makes it all seem doable in your own home. The house is enormous, gorgeous and filled with antique furniture and décor, which excited us almost as much as the food.

Katie keeps her classes intimate—no more than ten students—and ours ended up being a group of three allowing us to be very hands on with each recipe. She welcomed us right in as if we were old friends offering refreshing, homemade (basil?) lemonade—the only recipe she would not share! Even after the class ended she continued the personal touch, emailing a recipe for her homemade pie crust that was used in one of our dishes.
 
We got right into cooking with Katie getting each recipe started, but quickly turning it over to the students to finish the chopping, dipping, frying, pouring, stirring, etc…Her instruction included a lot of insider tips about shopping, ingredients, substitutions, technique and beyond—and her ease in the kitchen created a great environment to observe, participate and ask questions without disruption.

The menu for the class included chilled heirloom tomato soup with crab and goat cheese, fried green tomatoes, tomato pie, shrimp and BLT salad, and tomato sorbet for dessert. Our favorites were the fried green tomatoes and tomato pie—not that the other things weren’t great, these were just outstanding and hit the southern spot.
The fried green tomatoes (FGT) require several steps, but were easier to make than we expected—we learned you can even bread them and freeze them for later use! For dipping, we prepared a creamy sauce (made with fresh corn and more tomato)  that complimented the FGT with a nice touch of cool and spice, giving this dish even more personality.
The tomato pie—popular in South Carolina—was a less familiar favorite. Layers of tomato, onion and seasoning were piled into a homemade crust and covered with a cheese and sour cream mixture. When heated, the flavors and textures combine for a delightful treat. The leftovers were just as good when reheated.

We were both surprised by the subtly sweet and refreshing flavor of the tomato sorbet. Mixed with a simple syrup and spices, the pureed tomatoes are then strained and placed in an ice cream maker. Simple, different and delightful; who knew tomato could make a dessert?
The chilled yellow and red tomato soup makes a beautiful, colorful display and the improvised addition of crab meat and goat cheese added a bit of culinary flare. Finally, the shrimp and BLT salad with bacon vinaigrette was fresh and tasty but less noticeable when served next to the other dishes in this meal.
Both of us loved the class and found ourselves enthused to spend more time in the kitchen. The courses cover everything from basic skills to international cuisine as well as the mixology series—while we’d love to try them all, we will probably space it out due to cost (although we definitely got our money’s worth with 2.5 hours of personal instruction, a feast of a meal for 3 students + teacher, and even some leftovers). Recently the Recipes with Refugees program held its first course on Iraqi cooking in the Durham Spirits Company space—keep an eye out for additional courses from this group that is working to introduce ethnic recipes into the local scene.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Reliable Cheese - For The Mild to The Adventurous

It is always interesting to watch a blog evolve from concept to post. We think of an idea, plan our angle, schedule a time, and then dig in! However, more often than not, the direction changes midway and the blog post takes on a life of its own. That was exactly our experience at the Reliable Cheese Company on East Chapel Hill Street in Durham.

We selected Reliable Cheese for a post because we had both visited the shop independently and liked the ability to sample and learn about specialty cheese while making a selection tailored to a menu. We planned to order sandwiches and ask Patrick Coleff—the owner and humble cheese savant—advice about buying cheese for those of us who are less familiar with the gourmet market. We left the shop with three fresh-made sandwiches and a sample platter of five cheeses chosen for us by Patrick.
Our first sandwich was the classic grilled cheese which seemed to serve as a good benchmark against the more creative options. Served on a durable sourdough, this basic sandwich features sharp cheddar, putting full spotlight on the cheese. Something about aged cheddar adds a bit of maturity to a sandwich that can often be found on the kids’ menu. Offered daily, we think this makes a good choice for less adventurous cheese eaters.

Our next “Hot off the Press” sandwich selection (available daily) was the prosciutto, roncal and membrillo. We both found this to be our favorite of the three sandwiches because of the salty meat, sweet membrillo (a sweet spread) and creamy roncal cheese combination. All the flavors in this sandwich were distinct and played off each other well.
Finally, we tried the Wednesday special, Brillat Savarin-triple crème, fig jam and honey. This super sweet sandwich was only a hit with one of us. The fig jam was the standout with the creamy cheese enhancing its sticky texture and sweet flavor. Eaten after the prosciutto, this sandwich seemed more like dessert.

We were both impressed by the quality of the ingredients and the care with which the sandwiches were made. The down side to enjoying one of Reliable Cheese’s sandwiches is the lack of dining space, but we realize it’s not a restaurant. Durham’s local businesses do a great job of supporting each other, and we were told several places including Scratch and Fullsteam would likely be open to sharing their spaces.

When we ordered our cheese plate we asked for Patrick’s help in putting something together that would provide a good overview to a cheese novice—we relied entirely on his recommendations which he said would cover mild to adventurous (gulp!). His passion and knowledge of his product shows as soon as he opens his mouth and he even typed up a listing with the names and origins of each selection.
Admittedly, we are not accustomed to fine dining and somehow specialty cheese seems to fit into a more sophisticated culinary scene than we usually frequent. We weren’t even entirely sure how to eat a cheese plate—do you use your fingers, should you smell the cheese before you taste, is the fig a palate cleanser, can you eat the rind? We may have broken a few rules of etiquette but decided to just go for it.

Neither of us would consider ourselves to be picky eaters, but this part of the lunch turned out to be a true challenge for one of us. It appears that being raised on Velveeta and Kraft Singles may have stunted our taste and tolerance for exotic cheese. Some of the selections had very strong odors and varying textures that were a bit intimidating, but we both managed to give them all a (sometimes reluctant) try. It was actually exciting to have a food experience that pushed the limits of our taste preferences.

Below is the list of cheeses we sampled in the order they were eaten and with brief descriptions/reactions—as we are new to this scene we are also new to describing these flavors and found that to be a challenge as well:

• Grayson mini (raw cow’s milk/Galax, VA)—very smelly with strong aftertaste, smoky
• Bra Duro Alpeggio (raw cow’s milk/Cuneo, Italy)—dry and mild
• La Serena (raw sheep’s milk/Extramadura, Spain)—soft and stinky, dipped in beer
• La Peral (raw cow’s milk/Asturias, Spain)—a salty blue on the milder side
• Lou Bergier Pichin (raw cow’s milk/Piedmonte, Italy)—very smooth and mild

After our tasting adventure and out of curiosity, we looked online for resources to hone our knowledge and etiquette. As it turns out, it is good form to smell the cheese before you eat it as our taste is heavily guided by scent. Using your fingers is acceptable, particularly with hard varieties, and it is best to enjoy the cheese on its own (at least on first bite) to experience the full flavor. Crackers and figs are used to cleanse the palate between each type and you are perfectly fine to eat the rind if you find it appetizing.

For more thorough instruction and information check out the links we’ve included below—and of course, we recommend you go to Reliable and let Patrick create a custom cheese adventure for you!

The Cheesemonger: How to Eat Cheese
The Cheesemonger: How to Taste Cheese
Chow: Know Your Cheese - A Glossary of Cheese Terms
Chow: Stinky to Mild - How to Build a Cheese Plate
Chow: How to Eat a Cheese Plate

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Cherry On Top - Will & Pop's


It seems like the Girls with Guts keep ending up at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham—not that we’re complaining since it has been the site of some great times and great food. This time, we went to celebrate National Rainier Cherry Day.

The “Northwest Cherries Tree to Table” campaign selected Fullsteam as North Carolina’s representative for a national celebration of cherries. Since Fullsteam had some stout already brewed and ready for the fermentation process, they simply added Rainier cherry juice to create their signature cherry menu item. The event was also billed to include free cherry bounce hand pies to the first 50 attendees.

Unfortunately, the GWG are working girls and were unable to make it in time for the start of the event—we were told that an eager line was ready and waiting at 4 p.m., quickly claiming the limited edition pies to go with the cherry beer. Sad that we missed out on the delicious, homemade cherry pies (but glad to see the enthusiasm), we went forward with our plan to try the beer and sat at one of the indoor picnic tables.
To our unseasoned beer palettes, the drink didn't seem much different than other stouts we've tried. The smoky, coffee-like flavor was strong and kept us from detecting a cherry taste. Being a heavy beer, it probably wouldn't be our first choice on such a hot day, but we enjoyed the taste experiment. The beer is also limited edition—they expect it to last about a week, but once it's out that's it!

After much disappointment over the cherry pie shortage, we were quickly consoled by the sight of Will & Pop’s friendly green food truck parked outside of Fullsteam. A familiar presence in the late-night Carrboro scene, the truck’s birthplace, it appears to be moving in on Durham’s food truck monopoly.

The menu can vary, but their signature is the classic grilled cheese served up with a creative twist (and clever names). We won’t use the word gourmet because that is not their aim (tagline: “so good make ya smack ya pops”), but the ingredients are local, fresh and served with a smile.

We ordered two sandwiches to split—the Hot Hipster and the Stoner. The Hipster is a grilled cheese with mango chutney, or for $.50 more you can get it “hot” by adding habanero cheddar—we went for the latter. The buttery sourdough is perfect for grilled cheese and held up well while mango chutney poured out the sides adding a sweet n’ tangy contrast to the cheese. Just when you are about to tell yourself it’s not that hot you start to realize it kind of is.
The Stoner…well, now we understand why it gets that name. This is the ultimate fantasy sandwich for kids (and stoners) of all ages. Combine the flavors of banana, peanut butter, and marshmallow fluff (plus brownie for $.50 more) and serve it on grilled bread and you’ve got yourself dessert. This sandwich will soothe a severe craving with one bite. It’s pretty rich so we recommend sharing.
One of us has experienced Will & Pop’s before and admittedly has a soft spot for the Hippie—grilled cheese with guacamole. Also of note are the homemade flour chips and guacamole which were not available on this occasion, although nachos with pork were on the menu. They’ve also been spotted serving up burgers at Earth Day in Chapel Hill earlier this year. With such a variety of carefully prepared classics, we are glad to see them crossing the border!

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Sweet & Spicy Trend

When GWG combined the forces of our collective sweet tooth, we found ourselves on the tempting trail of a local dessert trend. We’ve seen Mexican chocolate beverages served in coffee shops, but recently noticed this sweet and spicy combination making an appearance on several dessert menus.

Based on web research, “Mexican chocolate refers to either the round, flat disks of cinnamon-scented chocolate found throughout the land [of Mexico] or the foamy drink made from them.” The local variations are chocolate treats accented with a kick of cinnamon, nutmeg, and in some cases cayenne.

Our work started one night at The Parlour ice cream truck—a second helping led us to the Mexican Hot Chocolate flavor, a vegan option. Perhaps not as creamy as the dairy selections, this version is made with coconut milk and has an understated element of spice. Not ones to observe many dietary restrictions, we found this frozen sweet to be quite satisfying but were unable to confirm if it makes for a lower calorie choice.
The next stop was Scratch Bakery where we ordered a slice of Mexican Chocolate Pie. Served chilled, the pie consists of three layers—a chocolate cookie crust, topped with a silky chocolate center, topped with meringue. Each layer provided its own texture, and together they created a sweet and spicy delight. The first bite has a traditional chocolate pudding flavor, but just wait as the spice sneaks up on you.
Over on Ninth Street we visited Elmo’s Diner who recently added a Mexican Chocolate Milkshake to its classic menu of shakes and malts. Another frozen variation of the treat, Elmo’s version is offered with the option of cayenne pepper. We went with the extra spice and found this to be the most flavor-intense of the four desserts we tried. However, this spiciness is not the kind that sets your mouth on fire and gives you the sweats—it’s a peppery taste that creates a kick while the chocolate has an almost soothing effect. Due to the intensity and heaviness of the shake, we think this is a good one to share.
GWG is no stranger to Locopops (in a previous post we attempted to eat 11 on a hot sunny day), but this time we stopped in specifically for the Mexican Chocolate pop (which we believe to be the treat that inspired this trend). Admittedly, we’ve had this one before and always enjoy it—the flavor was similar to Elmo’s shake but with a smoother texture and a little less kick. One of these makes a perfect serving for a flavor that can be on the rich side.
At the end of our taste-testing, we give our recommendation to all four of the Mexican Chocolate inspired treats. If you aren’t up for trying them all, we thought Elmo’s shake stood out for the biggest kick factor and Scratch’s pie was the most original take on the theme. If you come across another variation, please share!