Vespa

We spent a happy Memorial Day Weekend Friday at Vespa in Chapel Hill. We love Vespa. And yet I know we really shouldn’t.

Why? Because they serve several dishes that are just not quite perfect, and with a $92 tab for two they should be getting there. (That includes tip, three drinks, entrees, salads, and bread.) Take the pasta with seafood and tomato sauce that Fred ordered–basically clams, scallops, and mussels served over linguini. (My horrible habits as a reviewer are again revealed; I never wrote down the name). The sauce was exactly right–a little brothy, a wee bit spicy, just the right amount of herbs. But the scallops had been cooked a hair past perfection and were turning rubbery around the edges.

My dish had similar issues. I ordered Penne al Fumo (at least, that’s whay my pathetic excuse for a memory recalls), which was basically smoked salmon in a tomato cream sauce with peas over penne. Again, everything was as it should be, except that the peas were, again, a teensy bit overcooked, having slipped from bright green into greenish-yellow. Perhaps they were related to the salmon.

But despite the prices and the imperfections, we’ll go back. We love being greeted and warmly welcomed by the owner. We love the warm interior, the patio with the cedar bushes and the white tablecloths, the attentive staff. We also love some of the dishes–like the house salad, simply but perfectly done with tomatoes, greens and just the right amount of vinaigrette, and the pasta dishes that do not involve seafood. We like sitting on Franklin Street and watching the earnest Chapel Hillians and UNC students stroll buy, though we do not like thinking about how very old we must look to them. And most of all, I think I like going to a place that does not remind of my former life here, and that makes me think of Italy, and of new possibilities, no matter how imperfect they may be.

We Discover . . . Kroger

It’s embarassing to admit that I have lived in Durham for ten months now and had never visited the one store that could have put a quick stop to my grousing about food prices in the Triangle. No, Kroger cannot replace our beloved DeKalb Farmers Market in Atlanta. Nor does it offer a particularly strong meat and fish selection. But in terms of price and selection, the Kroger on Hillsborough Road is the best we’ve found so far for our needs. Among the items we found today at reasonable prices were:

Cento Hot Cherry Pepper Spread
La Croix fizzy water
Wine
Wild caught perch (ok, it was in plastic wrap, but it looked quite good and was only $5.99 a pound)
Muir Glen organic low-salt tomato sauce
DEET tick repellent (I have failed to describe our recent tick incidents on this blog, but suffice it to say that we have two decapitated tick bodies in our freezer, where they will remain until we are entirely certain that neither of us has Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, STARI, ehrlichiosis, or another tick-borne illness I did not encounter on the CDC web site)
Cherries
Dust-free cat litter
Low-salt tomato juice
Organic yogurt
Coffee at under $10 a pound
Organic cottage cheese
Deli meats
Anchovies
Cheap Parmesan cheese (I am not above this)

And yet, in all fairness to my dear nemesis, Whole Foods: Their organic, free-range chicken is a better deal. But I can’t buy DEET tick repellent there.

Blessed Eggs

Today is the epitome of nine-to-five joy–the near-dead middle of the holiday weekend, the glorious, happy Sunday when you have a day of freedom still spread out before you. I could stay up till midnight trying to finish the dreadful sudoko puzzle that is currently taxing the limits of my feeble powers, but I think I’ll choose to spend my time focusing on an actual triumph from yesterday: the eggs.


Among the things we picked up during our excursion to the Raleigh Farmers’ Market last week were some beautiful eggs from Bee Blessed Apiary in Candler, NC. They had dirt on the outside, and came in a variety of sizes, and weren’t quite uniform in color. They reminded me of the eggs I used to pluck from hens’ nests, in terror, as a child. My pappaw always claimed that these eggs were far better than what you found in the store. He said they were fresher and had a better flavor. Of course, I thought he was nuts.

Now, I’m not so sure. I had always heard that fresh eggs were darker and that the yolk was firmer than store-bought. A very unscientific comparison of a Harris Teeter egg cracked into a white coffee cup and a Bee Blessed egg cracked into a slightly beige coffee cup did not bear out this theory. But the flavor–well, those Blessed eggs had been sitting in the fridge for a week and they actually tasted like something. It’s hard to describe without using the word “gamey,” which has unfortunate connotations of deer meat gone bad. It’s just that I could almost taste in them the picture of a fat, happy hen raised in the warm sun on fresh grass. And at $3.50 a dozen, they were what I’ve come to call reasonable in the ludicrously expensive food market of the Triangle.

Some luscious spring onions and fine 2-year-old cheddar helped too. Here’s how we cooked them.

Scrambled Eggs with Cheese and Spring Onion

Makes 2 large servings

3 tbsp. butter
6 small spring onions or scallions, sliced (include about 2″ of green part)
1 cup grated New York sharp cheddar
6 eggs
2 – 4 tbsp. milk or half and half
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in large skillet on medium-high heat. Beat eggs with fork until thoroughly blended. Add milk or half and half and continue beating eggs until they are just frothy. Pour into skillet, add salt and pepper, and scrape bottom with spatula constantly until eggs are just cooked. Transfer to plates. Add half of cheese and onions to each plate and stir. Serve immediately.

Truffle Oil

In a recent post, Hulga asked what to do with truffle oil. I have a few quick and easy suggestions.

This one is from a friend.

Salad with Truffle Oil and Parmesan: Drizzle truffle oil over greens. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar and salt to taste. Toss greens. Top with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. For variety, add fresh mushroom to greens before tossing. The daikon radish, sliced or grated, would make a nice addition as well.

You can also drizzle truffle oil over boiled potatoes or freshly sliced daikon radish (as I did a couple of days ago). Another good use is in pureed, starch-based soups like potato, celeraic, white asparagus, or cauliflower. I have also heard of recipes for turkey dressing that use it, but I haven’t tried that myself.

Truffle oil has a strong flavor, so you will want to use it sparingly and pair it with foods that won’t compete with it.

Hope this helps with your truffle dilemma!

Me vs. the Daikon Radish

Tonight, I faced down the daikon radishes that defeated me in Saturday’s dinner. This time, I used simpler, more reliable weapons, weapons that a cook of longer experience would have deployed much sooner.


The first round of artillery came from the bottle in the middle: a little truffe oil, drizzled over the top of the thinly sliced radishes, with salt. I did not end up serving this at our meal; it seemed too rich to serve with the Mae Farm pork left over from Saturday.

Instead, the most humble implements proved the most effective: white vinegar and sugar. (The sugar bowl pictured here, by the way, belonged to my grandmother, who would have been proud to have taken up arms in this battle.) Cucumbers and tomatoes marinated in vinegar and sugar represent and ancient and proud tradition; daikon radishes are pickled in Japan; it all works.

All you do is this: Peel the daikon radish and slice thin. Salt generously. Mix about 1/4 to 1/3 cup white wine vinegar with roughly equal parts sugar. Stir vinegar mix repeatedly until sugar dissolves. Pour over sliced radish; marinate for an hour if possible. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Relish your victory.

How to ruin a vegetable

Our Saturday supper started off with promise. We made a trip to the Raleigh Farmer’s market and picked up a bounty of fresh produce and pork raised on a small, local farm:

Pork, tomatoes, Daikon radish, zucchini, and elephant garlic sprouts

The garlic sprouts looked beautiful.


As did the spring onions.


“What could possibly go wrong?” you ask. Well, I committed the cardinal sin of cooking fresh vegetables: I got fancy. I sauteed the daikon radish in chicken broth, added some of the garlic sprouts, cream, and a few other things I can’t remember. It was a mess of flavors, the culinary equivalent of puce, the tastes competing with rather than complementing each other. A similar disaster occurred with the zucchini.

It was another reminder of the most important rule to follow when you have fresh, seasonal vegetables: Steam them, add some olive oil or butter and salt, and leave them alone.

But then there was the pork. What a spectacular pig it must have been. It came from Mae Farm Meats in Louisburg, NC, whose web site shows happy, fat pigs lounging in the sun. A happy pig is a tasty pig. The ham steak we purchased was surrounded by a beautiful layer of flavorful fat, and it was arguably the best pork I’ve ever had. I can’t wait to try the bacon–and I cannot resist adding that it was $2 per pound less than Whole Foods.

Anotherthyme

Continuing to return to the haunts of my youth, we went to Anotherthyme this evening. This restaurant has a special place in my heart, as the one of the first establishments where I spent way too much money on dinner. It was comforting to return to the site of my first forays into adult dining–using a credit card to spend money I didn’t have, ordering foods with unrecognizable names, and drinking wine with food. And having those first long, intimate conversations over a meal about things that mattered, like love and God and friendship; and wondering if the person sitting across from you would be the one you married; and thinking how lovely it was to have the future ahead of you.

So it is nearly impossible for me to “review” Anotherthyme. Walking into that intimate interior, with the warm wood and white Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, I still feel a sense of magic. This is no accident–these are people who post a slide show of the interior on their web site. You can see why this is a place where I expect some new intimacy to develop, some depth of friendship to be revealed, some special bond cemented. It’s just that kind of place.

I also happened to love my salad with lemon tahini dressing, avocado, onion, parmesan and cashews. My dear friend Donna, who joined us, had the fried chicken she always gets and which she adores. Fred’s steak and my calamari did not stand out. If you want an experience where every dish is flawless rather than just good, and where you’ll find the latest trend done to perfection, Anotherthyme is not the place to be.

But I’ll go back. There’s something to be said for a place that has cast this spell over me for over 20 years. And it’s especially nice to return with an old friend, and the wonderful person you actually married, and to still remember what really matters.