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
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)
Dust-free cat litter
Low-salt tomato juice
Organic yogurt
Coffee at under $10 a pound
Organic cottage cheese
Deli meats
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.


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.

Four Square

Both of us were feeling a wee bit blue and tired when we got home last night. And so we treated ourselves to a meal at Four Square, because several people said we should.

We liked it. We sat at the copper bar while we waited for our table and chatted with the friendly bartender, a philosophy major from Maine whose favorite philosopher is Michel Foucault. (I recommended she check out Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and she was kind enough to write it down as if she were deeply interested.) We were intrigued by the Four Square Martini, which includes gin, vodka, and cucumbers they’ve marinated in salt water until they just begun to reach the pickle stage. It was so spectacular that I was very sad that sobriety dictated ordering just one.

I had halibut that was tender and flaky. Fred had thinly sliced ostrich seasoned with ginger, garlic and other good things. Unfortunately we did not take notes, since we went in an effort to cheer ourselves up and not in an attempt to write a review. Luckily, it worked.

But we can’t afford it very often, and so this will be just an occasional treat. The total bill, with tip, came to $160. This bought two glasses of wine for me, a beer and a martini for Fred, desserts for each of us, one cup of coffee, two appetizers, and two entrees. See what I mean about Durham being so expensive?

Sandwiched between Stanley Hauerwas and Barbara Kingsolver

Yesterday I went back to Bullock’s Barbecue on the 21st anniversary of my graduation from Duke. Today, I went to . . . . graduation at Duke. And ate a sandwich. Both acts offer strange and possibly unrelated commentaries on my past. You be the judge.

I. Graduation

I went to Duke’s graduation primarily because Barbara Kingsolver was delivering the address. But given that this entire year has dragged me unexpectedly through the zigzagging corridors of youthful emotion that were my college days, it also seemed fitting to revisit the last scene.

This is how I came to be standing in the basement of the football team headquarters at 9:15 with Stanley Hauerwas, the only other Divinity School representative in sight, talking about his son’s impending graduation from business school. Eventually we were joined by three others. I’m wearing my academic robes, standing around with a bunch of old people in those funny velvet berets. What the hell has happened to me? We stream out of the tunnel normally reserved for football players, a team of academic athletes, running onto the field for the last game of the season.

My graduation on May 10, 1987 was a sunny day full of promise. I had hidden a bottle of champagne in my dress, which my friends and I shared. Though the champagne was split 7 ways, the warm sun, the lack of food, and the bubbles all combined to make me ever so slightly tipsy–a necessity when you are dealing with nine family members, including three and a half parents. (My dad’s girlfriend never quite made it to parental status.)

There was no danger of a warm, tipsy morning today. It would be hard to conjure up more miserable weather–mid-fifties and raining, steadily enough to require an umbrella and make everything soggy, but not so much that the exercises could be legitimately canceled. (With no viable indoor venue, Duke always holds its graduation outside).

I sat sandwiched between Stanley and my boss Wes, one chair between us to give room for our umbrellas. I had decided not to wear socks because they didn’t go with my shoes, a decision I was to regret deeply as the morning dragged on.

My only view was of water dripping on to the robe of the professor in front of me. The ceremony was interminable. They conferred about a zillion honorary degrees. The student speakers spoke. They spoke well, but I was reminded, once again, that you’re never as clever as you think you are when you’re 21. (Or maybe at 42, for that matter.)

As my feet turned into frozen lumps encased in their shoes too stylish for socks, I kept thinking, “At least I’ll get to hear Barbara Kingsolver.”

If I’d read the speech, I would have loved it. She started off funny and warm and lighthearted, full of hope just like the graduates. But then middle age hit. The speech turned into a litany on the dangers of global warming, the energy shortage, and the general destruction of the planet that would ensue in about 10 years if the Class of 2008 didn’t forgo nice houses and cars and do something–because her generation had not. “Sorry, kids, we screwed up your planet. You’ll have to fix it now. No big house for you. Have a nice life.” To make matters worse, she had fallen in love with too much of the writing, to the point that she failed to realize that her listeners were sitting in a miserable downpour, with her words the sole barrier between them, their diplomas, and a hot cup of tea on the couch.

Walking out, I overheard the following conversation between an undergraduate and her parents:

Student (now alum): “The speech–that was the worst.”
Mom: “That’s what I heard.”
Student/Alum: “She used a metaphor in every sentence!”

“Maybe because she’s a writer?” I thought. The young woman sounded like the prince in the film Amadeus, who said of Mozart’s music, “Too many notes!” But then again, 21 years ago, that would have been me.

II. The Sandwich

After this, I trudged back home to comfort myself in the only way I knew how: a hot bath and a sandwich.

You have to understand that when I was a child I was initially deprived of sandwiches–at least the kind I wanted. My mother insisted on giving us wholesome, whole grain bread–it was around the same time as her wheat germ phase. And so I longed for the white bread, sometimes sans crust, that other kids got. And so my ideal sandwich is this: bread, mayonnaise, yellow mustard, and bologna. No vegetables. No fancy mustard. No asiago or sun-dried tomato or onion in the bread. Just the soft, tender bread, the salty meat, and wonderfully vinegary mustard, and creamy mayonnaise–enough that occasionally a small blob will fall onto your plate.

And so, warm and satisfied from my bath, I ate and pondered the lesson my meal could offer to Barbara Kingsolver: Remember the joys of being young, and for the love of God, don’t pile too much crap on your sandwich.

Back to Bullock’s

Today marks the 21st anniversary of my graduation from Duke, and the 14th anniversary of Fred’s graduation from library school at Chapel Hill. We’re back where we started; we’ve returned to the scene of the crime; we’re on the old stomping grounds. And as a bit of a commemorative move, we went to Bullock’s for lunch.

When I was a student, my friends raved about Bullock’s, legendary in Durham for its barbecue. The place is your basic vinyl-boothed, gum-chewing-middle-aged-waitress, cleaner-than-average Southern meat and three, located off the intersection of I-85 and 15-501 in a forest of strip malls and warehouses. The decoration is circa 1985. There are photographs of Italy on the wall (perhaps because spaghetti appears on the menu?). But . . . .

Well, one thing has not changed in 21 years, and now I’ll put it in print: Bullock’s is just not my favorite North Carolina barbecue joint.

The barbecue itself is certainly decent. We both ordered the hand-pulled pork. The meat was tender, and the sauce is unique: spicy, rich, with a little more tomato and less vinegar than your average Eastern NC ‘cue. I’d characterize it as a cross between Buffalo wing sauce and the classic Eastern Carolina barbecue. (The sauce borders on Western NC barbecue, I think, though for once I will confess that I’m not yet well-versed enough in the difference to offer an opinion.)

Where Bullock’s falls down is in some of the sides. The black-eyed peas Fred ordered seemed to be canned, and so did the beets. The turnip greens were flavorless, even with salt, vinegar and Texas Pete added, and the collards were similarly unremarkable. And the Brunswick stew tasted as if the corn and lima beans were canned–the stew had that flat taste I associate with places that don’t use fresh or at the very least frozen vegetables.

The slaw, though, is a perfect complement to the barbecue, and I love its finely chopped texture with just the right amount of mayonnaise. And the hush puppies, though smaller and less crisp than I normally like them, are perfectly seasoned.

Still, J.C.’s Kitchen remains my favorite barbecue in Durham.