Coming Soon: The Great Barbecue Taste-Off

Yesterday we joined our friend Paul for the beginning of a project we’ve been talking about for months–an authoritative, double-blind taste test to determine the best barbecue in Durham.

This stage of the project involved five restaurants (listed here in alphabetical order): the Backyard Barbecue Pit, Bullock’s, Dillard’s, Hog Heaven and the Q Shack.

Who won? Tune in later this week to find out, when I get time to write up the results. We’ll also feature cooking results from last week’s vegetable haul.

In the meantime, I turn to that last resort of writer-blocked, time-crunched bloggers everywhere: the cat photo. Today: a very rare shot of the adorable multi-colored toes of Catalina, our shy tortie. Don’t try doing this at home.

Post-Vacation Activities

We’ve been curious for some time about Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill. We have seen folks sitting on that wonderful-looking patio, staring down at the crowds, and we wanted to be up there. Perhaps we wanted to recapture something of the experiences we enjoyed at our beloved Six Feet Under in Atlanta, overlooking Oakland Cemetary.

Top of the Hill is too traditional for that, but we enjoyed our lunch there this morning. It was a your typical good bar/restaurant combo, done well–quick service from a nice college student, beginning the meal with the usual “Hi, I’m Alisha, and I’ll be taking care of you this morning”; safe, familiar menu options; and an interesting beer list, which we’ll have to try sometime when we’re not there at noon.

The food was neither spectacular nor disappointing, but for a total of $27 with tip, we can’t complain. Fred’s beer battered fries were the exception–crispy on the outside, soft and tender on the inside. The tomatoes on my shrimp salad with green goddess dressing were surprisingly sweet and flavorful–the advantage of ordering while they’re in season, I suppose. And the rolls were quite good–perfect little warm brioches, luckily for us served with no butter or oil. Fred’s bleu cheese burger was a fine if not memorable example of the genre. My salad was a bit on the small side, as were the shrimp–but enough for me in my state of post-vacation repentance.

But the view–well, that takes everything to a different level. Decent food and comfortable prices, overlooking Chapel Hill so that you can even see the distant hills–what more can you ask of life? As much as I like great restaurants and perfectly prepared food, I found myself offering up a small prayer of thanks that this beautiful spot had not been taken over by a place that only the wealthiest diners could afford, and that the owners were taking care of us little people quite nicely.

There was only one thing to do when we got home.

Louise, however, remained ever vigilant, on the off chance that a stray piece of food might jump out of the fridge.

In which weight watching again spurs us to new heights

Since last summer’s wine revelation, in which a beautiful piece of trout emerged victorious from its poaching in the world’s worst wine, we’ve continued to make variations on that dish. But our current caloric restrictions posed some new challenges when I went to cook some tilapia we picked up at the Evil Empire (some call it Whole Foods). A recipe with “1/2 stick butter” as its second ingredient would force us to eat celery for the rest of the week, and we had other plans.

But summer vegetables, herbs, and . . . well, chicken stock made from the Rainbow Meadow Farms chicken worked in our favor, and I was able to make a dish that was, truly, just as good as the original. (Really, Rainbow Meadow Farms is not paying me. But if they offered me a free chicken one day, I would not offer any objections.)

We ate the dish so fast that I was able to photograph only this sad leftover piece with its pitiful scraps of the pepper and onion–a symbol of the fleeting pleasures our ephemeral existence provides.

Louise was hopeful that some of those fleeting pleasures would fall across her path, and did her best to encourage mishaps by standing underfoot during much of the cooking process.

Realizing that even her best efforts were doomed to failure, however, she conceded defeat and went to pursue other pleasures by beating up Cleo.

Tilapia with Pepper and Onions (serves 2; 8 – 9 points each)

1 lb. tilapia fillets
2 tsp. olive oil
1 yellow pepper, cut into thin strips 2 – 3″ long
1 large sweet onion, halved, sliced thin
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 cup chicken broth (homemade is best; otherwise use low sodium)
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced
3 – 4 tbsp. fresh oregano, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Generously salt and pepper tilapia fillets. Heat oil in large skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and saute until translucent. Add pepper and saute for 2-3 minutes, adding a little broth if ingredients get too brown. Add garlic and stir. Add enough broth to cover bottom of skillet. Salt to taste. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or so, until vegetables are tender.

Remove lid and lay tilapia over top of vegetables. Add remaining broth, if needed, and wine. Sprinkle herbs on top of fish. Cover and cook for five minutes or until fish is just cooked. Remove lid and put fish on serving plates. Turn heat to high and cook vegetables, uncovered, just a few minutes more, until liquid has somewhat evaporated. Add vegetables to plates. Leave skillet on high heat and reduce remaining liquid until somewhat thickened. Pour over fish and serve.

Cooking Extravaganza (Beef Burritos, Beef and Lentil Salad)

I’ll say this for Weight Watchers: I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen in an effort to create dishes that won’t be awful and that won’t leave us starving. And it’s been . . . oh damn and blast it all, I have to admit it. I’m having fun.

In what is surely the crowning irony of this whole weight loss experience, our fridge is now groaning with food. Most of the new residents are vegetables and herbs–squash, carrots, celery, mushrooms, watermelon, cilantro, parsley, plums, and so on. We’ve always eaten them, but not this much and not as fast. And we need them now like never before–they are our front line of defense against the battallions of cheese and chips that have been invading our waistlines over the years.

The vegetables also helped us use the leftover steak from Fred’s birthday. Leftover steak wasn’t a familiar concept to Fred in the past, but we’re in a crazy new world now.

They key to our leftover steak preparation were these little babies, picked up at Food World (401 E. Lakewood Ave., Durham.)

Unfortunately they were not labeled, and my search of The Chileman’s database did not produce results. They are tiny dried peppers, about 1/2″ long, with a wonderfully rich flavor–slightly smoky, but not like a chipotle, a good bit of depth, and heat in the same range as a jalapeno. (I’ll keep trying to find out what they are!)

On Saturday, we had these steak and vegetable burritos, which were far more beautiful and delicious than my limited photography skills can convey here.

Here is the recipe. I’m guessing each burrito would have 9 points, but they are a complete meal.

Steak and Vegetable Burritos (serves 2)

2 large flour tortillas
4 oz. cooked steak or beef, sliced into 3″ strips about 1/4″ wide
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 yellow squash, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
1 red pepper, chopped
1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 – 2 tbsp. cumin
1/4 cup tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
6 – 8 of the tiny peppers pictured above, minced, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper plus 1 minced chipotle (adjust spices to taste)
1/4 – 1/2 cup crated white cheddar cheese

Saute onions in olive oil over medium heat in large skillet until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add squash, pepper, cilantro, 1/4 cup lime juice, cumin, and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce and more lime juice as needed. Add beef and peppers. Cover and cook until vegetables are softened, about 5 more minutes. Remove lid and cook until liquid has evaporated, about 5 more minutes. Turn off heat. Put tortilla shells on top of skillet and let steam for 1 minute. Put tortilla shells on two large plates. Divide beef mix into shells, placing slightly to one side. Sprinkle with cheese, roll up, and serve.

Our second beefy delight came in the form of this lentil salad.

Beef, Lentil, and Cilantro Salad (2 huge meal-size servings, 9 – 10 points each)

2 cups cooked yellow lentils
8 oz. cooked steak or beef, sliced into 3″ strips about 1/4″ wide
1/2 large red onion (about 2 cups), sliced thin
3/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice (lime is great if you don’t spill your entire supply all over the floor as someone did this evening)
4 – 5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. olive oil
6 – 8 of the small unnamed peppers pictured above, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper with 1 minced chipotle pepper

Mix together lemon/lime just, garlic, cilantro, olive oil, and peppers in a small bowl. Add remaining ingredients to large bowl and pour lemon mix over lemon. Let stand about 1 hour before serving.

And, to top things off, I roasted this chicken from Rainbow Meadow Farms. You may notice it lacks a wing, which saved us several dollars off the price. But it had the most spectacular skin I have ever eaten. I believe chicken skin, eaten by itself, has only a point or two, and so that was dessert.

The chicken preparations were of particular interest to Thelma.

At this point, however, she was asked to leave.

Why I’ve Been Incommunicado

A neighbor brought this little guy to our doorstep Saturday. Now, $140, two articles of clothing (he stepped in his own poop, which I didn’t notice until it was too late), two different kinds of litter, several doses of medicine, and two trips to the vet, he’s doing much better.

We have christened him Mouse-See Tung. Anybody want a cat?

Our Empty Existence

I have not cooked since the lentil soup of Sunday. They keep wanting me to WORK at my job. What is with these people???!!!

So–in compensation, of sorts, here are some images from recent days for your viewing pleasure:

The Pollinated Yard Sale

Lardy Biscuits

Our Newly Redecorated Study, or One More Excuse for a Cat Photo

Lardy Yellow Yard Sale

According to one news report, the pollen count reached 5,937 particles per cubic meter of air yesterday–apparently the second-highest on record. (Apparently 120 is an “extremely high” count.) Even I have begun to feel it.

So has my dad’s 1979 Chevy Big 10 Bonanza, which I am now driving after my stuff was evicted from my mother’s office in Tennessee a couple of weeks ago. Its color has migrated from dark green to a kind of baby-puke yellow (Fred’s description)–a baby-puke yellow that now blankets nearly everything in sight.

The only good thing about all this is that no rain is forecast for tomorrow’s massive yard sale of the evicted stuff.

As for the lard–a friend’s son-in-law comes from a family that still butchers their own hogs. (See my comments to Paul in yesterday’s post.) We will be making biscuits soon and will be reporting results!

Sniffle. Sniffle.

And to top it all off: Louise and Cleo are scheduled for THEIR vet trip today. Catalina is the pee culprit, with a bladder infection (we think). I get to pill a cat every day for the next two weeks.


We’re Back . . . .

. . . but Satan is down, its electronic innards seized up during one of its many evil fits–no doubt it passed out just from the sheer joy of making my online life as miserable as possible.

But it WILL submit, after I join forces with the Dell technician who sounds like Gandhi on speed to defeat it.

How have I managed to post this post, you ask? Well, it certainly wasn’t at work! And that’s all I have to say.

In the meantime, one of the four cats has blood in her urine–which one, we have no idea, as they don’t do us the courtesy of peeing in front of us. So while I’m on the phone with Dell, Fred will be trying to convince the cats to get into the carriers. He thinks he just needs to put some food in the back and they’ll walk right in “out of curiosity.” Sweet, isn’t it?