A Night at River and Rail

I’ve been thinking for days how to start this post. There was the elitist dribble (“I’ve been lucky enough to eat at many great restaurants across the globe”). There was the exuberant and hyperbolic (“This was the best meal ever,” though this was all I could manage to say afterwards and is true). Then, I realized the only thing I could say to get to the core of the matter is this: This is damned good food. This is a damned good chef.

I’m referring to River and Rail in Roanoke and its executive chef, Aaron Deal. I had the fortune to interview Chef Deal just hours prior to my dinner there. The interview was part of a freelance assignment that will hopefully be published in October, an angle that I’ll save for then and will instead focus on our eating experience here (the article will definitely not be a restaurant review, so this post is purely from a personal perspective, hello alliteration).

Just to forewarn you, there are no pictures here. To be honest, I was too immersed in the food experience to bother with photos. Besides, I couldn’t do visual justice to what was hitting our table.

The restaurant and its staff were warm and inviting from the start. Located in the former Lipes Pharmacy (and dangerously close to a local cupcakery and ice cream shop), I was smitten from the get-go as I set down for my afternoon interview and heard Johnny Cash being played. That’s a great way to get right to the heart of a Southern girl. There was no pretension here, and Deal tried to be humble as I gushed about my longstanding admiration of chefs (or he was scared, one of the two). When I explained I wasn’t able to try his food before meeting with him, his parting words were, “That may have been better. You may not want to talk to me after you try it.”

Oh, how wrong he was.

I’m not a food critic. I can’t ramble about “mouthfeel” (which, by the way, sounds just disgusting) or use other such nonsensical adjectives with a straight face. And maybe that’s for the best because what struck me the most about eating at River and Rail was its total accessibility. I mean that, aside from the restaurant set up to be open and airy, aside from the fact that Chef Deal was visible at all times in a cooking/staging area that was smaller than my galley kitchen (holy crap, how does that work, because I get tripped up if even one more person is in my kitchen, but there were three guys back there at River and Rail), aside from the fact that Deal was gracious enough to come talk to us during our meal, aside from a wait staff and a general manager who seemed genuinely excited to be a part of River and Rail, aside from all of that: the food was accessible. There were no frills here, no unnecessary garnishes. There were no long narratives on the menu of what I may choose to eat, no here’s-some-meat-but-look-at-all-these-sauces-and-sides-and-fancy-words-because-we-don’t-trust-the-meat-on-its-own-to-be-good-enough descriptions.

No, this was food that was allowed to shine on its own because the quality offered here is stellar (the restaurant makes a point of sourcing its ingredients locally).

We started with a pickled vegetable pot served simply in a Ball jar (R&R uses a combo of hot and cold pour-over methods and packs the jar full of cucumbers, carrots, etc.) and were treated to a chicken liver mousse served with crusty grilled bread and pickled onions. I know what you’re thinking: “Did you say treated to chicken liver mousse?” Yes, yes I did. I was skeptical, too. I remember years ago having fried chicken livers; I remember the metallic taste. But you know what happened? I ended up eating this stuff (served in a Weck-style jar and topped with duck fat; have I mentioned my love of duck fat lately you guys?) straight up and by the forkful. I was following that up with pickled beets, something I’ve never enjoyed before. It was then that I realized Deal was onto something good here: if he could take two ingredients I would normally eschew and make me fall in love with them, he was doing something amazing.

Next up was a summer squash soup served with more crusty, rustic bread topped with goat cheese and thin slices of (good god, be still my heart) magnificently cured country ham. My husband went with a warm nectarine/tomato/cornbread crouton salad topped with a pesto-style wonderment. It was at this point that I leaned toward my husband and said, “What I’m about to say hinges on the main course, but this could be better than Husk.” I whispered this, like it was some sacrilege. After all, Husk has garnered attention (and deservedly so) as the prime example of the resurrection of Southern food. Charleston in general has become some Southern fantasyland for the more northerly inclined. Its chef, Sean Brock, is popping up in Vogue, on No Reservations, taking curious journalists on Southern food road trips (Men’s Health). How the hell could something in Roanoke possibly compete?

When I took the first bite of my entree (trout over Carolina grits, topped with a smoky shrimp remoulade), and when I took the second bite of my husband’s entree (a pork rack featuring pork belly), I had my answer: Because it just could. Because at its helm is a chef who, to put it bluntly (earmuffs, kids), gives a shit. That’s not to say others don’t. But he and the owners have gone out of their way to create a restaurant that gets to the root of what true Southern food is about: using good, local ingredients and cooking to highlight the natural flavors. Nothing was masked here, nothing hidden under myriad sauces or overbearing seasoning. The presentation was simple, nothing to detract from the natural beauty of pork belly glistening with glorious fat. (What more do you need on a plate?) The portions were generous, which I appreciated. As a girl raised in the South and an endurance runner, I like to eat. The last thing I want is some cutesy plate with a dollop of food on it. I need a substantial meal, and boy did we get just that.

Because then came the dessert.

At some restaurants, dessert could be an afterthought. At River and Rail? It was just what dessert was always meant to be: the perfect ending to the perfect meal. I opted for the blackberry cobbler (because I never turn down cobbler), while my husband chose a vanilla cake garnered with nectarines, hazelnuts, and a peach frozen yogurt. And then came a third dessert: banana pudding topped with a jalapeno sorbet. This was definitely not your grandmother’s banana pudding. This was the perfect pairing of fruit and a cool, cool heat. Chilis/peppers and fruit are not an uncommon pairing in food (though it seems to appear more in ethnic cuisine such as Thai), but why it’s never been applied to banana pudding is now beyond me. Like chicken and waffles or PB&J, it was just the perfect marriage of flavors. I think my husband got about two spoonfuls of the pudding because I got really greedy. Also, I was personally thrilled that not one dessert was overly sweet. Nothing was swimming in sugar: it was all about enhancing the natural sweetness of the ingredients used.

The crazy part? The restaurant has been open for only about six weeks. You would expect some hiccups, some struggle. It’s difficult for any new establishment to be this amazing pretty much right out of the gate, and we did hit a bit of a speed bump in the form of having to wait a while for my husband’s cocktail, but once the ball got rolling, it was nonstop stunners.

So how do I sum all of this up? By urging you to go try it out for yourselves. Go make those reservations, go support a restaurant that strives to support your local farmers and producers. Go watch Chef Deal in action, and do it now, because once word spreads further, you can mark my words that he’ll be the new face of Southern cuisine. For my part, I’ve decided to run the notoriously hilly Blue Ridge Marathon in the spring just to reward myself with the River and Rail burger at the end. I just hope I can find some room at the bar by then.

Update: Thanks to the folks at Polished Pig Media, now you can get a visual of the restaurant! (Photo courtesy of The River and Rail.)

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A Day in Training (and Food)

I’ve been MIA because, honestly, I haven’t really cooked anything the past few days that hasn’t already appeared here. So, I’m going to change directions for today because some have asked how I fuel for distance training (and I’m totally kidding–no one’s asked that, but I wanted to write about it, so there you go).

Fueling for endurance sports can be intimidating if you bother to read any number of articles. Since I don’t have a degree in nutrition and can’t even begin to figure out the ratio of carbs to protein to fat to…everything that’s going to sustain me during my training, I’m just going to write about my everyday nutrition. (Yeah, nutrition. I’m not on a diet. Seriously, I will slap the next person who says, “Oh Mindy? She’s on a diet.” No, I’m not. I’m not sure how you even diet when you’re doing endurance sports. I just eat right. That’s it. End of discussion.) Again, this is what works for me during a typical weekday. I’m not an elite athlete. I have a desk job. This is just what I know won’t make me heave in the middle of a tempo track workout. What’s going to be okay on my stomach if I’m slugging out 7 miles in 90-degree weather.

You’ll see below that I’m basically a 33-year-old baby with feeding times. I am constantly eating. Anyone who walks by my office? Guarantee that you’ll find me eating and/or chugging water. But, aside from a daily bagel, nothing in here is processed or refined.

5:35 a.m. (or earlier depending on what time our cat sticks her paw in my nose, on my face, or in my ear, her way of saying, “OhmygodI’mgoingtodieifyoudon’tfeedmenowit’sbeenlike11hourssinceyou’vefedmeFEEDME,” which then triggers the beagles to go all schizo and start running around the bed because “Ohmygodwe’veNEVERbeenfedFEEDMEPETMEFEEDME”): Up to, obviously, feed the pets. If I have a shorter run of 30-35 minutes, I may get up even earlier to do that run, especially during the summer.

7:45 a.m.: After checking email, etc. at work, fill up my water bottle so I can start getting my first few cups of the day. I try to have two bottles finished off by the time I leave for lunch. (No, I do not drink coffee. I’m not sure how anyone does. Neither do I drink any sodas or energy drinks, ever.) Start on my first “breakfast” of the day, which is now a fruit smoothie (recipe below, you’re welcome, it’s fantastic).

8:30 a.m.: Eat first serving of whole fruit (depends on what’s in season at the market, but usually an apple is in here somewhere).

9:30 or 10 a.m.: Second serving of whole fruit.

12:45 p.m.: Lunch at home, which is usually a salad with veggies and 2-3 oz. of protein (usually fish for shorter runs and chicken for longer runs). More water.

1:30 or 2 p.m.: Another serving of whole fruit.

2:15 p.m.: A tablespoon of crack. Not the illegal kind. The peanut butter kind. Athletes in this area know this stuff. It’s gold in a jar. It’s made by the 91- or 92-year-old mom of a local farmers market vendor. We go through a jar of this stuff each week, maybe more because sometimes you find the jar of PB in one hand, a spoon in the other, and you just let nature take its course. Ten minutes later, you realize you’ve eaten half of the jar. This is literally the only PB we eat now. We are total PB snobs.

2:30 p.m.: This is my favorite time of day: BAGEL TIME! I go through a lot of bagels, but it’s usually the only bread product I eat during the day, unless I’m really starting to fuel for an upcoming race. I opt for either a whole wheat bagel or a cinnamon raisin bagel. Also? I’m now determined to start learning how to make my own bagels. For now, I buy them at a local store that sources them from a local bagel company. It’s also right around this time I’m making sure I’ve gone through another bottle of water and am starting into my last (fourth) bottle at work.

5 p.m.: Head out for my workout. This really depends on the day/week my coach has scheduled for me. Right now, it varies from 20+ miles a week to 35+ miles a week, so it really fluctuates. It could be a cross-training day, too, which is a lighter load, or some core/ab workouts. As far as nutrition goes during my weekday runs, I just bring along a sports bottle filled with water to stay hydrated. For me, runs that are less than 60/65 minutes don’t really require anything more than that.

7 p.m.: Back home and usually sitting down for dinner around this time. Because I eat more fruits than anything prior to my workout, and I get my biggest carb boost 2.5 hours prior with my bagel, dinner is really about catching up on the whole vegetables I need, maybe some grains, and 2-3 more ounces of protein, which helps rebuild muscle after exercise. And that’s usually how dinner breaks down: 2 or 3 servings of some combo of veggies/grains with a few ounces of meat.

Saturdays are typically my longer run days and require a little change-up in my nutrition plan. On those days, I usually start off with a bagel and a glass of water. I then carry plenty of liquids with me on my run since I’m out longer than 60 minutes. After my run, I head straight to our farmers market and hit up one of my favorite new booths that specializes in raw foods. The folks there know me now and know I’m going for one of their smoothies, which typically comprises a tea (of the green variety from what I can tell), blueberries, bananas, and greens. Yes, greens. Whatever, it tastes great, and it is by far the best recovery drink I’ve had. It’s usually at the same booth that I pick up a post-run snack since I’m usually recovered enough to know I’m hungry. If I have a particularly long run (like the 2 hours and 15 minutes I did last week, hello 14.5 miles which are WAY different than 13.1 miles), I may plan to meet my husband at a local restaurant for some brunch, which is usually an egg wrap loaded with vegetables and some potatoes.

So, there you go. And as a reward for sitting patiently through my food ramblings, I now present a great smoothie recipe.

Blues and Bananas Smoothie

Note: If you prefer to use fresh fruit, just add a few cubes of ice during the blending process.

1 frozen banana (peeled, obviously)

3/4 c. frozen blueberries

3/4 c. milk (I prefer raw, but whatever you have on hand)

1/2 c. plain yogurt (again, I use raw from a local vendor, but Greek yogurt is comparable here)

1/2 Tbsp. honey

1/4 tsp. salt

Put everything in your blender or food processor, pulse a few times, then blend until smooth and creamy. I make this the night before so it’s ready to go in the morning.

Where the buffalo roam…

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I don’t remember the first time I fixed ground buffalo, but I wasn’t too impressed. Somehow, despite its fat content (and yeah, for someone used to grass-fed ground beef, this is pretty fatty), I ended up with a dry buffalo burger.

Not this time.

Consider that a segue into how I’m kinda cheating this time around and just “test drove” some recipes for you guys. And they’re both well worth a shot. Because I followed the instructions pretty much to the tee, I’m not reprinting here; just follow the links. I’ve included a few notes, though, because I have to be hella long-winded.

The buffalo burgers were perfectly seasoned and juicy (and don’t be tempted to skip the relish–it really pulls this all together, plus you have an excuse to go grab some beers). I subbed in equal parts balsamic vinegar and that iconic bright, yellow mustard, and it turned out well. I think maybe the serving size listed is a bit much, because the proportions really worked just fine for the 16 oz. of ground buffalo I used (divided into four patties). I grilled these about 4 minutes per side over medium-high heat, and it was really too long for a medium-rare finish, so I’ll decrease the grilling time by half next time around. Also, let these sit after pulling them off the grill. In fact, let all meat sit after grilling/roasting. It gives the meat time to reclaim its juices, so to speak. Just don’t touch the meat or poke it or fork it. Seriously, treat it with some dignity and respect.

The whole wheat rolls were incredibly simple, light (yeah, whole wheat can be perfectly fluffy), and literally ready in the 40 minutes promised. I used a hard red flour from a local vendor (yeah, I’m kinda spoiled) and subbed in honey in a 1:1 ratio as I don’t use or even keep sugar in our house. I did have to add about 3/4 c. of flour, but just start with the base 3 c. of flour and go from there because heat/humidity play a big role in how the, um, rolls turn out. I utilized my KitchenAid standing mixer with the dough hook attachment and kept an eye on how much the dough stuck to the bowl. Basically, it shouldn’t be sticky to the touch. Instead, it should be soft and malleable, with some “spring” to it when pulled apart to shape the individual rolls. I went for 8 total shaped a bit larger to serve as the buns for the buffalo burger.

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As easy as this all is to pull together, there’s really no reason to go out for a burger. You can even fix the rolls a day or two in advance and refrigerate and/or shape the burgers and keep chilled. Serve roasted potatoes on the side or a good salad. Go ahead, treat yo’self to a good burger!

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Mini-Shrimp Boil

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Shrimp boil? Good. Shrimp boil the evening before running 14.5 miles? Um, not the best idea in the world. Now that I’ve whet your appetite, I promise the food was totally tasty the evening before. Just, you know, save it for a time when you’re not doing something ridiculously taxing the next day.

What’s great about a mini-shrimp boil like this (meaning it’s only going to serve 2-3 people and not some massive gathering that requires the customary newspaper spread out, although those are equally good, but we never have anyone over, so really shrimp and all the accoutrements thrown on a newspaper in our dining room would just be kinda sad) is that it’s a one-pot deal. Excluding your cutting board and knife. It’s a mess to eat, yes, but not to fix.

I went simple and opted for the traditional onions, potatoes, corn, and shrimp. As far as the shrimp go, you really don’t want to use the peeled variety as the shells give this boil additional flavor. Just don’t eat the shells when the food’s done. Or do. Whatever floats your boat.

For the potatoes, I used a mix of Yukon gold, new, and adirondack blues. (FYI, the blues ended up looking like some morphed version of poi, which, I’m sorry, but that shit’s disgusting. Yes, I’ve tried it. I loved Hawaii, I did. You introduced me to fish tacos. You’re super chill. But seriously? Poi? And Spam? Is there some lack of gelatinous crud in your diet that you feel you need to eat these things? Because I’m genuinely curious.)

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Mini-Shrimp Boil (Serves: 2 or 3 if you have a third wheel hanging around your house)

3 c. stock (I used a homemade, no-salt-added chicken stock, but whatever you have on hand should work fine. Just adjust the seasoning as needed. I’m a control freak when it comes to salt, so I prefer to be able to add it as necessary.)

6-7 c. water

1-2 Tbsp. Cajun, blackening, or Old Bay seasoning

1/2 tsp. cayenne (Or, if you’re like me, about a teaspoon after you realize, crap, that’s not blackening seasoning in my hand. Oh well, we’ll clean our sinuses out tonight.)

1 Tbsp. salt

1 yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped

2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1/2 to 1 lb. potatoes, washed and quartered

2 ears of corn, shucked and cut in half

1/2 lb. medium-sized shrimp, heads removed

Hot sauce

Butter (I’m a cilantro-lime butter addict now, but use what you prefer.)

Bring the stock, water, seasoning, cayenne, salt, onion, and garlic to a boil over high heat in a large stock pan. Reduce heat to medium high and add the potatoes and corn. Let boil for 30-35 minutes, or until the potatoes spear easily with a fork. Add the shrimp (which takes no time at all to cook, so they’re always the last to go in) and boil for another 10 minutes, or until the shrimp are coral in color.

Plate up with a good piece of bread and salad, and serve with hot sauce, butter, plenty of napkins, and a bowl for the discarded shrimp shells.

For dessert, nothing beats fresh, cold watermelon. Especially if you’ve dumped too much cayenne into your boil and topped it all off with habanero hot sauce. Also? Beagles f-in love watermelon, no matter what Wes Anderson claimed.

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Fun to say, just as easy to make: Gazpacho

Gazpacho. It just sounds fun, right? Even better? It’s simple. I’m talking 10-15 minutes of simplicity. And it doesn’t require heat, which is a bonus in this jungle-like weather we’re experiencing lately. (Which hasn’t exactly stopped me from cranking the oven up to roast a chicken. I’m a gluttonous sadist like that sometimes.)

I don’t remember the first time I had gazpacho, but I know it wasn’t in a restaurant. I know I made it, and I believe I used a recipe from Joy of Cooking. I’ve since found you don’t really need a recipe for this. The bases of gazpacho are innumerable; there are versions utilizing day-old bread or avocado, versions topped with ceviche, others enhanced with stock. But, when local markets such as ours are rife with heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers, I say go with the tried and true, the simple and classic.

As long as you prep your mise en place (which is just a fancy way of saying you have all of your shit together and ready to go), this takes no time at all.

The start of prepping mise en place.

This is taking fresh, local ingredients, giving them a rough chop, and throwing them in the food processor. (Which isn’t to say the culinary history of gazpacho is simple. As with all foods, I encourage anyone interested in cooking to conduct a little research into what it is they are fixing, particularly if the food’s roots are found within another food culture. A little extra education never hurt anyone–unless it involves educating yourself about something illegal, in which case, nevermind–plus I guarantee you’ll discover new ways to utilize ingredients or enhance a meal.)

Because I’m also a sucker for fresh corn during the summer months (just ask my husband who is probably about two weeks shy of asking me when I’m going to stop using it so much), I served grilled corn on the cob as a side. (If you leave some husk intact, it makes for a more rustic presentation, or just a handy way to grab the corn and tear into it, so really it’s fancy and utilitarian.)

Simple Gazpacho (serves: 2, with some leftovers)

Note: You can really alter the presentation of gazpacho depending on the color of tomatoes you utilize. I’ve used all red tomatoes here, hence the bright red presentation. Obviously if you use yellow tomatoes or ripe, green tomatoes (such as zebras), you’ll have a corresponding color presentation and a different taste. Likewise, you can use orange or yellow bell peppers instead of the green and red used here. If you want a thicker consistency, add day-old bread, roughly chopped. Or, you know, save the bread (um, preferably a fresher loaf) to serve on the side.

7-8 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes, cored and quartered

1/2 medium red onion, peeled and roughly chopped

1/2 to 1 roasted red bell pepper (I made a batch of these a day or two prior, so I really wasn’t counting this step. So, I totally lied to those of you without roasted red peppers on hand. No worries, though–simply roast whole or halved peppers drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt in a 400-degree oven for about 40 minutes, flipping halfway through. Afterwards, place in a paper bag and let cool. When cool enough to handle, remove the charred skin, which should slip off easily at that point. Feel free to bitch about how I said earlier this whole thing takes 10-15 minutes to throw together. Whatever–just take it as a lesson to always have roasted red peppers on hand. Seriously, they pep up other soups and are great on salads or egg sandwiches. Or in omelets. You know what? We’re even now because of all the extra meal ideas I just gave you, so no bitching.)

1 medium cucumber, seeds removed and roughly chopped

1 medium green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed and roughly chopped

2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

2 Tbsp. tarragon vinegar (sherry or red wine vinegar could be subbed here)

1 Tbsp. olive oil

2 tsp. salt

3-4 dashes hot sauce or 1 roasted jalapeno (optional)

In a food processor or blender, pulse all ingredients until desired consistency is reached. (I prefer a smoother soup, so I pulsed this about 30 times. If you like it chunkier, pulse less.) Taste and season with more salt as needed.

Grilled Corn with Cilantro-lime Butter

Olive oil

2 ears of fresh corn, husks peeled back and silk removed (husks should remain intact if you want a more fresh-from-the-farm look)

Cilantro-lime butter (I’ve cheated and used butter from a terrific vendor at our market, but you could make some at home by smashing chopped fresh cilantro and lime zest into softened butter. Or, you could use an herb such as rosemary or oregano with lemon zest. It’s butter. You’re not going to screw it up if it’s of good quality to start. That means no margarine. Seriously. Chuck it and get real butter.)

Heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your grill pan. Place the corn on the grill with the husks slightly draped across the side to avoid burning. Grill for about 15-20 minutes, rotating the corn every few minutes so each side makes direct contact with the grill pan. (And yes, there will be much popping occurring in your kitchen with the corn placed directly on a hot surface. Don’t worry, though; after the first one or two times, you’ll get used to it and stop yelling, “What the hell was that?!” It’s fine, relax. Or, if you want to avoid a possible coronary, pull the husks back up around the corn after you’ve de-silked the ears and let soak in water for about 30 minutes prior to grilling. Me? I like to be kept on my toes in the kitchen.) Remove, plate up, and serve with the cilantro-lime (or other flavored) butter.

Twisting Classics: Julia Child’s Roast Chicken with Grilled Grits Cakes and Peaches

For lovers of all things food, whether professionals or home cooks, Julia Child (who would be celebrating her 100th birthday next month) is one of those models of excellence. To me, she’s simply a class act and represented all I wanted to become: a chef who came into her own at a not-so-tender age, confident, striking, bold enough to get on TV and suggest that if you drop a chicken just pick it up and move along (if the guests aren’t in the kitchen, they won’t see your mistakes). She also inspired some of my favorite “Cosby Show” scenes during which Cliff Huxtable would mimic her unique timbre.

I envied, and still do, Julia’s life as a cook, and I still look to that classic French cookbook for guidance (even reading the section about how to properly handle a knife worked wonders).

By now, that cookbook automatically falls open to one section: roast chicken. It’s a butter-spattered page, one well used. I think it was Anthony Bourdain (or maybe I just like attributing most culinary wisdom to him because he’s just as equally inspiring as Julia: everyone needs a little devil on their shoulder dropping the f-bomb once in a while in the kitchen) who once said that all home cooks should learn to roast chicken. And for good reason. When done right, it’s just simple perfection (although I admit my love of roast duck now exceeds my love of roast chicken). It’s versatile in that leftovers can be used for myriad purposes (sandwiches, soups, etc.). And really, it’s not a difficult meal to master. For the sake of full disclosure, yes, my roasting has resulted in quite a few dry chickens in the past, but that’s because I would always doubt myself. The trick here is one I follow when making anything involving yeast: just go into it sure of yourself. Be confident, be cocky. Success will happen, and the reward is slices of juicy chicken dripping with fat and oil, all surrounded by a perfectly salted, crispy skin. What more could you want?

Now, I’ve tried other roasted chicken methods. There are tons out there. But none–none–beat the Julia Child method. Yes, it requires extensive time at the stove (we’re talking more than an hour), but it’s a small sacrifice to pay. And yes, maybe this recipe is more suited to cooler, fall-like temperatures, but screw it. I want chicken, I fix chicken. The recipe involves flipping, basting, and (ugh) math. But don’t freak out. Just grab a pen and paper and write all the necessary times down in advance, using it as a checklist. (I’m sorry, I majored in communications, my brain is just automatically geared to hate numbers.) It beats the hell out of getting 30 minutes into the process and forgetting if you have another
10 minutes, or are you supposed to flip after this? Shit, I should have taken notes. So just, you know, take notes from the start.

I’ve labeled this entry “twisting classics” because the original recipe uses butter and oil with only salt sprinkled and butter smeared in the chicken cavity. (Yep, if you’re squeamish just reading the term “chicken cavity,” you’re not going to last long in this process because it involves the use of a whole chicken, not those sanitized chicken breasts. Just get over it and be thankful you didn’t have to cut the chicken’s neck and de-feather it.)

I’m not sure if what I’ve done here would make dear Julia roll over in her grave, but I did it anyway. I used cilantro-lime butter and stuffed the cavity with a cut lemon. I also added fresh, whole jalapenos during the roasting process in lieu of the traditional carrots (and to supplement an onion). I’m sorry Julia, I am, but if you tried the final result, you couldn’t possibly be upset with me. This was make-you-wanna-slap-your-mama-it’s-so-good chicken. (And I don’t know why you’d want to slap your mom if something is good, but there you have it.)

Technically, I can’t reprint the recipe because I don’t have permission from the publisher, and I didn’t adapt the recipe enough to really claim such. So, you know–go buy the cookbook. You’ll get your money’s worth with the roast chicken recipe alone, trust me. But don’t be afraid to change it up, as I’ve done. Add a lemon or even an orange or quartered apple in the chicken cavity (after salting and smearing with butter, of course). Try out a flavored butter (the cilantro-lime version can be made by smashing fresh cilantro
and lime zest into softened butter). Add veggies other than onions and carrots. Try out the jalapenos if you like some heat or toss in red peppers for a milder bite. But, above all, do not overcook your bird. If you’re at all hesitant, things will go wrong. Follow the cooking
times prescribed in the cookbook, bearing in mind that, as I’ve found, a chicken that has been purchased from a local farm (e.g., not stuffed to the gills with antibiotics) cooks faster than its less fortunate grocery store kin. (Yes, even if the fresh chicken has been previously frozen.) I used about a three-pound bird I purchased from a local farm (Weathertop Farm), so I opted for a 1:10 total roasting time. Eagle-eyed readers will note my “cheat sheet” says 1:20, but I backtracked because it’s always easier to stuff the
bird back in the oven to undergo some additional roasting than it is to recover
from a dried-out chicken.

Now, I can include my recipe for grilled peaches and grits cakes topped with feta, roasted onions, and honey. I’ve become fond of grilled fruits, especially peaches, which pair well here with the roasted onions and the creaminess of the grits. Remember my catfish n’ corn from the previous night? I made enough grits so that I could have some leftover for this meal. A simple way to use up leftover grits, as I’ve done here, is to pour them into a glass baking dish (I used an 8×8 dish), press the grits down into the pan to mold to its shape, then pop in the fridge to chill and set overnight. The next day, just slice and grill. They’re great topped savory or sweet, for breakfast, lunch, brunch, or dinner.

Grilled Peaches and Grits Cakes with Feta and Honey (serves: 2)

Olive oil

2 ripe peaches, peeled

4-5 slices of grits cakes (see above method)

Roasted onions (these were roasted with the chicken, but you could easily roast whole onions for about 40-50 minutes in a 400-degree oven)

Fresh feta (I prefer locally made, but whatever you have available)

Honey

Over medium high, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your grill pan. Add the grits cakes on one side of the pan, the peaches on the other. Drizzle both with more olive oil. Grill about 8 minutes per side, or until grill marks form. Plate the grits cakes, top with the roasted onions and peaches, crumble over some feta cheese, and drizzle over some olive oil.

Catfish ‘n Corn

Catfish are one of those great Southern foods and are surprisingly versatile. It can be gussied up (or fixed with an ethnic flare, as I’ve done before). It can be blackened and grilled. It can be battered and fried. But, as far as I’m concerned, cornmeal and catfish can’t be beat. It’s like peanut butter and chocolate, but better (some of us aren’t chocolate fans, okay?). Because cornmeal isn’t heavy it doesn’t detract from the natural taste of catfish. I like to say the fish is “cornmeal dusted” because it’s just a lighter breading. Plus, it makes me sound fancy.

I started this meal knowing I wanted a version of shrimp and grits, a true Southern staple (and one I’ll cover further down the line). Except, you know, catfish and grits. I decided I wanted to use a tomato base instead of the classic roux (a thickening agent comprising a mixture of flour and fat) found in most shrimp and grits recipes. I originally planned to try out a tomato gravy recipe from (personal food obsession culinary hero) Sean Brock that I stumbled upon in a magazine. However, somewhere along the line during a mass recycling effort, that magazine got tossed. Sinful! As I couldn’t find the recipe online, I just decided to wing it and stew some bright cherry tomatoes from the market in sauteed onions and cilantro-lime butter.

The grits? If you’re not in the South and don’t have easy access to locally milled grits, then a) I’m sorry and b) Bob’s Red Mill has a decent version. For my money, though, I’d rather support a smaller operation. Unfortunately, our supply of Geechie Boy Grits from Edisto Island, SC, had quickly dwindled, so during a recent outing to the farmers market in Abingdon, VA (what’s up hometown?!), I picked up a bag of White’s Mill stone ground yellow grits.

Recipes are below for my take on catfish and grits topped with what I’m going to call a chunky tomato gravy. You can serve these with a side of greens (which provides its own entertainment if you have an eater like my husband who physically recoils at the sight of greens), but honestly, this was incredibly filling on its own.

Cornmeal-dusted Catfish (serves: 2, with some leftovers)

1/2 c. cornmeal
1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (depends on how spicy you want this)
1-2 tsp. smoked paprika or pimenton
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 c. milk
1 pound catfish fillets
Olive oil
Hot sauce
Fresh cilantro, chopped

In a small, flat dish, mix the cornmeal, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt, and black pepper. In a separate bowl, pour the milk. Dredge the catfish fillets in the milk, then dredge in the seasoned cornmeal, lightly coating each side of the fillet. Place the fish on a plate and put in the refrigerator until ready to cook. (I’ve found breading seafood/meat then letting it chill in the fridge results in a crispier texture when grilled.)

When ready to grill, remove the fillets from the fridge. In a large skillet or cast iron grill, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is heated, add the catfish and cook about 10 minutes per side (if the fillets are thicker, add another 3-4 minutes per side). The fish is done when it flakes easily with a fork.

Place the fillets over the grits (below) and top with a few spoonfuls of the chunky tomato gravy (below) and chopped fresh cilantro. Serve with hot sauce (obviously).

Corny Corn Grits
Note: You can omit the milk and use an extra cup of water, or you could sub in chicken stock. Basically, you want a 3:1 ratio of liquid:grits.

2 c. water
1 c. milk (I use raw, but 2% works well)
1 c. stone ground grits
1 tsp. salt
2 c. fresh corn kernels
1/4 c. grated hard cheese (I used a locally made cheddar-style cheese, but any mixture will do of a sharp, hard cheese)
3-4 dashes hot sauce
Pepper

Bring the water, milk, and grits to a boil over medium heat. Add corn and salt, then reduce heat to low. Let simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently. Keep an eye on the grits, because in just a few minutes’ time, the consistency can turn from perfection to plaster. You’ll know the grits are done when the ingredients all come together while remaining creamy.

Pull the grits off the heat, then stir in the cheese, hot sauce, and pepper. Taste and add more salt as needed.

Chunky Tomato Gravy
Olive oil
1/4 c. yellow onions, diced
3 Tbsp. cilantro-lime butter (this can be made by just mashing chopped fresh cilantro and lime zest into softened butter)
1 pint cherry tomatoes (an array of colors makes for a better presentation)
Salt
Pepper

In a small sauce pan, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil is heated, add the diced onions and butter. Let sweat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until the onions are translucent and soft. Add the tomatoes, cover, and let sweat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. When the tomatoes are softened, smash with the bottom of a spoon (you still want to keep a chunky consistency). Season with salt and pepper.