Autumn in Asheville: Day 1

I suppose it’s here that I should start with some memorable tale about my first trip to Asheville, what I experienced. But the truth is: I don’t remember when it was. I have some vague recollection that it was during the first of many high school field trips taken with a French class to Biltmore. (Incidentally, I know way more about Biltmore than I do about the French language.)

Anyway, I don’t think I can truly recall when I first visited Asheville because in some ways it’s always been a part of me. I’ve visited Biltmore probably a good 15 times, if not more. Family trips have been taken there during Christmastime; part of my honeymoon was spent at Biltmore/Asheville; my husband surprised me with a trip to Biltmore on my 30th birthday; hell, I spent my 21st birthday at the Biltmore Winery, and I’ve (half) jokingly stated I want to be cremated and have my ashes strewn around the estate grounds. (Seriously, though, is that possible? Does anyone know?) It’s notable that Biltmore was always interchangeable in my head with the City of Asheville; I considered them one and the same.

But they’re not.

It wasn’t until my last two trips to Asheville that I took Biltmore completely out of the equation (despite some serious hesitation) and just visited the city. As a result, the fantasy of inhabiting Biltmore has been supplanted with the reality of wanting to live and work in Asheville.

Is it safe to base future living plans on the food and bar scene of an area? Because to me that’s one of the biggest draws of Asheville (well, that and, “Holy crap you guys, look at all the Obama signs! There isn’t a Romney sign to be found! It’s like they know me!”). You see, we don’t get out much at home. The food scene is terribly “meh” around here. There are some fine restaurants in the areas skirting ours, but chain restaurants and processed food abound for the most part. Even at independently owned restaurants, the food quality is just standard. Yes, I adore cooking, but sometimes a girl just wants to go out for a good meal and some good drinks. Good drinks, especially craft beers, are admittedly abundant here, but the good meal part requires at least 20 minutes of driving if you, like me, actually care about what you eat and prefer to support local restaurants that use local farms.

Asheville, though, has it all. The city is home to an incredible craft beer scene, with several heavyweights (Sierra Nevada, New Belgium) slated to open breweries in the area within the next few years. They join a respected lineup of established breweries in the area, including Pisgah Brewing, Green Man Brewery, and Highland Brewing Company. The downtown bars tout their local beers–and craft beers in general–in spades.

Our first stop when we got to Asheville was Thirsty Monk, where our menu got traded out for a new one as soon as we sat down (the beer menu changes every day; according to the website, the bar tapped more than 1,075 beers last year). I tried out Natty Greene’s amber ale, which was smooth and perfect for a fall evening. Thirsty Monk is divided into two levels: hit the upstairs area for American craft beers, the downstairs for Belgian beers. We tried out both levels during our long weekend, and neither disappointed. The overall atmosphere is congenial, with (and this is indicative of most of Asheville) all walks of life converging: the hipsters, the business folk, tourists, locals, young, and old. The upstairs area opens out to the street, with a more festive feel to it; the downstairs section is a bit more cellar-like in feel, a bit more conducive to some pensive thinking (although that could have been because we visited the lower level on a Sunday, a quieter day for those who feel less like playing tourist and more like becoming an adopted local). There’s also some pretty good bar food to be had at Thirsty Monk, and this is where my appreciation for Asheville grows: even on a bar menu you can easily find food that is sourced locally whenever possible. You just can’t find that around here, which makes me sad and frustrated. At Thirsty Monk, we shared some baked pretzels that were accompanied by local mustard from Lusty Monk Mustards (yes, I appreciated too often the fact that we were eating Lusty Monk while at Thirsty Monk). I’d read about this mustard in a local magazine and was interested in finally trying it out. I will be ordering some online soon, because the “Original Sin” was insanely divine. Much more potent than stone ground mustard you may find elsewhere, this had a kick and bite that hit right at the back of the nose. Overwhelming at first, it was soon addictive, and I’m slightly drooling now at the thought of it. We followed up the pretzels with a pizza, which featured homemade dough made using New Belgium beer (craft beers are incorporated into most of the foods served at Thirsty Monk). I’m usually not a big fan of a thinner crust because it tends to be too crunchy for me, but this thinner crust was quite good: chewy and definitely homemade (i.e., fresh with no overly processed aftertaste). It was just a good, solid pizza (we topped ours with lamb and mushrooms), nothing extraordinary but definitely better than most pizzas you’ll find in a place geared much more towards beer.

Because we had a long run the next day, I couldn’t indulge in exotic foods or too much alcohol. I capped myself at one beer, enjoyed the standard fare of carbs in the form of pizza and some pretzels, and headed to French Broad Chocolates for a treat. Now, as a rule I don’t eat many sugary goods. However, I do splurge before a longer run (i.e., if it’s more than 15 miles) because the energy boost keeps me going. While I chose Oaxaca hot chocolate that night, my husband ordered something a bit more off the beaten path: xocolatl, which is definitely not your typical hot chocolate drink. A bitter (read: not sweet), spicier blend, the drink is described on the menu as one that “looks back to chocolate’s early culinary origins” and is “fabled for its ability to sustain a man walking all day without other sustenance.” Every dessert looked incredible, but we decided to split a shortbread cookie dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with pistachios (next time, I’m definitely going for a slice of cake; the cookie was great, but the carrot cake was clearly screaming my name, and I foolishly ignored it). We sat down in the bricked, comfy interior to enjoy our “nightcaps” (seriously, I would live in this chocolate lounge during the chilly days of autumn and winter just for the atmosphere), and my husband immediately squinched his nose up at the xocolatl. Granted, he was trying something new, but I ended up with it instead. As someone who enjoys spicier foods over sweet, it was a bit more palatable to me. I did have to take a few sips of the sweeter Oaxaca hot chocolate (now in my husband’s possession) to balance out the bitter, but something about the “ability to sustain a man walking all day” lore appealed to me, and I finished off the xocolatl thinking maybe it could help with my 22 miler the next day. And my run felt like perfection the next day. It’s the longest distance I’ve run to date in training for an upcoming (my first) marathon, yet the distance felt smooth and almost relaxed. It’s quite possibly all in my head, but I credit the xocolatl and only hope I can find something comparable before I get to the starting line in November (runners are incredibly superstitious when we find food combinations that work).

Now, I should mention that before our little jaunt out to the downtown area our first night in town, I also indulged in a slice of chocolate cake made at our chosen bed and breakfast, Pinecrest. I’m incredibly driven by good food, and part of the reason we chose Pinecrest over the other B&Bs in the historic Montford area of Asheville was because they served a homemade baked good during the afternoon hours (vacation is for indulging, after all!). Always follow your stomach, because it turned out to be a wise decision. The English Tudor-style house sits within easy walking distance of the downtown area (if you don’t mind a walk of a mile or so; it’s well worth it because the Montford area boasts some incredible houses, and we spent each evening imaginary house-hunting) and was built in the early 1900s; some of its structure is attributed to the architect of Biltmore. B&Bs have somewhat of a reputation as being accessible only to the wealthy, the retired, and/or the older population. As someone who has always fostered a desire to own and run a B&B, I find them more charming than I guess others of my generation. Yes, we were the youngest couple staying there, but the innkeepers (Stacy Shelley and Janna and James Martin) made us feel right at home. I had called a few days before our arrival to see if it would be possible to have some breakfast set aside our first morning because we would be up bright and early for our long run and would miss the serving time of 9 a.m. (and there was no way I was going to miss a big, homemade breakfast if I could help it). Because the inn makes a point of rotating the breakfast menu to avoid serving guests the same meal twice, there was no guarantee this could happen, but we were assured they could at least have fruit, yogurt, bread, and juice/coffee on hand when we returned from the run. Well, as soon as we checked in, we were told they had arranged the menu so they could serve a breakfast that could easily be reheated when we got back Saturday morning. It was clear from the start the inn owners would go out of their way to make guests feel special. (And for those who have nutritional sensitivities such as gluten intolerance or are vegetarians, the innkeepers are more than happy to accommodate special dietary requests.)

I’ll have more to say about the inn during subsequent posts, but I will add this: if you are interested in visiting Asheville and prefer to stay at a B&B but are overwhelmed by the options, start with Pinecrest (if they have the availability; and in no way, shape, or form am I being compensated for recommending Pinecrest or any other establishment mentioned on this blog). The prices were beyond reasonable (it should be noted we stayed during October, which is a notoriously busy month for Asheville with the changing of the leaves, so most B&Bs will charge a higher rate for that month), the innkeepers were so welcoming and were easily accessible to provide recommendations of where to eat and what to do (they had already dubbed us “old pros” since we knew the area well and were more than content to let us wander on our own, always asking the following day what we found to do/eat), and the breakfast and afternoon treats were some of the best meals I had during our stay. The house was in a quiet neighborhood, and we heard neither the comings nor goings of our fellow housemates. If they heard us creaking down the stairs our first morning at 6:30, no one made mention of it. I don’t mind staying in hotels, but if I have the opportunity to stay in a place loaded with character that smells like freshly baked brownies every evening, it’s a no-brainer!

Because I’m long-winded, I’m dividing our trip into several parts. Why there are no pictures I think is indicative of the fact that we were too busy enjoying the moment, but there are plenty of pictures of the referenced establishments on their respective websites.

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Roasted Duck

Sometimes I like to think of cutesy-esque headers for each blog post. Roasted duck does not need a cute title. It’s just perfection. Simple, pure perfection.

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I first had duck about two years ago at a Roanoke restaurant called Lucky. Specifically, it was duck leg confit. I remember we visited the restaurant sometime near winter, which means some cold weather in Southwest Virginia. And it was raining, which only added to that bone-chilling effect. Something warm was in order, something cozy. Lucky (which I’ve found has garnered some kind of reputation as a hipster joint, which couldn’t be further from the truth) prides itself on offering French comfort food in a gastropub-type environment. I had always wanted to try duck, but I was wary of all that fat. I’m the kind that carves fat off of my meat (after it’s cooked, of course, because not even I’m immune to the flavors some fat can impart during cooking). But, I decided to go for the duck that night because it just sounded, well, comforting.

That night started a love affair with duck. Roasted duck. Duck fat. Duck confit. It doesn’t matter the style, I’m in love. To me, duck trumps all other meat. It trumps pork. I know that’s blasphemy to meat eaters, but I’ll take a good piece of duck over the best bacon you could find.

And it’s all because of that fatty skin. What made me avoid duck for so long turned out to be the best part.

It wasn’t until recently that I was able to roast duck at home. Because I eschew meat unless it’s raised locally and humanely, duck was off the list for a home-cooked meal. But a local farm from which I get our chickens started raising duck for meat, and I was among the first in line to buy one. Now, it’s not cheap. It’s a treat (which, let’s face it, really should be the norm when it comes to meat in general). It’s a glorious, succulent, sinfully crispy-skinned treat.

To roast duck, I stick with this recipe. But I stop short of glazing it. The first time I tried out this recipe, I actually had the glaze made as suggested. It was simmering on the stove, and my husband had a taste of it. And he made a terrible face. While I argued with him that the glaze was pretty tasty, the glaze burned. It was a sign, and my husband kept me from making a big mistake by trying to cover up the simplicity of a salted duck. So, the moral of the story is: the first time you roast duck, just go with simple. If you feel it needs something more than salt, go for the glaze the next time around. But this first time, just keep it simple.

Then hold on to your mother effin’ hats, because that first bite will be pure euphoria.

Yes, the recipe seems a bit labor intensive, but it’s really not. It really all boils down to scoring the skin/fat, roasting, flipping a few times, and pricking the skin at every flip to allow all that fatty goodness to drip down into the pan to collect later. It’s worth it, trust me. It’s all worth it in the end.

And yes, you should snip off the extra fat and render it as suggested. First of all, it’s super simple; just let the extra fat simmer in some water to render. Added to the fat that collects from pricking the roasting bird, you’ll end up with a good cup or so of fat, which keeps in the refrigerator for months and makes roasted vegetables (especially potatoes) insanely delicious. And it makes for some great cornbread.

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The recipe, I think, is pretty self-explanatory. There’s no need to elaborate, but do keep an eye on your duck to ensure you don’t roast it too long and end up drying out the meat. Once that skin becomes a gloriously golden, crispy, bubbling mass of glory, it’s time. The meat itself should be incredibly tender and cut like butter. Don’t doubt your instincts when it comes to roasting; cooking times are subjective and dependent upon the oven type, the size of the bird, etc., so don’t assume four hours of roasting is going to be the rule. Also? The fresher the bird in general, the less roasting time is required. Just something to keep in mind.

As far as sides go, this doesn’t need much other than some roasted potatoes and a simple salad. It’s the perfect fall meal, so as the weather cools, forget the hot chocolate, and go for the roasted duck.

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