River and Rail-style Summer Squash Soup

In the words of the Dead Body that Claims It Isn’t in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “I’m not dead.”

I’ve just been busy. So am I going to take the easy way out with this post? You betcha!

I had the authentic River and Rail summer squash soup on my first visit there, and I loved the light flavors. I was naturally excited, then, to see a Tasting Table email sitting in my inbox one day with a summer squash soup recipe adapted from River and Rail chef Aaron Deal. Now, one doesn’t automatically think “soup” during the waning summer weeks, but this one is perfect because, well, it embodies all of those bright summer flavors of squash, leeks, and fresh herbs.

This is a great way to use up those last summer squash of the season. We had a few hanging out in our “accidental” garden (meaning we just threw seeds in our compost pile, never really expecting the squash to produce as well as it did), so in they went.

There’s not much to this, but it’s usually the recipes with fewer ingredients that taste the best because, well, you’re not masking any natural flavors. Just be sure to keep an eye on the leeks because they are quite fragile and can color easily. I subbed in olive oil for the 2 Tbsp. of butter just because we rarely keep butter in the house.

The garnish listed isn’t necessary, but it is an easy accompaniment if you’re so inclined. Any excuse to use country ham is a good time!

You’ll have to excuse the lack of photos here; just look at the Tasting Table photo. The soup will look like that, unless you pull a Bridget Jones and use blue twine not meant for cooking purposes and end up with blue soup. And Colin Firth sitting at your dinner table. In which case: lucky bitch.

I’ll be back soon with roasted duck, the perfect way to usher in the coming fall weather!

Sea Bass, Roasted Goodness

Augh, I’m so behind lately. It’s called, “I don’t handle humidity so well when I run, so I’m dead by the time I get home.” You can’t call it laziness if you crash as soon as you get home because of running, right?

Anyway, the other night I stumbled upon something kinda magical. I’ve used sea bass myriad times, frequently in fish tacos. It’s a substantial, almost buttery white fish that takes on different flavors so well. It’s a good fish to grill, but I’m coming to find that it’s especially flavorful when roasted. So, that’s what I did.

I adore rustic recipes, and I consider this to be one. A simple, lemony marinade really makes the tomato and fish sing, as cliche as that reads. It’s a bright, refreshing dish, the perfect way to start the summer send-off (thank god, because seriously humidity–I am done with you; but fresh seasonal tomatoes, I shall mourn your passing when the time comes).

My husband loved this one, and it’s earned sacred status as a possible pre-race meal. (His pre-race meal, mind you. I’ve tried fish the night before a race. Um, not a good idea. Not a good idea.)

Roasted Sea Bass and Tomatoes
Notes: I prefer to use a rainbow of cherry tomatoes as it makes for a more visually appealing dish. Tomatillos, which for some reason are often confused as being part of the pepper family, are actually of the ubiquitous nightshade family. Generally called “green tomatoes” in Mexico, they are the stars of salsa verde cruda (or tomatillo salsa). Tomatillos are tangy and complement the lemon used here quite well. If you don’t have easy access to locally grown tomatillos, just sub in more cherry tomatoes.

1 pint mixed cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size
4-5 tomatillos, husked, washed, and quartered
1 lemon
Fresh rosemary and oregano, finely chopped
Olive oil
Salt
Pepper
1 lb. sea bass (I use chunks since that’s what our local fishmongers have on hand)

In a large mixing bowl, stir the tomatoes, tomatillos, a few zests of the lemon, the juice of half the lemon (the other half may be refrigerated or frozen for later use), chopped fresh herbs, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle enough olive oil in the bottom of a baking dish to coat; place in oven to allow the oil to heat.

While the oil is heating, add the sea bass chunks to the tomato mixture. Cover again with plastic wrap and let sit for 10 minutes (do not leave any longer because the acidity of the lemon can actually cook the fish, which will leave you with ceviche, which isn’t a bad thing, but we’re roasting here).

Pour the fish/tomato mixture into the heated baking dish. Roast for 25 minutes or until fish is slightly golden on top and flakes easily with a fork.

Serve with a green salad or potatoes cooked to your liking (I went with what The Joy of Cooking called pan-broiled potato shreds, but really it was just hashbrowns. Don’t try to be fancy, Joy of Cooking.)

Road Trip. Destination: Lambstock

I’ll be honest. I’m still not quite sure how I got invited to this event. The folks who invited me probably wondered how I got invited as well. But I did. And, as one of my friends put it in an email, it was “a fantasy straight out of Mindyland.”

Pulling out of our driveway in the midst of a downpour on an unusually cool Sunday afternoon for August (and feeling a bit like we were transplanted into that scene from “Dirty Dancing” when they run out to the car in the pouring rain and Johnny has to knock out the window, except there was no glass-shattering that day, just a few cuss words because I forgot to write down the directions before we left the house), with my husband starting to wonder aloud where the hell I was taking him, I knew there was no way I was going to miss out on Lambstock.

This is a culinary event held by gracious host Craig Rogers and his family at Border Springs Farm in Patrick Springs, VA. Now in its third year of festivities, Lambstock features everything, well, lamb. Those in the restaurant business show up to the event (which spans three days/nights) to talk food, yes. But they also show up to celebrate what Craig and his farmers do everyday: raise quality meat in a humane way.

I’ve admitted before that great chefs are the equivalents of rock stars to me, and there were plenty converging at Lambstock to make this girl slightly giddy. Even after I chose college over culinary school (following my parents’ wise counsel to work a summer with a chef), those in the restaurant industry who are producing exceptional food remain strong inspirations. I respect the hell out of what they do, the hours they keep, the passion that goes into what they do on a daily basis. The opportunity to meet some of those people made for a great day. But it was more than that.

It was a chance to visit Border Springs, to see a small farm in operation.

Those who know me know that, aside from the health and environmental benefits of eating locally, I also choose to do so to directly support small farmers who care about what they produce/what they grow/what they raise. It’s not about the bottom line above all else with these folks; it’s about quality and care.

It’s a conscious choice I make to eat locally, but it’s also one influenced by heritage. My family has a background in farming. My great-grandparents on my mom’s side lived off the land (probably more so out of necessity of feeding 11 children). My great-grandparents on my dad’s side made a living off of farming, setting up “camp” in an area known as Rich Valley in Southwest Virginia. Supposedly our Scottish ancestors chose the area because it reminded them of home. It’s easy to see the similarities with the rolling hills, the incredible vistas. Our family name is entrenched in the area, with current family members overseeing a substantial chunk of mostly federally protected farmland.

I have plenty of strong memories connected to farmland. My grandfather would help on the farm in Rich Valley, even though he lived a few miles down the road in a neighboring town. I remember his myriad cars usually smelling of cow manure, of him having to go corral some stray cattle that meandered into the road. Before my great-grandmother died, our Christmas days would be spent in the main household of the farm, eating ourselves silly on oyster soup. Last year, to celebrate the 78th birthday of my grandfather and his twin, dozens upon dozens of family and friends came to Rich Valley to eat, dance, ride four wheelers, and eat some more. With the ever-so-comforting smell of hamburgers and hotdogs in the air, the sounds of banjos and an upright bass mingling with laughter, myriad shaggy dogs running around and between everyone’s feet, it was the perfect evening to make everyone forget what was inevitably looming on the horizon.

My grandfather now holds permanent court over the land since being buried in Rich Valley nearly six months ago (I can’t say this strongly enough: fuck cancer). To me, farms and farmers have always in a way represented home, stirring memories that are now bittersweet but consoling nonetheless. Being at Lambstock and being surrounded by people who appreciate and support what small farmers do was, well, it was heartwarming, if you want to get sappy about it.

We arrived at Border Springs as the rain cleared, just missing a huge breakfast. But, we were treated to lamb hotdogs (I’m not big on hotdogs in general, but these had a fantastic, fresh taste and the perfect hotdog “snap” when biting into it); an astounding spreadable fennel salami brought in by Craig Deihl, executive chef of Cypress in Charleston (that one’s going on the must-eat-at list for the next Charleston trip since we only managed to snag some tasty drinks there last time); and my new favorite seasonal beer, Summer Basil, from small-batch brewery Fullsteam in Durham, NC.

Though I’m a technical editor by day, I am doing freelance food writing (on top of this blog and training for a marathon; man it’s been busy). Food in general and the use of regional foods in particular are passions of mine. Some probably think I’m fanatical about it. As with other things, I don’t care what people think. To me, it’s a no-brainer to support small farmers. Thank god folks like Craig are around to raise meat in a humane way that, well, tastes damn good. And thank god there are chefs who buy his products so he can continue his labor of love.

And thank god I had the opportunity on Sunday to meet some of these folks. To stand around with them in awed silence watching a whole lamb being dressed, spiced, and placed over a spit to roast felt like I was among kin. Watching fat drip into the open fire on a day that heralded the coming of autumn while overhearing talk of oysters and drunk-eating fistfuls of heirloom tomatoes sprinkled with Maldon salt (because chefs don’t drunk-eat the way most of us do) was just the perfect way to spend an afternoon. Maybe that sounds odd to others (and most likely downright evil to vegetarians and vegans), but those watching the lamb-roasting process had nothing but respect for that meat, for its farmers, for the entire cycle of life. The same can’t be said of factory farms. To know your food, to know the source, to meet the face behind the farm, is something downright special.

So thanks to Craig, his family, and his farm family for having us. Hopefully we’ll be invited back next year, because, as much as I loathe camping in general, I would camp out for this!

The Great Cornbread Debate, Part II (Electric Boogaloo)

So you know that other cornbread recipe I posted a few days ago? Scratch that. Apparently I’ve stumbled across something better. And this is how it went down. (Sorry, there are no pictures because I was already coming off making another batch of 32 bagels, dinner, and the first pie crust I’ve made in 10 years. There was a lot going on in the kitchen that day.)

I received a cornbread recipe about five years ago from the wife of a friend of my husband. It was great, and I used to serve it for Thanksgiving meals and bring it to tailgates (speaking of which, holy crap it’s almost football season Hokies!). And then I changed the way I ate, and I couldn’t justify fixing cornbread made with Jiffy mix, sour cream, and canned corn. It was too much for my delicate senses.

Thus, the cornbread recipe fell out of favor and was stashed away for about two years in a family cookbook. Until I resurrected it Saturday and decided to give it a bit of a makeover. I was heading to my first Lambstock (so much more on that later), and of course a proper Southern gal never shows up to a food event empty-handed. Even if that food event is brimming with legitimate chefs. Hey, I’m a-ok with my cooking skills; there’s not much that intimidates me.

Anyway, I started by Googling, “What’s in Jiffy cornbread mix?” Proper way to start, right? Granted, the answer was nothing too terribly bad, but I really can’t stand to use boxed or pre-made items if I can make my own version. And generally, I can. And always, it tastes better.

I transitioned from my Google search to making the cornbread with some tweaks here and there (e.g., subbing in yogurt for sour cream, etc.). But what I really think made the difference here was duck fat. Duck fat makes everything better, you guys. I’m pretty sure the answer to most of life’s little questions is: duck fat. Why is the “check engine” light still on in my Honda? Duck fat. Why do our beagles fart so much? Duck fat. (Okay, I don’t feed them duck fat, and that’s certainly not what makes them little gassy, four-legged machines. Neither will duck fat solve all of your problems, but it’s a start, especially when pondering how to make certain foods taste richer.)

I rolled into Lambstock with my little Ziploc bag full of this cornbread and plunked it down, okay in the fact that no one was really eating it (I think because my husband had placed himself directly in front of the bag and kept sneaking pieces). But eventually, someone did. And on my way back from a little jaunt to the port-a-potty (after which I totally washed my hands, don’t worry), I heard several people hunkered down underneath the Cardinal Point Winery tent yell my name. Then, someone shouted, “Bring the cornbread up here!” Well, at least I wasn’t going to have to take any home with me.

Apparently they thought it was good (one person asked if I was a chef; it’s always funny to watch other’s faces as I say, “I’m a technical editor,” because yeah, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to explain my job in a fascinating way, either, even though I enjoy what I do). Meanwhile, my husband was threatening to keep the bag to himself. I guess it was decent stuff.

So now, the recipe. This is, once again, a sweeter cornbread. That’s just my preference, and I assume the honey could be ommitted if you’re so inclined. If you don’t have duck fat, I really don’t know what to tell you (aside from advising you to go buy a duck and render down the fat, which isn’t so hard at all to do, but that’s another post for another time). It worked great here, and I doubt olive oil or another fat could easily be substituted. But, you never know. If you try it using a different fat and you think it tastes great, lemme know!

Lambstock Cornbread (fits perfectly in a 9×9 baking dish but could easily be doubled to fit in a 9×13 dish)

2 ears fresh corn

1.5 Tbsp. duck fat

2/3 c. hard red flour (again, I use flour ground by hand from Beyond Homemade, but AP flour could be used)

1/2 c. cornmeal (I use Bob’s Red Mill in a pinch)

1 Tbsp. baking powder (non-aluminum, please)

1/4 tsp. salt

2 eggs, room temperature

3 Tbsp. honey

3/4 c. yogurt (I used a mix of Greek yogurt and raw milk yogurt, but all Greek could be used)

3 oz. butter, melted and cooled slightly (scalding butter would only lead to scrambled eggs)

Place 1 Tbsp. of the duck fat in a glass baking dish. Place the dish in the oven, and heat the oven to 400 degrees. (Allowing the dish to sit in the oven while it heats obviously melts the duck fat but also helps prevent sticking.)

Meanwhile, shuck the corn and cut the kernels off the cob (the cobs can be reserved to thicken soups, etc. or composted as need be–obviously, I don’t like to waste things). Remove the dish/fat from the oven and gently drop in the kernels (because splashing, hot fat is never fun on the skin), stirring to lightly coat the kernels in the duck fat. Place dish back in oven and roast the kernels for about 30 minutes, stirring halfway through.

While the kernels roast, mix together in a large bowl the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, honey, yogurt, and butter. Fold the egg mixture into the flour mixture and stir until just combined (the batter should resemble that of pancake batter, if a bit runnier). Set aside.

When the corn kernels are finished roasting, remove from oven and allow the kernels to cool slightly. Fold into the cornbread mixture; set aside.

In the same baking dish or a cast iron skillet (the more traditional method) drop the remaining 1/2 Tbsp. duck fat. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees, and place the dish/skillet in the oven to allow the duck fat to melt. When heated, remove the dish/skillet from the oven and pour in the cornbread mixture. Shake the dish/skillet back and forth a few times to level out the mixture (using oven mitts, obviously; trust me, grabbing a hot skillet with your bare hands is not the best of ideas).

Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes. The top should be golden, and the cornbread is ready when a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Enjoy with some honey, butter, fruit preserves, etc. Or more duck fat. And/or some Cardinal Point wine! And CP guys, my husband and I keep talking about getting up that way soon to do some wine tours, so next time we’re around, I’ll be sure to bring more than a bag of the cornbread!

Ramblings around Roanoke: Firefly Fare

So I’ve debated how to break down a post about my recent culinary mini-adventures in Roanoke. Thanks to my recent freelance assignment, I’ve had the fortune of traveling to the Star City to try out a few new places/meet a few new faces. I’ve wanted to cover each because I think they deserve their fair share of praise for incorporating local and sustainable foods into their “practices.”

Since I’m already long-winded enough, I decided to break each adventure down into separate posts. So, first up: Firefly Fare.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Parkhurst, owner and chef of Firefly, for my assignment. And yeah, I had to do some important research into what the restaurant serves, right? Even if that means a 35-minute drive, which probably negated the sustainability endeavor (hint hint, New River Valley; we seriously need some restaurants that are similarly minded and all about local, but that’s a bone I’ll pick later).

Stepping off my soapbox…Firefly Fare has some outstanding, quick food that Chris sources from farmers at the Roanoke City Market and other local vendors. As with establishments that highlight regional fare, the menu changes somewhat depending on what’s available (to get an idea of what’s frequently available, go here). To stay competitive price-wise with fellow vendors in the renovated Roanoke City Market Building, Chris focuses on vegetarian meals (the meat that is on the menu, thank god, is local as well; sometimes seafood is available via Local Seafood Delivery).

I went with the Indonesian tofu bowl the day I made my visit, fully intending to eat half and save the rest for lunch the next day. I kinda ended up scarfing down the entire bowl, which was full of mixed rice, veggies, tofu, and an amazing sauce that I now wake up most mornings craving. I’m not sure what spices were utilized (I thought about forcing Chris to give up his recipe, but I’m not really trained in such tactics–or any tactics for that matter–so it was a lost cause from the start), but they were perfection with a bit of heat. The meal was an amalgam of everything I love in a properly sauced/spiced dish: sweet, savory, spicy.

I don’t eat tofu on a regular basis because some people can’t get it right, and that includes me (not that I’m an expert cook by any stretch of the imagination). But the tofu (my, what big chunks of it there were!) at Firefly was meaty with a spot-on texture. By that I mean it was substantial; not dry, not soggy, but just right. I ended up going back to order a side of grilled corn/white beans for my husband to try later. I’m told they were a great side dish; unfortunately, I didn’t get to try any of it.

I was happy to see quite a line forming at Firefly the day I went, mostly businessmen. The price for my sizeable tofu bowl was $9, which I think is totally reasonable. Then again, I like to think I have my priorities in line. I’m much more willing to spend money on a place that features locally sourced foods. Quite frankly, the number of people who bitch to me about the price of local foods when I say I choose to eat that way while carrying around their iPhones and plunking down the same amount on a processed, inedible burger and greasy, limp fries just galls me. I have nothing against iPhones and am looking into getting one myself (I do have lots of things against processed foods, obviously). But I’m also aware of the price of my health, and foods sourced by local farmers who employ humane and environmentally conscious methods are important to my lifestyle. Plus? Eating locally sourced foods makes a direct impact on the local economy. It’s simple math. Plus plus? Local, fresh food just tastes better.

Roanokers are lucky to have myriad choices for local foods and the amount of time in which they are served. For the more leisurely meals, there’s obviously River and Rail, Lucky, and Local Roots (more on the latter two later; and if there are others, send a girl a suggestion!). But there’s also the quicker option in Firefly Fare, which has been open for about nine months. Not that Firefly can’t do leisurely, either. Dinner is served almost everyday (check out the Facebook site for a listing of hours, keywords: Firefly Fare). And yes, they serve beer and wine, with some lovely outdoor seating/waiter service available for those dwindling days of summer. Firefly also features a juice bar, which takes full advantage of local produce in season (unfortunately, the juicer was broken the day I was there, but I’m using that as an excuse to make another trip soon).   

I hope Firefly Fare is here to stay. The food is (gasp) healthy but still feels decadent and richly flavored. It has the mark of a chef who is doing what he set out to do: providing quick, fresh food that highlights what regional farmers and producers have to offer. If you’re going out during your lunch break for a quick bite to eat, I’d strongly recommend skipping the usual and giving Firefly a shot. I’m willing to bet you’ll leave completely sated but still feel good about what you ate. Plus, you’ll help support small farmers who bust their ass to do what they do everyday, to make a living not to get rich but because they have a passion for truly good food. You can thank them for their efforts by supporting a place like Firefly Fare. And if someone could shake Chris down to get the recipe for that sauce used in the Indonesian tofu bowl, consider a few rounds of juice on me.

Back from the dead…

Life has been a blur! So, I’m still here, and, starting this week, I’ll be blogging about what’s been going on around here. Lots of exciting things! Lots of catching up on: 1) other restaurant experiences in Roanoke, 2) a few other recipes, and 3) Lambstock at Border Springs Farm. Here’s your preview:

The Great Cornbread Debate

I have to admit, it’s going to be hit and miss around here during the next week due to deadlines, of both the full-time and the freelance nature. You may see a guest post from my husband in the meantime. I don’t know. I’ve kind of usurped the kitchen the past 5 years, so he’s not sure what he can cook other than a killer PB&J sandwich. At any rate, this may have to tide you over for a few days until I can come back up for air.

So, cornbread. I know there’s debate among cornbread lovers whether it should be sweet or savory. I don’t really care which is right or wrong. I just know what I prefer, and it’s usually cornbread with a touch of sweetness. If you prefer the savory, just leave out the honey from the recipe below. Simple solution; no need to get your panties in a bunch. Really, there’s much more to worry about than cornbread.

I made up this recipe, so it could use some fine tuning (like more honey). But, for the first go-round, it did the job pretty well (meaning it was at least edible). When coming up with new recipes, I find it’s best to turn on some Alabama Shakes and just go for it. Sometimes with a beer as a backup confidence booster. Also, it’s apparently necessary that I burn the shit out of myself at some point.

I baked the cornbread for 20 minutes, and it came out a mix between cake-y and spoon bread consistency, which I actually prefer. Obviously, if you want less spoon bread consistency, bake it 5 or so more minutes.

The yogurt? Some cornbread calls for sour cream, and this is about as close as I could come given what was in our fridge. I decided I wanted a bite of heat in the cornbread, thus the jalapenos. If you don’t like them, just leave ’em out. The same with the corn. It’s all subjective, all up to you, but below is the basis I used. I served this with catfish and tomato “jam” (although I decided to just grill the catfish and season it with salt, pepper, and smoked paprika). To counterbalance the jalapeno, I just threw together a cold salad of chopped watermelon (an ingredient I’m currently obsessed with), chopped cucumber, and some mint.

Roasted Corn and Jalapeno Cornbread
3 jalapenos, whole
Kernels from 3 ears of fresh corn
1 c. cornmeal
1 c. soft white flour (aka pastry flour)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1/4 c. yogurt (I use a raw yogurt, but Greek yogurt or sour cream would probably be comparable here)
1/2 c. milk
1/2 Tbsp. honey
Duck fat or oil

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Drop a tablespoon of duck fat (or oil) into a glass baking dish or roasting pan and place in the oven to heat. When the fat/oil is heat, carefully add the jalapenos and corn kernels; roast for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, yogurt, milk, and honey. Fold the egg mixture into the flour, stirring until just combined. Set aside.

When the jalapenos/corn are finished roasting, remove from the oven and reduce the heat to 325 degrees. Drop a tablespoon of fat/oil into a small cast iron pan and place in oven to heat.

While the pan and fat/oil warm, add the roasted corn kernels to the cornbread mixture. Slice the jalapenos (either with or without seeds; with seeds will add more heat) and add to the cornbread mixture. Stir until the corn and jalapenos are incorporated.

Remove the cast iron pan from the oven, drop in the cornbread mixture, and bake for 20-25 minutes (see above notes for consistency/baking times).

Serve warm with honey, butter, or a great piece of fish.