BIRMINGHAM DISPATCH: FARMERS’ MARKET AT PEPPER PLACE, A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL

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Who would’ve thought that putting words and images on a page with any great regularity would be so difficult for me? Aside from the fact that writing is difficult, I’m not very good at it, and my brain stops working after 10:00PM, all this traveling back and forth between B-ham and B’klyn is an exhausting time suck. But this weekend I stayed in Birmingham. In fact, this weekend I explored Birmingham and discovered the city I’d hoped to find.

It started with a terrific run along my usual path, but this time it was relaxed, meandering and without time restrictions. I had nowhere to be but present–it was luxurious! Breakfast was an almond croissant and more than decent cup of coffee at Chez Lulu, a local bakery/restaurant. I’m still partial to the almond croissants at Runner and Stone in Brooklyn, but these were pretty darn tasty.

That was followed by a trip to Pepper Place. “Have you been to the farmers’ market at Pepper Place?” I’d been asked since arriving in January. Being back in NYC most weekends, not to mention being a little jaded, what with Union Square Farmers’ market as my benchmark, the answer had always been “No.” My maiden voyage to Pepper Place was a most pleasant surprise! Though the variety wasn’t astonishing, the quality of the produce more than made up for the limited options. Chilton county peaches, fragrant and juicy truly were the best I’ve ever had. As were the blackberries which were the size of my big toes. And the tomatoes, not yet ready in New York were silky-sweet and meaty. All that lovely produce sold by lovely people with warm smiles and ready answers. One farmer, with sweet plump blueberries the size of cherries, mentioned that he came back to the farm after 40 years as a contractor in Denver. We discussed the merits of bat-guano-tea as opposed to chemical fertilizers.

Then later that afternoon I attended a fund-raiser for the local community farm, Jones Valley Teaching Farm catered by about a half-dozen local bars and restaurants. A few favorites of mine were in attendance: Little Donkey–bourbon and mini emapanadas; Carrigan’s–moonshine and bahn mi sandwiches; Hot & Hot– tequila and gazpacho…all good! And all for a good cause.

As if it the weekend couldn’t get any better, the following day, a friend introduced me to the Latin community by way of a pretty authentic Mexican bodega/restaurant/bakery, Gordos. The tacos and huaraches  with carne asada, pollo guisado, and chicharones  rivaled anything I could get in Sunset Park or Redhook in  Brooklyn, AND at a fraction of the price (which are already pretty cheap)

In any event, more than the food, I think I was craving a connection to something familiar–something i hadn’t had in a long time–something that made me feel at home.

 

 

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Sweet and Spicy Tomato Jam

 

SWEET AND SPICY FARMERS’ MARKET TOMATO JAM

Makes Three (1/2-pint) jars

4 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (8 cups)

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon roasted garlic (optional)

2 canned chipotles in adobo, minced

1 teaspoon pure ancho chile powder

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

 

In a large non-reactive saucepan, combine the tomatoes, sugar, garlic, chipotles, ancho chile powder,  vinegar, and salt and bring to a boil.  Simmer over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until thick, glossy and jammy, about 50 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid scorching. Pour the jam into clean jars and let cool. Seal and refrigerate.

 

 

 

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Building a North-South Alliance…One Bowl at a Time

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Stracciatella with Chicken and Collards

As I settle in and make my house a home here in Birmingham (part-time, anyway) I’m reminded, daily, of the differences between my two poles–B’klyn and B-ham. First, there’s the driving…everywhere, then the pace…slow (except in cars) and then the diversity (or lack thereof, so it seems) My beloved Brooklyn (accessible almost entirely by public transportation–and quickly) is home to dozens of cultures, each neighborhood boasting foods, languages and customs from their beloved homes. I long for japchae from Koreatown, babka from Greenpoint, goat roti from Crown Heights and arepas from Red Hook’s soccer fields.  Certainly, there must be some outposts here but I haven’t ventured out far enough yet. Gotta git in ma car! 

But what I have found are friendly people (polite people!) with ready appetites and some decent markets stocked with cool regional ingredients. Obvious are the umpteen brands of bacon, grits/cornmeal products and biscuit mixes. What surprised me, however, was the variety of ready-to-use bagged greens: turnip, mustard, kale, beet, chard, and my favorite, collards.

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pre-washed, chopped and bagged collards

 

I’d ordinarily use escarole in this kind of soup, but a lovely bag of collards, (stemmed and chopped!) was too good to pass up. Like any true immigrant, I make my favorite foods with what’s available. (My grandma used Carolina rice in her arancini) It’s traditional to cook the green right out of greens down here and it’s definitely delicious that way–especially with some smoky pork product. But, and remember I’m an immigrant here, I much prefer my greens green (yet tender) This stracciatella is relatively quick (thanks, B’klyn) and highly nutritious. It fed my soul as much as it did my body. Now all I have to do is figure out how to cook for one! 

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Big ol’ mess of greens–Italian style

STRACCIATELLA WITH COLLARDS AND CHICKEN

Active: 20 min; Total: 40 min

Makes 4 to 6 Servings

 

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

1 small sweet onion, finely chopped 

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 jalapeño, seeded and minced

1 rotisserie chicken, skinned, meat pulled into shreds, carcass reserved

1 quart low sodium chicken broth

2 cups water

4 cups stemmed chopped collard greens (or turnip, mustard, kale)

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 eggs

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, plus more for serving

 

1. In a large pot, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion, garlic and jalapeño and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the reserved chicken bones and cook 2 to 3 minutes longer. Add the broth and water, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Pick out and discard the bones. Stir in the collard greens and season with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring once or twice, until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. 

2. Meanwhile in a small bowl, beat the eggs with the flour and parmesan to form a thick batter and season with salt. Drizzle the mixture into the pot, cover and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until nearly set. Gently stir once or twice to break the dough into lumps. Fold in the chicken, cover and cook just until heated through, about 2 minutes. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with olive oil and grated parmesan. Serve with crusty bread and enjoy!

 

BISCUITS IN BIRMINGHAM

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First, let me offer sincerest apologies for my absence from this blog to the three people (you know who you are) who may or may not actually have wondered where in God’s name I’ve been these past few months.
Second, let me come clean. Back in June 2013, I launched Tales of a Recipe Goddess as a response to being laid off from Food & Wine Magazine, where I worked in the test kitchen for nearly 20 years. Recipe Goddess was my F&W twitter handle and a little cringe-provoking for me, but it was not completely inaccurate and so, it sort of took roots. There, I wrote dozens and dozens of stories, developed thousands of recipes and tested many thousands more. Recipe Goddess or Recipe Workhorse? The latter doesn’t sound nearly as nice…
Out of some sense of embarrassment or lack of courage or more likely the fear that without F&W I’d lose my credibility as a chef and food writer, I purposely left my employment status more than a bit ambiguous. How could I let on that I’d been EX-ed out of the very institution that I lovingly helped build and that helped build me? I remember the giddy sense of pride in seeing my name on the mast head for the very first time. I also remember the crushing sense of failure and disappointment when I realized September would be my last.
See, that’s the problem with growing up in a job—it’s not like graduating from college and being faced with a rosy, bright future. When it’s over, you find yourself middle aged, wondering “What the Hell am I going to do now?”. When you’re 25, the long hard slog is a journey, full of interesting and inspiring detours, but when you’re 52—without the luxury of time, that long hard slog is just that. A long…hard…slog.
Unless of course you can find a way to embrace that change, take a deep breath and  look at your new status as a blank slate—a sort of liberation from who you thought you were and what you thought you could or couldn’t do. More than that, develop an almost militant drive to do exactly what you really, really want to do.
Taking stock is a lot harder and more time consuming than making stock, and it doesn’t happen overnight. For me, it took months and months, but it led me to a few revelations—not bad for an old broad. Revelation #1: Ambition is not a bad thing when used without sabotage. Revelation #2: There’s plenty to go around—even in this economy. Revelation #3: Openness sparks opportunity and opportunity sparks options and options are a very good thing.
Which leads me to why i’ve been so blog-negligent since October. Re-invention is a process and every aspect of my career needed some re-evaluation. Food styling was how I initially came to F&W and it was something I loved to do, but my styling book was a little out-dated. So, in order to modernize it, I began testing with photographers, which led to several styling jobs.
Re-establishing old and building new work relationships took considerable time and effort. Gradually, through those efforts as well as recommendations from others (greatly appreciated!), I’d been contracted to write articles for a number of very popular national magazines and websites. Maybe I didn’t lose much credibility post F&W, after all. And then, in early October, I was approached by the producers of IFC’s hit show, Portlandia, to create the recipes for a Portland-focussed cookbook, centered around key episodes from the show. Like all of publishing, the turn-around on the book was INSANE and so I buried my head and knives into the project.  It was by far the funnest project I’ve ever worked on and until now, I couldn’t share it with you. It’s slated for a fall release, and as the date nears, I’ll keep you posted.
Till then, remember some key phrases: “Cacao!” and “Is it local?”
At that time, I was also recruited by Oxmoor House, Time Inc.’s Lifestyles Books division to lead their test kitchen and food styling teams to help create a new paradigm in their food department. It’s so exciting I can barely contain myself! I start on Monday and am ready to dive in head first. Located in Birmingham, Alabama, needless to say, this dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker will be learning a few new tricks—never a bad thing for any one of any age. But with my lovelies back home, I’ll be flying back and forth to Brooklyn weekly. So, yes, I’ve been a little busy (and will continue to be so) and my blog-life has suffered. But not for long—I imagine there’ll be tons of material here! When life throws you a curve ball, make biscuits—and if you’re in the South, they damn well better be good.
Buttermilk Biscuits
makes  twelve 2 1/2-inch biscuits
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes and chilled
3/4 cup buttermilk, plus more for brushing
  1. Preheat the oven to 425°. In  a large bowl whisk the flour with the baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the butter and using 2 table knives or a pastry blender, cut in the butter until it is the size of small peas. Add the buttermilk and stir just until moistened.
  2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead 2 or 3 times, just until it comes together. Pat or roll the dough 1/2-inch thick and using a 2 1/2-inch round cutter, stamp out as many biscuits as possible. Gather the scraps and cut out more biscuits. Arrange them on a large baking sheet and brush the tops with buttermilk. Sprinkle with salt and bake in the center of the oven until risen and golden, 16 to 18 minutes.