Clown Food

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Startlingly colored cauliflower has appeared at the Farmers' Market. So has everything else. If the morning is warm at all you can smell the strawberries before you even see them. There are countless varieties of greens, herbs and flowers. I try to get there by eight because by nine it can be a mob scene. Even after years of blue potatoes, people are suspicious of this cauliflower. "How do you color it?" they want to know. We don't color it at all of course, but we do steam it and then dress it in an herb vinaigrette. As is often the case this time of year "herb" means everything but the kitchen sink. We'll show more restraint later on, but right now it's hard to resist big handfuls of fresh thyme, tarragon and even savory, which I've always loved but that nobody grows.

The honeysuckle is finally starting to subside, although we will probably have sorbet periodically for a while yet. The vetch, which grows with it has died back, so now there are great snarls of dead vines around my legs as I pick. The list of characters who entertained me as I gathered flowers this summer has been smaller, although there is still blackberry season to come. There is a very nice lady with a West Indian accent who talks very loudly on her cell phone as she walks her dog. Once or twice she has, without warning, hung up her phone and begun talking to me the same way. No intro or anything, as if we'd been talking all along. The first time she startled me, but now I'm prepared. There was one couple that I encountered often enough this year to invite observation. They would stride purposefully down the bike trail each evening in a sort of lockstep prance. When they caught sight of me, they seemed to be reminded that there was honeysuckle for the taking, and that if they didn't hurry, I might get their portion as well as mine. They would then settle in a spot just out of swatting range, where they would make exaggerated motions of picking and sucking the nectar from the flowers. They would coo to one another about the wonder of this natural serendipity. Unfortunately they would also spit the used blossoms back into the vines so one wanted to avoid that spot. They were a lot more annoying than they guy who, last year, would follow me up and down offering me a variety of drugs and prostitutes over and over again as if he had forgotten that he had just talked to me a minute earlier. Sometimes there is background music. If the Cradle's back door is open I can hear the evening's acts in their sound checks. There are also a couple of rehearsal studios in the neighborhood that are often in use in the early evening. There is a guy who lives in a hut on the edge of the junkyard, who loves old style country music. He has found some radio stations that play it. Best of all there is a small church on Graham Street with honeysuckle vines growing on the fence around their parking lot. I sometimes top off my pitcher of flowers there on my way back to the restaurant. Last week I was outside during a rocking choir practice. The accompaniment was not a piano. Instead they had a snare drum and a bass drum. It was great.

Economics are nuts right now and there has been a dreadful series of natural calamities. I see the price of gasoline reflected in virtually every ingredient I buy these days. Perhaps this is the time for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to afford to eat in nice restaurants to give a moment's thought to those who cannot. Food prices for basics have spiked recently imperiling people who must live on a dollar or less a day. People who live on fifty cents a day are in danger of starvation. It's hard to imagine that until a few months ago people would have been able to get along at all on so little. Around here it costs more than a dollar a day just to walk down the street. In places like that a little generosity goes a long way. Organizations like UNICEF , Oxfam , or Heifer International do remarkable work with even the tiniest donations. Please take a minute to count your blessings and pass some of them along to others.

posted by Bill Smith at 9:14 PM 0 comments

Honeysuckle Threedux

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Years ago on one of the Spanish language TV channels there was a telenovela called Mariana de la Noche. I never saw it but apparently its logo included a scene where Mariana swept through a flowery landscape by night. The connection was soon made in the kitchen and I, myself, became Marianna de la Noche each evening. Modern Spanish is as changeable and adaptable as is English, so now we have a verb "marianar". Voy a marianar means I'm leaving to pick honeysuckle flowers and drink beer along the bike path.

Voy a marianar almost every night right now. There is such a profusion of flowers this year that I haven't had to go to any of my alternative sights to collect them. Different types, bloom at different times and have different habits. The first one is usually a large single pure white blossom that seems to prefer a bit of shade. They pull away from the stem easily. Next come the pink throated variety. It has the strongest fragrance and it tends to bloom in pairs that are also easily picked. Then the clustering varieties begin. These are more troublesome because they are usually smaller and the open blooms are mixed among unopened buds and leaves. At the Merritt Mill Road end of the bike trail is a particularly brittle grove of these whose vines break off when you try harvest them. Right now, all these varieties are overlapping. I've gotten very, very good at spotting them in dim light. I can also see them out of the corner of my eye when whizzing by on my bicycle. One of my prime clumps has an infestation of weevils this summer, something I've never encountered before.

I've been able to keep up with the demand for sorbet so far this year. Not so almost everything else. In my last post, I mentioned the need for industrial quantities of ingredients. This week that was an understatement. Every year the combination of honeysuckle sorbet and soft shelled crabs causes a surge, but this year the public has arrived with particular fury. We ran through all of our grilled asparagus every night. We have enough scallops, but I have to keep running to the tienda for more hominy. The cheese plate changed constantly as one variety had to be replaced by another. We even twice ran out of the once shunned celery root and country ham salad. I had found pretty cauliflower at the Farmers' Market on Saturday and we served it in an herby vinaigrette. One night only. One thing that I always have plenty of, however, is the wonderful mix of flowers, herbs and greens that I get each week from Cathy Jones and Michael Perry at Perrywinkle Farms. It goes into our salads all season and it changes throughout the season as well. I can't remember how many years I've been using this, but I always look forward to it.

posted by Bill Smith at 9:31 AM 0 comments

Honeysuckle Redux

Monday, May 12, 2008

It's less than a mile long but it is an interesting bit of territory. The bike trail along the railroad track between Carrboro and Chapel Hill is the place in town where soccer moms with jogging strollers, the homeless, University students and assorted drug merchants all rub elbows. Generally they ignore one another, but they all seem to be interested in me and what I'm doing. There's lots going on. It is our own version of Midaq Alley.

An uncommon number of botanists seem to use this path to get from the University to their apartments in Carrboro. They often stop their bikes to either question me or to offer scientific tidbits. Did I know for instance that I am picking Japanese honeysuckle, an unwelcomed invader? People who I would probably avoid on Franklin Street chat me up as I move up one side of the path and down the other. For a while there was a young woman who at first would talk in a quiet pleasant voice, asking me about my task. Then she would suddenly be consumed by a frightening rage and begin screeching and ripping down flyers that were stapled to telephone poles. I haven't seen her this year. Last summer, someone I will refer to only as C. took a particular liking to me. He would narrate for me as we walked, filling me in on people we passed, telling me sometimes startling stories of life in this no-mans-land between our two towns. I guess that because there is no road here, there is little supervision by the law. This is probably why I can walk up and down undisturbed drinking a beer as I pick. C. was a large rough man, nice really, but the years of drug use and homelessness had taken its toll. It dawned on me about mid-August that C.'s interest in me might be romantic in nature. I was right, it turned out. When I told him that I wasn't interested he quietly gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek and walked off. I've never seen him again either.

Not everything that goes on along the bike trail is so dramatic. This spring's ample rains bode well for the blackberries that grow along side the honeysuckle. Both plants like the same habitat and usually bloom simultaneously. This year the honeysuckle was a little earlier, but now they are in tandem. There is also a smattering of our wild Cherokee rose in the same spots. There are as many varieties of wild blackberries as of honeysuckle. The predominant one along the railroad track has beautiful lavender tinted flowers. The fruit it produces has a pleasant slight bitterness but is exceptionally seedy. For the last few summers, I've been using them sparingly with a Madeira sabayon but this year I may use them in the buttermilk sorbet recipe that now has strawberries. The food mill will remove most of the seeds and I suspect that the resulting sorbet will be delicious.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, the soft shelled crab frenzy continues unabated. We had enough for this whole weekend, although there was only one order left to offer to the last table on Sunday night. We're beginning to benefit from the arrival of spring vegetables. I pretty much have to wait until things are available in industrial quantities before I can use them on our menu, but presently we have cold grilled asparagus (good hot or cold) with a sesame-soy dressing and baby snow peas from Betsey's garden tossed with sea salt, tarragon, endive and olive oil. Speaking of industrial quanties, the honeysuckle goes on and on.

posted by Bill Smith at 1:55 PM 0 comments

Honeysuckle Sorbet

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

We've been so busy this month that I've fallen way behind and there's lots to talk about. It is, of course, honeysuckle season and it looks like there's going to be a lot. Everything that survived the drought at all seems to be coming back with a vengeance. I've become quite an observer of honeysuckle and its habits, so I'll probably hold forth at length while it's in bloom. It is also the season for soft shelled crabs. It looks to be an average year for these. Both of these things invariably arrive at the same time and almost without fail they arrive with UNC Graduation and Mothers' Day. This is the time of year when I am least able to deal with foods that create a frenzy among the public, but these are two of the few foods which do just that. This is my thirtieth year in a restaurant kitchen in this town on this weekend. It is my fifteenth at Crook's. Not remarkably, I'm long since out of patience with all this song and dance. Rather than feeling the need to show off to our visitors, my instinct is to batten down and try to protect my staff from being mowed down. I can do this with confidence because I am always pleased with our menu anyway, so a choosing simple, elegant recipes from our repertoire is in no way a step down. It shows off what we do best.

Sometimes I wonder how many crabs I have dispatched in my time. I am lucky that I grew up on the coast cleaning fish, because generally I find dressing animals before I eat them a little off-putting. This has come up from time to time in Mexico. We will serve them as we always have, with basil and garlic and browned butter. Two garish colored slaws are at their side. One is a standard cabbage and vinegar slaw, but made with purple cabbage. The other is a shockingly good carrot, lemon and garlic slaw that I got years ago from a friend who had a French grandmother-in -law. It is bright and tangy and refreshing and is great with anything fried.

This week we also brought back our ever popular fish baked in paper with risotto. This incarnation uses tilefish, which I've never been crazy about, but Paul thought up this rub of freshly ground cumin seed and lime peel that is absolutely delicious, so I've had to change my tune. Another new item is a strawberry buttermilk sherbet that my friend Donna Florio put in this issue of Southern Living. Ordinarily, I don't steal recipes from magazines while they are still on the newsstand, but this is so good that I'm making an exception. And as I said Donna is an old friend and probably won't mind. Besides, it's strawberry season now, and by next year I will probably have forgotten the recipe

posted by Bill Smith at 11:43 AM 1 comments

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