Monday, October 31, 2011

Catching up with Richard Blais & Jared Lee Pyles @HD1

Chefs Richard Blais and Jared Lee Pyles of HD1 Restaurant.
This is what a soft opening is all about - I drove past HD1 Restaurant in Poncey Highlands twice before I realized it was the place I was supposed to be for lunch. (Of course, that could be a statement about my driving and directional abilities and the fact that these days it's a bit of a deal for me to drive anywhere other than the traditional Atlanta mom-stops of the Varsity, the botanical garden, the zoo and the aquarium.)

But the building is just the slightest bit off the street and the sign didn't grab me, and so I circled the block twice before parking across the street. I was there for a media lunch with Chef Richard Blais, the Top Chef All-Stars winner and partner in Atlanta's gourmet burger boutique, FLIP Burger. For HD1, Blais and Executive Chef Jared Lee Pyles have created another fun venue, more casual than FLIP, with an inventive menu that pulls the hot dog and all its possibilities off of the kid's menu and out of the ballpark and drops it smack in the middle of the adult's plate before topping it with everything from barbecue and cole slaw to tripe and tongue.

We began by nibbling on pressure-cooked boiled peanuts with African spices (barberry, dried chile, cumin, garlic and onion). They were unbelievably good, as were the lemon pepper chicken wings, gussied up with lemon curd and Szechuan pepper.

HD1's boiled peanuts with African spices. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

As delicious as these items were, we flipped out over the Waffles fries with maple-oy sauce. Chick-fil-a needs to send its fry cooks to apprentice at the hand of the cooks here - these fries were perfectly crisp and not greasy and the Asian-inspired sauce had that sweet and sour thing going. Chef Pyles' sauce is a play on Mae-Ploy chili sauce - it's made of maple syrup, honey, Sambal, rice wine vinegar, cilantro and lime.
Waffle fries with maple-oy dressing. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 And now to the dogs: we tried three and all were very good, but one stood out to my barbecue-loving tastebuds - the Eastbound and Down - a frank topped with Carolina pulled pork, sweet mustard slaw and mop sauce. I liked the combination of the tender, smoky pork and the crisp slaw, that was shredded just right - not too coarse, not too fine. In keeping with the "super-local" mandate of the restaurant, the franks are all made by Atlanta charcuterie The Spotted Trotter. Just as much attention was given to the buns - they are a Northeastern style bun, according to Blais, meant to cradle the dog and toppings. The buns are made according to HD1's recipe, but at an off-site bakery - the recipe is a "Ghana sweetbread, a little like broiche or media noche."

Haute dogs. Photo provided by The Reynolds Group.

We finished the meal with soft serve ice cream - Chef Pyles likes to experiment with flavors, drawing inspiration from the supermarket candy aisle. The flavor of the day was inside-out Whopper - chocolate with malted milk topping.

In addition to showing off the menu at HD1, Chef Blais was very accommodating during the lunch, answering questions about all of his business ventures - including a new restaurant, The Spence, opening at Georgia Tech; a cookbook to be published by Clarkson Potter in Fall 2012; and his stake in a t-shirt company called Tasty Cotton, which features the Blaisian (noun):

"Any individual possessing a fixation towards liquid nitrogen, sous vide or faux hawks."

If you need directions to HD1, I can happily oblige, now that I know the neighborhood so well. HD1 opened without a lot of fanfare and because of the walk-up counter, the waits for food are not long, Blais said.  Parking is conveniently located across the street at the Chelsea building. 664 N. Highland Avenue, Atlanta 30306. (404) 815-1127.

Text and images copyright 2012, Lucy Mercer, unless noted otherwise.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Preserving the harvest: Muscadine jam

Muscadines. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Recognize these plump grapes? They're Muscadines, a grape native to the Southeast that has been cultivated for more than 400 years. They appear briefly in Southern supermarkets from late August to September, and even into October, usually alongside their green-skinned cousins, the Scuppernong. These native grapes are distinguished by thick skins and sweet juice, that I think has a slightly musky or earthy fragrance, others may disagree. It took me awhile to love muscadines, but I do, especially now that I cook with them.

Yesterday, I shared a recipe for muscadine sorbet, inspired by Chef Brian Jones of Atlanta's Ritz-Carlton (downtown). Today, I'm so excited to share Chef Brian's recipe for a divine muscadine jam, an ideal way to preserve the brief muscadine harvest.

Chef Brian Jones of the Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta (downtown). By Jonathan Orozco.

Chef Jones is a Southerner who uses Southern ingredients in new and fresh ways. He serves muscadine grapes as a palate cleansing sorbet at Atlanta Grill at the Ritz-Carlton downtown, and he turns them into Muscadine jam flavored with vanilla and port wine. He graciously shared the jam recipe with A Cook and Her Books.

Muscadine Jam or Jelly
Provided by Chef Brian Jones, Atlanta Grill, The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta (Downtown)

Yield: approximately 1 gallon

This recipe may be reduced proportionately, but it’s as much work to do three gallons as it is to do two pints. Chef Jones advises that the smaller muscadines are more flavorful than the larger ones.

4 pounds (12 cups) muscadines, whole and washed

1 pound sugar

½ cinnamon stick

1 vanilla bean, split

Big pinch ground nutmeg

Big pinch salt

2 cups Port wine

4 cups water

1 pouch, Sure-Jell dry pectin or Certo liquid pectin

1. Prepare and sanitize 8 pint jars (or 4 quart jars or 16, 8 oz jars, etc, etc) with lids according to the manufacturers’ instructions.

2. Place muscadines, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, salt, port and water into a large sauce pan and place on a medium-high flame.

3. Once mixture begins to boil, stir frequently to break up muscadines and skim (remove) foam from top of hot mixture as it appears.

4. Cook on a low simmer for 20 to 30 minutes.

5. Taste the mixture. If it tastes right, stir in the pectin. If it needs tart or sweetness, adjust the flavor, add the pectin and let the jam simmer for another five to 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

6. For jam, pour mixture into a china cap (a coarse conical strainer, in which the holes are smaller than the seeds) or a fine mesh strainer. Proceed to push the mixture through the strainer until the majority of the pulp and juice rests in the container below.

7. For jelly, pour mixture into a jelly bag or a “chinois” (fine mesh conical strainer) lined with cheese cloth. Allowing the juice, only, to fall into the container below.

8. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for canning the jam or jelly.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer,
with the exception of the photo of Chef Brian and the recipe, both provided by Ritz-Carlton Atlanta.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wild grapes of autumn

Muscadine sorbet. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
The muscadine season in Georgia lasts just a couple of months in autumn, but like it is with the sweetest watermelons of June or the juiciest heirloom tomatoes of August, it’s worth the wait. Paulk Family Vineyards in Wray, in middle Georgia, is the country’s largest grower of muscadines, a wild but cultivated grape. Muscadines are considered the "superfruit of the South" - the University of Georgia studied the grapes and determined that they have high levels of ellagic acid, which inhibits the growth of abnormal cells, and very high total antioxidants, according to Paulk's website.
Muscadine grapes. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 If you’ve never tasted a muscadine, be prepared for a thick skin and a bright, sweet burst of juicy grape flesh. In the store, look for clean, unblemished grapes in the quart package. (And I'm sure I'm not the only shopper who does this - checking the package bottom to ensure berries and grapes are fresh - that's where the spoilage first appears.) With muscadines, look for smaller grapes - the flavor will be more concentrated.

Ritz-Carlton Atlanta Chef Brian Jones serves muscadines in a palate-cleansing sorbet at the Atlanta Grill. Chef Jones is a Southerner with an affection for our native foodways, including muscadine grapes. He uses them in house-made jams and jellies (more on this tomorrow!), crushed and infused in vodka, and in a syrup for waffles and pancakes.

Inspired by Chef Brian, I replicated the muscadine sorbet. With an ice cream maker, sorbets are very simple to make – just crushed fruit and simple syrup, strained and frozen. I have a Krups LaGlaciere that’s about 10 years old – the most difficult part is remembering to put the canister in the freezer overnight before making the sorbet.

Muscadine Sorbet

I made this at home using vanilla sugar (simply a split vanilla bean placed in a jar of granulated sugar) for extra oomph, but plain granulated sugar works just the same. The recipe can also be frozen in popsicle molds, perfect for children, because my kids loved this!

1 cup water
½ cup sugar
1 quart muscadines, washed and dried

Ice cream maker

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine water and sugar, stir until sugar is dissolved.  Let cool to room temperature.
2. Place clean grapes in a food processor, pulse to a coarse grind. Set a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and transfer pulp to strainer. With the back of a spatula, press juice from the pulp. Be patient and gentle; this step takes time to get all the juice out of the pulp. Discard solids.
3. Combine juice and simple syrup. Place in refrigerator to chill, then freeze according to ice cream maker's instructions.

Stay tuned for Chef Brian's muscadine jam recipe tomorrow!

Inspired by Chef Brian Jones' muscadine sorbet at the Atlanta Grill, Ritz-Carlton downtown.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer. 
Muscadine jam recipe provided by Brian Jones of Ritz-Carlton Atlanta.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Honoring a fallen hero

Photo by Lucy Mercer
This story isn't about food or books, but just a glimpse into the town and times I live in. I brought my camera along yesterday as our county honored a fallen hero.

My small town was covered up in the American flag Thursday. It was not the 4th of July, not Labor Day, Memorial Day or Veterans Day, or any of the traditional days when there might be a parade downtown and folks young and old wave Old Glory. This was a parade of a kind, but a somber occasion - a young Marine from my hometown was killed in Afghanistan last week and his body was brought home. The motorcade from the airport to the funeral home made its way through the heart of the county, the roads lined on either side with businessmen and women, children, veterans, retirees, schoolchildren. 

The Marine is Lance Corporal Scott D. Harper, nicknamed Boots, and he was 21 years old. On my way to downtown, I drove along the same route as the motorcade and watched the power company place a flag over the highway. I took this picture from inside my car:

Photo by Lucy Mercer

 According to the obituary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Harper was everyone’s friend in high school, played four years on the golf team, and he really liked boots. His last phone conversation with his dad involved sending a new pair of boots to him in Afghanistan. Along the motorcade route, men placed boots on their truck to honor him.

Photo by Lucy Mercer.

 The school where Harper spent his first grade year was along the route and the schoolchildren lined up to watch the motorcade. In the city, volunteers handed out flags and office workers came out to watch. The motorcade began with a dozen officers on motorcycles, and another dozen vehicles, blue lights flashing, representing local law enforcement. Then there was the hearse and the cars with the family members, some of whom looked out the car windows, as amazed as we were that so many citizens came out on a cold autumn day to honor this young man. 

Motorcade along Church Street. Photo by Lucy Mercer.

Behind the hearse were at least 100 motorcycles representing the Patriot Guard Riders who protect the family members (with the permission of the family) from protesting groups such as Westboro Baptist of Kansas. Westboro was not present for the motorcade, but has stated on its website that it will protest at the funeral on Sunday. The Patriot Guard and our sheriff have vowed to keep them away from the family and funeral.

Patriot Guard Riders. Lucy Mercer

Patriot Guard Riders. Lucy Mercer

Like everyone else who watched the motorcade, waving flags and wiping tears, my thoughts and prayers are with this young man’s family and friends. They are grieving the loss of a son, a grandson, a brother, a friend. I don’t know the family directly, other than names that are familiar from living in the same town that I graduated high school. I do know that it was important to me and to my community to come together to remember this young man and to let his family know how thankful we are for his service.

Boy with flag. Lucy Mercer

Flags on the square. Lucy Mercer.

 Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A fresh experience: PMA Fresh Summit

Rambutan. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

This is the rambutan, the "hairy cherry" found throughout Southeast Asia. I discovered it in the Georgia World Congress Center, in the Frieda's specialty produce display on the floor of the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit. On Monday, I joined about 100 "influencers" for a breakfast and tour of this impressive convention, one of the largest in the United States. I was on the floor for a couple of hours and would have stayed longer, but they turned out the lights and packed up for home - it was the convention's last day.

I still managed to pack a lot into a few hours. I don't use the word "amazing" too often, but I must apply it here - this assembly of produce growers and marketers and affiliated industries was staggering in size. There was just sooo much food there! I will share more about my Fresh Summit experience in the next few weeks, but here are a few photos and notes, a first glance, you might say. 

First up, the only pictures I took at the actual show, an artist working the cucurbitaceae medium, at the National Watermelon Promotion Board booth. My pictures do not do justice to the art - you will note that the artist is carving Elvis into the melon.

Watermelon artist. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

At the Duda Farm Fresh Foods booth, I met the delightful Julie Deily of The Little Kitchen, who made a delicious Meyer Lemon spritzer and a tasty smoked salmon spread with red celery. Bloggers are all about marking the occasion: that's Duda Farm Fresh Vice President Sammy Duda on the left, Julie next, and Gwen from Bunkycooks, and me. (I'm a regular reader of Gwen's blog and was thrilled to finally meet her).

From left, Duda Fresh Farms Vice President Sammy Duda, Julie Deily of The Little Kitchen, Gwen Pratesi of Bunkycooks, and Lucy Mercer of A Cook and Her Books. Julie Deily/The Little Kitchen .

Duda Fresh Farms offers one of my favorite fruits, clementines. I pack two lunch boxes five days a week, and when clemmies are in season, I go through a box (or bag) a week. They're also perfect carpool treats - to hand out when the kidoodles get in the minivan for the ride home.

Clementines. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

While at the Duda Fresh Farms booth, I admit that I got a little giddy when I saw the Meyer lemons. Meyer lemons are impossibly exotic to me - I have wonderful grocery stores, but the Kroger carried Meyer lemons for hmmm, about a nanosecond last season. And whenever I get vocal about my lack of Meyer lemons, my California friends make taunting jokes like "come to my house and take all you want from the tree in my backyard." Now that I have a bag of Meyers for my very own, I need to plan just the right thing to make with them - lemon pudding, lemon cake, lemon curd, lemon tea bread, lemon ice cream? Let me know what you think.

Meyer lemons. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Now, if I ever take my California friends up on the Meyer lemon tree offer, I will bring them muscadines from Paulk Family Farms in Wray, Georgia. I'm late to the muscadine bandwagon - the musky aftertaste and thick skins took some getting used to, but I love them now. I have a special plan for these "musky dimes" and will post soon. (footnote: just checked the Paulk Vineyards website and the very first sentence is a quote from Scripture "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for with out me, ye can do nothing." John 15:5. How cool is that?)

Muscadines. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
A little further down the Georgia Grown aisle, I talked with the Georgia blueberry folks. They loaded up my bag with dried blueberries, another convenient, healthy snack for lunchboxes.
Dried Georgia blueberries. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I brought a few of these Buddy Fruits home and my girls went crazy for them. They are just fruit and milk and are shelf stable, perfect for lunchboxes. The smoothies come in three flavors - mango, peach and banana. I will definitely look for these at the supermarket. (Just checked the website and they're available in Wal-Mart and Publix in my area + there's a $1 off coupon on the home page.)
Buddy fruits. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I admit, I had too much fun talking with the carrot guys at Bolthouse Farms, the company that developed a product I always have in my refrigerator - baby carrots. I explained to them that I buy both kinds of carrots - the baby carrots for snacking and the cello bags of carrots for cooking. They assured me that I'm the kind of customer they really like. Here's what's new in baby carrot land: packaging to appeal to different ages and stages: on the left with the orange bunny, for younger kids; the Louis Vuitton influence in the middle is for tween and teen girls; and the Space Odyssey design on the right is for young boys. I think they're cute, but my kids will want ranch dressing with them.

Baby carrots. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I met so many interesting people at Fresh Summit and plan to bring you more stories soon. California Giant Berries, Earthbound Farms, Driscolls, California Avocado and Frieda's, and many more, were all delightful and provided me with a lot of ideas for future blog posts. I want to send a special thanks PMA for the invitation and tour, and Dan'l Macky Almy of DMA Solutions who was an excellent and enthusiastic tour guide.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer. With the exception of Julie Deily's picture, provided by The Little Kitchen.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Asters, daisies, cosmos and mums

Asters. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Just three little flowers are lighting up my flower bed this October. The mass of asters brightens the corner and pleases the bees. The cosmos are left from the summer, flopped over, but still brilliant.
Cosmos. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Daisies and asters. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Yellow mums. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

What's blooming in your garden this fall?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Baker's Rack

Baker's rack. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

We have a routine the first Friday of every month, at least for the past few months: when my husband gets home from work, we gather up the girls to head out to our favorite barbecue place. On the way over, we'll stop off at a nearby auction house and check out the sale preview -- all the night's auction items are on display until 7 p.m.

This auction house carries a lot of household goods, old books, picture frames, glassware and knick-knacks, what I like to think of as tchotchkes (a bit of my limited Yiddish for my friend Lynda). And piles of furniture, in fact, there are really good deals to be made on furniture here - dining room sets, sofas, beds, tables, chifforobes, all the pieces you need to set up a house. We've lived in our house long enough that we don't really need more furniture. Some day, we'll clear away the plastic and Barbies and realize we may have room for additional pieces, but these days, we just like to look.

So, last week, we looked and we saw a baker's rack in the back of the room, larger and taller than any baker's rack I've ever seen. My husband and I were both impressed by the piece, and discussed how we'd use it if we brought it home. We negotiated a comfort level bid - he said no higher than $150, I handed him $50 from my purse and said $200. After eating, he returned for the auction with our daughter and they came home at midnight with a quilt, a box of costume jewelry, three collectible Hess trucks and the winning bid on the baker's rack ~ $95!

As it turns out, the baker's rack fits perfectly in the space we envisioned, behind the front door in the foyer, a space previously reserved for the Christmas tree. The rack has brass finials in dire need of a polish, and four levels of shelves. It is solid and heavy, so heavy that moving it required a call to a neighbor (thanks, Chris!) and furniture dollies. But here it is, in my home, $95 worth of wrought iron just waiting for breads, and pies and cakes and cookies and all manner of goodies to come out of my kitchen!

Baker's rack. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 Except, here's the thing - I'm using it in a different way. As a combination hall tree and family organizational area, so that I can reclaim my dining room table. I don't have a mudroom, so all backpacks and purses get placed in chairs around the table. Coats get slung on the backs of chairs. When people come over, I have to clear the table just so we can sit at it. And forget about weeknight meals at the table - the kitchen island is cleaned off and we eat there, after we pile the kitchen counter stuff on the dining room table.

The baker's rack is my new backpack holder. Each girl gets a side and I get the middle. Shoes are placed on the bottom rack, which eliminates the problem on the other side of the front door: shoes. We are a barefoot family nine months of the year, and the row of shoes by the front door gets longer every day. This is a good day, after I imposed a 2-pair per person limit:

Shoes by the door. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
I think the baker's rack will adapt and change as we use it through the years. Now, when the girls are young, it's a convenient stop just inside the door where they can park their bags. It's handy to put their lunchboxes on in the morning, to grab on the way out the door. I can place packages and items that I need to take with me when I leave the house - library books, coupons, etc. We had 23 people over last Saturday night and it was the perfect landing spot for purses and diaper bags.

Baker's Rack. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I'm going to figure out a way to attach things to the rack. Coats and sweaters will definitely be on it in the winter months (there will be a per person limit on that, too). It's a convenient display for artwork. I need baskets for their saved schoolwork. If we could work in a charging station, it would be the power center of the house.

Maybe someday it will be used for boules and batards, tarts and profiteroles, but for now it's keeping my dining room table clear, and my view from the kitchen very pleasant.

Dining room table. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Tell me, what do you think of the baker's rack? Any ideas for how to use it and to be more organized?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Halloween Cakes Past

Glass pumpkins from Atlanta Botanical Garden. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I've made a few Halloween cakes in years past, mostly for Fall Festival cakewalks and class parties, and I managed to find a few pictures of some of my favorites. These are a few years old and the quality isn't great, but they do give a good idea of how I made the cakes.

The one I wish I had a picture of, but didn't think to do that (pre-blogging days) was a chocolate Bundt cake with chocolate glaze topped with a chocolate spiderweb. It was elegant and spooky and had a come-hither chocolate-y-ness about it. I may need to remake that one and take a picture of it. The cake was baked using my go-to chocolate pound cake recipe.

Now here's a cake, or cakes that I'm pretty sure I will never make again. Three recipes of pound cake baked in all sizes of Bundt pans, cemented together with buttercream and decorated with orange buttercream and green fondant. It was a family project and it was incredible - the largest of these cakes was unbelievably heavy.

Pumpkin pound cake. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Pumpkin cakes. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
And finally, the ever-popular graveyard cake made with Pepperidge Farm Milano "tombstones" and Peeps ghosts. Here's my very homemade-looking cake:

Graveyard cake. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I was reminded of this very homemade cake recently when I received this picture from the fne folks at Driscoll's berries - a fruit-enhanced graveyard cake. The ghosts are strawberries dipped in white chocolate, how clever is that? To learn how to make this ghoulishly good cake, check out this story.

Graveyard cake. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Junkin' at Scott Antiques Market

I love old stuff. Nothing wrong with new stuff, but if given the choice, I'd rather have dishes with a story behind them than plates without a past. Once a month, the Scott Antique Market vendors set up their booths south of Atlanta. They bill themselves as the World's Largest Indoor Antique Shows.There's old stuff and new stuff there, and an outside as well as inside. Here's a few pictures from our afternoon at Scott's.

China. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I look at china and household tchotchkes, the husband looks for rusty stuff.

Rusty stuff. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Frigidaire sign. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Skull. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Drawers. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Face. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

More rusty stuff. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Bottles and crocks. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Lamps. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Faces. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Lockers. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Peacock. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Penguins. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Red mailbox. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Jumble of silverware. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Snowmen. Lucy Mercer/ A Cook and Her Books

Tractor seat chairs. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Whimsical Christmas tree. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I came very close to buying the whimsical Christmas tree with a penguin to accompany. Maybe the vendor will be back next month.

Do you like to go antiquing or junking? What's your favorite antique fair or market?

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.