Saturday, October 24, 2009

NC State Fair 2009

This is the last weekend of this year's North Carolina State Fair. I just have to say that I love fairs. There's something about the atmosphere of fun, overeating and slight nausea that appeals to me. The theme this year is "A Whole Lotta Happy," which pretty much summarizes the constant euphoria I feel as I wander my way around the fairgrounds.

Award-Winning Pumpkins

Award-Winning Watermelons

Award-Winning Squash

The State Fair always has a unique combination of disparate elements: fried foods & BBQ, slightly rigged games, rides with an okay safety rating, and a celebration of agriculture (pictured above). Every year, farmers compete to have the largest produce imaginable. The first picture shows pumpkins ranging from 221 pounds to the blue-ribbon-winning 376 pounds. If those pumpkins were made into jack-o-lanterns, I'd be afraid that they'd eat little trick-or-treaters. In the watermelon picture, the melon on the right in the foreground was about normal size, if not a little large, and the one of the left was just monstrous. The Japanese may be making square and heart-shaped melons, but we're making them the size of Godzilla. These giant sizes also extend to other squash. It is difficult to have some perspective from these pictures, but the butternuts in the back are the size of a large baby. Also at the fair were prize-winning sweet potatoes, snow peas, and apples, as well as Oreo cows, mules, mini-donkeys, cows for milking, sheep, a sow with her piglets, ducklings, and chicks. For city folk like me and my friends, this was a nice foray into the agricultural world so we can see not only where food comes from, but also the amazing power of selective breeding and genetics.

Fried Foods 1

Fried Foods 2

As they said in Charlotte's Web the movie, "a fair is a veritable smorgasbord." And whenever I go I do glut like Templeton the rat. If push comes to shove, the fair can be described in two words: fried food. I wish I new how to combine two photos into one, but for now the above pictures show what one stand was selling in terms of the deep-frieds. One problem about going to the fair is you cannot eat everything you want, otherwise your stomach might burst. One tip is to bring friends with you with whom you can "share" or "pawn off" your food.

Turkey Leg & Corn Dog

For starters, we had to get some protein in us. One of my staples at any fair is the foot-long corn dog. There's something beautiful about a hot dog on a stick surrounded by cornbread and dipped into ketchup and mustard. The smoked turkey legs, if you can handle them, are also a must at least once in your life. They exude a delicious smokey flavor that you almost don't mind shoving your face into a huge piece of meat. But don't fill up on any one food as there is an entire world of flavors yet to be sampled.

Sweet Potato Fries

Sweet potato fries are absolutely wonderful no matter where you get them. Other fried sides that have become staples are French fries, funnel cakes with any number of toppings (from cinnamon apples to maple syrup to chocolate), and elephant ears. Many stands just say they have "fried dough," and nothing could be simpler or sweeter than the warmth of sugary dough with some powdered sugar slowly melting on it.

Fried Candy

Fried candy is one of my favorite items at the fair. Every year they unveil a new, wonderful fried food. This year's newest feature is fried Ho-Hos (pictured above bottom). They were pretty good, if not a little difficult to eat, but my favorite fried snack cake will always be the Twinkie with it's plume of warm vanilla flavor. Also pictured above are fried Oreos, which become softer after being fried and nearly melt in your mouth. Lastly is fried PB&J, which is, in reality, a fried Uncrustable, but that does not mean it was not one of the greatest things since fried sliced bread. Then again, I am a sucker for peanut butter. They also had fried cheeseburgers and fried pecan pie, both of which sounded good but a little too much for us to handle at that point in the day.

Apple Fritters

Keep your eyes open at the fair because there is food and fun to be had that most people don't see. On our way through the fair, we came across a stand selling apple fritters in an ice cream cone. Intrigued we bought some and they were marvelous. They were fried apple strips that tasted of apple pie in one bite.

Chocolate-Covered Banana

Chocolate-Covered Cheesecake

Pig Lickers

Chocolate also has it's time in the limelight at the fair. Chocolate-covered bananas are a little difficult to eat because they are frozen first, but it was pretty good. I think they can't let the bananas get too ripe for fear of falling apart, but it still tasted good. Cheesecake also works wonderfully when dipped in chocolate and shoved on a stick. It helps that the cheesecake was from Cheesecake Factory, but the chocolate added another layer of sumptuousness. One note is that not everything at the fair is good. One over-popularized item was pig lickers (chocolate-dipped bacon). I think this suffered from a lack of trying: pre-cooked bland bacon covered in a lackluster chocolate sauce. The two flavors never actually melded. I may have to try this one at home just to show that it can be done.

4H Cakes

Blue Ribbon Cake

Lastly, the local 4H clubs have competitions in many categories including sewing, canning and baking. Pictured above are some of the awesome cakes that were showcased, including the winning box-of-chocolates cake. I wish I had known about this when I was a teenager.

The state fair was, simply put, awesome. Word to the wise, do all the rides you want before you chow down on fried foods and play games before you leave so you don't have to carry a giant moon/banana around the park (what can I say? I'm just good at the water shooting games). If you've never been to a state fair, you've not enjoyed America at its best with deep-fried, capitalist, fast-paced fun.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rest in Peace Gourmet Magazine

Last week it was announced that Gourmet Magazine was shutting down as of the November issue. I just found out this morning while listening to a podcast of the Splendid Table. As you may have noticed, I used Gourmet's recipes on a regular basis. Their associated magazine, Bon Appetit, is still in business. In fact, all active subscriptions to Gourmet will be shunted to Bon Appetit. The overarching website,, will still carry all of Gourmet's recipes.

The only reason I've read for Gourmet's sudden shutdown is a precipitous decline in advertising revenue. It seems all print media from newspapers to magazines is suffering, especially in this slow economy. What is not clear is what will fill the vacuum left by Gourmet (nature abhors a vacuum, after all). No new technology is poised to replace food magazines quite yet, but some are getting closer.

The most obvious replacement would be to make the magazine electronic. E-readers such as the Kindle will at some point come in color, which would allow magazines to exist even if they're made of ones and zeroes instead of paper. But changing media from print to electronic may not get at the heart of this cultural shift. Food writing in some regards is outsourcing to lay people. While I do have 3 food magazine subscriptions, I also read about 10 food blogs on a regular basis. Many foodie sites also compile posts from these blogs to summarize the current state of the food blogosphere. My new favorite is

Food blogs are great, but they still do not yet replace food magazines. Magazines can compile sets of recipes around a singular theme, holiday or culture. Most of us bloggers do not have time to devote every entry to exploring the cultural ties of a particular ingredient. Perhaps today's food magazine writers will switch their focus on blogging, but the key would be to come at blogging with the same fervor, not as a supplement to or promo for magazines. I still love when I get a new magazine and can flip through the hi-res photos of well-crafted foods. The writers get to travel all over the world to draw our attention to international traditions and trends. But as blogging grows in worldwide popularity and scope, we may yet regain what we have recently lost. But until that happens, the food world is a little more empty for its loss. Hopefully, all those who worked for Gourmet will be able to use their talents elsewhere to keep the food-obsessed informed of today's culinary and innovations and trends. Tonight, let's all serve a 21 bun salute to our fallen ally.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cuban Revolution

The American Tobacco District is what I consider to be one of two hotspots in downtown Durham (the other being Brightleaf Square). If you want to make an evening out of an outing to the performing arts center or the ballpark, American Tobacco is the place to go. One new restaurant there, Cuban Revolution, was our destination on a cool Friday evening.

The restaurant itself is quite dark on the inside. The dining room was bustling with activity, most of which was clearing out to go see Kathy Griffin at the DPAC. We were seated right away. To start, we ordered a mango milkshake and an egg cream. While the mango milkshake did not have much flavor at all, the egg cream was fizzy, creamy and delicious.

JFK Sandwich

One of our entrees was the JFK, a steak sandwich on Cuban bread. The sandwich was slathered with mayonnaise. We're still unsure if this was because they just like mayo or if they were trying to make up for a sub-par sandwich. On the side were some black beans and rice which tasted pretty good, but the texture was off. Beans normally have a grainy texture both inside and in the surrounding sauce. But these beans were disconcertingly smooth. The rice had the same issue, making me think that the whole lot was over-buttered.

Ropa Vieja

I ate the ropa vieja, which had good flavor coming from the tomatoes and peppers in the sauce. I was not accustomed to having so much broth with my ropa vieja, but it tasted fine. I would have eaten the broth, but our waitress pretty much disappeared after we got our food, so I was never able to get a spoon before I lost interest. On the side were some platanos maduros, which were firm and sweet, as well as some tostones seasoned with adobo, which were pretty good.

It is very difficult for me to give Cuban Revolution a lot of credit because it seems to be nothing spectacular, especially for the price. I grew up in a suburb of Tampa, which has an extensive Cuban community. I'm accustomed to receiving tremendous quantities of delicious ropa vieja with lots of yellow rice and maduros on the side for a reasonable price. As one of few Cuban outlets in Durham, Cuban Revolution may be the best we have, but that still does not make it a great restaurant. If you're in the American Tobacco District, I would recommend going to Tyler's Taproom or the Mellow Mushroom. As for Durham's Cuban scene, it seems we will need to stand up and demand better quality Cuban fair: viva la comida!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Moon Cakes

Moon Cakes

I'm a little late on posting this, but I did want to comment on the delicious confections available this time of year: moon cakes. To celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival (aka the Moon Festival), various Asian cultures serve up moon cakes. Us Americans have what could be construed as an obsession with sweets. We are the land of Coca Cola, Hershey's and Cinnabon. But, truth be told, we may have inherited our sweet tooth from some of our European ancestry (Belgian chocolate, French pastries, Italian gelato, etc.). My impression of many Asian cultures is that sweets are not a high priority. I've heard that fruit often serves as the final course of a meal. That's what this time of the year all the more interesting because of the abundance of moon cakes. These cakes come in a few varieties. This year I tried lotus seed paste and red bean paste, the latter of which is seen below. In years past I've also had sweetened mung bean. All have an earthy flavor, with a coarse pasty texture. The outer shell is tender but sturdy, thicker than most pastries or cakes. The cake itself is often shaped in various ways, including these small buns stamped with various characters, larger buns, small squares, and in the shape of a pig.

Moon Cake Filling

If you can find any moon cakes around, definitely get some before they're gone. For those in the Triangle area, I found these at the Grand Asia Market in Cary. They'll give you a perspective on how another part of the world celebrates with calories.

Jade Palace

Jade Palace

In Carrboro is a nice little Chinese restaurant called Jade Palace. It looks like your everyday, average Chinese eatery, which is why my expectations weren't too high. But it seems this place has more to offer than you would expect.

Sesame Tofu

My favorite dish was the sesame tofu. Most dishes with a sesame sauce are fried and served with a sugary syrup with some sesame seeds on top. This tofu was pan fried until it was crisp outside but still soft inside. And the sauce was focused on balancing salty and sweet tones with the sesame seeds. The net result was utterly awesome.

Honey Chicken

The dish I ordered was the honey chicken, which was more similar to normal Asian-American fare. The chicken was fried and served in what turned out to be a honey mustard sauce. While tasty, this dish did remind me a bit of fast food fried chicken. Next time I'll definitely stick with the sesame tofu since it was so different and unexpected. But our overall experience at Jade Palace was good: tasty food, quick and friendly service, and good (if not a little kitschy) atmosphere.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Linguine with Broccolini & Walnuts

I love simple dinners that surprise you. You can't get any more bang for your buck and taste for your time than by maximizing flavor while minimizing time cost to you. Okay, enough engineer-speak, let's get on to the food.

Linguine with Broccolini & Walnuts

Pasta should be required by law to be in everyone's pantry. Granted, I'm sure the legislature would have to debate the definition of "pantry" for a few weeks to pass the law, but it would be good for everyone. While nothing beats fresh pasta, dried is an alternative that has pretty much supplanted the original in the American culinary lexicon. Just think of it as more cost- and time-effective. I usually have at least two kinds of dried pasta hanging around at any given time. Today I chose the linguine for no other reason than I had half a pound sitting around. In the last couple minutes of cooking, I added some broccolini cut into two inch pieces to blanch it. While the pasta and broccolini were draining, I toasted some walnuts in olive oil and garlic, then tossed the pasta and broccolini in with this, and seasoned it with salt, pepper, and Parmesan cheese. Something that I always forget to do which makes a huge difference with something like this dish is to reserve some of the pasta water before draining it. My linguine came out good with all of the simple, straightforward flavors and textures, but the pasta was a little dry. The reserved pasta water can help to keep it all moist. Now I just have to remember to stop myself before losing all of the pasta water's beautiful starchiness down the drain. But other than that, pasta with a few simple ingredients is a great way to go, especially during the work week. So leave the canned tomato sauce in the cupboard and revitalize pasta with your favorite ingredient, be it vegetable, meat, cheese, nut, fruit, herb, or spice.

Apple Cider Cake

My cakespertise (cake-expertise) was requested recently. Our task - a fall-themed cake. Just off the heels of my previous cake, the five-spice fall cake, I had to do some brainstorming. I draw my inspiration from a couple different sources. For the previous cake, I had some particular flavors that I wanted to include, so I tried to base the design of the cake off of that. The other way I create my culinary concoctions is to use another dish for inspiration. So for this cake, I enlisted the help of another fall favorite, apple cider.

Apple Cider Cake

I found what seemed like a good cake recipe at This website compiles the recipes that different people have for the same item. The one I chose seemed the most straightforward, though I did substitute butter for the shortening as the latter makes me feel a little disgusting when I cook. The cake came out fine, perhaps a little dry, but the apple cider flavor was there. It was muted through all the other ingredients, but it was definitely there.

Now to really personalize this treat. For a filling, I decided on diced cinnamon apples. I peeled and cubed 5 gala apples and placed them in a saucepan with 4T butter, apple pie spice, and an unknown amount of sugar (I just dumped some in, it was probably somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 cup). I let this cook in the saucepan until the apples were tender and the sugar and butter had formed a thick sauce. These apples would be good as a side dish, dessert or topping for most meals as well. They're the homemade version of the little well of apples that comes with many frozen dinners and, quite frankly, I like mine better because they are not super heavy on the sauce.

For the frosting, we settled on cinnamon buttercream. I made my standard buttercream and included a decent amount of ground cinnamon and cinnamon extract to produce a pretty pungent cinnamon topping. After coloring the frosting orange and brown, we assembled the cake and piped on some simple fall leaf outlines to finish it off. Despite the slight dryness of the cake, the apples and frosting made the cake quite awesome. A glass of the remaining apple cider on the side made for a great late-night snack.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Butternut Squash Soup

One of the last remnants of my CSA deliveries were two small butternut squash. Squash are a class of vegetables that I usually have to cook very particularly. Like melons, I'm still getting accustomed the the flavors of many squash. One classically simple way to enjoy some butternut squash is with a soup.

Butternut Squash Soup

I used a recipe from Gourmet magazine as a base, but made my own alterations depending on what I had available. Instead of cooking some bacon for a source of fat, I used some vegetable oil. I also replaced sweet potato for the carrot and added some goat cheese in at the end for garnish and to increase the creaminess. My favorite part of making this recipe (other than tasting it) was to blend the soup after it was done cooking. Previously, I would have transferred small batches of soup to my blender, taking the chance that the hot soup would try to explode out of the appliance. Now, I have an immersion blender (aka motor boat). I simply placed the hand-held blender into the soup and blend away. No fuss, no muss. The blender makes an amazingly smooth soup in just a few seconds. One taster thought it had cream in it when it is just chicken broth and blended vegetables. All in all, the slightly sweet tones of the soup with some salt from the goat cheese made for a wonderful meal to warm me up while the weather is getting colder.

Lamb with Greek Salad

Some people in my life have been going low-carb recently. During my last year of high school, I was on the Atkins diet, so I know a little bit about cutting down on the carbohydrates. One problem I had with the diet was learning to eat reasonably. If all you’re counting is carbs, you don’t have to worry about eating as much bacon as you want. That’s a huge problem for the inevitable point when you go off the diet and you don’t know how to judge what’s a reasonable meal. For those who want to cut down on carbohydrates, from refined sugars to pre-made pastas to overly starchy vegetables, here’s the simple formula: meat + lots of veggies + good seasonings. The main goal is to use the vegetables in a way that you don’t miss the rice or potatoes. Make the dish feel whole so you don’t realize what you’re omitting from the diet. The same principle applies to low-fat, low-cal and most other diets where you are purposefully removing something from the diet.

Lamb with Greek Salad

For dinner this week I went Greek. Lamb is a tasty meat that is underused by most families. It has it’s own characteristics that set it apart from the “blank slate” meats that need a lot of coaxing to imbue with flavor. The meat itself was flavored simply with some salt and pepper, then cooked in olive oil until it was a healthy pink on the inside. Spinach was sauteed in the juices afterwards until it was wilted. The last component was the Greek salad made from sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, feta, and a little bit of Italian dressing to help meld the flavors and textures together. To plate it, I decided to build upwards so that my focus was on the main stack and not on a lack of carbs. Salad, topped with spinach, topped with sliced lamb. Everything tasted good and I felt filled in stomach and fulfilled in mind, all because I did not focus on what I was missing and let the dish languish. Instead, I made sure to utilize the ingredients I still have available to their fullest.


Even though they say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, graduate school has taught me that statement is not entirely true. My classmates and I often do our best to maximize the amount of free food we eat in a week. As low men and women on the totem pole at this point in our careers, we’re not exactly raking in the bucks at the moment. So we’re more willing to sit through a seminar for some coffee and snacks, listen to a vendor for an ice cream bar (especially Locopops) or entertain a post-doc candidate for lunch.

Rascal’s Razzmatazz Burger

We went to Nosh last week for lunch, all on the bosses dime since we were socializing with someone who potentially wanted to do a post-doc with our lab for a couple years. Nosh is a big favorite among people at school, chiefly for their lunch catering. They make nice platters of wraps and sandwiches with good pasta salad and saccharinely sweet tea. This is the first time I’ve made it to the mother-ship, though. I ordered the Rascal’s Razzmatazz burger, which has a slice of havarti and sauteed bell peppers, and a side of so-so cole slaw. The burger was pretty big in size and I probably could have turned it into two meals instead of wolfing it all down. They put some great flavors together with the cheese and the peppers that were soft but still a little crunchy. Like many burgers, this one suffered from slippage problems where the juices of the burger and the other ingredients make everything want to slide right off the bun. One day someone will invent a solution, but until then we must accept that burgers are messy. But this one was good enough that I did not mind getting my fingers a little dirty to eat up the last little bits.

Five-Spice Fall Cake

Two people in my lab had birthdays last week, so we had a joint celebration for them. I volunteered to make the cake (as if I’d pass up the opportunity). With autumn finally arriving, bringing with it cooler weather and various gourds in the grocery stores, I’m in the mood to take advantage of fall flavors. Some of my favorite spices are the warm, hearty spices that come with this season: clove, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, etc. Here’s how I combined all of these into a cake.

Five-Spice Fall Cake

As far as flavors are concerned, I decided to do a two layer cake with each layer having a distinct flavor. I baked up a pumpkin cake and a gingerbread cake. I had a bit of a time crunch while making the buttercream frosting, so I left the flavor as plain vanilla. I did want to color the frosting red since this cake was for a Chinese person and a Taiwanese person, but a pure, bright (Communist) red is extremely difficult to achieve. Mine ended up pink by the time I ran out of red coloring gel, so I started using tones of burgundy, pink and black. The end result was something that was a bit purple-maroon. Thus, I had to change my plans a bit. I decided to go more simple in my design, so with some borders piped in blue, I added happy birthday wishes in both English and Chinese. I found the Chinese version on a couple different websites, and I just did the best I could to replicate the characters.

Gingerbread Cupcakes

There was enough of the gingerbread batter left over to make some cupcakes. Normally, I eat the cupcakes myself, but I thought I’d bring them in for the birthdays too. I had originally planned on cutting out a circle of white chocolate for a mock-up of the Taiwanese flag, but since I could not get a good red buttercream, I used the white chocolate to fill the cupcakes. For frosting, I made a chocolate buttercream to which I added five-spice powder. The anise and spice tones of five-spice powder are a welcome addition to my fall repertoire and they paired nicely with the gingerbread. On top of the cupcakes, I piped messages of “36” and “ox” since those are the birthday boys’ ages and star signs, respectively.

Cake Aftermath

As you can see above, the cake and cupcakes were a hit. The cakes stayed very moist, especially the pumpkin. I think adding vegetables or applesauce to cakes does a fantastic job of keeping them moist. The only issue you face in assembling a cake is that the layers will fall apart because they have so much delicious moisture. That is one of the paradoxes of cake baking - too moist and you cannot make it look fancy, too dry and most people will find it too hard to swallow. And the great news about these cakes is that all of my Chinese writing was legible and understandable. My worst fear would be to misplace a line and all of a sudden I accidentally insulted someone’s mother. But that did not happen and everyone seemed very happy to celebrate the start of fall with a big ol’ slice of this well-balanced and surprising cake.