Tasting a mozzarella so fresh, we got to shake the hand of the chef who made it.
Sampling a spoonful of caviar straight from the belly of a sturgeon.
Eating Shake Shack cheeseburgers and drinking sparkling wine with jubilant Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen and her crew of giddy supporters a few hours after she won her James Beard award as best chef in the Southeast.
Sampling hot Brunswick stew from a dish balanced on the hood of a car while we talked to a father and son whose experience with the Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church Barbecue in Charlotte, held every year since 1927, goes back generations.
Sometimes this is what it’s like to be a food writer in North Carolina. Great food experiences practically dangle from the trees, a movable feast that encompasses a whole state.
Before we end 2014, we combed through the recipes we’ve run to pick a few of our favorites.
They’re ones that taught us something new or that made us look at cooking in a new way, like Crook’s Corner chef Bill Smith’s take on Atlantic Beach Pie in a crispy, crumbly cracker crust.
They fit into our lives on a daily basis, like the super-simple Morning Chicken that makes a weeknight meal so much easier.
They’re the dishes we are craving right now as the temperatures turn colder, like Chicken Stew and Wild Mushroom Ragout with Marscapone Polenta.
To us, the most successful recipes aren’t the ones that are the most impressive or the hardest to do. They’re the ones that are irresistible, that fit into our lives on a daily basis, the ones we want to make long after the story has been written. Kathleen Purvis, Andrea Weigl
From “Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-And-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen,” by Kathy Brennan and Carolina Campion (Rodale, 2013). We ran this back in February, but it earned a regular spot in the rotation. The only trick is remembering to toss the chicken pieces and the marinade in a bag in the morning before you leave for work.
1 tablespoon Dijon or whole-grain mustard
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 cloves garlic, smashed
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken, cut in 8 pieces, or 3 1/2 pound chicken parts
Salt and pepper
PLACE a resealable plastic bag in a bowl to hold it steady. Add the mustard, paprika, garlic, thyme, lemon zest and juice and olive oil. Add the chicken pieces and close the bag, squeezing out air. Squish the bag around to coat the chicken pieces with the marinade. Refrigerate 8 to 12 hours. (Turn the bag once or twice if you're around to do it.)
COVER a baking sheet with aluminum foil for easier cleanup. Heat oven to 450 degrees with rack in the center position. Remove the chicken pieces from the bag, letting any excess marinade drip off, and place skin-side down on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 minutes. Turn pieces and continue to roast until golden-brown and juices run clear, about 10 minutes. (Chicken wings will cook faster, in about 20 minutes total.)
Yield: 4 servings.
Atlantic Beach Pie
Crook’s Corner chef Bill Smith’s take on a favorite pie that used to be common along the coast has gotten attention all over the food world, from Our State magazine to New York’s Food 52. When we ran it in August, as part of Kathleen Purvis’ column, it generated both raves and rants from readers. Some loved the combination of salt and sweet, while others complained that he had changed an old favorite.
1 1/2 sleeves saltine crackers
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup softened, unsalted butter
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup fresh lemon or lime juice, or a combination
Fresh whipped cream and coarse sea salt
PREHEAT oven to 350 degrees. Crush the crackers finely, but not to dust, using a food processor or your hands. Add the sugar, then knead in the butter until the crumbs hold together like dough. Press firmly into an 8-inch pie pan.
CHILL for 15 minutes, then bake for 18 minutes, or until the crust is beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and cool while you make the filling. (It doesn't need to be completely cool or cold.)
PLACE the sweetened, condensed milk in a mixer and beat in the egg yolks, then the lemon juice. Beat well, until completely combined. Pour into the saltine crust and return to the oven. Bake for 16 minutes, until the filling is set. Remove from oven and cool, then refrigerate until completely chilled.
WHIP cream and spread over the pie. (If you're going to keep the pie around for a couple of days, wait until serving to top it, or keep the whipped cream separately and use it as a garnish.) Sprinkle with a little sea salt.
Yield: 1 pie.
Joy’s Chicken Stew
Adapted from Joy Hemmings in Siloam, N.C.
1 (3- to 4-pound) rotisserie chicken
1 can cream of chicken soup, strained
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up Seasonings, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon McCormick Hot Shot! Black and Red Pepper Blend, or more to taste
1 (15-ounce) can chicken broth
1 pint half-and-half
1 cup milk, or more as needed
Saltine crackers (optional)
REMOVE chicken meat from the bones of the rotisserie chicken. Set meat aside.
MELT butter in a 5-quart Dutch oven or large stock pot over medium heat. Add chicken meat, strained cream of chicken soup (you want to strain out the soup’s chicken meat) and butter. Stir together. Add Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up Seasonings and McCormick Hot Shot!. Add chicken broth, half-and-half and milk. Stir and taste; add more seasonings if necessary.
HEAT stew until it is really hot but do not boil. Serve with saltine crackers to crumble on top of the soup.
Yield: 8 servings.
Wild Mushroom Ragout With Mascarpone Polenta
From Chef-owner Drew Moore of Venable Rotisserie Bistro in Carrboro.
6 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups yellow cornmeal or polenta
4 ounces mascarpone cheese
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon canola oil
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, and sliced
3 minced garlic cloves
1 minced shallot
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup chicken stock
Grated Parmesan cheese, to taste
BRING water and salt to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Whisk in cornmeal and then lower heat to a simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until cornmeal is plump. Remove from heat and whisk in mascarpone cheese. Cover and let sit until ready to serve.
MELT 2 tablespoons butter and canola oil in a large sauté pan over high heat. Add mushrooms and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring constantly for about 10 minutes or until mushrooms are brown and crispy. Remove from heat and let pan cool for 30 seconds. Add garlic, shallot and thyme, allowing the aromas to bloom for 15 to 20 seconds.
PLACE pan back on medium-high heat and add wine and stock. Simmer until two-thirds of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in 1 tablespoon butter to create a slightly creamy sauce.
LADLE polenta onto a plate, top with mushrooms and add grated Parmesan cheese to taste.
Yield: 4-6 servings.