We’re completely overhauling the Fig Test Kitchen to bring you cooking lessons, healthy eating advice, restaurant reviews and a much prettier experience for you, if we do say so ourselves. Check back soon for updates, and posts from our recent food tour!
On days as hot as this one (95°, feels like 100°, humid, no wind) I have a really strange clearly masochistic instinct to crave barbecue. I know it’s because I associate it with the South, and seriously I have no idea how such a heavy food was invented in the kind of climate where you can’t even walk outside in the summer, but all I can say is it’s still a good thing we don’t have good barbecue in CT because otherwise I would eat it all. But while I’m reminiscing, I figured it’s about time I put up another restaurant review for your salivating pleasure. Also, while I have your attention, I’d like you to know that the new figcookingschool.com has finally arrived! Please go check it out and let us know what you think (extra credit for high praise).
Allen and Sons, in Chapel Hill, NC fits firmly in the category of “awesome road food.” While the menu is certainly not limited (they do have fried chicken and a few other southern classics), barbecue is clearly the center of attention. They only have one kind – the smoky, tender, chopped pork native to North Carolina, referred to simply as “barbecue.”
Because this pork is chopped, not pulled, it melts blissfully on your tongue, and while their vinegar-based East Carolina sauce is not as flavorful as the sauce at Halligan, it does perfectly accentuate the smokiness of the meat.
Alongside their ‘cue (see, I’m a native now) they serve a faintly lemony, delightfully tea-full sweet tea, perfectly crisp okra that actually tastes like okra, and the best hushpuppies we had – sweet, with a clear corn flavor. But while everything we had was great, their dessert can only be called a revelation. I rarely find a restaurant where I think dessert is better than the food (which is a shame because I love dessert more than anything) but this place, like many in the south, was a distinct exception.
The peach cobbler had a thin syrup on perfectly sweet, juicy, fresh peaches…
the coconut pie was perfectly southern, and not too sweet…
and their chocolate pie, made with real chocolate and topped with perfectly spiced pecans, was thoroughly humbling (and you know how we get about our chocolate pie).
Nobody there had the recipe, so I’d have to drive all the way back just to get another piece, but I swear it would be worth every mile.
Allen & Son Barbecue is located at 6203 Millhouse Road Chapel Hill, NC 27516. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll go as soon as you can.
Once upon a time, by which I mean last week, we took a journey to the south land to visit my cousin Jessie and celebrate her recent graduation from Appalachian State University (yay Jessie!). Of course, never ones to avoid turning anything at all into a national eating holiday, we decided to take the opportunity to find the best food in North Carolina, or any other state we might be passing through at mealtimes. During our brief road trip, we hit up chicken and biscuits, maryland crabcakes, old fashioned milkshakes, coconut cake, peach cobbler, chocolate pie, and NC barbecue 5 times in 4 days. And you know what that means! Turn up the bluegrass and pour yourself a tall glass of sweet tea… it’s road food time!
Our journey begins in Richmond, VA. Looking for nothing more than a pretty-decent place to eat that was pretty-decently close to I-95 and also not McDonalds, we stumbled upon Halligan Bar and Grill, an unsuspecting restaurant which hides away what is, in our opinion, the best barbecue in the entire south – better than anything we had even in North Carolina. An homage to all things firefighter, Halligan has a bar made out of half a firetruck (sliced the long way, obviously) and badges, license plates and inspirational posters decorating every inch of wall space. But the decor is only commentary to food that can only be described as indescribable.
Smoky pulled pork and chicken fall apart with every motion of your fork, and their sweet, vinegary sauce warms your throat as only proper southern cooking can do. Sandwiches are served on buttery buns, and coleslaw (the natural accompaniment) is peppery and fresh. On the side, homemade baked beans are thick and smoky and hushpuppies are soft and crisp. Moist, tender, herb-studded cornbread is served with sweet and savory chipotle-honey butter (with visible, hand-chopped chipotle peppers, of course) and is perfect for mopping up absolutely everything. A perfect welcome to the south, everything we had at Halligan Bar and Grill was beyond worth both the calories and the trip.
We’re writing up more good, strong and messy American cooking in every free moment of the next few days so we cordially invite you to get fat with us over the next few posts. Stay tuned ;)
After watching HBO’s Weight of the Nation (which you have to see if you haven’t yet) our entire family has decided to go on a health kick. Mom has made a brave (and miraculously successful!) first attempt at cooking kale (see post Friday or so), Francesca has taken up Irish step dancing, Isabella has been dragging me on these miserable runs, and dad has agreed to keep on eating whatever we put in front of him.
But as luck would have it, a week into this health kick, mom was scheduled to teach her famous fried chicken class, with lime creamed corn, buttermilk mashed potatoes with crispy (deep fried) shallots and Jack Daniel’s fudge pie. The foodpocalypse was essentially zooming towards us, with nothing we could do to stop it. The only way for us children to keep ourselves in check was to eat a light dinner, and hopefully only be hungry for a drumstick or so when we got home. So as class time approached, the girls and I ventured out for an evening of Panera (which has healthy options), Froyo (which is not healthy, but is healthier than some things) and nerdy cavorting at Barnes and Noble.
It was a lovely time, and we actually ended up learning a lot of lessons over the course over the evening. We learned copious amounts about whales, Irish history, graphic design, and not letting the pigeon drive the bus, and we learned how to fail at moderating ourselves at Froyo World (The toppings are just right there for you to take! These people are marketing geniuses!)
But of all the lessons we learned, the best was certainly how much you can benefit from being an indecisive nut. We spent such a long time trying to figure out which option at Panera would maximize health and yumminess, that I felt a bother correcting the lady when she thought I said I wanted tuna on honey-wheat instead of whole grain and had already put in my order. By some miraculous stroke of luck, honey-wheat bread turned out to be so soft, gently sweet and perfect that it has since become my default bread of choice. And since mom’s last post was about butter, what could I do but write a fresh baked bread post to match.
This is the first time I’ve made bread on the blog, so this is going to be a tutorial, not just a recipe. Even if you’re an experienced bread maker, there are a lot of steps that a lot of us just dutifully do, which we ought to try and understand. To begin we have a starter, which is some permutation of water, flour and yeast, as you see above. It actually has little to do with making the bread rise, but instead is mostly about making sure the bread actually tastes like something. The starter we’re making here is called a sponge, and is made with equal parts flour and water, along with a little bit of instant yeast. As it sits at room temperature for about an hour (or up to 4) the yeast ferments and takes your bread from bland to boss.
First, we add instant yeast to the water, and immediately whisk it in to prevent clumping. Following Rose Levy Beranbaum (the queen of Bread) I advise you to almost always use instant yeast, which is more convenient for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it can be activated in room temperature water, not just the 90-100° required by active dry (although that temperature will work too – it’s very flexible – just don’t use super hot or super cold). It is also called rapid rise, leading to the misconception that it causes your bread to rise faster, which it doesn’t. But it is very easy to use, and serves our purposes in almost every case.
We then whisk in the flour, until we get this nice pasty thing. Rose Levy Beranbaum says that she likes her sponge starters to be more liquidy because the yeast makes more bubbles, resulting in a lighter, more even bread. So that’s what we made. To let the bubbles and flavor develop, we let it sit at room temperature for an hour. We could have gone longer, but I’m impatient. Go until your starter looks at least kind of like this:
See all the bubbles? That means it’s alive! If that doesn’t happen, start over/buy new yeast. Cover it tightly while it’s fermenting. It prevents the dough from drying out, and also you get to see the plastic wrap dome up as the yeast releases carbon dioxide. Also note that some the gas will bubble up and pop on the surface. Which means it’s working and is also fun to see. Meanwhile get everything else together. First off, we have crisco…
…which is usually really bad for you – worse even than butter, which we usually advocate above all else. But in baking, butter can make things harder and drier, which only good when when we want a nice crisp cookie. In this case, when what we were looking for was a moist, soft bread above all else, shortening was the only option. Adding a little bit of fat to the bread tenderizes it, making it soft and addictive, just like you want. And since we’re using it in low quantities, this bread is still healthy and low-cal.
Next we have honey. Sometimes sweet things (sugar, honey, etc.) are added so that the yeast has something to eat and makes more bubbles, but here it’s really just a flavor thing. Before you add all the other ingredients, whisk the honey in with the water so that it’s less sticky, and distributes nicely.
Finally we have the flour, which gets whisked with the salt. This means the salt doesn’t get added all at once, minimizing its contact with the yeast (otherwise a lot of the yeast will die, which would suck).
We are ready to mix! Whisk the yeast into the honey-water, then add the shortening, flour-salt mixture and your starter. You can begin kneading it by hand, but please consult The Bread Bible for instructions on how to do that. I’ve found that my best results by far come from using a KitchenAid. Using a dough hook, mix the dough on setting #2 for about 1 to 1.5 minutes, until it looks like this:
Then we let it rest, covered, for 20 minutes. This lets the flour absorb the water better, and means our mixing time will shorten. Meaning, among other things, we won’t get impatient and make the bread mix on too high a setting, breaking all the gluten bonds and essentially killing any chance of our bread being edible.
Then turn the mixer back on and let it mix on setting #4 for about 15 minutes, or until it’s pretty stretchy. Then cut the dough in half, and form it into two rounds, and put on wax paper. Cover with a warm, moist towel, and set to rise in a decently warm place for about 40 minutes. When you’re forming it into rounds, pull the sides out a bit, and then fold them around back, and then tuck the ends under, so the top is nice and smooth, like you see above. Otherwise you can end up with a kind of craggy looking top. Like this silly looking thing:
Yours probably won’t look so extreme, because this dough was super dry… but still, lets not take chances. Once the dough has risen, you can either transfer it to a loaf pan, or bake it on its own directly on the baking sheet. Preheat the oven to 350°F convection/375° conventional and let it rise for about another 45 minutes, preferably in a warm area, covering again with a warm, moist towel. You’re ready to bake! A loaf in no pan takes about 25 minutes, while a loaf in a pan can take up to 10 minutes longer. To be on the safe side, insert a baking thermometer into the center. It’s done when it reaches between 190 and 200°F. Let cool for as long as you can stand it (at least 10 minutes), slice, and eat!
You can find my full recipe on Food52 by clicking here. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions. I highly recommend making this bred, whether you’re very experienced or brand new to the process. I think you’ll agree that a slice of this bread is pretty much the best thing since (wait for it…) itself.
I’ve realized that every time I make a transfer from home to school, I seem to try my absolute hardest to make you guys extra jealous of the food I get to eat at home. When I’m home I wax poetic about foods like boeuf bourguignon, Persian jeweled rice, and plum crumble with vanilla bean. When I’m away, I whine about how much I miss them. I suppose that’s my way of handling my joy/sorrow. To be truthful I’m pretty sure mom just makes all that stuff to keep me around. But I am a very defiant girl, and I will not let her win, which is why I try to make as much of her food as I can at school. It has nothing to do with the fact that I miss home. Nothing at all. So of course, you would imagine my distress when I came home this week to discover that she was taking the recipes I had tried so hard to steal and *dramatic pause* innovating on them. The woman will stop at nothing. All my defiance was for naught because, what’s worse, it was all for the better… almost.
One of the recipes I had stolen was this awesome leek and goat cheese quiche. It’s so popular at school that one of my friends once ate half of it in one sitting. Mom teaches it all the time in her 20 Minute Dinners class, and every time I eat it, it reminds me of home. Because it’s supposed to be quick and easy, and because homemade pie crust is almost never worth the effort, we use good pre-made crust. But last night, mom was teaching 20 Minute Dinners, and she thought it might be a good idea to replace the pie crust with puff pastry pressed into a tart shell. Now granted, it did sound like a pretty good idea, but it sounded like a *bit* more effort than I was going to go into on your typical Wednesday night, and I just knew I was going to end up missing home again and we just can’t have that. But mom insisted, and so she took the puff pastry out of the freezer and let it defrost… forgetting, as we chatted over smoothies, that you have to unfold puff pastry as quickly as possible before defrosting. Lo and behold, we tried to unfold it and ended up with the sticky monster you see above.
I, of course, was thrilled. Not only were there very literal holes in this silly plan, but I had just acquired a whole sheet of puff pastry to play with. I made some cinnamon sugar, got out some Hershey Special Dark Kisses and Reese’s Peanut Butter Chips, and got to immediate work. I wrapped pastry around chocolate, around bunches of peanut butter chips, and sometimes around combinations of the two. Sometimes I dipped these in cinnamon sugar, sometimes not. And then sometimes I just tied pastry in a knot or twisted it up and dipped that in cinnamon sugar – like the cinnamon twists you’re currently overpaying for. It was a lot of fun. I really love puff pastry.
I baked them at 375 until they were browned and sugar was caramelized. I removed them from the oven and redipped all of the cinnamon sugar ones, so that they had a layer of caramelized sugar and a layer of fresh (do that while they’re hot so that it sticks). They were heavenly, especially the chocolate-filled cinnamon-dipped ones, which tasted kind of like rugalach. It was quite a success, especially considering this was all happening at 10 am.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, mom was still trying to make innovation worthwhile. She took out a new sheet of pastry and pressed it into a tart pan. But somehow, much as we tried to keep it in shape, the sides refused to stay up and we ended up with a beautifully puffy gallette. Having finished my pastry bits, I came to the rescue again, filling it with dried cranberries, apricots and almonds…
And topping it with dark chocolate.
Seriously, how does my family even function without me? Granted this part was kind of her idea… but I did it, and my point makes more sense if I take credit. I then baked it until it was sort of toasty and the chocolate was melted (which doesn’t take long, next time I’m going to bake the puff pastry longer first). I spread it around and topped Francesca and Isabella’s half with some sugar because that makes it taste like a chocolate croissant (did you know that’s why they taste the way they do?). Seriously, I could sell a prettier version of this for so much money at a pastry shop.
In German tradition there’s a time, around 3 or 4 o’clock, where everyone sits down for Kaffee und Kuchen, or coffee and cake. But since I don’t think my family comes from the fancy part of Germany, we call it yowza (yauße?) (does anyone know anything about this?). So yesterday afternoon, once I’d picked up my sisters from school, we sat down to a lovely yowza of mini pastries and chocolate tart. It was ever so classy, and the puff pastry was all saved from a monstrous end. And of course, my mom was forced to concede that quiche should just be left to the pre-made crust. I guess she’ll just have to find better ways of getting me to come home.
There are several morals to this story, all of equal importance. Moral number one: daughters may need their mothers, but mothers need their daughters just as much. Moral number 2: there is no disaster so big that it can’t be made into pastry. Moral number three: you can try all you want, but you just can’t improve on pre-made pie crust.
A few years ago I read an article in Psychology Today about the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain thet controls rational thought, and how it doesn’t mature until we’re about 25. Not being one to take responsibility for much, I’ve blamed every irrational thing I’ve done since then on my undeveloped mind… especially my tendency to impulse buy. So my prefrontal cortex was hard at work at the farmer’s market last week when I bargained a vendor down to the only $2.60 I had in my wallet for a bunch of 10 ramps without the slightest clue in the whole world what they were or what I was going to do with them. After calling my mother and hearing her speculation on the potential reasons that ramps (also known as wild leeks) “never really caught on” I walked away thinking, “Oh my Lord, what have I done…”
That is, of course, a total lie. I was excited out of my mind. As a student, it’s my job to learn about mysterious things, and since I figured lots of you are probably in the same boat as me, it seemed like a great opportunity to learn alongside you. There’s not a multitude of information about them, but here’s what I was able to discern. Ramps haven’t “not caught on,” it just happens that they barely have a growing season, and they only grow in the Eastern United States. They have a wonderful scent, strong, garlicky and sweet, that reminds me of the random chives my friends and I used to pick in our front yard growing up. Which is a cool coincidence, because they’re completely undomesticated. They’re highly valued among foragers, and apparently a lot of them are very secretive about where they find them (kind of like mushroom harvesters). They’re especially popular in West Virginia and Quebec, and can be found everywhere from South Carolina to Canada.
So how do you cook with them? The farmer’s market told me that you use them just as you’d use leeks or chives. Which is odd, because you use leeks and chives really differently. And predictably, the truth lies somewhere in between. I’d say you use them in about the quantities you’d use scallions, but they have a much smoother flavor than scallions. The best way to cook them is to chop them up and sautee them in butter for about 2-3 minutes until they get soft (about 1 tbsp butter for one bunch of 10-ish ramps) and then use them in a simple dish that will really highlight their flavor, so they won’t get lost, and you get the biggest bang for your ramp buck. You can use the white and green parts (I couldn’t figure out if that includes the red, in between bit – does anybody know anything about that?), and they can go with everything from salmon to soup to risotto.
But this being my first ramp experience, I decided to take things as simple as I could, and harken back to one of my favorite childhood dinners. Whenever we were in a rush, or had nothing good in the house for dinner, I knew I could always count on PastaGarlicAndCheese (pronounced as one word, like LMNOP), a simple but dependable combination of spaghetti, olive oil or butter, garlic and Parmesan. And even today, it’s probably my favorite dinner in a lazy pinch. Sometimes, if I’m feeling ambitious, I add peas, tomatoes or whatever I have in the house, but if I don’t there’s really nothing lost. So I decided that since I wanted to highlight the ramps, and I only had the one bunch, I was going to keep the sentiment, but replace the garlic with my sauteed ramps. I also crumbled in some goat cheese for added fancy factor. And oh my goodness was it good. Simple, easy and delicious.
The whole point of this recipe is that there is none. My one bunch of 10 ramps was probably good for 1/3 of a pound of pasta, but beyond that just add however much cheese makes you happy, and then top it with a little drizzle of olive oil. If you want to add other vegetables, just add more ramps so you can be sure you’ll be able to taste them. And if you’re a ramp enthusiast and have something special you like to do with them, let me know and I’ll be sure to try it out!
UPDATE MAY 3rd – Bizarre fact, but the New York Times just published an article on teenage minds! Check out the article here :)
If I do nothing else in this post, I have to issue an apology to Nach Waxman, the infinitely wonderful owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, for taking (count them) eighteen months almost to the day to publish an article about his awesome Upper East Side store. I could have had two babies in that time. And it’s especially especially since I promised (I kid you not) that I would get it up the weekend after our interview. I haven’t been back in since, because I told myself I wouldn’t until I finished the article. You have no idea how hard it is to stay away from a place like that. Shame drives me to do crazy things. So I’m sorry Nach. Your store is amazing, and you’ll be seeing me again soon.
There are a million things to say about Kitchen Arts and Letters, but I’ve taken so long to write this post because I just couldn’t figure out what I had to add to the mix. When I found this store on my way to babysitting all those months ago, I naively thought I had discovered something, and I was totally ready to scoop the world. I very quickly found out that Eric Ripert (head chef at Le Bernadin) had named Kitchen Arts and Letters one of his top three things about New York he couldn’t live without. And that because of that NBC did a special on them that had run in every taxi in New York. Nach said that after this, people began pouring in from everywhere. “We get a lot of overseas customers, and about a year ago this woman came in,” he told me. “Marvelous looking, distinguished looking woman with some inscrutable accent I couldn’t make out and she started asking me a lot of questions, and I said, ‘Sure, I’m happy to talk with you, what is this about?’ She was the editor of the leading food magazine in Finland. So an article ran in Finnish.” So much for scooping the world.
So I thought about writing a simple article where I just talked about the amazing and eclectic selection of New and Used books he carries, on every topic, by every author, in every language I don’t speak. Or about the staff who will help you find anything from The Joy of Cooking to topics so specific you can’t even imagine them. Take this quite for illustration: “We used to carry, and unfortunately it’s not in print anymore, but we used to carry a book on kayak cooking. It was just food that served people on Kayak trips.” So I thought about telling you about all that (so hard that it would appear I just did) (clever, no?). But as I thought back on our conversation, I realized I was missing something much bigger.
You see, the thing about Kitchen Arts and Letters is it tells us something awesome and important about food: there’s something in it for absolutely everybody. Nach, who doesn’t much care for cooking from recipes, is very adamant that his store is not a cookbook store, despite how many they carry. “Actually less than half of the store is cookbooks,” he told me. “The other half is books about food: food culture, food science, food economics, agriculture, fiction with food themes, we carry a book called Food and the Theater of Moliere. We carry books on restaurant accounting; we carry books on almost anything.”
As I perused the store I really did find books on every subject imaginable – ethics, art, farming, eating and so much laughing. There’s no reasonable person who couldn’t find something of interest in a store like that, even though it seems like such a specific theme. And since this brilliant store specializes in only the one thing, everyone who works there is a wealth of knowledge and can easily talk to you for just about forever on whatever it is that floats your culinary boat. “Very very few books ever sell here without conversation,” Nach told me. This, he says, is one of the most important parts of his business. He has a website, but it is distinctly not for mail-ordering. “We decided quite specifically to not have online ordering because it forces you to do things that we don’t want to do, like canned descriptions of books,” he said. And so even if you don’t know what part of the food world you fit into, Kitchen Arts and Letters can help you figure that out, in a way that the internet, for all its good points, never could.
Kitchen Arts and Letters, as a store, pretty much sums up our entire life philosophy. When we tell people we want to help them Find their Inner Gourmet, we mean we want to help people find the part of food that sings to them. Food is the only art we have to encounter every single day, several times a day, and since we don’t get a choice about it, it’s a good thing there’s something for everyone to love, whether it be good writing, photography, community service or, yes, cooking. If you’re in New York, you really have to check this place out. The store is located at 1435 Lexington Avenue (between 93rd and 94th), and you can find out more at their website www.kitchenartsandletters.com.
Happy National Grilled Cheese Day! Since we’re on a Hunger Games kick, this sandwich is also inspired by our culinary book of the month. It’s a hybrid between the fruit-and-nut bread with goat cheese that Gale and Katniss eat at the beginning of the first book, and the apple and goat cheese tarts that Peeta serves at his bakery. If you haven’t read Hunger Games, then this is just an unaffiliated, super classy Grilled Goat Cheese Sandwich on Cranberry Pecan Bread with Apples. Enjoy!
I tried to take a real picture of it… but *somebody* kept eating it during my photoshoot. I got what I could ;)
I apologize if this post comes out a little incoherent, but if it does, you can blame it on Suzanne Collins and how I haven’t been sleeping. On the suggestion of absolutely everyone, I finally started reading the Hunger Games books a few weeks ago and several sleepless nights later I had finished the first one. And when I finished and began deeply reflecting, I realized that Suzanne’s ultimate goal must have been to make her readers hungry. I was hungry for more book, because my sister was harboring the other two in Connecticut, I was hungry for a visual, since the movie had not yet come out, and most of all, I was hungry for the Lamb Stew with Dried Plums that Katniss waves in our faces at least ten times over the course of the book. The Capitol (bad guys) may be the epitome of evil, but it would appear they really know how to eat.
I would know, because I’ve had that stew, or at least my mom’s perfect rendition, a million times before. It’s my family’s resident Jewish Holiday Meal – we make it every Passover and Rosh Hashannah and then some. There’s a reason that, even when she has chance, Katniss consistently picks this – if the Capitol version is anything like mom’s, it doesn’t pay to be creative. You just can’t do better. My craving was sadly unappeased by the otherwise excellent movie, which ignored the culinary scene altogether. So when I called home last Wednesday to plan my upcoming weekend in Connecticut, I could only think of the one thing vital to my survival.* With three extremely important holidays (Easter, Passover, My Birthday) to observe in three extremely short days, I was terrified that maybe we’d had to abandon our tradition in favor of simpler options. So when mom affirmed that we were, indeed, having Lamb Stew for Friday night dinner all I wanted to do was sing it to the world. “Ah ha!” I thought. “The movie is still relatively new and buzzworthy… I’m going to capitalize on this to the max.” And so, dear readers, I would like to ask that you get very excited right about now, because I am about to change your life forever. This stew, which actually hails from somewhere in North Africa, is succulent, savory and satisfying. The sweet tartness of the plums make it perfect for autumn, the substantialness of it makes it amazing in winter, and the tenderness of the lamb makes it sing all the way through late Spring. It is great for any day, though we like to save this one for Holidays, since it’s perfect for Easter, for Passover and, of course, for any extremely important birthday. I certainly ate some of it every day this weekend. And the recipe is below, right before your very eyes!
Consider our gift to you, for whatever holiday (or lack thereof) you celebrated last weekend. If you’re Christian I hope the Easter Bunny brought you as much chocolate as he brought Francesca, if you’re Jewish I hope you remember that butter and honey make Matzah palatable, if you’re a half-and-half like me, I hope you’re a bit less confused than I am, and whoever you are I hope you celebrated my birthday in style. Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy Hunger Games, and may the odds be ever in your favor.
*I would not last long in the Hunger Games