Eating in the mountains: Asheville, NC.

May 16, 2011 § 15 Comments

“If we didn’t have birthdays,
you wouldn’t be you.
If you’d never been born,
well then what would you do?
If you’d never been born,
well then what would you be?
You might be a fish!
Or a toad in a tree!
You might be a doorknob!
Or three baked potatoes!
You might be a bag full of
hard green tomatoes.”

~ Dr Suess

It’s not uncommon to see Marvel characters wandering the streets.

This Thursday past marked my first birthday in the Northern Hemisphere and what a novelty it was to wear a sundress out to dinner on the 12th of May! As I mentioned earlier it is tradition for my family to extend birthdays for as long as possible, so not only did I get my early birthday present and my lovely birthday dinner with friends, but then NB whisked me away to the mountains for a weekend in Asheville, North Carolina.

I would describe Asheville as the love child of hippy Bellingen (NSW) and trendy Bangalow (NSW) with a little Manly (Sydney) chill thrown in. The city is eclectic, but not in the slightly grotty way that can be parts of Newtown, and it thrives on organic, sustainable living. Asheville’s architecture is as diverse as its population, with a nod to both Parisian chic and Greek Revival as well as the Federal design you might expect to see on a southern plantation.

The Biltmore Estate

If it’s architecture you’re after then wait until you catch a glimpse of Biltmore Estate, the extravagant 175,000 square foot residence built on 125,000 acres. The Biltmore House was designed in 1889, by architect Richard Morris Hunt, for George Washington Vanderbilt and his wife Edith Stuyvesant Dresser. The family moved into the residence on Christmas Eve, 1895, and can you believe it, they only had one child to fill the 38 guest bedrooms! No wonder they were always hosting parties! A visit to Asheville would not be complete without touring this amazing home ($60). Not only will you get to see Napoleon Bonaparte’s chess set in the library, you’ll also get the chance to ogle the three massive kitchens (main kitchen, meat rotisserie kitchen, pastry kitchen), giant walk in pantries and one of the first ever industrial cool rooms… but remember to save time to nip across to the wine tasting as you leave the property.

The food scene in Asheville is incredible and I’ll tell you now that one night is simply not long enough to eat your fill! As I said, Asheville is all about the local, the organic and the sustainable. Expect to find restaurant menus that are shaped under a strict farm-to-table philosophy. Here are 30 places to get you started.

We arrived in Asheville around noon and went directly downtown in search of lunch. The downtown area is about the size of five square blocks, busting at the seams with cafes, restaurants and bars. My ears were filled with live music coming from a nearby tavern while my nose was leading me towards the tantalising aromas floating from within a small Himalayan restaurant. As much as I wanted to fill my belly with curries and flatbreads and rice, we had booked a Spanish tapas restaurant for dinner and I was trying to save my appetite. Instead we followed the stairs that lead to Wall Street, a little road that sits above the main downtown shops, and found an organic vegetarian cafe that I had been reading about the day before.

The Laughing Seed is a global fusion vegetarian restaurant with friendly staff and interesting cocktail combinations. We perched outside at a table covered by the leafy pergola, hoping that the rain wouldn’t sweep in sideways and wet our feet. I know NB had only said yes to ‘the hippy place’ because it was my birthday weekend, but from the moment we sat down I watched his eyes scanning the plates of nearby diners in hungry anticipation.

The menu is a terrific combination of appetizers, sandwiches, salads and entrees (i.e. an Australia main course) that incorporate tastes from Louisiana to Asia and anywhere in between. I had read great reviews about the raw spinach-pesto manicotti (zucchini noodles stuffed with live sunflower-spinach pesto, cashew ricotta, and fresh basil served over sun-dried tomato marinara with house-marinated olives), and in hindsight I wish I had ordered it, instead opting for the Open Market Plate on which I chose to have dhal, tempeh and steamed vegetables ($8). The plate size was modest, which is perfect for me at lunchtime, but if you are a big eater I would recommend one of the bowls or sandwiches. My little serving of yellow dhal was creamy and delicious and hit the spot that was still craving Himalayan curry. I also really enjoyed the grilled tempeh and I’ll probably begin to use this in cooking, instead of tofu, in the future. The steamed vegetables were a bit on the plain side, although they were steamed to perfection with a nice bit of crunch, I would have liked a little sauce to drizzle over them. It was a yummy little meal for me but the menu is so excellent that next time I’ll not try to design it myself!

NB was tossing up between the cuban sandwich and the special of the day which was a vegetarian version of a Philly cheesesteak, using seitan instead of meat. Our waiter recommended ordering the Havana Cuban (herb and spice battered organic tempeh, crispy housemade pickles, black bean spread, tomatoes, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, and Asheville’s Lusty Monk mustard on grilled flaky Cuban bread. $10) which turned out to be a delicious choice and came with a side of crunchy jalapeno fries and creamy pesto pasta salad. I think the meal basically converted NB and it reminded me of the time that BR introduced her boyfriend to Pure Wholefoods, one of Manly’s organic cafes. While initially there was plenty of knuckle dragging and nail biting, apparently these days you can’t keep him away from the haloumi burger on Sunday mornings!

We left Laughing Seed Cafe with bright eyes and bushy tails, ready to explore our way through the champagne second hand bookstore (yes really) and the French chocolate lounge.

Other places to eat in Asheville:

1. Dinner at Curate, 11 Biltmore Avenue, 828 239 2946. 

This was the only tapas restaurant that I had been to since Kika in Darlinghurst, and it was even better than my first experience. Make sure you book ahead because the place was bursting.

Must haves: chorizo with olive oil potato puree, lamb skewers, grilled green asparagus.

Not as much: potato bravas.

2. Breakfast at Early Girl Eatery, 8 Wall Street, (828) 259-9292

Traditional southern cooking, made from scratch with a local focus. This place is cheap as chips so order a few dishes to share for the table and get a real sense of what it is to enjoy a good southern breakfast.

Must haves: Ginger and pumpkin bread (3.25); grits with cheese ($2.25) these ones are the perfect texture, more like rice pudding than mushy oatmeal; omelette with local fillings ($7.95).

Not as much: Everything is excellent, and even the coffee tastes more fresh than is usual in American cafes.

3. Thirsty Monk Pint House and Beer Bar, 92 Patton Avenue, (828) 254-5470

What a fun place to stop for a drink and a nibble. We ordered the Local Flight, which was a selection of four beers from the local breweries for $6. We tried #1 Nantahala Pale Ale, which I thought was a bit reminiscent of James Boag and very yummy, #2 Highland Cattail Peak wheat beer, hints of raspberry on the palate, #3 Pisgah pale ale, a little more gingery, and #4 Pisgah Red Devil. To accompany our drinks we shared the hummus platter which included original hummus, chipotle hummus, tabouli, sundried tomato tapenade and thai cashew butter (NB’s new favourite spread) $7. The pizza also looked delicious and we were entertained by a man dressed as a nun running in and stealing another patron’s beer.

4. A sweet treat at Marble Slab creamery, 14 Biltmore Avenue

BS to NB: ‘Can I be fat?’

NB: Yes, of course!

BS to server: Peanut  waffle cone with dark chocolate ice cream smashed with Oreos and coconut and topped with whipped cream.

…Also come to experience a real American milkshake, where it’s so thick you can’t suck it up a straw.

NB summed it up when he said that in Asheville I was able to find my food-town soulmate. What a revelation! Tell me Blushers, where do you escape to for a weekend away?

Healthy Salads: Cheap and Cheerful

May 12, 2011 § 17 Comments

Last week I started a Cheap&Cheerful category on Blushing Strawberries’ with these fritters, and thank you to everyone who gave me tips on making a more ‘attractive’ fritter. I’m looking forward to trying again tomorrow, once I buy corn at the farmer’s market.

Lately NB and I have been looking into the Paleo Diet and the Primal Blueprint diet. In the coming weeks I will share one or two in depth posts on the subject, but for now let’s just summarise them as eating the way a caveman would eat – if it does not run, fly or swim, or if it isn’t green, then don’t eat it. Of course that is a wild generalisation and there are many nuances to the theory, which that statement has denied. But basically it is about eliminating all carbohydrates, grains and legumes, all processed foods, most sugars and dairy (a little bit of fruit is ok).

Before NB and I make any grand statements about how ‘We soo, totally eat Paleo now’, I thought I should recap on my history of sticking to a diet:

B/S on Detoxing – “Remember that this diet is not meant to impinge on my sociability”

B/S on Vegetarianism – “I remember once when I was a teenager, maybe 13 or 14, I decided to become a vegetarian. The memory is sadly clear. At breakfast I declare myself vegetarian. Five hours later I smell my dad cooking bacon. I renounce my newfound diet.”

Or this post shortly followed by this slice of pizza.

Not that NB can claim to be high and mighty: Do you think Cheerios or Cheetos are more Paleo? 

But we are slowly trying to include meals that fall in line with this way of eating, at maybe a 60/40 or 70/30 ratio. Which brings me to last nights Cheap&Cheerful dinner – a primal blueprint salad.

Now while Paleo may seem a little extreme for beginners, the Primal Blueprint diet offers a little more leniency, and Mark’s Daily Apple is a great starting point if you are interested in more information. One of the ‘sensible vices‘ allowed under PB is cheese. Here is what Mark has to say:

“While we aren’t diehard fans of all dairy, “the power of the cheese” is right on. However, we do believe in skipping the weirdo processed stuff reminiscent of school lunches. Play it snooty and go for the good, aged stuff. Not only is aged cheese a fermented food, it contains little to no lactose. It’s also got good fat, essential nutrients, and a wallop of protein. But this will all be mere peripheral chatter once you’re actually enjoying. The satisfaction surpasses all of the above.”

Truer words were never spoken! The satisfied look on NB’s face when he bit in to a sesame-chilli goats cheese balls, and his following proclamation that this is the BEST healthy meal I have ever made,  is enough to keep this chef satisfied all summer long. Because after all, why would we want to eat healthily if it doesn’t taste delicious?

Goats cheese salad with spinach stuffed chicken breast

(serves 2)

The money-saver aspect in this dish comes from using whatever you have on hand in your crisper or your garden. By using up leftover spinach and tomatoes from the previous nights dinner, I was able to stuff the chicken and wrap them in bacon from the freezer. You might have some sundried tomatoes or mushrooms lying around, which would work a treat. Choose whatever herbs are in your pots, garden or fridge and buy the goats cheese from a deli, not the supermarket, to save money on packaging.

2 medium sized chicken breasts, halved crossways

2 tablespoon of pesto (optional)

2 cloves garlic, crushed

large handful of english spinach, washed and roughly chopped

8 cherry tomatoes, thickly sliced

4 slices bacon or prosciutto

1/2 butternut pumpkin or acorn squash, diced into 3cm cubes and tossed with olive oil, thyme and salt

2 large handfuls of baby spinach or mixed mesclun

1/2 red apple, finely sliced into fans

Herb goats cheese balls

50g goats cheese

(‘Crumbing’ mix)

1/4 cup basil leaves, finely chopped

1/4 cup Italian parsely, finely chopped

zest of one lemon

cracked pepper

Sesame Goats cheese balls

50g goats cheese

(‘Crumbing’ mix)

1/4 cup sesame seeds

2 tablespoons chilli flakes

1 tablespoon toasted fennel seeds (optional) or poppyseeds

Preheat oven to 160C, 350F and roast pumpkin on a large baking tray.

Meanwhile, to stuff chicken, make a wide insertion into each half, making sure that the knife does not puncture through the breast. Rub 1/2 tablespoon of pesto inside each cavity. Heat 1tbl oil a large based frypan over medium heat and begin to saute garlic. Add in spinach and cook until just wilted. Allow to cool before stuffing each chicken cavity with 1/4 of the tomatoes, and spinach mixture. Wrap to enclose with bacon and secure with a toothpick.

For goats cheese balls, take a tablespoon of cheese and shape into a round using the palm of your hands. Coat half the balls in the herb mix and half in the sesame mix. Drizzle with a little olive oil.

Serve chicken, pumpkin and goats cheese atop baby spinach, tossed with a dressing of equal parts olive oil and balsamic vinegar, as well as a squeeze of lemon and a teaspoon of dijon mustard. Garnish with extra herbs and apple slices.

Sunday Brunch @ My Little Expat Kitchen.

May 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Check out these strawberries on My Little Expat Kitchen. A coffee, a croissant and a bowl of berries would put me in Sunday morning heaven.

(As it happens I just quickly ate leftover Thai Green Curry, standing infront of the open fridge door as I prepare to head to work Mother’s Day Brunch at the restaurant. Alas, a Blusher can always dream!)

The Duck, Happy Mother’s Day.

May 6, 2011 § 10 Comments

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day for The Duck and I’d just like to say that she is one amazing woman. For the past two decades she has had to put up with Batman and I, which I can assure you must have been quite the experience. Like that one time when BMan and I were sitting in the car while mum popped in to the store, and in the space of 5 minutes we managed to burn circles into the entire dashboard of our station wagon with the cigarette lighter receptacle. Or those holidays when she would have to drive to 3 different places to collect dinner on Treat Night because my brother would want Hungry Jacks, I would want a kebab and then, once she was comfortably settled with a glass of wine, we would both want Baskin&Robbins.

But I’m sure there were good days. Once I decided to help in the kitchen and I woke up an hour early to make sandwiches for our lunch. As I didn’t want to wake up mum by turning on the light I decided to do all the slicing and assembling by the light of a foggy dawn. Needless to say, when Mother Dearest came into the kitchen 20 minutes later she was welcomed with my beaming face as I proudly displayed six blood-stained cheese sandwiches. Or when the BMan decided to take charge of my potty training, plying me jellybeans and smarties, and within two weeks I was flying solo in the bathroom. Surely you would have to love your kids when they do stuff like that. Right?!?!

I used to hound The Duck about cooking extravagant meals every weeknight. She would walk in the door and I would be sitting there in my school uniform surrounded with cook books for pin-boned quail or an Asian banquet. Not until I started working full time that I realised the beauty of something as simple as steak and three veg. But if it wasn’t for The Duck then the foodie in me would never have been nurtured, Blushing Strawberries would never have existed, and NB would always be very very hungry (ps, NB says Happy Mother’s Day!)

Because of that, I wanted to share a little Mother Love with my readers and I have cumulated all of The Duck’s recipes that have so far appeared in the Strawberry Patch. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I have.

Happy Mother’s Day Mum

I love you.

Mother Duck’s Recipes and thoughts

  1. Wontons and Asian Ribs
  2. Birthday cakes
  3. The Duck’s Winning Meatballs
  4. Bang Bang Chicken
  5. Osso Bucco
  6. Aussie inspiration
  7. Gardening ideas
  8. Thai salad with Duck (eek!)
  9. Medical diagnosis: why I am orange
  10. Raspberry coconut slice
  11. Banana and berry bread
  12. The divine biscuit
  13. Pork chilli salad

Happy Cinco De Mayo

May 6, 2011 § 8 Comments

If you asked me last week, I had never heard of Cinco De Mayo.

Last night that changed, and I found myself surrounded by black beans, guacamole and cheese dip as my book club sat sipping coronas and discussing the days of prohibition and circus politics (we recognised the holiday  one night early to coincide with our literary meet).

As we drove to the apartment of our hostess, the lovely Morning Sun, I asked my fellow book lover and blogger for a quick history lesson. I can now tell you that FIRST & FOREMOST Cinco De Mayo is NOT Mexican Independence Day, as many people will try to tell you (rather September 16). After this is gets a little hazy.

The funny thing is, depending on whether you’re celebrating in America or in Mexico, the day will have a significantly different meaning.

In the United States Cinco De Mayo is a party, a fiesta and it proves to me that these Americans are perfectly happy to have a drink in celebration for a day that is not really their own. I used to think that St Patrick’s Day was a big deal in Sydney, that was before I realised the city of Charlotte would manage to extend the celebrations for over nine days, from bar-crawl to float parade! Perhaps I should get something going for Australia Day, next January 26?! Here, Cinco De Mayo is a day to honour Mexican culture and heritage, and to commemorate the cause of Mexican freedom and democracy during the early years of the civil war. Today you should expect to see people sipping margaritas and ordering nachos or huevos rancheros.

In Mexico, on the other hand, it is about remembering the victory of the Mexican Army over French forces in the Battle of Puebla, on May 5th, 1862. The day is marked by noticeably less boozing, but instead a military fly over and stirring re-enactments take place. Unfortunately the battles are not all in the past:

“Like many things in Mexico these days, the celebration of the 149th anniversary of the battle swung quickly toward the current drug war. In remarks before laying a wreath to the fallen, Calderon spoke of Mexico’s new enemies, the criminals who rob, extort, kidnap and murder — the kind of opponents who beat 183 people to death and buried them in mass graves 90 miles south of Brownsville, Tex., last month”

William Booth, Washington Post

I’d love to see this day celebrated in its home country but this year I am in America and that means making delicious cheesy, chilli black beans. I hope that this recipe for black beans would not make a Mexican mother cringe, originating from my head as it has, but what can I say? It goes down well with a glass of sangria and that’s enough for me!

Black Beans with shredded cheese and jalapenos

2 cups dried black beans, soaked overnight,

1 large tin crushed tomatoes,

1/2 cup water,

1 cup red wine,

5 cloves garlic, crushed,

1/4 bunch coriander, stalks chopped finely and leaves picked,

2 tbl chilli flakes,

3/4 cup mexican cheese, grated or crumbled (queso blanco, queso fresco or panela),

1/4 cup jalapeno peppers.

Drain and rinse the black beans until the water runs clear and return to large saucepan. Add all the wet ingredients and the garlic and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to simmer and stir in coriander stalks and chilli flakes. Continue to simmer for 1 hour for semi-crunchy beans (I like to undercook my beans slightly so they retain some texture and don’t taste like mush!) or 1 and a half hours for soft beans. Remove from heat and stir through cheese and jalapenos. Serve with corn tortillas for wrapping and guacamole for topping.

Cruising Essentials 101

May 3, 2011 § 8 Comments

Ever since Paul Newman wobbled his way down that rocky path I have loved old fashioned bicycles.

We were looking around and considered this one…but maybe it’s a little hardcore for the city??!

Saturday: My birthday surprise arrives from NB, and it’s perfect. An elegant cruiser with lots of style and a basket for my milk.

Of course riding music is important. What would you choose?

And apparently specialty underpants are required. Hmm, I can’t see a 1800 – number to place my order…

Tell me Blushers, if you were outside riding all day, what snack would you take with you?

Eating Wontons & Watching the Grass Grow.

May 2, 2011 § 5 Comments

I have great news! The porch is ready!

Anyone that knows me will freely admit that I have a habit of creating jobs for myself. Not only is our kitchen table covered in To-Do-Lists for immediate jobs, but also to-do-lists for longer term jobs and to-do-lists for backup jobs that I could do if I ran out of jobs. Needless to say, I don’t understand free time.

For some reason I thought that the move to America would teach me to chill out a bit more. Perhaps even sit back and smell the roses. But then I realised – we had no roses to smell. Unfortunately for NB, this was the beginning of the end for our free weekends and not until two months later was the garden deemed finished.

Alas, this is not all. As I was standing outside in the early morning light, admiring our handy work and whispering sweet nothings to our darling little seedlings, I was struck by how grubby the back porch appeared in comparison. Oh dear.  At this stage NB threw up his hands in despair and retreated to the safety of Family Guy reruns, and to be honest I can hardly blame him. Fortunately for me FoodieFresh was happy to don her painting shorts and a few weekends ago we made  5 hours of serious progress.

It was somewhere around here that the project stagnated. Admittedly the state was being ravaged by terrible storms, of which we were getting the tail end, and we were also busy with various eating engagements, but to be honest I think I had just run out of steam.

Saturday arrived and I was busy in the kitchen preparing for a little dinner soiree that night. We had some friends coming over who had lived in Sydney when we were there (they only returned to America a few months before we did) and NB and I thought it would be a good idea to relive the Thai scene that is so dominant back home. Lost as I was in marinating ribs, grating ginger and folding dumplings, that is was a couple of hours before I realised that I hadn’t heard a peep out of NB!

With a trail of shredded cabbage falling behind me, I went searching.

And wouldn’t you know it, there he was out on the porch finishing the painting. Hurrah!!

Ace of Spade’s delicious butter biscuit shortbread with strawberries and cream

That night, as I chinked my prosecco glass with our guests, I made a little promise to myself that next weekend we would relax…Do you believe me?

Sticky Asian Spare Ribs (the style that an Aussie girl can be proud to present in the South)

Serves 4.

1.5kg (3 1/4 lb), or 16 American-style  pork spare ribs

Marinade:

3/4 cup hoisin sauce

2 tbl grated ginger

1/3 cup soy sauce

3 tsp sesame oil

1/2 cup Chinese rice wine

2 tsp Chinese five spice powder

2 tablespoons sugar

Pinch chilli flakes and a squeeze of lime.

Bring a large crockpot of water to the boil and blanch ribs, rinsing and refreshing under cold water.

Mix marinade together in a large ceramic baking dish and toss ribs to coat. Cover and allow to marinate for 4+ hours, or overnight.

Preheat oven to 160C/ 280F and remove ribs from fridge, allowing to return to room temperature.

Leaving the baking dish covered with foil, cook ribs for 3 hours or until meat begins to flake off bone. Remove from oven and stand, covered, for 15-20 minutes.

For thicker sauce, drain some of the sauce from the baking dish into a saucepan and bring to the boil, whisking constantly until thick.

Serve with steamed rice.