Sunday, September 27, 2009

Canning Tomatoes

Oh boy. What was I thinking when I bought a 25 pound basket of plum tomatoes to can or “put up”, to use canning lingo? I’ll tell you what -- I was thinking I would become an overnight tomato canning extraordinaire -- that’s what. There was one small problem, though. I was chicken. Canning is something I’ve been contemplating trying for a couple of years and despite purchasing books and reading up on the process, I’ve never gone through with it. It’s the botulism thing that gets me every time. Everything I’ve read talks about how easy and rewarding canning is in one breath and with the next goes into a dissertation about how if you don’t do this, this, or this, you could get sick -- or worse. Enzymes, bacteria, mold, and yeasts are the sinister underbelly of this seemingly otherwise wholesome activity.

But still. I find it enchanting, the idea of reaching into my pantry (okay, it’s really a converted coat closet) on a cold winter’s day for a glass jar of beautiful, red tomatoes put up over the summer. I’m not a novice in the kitchen so I know behind the word enchanting lies a lot of hard work and time. There is a reason our grandmothers canned and most of our mothers don’t! But I’ve got some Martha Stewart in me and buying canned tomatoes from the grocery store seems so average, so unauthentic, so lazy.

Despite all this, another year of inaction probably would have passed if I hadn’t recently been lying in bed, listening to NPR’s The Takeaway. It was a Wednesday, the day they run a food segment and this particular morning it was on canning. The host was interviewing Kathy Gunst, co-author of Stonewall Kitchen Winter Celebrations. She was so enthusiastic and made canning sound so intuitive and unintimidating I said to myself “I can do this!” The timing was perfect. I was going to NJ for the weekend anyway, where I would have more kitchen space and access to an array of pots and pans to begin my experiment -- I mean canning.

Rather than pick me up at the Far Hills train station, I met my dad one stop earlier in Bernardsville where on Saturday they have a small but decent farmers market.

It was as if the farmers knew I was coming. There ahead of me, off to the side and looking a little lonely were several large baskets filled with 25 pounds of plum tomatoes, the preferred canning tomato because of its high ratio of meat to pulp. My dad saw me stop and stare at them; with the eyes in the back of my head I could see him shaking his head, undoubtedly thinking “She’s nuts - she’ll never get through all those tomatoes in one weekend.” But being the wise man he is, Dad kept quiet. He knows by now it’s pointless to reason with me when I latch onto an idea and best to just step back and cross his fingers.

I lugged the tomato basket to the car, went to the hardware store and picked up two dozen pint-size canning jars, a jar lifter and wide-mouthed funnel. Our next-door neighbor, Tom, grew up canning and was kind enough to loan me a large stock pot, complete with a homemade, custom-fit rack for the bottom (I learned the rack is important because it allows the water to circulate on all sides of the jars while they are “processing”. More on processing later).

For my weekend trip I had brought the recipe for Gunst’s Roasted Tomato Sauce as well as a newly purchased book, Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone, which I hadn’t had a chance to look at yet, Originally my plan was to start out small, make the Roasted Tomato Sauce, can it, and call it a day, but the recipe only used 8 pounds of tomatoes. That meant I still had 17 pounds left and no plan for them. Luckily the book had a basic recipe for canned tomatoes. This winter my dream of reaching into my pantry for a glistening jar of home canned tomatoes would be realized. In a couple of months these tomatoes would reappear in my Bolognese sauce and stews.

By the time I got home from buying the tomatoes, canning supplies, onions, garlic, herbs and assorted other things needed for the recipes it was Saturday afternoon. Time to get started.

Or, maybe not. Shouldn't I take pictures for the blog post? Yes, before I began using up the tomatoes I had to document the beautiful, full basket…..

You should see how many pictures I took of that darn basket. There were pictures on the patio, by the fence, in the front hall, out in the garage. ANYTHING to stall the inevitable. I had to start canning. Botulism, here I come.

My date with botulism began bright and early Sunday morning when I woke up optimistic but still a little daunted by the task ahead. I started with the Roasted Tomato Sauce. The author explains in the recipe introduction that one year, faced with an excess of tomatoes, she developed a shortcut for making sauce. Rather than core, peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes, she only cored and quartered them.

Instead of simmering and stirring the sauce on the stove top for hours, she roasted all the ingredients in a high oven, which “gives the tomatoes a rich, slightly smoky flavor, and the onions and garlic become sweet as they caramelize.” She recommends using the sauce on chicken, fish or pasta.

I just had one problem with her recipe. In the recipe intro she says “The sauce can also be placed in sterilized Mason jars and processed (15 minutes in a boiling water bath should do it).” She may as well have been speaking a foreign language! “Processed”? What’s that? To a novice “15 minutes….should do it” sounds far too vague for comfort. I needed specifics. Thank goodness for the book!

In Well-Preserved, Eugenia Bone talks you through the process of canning like you’re standing in her kitchen, cooking along side her. She gives logical, specific explanations for why each step is necessary which, as a result, makes the information easy to absorb and remember. Her reassuring voice helped alleviate any anxiety I had about what I was doing simply because it made sense.

The author lives in Manhattan, cooks in a small apartment kitchen and writes recipes for small batches of food. Maybe that’s why I enjoy her book so much -- I can relate to her. She also makes food preservation feel modern rather than antiquated. Her recipes, such as Risotto with Fava Bean Cream, Strawberry Balsamic Panna Cotta, and Sole with Zucchini Flower Sauce are fun and hip; I can imagine serving them to friends.

Clearly I’m not an expert on canning and not qualified to paraphrase the science behind it, which is a foundation anyone who wants to can should have. In Bone’s book there are six short, easy-reading pages explaining all aspects of water canning. That’s it. Below is my overview of the steps involved, devoid of specifics that are necessary and important so please do not go by what I say only:

- Prepare the food you want to put up. If you’re a beginner like me, be sure to use a recipe written for water bath canning. The pH of the food is critical to whether it may safely be canned and will determine whether or not you end up with evil doers lurking in your jar.

- Sterilize or scald the jars and bands. Sterilizing jars, with or without food in them, takes 10 minutes in boiling water. If a recipe calls for a processing time of more than 10 minutes, the jars do not need to be sterilized, only scalded. Scalding requires nothing more than dipping empty jars in boiling water right before packing them with food.

- Simmer the lids. This softens the rubber flange and creates a better seal.

- Pack the jars with food. Leave up to 1-inch of space from the jar opening to the top of the food (this is called headspace). There are various technical reasons for leaving headspace but as long as you give your jars the amount called for in the recipe, you’ll be fine. Wipe the rim of the jars with a damp paper towel, top with lids, and screw on bands. A wide-mouthed funnel makes this step much neater.

- Process the jars. Take the jars packed with food and submerge them onto a rack in a pot of boiling water for the amount of time specified in your recipe. This step will get rid of any nasty microorganisms in the jar that could potentially make you ill and helps create the seal of the lid, which will keep new microorganisms from checking in.

- Allow the jars to cool. When processing is complete, remove the jars from water (I don’t know how I would have done this without a jar lifter), set on a dish towel, and allow to cool for 8 hours. After 8 hours, unscrew the band and try to lift the jar by the lid only. If you can, you’ve got a tight seal. Success!

There are different methods of preserving food covered in Well-Preserved besides water bath canning: pickling, pressure canning, freezing, preserving in oil, curing and smoking. I’m already eyeing her recipe for canned tuna. How delicious would it be to preserve fresh tuna caught off Long Island in September? I have one hesitation -- the recipe must be pressure canned. Here we go again with frightening-sounding procedures! But never fear; Eugenia comes to the rescue with this insight:

"Lots of people are terrified of pressure canning. And it’s true: If you put a steam pressure canner on your stove, crank up the heat, and go to the movies, yes, you will have a problem. If you stay with task at hand, keeping your eye on the canner during the hour or so it is active, and moderating the heat to the extent necessary, you will end up with beautifully preserved foods."

See what I mean? She’s so cool, so calm; there is no need for scary thoughts. No dates with botulism. Eugenia is your canning friend and she’s got your back.

I’m happy to report my first foray into canning was a success. Yes, it was a full day spent on my feet in the kitchen and I was pretty tired by the end of it. I suspect a fair amount of my weariness was because I was a beginner, learning the ropes. But all in all, it was a positive experience; no broken seals, no cracked jars. I’m off to a good start and yes, it is a start. I’ll be back for more. Canning IS rewarding and fun and, honestly, easy. All the things promised by a cheery cookbook author on an early morning radio talk show.

Roasted Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Stonewall Kitchen Harvest


About 8 pounds ripe tomatoes, any variety, cored and quartered
10 medium onions, peeled and quartered
10 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole
5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 cup chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, parsley, and/or chives)
About 1/3 cup olive oil
¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
Generous grinding of black pepper
A few tablespoons sugar (optional)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a large roasting pan, gently toss together the tomatoes, onions, whole and chopped garlic, herbs, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast for 25 minutes. Gently stir the vegetables. Roast for another 25 minutes and gently toss. Add any of the optional ingredients listed below and roast for another 45 minutes, or until the tomatoes are softened and somewhat broken down into a sauce, with a golden brown crust on top. Remove and taste for seasoning. If the sauce tastes bitter, add a few tablespoons of sugar.

Place in clean, sterile jars and refrigerate, freeze, or can (15 minutes of processing will do).

Makes about 10 cups


Add any of the following ingredients to the sauce after it has roasted for about 50 minutes:

- ¼ cup drained capers
- ½ cup pitted black and/or green olives
- 1 cup sautéed or raw mushrooms
- About 1 cup of any chopped raw or cooked vegetables, 3 anchovy filets, minced, or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste
- A good dash of red chile flakes or hot pepper sauce. If you like a smoother sauce, place the finished sauce in a blender or food processor and blend until it reaches the desired consistency.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

New Amsterdam Market

It’s the end of summer and I’m happy to be back in New York. I always love it here but Labor Day through Christmas is especially exciting as everyone returns from the country or beach and Manhattan starts to bustle again. This past Sunday I kicked autumn off by going to the New Amsterdam Market at the South Street Seaport.

The market, inspired by Paris’s Les Halles and London’s Borough Market, is the beginning of what many of us in the city hope to be a year-round public market featuring “purveyors who source food directly from farmers and producers whom they trust to be good stewards of our land and waters”.

It has previously been held once a year since its founding in 2005. Sunday was the first of four market meetings planned through this fall; the remaining three will be on October 25th, November 22nd, and December 20th.

The weather on Sunday was beautiful and a large, friendly crowd showed up to sample amazing treats (almost all for free) from close to 80 small, sustainable Northeastern food purveyors. I had a chance to taste and/or buy cheese, bread, butter, pasta, pickles, oysters, beef, bison, sausage, vegetables, jams, chocolate, yogurt, ice cream -- I could keep going. Did I mention you should come hungry?

The quality of the products far and away surpasses anything you will find in a grocery store. Think of the gathering as an outdoor, organic version of Dean and Deluca or Eli’s. I missed the first market in 2005 but have attended the last three and each time, while it has gotten bigger and bigger, the range and caliber of vendors has remained consistently high and impressive.

Sunday was the first time at New Amsterdam for Maple Hill Creamery, home to “small batch old fashioned dairy products” made with milk from local, 100% grass-fed cows. I tasted all their yogurt flavors and bought a few delicious Orange Crèmes to take home.

The Bent Spoon from Princeton, NJ was back with plenty of incredible ice creams and sorbets made from seasonal, locally grown ingredients. So was Fleisher’s butcher shop, sellers of pasture-raised, organic beef and member of Saveur magazine’s Top 100 of 2008.

Regional Access is a distributor of specialty and natural foods, many from the Finger Lakes region of New York. There aren’t many local sources for dried beans in the Northeast but they had them here, grown by Ithaca’s Cayuga Pure Organics. The timing could not be better; I’ve just started to feel a little nip in the air and it's got my mind thinking about making soups. No more bags of Goya beans for me!

A crowd watched as People’s Popsicles made shave ice by hand using a big, beautiful block of ice and dousing the fine powder with fruity, herby syrup. They had local fruit popsicles, too.

If you haven’t been, I’m telling you -- life is good at a New Amsterdam Market! Mark October 25th on your calendar and come to the next meeting with an appetite and a few hours to spare. Admission is free and it’s a straight walk east from the Fulton Street subway station.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Spicy Baked James River Oysters with Caramelized Onions

Vacation is over. It went so fast! The week and a half was filled with lots of sun, lots of rain, and lots of food. My family jokes that all we do is eat and I suspect we’re not the only family that thinks the same way. We all love to cook, except maybe Mom – she’s done more than her fair share over the years and enjoys her husband and kids taking over the kitchen.

For me, eating seafood at the beach is much more fun than in the city because, as you’ve probably figured out, I love to be close to my food source. On the Outer Banks where we are surrounded by the sea and sound, it’s ridiculously easy to get seafood that is fresh from the waters that day or the day before.

While we were here we had Dad’s crab cakes, scallops in brown butter, linguine and clams – twice (mine and my brother’s), and on the last night, an appetizer of spicy baked oysters with caramelized onions.

My oyster recipe comes courtesy of Frank Stitt, chef and owner of what is said to be one of the best restaurants in the South, Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill. I first heard about him in a Town and Country article about Southern chefs changing the way Americans think about food. I bought his incredible cookbook, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table, and discovered he is a wonderful storyteller whose Southern charm shines through in his descriptions and recipes. But don’t be fooled; behind his charm lies a serious chef.

Born in Cullman, Alabama to a surgeon father and glamorous mother who also happened to be the best cook in town, the family tagged along with Dad when he went to medical conferences, eating at the finest restaurants in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. This, combined with everyday exposure to Mom’s authentic Southern cooking, laid the foundation for what was to come. Perseverance and an alignment of stars (I’m sure the charm helped, too) allowed him to learn from some of the 20th century’s original locavore chefs; Alice Waters, Richard Olney, Elizabeth David, and Jeremiah Tower.

Reading the book, I was drawn in by his humble appreciation for impeccable, fresh ingredients, purchased from local Alabama and Gulf Coast purveyors and used to make traditional Southern foods like sweet potatoes, butter beans, crawfish, and shrimp sophisticated. He says it best:

“This cookbook is about cooking from the heart and soul with knowledge, dedication, and harmony. Balance, complexity, and simplicity are what we’re after. And sharing food at table is ultimately about sharing one’s love for life.”

The oysters I used were from the Chesapeake Bay, the James River specifically. As I mentioned in a previous post, we drive over the Bay on our trip down to OBX. It is a beautiful region deserving a trip of its own rather than just a drive through. Sadly, the Chesapeake Bay, North America’s largest estuary and long rich in all types of fish and shellfish, is in serious trouble. The usual suspects of suburban sprawl, overfishing, pollution from boats and pesticide run-off have done their best to kill off all that is living in the Bay watershed. Remember the pesticide spraying tractor and crop dusters I talked about seeing as we drove through Accomack County? Uh-huh - that pesticide ends up in the Bay.

Since colonial times, the Chesapeake has lost 98 percent of its oysters. Healthy, robust oyster reefs are key to the Bay cleanup; a single oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day and the reefs provide habitat for marine life. An experimental reef set up 5 years ago near the mouth of the Great Wicomico River, just south of the Potomac, shows promise. It is currently home to 180 million native oysters, which sounds impressive until you realize in the 1800’s the Bay was home to billions of oysters.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, started over 40 years ago, exists to “prod and assist the government in dealing with the impacts of 17 million people on its watershed”. While they have had success in their stated mission, there is still a long way to go to turn the tide, so to speak, and bring back a vibrant Bay ecosystem.

Spicy Baked Oysters with Caramelized Onions
From Frank Stitt’s Southern Table

I’ve eaten oysters before but never shucked one myself so I googled instructions. I had heard it wasn’t the easiest task but wasn’t particularly worried until coming across comments online like “It took me 10 minutes – EACH”. That’s when I started to sweat. Turns out, my panic was completely unnecessary. Yes, the first couple took a few minutes - each - but once I got the hang of it the oysters were done in a flash.

Next time I make this (and I will make this again!) I’ll cut back a little on the bacon and make sure I have real breadcrumbs on hand rather than the kind that looks like sand and comes out of a can. That’s just wrong!

This is really easy and really impressive. It’s a burst of flavors in your mouth – salt, spice, smoke, sweetness. Delicious.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 onions, quartered and thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Rock salt for serving

24 oysters, such as Apalachicola, bluepoint, Pemaquid, Chesapeake, or Malpeque, shucked and let in the bottom shells
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
Coarsely ground dried hot chile or cayenne pepper to taste
6 to 7 very thin slices pancetta, cut into twenty-four 1 ½-inch squares, or 6 slices bacon, preferably center-cut, cut into 4 pieces each
1 cup medium-coarse bread crumbs

Preheat the oven to 450 F.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until golden, about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Make a bed of rock salt on a baking sheet and arrange the oysters on top. Top each with a little of the sautéed onion – just enough to cover. Place a teaspoon of butter and a good pinch of chile on each, then top with a square of pancetta (or bacon) and a scattering of bread crumbs to finish.

Bake until the pancetta is slightly crispy, the bread crumbs golden, and the oysters heated through, 10 to 12 minutes.

Serves 4

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pamlico Sound Shrimp & Anson Mills Grits

After breakfast at the Pier we headed further south to Wanchese, a tiny fishing village which, along with Manteo, makes up the two towns on Roanoke Island, location of the first (and failed) attempt in 1585 by Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh to establish an American colony. Wanchese Harbor is home to all commercial fishing boats in the area and where millions of pounds of seafood pass through a year. All I needed was one pound of shrimp for dinner and what I bought at O’Neal’s Sea Harvest was fresh from Pamlico Sound, a few miles away.

For dinner I was making a classic Southern dish – shrimp and grits. My mom is a fan of grits, but I’m more or less indifferent. I can’t say I’ve ever had a great bowl of grits, but in the spirit of regional eating, I wanted to give it a shot.

To get this meal right I needed the best ingredients I could get my hands on. The fresh-off-the-boat Outer Banks shrimp was taken care of in Wanchese. When it came to the grits, I had a secret weapon up my sleeve. Before leaving New York I ordered a bag of Antebellum coarse white grits from South Carolina’s Anson Mills. I reasoned if top chefs like Thomas Keller and Alice Waters are smitten with their organic, heirloom grains, cold-milled in pre-Civil War tradition, they must be worth the extra effort and expense to order and ship. While I was on their site placing my order (you won’t find their products in a store; the grains are milled only when an order is placed) I discovered quite a bit of history and realized impressive chefs or not, this was going to be special. I was off to a great start, or so I hoped; if I got the cooking part down, the meal ought to be a home run.

In Antebellum South Carolina, plantations each bred their own, distinct variety of corn by following the Native American tradition of crossing mill corn (corn which is left in the field to ripen, dry out, and get starchy) with sweet corn (the soft and sugary kind we eat off the cob in the summer). Once crossed, this becomes known as dent corn, the premier corn for making grits in the South. Back then, dent corn was kept cold and milled only as needed. As generations passed, the small back-road farmers, kitchen gardeners and bootleggers lost interest in growing these unique corn crops and the varieties threatened to vanish. Today virtually all grits are made from production corn and milled far in advance of eating which leaves it lacking the depth of flavor and freshness of its heirloom predecessors.

This is where Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts stepped in. Having worked as an architect for three decades in Charleston he switched career gears after listening to his South Carolina born-and-raised mother recollect the wonderful dishes she grew up eating but couldn’t recreate because of the inferior, mass-produced grits available in the market. After some investigating, Roberts discovered the old corn varieties that made Southern food heritage so rich were disappearing. And so began his journey to resurrect old strains of corn, known for their texture and flavor, from extinction. While Anson Mills is based in Columbia, SC, Roberts works with hundreds of farmers up and down the East Coast to grow not only organic heirloom corn, but other native organic heirloom grains as well, such as rice and wheat.

I could go on and on; the Anson Mills tale is a fascinating one, rich in history and Southern culture, not to mention of a man’s desire to do something right and do it well. Their website is a goldmine of interesting historical information and recipes for traditional Southern food. In fact, this post would have been finished much sooner if I hadn’t gotten so caught up in the wonderful stories and lore!

Shrimp & Grits
From the Anson Mills website

I made this exactly as their recipe said (minus the bay leaf – we were out) and it was fantastic. Yes, a home run! I wouldn’t change a thing.

1 pound medium-sized, shell-on shrimp
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, small dice
1 small stalk celery, small dice
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
4 cups spring or filtered water
1 teaspoon tomato paste
3 full sprigs fresh thyme
1 Turkish bay leaf
1 teaspoon whole, cracked black peppercorns
1 strip lemon peel
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon flour
2 ounces thick smoked bacon or real country ham, minced (3 tablespoons)
2 large shallots, minced (1/4 cup)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 scallion, white and green part, thinly sliced
1 recipe hot, freshly prepared Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse or Carolina Quick Grits
Peel and devein the shrimp, reserving the shells. Dry the shrimp between layers of paper towels and refrigerate until ready to use. Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the shrimp shells, onion, celery, and garlic and sauté until the shells are crisp and the aromatics tender, 10 minutes. Add the water, tomato paste, thyme, bay, peppercorns, and lemon peel. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until the stock is flavorful and reduced, about 1 hour. Strain the stock into a small saucepan (there should be about 1 1/2 cups), and keep hot.

While the stock is cooking, mash the butter and flour into a smooth paste in a small bowl and set aside.

Sauté the bacon or ham in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Move it to the periphery of the skillet and increase the heat to medium. Arrange the shrimp in a single layer and sear until pink. Sprinkle the shallots over the shrimp, toss, and cook until the shrimp is done, about one minute. Add salt, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Using tongs, transfer the shrimp to a warm plate. Add the hot stock to the skillet and bring to a boil over high heat. Whisk in the reserved butter and flour mixture. Cook until thickened, about 20 seconds. Return the shrimp to the pan and taste sauce for seasoning.

To serve, spoon the hot grits into shallow bowls. Top with shrimp and sauce. Sprinkle with chopped scallions.

Serves 4 to 6

Antebellum Coarse Grits
From the Anson Mills website

I’ve never had anything quite like these grits before. The creamy, chewy texture reminded me of both oatmeal and risotto and yet the pronounced corn flavor tasted like polenta. I have no doubt this is what all grits are meant to taste like, but don’t. I used the slow cooker method, followed the directions given, and the grits were cooked perfectly.

1 cup (6 ounces) Anson Mills Antebellum Coarse Grits (white or yellow)
Spring or filtered water
Fine sea salt
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


For a slow cooker:
Place the grits in the slow cooker and cover them with 3 cups water. Stir once. Allow the grits to settle a full minute, tilt the vessel, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls with a fine tea strainer. Cover the slow cooker and turn the heat setting to high. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the grits are creamy and tender, but not mushy, throughout and hold their shape on a spoon, about two hours and ten or 15 minutes. (Cook times in slow cookers may vary slightly depending on the capacity of the individual cooker and its heat settings.) Season with 1 teaspoon salt and stir in the butter with vigorous strokes. Add more salt, if desired, and the black pepper.

For saucepan cookery:
Place the grits in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover them with 2 ½ cups water. Stir once. Allow the grits to settle a full minute, tilt the pan, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls with a fine tea strainer. Cover and let stand overnight at room temperature. Note: If you have not soaked the grits, cover them with 2 1/2 cups water, and skim off and discard the chaff and hulls as directed above.

Set the saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the first starch takes hold, 5 to 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover. Meanwhile, heat 2 cups water in a small saucepan and keep hot. Cook the grits, covered, over low heat, stirring every 10 minutes or so, and adding small amounts of the hot water to the grits when they become thick and the spoon can stand upright, about 1 1/2 cups water or more in 4 or 5 additions. Cook until the grits are creamy and tender, but not mushy, throughout and hold their shape on a spoon, about 50 or 90 minutes, depending on whether or not they were soaked. Add 1 teaspoon salt halfway through the cooking time. To finish, uncover the pot and stir in the butter with vigorous strokes. Add more salt, if desired, and the black pepper.

Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Nags Head Pier

I should have known. No sooner did I say the weather was perfect when it started to rain. But rainy days can be good on vacation; it gets me off the beach and sightseeing something other than pelicans and sandpipers.

Between the drops we made our way to Nags Head for breakfast at the Nags Head Pier. Breakfast places abound on the Outer Banks but this is my favorite. It is bare-bones, essentially a beach shack perched over the water, but what it lacks in polish is more than made up for in comfort and authenticity. I like to eat my eggs, biscuit, and sausage on the screened-in porch, watching the waves crash around me. Fisherman like the Pier’s “You Hook ‘Em – We Cook ‘Em” policy and so do I; that’s as local as you get.