All I Need Is Wine, Chocolate, and Cheese

As a college student, I was quite delighted when I realized I didn’t have to give up alcohol in order to eat locally.  There are plenty of local beers (such as Yazoo) and wines.  Most liquor stores have a local section that features wine from vineyards around the area.  My roommates and I made a liquor store run last weekend, and I asked a store clerk for local wine recommendations.  I wanted something really sweet so one of the one he referred me to was the American Muscadine sweet white wine from Stonehaus Winery in Crossville, TN.  It was incredibly sweet, almost too sweet for me, but I can guarantee that it did not last long among me and my friends.  My parents introduced me to a sweet strawberry wine from Keg Springs Winery in Hampshire, TN, which also does not last very long.

I enjoy the simple things, wine being one–cheese and chocolate being other favorites.   I bought Kenny’s Farmhouse Asiago Cheese from Austin, KY at the Turnip Truck the other day because I really wanted to make a portabello mushroom pizza.  For me, browsing the cheese section is always exciting and depressing.  My mouth waters as I peruse the tasty selection…and then my eyes start watering about the price.  Cheese is expensive.  I really wanted to try a local goat cheese, for example, but it was so pricey for such a small morsel.  Maybe someday.

I’m usually willing to spend more than usual on artisan chocolate; it’s a little treat I give myself every once in a while.  Olive and Sinclair Chocolate is Nashville’s ONLY “bean-to-bar” artisan chocolate company.  They have some unique flavors such as Salt & Pepper, Cinnamon-Chili, Double Chocolate, and Coffee.  Recently Gwyneth Paltrow blogged about them!  I bought a bar of the Salt & Pepper this week and have been enjoying it slowly.  It sounds strange but salt in chocolate is not just a fab, it’s actually pretty tasty.  I love sweet/salty combinations and the pepper give it a spicy kick that I love.  Their packaging is excellently designed; it has an old-fashioned appeal that is perfect.  I actually have the wrapper on my bulletin board right now.

Sometime, it’s not so hard to be happy.  As frivolous as it might seem, sometimes wine, chocolate, or cheese is all you need.

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Loveless Cafe – A Nashville Tradition

Clouds and rain have blotted out the blue skies we’ve been enjoying.  Despite the ugly weather, my mom came to visit me today and we decided to venture out to Loveless Cafe, a famous Nashville establishment renowned for their amazing homemade biscuits.  I’m not kidding about the “famous” part; they have been featured on the Food Network and Martha Stewart’s show.  The walls of the lobby, I suppose you’d call it, are covered with framed and autographed pictures of country music stars, including one of my favorite groups, Lady Antebellum.

Loveless Cafe started in 1951 as a motel and cafe and gained a reputation for their great Southern fare and incredible biscuits.  Although they’ve gone through a lot of changes over the decades, including converting the 14 motel rooms into shops that surround the restaurant and the installation of a barbecue pit next door, they have managed to retain their reputation as a Nashville landmark.  Their country store sells their products, which include various preserves, t-shirts, cookbooks, country meats, and cooking tools.  Our mouths were watering while flipping through a collection of Tennessee recipes.  Mom laughed and said, “If you ate like this everyday you’d die!”  She said it in a joking way, but this is a complicated issue we’ve been discussing in class, the relative danger of eating these time-honored dishes.

The Southern comfort food was a perfect antidote to the weather.  I ordered the country ham with fried eggs, creamed corn, and fried okra and my mom ordered the fried catfish, hush puppies, mac and cheese, and caramel sweet potatoes.  Our order came with four fresh biscuits and preserves.  Accustomed to Pillsbury grands, I was initially a little disappointed that they were small, but I discovered that the Doughboy has got NOTHING on these biscuits.  I would have enjoyed them if they were the size of quarters, and the 45-minute wait would have been worth it just for these biscuits, which I was careful to eat slowly so I could savor every bite.

The ham was very salty, as country ham usually is, so I ate it with the sweet potatoes to temper it slightly.  The fried okra was also salty but tasty nonetheless.  The mac and cheese was wonderfully cheesy; none of the bland, creamy starch you’d get at Cracker Barrel.  The creamed corn was sweet like summer, and they left many of the kernels intact so it had a nice, little crunch.  The fried catfish, which I had never had before, was mild and perfectly flavorful and the accompanying hush puppies, a traditional partner to catfish, were delicious.

Mom commented that she prefers the okra her mother used to make.  Abuela used to cook okra in a sofrito, a sauce that is used to flavor virtually everything in Cuban and many Caribbean cuisines.  It was interesting to talk about the parallels between Southern and Cuban cuisine.  Some are surprising, while others, like okra, can be explained.  Okra originates in Africa, and since African slaves were brought both to the Caribbean and the South, it makes sense that it is included in both cuisines.  Cubans call okra “quimbombo,” a word of African origin that is immensely entertaining to pronounce.  My dad used to tell a story about teaching his very Southern coworker this word, and he thought it was so funny that from that day forward he began to refer to it as quimbombo, which bounced off his tongue like a spring with his Southern twang.

My mom loves catfish, which she never had until she moved to the South.  She loves it so much she even remembers the first time she tried it, which strangely enough was at the house of another Cuban family from up north.  I always thought catfish would taste too fishy, but I was surprised by the flavor and really liked it.   I read that most catfish is farmed and imported, so I wonder where they get theirs from. I also wondered where they get their pork and beef.  Despite enjoying the food, I had a nagging need to know how it was produced.  Nevertheless, my epicurean side was pleased that they had a real barbecue pit next door.

For dessert we had coconut cream pie, which two of the waiters confirmed as the best choice.  I had to wholeheartedly agree.  It was the perfect sweetness and reminded me of warmer, sunnier weather.

After I ate I felt buoyantly happy.  That’s the power of comfort food on a chilly, rainy day–coupled with the excitement of eating the food I’ve been reading about for my southern foods class.  It’s a little touristy, but the atmosphere is very homey and not kitschy like Cracker Barrel.  To top it off, the staff seems very friendly.  I will definitely come back sometime.  Now I’m dying for an out-of-towner to visit me so I can take them there.

Earlier, while we were waiting, we went to a gift shop behind the restaurant that had some unique items…

Not only have I found a place to take visitors to the South, I have found a great place to buy birthday gifts. : )

Who Says Crepes Can’t Be a Midnight Snack?

I’m a little crazy.  I know this.  That is why when one of my roommates walked into the kitchen at one in the morning to find me eating crepes, I completely understood the quizzical look on her face.  I was doing laundry at midnight on a Saturday night, which is also a little crazy, and I was really hungry.  Earlier in the day I had found a basic recipe for crepes on All Recipes and wanted to try them.  I really couldn’t think of a better time than that very moment.

On Sundays, my mom would occasionally make crepes stuffed with a ricotta and sugar mix and topped with strawberries and whipped cream, but I had never made them myself.  The crepes were a little tricky at first because the burners on our stove are not level, thus uneven thickness, and crepes are really hard to flip.  True to my mission, most of the ingredients I used were organic, and two, the eggs and milk, were actually local.  I didn’t have ricotta or berries, unfortunately, so I filled mine with things I had on hand from a shopping trip last week at the Turnip Truck Natural Market (post on this later in the week): yogurt mixed with coconut, sugar, and vanilla extract.  Then I roasted coconut shavings in the pan I had cooked the crepes in to sprinkle on top. The yogurt filling was good, but it would have been nicer if it was thicker.  Some other fillings/toppings I’d like to try are nutella and bananas, fruit preserves, or savory fillings like mushrooms, spinach, and cream cheese.   Perhaps guava and cheese, a popular filling in Cuban pastelitos (pastries), could be tasty.  I think crepes are one of my new favorite things.

Here is the basic crepe recipe, compliments of All Recipes.

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted

Whisk together wet ingredients (you can add a little vanilla if you’d like), then slowly whisk in the dry ingredients.  Lightly grease a pan (I used spray butter) and heat on medium-high.  When pan is heated, pour about 1/4 cup of the liquid into the pan.  When it sets and the bottom browns slightly, flip over and brown other side.  Repeat with the rest of mixture.  Makes about 8 crepes.

For my filling, I added sugar, grated coconut, and vanilla to taste to plain low-fat yogurt.

A few words about the milk I used:  I used skim milk from Hatcher Family Dairy in Arno, Tennessee.  They sell their products in several places including the farmer’s market, the Turnip Truck, and the Whole Foods in Green Hills. Their cows are hormone-free and forage on grass, unlike factory-farmed cows whose feed include ground corn, which their stomachs cannot handle so it makes them sick and destroys their livers, hence the antibiotics they are often pumped with.  Since two of the Hatcher family members are veterinarians, whenever their cows are sick, they are treated with the latest antibiotics, but the milk of these cows is discarded until the medicine leaves their systems.  Their website says that they treat their cows like members of the family–members of the family that they milk.  Anyway, I’ve bought their milk two times in a row, and I’ve been really satisfied with their product.  It also makes me feel better to support a local farm that treats their cows humanely.

Jamie Oliver’s Wish for Every Child in America

Everyone who cares about food has seen this speech already, but I finally got around to watching it and I’m so glad I did.  His speech is powerful, informative, and inspiring.   In one part, he shows a clip of him asking a classroom of young children to name the vegetables he was holding up, and they could not answer a single one correctly.  One child could not even recognize a potato, likely because it wasn’t sliced and fried or chopped and molded into a tater tot.  It was horrifying, but it has motivated me to teach, if I do actually teach next year, at the elementary school level so I can incorporate this knowledge into the curriculum and build a foundation for these kids.  They can’t grow up not knowing what a tomato is.  Watch it.  I’m looking forward to his series about his work in West Virginia to change eating habits, which premieres this coming week.  Watch that too.

A Farmer’s Market in February

Now, don’t worry.  I am quite aware that it is March.  I tried to start this personal challenge of eating locally, responsibly, and deliciously in February, but I’ve had some false starts, or as I like to call it “practice.”  I had realized that it would be impossible to eat completely locally.  It’s been a cruel winter in Tennessee so there has not been much has been in season.  I ate a lot of sweet potatoes and greens for a couple of weeks because they were the most local things I could find, but even they weren’t from Tennessee.  It also occurred to me that you just can’t everything from middle Tennessee.  Olive oil, dried spices, sugar, coffee…not quite indigenous to Tennessee.  I revised my “rules” to be less militant (see previous post or About.)

One thing that I have been consistently doing during my “practice,”  is eating locally and naturally produced eggs and milk.   After all that I’ve learned in my Southern Foodways class, which inspired this challenge by the way, I have not been able to consume mass-produced eggs and milk without thinking about the horrible treatment of the animals and the antibiotics and hormones they are pumped with (another post about that later.)  I have found that local, natural eggs and milk are not only karmically pleasing, but they’re also tastier.

I began practicing, if you will, by visiting the Nashville Farmer’s Market one frigid Saturday morning in February with my roommate.  The temperature made my expectations pretty low, but once I entered the enclosed awning, I was surprised to see all sorts of fruits and vegetables, even tomatoes.  I had previously assumed that farmer’s markets only sold seasonal local produce, but I learned that this is not true.  At one stand, I asked an elderly Southern woman if any of her produce was local.  “Nothing’s local right now, honey,” she said.  She explained that much of the produce comes from California, Texas, or Florida in the winter.  She got her tomatoes from Florida, she said, before their unexpected chill wiped out a large portion of the crop.  I unfortunately failed to ask how she gets the produce to Tennessee.  Even the sweet potatoes I purchased from one vendor weren’t from Tennessee.  The young guy wasn’t exactly sure, but he thought they were from Mississippi.  The sweet potatoes were absolutely gigantic, and I loved that they still had some mud on them.  Unlike the individually shrink wrapped sweet potatoes I see at Kroger sometimes, I knew that these had a short trip from the earth to my hands.

I bought mustard greens from another vendor, a large middle-aged man with a red trucker hat, who got them from a farm in Georgia.  My roommate asked him how to cook them, and I was thrilled when he started detailing the traditional Southern way: boiling it down with ham hocks until the water is reduced.  I had learned about cooking greens in my Southern Foodways class, so it made me smile to see my coursework come to life.  The man knew his greens; he described to us the taste of each green from the mustard greens to the collard greens and kale.  He described the mustard greens having a crisp, spicy taste, and since I couldn’t imagine a spicy vegetable, I bought some to satisfy my curiosity.

I bought some free-range eggs that were collected only two days before from Walnut Hills Farm, a farm in Bethpage, Tennessee that is known for their excellent grass-fed beef.  Doug and Sue were very personable and were really open about their farming methods.  (I’m hopefully going to be visiting their farm and interviewing them soon, so stay tuned.)  I also got some delicious whole wheat bread from Shrock Family Bakery from Wildersville, TN.  These two foods comprised my very first completely local meal, a fried egg on toast.  It’s simple, sure, but it’s one of my favorite things to have for breakfast and when made from local, fresh ingredients it’s even better.  I could tell the eggs were different.  Sue had told me not to try hard-boiling them for a few days because fresh eggs are much harder to peel when boiled.  Just hearing this little difference made me feel happy about the eggs.  The taste was also so pure.  It’s a strange adjective, but I’ve always gotten a strange, almost metallic aftertaste from mass-produced eggs–which may be my imagination or unique to me, I’m not sure–but this egg just tasted like an egg. The bread was soft, sweet, and airy.  I liked that I had to slice it myself because it forced me to establish a relationship with my food.  The list of ingredients was also refreshingly short.

Another great thing about the farmer’s market is free samples.  I had a delicious ginger cookie from Dozen.  Claire Meneely, the baker, makes an effort to source local ingredients, which I was happy about, of course.  There were also free samples of a locally produced goat cheese, which I unfortunately missed out on.

I left the market with 2 gigantic sweet potatoes, a large bushel of mustard greens, a dozen eggs, a loaf of whole wheat bread, and two onions, all for $12.70.  What I enjoyed most, even more than that ginger cookie, was being able to talk to the people producing my food.  It felt better, cleaner, to know where it was coming from.  I can’t wait to visit the market in late spring when the local options will be more diverse.