Major National Food Trends Represented In Triangle And Eastern NC

By Moreton Neal


Food writers are bombarded by e-mails hawking the latest edible trend. Notices about the newest health foods, chain restaurant events and superfluous kitchen gadgets fill my delete file. All these exuberant public relations efforts are designed to create trends, and it’s fun to see what actually catches on.

Wading through all the hype about this or that revolutionary new food product, it becomes more and more obvious that the most important trend this year is not a specific food, wine or cooking gadget. It’s much bigger than that. It’s an important aesthetic and political movement — eating locally.

I just returned from San Francisco where Slow Food Nation, sponsored by the world’s most powerful locavore organization, attracted thousands of passionate foodies. After spending time in bounteous California, a food lovers’s mecca, I was even more convinced that, for us who live in central and Eastern NC, eating locally is no hardship. Our mild climate, length of growing season, fertile soil, educated farmers, food artisans and knowledgeable consumers create a perfect storm of conditions resulting in outstanding local food. With all these blessings, it’s no wonder that Bon Appetit’s latest issue calls the Chapel Hill-Durham corridor “a veritable food lover’s utopia.”

Back home with a new perspective, I offer some of the trends I have followed this year, 10 more reasons our mouths and stomachs are so happy in the Triangle.

Macaroni and Cheese
This familiar comfort food is nothing new. Most Southerners grew up on it, a staple of school cafeterias and church suppers. Who would have thought mac and cheese would eventually become a tabula rasa for imaginative chefs all over the country? It’s the perfect blank slate for unusual interpretations, bolstered by our outstanding artisan cheeses and pungent flavorings like truffles and rosemary.

When the Magnolia Grill’s Ben Barker’s recipe for “luxe macaroni and cheese,” featuring four cheeses and fresh basil, appeared in his cookbook Not Afraid of Flavor, the handwriting was on the wall. Now, almost a decade later, I am delighted to see this humble dish, now glorified with the addition of high-quality ingredients, on the menus of upscale eateries all over the Triangle.

Truffles

No one is indifferent about truffles. People either love their musty earthiness or can’t abide it. Truffle lovers can’t get enough of the unique flavor and never let a tasting opportunity slip by. Just last week, I stood in line at San Francisco’s Clock Bar for a mouthful of Chef Michael Mina’s glorious truffle popcorn.

Some of our best chefs are finding intriguing ways to use this distinctive flavor (notably Ashley Christensen’s Poole’s Diner’s macaroni and truffled cheese and Toast’s truffle oil-enhanced three cheese sandwich).

We’ll be seeing and tasting even more truffles now that ambitious Southern Pines entrepreneur Susan Rice has devoted thousands of acres to raising them in the Sandhills. Her company, Black Diamond French Truffles, Inc. should be producing its subterranean gems in a few years. Meanwhile, the Web site sells truffle products (including popcorn!) at www.susanricetruffles.com.

You can find white truffle oil at gourmet stores around the Triangle (try it on a baked potato or a cream-based soup), and in the fall, look for imported fresh truffles at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill.

Mint

Mint is THE Southern herb. Our grandparents’ generation used a prolific amount of mint in their juleps and their tea. Taken for granted for more than a generation, mint is back. Local bartenders no longer have to explain what the green stuff is in a mojito. Mint shows up in summer sorbets and appears in Indian chutneys and Mediterranean marinades. Lately I’ve noticed the herb in dishes where cilantro or basil would be the more obvious choice. Upscale Mexican and American restaurants use it in salads and in mixtures such as MEZ’s crabcakes where the cool herb balances the heat of chilies.

Try it at home in a pesto or chimichurri sauce. We use it almost daily and have a patch in the back yard, just like grandma, who never served a glass of iced tea without a sprig of fragrant mint to tickle the nose.

Exotic Spirits
If caipirinha, the Brazilian national drink featuring cachaca and lime juice, is served in many of our local bars, can the new Italian rage, aperol, be far behind? After falling in love in a Charleston trattoria with this gorgeous coral-colored spirit reminiscent of campari, I hope not.
But it’s not here yet. Sugarcane-based cachaca and limoncello available at our ABC stores give cause for hope, but so far, no sign of aperol. I foresee a visit to a South Carolina liquor store in my near future.

Just last week a San Francisco bartender introduced me to a new concept — organic liquor. Ordering a Beefeater’s martini, I was told the bar had none. Okay, how about Tanqueray? No, but if you like Tanqueray, you’ll like Juniper Green Organic Gin, he suggested. It hit the spot, but the oxymoronic concept of organic liquor still puzzles me.

When I got back home, I found my inbox bulging with pitches for organic vodka and other “healthy” spirits, including one with — what else — green tea. This trend is crazy, but I say let’s celebrate it with a glass of Zen green tea liqueur.

Boutique Beer

John and Greg Shuck and Joe Zonin started a major trend 13 years ago when they founded Carolina Brewery, the Triangle’s first microbrewery, based in Holly Springs. The company now produces at least 10 beers offered on tap all over the area. Other local breweries, notably the award-winning Triangle Brewing Company, produce hundreds of unique local beers. I predict we will see an explosion of multi-course food and beer pairings in the months to come.
House-Cured Meats

Just a couple of years ago, the only homemade cured sausages and meats available commercially around here could be found at Weaver Street Grocery in Carrboro, produced by Giacomo’s, a tiny Greensboro deli. That Italian family business spearheaded this trend. These days you can enjoy incredible house-cured meats — pastrami, bacon, country sausages, corned beef and more in all corners of the Triangle. Globe, Piedmont, Magnolia Grill, Watts Grocery, the Barbecue Joint, Sandwhich, and Neal’s Deli all feature house-cured meats. Pick your nearest venue and try some. You’ll never open a package of Boar’s Head again.

LocoPops

At two bucks a “pop,” I wouldn’t have predicted these frozen delights to take off, but with six LocoPops locations thriving in Chapel Hill, Durham, Raleigh and Hillsborough, the Triangle has clearly fallen in love with these unusual popsicles. These frozen treats are made from fresh local ingredients with novel flavors like tamarind, fig, cucumber and chili, apple cider, and mojito. I expect this specialty chain, created by Triangle resident Summer Bicknell, to survive the winter and gain even more momentum when the temperature rises again.

Spanish Food

In last month’s Metro I wrote about the Spanish food explosion in conjunction with the Nasher Museum’s fall exhibit, “From El Greco to Velázquez.” To honor the show, many of our best restaurants are offering Spanish wine dinners and have included Iberian specialties on their menus. Still other casual eateries are touting a weekly tapas night, serving tortilla Espanola, Spanish cheeses, almonds, olives, riojas and sherries. I’m hoping patrons will become addicted to the joys of Spanish food and wines, and we’ll be seeing the trend continue after the exhibit leaves.

Lamb
This sweetest of meats will never replace pork in the hearts and stomachs of Tar Heels. Even so, I’m happy to see more of it lately on Triangle restaurant menus. Lamb has always been the base of some of the best dishes in our ethnic eateries — Indian saag, Moroccan tagines, Irish stew, tender Greek-style braised shanks. In our upscale dining rooms, tender loin chops support elegant sauces. Several food magazines featured variations of burgers made from lamb this summer, and avid griller that my husband is, we tried them all. The best of the lot was inexpensive ground lamb, seasoned simply with salt and pepper. Many of our farmers’ markets carry fresh local lamb meat. Even Harris Teeter offers it pre-ground. Use this tasty meat next time you cook a burger or mix it into ground beef for a meatloaf, and discover, or rediscover, a culinary treat.

Small Farmers’ Markets
Blessed for over 30 years with two major farmers’ markets in the area — the State Farmers’ Market in Raleigh and the Carrboro market — our passion for local produce, meats and cheeses has inspired offshoots of these venerable institutions. Durham and Hillsborough joined the act a few years ago. Downtown Raleigh gained Moore Square’s market last year. Recent additions can be found in Cary, Holly Springs, Raleigh’s North Hills, two more in Chapel Hill shopping malls and in Fearrington.

Orange County farmer Ken Dawson speaks for all Triangle food enthusiasts in “America’s Foodiest Small Town,” in this month’s Bon Appetit. “I see a real change in the way people are eating,” Dawson says. “[We] care about where [our] food comes from. … I think folks could learn a lot from the synergy between farmers, farmers’ markets, restaurants and the community that we have in Durham and Chapel Hill. It’s a model for the rest of the country.”

Nibbles
Raleigh’s first French-style brasserie, Coquette, opens this month in North Hills in the spot vacated by South. Coquette is the latest creation of the Urban Food Group who brought us Vivace, Frasier’s and Porter’s Tavern.
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Fans of Maximillian’s Pizza Kitchen are pleased to have their favorite pizza palace back in business replacing Terra Nova. The new/old pizzeria reopened in its former location near Maximillian’s Grill and Wine Bar on Chapel Hill Road in Cary.
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The Wine Authorities celebrated its first anniversary in business at its Durham location with a wine tasting and some surprises, a sampling of the wares of some of our most promising new artisans and food businesses. Durham cheese-maker Alessandra Trompeo served her cheeses from La Casa dei Formaggi (“house of cheeses” in her native Italian). Sam Foley, the former chef of Starlu and Tom Ferguson of Durham Catering served “Only Burgers” from their new burger enterprise, and Artisan Cupcake provided mini-cupcakes. Find more about these local entrepreneurs online at www.artisancupcake.com, www.onlyburger.com, and look for Trompeo’s cheeses at your neighborhood farmers’ markets.
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Fearrington House will feature a Beer Dinner with Mark Ruedrich from North Coast Brewing Company Sunday, Oct. 12, at 6 p.m. North Coast Brewery is a pioneer in the craft beer movement in the United States and has won 70 national and international competitions. Call 919-542-2121 for reservations.
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The World Beer Festival takes place Oct. 4 in Durham featuring more than 300 beers from 150 breweries from all over the country with food from local restaurant vendors. Find information at www.allaboutbeer.com.
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Head to Morehead City Oct. 3 for the NC Seafood Festival. You will enjoy an array of exhibits and the sound of music from jazz to the hand clappin’ rhythms of Down East, and fill up on shrimp, crab and oysters, regional stews, salads and seafood sandwiches. For more information, go to, www.ncseafoodfestival.org.
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Oyster lovers will be attracted to the 28th Annual North Carolina Oyster Festival in Shallotte, NC, on Oct. 18. There will be live entertainment, a surfing contest, North Carolina Oyster Shucking Championships and an Oyster Stew Cook-off. Visit online at  www.brunswickcountychamber.org/OF-nc-oyster-festival.cfm for more information.
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At the North Carolina Yam Festival in Tabor City on Oct. 24-25, you can join local celebrities, Miss Puddin’ Pie and Tommy Tater, while enjoying food and crafts, a parade and more. Columbus County lies a short distance from the Atlantic Ocean in the fertile lowlands of the coastal plain. Come early for the Taste of Tabor on Thursday, Oct. 23. Go to www.discovercolumbuscounty.org for more information.
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DG Martin’s second edition of Interstate Eateries is now available at local bookstores. Keep this charmingly written, pocket-sized “guide to home cooking along North Carolina’s interstates” in your glove compartment and you’ll be able to satisfy cravings for old-fashioned fried chicken, fried okra, pork barbecue, collards, biscuits and banana pudding. You may never have to settle for a burger at McDonald’s again.
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The long-awaited Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue will
be available in time for holiday giving. Authors John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed will be reading and signing books in most Triangle bookstores during the fall season.
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Metro readers have been asking about the PBS show mentioned in last month’s column on Spanish food, Spain … on the Road Again with Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow. UNC-TV has announced that the series will run locally beginning at 10 p.m., Oct. 3 and will continue on Friday evenings throughout the month.