Thursday, July 23, 2009

Atlanta's Farmers' Markets, Un-Earthed

Morningside is a picturesque neighborhood situated a few miles outside of downtown Atlanta, but it feels like an entirely different world. The hills roll, the streets teem with relaxed neighborhood energy and funky shops and eateries, and everyone, from the dogs, to the kids, to the adults, seems to be smiling.

Smack dab in the center of it all, in a tiny parking lot sandwiched between a restaurant and a bakery, is the Morningside Farmers' Market. Though it's small in size it's huge in heart; a veritable hot-bed of local and organic adulation. Established over a decade ago by one Ann Brewer, it is everything a farmers' market should be and spills over with the bounty of nearby Georgia farmland. Heirloom tomatoes, orange grape tomatoes, corn - the eye candy was impossible to resist from my busy little book signing table.

I was regretful I couldn't take all this wonderful stuff back to my own far-away kitchen, but will forever retain the memories of this market and its people.

Meanwhile, down a hill and a few turns and miles away, Piedmont Park is home to yet another farmers' market known as Green Market. Larger and longer than its Morningside neighbor, Green Market feels a tad more urban and more languid. People walked more slowly as they ambled along to shop and visit. Like Morningside, the weekly Saturday morning market hosts cooking demonstrations by local chefs.

Well done, Atlanta! I am told the Peachtree Market is another market wonder, but have not yet been.

Morningside Farmers' Market
1393 N. Highland Avenue
Atlanta, GA

Green Market
Piedmont Park
12th Street entrance
Atlanta, GA

Worth a Visit

A recent and unexplained quest for local taco-bests delivered me to the gates of Zia Taqueria yesterday. I'd been meaning to check it out ever since it emerged from the ashes of former fabulous Fez's locale next to the Terrace Theater on Maybank Highway, but have only just gotten around to doing so.

Cool and soothing, with quiet undertones of Fez's Moroccan look, golden yellow walls and Spanish tiles give Zia attractive Mexican airs. The menu is replete with enchiladas, tortas, tacos and sides with relatively gentle price points ($1.99 sides up to $12.99 platos)that pair with a nice selection of mixed drinks, beer and wine.

Tacos come on soft corn or flour tortillas and are amply portioned, but lack the flavor power of similar selections from nearby Taco Spot. The beef barbacoa, for example, had the tender texture-marks of slow cooking, but lacked the umph of spice and lime. The onion cilantro relish was barely discernible; a little more of this would be a welcome addition.

With easy and pleasant counter service and an accessible location, Zia's begs for a visit when you're in this neck of the woods and thirsty for a cool one and a tasty, if not show-stopping, taco.

Zia Taqueria
1956A Maybank Highway, James Island
(843) 406-8877

Monday, July 13, 2009

Farmers' Market Fun

Conducting a book "tour" without a press agent,with a little dog and heavy book boxes in tow during a hot Southern summer is less than sexy. In fact, it's darn hard work. However, the sense of general adventure and the joy of the farmers' markets and new cities I've been visiting, have made it all more than worth the while.

Last Friday, I was greeted at The Pee Dee State Farmers Market by Suzanne Galloway and her amiable staff at The Hobnob Gourmet. "Hobnob" is located in the bucolic and beautiful red barn, across the way from the sprawling open shed where produce and goods are sold by Pee Dee farmers. Suzanne put on quite the spread; zucchini toasts, butter bean bruschetta, and other recipes from Southern Farmers Market Cookbook, along with sweet tea and ice cold lemon water, to refresh her many guests. Most had come expressly for the signing and they were a well turned-out group! One man, a veritable foodie who referred to his wife as his "kitchen goddess," merrily shared some cannoli and cookies they had picked up in Philly on a road trip made purely for the purpose of buying them.

Tann Mann and I regretted leaving such a pleasant setting, not to mention such a gorgeous gourmet shop, but Wilmington, NC beckoned. I struggled to find a hotel, but ended up with a lovely room in the Hilton over-looking the Cape Fear River, which happens to be around the corner from The Riverfront Farmers' Market we were scheduled to visit the next morning.

A first time visit to both Wilmington and this vibrant market (headed by Farmers' Market Manager extraordinaire R.T. Jones)that just pulses with positive community energy while over-flowing with local produce and friendly farmers. Again, so many happy stories were told by the people that came by to look at and buy the book, it was impossible not to have a good time. One young lady bought a book for her fiance, another bought two for friends. The market is situated on the edge of the river, which provided welcome, lifting breezes and charming vistas. Children, dogs and smiles were everywhere I looked. This is a not-to-be-missed market. It's not surprising it's ranked the #1 community gathering place in town.

My last ten books were snapped up by one David Holden at Holden Brothers Farm Market in Shallotte, NC, just before the SC border on the return home. A roadside market selling produce grown on Holden's farm, the large shack was thronged with people hungrily snapping up fresh goods on a warm Saturday afternoon. As he pondered the book, the salty, time and weather-seasoned farmer flipped through it with his slightly grimy farmer's thumb, leaving a brownish,ingrained spot on the edge of the pages. Somehow, this seemed fitting and endearing, especially when he pulled $140 in cash out of his pocket and put it in my hands, even before he had the books! "That's allright, I trust you," he said. Having thought those days were gone forever, I smiled and went out to sign the books. When I returned with them, he turned and showed his daughter, proudly stating, "Look, honey, they're signed."

Sometimes life is just too sweet. Hope you get out to your local farmers market soon for a little taste from the same lovin'cup.

Pee Dee State Farmers Market/Hobnob Gourmet
2513 W. Lucas Street, Florence

Riverfront Farmers'Market
N. Water Street - Historic downtown Wilmington, NC

Holden Brothers Farm Market
5600 Ocean Highway West
Shallotte, NC

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Spot On!

Forget Taco Boy, Taco Spot's Jason Vaughn is Charleston's taco man.

The (two) Taco Boy restaurants deliver huge style and decor dividends, but I've always found the food to be relatively pedestrian and generic. Taco Spot's tacos, burritos, wraps, and quesadillas are packed with grown-up, sophisticated ingredients paired with a sense of contemplative playfulness. Here, blackened grouper or chicken meet a cayenne ranch dressing while blackened steak dances with hot, house made salsa.

Johnson & Wales graduate Jason Vaughn smoothly orchestrates this tempting taste temptest in a tiny open kitchen that wafts with the fresh scents of cilantro, chile, and garlic and pulses with the beat of hard rock tunes, imparting a decidedly masculine mood. A sunny paint pairing of green, yellow and a large orange "spot" logo set an inviting, albeit spartan, stage.

Dining is take-out or dine-in on one of the seven stools that line the open kitchen and impressive array of international hot sauce bottles or in one of the three tables in the small back-room.

A creamy house made queso dip ($1.49, 2 oz ramekin with chips) is dotted with the pungent house made salsa and a dollop of pureed fresh jalapeno. Rich and thick, it makes for a more than adequate starter, especially when the humble price is factored in. The restaurant boldly claims near the front door that it serves the best fish tacos in town, and I've got to admit, this is no exaggeration. Tacos are served either on a soft flour tortilla or a freshly fried corn tortilla; the grouper with cilantro aioli ($2.49) paired swimmingly on the fresh, flour tortilla. The fish could have been snared and filleted on the spot, it tasted that fresh, sweet and delicious. Topped with a crunchy tomato and cucumber pico and a dusting of clean-tasting cilantro, it was impeccable. I also sampled the seared steak and hot salsa taco ($2.49) which hit all the right notes, especially when tempered with a spot of cooling sour cream.

This taco sweet spot is located a stone's throw from Home Team BBQ in a small strip mall with convenient parking. Swing on by and give it a try!

The Taco Spot
1301 B Ashley River Road, West Ashley
(843) 225-7426
Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sat., noon-9 p.m.
Closed daily from 4 to 5 p.m.

Culinary Cost-Cutting 101

Coupon Crazy

When I was a little girl, I marveled while watching my Great Aunt Frances sitting at her linoleum-topped kitchen table, cutting coupons from the daily newspaper in the tiny Kansas town she lived in until she was nearly 100 years old.

It seemed like such a waste of energy in order to save a few pennies on, what I thought, were probably things she wouldn't normally buy anyway. But, I was naive. She, a thrifty survivor of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, had her coupon system down pat and it's probably one of the reasons she made it through a long life of hard times, many of them spent alone.

The latest bout of monetary unpleasantness, however, has created a market for New Age couponing systems. The internet now has a number of hot coupon sites (I like which provide free, brand-name coupons and more if you select to register as a member. They're just a click, a printer, and five minutes away. In addition, many grocery stores' websites offer lists of daily specials. And, here's the kicker. Many provide selections from the kind of items you usually purchase, anyway. That was it for me. The last straw supporting my long-standing anti-coupon mindset finally broke its resistant back.

Harris Teeter's online specials shopping list became this list-hater's new best friend. I dipped into it with reckless abandon. With a little practice and increasing knowledge, I'm slowly forming my own semi-profitable coupon system. By combining the free manufacturer's coupons from sites like with a daily special shopping list constructed from Harris Teeter's web site ( , my handy VIC card, and an extra dose of concentration at the grocery store, I have scored some serious savings.

The best yet happened last week. Granted, it was a big sales day at the downtown Teeter. The store was offering buy one get one, two or even three, all over the place on big ticket items like beef, coffee and wine. Since I'm expecting company in a couple weeks, I decided to stock up on these and other staples. The net result was a whopping $67 total savings. In essence, I bought three weeks-worth of groceries for less than I usually spend in one week!

My heart raced with anticipation as I watched the basket cave with the weight of my cache and the numbers creeping slowly higher on the cash register. Then, as the cashier started calculating in the selected coupons, the numbers amazingly started going down. It was like getting on the scale after a week of gorging Haagen-Dazs only to find you'd lost five pounds. I was beaming. She was beaming and said, "You did good today!"

Admittedly, a follow-up trip to replenish the fresh vegetable drawer just one week later only yielded $10 in savings, but next time I'll do better. I'm on a coupon-crazed mission. Intelligent use of coupons and smart shopping add up to saving a lot more than pennies. And, I'm not in Kansas anymore.

One Plucky Chicken, Four Marvelous Meals

With grocery costs rocketing to the stratosphere, it’s imperative to save wherever you can at the supermarket without eliminating taste. In addition to reaching for reduced daily specials, what you buy and how you put it to use in your kitchen can happily translate to huge savings with bodacious bite.

In this era of grocery gouging, chicken can become your new best friend for just pennies per four ounce serving when paired with practical pantry staples like pasta and veggies. Low in fat, high in protein and exceptionally versatile, chicken marries equally well with the exotic (think truffles or saffron) to the humble (think roasted potatoes and rosemary).

For these reasons, it’s a regular menu guest at my house, where I pride myself on transforming a single, four pound chicken (preferably organic and purchased at a reduced rate) into four fabulous feasts for a group of four. That’s sixteen meals, folks! A four pound chicken runs anywhere from $6-$10 (depending on where and how you shop), throw in a little change for ingredients to flesh it out into a meal (4X), and you’re looking at less than $20. A night out for a family of four at any fast food favorite will set you back the same amount or more faster than you can say “heart attack”.

Gotcha? Let me tell you how it’s done!

Meal #1: This is the launching pad for the meal plan event(s) – a whole roasted chicken. Since it’s going to be transformed several times, keep the seasoning simple – ground pepper, a nice crust of coarse salt and a rub down with olive oil. Roast at 425 until done (about 20 minutes per pound) and top it with a few love pats of butter to sink deeply into the bird. Allow the roasted chicken to rest and re-absorb its juices. Cut the both legs and thighs away from the chicken (reserving warm). Cut the breasts away from the rib cage, cool and store in your refrigerator for later use. Serve both legs and both thighs with steamed vegetables and roasted potatoes for a satisfying, nutritional meal. Go ahead and prepare a pan gravy with a little roux, white wine, chicken stock, Dijon mustard and fresh tarragon to dress things up, but hold on to the carcass!

Meal #2: Start this after the roast chicken dinner to prepare for tomorrow’s old-fashioned and DELICIOUS chicken noodle soup. With a sturdy chef’s knife, cut up the reserved carcass remnants – the rib cage and spine – into four or five coarse chunks and put them in a two quart soup pot with a quartered onion, carrot, celery stalk and a clove or two of garlic to make an impromptu stock. Add a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and fresh thyme for added flavor. Bring it up to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer over low heat and forget about it for three to four hours. Allow to cool and refrigerate, covered, overnight.
About thirty minutes before you’re slotted to serve dinner, skim off any accumulated fat off the top of the stock, strain it, discarding all solids except any bits of chicken flesh. Finely chop an onion, carrot and celery stalk and sauté them in the same pot with a tablespoon of olive oil until softened. Season, return the strained stock to the pan and bring up to a boil. Add reserved chicken and about ¼ pound of dried pasta (flat noodles, spaghetti, linguini – your choice) and cook until tender. Serve with a drizzle of fresh herbs (parsley, tarragon, or thyme will do) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. A small, fresh salad and warm baguette make this a meal.

Meal #3: Chicken Salad Deluxe! This is where you can really have fun with chicken’s flavor/texture marriage versatility. Cut one of the reserved breasts into chunky, ½” cubes and toss in a bowl with coarsely chopped dried cranberries (or another dried fruit like figs or currants), coarsely chopped roasted almonds, fresh herbs, a dollop of Dijon, a dash of mayo and vinegar, salt and pepper and you’ve got a meal in minutes over a bed of greens. Other flavors that work in tandem with chicken include curry, paprika, cinnamon and almost any fresh herb imaginable. Make this your own!

Meal #4: Chicken Sandwiches Supreme! Again, versatility and imagination set the stage for show-stopping chicken sandwiches prepared with freshly roasted chicken breast. Go for the best quality bread you can find, from baguette to whole grain, and fill it with thinly cut slices of the remaining breast and toppings. One sliced breast will handily complete four sandwiches. Zip up mayo with fresh basil and Dijon mustard for a fresh, personalized sauce, top with a slice of red onion and crisp romaine. Go whole hog and add a few pieces of browned bacon and a slice of avocado if the mood moves.

Chicken never tasted so good for so little.