Chef Ben Adams: Refined Comfort Food

As I strolled through the Durham Farmers Market on a beautiful day in May 2013, I stopped and spoke to a chef who was gathering local produce, cheese, and herbs into large plastic crates. Glancing at his list as he moved from vendor to vendor, he wore a vintage brown and tan ball cap—the kind truckers wear—with the word Piedmont on it. His name was Ben. I told him how refreshing it was to see a chef shopping the farmers market. We didn’t see that often (or at all) in the small towns we had previously lived. When I asked him where he worked, he motioned down the street and said we should visit Piedmont sometime.

Fast forward to January 2015. I am sitting across from Chef Ben Adams in that very restaurant, Piedmont. It is a warm, inviting space on Foster Street in downtown Durham with an elegant yet industrial vibe. It is owned by Jamie DeMent and Richard Holcomb who have a deep passion for local sustainable agriculture. Chef Adams sips tea while I tell him the story of our first meeting and how this interview feels like it was two years in the making. He smiles and says that he must have just started his job at Piedmont when we met at the market.

Chef Adams’ journey to Piedmont began with cooking school in Portland, Oregon after which he returned to his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina to work at Hominy Grill and later, McCrady’s. Chef Adams also spent time in Belgium, Australia, New Orleans, and Boston—each destination adding an element to his personal style, which focuses on seasonal produce with a refined twist.   Local, seasonal produce, meats, and products were the theme woven through all of Chef Adams’ experiences. He saw his mentors, like Chef Sean Brock, operating with this focus and wanted to do the same wherever he went.

Chef Adams explains that there is a balance between showing care—putting time and effort into the preparation and plating of each dish—and creating an element of home cooked comfort food. It’s a balance that he has perfected. He seeks to elevate the local produce through the method of preparation and the flavor pairings. Chef Adams is motivated by the challenge of creating new menus with the same ingredients in each season. In his second winter at Piedmont, he is pairing a sweet potato and bacon hash with pork. To compliment the pork, he added apple butter, toasted hazelnuts, and a juniper jus. Last year, a similar hash accompanied a beef preparation. Winter can be a difficult time to cook seasonally, so Chef Adams looks for inspired ways to prepare ingredients. He explains that last winter; he juiced sweet potatoes and made them in to a reduction, adding sorghum and sherry vinegar. Sweet potato sauce? Brilliant! This year, North Carolina’s beloved orange tuber debuts in a sweet potato and pear soup with bacon jam, hazelnuts, sage oil, and browned butter. This is refined comfort food at its best.

Chef Adams believes there is a strong community of people who care about food here in the Triangle. He takes his responsibility to source and serve local produce, meat, and seafood very seriously. The chef-farmer relationship is vital to this mission. His dedication to cultivating these relationships has provided him with consistent supply and farmers who seek to grow what he wants. In his dishes, he also incorporates many products grown, raised, and made in North Carolina and beyond—Anson Mills, First Hand Foods, Joyce Farms, Chapel Hill Creamery, Rappahannock Oysters—just to name a few.

On January 27th, Chef Ben Adams will compete in the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series – Triangle.  He is going up against Chef Chelsi Hogue from Ed’s Southern Food & Spirits in Goldsboro. It his is first time participating in this challenge. I asked him to explain his approach…without giving away any secrets. He leans forward with a huge smile and begins telling me about his team. Isaac, formerly of Pok Pok in New York City, and Candice, a chef with a modernist approach, are his teammates in this battle of secret local ingredients. He purposely chose two people whose approaches are different from his. They all have an ability to think “out of the box” and get creative with local ingredients, so he is confident they can win. The adrenaline and stress of cooking is something he enjoys and will be an asset during the competition.

Because Chef Adams enjoys the spontaneity of creating menus with ingredients that might have to change without much notice, he will be a worth adversary. The weather, growing conditions, pests, and other unexpected obstacles can throw the proverbial curve ball into a menu based on local, seasonal produce. Chef Adams has dealt with this circumstance before which will likely help him in a chef’s competition based on North Carolina ingredients revealed moments before the cooking begins.

If you have not been to one of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series events, you are missing out. It is not only delicious and fun, but as a ticket holder, you get to vote on each course. So, check out their schedule and get your ticket today. The Triangle portion of this statewide competition should prove to be quite amazing with chefs like Ben Adams in the line up.

A huge THANK YOU to Chef Ben Adams for taking time to sit down and talk with me. I look forward to my next visit to Piedmont, and I will be cheering for him on January 27th!

Photo by Tierney Farrell courtesy of Piedmont Restaurant

Photo by Tierney Farrell courtesy of Piedmont Restaurant

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Make 2015 a Great One

I have a love-hate relationship with this time of year.  I love it because it is a time of reflection and renewal. I hate it because, as I get older, it also brings with it the realization that life is about constant change–children grow up too fast and people we love don’t live forever.  There is always a bit of sadness in looking back and realizing that another year is gone. Thankfully, the idea of a clean slate at the beginning of a new year holds an incredible amount of hope.  Whether we proclaim a New Year’s resolution or simply make a quiet promise to ourselves, this time of starting anew can be exciting…even exhilarating.

Each year, I make a restaurant bucket list.  Part of the process of making this list includes reviewing the list from the previous year.  It is a fun walk down my food memory lane.  In 2014, my list included both new and established places in my community and beyond.  I believe life is too short to eat at chain restaurants, so you will not find them here. I have had the great fortune of getting to know some of the owners and employees of these amazing places.  It isn’t just about eating for me–it’s about community.

Rose’s Meat and Sweet Shop

Bida Manda

Mandolin

Acme Food and Beverage

Tazza Kitchen

Mami Nora’s

Pompieri Pizza

Jubala Village Cafe

Driftwood Southern Kitchen

Curate

Straw Valley Cafe

Cala Vela Empanada & Tequila Bar

Sitti

Poole’s Diner

I remember each meal, and I enjoyed every bite!  I look forward to tackling my 2015 bucket list.  I promise to share a few of them with you…and if you have any suggestions, please share them in the comments.  Happy New Year!  May your 2015 be filled with delicious local food and drink!

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Sugar Cookies and Kids: A Winning Combination

Sugar Cookies and Kids: A Winning Combination

When you are invited to bake holiday cookies with a precious curly-haired four year old, you know you must be someone special.  So, I packed up my favorite baking pans and rolling pin and headed to the home of friend and fellow blogger, Leigh Hines (Hines Sight Blog). Have rolling pin, will travel?  Absolutely.

Leigh’s daughter had requested this event not long after meeting me last summer.  She and I share a special bond–we’re both curly headed girls!  It was an instant connection only made stronger by the fact that I could converse with her about ALL of the Disney princesses.

Baking with children is not only fun, but it can be a great way to teach math, kitchen safety, and share a life skill that will stay with them forever.  Having baked with my own children, who are now grown, I knew engaging my curly-haired friend in hands-on work would be important.  I chose easy to decorate shapes: candy cane and snowflake.  I opted for colored sugar and three colors of icing to keep in simple.  She was a pro at helping me roll out the dough and cut the cookies.  Decorating is the best part, but it can be difficult for a little one to wait for that task.  So, while the cookies cooled, she assisted me with measuring the ingredients for the icing.  When waiting became cumbersome, she was easily reengaged rolling out some of the excess dough and cutting out a few more cookies (to be baked while we decorated).

The whole event was captured by her mom, Leigh, and placed on Leigh’s Hines Sight Blog.  Check out the fun, the smiles, and the recipes here.  I can’t wait to return next year for Holiday Baking 2.0!

These Christmas trees were last year's design.  Maybe my curly-haired friend and I can conquer these next year!

These Christmas trees were last year’s design. Maybe my curly-haired friend and I can conquer these next year!

One Year…and Counting!

A year ago I embarked upon this blogging journey.  After years of longing to write about farmers markets, using local produce, and great restaurants, I finally created my first post on November 30, 2013.  I cannot believe it has already been a year.  I admit, I would love to write more often.  In a perfect world, I would spend every day in the kitchen–cooking, creating recipes, and snapping photos of my creations.  Perhaps, some day…my perfect world will exist.  Until then, I will settle for perfect moments.

I am certain that my purpose in life is to be a connector.  The satisfaction I feel when I share a resource with someone or connect two people with similar interests is what makes life worth living! I appreciate the opportunity to give readers my favorite recipes or enlighten them with creative ways to use local produce.  I find joy in supporting local farmers and businesses by telling everyone about their products.  Thank you for reading my posts, sharing them with others, and continuing to walk with me on this food journey.  It wouldn’t be the same without YOU!

What better way to say thank you than a plate of heart shaped palmiers?

What better way to say thank you than a plate of heart shaped palmiers?

This is one of my favorite recipes because it is so good and SO easy.  Check out Ina Garten’s Palmier recipe, and impress your friends!

Food Memories

“How is everything?” the server asks.

“Oh, she hasn’t even taken a bite yet,” my husband responds rolling his eyes as I rotate my plate to get the perfect shot.  The server smiles knowingly and promises to check in with us soon.

“Honey, can you give me some light?” I plead.

“Sure,” he says as he pulls his iPhone from his pocket.

He always obliges my need to take a picture.  That…is true love!  I take a few photos and dig in to my meal.

This is a typical scene when I dine out.  Whether I am with my husband, a group of friends, or alone–I am constantly snapping a photo of my meal.  Actually, to be honest, I take an enormous amount of food pictures. At times, my friends and family who do not understand my need to capture a meal in photos, have probably thought an intervention was warranted. My need to capture a recipe in action or the perfectly plated homemade meal or an exquisite dining experience is deep within my soul. No intervention necessary because I doubt it would work! I have found that many people are committed to capturing the meals they make and the meals they enjoy while dining out. Some want to catalog their food journey while others simply want to share the meal and the experience with others. “We eat with our eyes first.” The incredibly insightful person who originally made this statement nailed it. We see a plate of delicious creativity, and we know immediately that we want to dig in. Our eyes tell our stomachs, “This should be amazing. Go for it!”

Food is also a memory; it is nostalgia; it is fellowship. Familiar food scents often spark a memory or a feeling of nostalgia. Photographs can do this, too. I remember my travels through the dishes I ate at every destination. I recall holidays and times with my family through the meals we have created together.

But still, some may ask, “why in the world would you take a photo of your food?”  Well, for me it is about the memory.  The visual creativity of the plating.  The mouth-watering appearance of the food. The aroma of the dish.  All of these things are captured in a photo and later can evoke the memory of that meal.   I keep these photos and stroll through them, much like one would a travel diary, reminiscing about the flavors and experiences. I have never been one to keep a written journal.  I guess my journaling is through the photos I take.  I am a “visual journalizer” of sorts.  We journal what is important to us and food is a huge part of my life.  From homemade, to dining out, to special occasions–I have a photographic history of my food journey.

Sharing these photos with others is a wonderful way to connect.  Social media also allows me to see the food journeys of others.  It has been an amazing way to meet people in my community who are passionate about food, cooking, and local agriculture.  When I see a photo of a delicious homemade creation, I immediately want the recipe.  When I see a beautifully plated meal from a local restaurant I have yet to discover, I immediately want to go there.

Food memories are the delicious moments in my life.  I am thankful for all of those moments and the ones that are yet to come.

The banana turron with purple potato ice cream at Mango Hut in 29 Palms, CA. I can still taste that wonderful ice cream!

The banana turron with purple potato ice cream at Mango Hut in 29 Palms, CA. I can still taste that wonderful ice cream!

This Breton butter cake with ginger ice cream and stone fruit was decadent.  If you are in La Jolla, CA, go to Whisk n Ladle...please!

This Breton butter cake with ginger ice cream and stone fruit was decadent. If you are in La Jolla, CA, go to Whisk n Ladle…please!

My dear friend Bryanne took me to the seafood market in Washington, D.C. one October. We ate these beauties at about 10:00AM.  Crawfish are best for breakfast!

My dear friend Bryanne took me to the seafood market in Washington, D.C. one October. We ate these beauties at about 10:00AM. Crawfish are best for breakfast!

Last year, I decided to eat beef again when I could find it pasture raised.  This was a beautifully prepared hangar steak with deconstructed chimchurri from Little Hen in Holly Springs.

Last year, I decided to eat beef again when I could find it pasture raised. This was a beautifully prepared hangar steak with deconstructed chimchurri from Little Hen in Holly Springs.

My first attempt at Mapo Tofu last year.  Love those Szechuan peppercorns!

My first attempt at Mapo Tofu last year. Love those Szechuan peppercorns!

My mom gave me figs from her tree in Eastern NC.  These were perfect paired with vanilla yogurt and some local honey.

My mom gave me figs from her tree in Eastern NC. These were perfect paired with vanilla yogurt and some local honey.

One of my favorite places in Raleigh is Fiction Kitchen.  This was a lovely heirloom tomato salad they did last summer.  We dine with my bosses--loved to see them experience this place for the first time!

One of my favorite places in Raleigh is Fiction Kitchen. This was a lovely heirloom tomato salad they did last summer. We dined with Dan and Diana Saklad from Whisk–loved to see them experience this place for the first time!

This wonderful focaccia from Dough in Asheville was our lunch atop Mt. Mitchell in the midst of a thunderstorm.  Awesome!

This wonderful focaccia from Dough in Asheville was our lunch atop Mt. Mitchell in the midst of a thunderstorm. Awesome!

Thanksgiving Dessert: Gluten Free Spiced Acorn Squash Bars

It is tough to eat locally in the winter.  Squash, greens, root vegetables, and sweet potatoes–that about sums up the winter harvest that starts in November and takes us into early March. It’s a long time to eat the same thing over and over again.  Being creative is the key to embracing the limited choices at the winter farmers markets. So, let’s talk squash.

Acorn squash has a similar taste, texture, and sweetness to pumpkin, so why not use it for desserts? It will be around long after the pumpkins are gone from the market tables.  If the urge hits you to bake more pumpkin bread in January, you don’t have to turn to the canned stuff.  You can use acorn squash or butternut, too.  As for for the gluten, I am not a gluten-free eater.  I love bread.  I love pastries.  I love pasta.  I am thankful that I can eat these things without issue. I know many people who cannot.  Eating gluten is harmful to them.  Gluten-free is more than a fad or a choice.  For many people, it is a health issue.  I have had some amazing gluten-free pastries and cookies.  I am still learning how to adapt recipes to make them without wheat flour.  I have found that almond meal or almond flour works well for more dense cakes like these bars.

My family had no idea these were gluten-free when they devoured the first batch.  I’d call that a success!

Gluten Free Spiced Acorn Squash Bars with Mascarpone Cream

  • ½ c. acorn squash puree
  • ½ c, brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup almond flour or meal
  • ¼ c. arrowroot powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ¼ tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. ground cloves
  • ¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
  1. Preheat oven to 350° F
  2. Place dry ingredients: almond flour, arrowroot, baking soda, salt, and spices in a bowl. Using a whisk, combine thoroughly.
  3. In another bowl, combine squash puree, brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla.
  4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to incorporate.
  5. Line an 8×8-baking pan with parchment paper. Pour batter into the pan and spread evenly.
  6. Bake for 20-25 minutes until springs back when lightly touched.
  7. Cool on a rack.  When completely cooled, cut into squares.

For the Mascarpone Cream:

  • 1 cup mascarpone cheese
  • ½ cup whipping cream
  • 3-4 tbs. powdered sugar
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract

Place ingredients in a chilled mixing bowl and whip until stiff peaks form. Spoon into a piping bag with a star tip.  Pipe on to each bar.  Grate a little nutmeg or sprinkle a pinch of cinnamon over the top and serve!

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Thanksgiving is all about family, friends and delicious food. Luckily, the food blogging community is all about these things as well. To celebrate the holiday, Meghan from Cake ‘n’ Knife and Susannah from Feast + West are hosting Blogsgiving Dinner. There are 20 awesome blogs sharing 52 recipes

The idea is based on the old-fashioned progressive dinner party, in which you’d eat each course at a different guest’s home. Each blogger is bringing one or more dishes to the party on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of this week, so be sure to stop by each one and get some ideas for your own Thanksgiving meal.  Today’s bloggers have recipes for dessert and after-dinner drinks, as well as ideas for eating leftovers.

We’ll be posting to social media with the hashtag #blogsgivingdinner. Hope you can join us!

Blogsgiving Progressive Dinner Menu

Friday, Nov. 14

Dessert

Grandma’s Pecan Pie from The Wetherills Say I Do

Pumpkin Sheet Cake with Pumpkin Cream Cheese Frosting from My Cooking Spot

Gluten-Free Apple Berry Crumble from Twin Stripe

Paleo Pumpkin Pudding from Wit Wisdom Food

Cranberry Almond Coconut Bars from Love & Flour

Torched Marshmallow Pumpkin Pie with Olive & Sinclair Chocolate from The Local Forkful

Poached Pears with Salted Maple Caramel Syrup from Home at Six

Sweet Potato Pie from Think Fruitful

Nutella Pumpkin S’mores Tart from bethcakes

Gluten-Free Acorn Squash Spice Bars from I Cook. I Eat. It’s Life.

Drunken Pecan Pie Bars from The Speckled Palate

After-Dinner Drinks

Slow Cooker Cranberry Apple Cider from A Savory Feast

Cranberry Bourbon Granita from Feast + West

Leftovers

Cheesy Potato Croquettes from Hello Little Home

Leftover Stuffed Egg Rolls with Cranberry Dipping Sauce from Cake ‘n’ Knife

Freezer-Friendly Turkey and Rice Casserole from Betty Becca

Turkey and Cranberry Quesadilla from Glamour Girl Gourmet

Stuffed Crescents with Thanksgiving Leftovers from My Cooking Spot

Sweet Potato Crunch

A Thanksgiving staple in our home growing up was sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallow topping.  The sweet potatoes were actually yams..from a can.  My mother doctored them with extra brown sugar and butter.  Then, she adorned them with mounds of marshmallows and carefully toasted them under the broiler.  It was a family favorite.

I have graduated to a more homemade sweet potato side dish albeit one that is just as sweet as my mom’s old standby.  I believe you need a little sweet on your plate at Thanksgiving–but don’t eat too much–save room for the pie!

Sweet Potato Crunch

  • 8 large sweet potatoes
  • 1/2 stick of butter
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • pinch of salt

Topping:

  • 1 cup chopped raw pecans
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  1. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into cubes.  Place in a stockpot of water and bring to a boil.  Boil for 15-20 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are fork tender.  Drain and place in a food processor.
  2. Process the sweet potatoes until smooth.  Pour into a bowl and add the butter, spices, salt, and maple syrup.
  3. Spread the mixture into a 12″ cast iron skillet or 9×9 baking dish.
  4. Mix the pecans, brown sugar.  Sprinkle over the sweet potato mixture.
  5. Bake in a 350 F oven for 25-30 minutes or until sweet potatoes are bubbly and pecans are toasted.

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Thanksgiving is all about family, friends and delicious food. Luckily, the food blogging community is all about these things as well. To celebrate the holiday, Meghan from Cake ‘n’ Knife and Susannah from Feast + West are hosting Blogsgiving Dinner. There are 20 awesome blogs sharing 52 recipes

The idea is based on the old-fashioned progressive dinner party, in which you’d eat each course at a different guest’s home. Each blogger is bringing one or more dishes to the party on Monday, Wednesday and Friday of this week, so be sure to stop by each one and get some ideas for your own Thanksgiving meal.  Be sure to check out today’s recipes for entrees, salads and side dishes.

We’ll be posting to social media with the hashtag #blogsgivingdinner. Hope you can join us!

Blogsgiving Progressive Dinner Menu

 Wednesday, Nov. 12

Salads

Pomegranate & Goat Cheese Salad from Feast + West

Persimmon & Pear Salad from Wit Wisdom and Food

Roasted Butternut Squash & Gorgonzola Salad from Hello Little Home

Entrees

The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey from My Cooking Spot

Roasted Turducken from The Speckled Palate

Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin with Orange-Cranberry Reduction from Home at Six

Beer Brined Turkey with Bacon Gravy from Cake ‘n’ Knife

Smoked Mushroom Steaks with Herbed Bread Crumbs (Vegan) from Betty Becca

Side Dish

Turkey, Apple & Sweet Potato Pot Pies from Love & Flour

Creamy Pumpkin Apple Pasta Bake from My Cooking Spot

Mushroom Spinach Farro from Think Fruitful

Bacon and Cornbread Stuffing from Chez CateyLou

Sweet Potato Crunch from I Cook. I Eat. It’s Life.

Blue Cheese & Bacon Mashed Potatoes from A Savory Feast

Sausage Stuffing from the Wetherills Say I Do

Butternut Squash Grits from Homespun Seasonal Living

Wine

Thanksgiving Wine Pairings from Twin Stripe