PepperFest: The Amazing Pepper Festival

Do you love peppers? I mean, really love them? Then put PepperFest on your 2015 calendar—you won’t want to miss this event. Early fall brings the end of the pepper harvest, and to celebrate this event, Abundance NC, the Briar Chapel community, and countless local chefs and food purveyors come together for PepperFest. This event has grown over the last seven years to become a destination for foodies, those who support sustainable living, and anyone who loves a creative dish made with peppers. PepperFest is located inside the Briar Chapel community of Chapel Hill. This community is a sanctuary for people who want sustainable, green living. Newland Communities has created a neighborhood that offers its residents amenities like nature trails, open spaces, community gardens, and a lifestyle that supports green living. Abundance NC, an organization with a mission to support “a North Carolina where people increasingly meet their needs locally and sustainably,” is the perfect partner for PepperFest.

Peppers for this event are harvested by local growers and supplied to chefs, breweries, coffee roasters, and more. These talented individuals create a recipe with their peppers, and festival-goers walk through sampling these delicious treats. Spicy peppers and sweet peppers made their way in to everything from beer and hot chocolate to soups and desserts.   PepperFest showcases chefs and restaurants that support farm-to-fork cuisine from around North Carolina.

Sustainability and green living were the themes woven throughout the festival. From Larry’s Beans Veggie bus (a mobile coffee shop run on used vegetable oil) to the compostable cups and plates, it was evident that PepperFest planners wanted to stay true to their mission. We were given one wooden spork at check-in and asked to use it more than once. I proudly surrendered mine to one of the many recycling bins at the end of the day. I like the thought of reducing waste through this small gesture, and I love that everyone participated.

PepperFest was a delicious way to celebrate the end of summer harvest. I will be back for more next year. I hope to see you there!

Spicy peppers were in abundance at PepperFest.

Spicy peppers were in abundance at PepperFest.

Chef Colin Bedford from Fearrington House Restaurant, looking cool in his shades, was serving up a delicious creation of Italian sausage, peppers, with a cornbread crouton.

Chef Colin Bedford from Fearrington House Restaurant, looking cool in his shades, was serving up a delicious creation of Italian sausage, peppers, with a cornbread crouton.

Always great to see Art (a.k.a. @RUWandering)!

Always great to see Art (a.k.a. @RUWandering)!

Craig from Crude Bitters and Sodas sharing his Evil Zerbert in addition to his amazing bitters and shrubs.

Craig from Crude Bitters and Sodas sharing his Evil Zerbert in addition to his amazing bitters and shrubs.

Vimala from Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe was all smiles.  Her pepper pickle was SPICY!

Vimala from Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe was all smiles. Her pepper pickle was SPICY!

Chef Regan Stachler from Little Hen in Holly Springs and his staff.

Chef Regan Stachler from Little Hen in Holly Springs and his staff.

This is what is it all about! #EatLocal

The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association was there.  This is what is it all about! #EatLocal

Chef Jay Piere from Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen sampled out an amazing soup with smoked pumpkin.  Spicy goodness!

Chef Jay Pierce from Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen sampled out an amazing soup with smoked pumpkin. Spicy goodness!

Last Call Before Fall

Fresh tomatoes simply do not happen in my house during the winter.  I just cannot bring myself to purchase those tasteless, mealy tomatoes they offer in the grocery stores in the off season.  Blech!  Often, I am tempted.  In the past, when I have caved, the disappointment is painful.  I turn to canned tomatoes once the fresh ones disappear from the farmers market tables.  This year, I had high hopes of canning my own tomatoes.  Then, work, life, and a million other things got in the way.  Here we are–at the end of the season–and I have not canned a single tomato. So, to the Internet I went.  Search terms: freezing fresh tomatoes.  There is an enormous amount of information about freezing tomatoes on the web.  After reading 10 different articles that provided 10 different opinions, I decided to just do it.  Worst case scenario: tasteless red liquid.  I figured it could still have some culinary use.  With field tomatoes at about $.99 per pound, it was worth a try.

The differing opinions in the articles I read mostly focused on peeling or not peeling, whole or pureed, and fresh versus cooked.   I opted for pureed, with the skins on, and to simmer the puree slowly to reduce it a bit before freezing.  I have a Vitamix, so leaving the skins on was not an issue. This machine will completely obliterate the skins, which have a lot of the nutrients.  One necessary item: my skimmer.  I love this culinary tool (purchased at Whisk, of course).  I used it to remove the tomatoey foam that is produced when the tomatoes are processed in the Vitamix.  Five pounds of tomatoes later, I have several containers of frozen tomato puree that I will be using in soups and sauces this winter.

The mornings are foggy, damp, and cool.  The nights give us a little shiver.   It’s the last call for tomatoes.  Fall is upon us–bring on the pumpkins!

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Final Fruits: North Carolina Apples

I have enjoyed every bite of sun-ripened tomato, juicy peach, sweet buttery corn, and spicy pepper from the summer harvest. I will miss these delicacies in a few short weeks. The stockpile of frozen summer produce that fills my freezer won’t last long—it never does. It’s okay, though. Fall brings special treats, too.

The first sign that fall is approaching? Apples! They are such a versatile fruit. I add apples to butternut squash soup for sweetness and acidity. They pair perfectly with pork, so I use them when roasting a pork loin or braising a pork belly. And, of course…apples are perfect for dessert. Apple pie, apple crisp, apples and caramel, apple gallette, and apple dumplings are just a few of my favorites. Apples are the final fruits of the year here in North Carolina. They are celebrated in the mountains and savored for as long as possible. It will be quite a while before we’ll see any fruit at our farmers markets once they are gone.

Recently, I visited Six Forks Cheese in Raleigh. If you like cheese, and you haven’t been there yet, please make plans to go. You can thank me later. It is a cheese-lover’s paradise. They generously let me taste any cheese I was curious about. I bought some amazingly mild blue cheese from Denmark that was the perfect pairing for the North Carolina Honey Crisp apples I had purchased the day prior. This afternoon snack had me dreaming of other apple and cheese combinations. My favorite go-to cheese is chèvre. Apples and goat cheese…perfect snack or—wait, what about an appetizer? A crostini is simple and will let the flavors shine. Let’s do this!

First, I toasted baguette slices by brushing them with olive oil and letting them get golden in a 350 degree F oven. Once they were cooled, I spread each one with Goat Lady Dairy chèvre. Let the chèvre sit out of the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to soften it and make it more spreadable. I diced up a North Carolina grown Honey Crisp apple and placed it atop the cheese. A little drizzle of local honey, some chopped toasted North Carolina pecans, and a sprinkling of dried thyme completed my masterpiece. Well, okay—maybe not a masterpiece, but it was delicious.

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Peaches and Tomatoes: Summer’s Last Gasp

Soon, we’ll be eating our fair share of sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and kale. As we enjoy these fall favorites, we’ll also be reminiscing about the tomatoes, peaches, peppers, and other summer abundance. It always amazes me how the first taste of a season can be wonderful, but by the end of the season, we often tire of those same wonderful flavors. It happens to the best of us. Creativity is the key to eating seasonally!

During my weekly visit to LL Urban Farms, I loaded up on tomatoes and peaches. I knew the peaches would be disappearing from the market soon. We still have some time for the tomatoes, but with temperatures falling into the 50’s at night next week—they won’t be around long.   So, how do I savor these delicacies one more time before they are gone?

When we lived in southern California, one of our favorite spots was San Diego.   In San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood, there is a restaurant called La Villa. If you visit San Diego, you must go there. Farm-to-fork is their mission, and they do it well. Their simple Italian recipes will make you weak in the knees. One of my favorite salads there was an heirloom tomato and stone fruit salad with burrata and micro greens. Many of my dishes are an attempt at recreating an amazing dining out experience. I had been thinking about this salad for years!

Using this for inspiration, I threw together some peaches, cherry tomatoes, burrata, and basil from my garden. A little drizzle of balsamic, and the dish was complete. Not exactly the same, yet satisfying. It’s the perfect use of the “last gasp of summer”—which is a phrase my friend, Chana (a.k.a @raleighwhatsup), used to describe the recent hot weather. I couldn’t have said it better. I suppose this last gasp of summer weather and summer bounty will give way to chilly nights and crisp autumn air soon enough. Fall is my favorite season, so I am eagerly awaiting this change. Until then, I plan to get my fill of corn, tomatoes, peppers, and peaches because it’s going to be a long time until we see them at the farmers markets again.

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Not From a Box: Granola

I love the way my house smells when granola is baking in the oven. Cinnamon, vanilla, toasting oats—it smells nostalgic. It reminds me of the holidays when the scent of cinnamon regularly wafts through the air. I must admit it’s nice to have the smell of the holidays any time of the year.

If you’re a fan of granola, but you are still buying the boxed stuff, I encourage you to make it…at least once. I was a frequent buyer of the boxed stuff. Honestly, it doesn’t have much flavor, and it is often high in fat and sugar. Then, I discovered the specialty granolas, which are divine but can be quite pricey if you love granola as much as I do. So, making my own became a necessity.

This recipe is a melding of many recipes that I have tried over the years. I often change the types of dried fruit or nuts that I add based on what I have in my pantry or what sounds good. I like the freedom this recipe provides. I have even played with the spices, adding a pinch of nutmeg or clove for depth. One thing I do not mess with is the oil. Coconut oil is perfect for granola because it adds a hint of flavor, but it is not too heavy like a canola or vegetable oil. I believe coconut oil is better for you, too.

What is my favorite way to eat granola? I prefer a splash of almond milk and a spoon. You can also sprinkle it on fruit and yogurt or eat it dry as a snack. I give it as gifts—fill a mason jar with granola and add a tag that says “Free Refills”—and you’ll have a friend for life!

Homemade Granola

  • 8 cups Old-Fashioned oats
  • 1 ½ cups sliced almonds
  • ½ cup Pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup honey
  • ½ cup coconut oil
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup dried cherries
  1. Preheat oven to 300° F.
  2. In a large bowl, combine oats, nuts, seeds, cinnamon, and salt.
  3. Place the honey and coconut oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Using a whisk, stir to incorporate the ingredients as they melt. Do not allow the mixture to simmer or boil. Once the honey and oil are warmed through, remove from heat and whisk in the vanilla.
  4. Pour the honey mixture over the oat mixture and stir to coat completely.
  5. Divide coated oats between two sheet pans and spread evenly on each pan.
  6. Bake granola for 40 minutes—stirring every 10 minutes.
  7. Allow granola to cool in the pan. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and add the dried cherries. Combine thoroughly and store in an airtight container. Keeps for about a month—if you can make it last that long!

This batch of granola included chopped Mission figs and pecans.

This batch of granola included chopped Mission figs and pecans.

Almond milk and a doesn't get any simpler than that.

Almond milk and a spoon…it doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Plant: Vegan. Vegetarian. Asheville.

Vegetarian. Vegan. Do those words make you shudder? Does the thought of bacon being absent from your diet make you sad? Do you wonder how you would ever get enough to eat were you to convert? I think it is safe to say that many people have had these thoughts—including me. I am not a vegetarian. I am what you might call a flexitarian…although labeling is not something I prefer. Vegetables and grains are the focus of my diet with small portions of pasture-raised meats enjoyed throughout each month. I like bacon, but I love my veggies. I am a sucker for creative vegetable dishes, which is why I love to eat at Plant in Asheville.

We discovered Plant last summer. We were searching for restaurants that we had not previously visited. We wanted to enjoy the summer vegetable bounty in the area, and Plant seemed like the perfect place. It did not disappoint.

Nor did it disappoint during our second recent visit. The space is cozy and casual with an open kitchen. You can see Chef Jason Sellars at work creating dishes that are delectable and satisfying. The menu changes with the seasons to provide customers with the freshest ingredients. The flavor combinations are unexpected and genius.  

Our meal began with the Iron Skillet Olives. Warm marinated olives served in an adorable miniature cast iron skillet. Herbs, orange zest, and salty brine had me wondering, “WHY am I not doing this at home?” It was the perfect start to the meal. Then we split an order of the Baby Bok Choy with Ginger, Mint and Berbere. It literally blew my mind. The flavors were perfect together and really intensified the sweetness of the bok choy. My entrée was the Oyster Mushroom Apricot Adobo, which included a poblano stuffed tamale, sautéed spinach, olives, chil- cilantro mojo, pickled onion, and sour cream. Because they do not serve any animal products, the sour cream was made from non-dairy ingredients—and was amazing! Mark enjoyed the Red Curry Tofu. This dish was a lovely combination of jasmine rice/ kaffir lime cakes, teriyaki bok choy/ Thai basil, galangal-peanut curry, and arugula. Sadly, we were so stuffed after this great meal; we had no room for dessert this time.

Vegetarian. Vegan. I hope you will consider restaurants that use these words in their description.   Don’t be afraid. They are satisfying and delicious. I promise.


Iron Skillet Olives

Iron Skillet Olives

Baby Boy Choy

Baby Boy Choy

Oyster Mushroom Apricot Adobo

Oyster Mushroom Apricot Adobo

Red Curry Tofu

Red Curry Tofu


Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series: A Few Questions

My recent visit to the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Quarterfinals had me wondering—how did this event get started and where is it headed? The founder and host was nice enough to answers these questions and a few other things I was curious about.

Here is my interview with the man behind Got to Be NC Competition Dining, Jimmy Crippen:

Cookeatlife: Are you originally from North Carolina, or (like me) have you been here so long you have adopted it as your home?

Crippen: I’m a Florida native. My family found Boone, North Carolina in the late 70’s, bought a farm and I became a summer resident until 1994 when my wife and I opened Crippen’s Country Inn & Restaurant in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

Cookeatlife: Did you always want to be a restaurateur? What led you to open Crippen’s and down the path to founding/hosting Competition Dining?

Crippen: I was actually groomed to be a car dealer, but didn’t find it interesting. I fell into the hospitality industry by serving banquets for the Dayton Marriott in college for side money.

 Cookeatlife: I won’t ask about “favorites” as I know in this business that can be challenging, but I would like to know: what would your ideal meal include?

 Crippen: An endless raw bar.

 Cookeatlife: Why are farmers, NC agriculture, and locally made products so important to you? How do you feel Competition Dining supports these industries?

 Crippen: North Carolina has been very good to me. The people and the products made here helped me to understand that this state is like one big family. It is easy to promote what you love.

 Cookeatlife: How do you choose the chefs that will participate in each region? Are there specific criteria that must be met in order to participate in Competition Dining?

 Crippen: Restaurant Chefs are asked to apply through an open call and invitations. There is a selection committee that reviews each application. Criteria are based on many things, but some of them are use of North Carolina products on their menus, open table rankings, social media reviews, reputation on the street and the ability to promote themselves.

 Cookeatlife: Do you see this concept growing outside of North Carolina? Perhaps a regional (Southern or Mid-Atlantic) series?  

 Crippen: Yes, ultimately I would like to host the World Competition Dining Series! You in??

I am totally in! Until then, I hope to catch more Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series here in North Carolina. The event moves on to Charlotte this month with Fire in the City. See you there!


      Photo courtesy of Got to Be NC Competition Dining