It’s Always Cocktail Time

One look at my Instagram account will tell you that I love to make cocktails. I think I have more cocktail photos most weeks than food photos! I adore the complex flavors that are born out of mixing a spirit with a simple syrup, some bitters, and perhaps a splash of soda or fresh juice. My favorite restaurants are those that serve artisanal cocktails from in-house recipes. I am inspired by their concoctions, which is why I am always taking photos of cocktails.

Like my food, I prefer my spirits and bitters to be local. Thankfully, I live in central North Carolina. With great local spirits like TOPO Distillery, The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Company, Raleigh Rum Company, and small-batch artisanal bitters like Crude Bitters and Sodas, creating a locally sourced cocktail is a mission that is easy to accomplish. I am motivated to use other local ingredients such as produce and honey from farmers markets, too.

Photo by Stacey Sprenz

Photo by Stacey Sprenz

The best way to incorporate these items is through simple syrups. This one little ingredient can impart sweetness, balance acidity, and add enormous flavor to a cocktail. The recipe is quite simple, but the possibilities are endless. For the syrup: mix equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan. Stir the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Just as it comes to a simmer, take it off the heat and add your favorite flavor. The more you add the stronger it will be. Let the mixture cool to room temperature and strain it into a container. The syrup will keep for about 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

I look to herbs, spices, and intensely flavored produce as a basis for my simple syrups. Some of my favorites include: fennel, jalapeño, rosemary, sage, basil, thyme, mint, hibiscus, and ginger. When you start pairing these syrups with spirits, think about the tastes that you enjoy in both sweets desserts and savory dishes. For instance: fennel and orange with bourbon, thyme and lemon with gin, or jalapeño with cucumber and vodka.

It is fun to play around with flavor combinations, and when you add bitters to the mix, the aromas make a complex drink that will both satisfy and impress. Bitters are a vital but often overlooked cocktail ingredient. There are so many great choices out there. My favorite brand is Crude Bitters made right here in Raleigh by my friend Craig and his wife Lindsay. Not only are they just great people, they also know how to work the flavor combinations and make bitters that create an outstanding cocktail. Bitters also have a place in the ingredient list for marinades, lemonades, desserts, and more. They add an essence and aroma without adding a lot of liquid.

Here are two of my favorite cocktail creations, but remember…you can adjust, change, and rewrite these to suit your own taste. The recipes below are merely templates to get you started. Now, let’s get shaking!

Grilling your citrus gives a wonderful flavor to cocktails.  Simply place cut side down on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until softened.

Grilling your citrus gives a wonderful flavor to cocktails. Simply place cut side down on medium heat for about 5 minutes or until softened.  Photo by Stacey Sprenz

Grapefruit Sage Fizz

  • 1.5 oz. TOPO Piedmont Gin
  • 1.5 oz. grilled grapefruit juice
  • .5 oz. sage simple syrup
  • ½ dropper of Crude Bitters “Rizzo”
  • San Pellegrino sparkling water
  • Ice
  • Sage leaf for garnish
  1. To a cocktail shaker add: ice, gin, grapefruit juice, simple syrup, and bitters.
  2. Shake vigorously and pour in to a cocktail glass.
  3. Top with a splash of sparkling water and stir gently.
  4. Take one large sage leaf, lay it in the palm of your hand, and smack your other hand down on it to release the oils. Use this to garnish the drink.
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Photo by Stacey Sprenz

Photo by Stacey Sprenz

Photo by Stacey Sprenz

Old South

  • 1.5 oz. bourbon
  • .5 oz. fennel simple syrup
  • ½ dropper Crude Bitters “Pooter”
  • Ice
  1. To a cocktail shaker add: ice, bourbon, simple syrup, and bitters.
  2. Shake vigorously and strain over a large ice cube in a cocktail glass.
  3. You can garnish this one with some sprinkles of smoked salt.
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Photo by Stacey Sprenz

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Photo by Stacey Sprenz

Goat Cheese? Yes. Please.

I distinctly remember the moment I fell in love with goat cheese. It was 2003. I was at a winery in Williamsburg, VA with two very dear friends of mine. Until that moment, I had always proclaimed my dislike for the stuff. Then, I tasted this amazing white, creamy, tangy, deliciousness atop a piece of crusty French bread. THIS was goat cheese? No way. I had tried it once before, but this was not the taste I remembered. From that day until now, I am constantly proclaiming my love for this ingredient and finding new ways to use it in recipes.

Goat cheese comes in many forms—all of which are amazingly complex and tasty. Some cheese makers specialize only in goat cheese offering several types or flavors, while others make cheese with sheep and cow’s milk, too. I have a few favorite cheese makers in our area, but the one that I visit most often is Hillsborough Cheese Company at the Western Wake Farmers Market. Dorian West and his wife, Cindy, produce some incredible cheeses. I especially love their plain goat Chèvre (used in the recipe below) and their Lebna (a yogurt cheese used in Middle Eastern cuisine). I have used the Lebna in a previous post here. Suffice it to say, I am huge fan of all of their cheeses and buy some nearly every week.

Besides using goat cheese as a recipe ingredient, I also love it straight from the container. Goat chèvre and fig jam on a cracker or fresh bread is one of my all time favorite snacks. Toasted bread spread with goat chèvre, slices of pear or apple, drizzled with honey and toasted nuts—the perfect breakfast. I use it in spinach salads along with fresh strawberries, toasted pecans, and a honey balsamic dressing. I could go on and on, but I won’t. I hear your stomach growling, so let’s just get to the recipe…

Goat Cheese Spring Onion Ravioli

For the filling:

  • 4 bunches of spring onions
  • 4-6 oz. goat cheese
  • 2 tbs. butter
  • 1 tbs. olive oil
  • salt & pepper to taste
  1. Slice the cleaned spring onions in half lengthwise and then chop into 1/8” half-moon slices.
  2. Melt the butter and olive oil together in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté for about 8 minutes or until the onions are softened
  3. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and add the goat cheese.
  4. Stir to combine ingredients and remove from heat. Allow mixture to cool before making ravioli.

**The original recipe for this goat cheese filling was from a class I took at Durham Spirits Company. Chef Katie Coleman used this spread atop a crostini and drizzled it with red pepper jelly. PLEASE try that, too. This recipe is very versatile.

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Making the ravioli:

I use the Basic Egg Pasta Dough recipe found here: Mangia Bene

  1. Using a pasta maker, roll out a sheet of dough about 1/16” thick and 24” long. **Start with pasta machine on the thickest setting and put the dough through 3-4 times. Then gradually move through the next 3 settings processing the dough through 3 times each
  2. Cut the dough into two 12” lengths. Place one sheet on the ravioli tray and use the plastic insert to make wells for the filing.
  3. Place 1 tsp. of filling in each well. Place the second sheet over the first one, making sure that the edges are covered.
  4. Seal and cut ravioli by rolling a rolling pin over the tray. Ensure that all of the edges are sealed and there are no air pockets around the filling.
  5. Place the ravioli on a lightly floured baking sheet to dry for at least 10 minutes.

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Preparing the ravioli:

  • 2 tbs. butter
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • 1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
  1. Fill a stockpot with water. Bring to a boil and add 1 tsp. salt.
  2. Add ravioli and stir gently to prevent sticking. Return water to a boil and reduce heat to a gently boil.
  3. Cook ravioli for about 4 minutes gently stirring occasionally to ensure even cooking.
  4. While the ravioli is cooking, melt butter and olive oil in a skillet or sauté pan. Add the garlic and red pepper. Reduce the heat to low and slowly toast the garlic while the ravioli continues to cook.
  5. Using a slotted spoon, remove the ravioli from the pot and add to the skillet. Toss to coat and serve.
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This is how I prep the ravioli for freezing. Once they are completely frozen, place in a freezer bag. When cooking from frozen, increase time by 2 minutes.

Strawberry Season: A Fond Farewell

It’s almost that time.  There might be a few left in the field or some delicately overripe pints at the market.  We anticipate their arrival and we mourn their departure–strawberries.  They are the sure sign that spring is officially here.  As we prepare to say farewell to this sweet little berry, I wanted to share a fantastic no-cook strawberry ice cream recipe I discovered recently.  This recipe most certainly can be adapted to other fruits as the seasons progress, and it makes a creamy, delicious dessert with little effort.

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If you were prepared enough to freeze some strawberries, remember that you can make this recipe later with those.  I added a little vanilla extract to this recipe, and I am sure there are other fun flavors that would lend to even more complexity and creativity.  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Add some mini-chocolate chips for a “chocolate covered strawberry” dessert
  • Mascarpone cheese mixed in with the cream would add a lovely decadence
  • Don’t forget the booze! Add in your favorite liqueur for a fun twist (Gran Marnier, Chambord, Cointreau, etc.)

Find the recipe here:  Perfect No-Cook Strawberry Ice Cream

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Greens. Love or Hate?

Greens. We either love them or we don’t. At least, that is my unscientific observation at the mere mention of this word in the culinary world. I love them—some more than others. Often seen as the quintessential southern dish, greens are eaten, well…all over the world. Perhaps it’s because they are inexpensive and nutrient rich or maybe because they are quite abundant. And by greens, I mean all greens…collards, spinach, kale, Swiss shard, turnip, mustard, beet, sweet potato, and more. I am sure I have missed a few exotic ones, but suffice it to say, there are a lot of greens out there.

Kale and spinach have enjoyed ego boosts lately due to the health craze of green smoothies and juicing; however, I would venture to guess that the consumption of all greens has increased. Let’s face it, greens are good for us. When thoughtfully prepared, they taste good, too. In an age of the awareness of mounting food waste and farmers markets where we can get beautiful produce with the greens still attached, greens are getting a second look from chefs and consumers alike.

Stewed, sautéed, flash-fried, puréed, or chopped raw in a salad—any way you eat them, greens can be a flavorful dish. The key is picking the best greens for the recipe. Some greens are best stewed for a good amount of time with seasonings that compliment their earthiness and a cooking time that makes them tender (collards, mustard greens, turnip greens). Others can be enjoyed raw or lightly sautéed (kale, spinach, Swiss chard).   I have even had them fried. On that note…if you ever visit Chef Vivian Howard’s restaurant in Kinston, NC, Chef and the Farmer, you MUST order the fried collards. They will blow your mind.

My favorite “go to” recipe for a quick side dish of healthy greens, is to sauté them in olive oil with sliced garlic. If you like a little heat, add red pepper flakes to the oil before sautéing. This recipe can be done with kale, spinach, beet greens, or Swiss chard. It is delicious on its own or you can use it as an ingredient in the recipe below. It’s perfect for breakfast or a light lunch. The addition of Two Chicks Farm Spicy Red Pepper Jelly was my attempt to use this tasty ingredient in more recipes. And, as we all know…everything is better with a fried egg on it!

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Glazed Greens with Fried Eggs

  • 1 bunch kale, spinach, or Swiss Chard
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • Spicy Red Pepper Jelly
  • 2 slices artisan bread
  • 2 farm fresh eggs
  • butter
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The beautiful greens pictured here were from Colorfield Farms. You can visit them at the Western Wake Farmers Market every Saturday!

  1. If using kale, remove the spines from each leaf. Chop greens into bite-sized pieces
  2. Heat about 3 tbs. of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add, garlic and sauté for about 2 minutes.
  3. Add greens and sauté for about 4-5 minutes or until wilted. Remove from heat and add 1-2 tbs. red pepper jelly, salt, and pepper.
  4. Evenly divide the greens over two pieces of toasted bread. Top each with a fried egg—I use a little butter and some olive oil to fry my eggs. Salt and pepper to taste.

Want more info on the various types of greens and what to do with them? Visit The Science of Eating.

Saying Yes to the Chef

Recently, I had the incredible honor of being on the radio show, Say Yes to the Chef, hosted by Kelly Taylor and Janice Escott. Yes to the Chef is a weekly radio show that airs live on Tuesdays from 11:00AM – 12:00PM on WCOM FM 103.5 out of Carrboro, NC.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Kelly and Janice as we talked about our collective love for the local food movement and taking photos of our food experiences.  I have included the link to the podcast below.  I am forever grateful to Kelly and Janice for this opportunity to share my passion for eating locally and capturing my meals on film.  I hope you will check out their other podcasts.  They have had some pretty amazing people join them on their show.

Click here to listen to the interview:  Modern Food Photography with Stacey Sprenz

Photo Credit: Kelly Taylor

Photo Credit: Kelly Taylor

Earth Fare Gift Card Giveaway Update

Congratulations to Amber from Cary, NC!  Her name was drawn out of the basket of entries for the $50 Earth Fare gift card giveaway.  Enjoy your Earth Fare shopping experience, Amber!  Thank you to all who entered this giveaway.  I hope all of you will find an Earth Fare close to you and visit it soon.

Organic, local, and regional produce are some of the options at Earth Fare.

Organic, local, and regional produce are some of the options at Earth Fare.

Earth Fare: Food with Philosophy

Although I love to shop at farmers markets on Saturday mornings, it is impossible to get everything I need in this one place. It is my mission to purchase as much of my produce, meats, and cheese from local sources as possible. My belief in #EatLocal is strong, but I am not anti-grocery store. There is a middle ground, and honestly, for me it boils down to options. Stores with a buy local or sustainable mission are my first choice. Unfortunately, the list of stores with this business practice is quite short. One of my favorites is Earth Fare. This is usually the first stop on our way in to Asheville, NC. We can load up on snacks, local produce, and drinks for our stay.

Organic, local, and regional produce are some of the options at Earth Fare.

Organic, local, and regional produce are some of the options at Earth Fare.

I was excited to hear that one would be opening much closer to home in Park West Village. Earth Fare began in Asheville, NC in 1975…I was surprised it has been around that long! Originally a restaurant called Dinner For the Earth, the owners soon branched out into a market format with local products and produce as their focus. What most impressed me about Earth Fare is their Food Philosophy. The products they carry contain:

NO High-Fructose Corn Syrup

NO artificial fats or artificial trans fats

NO artificial colors

NO artificial flavors

NO artificial preservatives

NO artificial sweeteners

NO antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones in our fresh meat or dairy

NO bleached or bromated flour

The bulk section has a large variety of grains, beans, flours, nuts, and more.

The bulk section has a large variety of grains, beans, flours, nuts, and more.

This sign denotes items that are sourced locally.  Mapleview Farms milk is in the dairy case at Earth Fare.

This sign denotes items that are sourced locally. Mapleview Farm milk is in the dairy case at Earth Fare.

On a recent behind the scenes tour of their newest store in Cary, they shared that this philosophy means that they read the labels so the consumer doesn’t have to. They also work with local producers to bring in produce within a 100-mile radius of the store. You’ll also see products that are local to one of their over 35 stores but offered in all stores—this is a great way to help local businesses grow regionally! Signs point the way to conventional and organic produce, locally sourced items, and gluten-free options in every section.   They have a wellness area, a bakery, a nitrate-free deli, a café and a juice/smoothie bar.   It is truly one stop shopping you can feel good about.  Check out the Earth Fare website for ways you can save at Earth Fare. They even have an app and will text coupons to your smartphone.  Their goal is to reduce paper waste while still saving you money.

Earth Fare support local NC breweries, too.  Glad to see Fullsteam Brewery or Durham represented!

Earth Fare supports local NC breweries, too. Glad to see Fullsteam Brewery of Durham represented!

Nearly every aisle has a gluten-free section.  In between those signs, customers will find gluten-free options.

Nearly every aisle has a gluten-free section. In between those signs, customers will find gluten-free options.

These soaps are one example of an item that is local to one of the over 35 stores.  It is carried in other stores as part of the Earth Fare family products.

These soaps by Biggs and Featherbelle are one example of an item that is local to one of the over 35 stores. It is carried in other stores as part of the Earth Fare family products.

The best way to experience what Earth Fare offers is to visit their newest NC location in Cary—and what better way do it than with a $50.00 gift card! I am giving away a $50.00 gift card to one lucky reader. Enter for a chance to win below by leaving a comment below with your email address.  Winner will be drawn at random on April 27th and contacted via email.  Good luck!!