Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Year in Review: Cooking in North Carolina, Part 1

Last summer, Dan and I had the pleasure of spending four days on the beach in North Carolina with his extended family. They've been renting a beach house on the same little island every summer for years, and this was the first time since Dan and I got together that we'd been able to attend. There are a lot of traditions associated with the Holden Beach week, and one is that each night, a different couple cooks dinner for the entire family. Dan's dad Rob teamed up with us, and the men agreed to follow my lead. Now, at this point, we were several weeks in to our first CSA experience, and so I was excited to find out what North Carolina had to offer in terms of fresh, local produce. I used this search tool to find a farmer's market in the Holden Beach area.

The nearest market turned out to be in Southport, a short drive from Holden Beach. Southport, you may remember, is where we enjoyed a wonderful meal over the water at Provision Co. It's an idyllic village on the coast, and the farmer's market is held on Wednesday mornings at a park overlooking the harbor. It was a small market but the produce selection was more than satisfactory and a bluegrass band on the steps of the town hall enthusiastically provided the soundtrack throughout our visit.

When deciding what to cook, I originally thought of ribs, but it turns out Uncle David and Aunt Maureen always make the ribs. So then I thought maybe fajitas. Well, Scott and Melanie do tacos. So then I decided to stop making plans and just see what was available at the market. The first thing we bought, and the best, I think, was the amazing peas pictured above. Mississippi red crowder peas, according to the farmer who sold them to us.

The farmer recommended shelling the purple (drier) ones, slicing the green ones like green beans, steaming both lightly, and tossing them with any kind of oil. She also said a bit of bacon would bring out a natural smoky flavor. I followed her directions almost exactly, but instead of just oil, I used Newman's Own Balsamic Vinaigrette. These peas were amazing. I never thought I would enjoy peas so much. For me, a big bowl of these would have made a satisfying dinner on their own. I'm drooling just thinking about them.

But just peas wouldn't cut it, I knew. Nevertheless, at least we had our one local dish. Looking around the market, I found great vegetables for grilling and decided we would do kebabs as a main dish. We picked up big, fat, Vidalia onions, red and green peppers, yellow squash, and zucchini. Later we got chicken, mushrooms, and grape tomatoes from the grocery store and spent the afternoon chopping almost everything into large (1-1.5") chunks (leaving the mushrooms and tomatoes whole) and threading them on skewers. Kebabs look prettier when you mix everything up, but the reality is a mushroom and a chunk of zucchini and a piece of chicken all cook at different rates, so for the best taste, we threaded like with like so everything could cook how long it needed to, no more and no less. When it was all done, we dumped it all on a huge platter. I had planned to make Thai peanut sauce but when we found out there were a couple of people with peanut allergies, we switched that to an apricot-mustard dipping sauce (recipe below).

Part two, which covers the dessert we made, will be published tomorrow.

*learned from Alexia in college

2 tablespoons apricot jelly
1 tablespoon stone-ground mustard
1 cup plain yogurt (fat-free, lowfat, or whole milk is fine)

Put everything together in a small saucepan and stir over low heat until warm and blended.

That's it. It couldn't be easier, and it's very yummy. Adjust the jelly and mustard amounts to your taste. Serve over poached chicken, or grilled chicken or shrimp, or with grilled veggie kebabs. Whatever you can think of, it will probably taste good with this sauce.

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