Polenta cake with tomatoes and bleu cheese (6 servings)

When it comes to starches, rice and pasta often seem to be the most versatile. They can be paired with so many things, from silky sauces to roasted vegetables. However, polenta deserves its time in the spotlight, too!

This particular rendition pairs dense, herb-flecked, pleasantly grainy polenta with sweet tomatoes and pungent bleu cheese. I was lucky enough to pick up some local goat-milk Blue Chevrolait, a gorgeously buttery creation from Prodigal Farm in Rougemont. Its rich umami notes stole the show without drowning out the other flavors. Cut with a drizzle of honey, it was the perfect topping for this dish.

You will need:

  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup slivered fresh basil leaves
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes
  • 3/4 cups crumbled bleu cheese
  • 1 tsp honey

Steps:

  1. Grease a square cake or baking pan with one tablespoon of the oil and set aside. Preheat the oven to 450°.
  2. Combine the water, cornmeal, and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking as close to constantly as your little forearms can handle. (Reaching boiling stage ALWAYS takes longer than I think it will!)
  3. Once the mixture starts to bubble, lower the heat to medium-low. Whisk constantly for a few more minutes, or until the mixture is thick enough to start pulling away from the sides of the pan. (My clue that I'm almost done is that I can't hold the whisk like a pencil anymore.) Fold in the remaining tablespoon of the olive oil, the garlic, and the basil.
  4. Pour the polenta mixture into the prepared pan. Top with the tomatoes and cheese. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbling.
  5. Remove from oven and allow it to set for a few minutes. Lightly drizzle the pan with honey, and then cut the polenta into rectangles. Serve with a lightly-dressed salad and you're good to go!

My version of the recipe was based on this Epicurious offering.

Spiced Green Lentils With Pomegranate, Sweet Potato, and Pistachios (4-6 servings) and Asheville Wrap-Up

Bryan and I recently spent a long weekend in Asheville as an early celebration our anniversary. (Ten years next month! Where did the time go?!) If you're vegetarian and live within reasonable distance of this funky mountain town, you MUST go. Asheville is a haven for vegans and vegetarians. Nearly every restaurant worth mentioning (and there are dozens in Asheville) serve creative, flavorful meatless options, and the city boasts several vegetarian eateries, including the Laughing Seed and the all-vegan Plant.

The Laughing Seed's barbecue platter: vegan chipotle beans, cornbread muffin, tangy Southern slaw, and BBQ jackfruit

We always eat well in Asheville. Each time we go, we revisit some old favorites (like Laughing Seed) and add in a few new places. We tried a couple new-to-us restaurants this time around, including Bhramari Brewhouse, Chai Pani, and Zambra.

Pillowy veggie samosas, crispy kale pakoras, and salty-limey okra fries from Chai Pani

We spent a cozy evening at Zambra over tapas for our anniversary celebration, taking in the fresh air from our table in the breezeway. Zambra serves beautifully-plated, unique tapas options and offers an extensive wine list.

My two generous glasses of velvety-smooth Tempranillo suggested top notes of "I forget which tapas we ordered" with lingering hints of "but I know they were all amazing."

Of course, there's much more to do in and around Asheville besides just eat. We drove to nearby Bryson City to hop a train on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, where our beautifully-restored 1942 steam engine chugga-chugged us past stunning views of Fontana Lake and the Nantahala and Tennessee Rivers.

The unique color of the lake comes from the residue of copper mines!

We listened to spooky tales of Asheville's sordid history and even used ghost-hunting equipment to detect spectral activity (no luck) on the Downtown Spirits Tour. We browsed the eclectic downtown shops for hours, gazing at the local art in display windows and listening to street musicians as we passed by. We spent a cacophonous afternoon at the Asheville Pinball Museum, where we played vintage classics (Sadly, my favorite, Gottlieb's Haunted House, was sold since our last visit) and brand-new iterations (Ghostbusters!) alike.

If you're a pinball fan, the admission price is about the best $15 you'll ever spend.

But the place that always, always feels like home in Asheville is Malaprop's. Bryan and I have been to more than our fair share of bookstores -- believe me -- but Malaprop's is our favorite by far. It sounds silly to call a bookstore "book-focused," but if you've visited enough of them, you know that some bookstores emphasize collectibles from various trending fandoms while others spotlight cozy seating but offer few reading choices. Malaprop's, however, wants to attract readers who read. It's Heaven, and it makes my bibliophilic heart so, so happy.

I took home five new books, including Carla Snyder's One Pan, Two Plates: Vegetarian Suppers, which I've already cooked from twice. The concept is simple: Use one cooking vessel to serve up a flavorful dinner for two people. I'm already finding that each serving is pretty big, however. Both times I've cooked from this book, I doubled the recipe so we'd have leftovers for lunch the next day, only to find I had leftovers for two lunches for both of us. But hey, when the food is this good, I can't argue. The dish I'm featuring in this post (you know, when I'm done rambling about trains and pinball and books and ghosts) is complex; the lentils are earthy and peppery, the spices add aromatic interest, and the garnishes of pistachios, chèvre, and mint bring in a layer of bright, tangy, sweetness. It's perfect, really!

Hello, beautiful.

Spiced Green Lentils With Pomegranate, Sweet Potato, and Pistachios (4-6 servings)

Click here for a printable recipe.

You will need:

  • 1/4 cup sunflower or canola oil
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • A generous pinch of ground cloves
  • 2 small onions, chopped (or an equivalent of dried minced onion if you've got an angry IBS belly like I have)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups green lentils, picked through and rinsed
  • 3 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup roasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
  • 2-3 oz goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 Tbsp chopped mint leaves

Steps:

  1. Heat a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. When the oil shimmers, add in the coriander, cumin, cloves, onion, garlic, and sweet potato, plus 1/2 tsp salt and some ground black pepper. Sauté until the onion starts to soften and the garlic is fragrant -- about 3 minutes. 
  2. Add the lentils and broth and allow the mixture to come to a soft boil. Turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lentils and vegetables are tender and the liquid has been absorbed -- about 30 minutes. (Follow the author's advice and start checking after 15 minutes to see if the mixture needs more broth. I ended up needing to add a quarter cup after 25 minutes because the lentils were still a bit crunchy.) Remove from heat.
  3. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice (Watch those seeds!) over the mixture. Then add in the chopped pistachios. Add more salt if needed, although if your broth is salty or the pistachios are heavily salted, you might not need to do so.
  4. Scoop each serving into a bowl, and then top each bowl with a tablespoon or so of the pomegranate seeds and goat cheese, plus a sprinkling of parsley and mint. This can be served hot or at room temperature.

As I said, I doubled the original recipe, although I kept the garnishes at almost the original measurements. I think they work well as an accent but don't need to dominate the dish. The only other change I made was to swap out the original olive oil for sunflower, as olive oil tends to burn on my stove at higher temps. Look at the gorgeous, gorgeous colors of this dish!

Spotted Dog-style vegan BBQ sandwich with vegan coleslaw (3-4 servings)

Today's recipe is a special reader request! Joe, this one is for you and your daughter!

The Spotted Dog is one of my favorite places in Carrboro. With a menu chock-full of both plant-based and meat-based dishes, there's something for everyone. However, it's probably most famous for its creative vegetarian dishes (plus the fact that it's housed inside a funky, triangle-shaped building!) that range from spicy, Mexican-themed favorites like flautas and pozole verde to "veggified" versions of American classics like a crabcake sandwich and chili dog. But my favorite Spotted Dog dish falls into the latter category: the veggie BBQ sandwich. The soy-based "meat" is smothered in vinegary sauce, giving it the perfect balance of smoky and sweet, and topped with a generous heap of rich, deliciously messy coleslaw. 

I've been eating this sandwich on a fairly regular basis for a couple years now but never really thought to try to replicate it until a local reader emailed me to ask if I had ever tried. Now I'll admit: I am neither a native Southerner nor a meat-eater, so I have no idea how close this comes to authentic Eastern Carolina barbecue. But I can tell you it's damn delicious, and it's very close to the restaurant's version. The chewy, tangy, sticky-sweet barbecue has just enough of a kick to grab your attention, while the creamy, crunchy (and totally dairy-free) coleslaw takes the flavor to the next level. Put it all on a soft, sesame-laden bun, and what's not to love?

This time around, I didn't make my own barbecue sauce. If you're lucky enough to be able to find a vegan sauce, go for it! (Here's a list!) However, if you have a homemade sauce you love, go ahead and use that too! This one is pretty flexible.

Click here for a printable version.

You will need:

Barbecue

  • 1 cup textured vegetable protein (TVP) cubes or granules (which can be found in most health food stores, in well-stocked grocery stores, or online)
  • Liquid smoke flavoring (optional but recommended)
  • 1 cup hot vegetable broth
  • 1 tsp vegetable or canola oil
  • 1/3 - 1/2 cup vegan barbecue sauce (Trader Joe's Carolina Gold BBQ sauce contains no dairy or meat flavorings)
  • Dairy-free rolls

Coleslaw

  • 1/2 cup dairy-free, egg-free mayo (Check out a list of brands here; some low-fat mainstream varieties are vegan even though the label might not advertise it! Just read the ingredients list carefully.)
  • 1/8 cup apple cider vinegar
  • Pinch dried dill
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 cups shredded coleslaw mix (green cabbage, purple cabbage, and carrots)

Steps:

  1. Mix all coleslaw ingredients (except for the cabbage/carrots) in a medium bowl until smooth.
  2. Next, toss the shredded cabbage and carrots in the mayo mixture until everything is evenly mixed.
  3. Cover and chill the coleslaw for at least 30 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, place the TVP in another bowl. Mix a few drops of liquid smoke into the broth; pour the hot broth over the TVP and stir gently to combine. Allow the mixture to rest for 5 minutes or so, or until the broth is absorbed.
  5. While the TVP is setting up, heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. Once the broth is absorbed into the TVP, take about a third of the mixture (no need to measure exactly) and add it to the hot skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the edges of the TVP are golden brown and slightly caramelized. This will give the barbecue mixture a bit of texture and added depth of flavor.
  6. Once that portion of TVP is crisped up, add it back to the rest of the mixture. Starting with just 1/3 of a cup, pour the barbecue sauce over the TVP and stir to combine. Add more sauce if needed, but don't add so much that it drowns in the TVP. Different brands of sauce are different thicknesses, so you could need as much as a 1/2 cup to coat the mixture.
  7. Retrieve the coleslaw from the fridge. Place about 1/2 cup of the barbecue on a roll, topped with a generous scoop of the coleslaw. Repeat for remaining servings. Serve immediately.

If you love the Spotted Dog as much as I do, vote for it as your favorite place for vegetarians on Chapelboro.com! Voting closes August 26th. 

Triangle food round-up

One of the things I love most about living in Chapel Hill is the vibrancy and variety of the local food scene. Between here, Durham, and Raleigh ("the Triangle," for those of you who don't know), there are tons of amazing restaurants, farmers markets, and food events revolving around locally-grown and made food. Here's a wrap-up of what's going on in the near future, plus some resources for Triangle locals to keep up with.

First, let's start with restaurants. Triangle Restaurant Week takes place June 4-10, with dozens of restaurants offering three-course dinners for $20 or $30. Some places even offer lunch! There are three places listed under the vegetarian category, although none of them is exclusively vegetarian. 

If you need help keeping up with the local food scene, check out The Triangle Food Guy. He always has the low-down on which restaurants are closing or opening, which chefs are moving where, and which food events are worth attending. I hope the rumor he posted about a Mellow Mushroom opening on Franklin Street turns out to be true!

There are so many farmers markets in the Triangle and surrounding counties, and I'm ashamed to say I've visited very few of them so far. The Carrboro Farmers Market, which runs Wednesdays and Saturday, is lively and well-stocked. The Chapel Hill Farmers Market is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and although it's on the small side, it still hosts a good variety of vendors. By far, the biggest market in the area is the State Farmers Market in Raleigh. It's always crowded and well-stocked, but go early, because it gets hot in the summertime! It also boasts a cute little restaurant on its grounds. Bryan and I like to get there early on a Sunday to get breakfast before we shop!

This Chatham County-based farmers market guide lists markets in Chatham, Durham, Alamance, Moore, Orange, Wake, Lee, and Granville Counties, with hours of operation and contact information for each.

The News Observer's guide features more counties and gives parking information for some of the markets, which is helpful. Although I haven't checked it out myself yet,
the LoMo Market sounds interesting. It's essentially a farmers market on wheels; it has a
regular route and 75% of its offerings come from North Carolina with the remaining 25% coming from neighboring states. It sells flowers and prepared foods and, of course, the usual eggs, cheeses, and produce. I'll have to check it out sometime!

Finally, the local food truck scene is worth mentioning. In this area, you can buy anything from grilled cheese and mini donuts to Korean tacos and crepes from a food truck. Now I know that food trucks once had the reputation of being "roach coaches," but in recent years, food trucks have become much more popular, regulated, and, yes, safe! The News Observer has a list of local food trucks with links to most trucks' Twitter feeds, websites, or Facebook pages. Some food trucks make regular stops at places like the Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. On June 17, Durham Central Park will host another of its popular Food Truck Rodeos with 20+ vendors attending. Sounds like a great event to attend with your family for Father's Day!

That's all I've got for now, but I'll continue to post new local resources as I find them! Enjoy!

Carrboro farmers' market

Wow. Carrboro farmers' market is what an outdoor market should be. I'm so impressed, I can barely find the words! I'm so happy I checked it out this morning.

The market is laid out roughly in the shape of a baseball diamond with the paths from home to first base and from third base to home covered by a roof. (That's the first and only time I'll use a baseball-related explanation on this blog.) The rest of the path is lined with individual tents. It's definitely big enough to spend some time strolling around before you decide what to buy.

Central Market will always have a spot in my heart, but this place was pretty dang cool. I saw a few stands specializing in non-food products like beautiful wooden boxes, fresh flowers and glazed pottery, but most stands (I'd say probably 95% of them) sold food. I saw everything from homemade string cheese and local wine to pasture-grazed meats and baked goods. I honestly doubt I've ever seen that much produce at one time before. I saw varieties of peppers I'd never heard of and enough heirloom tomatoes to keep Barbara Kingsolver happy for months. One stand even offered while-you-wait fire-roasted peppers! We took home zucchini, cute orange cherry tomatoes, corn on the cob, garlic, and early-season apples. All the vendors come from North Carolina, and judging from the map, they all work within a 50-mile radius of Carrboro. Pretty cool!

My only complaint is that there were so many stands selling produce that I don't know how a person would ever figure out the best place to buy something he or she buys every week, like tomatoes. In fact, there were so many stands selling tomatoes that I don't know how I'd even keep their prices straight to figure out the best bargain! I guess people just go with a budget and buy what looks good. I suppose I could get used to that.