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.

Apple pie granola (~8 half-cup servings)

This coming Monday night, I'm incredibly excited to be attending my very first food swap! If you're in the Triangle, come on down to Ponysaurus at 7:00 for this event, hosted by Bull City Food Swap. I've been wanting to participate in a community food swap for years now, so naturally, I was thrilled to learn about this local event.

If I care about you in any way, shape, or form, you've probably been given my granola at some point in the last couple years. Granola is one of my favorite things to make, mainly because the recipe is so flexible. I make so many different varieties, from peanut butter and Almond Joy to cranberry-almond and strawberry-walnut. On Monday, I'll be giving away bags of mocha almond granola and apple pie granola. I'm particularly proud of the apple pie variety, so I decided to share the recipe here!

Click here for a printable version.

You will need:

  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup (Tip: It mixes in easier if it's at room temperature.)
  • a splash of vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp apple pie spice (My homemade version contains cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, and cardamom.)
  • a pinch of kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried apples

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 325° F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with non-stick foil or spritz it with non-stick spray and set aside.
  2. Pour the oats and pecans into a large mixing bowl. Pour the maple syrup and vanilla extract  over the oats and nuts; mix with a rubber scraper or wooden spoon. Once the oats and pecans are evenly coated, sprinkle the apple pie spice and salt into the bowl and mix once again.
  3. Spread the granola mixture out on the baking sheet, making sure it's in a nice even layer. Bake for 25-30 minutes, stirring once or twice. You'll know it's done when your kitchen smells toasty-cozy and the oats are golden.
  4. Once the granola has cooled, toss it with the raisins and apples. Store the granola in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Serve with milk, on top of yogurt (pictured above), on top of ice cream, or just as a crunchy snack.

Using maple syrup instead of corn syrup or maple-flavored table syrup makes this recipe more expensive, yes, but I can't emphasize how much of a difference the real stuff makes. I love that this recipe doesn't use any oil and doesn't add sugar besides the syrup and fruit. I hope this granola will make me some new local food friends on Monday night!

Veg*n Chef Profile: Matt Props

Ask most chefs about their formative influences, and they’ll most likely cite a James Beard Award-winning artisan or an esoteric New York restaurant (or possibly a grandmother).

Matt Props, a vegan chef in Durham, answers the question from a surprisingly different angle.

“Punk rock, hip hop, and jazz,” he tells me over the phone, a grin practically audible over the line.

“Punk has a do-it-yourself mentality,” the Ohio native explains, noting that bands often played in garages or basements when traditional music venues were inaccessible. “Hip hop is about creating a persona and a voice and an angle,” he continues, while jazz involves “taking classics and adding your own twist.”

Like his musical influences, Props’ culinary projects are inventive, persona-driven, and improvisational. Stay Fresh and Day One, both of Props’ restaurants, take over Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery once a week. Stay Fresh (open on Tuesday nights) is a “no-frills,” order-at-the-counter enterprise, and Day One (open on Saturday nights), while still casual, is a tad more structured and cozy. Both operations feature the music Props grew up listening to and the vegan cuisine he loves to share with an ever-growing fanbase.

Props, vegan since the age of 16, fully recognizes that “vegan” is often unfairly associated with an “air of elitism and privilege,” and that many people think vegan food, while healthy, is “all brown rice” and “flavorless.” Furthermore, he adds, people tend to think that vegans are “starved for options” (no pun intended) and will gratefully eat whatever animal-free options they can find, no matter how tasteless. (“I’ve been to weddings where the vegan option is just grilled asparagus on a plate,” he sighs.)

But Props wants to defy that desperate, flavorless reputation by proving that vegan food can be creative, tasty, and satisfying. “A lot of what people eat everyday is vegan but they don’t know it,” he notes. Through both his pop-up eateries, he aims to serve “relatable food,” or what he terms “vegan cuisine for the masses.”

To that effect, Stay Fresh has featured biscuit-laden brunches, Chesapeake Bay-inspired delights, and a burger night. Similarly, Day One, Prop’s collaboration with baker and fellow hip hop enthusiast Ari Berenbaum, has served up meals inspired by Chinese take-out, Southern picnic eats, and, perhaps most interestingly, neighborhood bodegas. Of course, all the items contain no animal ingredients, but they do highlight Props’ own imaginative twist on familiar favorites. For example, bodega night starred portabella mushroom jerky, pig-free pork rinds, and scratch-made SpaghettiOs (dressed up with caramelized leeks and capers).

A graduate of Bauman College’s Natural Chef Certification program (where he completed an internship with vegan superstar Colleen Patrick-Goudreau), Props self-identifies as “a chef first and foremost,” adding that he loves to “apply classic culinary techniques to things that aren’t traditionally vegan.” Even as a vegan, he doesn’t shy away from meat-heavy cookbooks, instead scouring them for techniques and flavor pairings he can adapt for vegan dishes. “Just because a cookbook has a picture of a fish head on it,” he advises, “you shouldn’t discount its advice.”

So how has Durham’s food community responded to his vegan-remixed classics?

The most common customer reaction Props has experienced has been sheer gratitude. Props designs his themes with his too-often-marginalized diners in mind, and to that end, his menus always include at least one gluten-free option. (He is also able to work around other allergies with three to four days’ notice.) According to Props, Durham’s vegan community has been “phenomenally supportive,” and the gluten-free diners have been “the most supportive and thankful and hopeful.” Props wants customers to feel welcome and return often enough that they feel comfortable making suggestions for themes or menu items.

For as often as Props’ diners have communicated gratitude, they have also happily expressed surprise at the creativity and robust flavor of his dishes. He gets a real thrill out of seeing born-and-bred Southerners enjoying his animal-free take on soul food.

Now that Props has established his culinary identity, he is focusing on the future. “Ultimately our goal is to have our own space,” he explains with pride. Currently serving up dishes with a staff of only three or four, Props is comfortable in Ninth Street Bakery and thankful for the “amazing support” the owners have given him. However, in the future, he’d like to expand his workspace to give himself, his co-workers, the local DJs he hosts, and his diners more elbow room.

“We’re trying to foster a real community,” he explains.

Props’ focus on the future and the positive allows him to remain optimistic in spite of occasional challenges. As the hip hop community has known for years, haters gonna hate. Within the chef scene, some traditionally-minded cooks view the idea of a vegan chef as a joke, even taking offense at the notion that chefs could conjure up flavor without using any animal-derived ingredients.

Perhaps drawing on that hip hop swagger, Props just laughs off their sneers, boasting, “I love proving them wrong.”

 

Update: Check out Day One's Jamaican Night this coming Saturday, July 13th! 

 

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!

Bull City Vegan Challenge

In October, ten restaurants in Durham will take on the challenge of adding vegan options to their otherwise meat-laden menus. At the end of the month, patrons can vote for their favorite meals online, and hopefully, some of these restaurants will decide to keep more meat-free options on their menus for good. I'm impressed by the variety of restaurants that chose to participate; vegans will have their pick from French bistros (traditionally vegan-unfriendly) to Italian-inspired sandwich shops to pub-style eateries. I hope this challenge brings in enough business to make chefs and restaurant owners realize there is a local desire for more meatless options when dining out.

You can read more about the challenge in this article or on the BCVC facebook page.

While we're on the topic of veganism, next month is the Vegan Month of Food, or Vegan MoFo, which I greatly prefer. Once again, I will post at least one new vegan recipe per week here, along with any resources I can find. Check back for new recipes soon!