Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Our favorite restaurants and a romantic country inn in Highlands, North Carolina

More often than not, we plan our trips around food and my birthday trip was no exception. Our favorite place for lunch in Highlands, NC is Wild Thyme Gourmet. When the weather permits, we enjoy dining outside on the patio.

However, their indoor sun room is cozy when the weather cools off. The Wild Thyme Gourmet is open year-around and offers lunch and dinner, a handy tip to know because many restaurants in the area close during the winter.

One of the reasons we like Wild Thyme is because their chef creates fabulous soups. Meakin chose the fresh tomato basil and I never pass up sampling black bean soup.

For our main course, we normally order their grilled wild salmon BLT sandwich with apple wood smoked bacon and herb mayonnaise, but this time we saw something new on the menu - a Panko fried shrimp sandwich accompanied by a slightly chilled and well seasoned wild rice salad. I would have never thought to put fried shrimp on a sandwich, but it was delicious and the shrimp remained crispy and moist. I love Panko shrimp and when I make it at home, instead of deep frying it, I shallow fry it in a little canola oil and it turns out perfectly every time.

For dinner we made reservations at Wolfgang’s Restaurant and Wine Bistro, which conveniently is right down Main Street from the Highlands Inn, where we’re spending the night. Wolfgang’s has been a fixture in Highlands for seventeen years.

Chef Wolfgang, as you probably guessed from his name, is German, so you might expect that Weiner Schnitzel and a Bavarian sampler of Bratwurst, Knockwurst, Kessler and a Schnitzel with red cabbage, sauerkraut and potato salad would be on his menu.  However you’ll be surprised to learn that he was also a former executive chef for the Brennan Family of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. So as they say in Louisiana, laissez les bon temps roulez - let the good times roll.

The last time we dined at Wolfgang’s was in the winter and Hungarian goulash soup was on the menu. Meakin asked our waitress to please tell the chef that his soup was delicious and just as good as the Hungarian goulash soup he’d enjoyed in a restaurant in Austria at the Zugspitze. When she returned to the table, he asked, “What did the chef say?” He had a great big smile she said. Apparently Chef Wolfgang was pleased with Meakin’s sense of humor and little tease about Bavaria.

My birthday is a special day for us. If you’re a regular reader you might remember that Meakin proposed to me on my birthday years ago at the romantic Mecom Fountains in Houston. We toasted the occasion with a glass of one of our favorite chardonnays, a buttery Sonoma Cutrer, in the wine bistro and reminisced about all of the fun times we’ve had. It’s most definitely been a good life. Wolfgang’s wine list is excellent and every year since 1999 the restaurant has been awarded the prestigious Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence.

Because it was a special occasion we asked to be seated in a cozy corner of the main dining room. I was particularly impressed by their attention to detail. The waitress brought napkins and water glasses to the table right away, which you expect. But wait………my napkin was black. When Meakin asked why I got a black napkin and he got a white one, the waitress said, “The lady is wearing black and a white napkin might leave lint.” Furthermore I was also impressed when I picked up my water glass and found that the foot of the glass was fitted into the doily (not sitting on the doily, but in a slot in the doily), allowing it to protect your clothing from the annoying drips common to water glasses after they’ve sat on the table a few minutes.

I never pass up a chance to enjoy Creole cuisine and tonight was no exception. From Chef Wolfgang’s Signature Specialties menu I chose the Veal Medallions Wolfgang with a cabernet sauce topped with sautéed crawfish and béarnaise sauce. When I took my first bite, I was immediately transported to Louisiana and the French Quarter.

The veal was melt in your mouth tender, as I expected in a quality restaurant such as this, and the béarnaise was creamy and rich, with just a touch of tarragon as a background note. In my opinion, the quality of sauces a chef turns out of his kitchen tells you much about his training. A good sauce spells a good chef, one that has been classically trained in fine cooking. Chef Wolfgang didn’t let me down with his béarnaise sauce or his tender, properly cooked veal.

At home (when our waistlines can stand it), I make both homemade béarnaise and hollandaise sauce. Even if you are a beginner, they’re quick and easy to make if you use my blender method. There’s no excuse to buy the packaged stuff, so email me (samhoffer (at) gmail (dot) com) if you want my easy, foolproof recipe for béarnaise or hollandaise sauce.

Meakin took the more traditional route and ordered a well aged and marbled 12 ounce New York strip, cooked rare the way he likes it, and topped with béarnaise. For a starter he let me have a taste his shrimp and lobster bisque, which was some of the best bisque I’ve ever had. Chef Wolfgang came by our table and visited for a few minutes, which is also a sign of a top quality restaurant.

I know by now you must be saying to yourself, “Where are the pictures of the food?” Well, in all honesty, we’re a little shy about taking photos in restaurants. It’s like ringing cells phones and misbehaved kids. We don’t want anything to spoil the pleasure of dining.  Maybe someday we’ll get braver. We did manage to sneak a few food photos from Wild Thyme, but that was a much more casual setting.

On our departure Wolfgang’s gave me a small box of beautiful handmade chocolates for my birthday from Kilwin’s, whose store has been on Main Street for as long as I can remember.

We spent the night at the Highlands Inn, built in 1880 and is on the National Historic Register.

Lobby of Highlands Inn filled with beautiful antiques

Meakin chose one of their historic rooms, number twenty-two to be exact. He was told by the innkeeper that “everyone loves room twenty-two,” so who could resist?

It was filled with authentic antiques and lived up to its reputation as a very romantic room. Before dinner we relaxed on the balcony with our feet up, watching life go by on Main Street below.

These lovely flowers from Meakin were waiting for me in our room when we arrived.  As a surprise, he had asked the Inn to arrange for a local florist to send over this gorgeous bouquet. I had no idea how fragrant lilies were.

The next morning we enjoyed a complimentary breakfast downstairs in the Inn’s Kelsey Restaurant. The dining room has a comfy, at home feeling with mismatched, old arrow back chairs around the tables and more lovely antiques scattered about.

The breakfast was a typical hardy southern one, but today they were featuring rustic homemade biscuits (nothing out of the can here) with a rich cream gravy, French toast with pralines, and one of my favorites – Potatoes O’Brian. After all the rich food I indulged in last night, I filled my plate with fresh fruit, but I couldn’t resist just a tiny taste of the potatoes – delicious, with just the right amount of red bell peppers and onions.

This was a fabulous romantic trip that lived up to its expectations. The only downside is now that we’re home, we’ll have to go on a diet.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Highlands, North Carolina - high in the mountains where cool mountain air and natural beauty meet Mother Nature at her finest

Meakin asked me what I wanted for my birthday last week and before I could even think, the words, “I’d like to go to where I don’t have to cook or plan meals.” popped out of my mouth. “Perhaps a romantic country inn.”  

“Any place special?” he asked. “How about driving over to Asheville to tour the Biltmore Estates and spend the night in their inn. We could “vacation like a Vanderbilt,” as their ad says, or had you rather go to Highlands?” Somehow he didn’t seem surprised when my eyes lit up at the word “Highlands.” It’s one of our very favorite places to visit and we’ve been going there since the mid-seventies when his mother owned a summer home at the Highland Falls Country Club. Later when we lived in the islands, we came to Highlands during the month of September and rented a cottage within walking distance to downtown in the Mirror Lake area to escape the peak of hurricane season and the sweltering summer temperatures of the Bahamas.

Mirror Lake

Private dock with canoe on Mirror Lake

We love living in the mountains of western North Carolina where there are many charming nearby villages located in lush forests, some with scenic river gorges, gorgeous natural waterfalls, and romantic country inns, which describes Highlands perfectly.

Cullasaja Gorge

All roads leading into Highlands are windy and steep. Here’s a photo from a scenic overlook just before we got to Franklin, NC, one of the gateway towns to Highlands. Can you see the road below? 

Mountain overlook in North Carolina

That’s Highway 64, which will eventually turn into a very narrow, two lane road (treacherous in places) that will wind its way through the Cullasaja Gorge in the lush green Nantahala National Forest from Franklin to Highlands. This is a typical day here when the mountains in the distant look blue – hence the name the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Cullasaja Gorge

There are numerous beautiful, natural waterfalls throughout the Highlands area, but our favorite is Dry Falls, or the Upper Cullasaja Falls, on this road into town. 

Dry Falls on the Cullasaja River

It is a 65 foot high waterfall that flows over a huge overhanging bluff that allows visitors to walk under the falls without getting wet, hence its name. Here Mother Nature shows off her finest. 

Dry Falls on the Cullasaja Rier

Highlands, North Carolina is special for many reasons, but perhaps it’s best known for its elevation. Located in the Appalachian Mountains with an elevation of just over 4100 feet, it’s cool in the summer when everywhere else in the south is hot, hot, hot. In August the average high temperature during the day is 78 degrees and some nights it can dip down into the mid-fifties. I recall Meakin’s mother having a fire in her fireplace many evenings in the summer and everyone waking up to nippy weather in the morning and needing a sweater. 

Downtown is small and charming, filled with antique shops, a well-known auction house (where Meakin’s mother bought the oriental run that now graces our living room), art galleries, and plenty of jewelry stores filled with top quality knock-offs to the real stuff. 

There’s also a well stocked cookware shop, The Dry Sink that I never miss peeking into, and numerous clothing stores and upscale boutiques that carry fashionable resort wear for every taste. If you like to hike or fish, there are shops that can outfit you from head to toe. 

Several downtown buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, including century old churches, and numerous country inns offer a variety of European style amenities while others including fireplaces in the rooms. 

Episcopal Church

Presbyterian Church
Old Edwards Inn & Spa

Old Edwards Inn & Spa

But best of all (and this is one of the reasons we came), there are some very nice restaurants. 

Wolfgang's on Main - Restaurant & Wine Bistro

For history buffs, the Cherokee Indians and Spanish explorers, such as Hernando Desoto, were some of the first to discover the area. Local legend has it that in 1875 the founders of Highlands drew one line from Chicago to Savannah and another from New Orleans to Baltimore. They thought where the two lines met (Highlands) would become a great trading center and commercial crossroads. Although not a commercial center, today Highlands is one of the most popular mountain playgrounds in the south where wealthy second homeowners and tourists continue to return to escape the summer heat and enjoy all of the resort style amenities that upscale mountain life has to offer.

Pocket Park for resting in downtown Highlands, NC

Highlands became a golfing mecca in the thirties when the golfing great Bobby Jones brought some of his well-heeled buddies up from Atlanta and founded the Highlands Country Club. Today Highlands is still a golfing paradise with numerous upscale golfing communities and courses with breathtaking views of the mountains and scenic waterfalls. The abundance of natural beauty and an ideal climate make outdoor activities very popular here, such as fly fishing, hiking and mountain biking, canoeing on the pristine lakes, and river rafting. 

Cullasaja River

We spent the night at the Highlands Inn in one of their romantic historic rooms on the second floor with a lovely balcony overlooking Main Street. I hope you’ll join me next time when I’ll show you around this charming old inn built in 1880 and take you along to two of our favorite restaurants in Highlands.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Make your own homemade pancake mix and fill with freshly picked, sweet and juicy North Carolina blueberries & topped with blueberry syrup

A while back a blogger friend showed us the inside her pantry, but apologized for having Bisquick on her shelf. She said her children beg for pancakes, so she kept a mix handy. I sent her an email and asked why she didn’t just make her own mix. It’s so easy, much less expensive, and requires only eight ingredients, all of which are either in your pantry or in your refrigerator.

While we don’t personally have an objection to using Bisquick and occasionally use it ourselves, the partially hydrogenated oil found in the list of ingredients is reason enough to make your own mix. You’ll find a recipe for pancakes (or they're sometimes called griddle cakes) in any basic cookbook, such as The Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer. In How to Cook Everything author Mark Bittman says about his basic pancake mix recipe, "Americans must have been sadly alienated from the kitchen for pancake mixes to ever have gained a foothold in the market, for these are ridiculously easy to make."

Roadside farm stands here in the mountains of North Carolina are selling fresh, juicy, sweet blueberries, some for as little as fifty cents a box. As you know from my last post, we buy fresh and local whenever we can. We probably ought to have a bumper sticker (if I didn’t dislike stickers so much) on our car saying, “We break for farm stands.”  Sometimes they taste so good we eat the entire box in the car on the way home, but today we intentionally saved some for blueberry pancakes.

My husband Meakin made these delightful cakes for breakfast and topped them with luscious blueberry syrup that puts them over the top in taste. Enjoy.

Homemade pancake mix with fresh blueberries & Meakin's blueberry syrup
Adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

Dry ingredients:
1 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt

In a bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients together with a whisk. Store in an air-tight container until you’re ready to make pancakes.

Liquid ingredients:
½ - ¾ cup milk at room temperature
2 tablespoon sweet butter, melted
1 large egg, beaten to blend
½ to ¾ cup fresh blueberries

To add the liquid ingredients, whisk together the milk, butter and egg lightly in a separate bowl. Start out using ½ cup milk. You can always add more if necessary. Add the premixed dry ingredients all at once to the wet mixture, stirring just enough to dampen the flour. Add the blueberries, but don’t over mix.

Lightly grease a griddle or frying pan and set over moderate heat until a few drops of cold water tossed in the pan begin to sizzle and dance about. Drop about 2 to 3 tablespoons of the batter onto the pan. Cook until the tops of the cakes are full of bubbles, slightly dry on the edges, and the undersides are lightly browned.

Flip cakes over and cook the other side until done. Place finished cakes on an ovenproof plate in a warm, 200 degree F oven until you have enough to begin to serve. Top with a pat of butter and Meakin's blueberry syrup (recipe below). Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Meakin's Blueberry Syrup

1/3 cup fresh blueberries
¼ cup water
2 – 3 tablespoons sugar (depending on the sweetness of the berries)
1 slice (not chopped) of fresh gingerroot, about 1/8” thick
1 tablespoon honey

In a saucepan add all of the ingredients except the honey. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer until the blueberries have burst and you have a syrupy consistency. Remove and discard the slice of gingerroot. Add the honey and serve warm over buttered pancakes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Clam zucchini chowder – made with local garden fresh vegetables for the lazy days of summer time

Summer time is my absolute favorite time of the year, primarily because I love the flip flop lifestyle. Everyone sports lazy day, lightweight cottons and of course wears my favorite shoes – flip flops or sandals. Men wear cool shorts and short sleeve polo shirts or T’s while the ladies favor colorful sundresses. Farmer’s markets are overflowing with freshly picked summer vegetables such as dark green zucchini, bright yellow squash, freshly picked corn, cucumbers and my all time favorite – tomatoes. I’m always enchanted with the handmade signs directing you to neighbor’s gardens, where they’ve set up tables of freshly picked produce and a jar or box for you to leave your money and make change based on the honor system.

Every time I see zucchini I think of Wanda. For those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, you may remember Wanda. She was Meakin’s late step-mother who, according to him, “was the best home cook he’d ever known.” While that was true, she was also very difficult to please (remember the bay leaf wreath I surprised her with for Christmas one year?) and, much to my chagrin, she would never ever share her recipes with me. You probably know someone who doesn’t share their recipes either. I never quite figured them out, but that’s another story.

This chowder is one of the recipes in particular I remember begging her for. She served it as a first course and it was so different from anything I’d ever eaten. It was luscious and tasted like a rich New England clam chowder stuffed full of fresh vegetables. Of course I absolutely had to have the recipe, but no go, she wasn’t sharing.

The only thing I knew for sure about her chowder was that it was cream based and contained zucchini, potatoes, and clams and was finished it in a food processor. At the time the Cuisinart food processors were brand new and all the rage. Everyone was talking about them. Consequently, there were many cookbooks designed especially for this new, must have kitchen appliance.

Never underestimate the determination of a cook like myself on the prowl for a recipe. Later that year I was visited Meakin’s mother in Florida and I spotted several issues of Cuisinart’s little cooking magazine on her coffee table. I had what you might call an “ah ha” moment. I thought maybe, just maybe, Wanda’s recipe might be in one of these little magazines. I quickly started flipping through them and low and behold, there it was - Wanda’s “secret recipe” for clam zucchini chowder.

The chowder is perfect for summer time when zucchini is abundant. The richness (including the fat & calories) can be controlled by the kind of milk you use. Light cream makes it luscious, but skim milk works well also. I added thyme, mostly because when we lived in the islands the Bahamians always added dried thyme to their chowders and I’ve done the same since then. If you don’t have a food processor, a blender works perfectly well and so would a handheld stick blender, or boat motor as Emerill Lagassee likes to calls it. I hope you’ll enjoy Wanda’s secret chowder as much as we do and please feel free to share it with anyone who asks for the recipe. I’m always thrilled when someone asks for one of my recipes and I believe it’s one of the best compliments a cook can get. Besides, it’s just the gracious thing to do.

Wanda’s secret Clam Zucchini Chowder
Serves 4.

1 strip of bacon, plus extra for garnish if desired (see below)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 small zucchini, ends removed & sliced into 1” chunks
1 large carrot, peeled & sliced into 1” chunks
2 medium potatoes, peeled & chopped into 1” chunks
½ teaspoon dried chopped thyme
1 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 10 oz can whole or chopped baby clams in water
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup milk or light cream (I use a combination)
Additional Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper to taste

For a garnish:
Finely chop a little extra zucchini and carrot and sauté them in a little of the bacon drippings. Add the extra crumbled bacon to the vegetables and use as a garnish for the chowder.

Sauté bacon in a large saucepan or stockpot until fairly crisp.  Remove, crumble & set aside. Keep one tablespoon of drippings in the saucepan and discard the remainder.  Add the chopped onion to drippings & sauté slowly until it takes on a little color and starts to brown.  Add zucchini, carrot, potatoes, thyme, chicken broth, water from clams, 1 teaspoon Kosher salt, a little freshly ground black pepper and the crumbled bacon, keeping back some of the bacon for garnish. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat & simmer, covered for about 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Remove the vegetables & process in batches in the food processor or blender until smooth.  Or you could leave the vegetables a little chunky as I did if you like a more rustic, homemade look. Return mixture to the saucepan and add the clams & milk.  Gently reheat and taste to see if additional salt & pepper are needed.  Garnish and serve.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A nectarine tart that turned out as gorgeous as its original photo

First let me start by saying thank you for the well wishes. They meant so much to me and I'm sure it's one of the reasons I'm feeling better.

Desserts have always been a challenge for me. I really don’t have a sweet tooth and I wouldn't consider myself much of a baker. But I’ve discovered that when you host a dinner party, people expect a dessert. So I’ve taken desserts as a challenge – something I want to learn more about. While Meakin makes a killer flaming Bananas Foster every bit as good as Brennans in New Orleans and also a fabulous crème brulee, we can't serve those at every dinner party. 

When I saw this nectarine tart on Smitten Kitchen, it looked so beautiful I knew I had to give it a try. On the plus side for me, it sounded almost foolproof. All I had to do was make a gingersnap crust in the food processor and bake it for a few minutes. While the crust was in the oven, I beat the mascarpone and cream cheese together with a few flavorings in a bowl, sliced some nectarines, which happen to be one of my favorite fruits, and voila, I had made a gorgeous tart. Much to my surprise, it looked exactly like it did on Smitten Kitchen, who adapted the recipe from Bon Appétit. It was a tremendous boost to my confidence as a dessert maker.

By the way, one of the reviewers on Epicurious/Bon Appétit won a ribbon at her county fair for the tart. She substituted peaches for the nectarines. So this recipe is definitely a winner.

The original recipe calls for crystallized ginger, but Smitten Kitchen left it out because they didn't like it. It’s strictly up to you as to whether to use it or not. I didn’t use it because I didn’t have it on hand and it was scrumptious. 

Be sure to make the tart at least two hours in advance of serving because it needs to be refrigerated.  One day in advance also works. I’m of the same school of thinking as Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa. Do as much as you can in advance for a dinner party. That way, you’ll enjoy your own party.

Nectarines as well as peaches are in the market right now, so if you’re looking for a tart with wow appeal and easy too, give this a try. For the recipe, here are the links to Smitten Kitchen and Epicurious/Bon Appétit. Smitten Kitchen has great cook-along pictures, which will also boost your confidence in how easy it is to make.