Cheese Plate 101 {IFBC 2014}

Posted on Sep 15, 2014 | 2 comments

I’m proud to come from a family of foodies.  Though some attach a negative connotation to the word (shout out to Huffington Post and Eatocracy, among many others), I use the term “foodie” endearingly.  We foodies are people who, at the root of it all, love food, though it’s more than simply eating the food (or excessively consuming the food, as the case may be).  Food is the binding tie, the common ground, the one thing that unites us all, family and strangers alike.  It’s about sharing, and connecting, and traditions.  Food is love, after all.

My foodie family is big on potluck get-togethers.  Everyone brings a dish to share and the host handles the main course:  MEAT.  As far back as I can remember, there were two dishes we’d consistently have on hand for the hors d’oeuvre hour:  potato chips and French onion dip (Lawson’s or Heluva Good only, people) OR cheese and crackers.  This was my formalized introduction to the cheese plate.  The preferred cracker of choice was the round, buttery kind that disintegrated instantly on tongue contact, and the preferred cheese was Colby Jack.  If it was a really special get-together, like my Dad’s annual (epic) Christmas Eve parties, there’d also be some pepper jack and a little bit of Swiss.  For the life of me, I never understood why they wasted space on the plate with that shitty Swiss cheese.  No one liked it.  And at the end of the night, it’d be the only thing left, the last cheese standing, all hard and slightly yellowed from the night’s neglect.

But I digress.

Cheese board

The foodie family lesson to be learned here is that when you tell your guests to “come hungry” you better have something on hand for them to nibble on til mealtime.  The simpler the better, because as the host, you’ve got bigger fish to fry.  The cheese plate is my go-to, and though mine looks much fancier than the cheese plates of my youth, it comes together just as fast.  Plus, cheese tastes best at room temperature, so you can fix it and forget it before the guests arrive.

My cheese board rule of thumb is to include something soft, something stinky, and something special—the wild card, if you will.  Three to five types of cheese with contrasting flavors, about 2-3 ounces per person for a light appetizer, or 3-5 ounces for a heavier first course.  My selections often consist of brie, blue cheese, and smoked gouda, because those are the cheeses I enjoy, and really that’s what matters most.  Whatever you choose, you’ll want to give your cheese room to breathe – don’t mash them too close together or the stinky cheese can taint the more delicately flavored ones.

soft cheesestinky cheesewild card cheeseraincoast crisps2

I love the contrast of soft cheese and crunchy crackers, so I paired my cheese with some original Raincoast Crisps  (chock full of pumpkin seed, flax-seed, and sesame seed) and some Salty Date and Almond Raincoast Crisps.  The Raincoast Crisps have great flavor that compliments the cheese, and they’re sliced thin, so neither the flavor of the cheese nor the crisp gets lost.  (I should note that these crisps are crazy addicting.  I’ve been eating the leftovers topped with almond butter for snacks for days.)

As for all the fancy finishings you see, I suggest picking things you like and that you have on hand.  No sense blowing the bank on the cheese plate, I always say.  Fresh fruit is great with cheese, so I used the red raspberries I had in the fridge along with almonds, cashews, whipped cinnamon honey, and some fresh triple-berry jam my sister made FROM SCRATCH (everyone should be so lucky to have a sister who likes to can), plus some chocolate chunks, because, well, why not?  Pickles, dried fruit, fresh crusty bread, and charcuterie (SALAMI, for those of us still avoiding our fancy pants) are great too.

cheese board close up

Speaking of foodie get-togethers, this week I’m once again heading to Seattle to join foodies from across the globe at the International Food Bloggers Conference.  There’s something magical about surrounding yourself with people whose passions align with yours, and I am beyond excited, even more so than last year (which you can read all about here and here).  Plus, I’ll be meeting Lesley Stowe, creator of Raincoast Crisps while I’m there!

International Food Blogger Conference 2014 Seattle

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Restaurant Roundup: The Round Bistro, Fahrenheit, Stagioni

Posted on Sep 7, 2014 | 1 comment

THE ROUND BISTRO.  I don’t make it out to Gastonia very often (once a year, give or take), imagebut I made a special trip last month to check out Chef Jack Acheson’s restaurant, The Round Bistro, and celebrate the restaurant’s two year anniversary with a wine dinner.  Within minutes of speaking with Chef Jack, one thing becomes blatantly apparent:  his strong passion for the history and diversity of American food.  That’s what fueled him to chose American cuisine as his concept for the Round Bistro, and each month, Chef Jack develops a new regional menu that features indigenous ingredients of a specific U.S. region.  Last month’s region was the Pacific Northwest, and for September, he’s taking a fun turn and featuring famous football stadium foods.  Ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible, and Chef incorporates what’s in season into his regional menu planning.

The menu at the The Round Bistro is large, and spans the gamut from fondue-of-the-day to potato-crusted crab fritters, muffaleta to “Pittsburgers”, plus several salads, She Crab soup, shrimp and grits, and fresh salmon FIVE ways (including baked parmesan crusted, olive oil poached, cedar plank roasted, and blackened).  In short, if you want it, they’ve got it, brunch included.

Every third Thursday of the month, The Round Bistro hosts a wine dinner.  Chef Jack works closely with a sommelier to select regional wine pairings for each of the six courses, and he uses these dinners as an opportunity to showcase his culinary creativity.  The menu for the wine dinner I attended included a cold peach soup with mint and cantaloupe, bay scallop over cactus and smoked gouda salad tossed in a green apple vinaigrette, cedar roasted salmon over basil tomato risotto, wine poached heritage chicken over rosemary polenta, pappardelle pasta with lamb ragu, and chocolate and raspberry mousse parfait, plus wine pairings for each course.  All for just $65 per person.

IMG_4495The Round Bistro - Salmon and Risotto

The Round Bistro - Lamb RaguThe Round Bistro - Scallop Salad

The Round Bistro - Dessert

The Round Bistro on Urbanspoon

FAHRENHEIT is one of Charlotte’s hottest (no pun intended) new restaurants.  Chef Roccoimage Whalen started the concept in Cleveland in 2002, and opened the second location in Charlotte earlier this year.

First off, SCALLOPS.  WOW.  Scallops are my go-to entree, and Fahrenheit’s are the best I’ve had in town, no exaggeration here.  They are served with a cauliflower purée, arugula, and pomegranate seeds, and they are PERFECT.  PERFECTTTTTT.  Every time.  Even during restaurant week, when perfection is practically unheard of.  I also highly recommend the fried goat cheese salad with dried cherry tapenade, pistachio brittle, and “local pig vinaigrette.”

I recently hosted a happy hour at Fahrenheit.  (As the resident foodie of my department at work, I’m on the social committee and am in charge of selecting locations for our happy hours.  Fahrenheit was a no-brainer because the bar area is large and the outdoor balcony area offers a fantastic view of the city.)  So at said happy hour, I tried nearly all of the small plates on the menu.  Not complaining.  The bacon-wrapped chorizo-stuffed dates with tomato aioli are OUTRAGEOUS.  Even the picky eaters liked them.  The lobster and sausage biscuit is very comforting and flavorful, but I’d pass on the lobster rolls next time (surprisingly boring).  The group also loved the charlotte nachos (potato chips, pimento cheese fondue, green onions, and bacon—what’s not to love?).


Fahrenheit on Urbanspoon

STAGIONI – FOUR SEASONS OF FOOD opened early in 2014 by the Moffett Group, the same team thimageat owns my beloved Good Food on Montford.  The restaurant is located in the historic Reynolds-Gourmajenko House (the one that looks like a villa) on Providence Road.  It’s a little tricky to locate your first time through, but they do have ample parking available behind the building — off of Fenton Place.  Whether sitting at the bar or in the small dining area that overlooks an especially open kitchen, the restaurant has a great feel.  Low lit, lots of energy, and its almost always packed.  Sure, it can get a little loud, but I think that adds to the overall energy of the place.

The menu at Stagioni (pronounced Sta-jo-nee, means “seasons” in Italian) features classic Italian dishes and is divided between snacks (pizza and nibbly bits) and entrees, all of which change seasonally.  The snacks are where it’s at, y’all.  First, there’s the pizza.  Pancetta and Brussels Sprout, clam and bacon, sausage and peppers…  All awesome.  The pizza (which you cut with large scissors) and a couple glasses of wine make for a stellar meal alone, but I also love their housemade ricotta and stuffed peppadews, and if mussels or octopus are on the menu — get them.

As for entrees, well, I’m a little less excited.  I’ve tried several pasta dishes (including the shrimp with saffron and the frutti di mare), and while the housemade noodles were great, I found the overall flavor of the dishes underwhelming.  Every time I venture to the entrée side of the menu, I find myself wishing I’d went with the pizza and small plates.  Yet, I keep going back.  The small plates are THAT good.  I should note I haven’t sampled any entrees off their most recent seasonal menu, so I’m hoping to stop in soon and give them a taste.   I should also not they’ve got prosecco on tap and a delicious pear skillet cake with avocado ice cream (when pears are in season, that is).



IMG_5016  IMG_6011IMG_5008

Stagioni on Urbanspoon

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As seen on WBTV: Three Awesome Sausage Toppers {recipe}

Posted on Jul 22, 2014 | 5 comments

Did you catch me talking sausage toppings on WBTV this morning?  Check out the video link below!

Here we are, in the height of backyard barbecue season, with literally dozens of ketchup and mustard covered hot dogs under our belts, and  Don’t get me wrong, I love that classic combo, but sometimes I crave to shake things up a bit.  Get a little spicy, a little saucy, a little something like THIS:

Sausage toppings

TOPPING REMIX #1:  a Mexican-inspired sandwich using Johnsonville Chorizo Sausage  topped with some of my homemade guacamole and fresh pico de gallo.  Incredible flavor, practically impossible to eat just one.

TOPPING REMIX #2:  a Johnsonville Turkey Sausage with Cheddar topped with barbecue sauce and a simple lightened up slaw.  Hearty and healthified without sacrificing a pants size.

Sausage topping

sausage toppings - guacamole slaw pico de gallo

The Best Guacamole of Your Life (according to this girl)

  • 1 medium-sized ripe avocado (a ripe avocado is one that is soft to the touch, but not squishy, and definitely not rock hard)
  • 2 tsp lime juice
  • 2 heaping tbps chopped cilantro
  • 1/3 cup red onion, diced
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Halve the avocado with a knife, scoop out the avocado pulp into a medium bowl, and discard the seed.  Mash the avocado with a fork, then add the remaining ingredients.  Stir, and enjoy!


Pico de Gallo

  • 4 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 cup diced red onion
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • juice of 1 lime
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • Black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl.  Stir to combine.  Add additional salt and black pepper to taste.


Simple Lightened-up Cole Slaw

Recipe here!

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Chinese Porterhouse Pork Chops {recipe}

Posted on Jun 30, 2014 | 2 comments

Growing up, pork chops were one of my least favorite family dinners.   Coated in Shake n Bake and cooked, and cooked until they were so firm a steak knife would bow as you sawed through them, it was one of the few meals I wouldn’t fight my brother for seconds on.  They ranked only slightly higher than hobo dinners, yet, just like those horrid foil packets of sliced kielbasa and mushy vegetables I dreaded, the chops required a vat of Ranch dressing to make them swallowable.   Of course, this was before the USDA revised the temperature guidelines for cooking pork.  The new rule-of-thumb is 145 degrees and 3 minutes resting time, which results in one juicy, tender chop.  Voilà:

hoisin pork chop 2

Speaking of revisions, did you know pork cuts recently underwent a renaming process?  I had no idea, until I started searching for this month’s North Carolina Pork Council Blog Network featured cut of pork:  the Porterhouse Chop, formerly known as the pork loin chop.  I found this handy reference image on the Pork Be Inspired website:


For these chops, I was shooting for big, bold flavors and juicy meat — something a wee bit crazy to put the chops of my childhood to shame.

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Adventures in Grilling

Posted on Jun 15, 2014 | 4 comments

Back in Ohio, I had a lot of things.  A house.  A yard.  Shrubbery.  The whole kit and kaboodle.  Sure, most people save downsizing til they’re empty-nesters, but me?  Oh, no.  I cut ties with three-quarters of my belongings at age 26, leaving behind my beloved hedging shears, lawn gnomes, and my beautiful propane grill (complete with double burners), and headed south.  Since then, I’ve dreamed of the day I’d once again cook over an open flame, just me, my meat, and the great outdoors.

I spent the Memorial Day weekend at home in Ohio, and one morning I convinced my dad to teach me how to light a charcoal grill.  As a soon-to-be-thirty, self-declared independent woman, I’m ashamed to publicly announce my ineptitude in this area.  But standing in the backyard, listening to him explain the mechanics of the offset smoker while the flames licked at the mound of coals put a fire in my belly.

And when I returned home to Charlotte, this:

Weber One Touch

Even before I’d taken the grill out of the box, I invited a few friends over for sausage party.  I stocked my fridge full of Johnsonville brats, opened up a bottle of wine, and got to assembling my new grill.

weber one touch partsweber one touch assembled

In retrospect, it probably would have been a good idea to give the ole grill a trial run.  Nothing like going at it green with a crowd full of hungry bystanders.  Though my dad had showed me how easy it was to light a charcoal grill using a charcoal chimney, I was overcome with a sudden confidence in the grilling aisle at Lowes, and when I picked up the chimney to put it in my cart, I thought, “oh, no, I got this,” and put the chimney right back on the shelf.  Flash forward a few hours later, with the aforementioned starving bystanders, and me with nary a chimney, shred of newspaper, or drop of lighter fluid in sight.

An hour and one burnt thumb later, there was ash-covered charcoal… sort of.


And we waited.grilling & chillin

Several mistakes were made this day, but I did do one thing right.  Friends, ALWAYS have snacks on hand.  The simple Johnsonville Andouille smoked sausage and caramelized onion pizza I threw together kept my friends from rioting while we faltered with the grill.  This is sausage and onions done right.  Classy, even.

andouille and caramelized onion pizza 2

And after two hours of “grilling” we FINALLY sat down and enjoyed some Johnsonville original brats plus some brat-stuffed jalapeno peppers.  And you know what?  It was fantastic.  Even with all the flubs, as long as you don’t pierce the brat with a fork and leach it of its juices, that thing is sure to be delicious.

(As soon as everyone left, I logged onto Amazon and ordered a charcoal chimney.)

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Macy’s Grilling Guru Competition hits Charlotte

Posted on Jun 14, 2014 | 0 comments


Macy’s Great American Grilling Guru Competition stopped into Charlotte last week, and I had the opportunity to watch the gurus get their grill on, onstage at Macy’s in South Park.

HERE’S THE SCOOP:  The competition launched back in Cat-Cora---Macys-South-Park-Charlott[1]April, and contestants had until May 3rd to submit their recipes.  On June 7th, 18 semi-finalists competed in Sizzle Showdowns at six locations across the country, judged by Macy’s Culinary Council Chefs, including Cat Cora and Stephanie Izard.   The winner of each semi-final showdown gets to compete in the finale in New York City on June 28th, and the finale winner gets $10,000 plus a trip to New York City to watch the 2015 Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks.  Awesome, right?

At the competition, I was shocked by the contestants’ calm demeanor onstage.  I expected a mad dash, but each contestant confidently worked through their recipes and finished early, submitting their final plates to Chef Cat Cora for judging.

The competing recipes were:

  • Sherri’s Grilled Thai Lamb Loin Chops
  • Josee’s Shrimp & Apricot Stuffed Grilled Pork Tenderloin
  • Andre’s Steak & Potato Sliders with Basil Gorgonzola Cream


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Viddlz Alertz {plus a sneak peek of J. Sam’s}

Posted on Jun 7, 2014 | 1 comment

I have a few food obsessions.  Yes, besides my well-documented love of barbecue, there are some foods I simply cannot go without ordering.  Burrata.  Scallops.  Caramelized onion anything.  Housemade bread.  Bread pudding.  Bread.  We all have our trigger foods.  How cool would it be to get an automatic alert any time one of the foods you’re craving was offered by a imagerestaurant?  Blackberry cobbler, softshell crab, meatloaf.  Whatever!  That would cut out, like, hours of food research a week.  Am I right?  That’s why I’m super excited about a new concept in Charlotte called Viddlz Alertz.  It’s an online tool that lets you manage your cravings by alerting you when your particular food obession is offered in the area.  Plus, the Alertz system displays daily drink and food specials from restaurants and bars you follow (you can also get daily email updates with this info), and the Viddlz app is expected to be rolled out later this month.

J Sams Charlotte Scallops

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