North Carolina Fish Tales: A Cookbook, Soft Crabs & A Day Down East

For those of you who follow my blog and my social media feeds, you already know that  I am all about supporting local farmers and promoting  local farmers markets, products, produce and proteins.

imgres-2And so I was delighted to be  invited by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to join in a three-day tour for a taste of  North Carolina Seafood. It was an exciting opportunity to explore the historic and important commercial fishing & Aquaculture industry in the Old North State. Turns out I learned something I really always knew: Farming isn’t just on land, sometimes its in water, too! North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry needs our attention, and I am delighted to bring the camera into focus for the bigger picture and turn on the spotlight.

imgres-4The focus of this NC Department of Agriculture tour was on the commercial seafood industry, large and small in the coastal cities of Sea Level, Morehead City, Radio Island, Beaufort, Harkers Island and Smyrna, North Carolina. On the way to and from the coast we also made stops at several fascinating seafood farming operations in Pikeville and Ayden, NC, but those are fish tales for another day.

Fishing is THE industry along the coastal regions here.  Since the early days when the North Carolina coast was home to many whalers as well as fishermen, communities have been built up and around the industry.  Their mantra was then, as it is now, to preach the gospel of Eating Local North Carolina Seafood.   For the members of the local communities who make up the Carolina coast, that point cannot be echoed loudly enough.

For North Carolina’s commercial fishing industry, those third, fourth and sometimes fifth generation fisherman who make bringing fresh locally caught fish to your table their mission, the industry and the commerce it brings is a way of life. Fishing is in their blood and in their hearts. My biggest take away from this trip: when you eat fresh seafood in the state of North Carolina – insist on eating local product! You want to eat fish that came from the ocean off our North Carolina shores, not from across the ocean.  

hard shell crabThere is lots to be said, and I have many important fish tales to tell as a result of this 3-day coastal excursion and the adventures that ensued.  

My first of a series of fish tales here is about our day spent Down East ; a wonderful local lunch at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center; and how I learned to make one of my favorites: fried soft crabs.

The first task at hand was to get my bearings and figure out exactly where “Down East” is and where I was. It was explained to me that this eastern most tip of North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, might be described by some as the southern tip of the OuterBanks. But ask the locals and you’ll find that  “Down East” runs very specifically from the time you make the turn on Highway 70 and cross over the North River Bridge, down to Cedar Island where people can catch the ferry back up to Okracoke.

unnamedNorth Carolina Coastal History and the Heritage

Our trip Down East started at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center. This museum, located on the Cape Lookout National Seashore at Harkers Island. NC, holds a lot of the area’s heritage and history inside with exhibits that tell the tale of the early whaling and  fishing communities that built this part of the state. Outside the museum preserves the area’s fowl, flora and fauna on a 4-acre fresh water habitat that surrounds the museum.  This year the Core Sound Museum celebrates its 25th anniversary the weekend of June 23, 2017  with its annual Decoy Day celebration on June 24, 2017. The museum holds an incredible collection of antique decoys, many of them locally made important historical examples of the art of hand carving. The day of decoys in June will include carving competitions, local arts & crafts, a “Ducktiques” Roadshow and of course,  plenty of fresh local seafood.

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Several of the Core Sound Quilters’ Group, dedicated to preserving the heritage of hand sewn quilts and supporting the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center

The museum does not have a restaurant, but  as a part of our tour, we were the guests at a  delicious local luncheon of stewed flounder, beef brisket with sweet potatoes, crab cakes,  fresh tomatoes, quick pickled cukes, and more  prepared and hosted by a group of woman who have  worked to make the museum what it is today.  These woman were all locals, passionate about their community. They all  grew up in the fishing industry  and are keen to preserve the commerce that build the community in which they live and love. Many of these women were members of the Core Sound Quilters who, among their other projects, work together to make a large completely hand-sewn quilt each year, auctioned off at the annual anniversary celebration to raise money for the museum. To date their quilts alone have raised over $100,000.00 to go into the museum coffers.

51jamb2pl3L._SX354_BO1,204,203,200_After lunch we had time to quickly tour a few of the exhibits, climb to the third story tower to check out the fabulous views of the area and to stop in at the gift shop. Lots of coastal goodies here, but my favorite find is always a local cookbook and I was not disappointed.

Island Born and Bred is a collection of Harkers Island recipes, fun facts, history and stories that tell the stories passed down through the generations of this Carolina coastal fishing community. Compiled by the Harkers Island United Methodist Women, it has been in publication since the late 1980’s. Its not only a cookbook, its a great read that goes to preserving the colloquial history of coast. If you collect cookbooks its one to hold on to and use as a wonderful resource.

Mr. Big Seafood

Mr Big SeafoodOur next stop on Harkers Island was to a locally owned independent fish house. Fisherman, seafood retailer and wholesalers Eddie and Alison Willis sell Eddie’s own catch directly to chefs, restaurants, other seafood wholesalers and  in the retail market from North Carolina up and down the Eastern Seaboard and beyond.  A native of Harkers Island, Eddie grew up in the fishing industry and after years of working day and night, in season, for other fish houses, he made the decided to stop fishing for other people and open up his own operation.

Mr Big Seafood opened in 2005 and is a well know spot for fresh Carteret County seafood. In the years since it’s opening Mr. Big Seafood has grown by leaps and bounds and the day before we arrived to visit Eddie, his wife Allison and their crew had just finished shedding and processing 2500 dozen  local blue crabs! Do the math and that’s  30,000 individual soft crabs -all processed and packed by hand.

You’ll notice that I didn’t say soft shell crabs.   To locals, these are simply soft crabs. Call the spring season when local blue crabs molt and shed their hard shells, “soft shells” and it will be apparent that you are not from around these parts.

heidi holding crabI simply adore soft crabs and to see the operation at Mr. Big Seafood at the height of the soft crab season ( which runs from the first full moon in April  till sometime toward the end of May) was fascinating.

The  blue crabs  are harvested and then placed in shallow pools until they shed their hard shells. Locals call the moment the crab pops out of the hard shell “a buster” and we were lucky enough to actually see it happening on the spot.  Mr. Big Seafood’s soft crabs are then shipped fresh or are immediately frozen so that Eddie and Alison have local NC soft crabs to ship from now until March when the season will start again.

Not only do they process crabs at Mr. Big’s, but they catch and process fresh NC shrimp and all other kinds of local seafood as well. As is the way in farming and in fishing, the catch or the harvest changes with the season.

IMG_1837In the midst of the shrimping season, Eddie estimates that his crew of just  3 or 4 employees can head and process 70 lbs of fresh North Carolina shrimp every 11 mins – and again, its all done by hand!  The operations from fish boat to fresh catch to freezer run all year long and Mr. Big Seafood sells  hard and soft crabs, shrimp and fish fresh, frozen and live from January till November; but they take a break from the long days in the fish house and nights out on the boat in December. Then after the New Year’s Eve clock strikes 12, they all swim back into action once again.

One might question if its better to purchase this local fish fresh or frozen, the answer is you’ll be good either way.  This fish is processed, packed & properly frozen less than 24 hours from the time it was found swimming in the ocean.  Hungry for more? You can make arrangements to order your fill of soft crabs, shrimp and just about any type of fresh NC seafood from Eddie and Alison Willis at Mr. Big Seafood by calling them directly at 919.971.3905.  You can pick up your order from the shop at Harkers Island – its worth the trip to make the visit for yourself; or they are glad to make arrangement to meet you in Morehead City, Beaufort or along the coast if you are there for a visit.

If not, Mr. Big’s Seafood delivers across the state as far as Raleigh and can make arrangements to meet anyone from Charlotte or points west in or around the Raleigh area or you can have your order shipped Fed Ex, but the delivery charges are on you.

Once you have your soft crabs in hand – how to properly cook them becomes the question.  The crabs and the fried fish we ate on our NC Seafood Tour of the coast were all lightly breaded – nothing was batter dipped. I wanted to make soft crabs like that at home, so I went to the source: my new Island Born and Bred cookbook from the Core Museum Gift shop. The recipe is really easy, all you need is local NC soft crabs, of course, oil and breader.

breadersAs timing and travel would have it, I was unable to purchase crabs from Mr. Big Seafood while we were on the tour, but I loved this little coastal community and will be back to visit Harkers Island again soon.

In the meantime, to satisfy my soft crab craving, our tour coordinator Kristen Baughman of Table Top Media in Raleigh, was kind enough to stop at B&J Seafood’s retail store in New Bern on our way back home from the coast.

We had  also visited B&J’s dock, fishing boat fleet and processing plant on Radio Island, one of the few remaining fish house’s in the Morehead City/Beaufort area while we were on the tour, so I knew this place was also the real deal.  Long fish story short, I was able to pick up a beautiful bakers’ dozen of fresh soft crabs ( which they packed and iced down in a cooler for me for the trip back home) plus a trio of packaged seasoned breaders all from North Carolina mills.

crab in breader

I’d say the secret to perfect NC soft crabs, once you have great seafood, is in the breading. You can make your own, or use any one of these time tested brands, but the point is not to over bread and certainly not to batter dip. The mission is to accentuate the wonderful sweet and slightly salty taste the crab.

Step one is to light rinse and clean the crabs and pat them dry. They really are already cleaned but I took this opportunity to  removed the top skin of the soft shell to expose just the crab meat.

crabs in breadingGently place the crabs in a paper bag and lightly shake the bag just enough to coat the crabs with the breading.

Meanwhile heat an inch or two of oil in a cast iron pan or skillet. You can use any type of oil and you could do them in a deep fryer, but I think for a dozen or so crabs, that might be overkill.

crab in oil

Fry the breaded soft crabs until they are slightly puffed and lightly browned, turning them once during the cooking time.

Serve the crabs with whatever condiments your heart desires, some people like a little hot sauce or cocktail sauce, these I just dressed with lemon and then served them on leaves on Little Gem lettuce from local Charlotte area farmers Amy and Joe at Boy and Girl Farm.

crabs and wineThis night we wound up cutting the crabs in half and rolling them up in the lettuce leaves for a bit of a seafood lettuce wrap. In honor of the upcoming Decoy Festival at the Core Museum, I opted to pair these delicious soft crabs with a Duckhorn Vineyard Decoy Sauvignon Blanc.

However you eat them, they are a seasonal North Carolina treasure and you should be sure and treat yourself soon. Try them on a sandwich with sliced tomato and lettuce – a taste of the Carolina coast at its finest and the delicious finale to my NC Fish Tale for today.

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But wait, there’s more…

Have I whet your palate for a taste for North Carolina Seafood? Join me for a special NC Seafood and OBX SeaSalt Cooking Class on Sunday June 25, 2-5 pm with special guest Amy Gaw from OuterBanks SeaSalt Cost $85  Five courses of North Carolina seafood, Outer Banks SeaSalt, wine pairings and tons of fun!! Make your reservations now simply by emailing Heidi at Heidi@HeidiCooks.com

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Want to know more – here are all the where to find it, where to order it details… Remember to #TellThemHeidiSentYou

Click here for more information about North Carolina Seafood and when and what is in season this summer.

For more information about the local catch and the seafood industry in Carteret County visit the Carteret Catch site here  

For more information about the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center and their annual Decoy Day celebration, visit their website here

To order your  own copy of the Island Born and Bred Cookbook, shop online at the Core Museum Gift shop here 

To order North Carolina seafood from Mr. Big’s Seafood in Harkers Island, and to read more of their story, including Eddie’s work with NC sea turtles,  visit them on Facebook  or simply call Eddie or Alison Willis directly at 919.971.3905

Three Cheers – Cheerwine Celebrates 100 Years!

Cheerwine Social Media Profile logoThree Cheers my friends! A early May trip to the Rowan County Museum in Salisbury provided my inspiration for this post written in celebration of the 100th anniversary, or the #Cheertennial, as they like to say, of Cheerwine. The legendary soft drink “born in the Carolinas and raised in a glass.”

There will most certainly be #CheerInTheAir as thousands of Cheerwine fans across the country, many members of the official fan club – the Cheerwine Authentic Soda Society –  celebrate this unique cherry flavored soft drink that has been pleasing the public’s palate since its inception in 1917.

I was invited by the marketing folks at Cheerwine to take a little trip down memory lane with them and then to tell the story of this delicious native North Carolina beverage.  I am pleased to partner with the company on this post and in the promotion of the big day of celebration for the centennial,  scheduled  in downtown Salisbury for May 20, 2017.

The Cheerwine Bottling Company,  was conceived by general store owner  L.D. Peeler of Salisbury, NC. in 1917. After a long search for something new in soda offerings, he invented the formula for Cheerwine.  What was then a new and unique soft drink with the sweet cherry taste, is still the delicious Cheerwine beverage we know and love today,

IMG_1413The very building in which Cheerwine was invented still stands in Salisbury at 322 East Council Street. While it is no longer a general store, the murals on the side of the building tell the story of its heritage.  The company’s headquarters are a mile or two away, but still proudly in their hometown at 1413 Jake Alexander Blvd. S., Salisbury, NC 28146.

“While much has changed around Cheerwine over the last hundred years, the taste and authenticity of Cheerwine itself will never change,” promises Cliff Ritchie, Cheerwine’s president. Ritchie is the great-grandson of the soft drink’s founder, L.D. Peeler. His children, Joy Harper and Carl Ritchie, are the family’s fifth generation and currently work for the Salisbury-based company which continues to be family owned.

soda shop setThe company and its many fans have been celebrating this major milestone since the first of the year, when the Rowan County Museum, located at 202 N Main St, Salisbury, NC 28144, turned over more than half of the exhibit space to display a wonderful and impressive collection – much of it on loan from private collectors –  of  Cheerwine memorabilia, advertising, bottles, cans and packaging.

heidi in booth

In the largest exhibit room the museum has set up an old fashioned soda shop – for display only – with counter stools from the original Salisbury Woolworths and a 1950’s circa original vinyl covered booth as well. Its a step back in time through the 10 decades of Cheerwine’s long lived popularity. So much to look at, so much many will remember – from billboards to old newspaper advertisements. This food writer just had  to slide into the historic booth for a quick photo op, to stop for a sip and take a moment to take it all in.

old cheerwine redo

One of the original glass bottles with the paper Cheerwine label still intact, is on display at the Rowan County Museum in Salisbury, NC, now till the end of the year.

As was the case with the inception of many of the early soft drinks, Peeler was looking for a way to improve the taste of seltzer water. 100 years ago was still a time before glass soda bottles – which would crack under the pressure of the effervescent and decades before the concept of canned sodas or plastic bottles.

The seltzer water was a chemical concoction and until production of the bubbled water was fine tuned it took the expertise of someone with a scientific background to get the mix just right. And so it was that most early soft drinks, often called tonics or elixirs, were thought to give a healthy boost and were prepared and mixed for on-site consumption by pharmacists.

By the early 1920s the first bottled soda’s came around and I was impressed to see one of the original glass bottles complete with the paper label in the Cheerwine exhibit.  The first vending machines came in the 1950’s and gave the consumer the convenience of buying a single Cheerwine on location.  Prior to that Cheerwine was delivered to stores, first by horse and buggy and then by delivery trucks.

The Secret about the Cheerwine Syrup

As the mix was perfected, and the seltzer water became available on tap, soft drink service moved from pharmacies to soda shops where “soda jerks” blended the sweet Cherry flavored syrup with just the right amount of seltzer water.

Cheerwine, and other soft drinks of the day, was not only served by the glass over ice, but the syrup was served on ice cream sundaes and in ice cream floats.  Each of these soda shops specials was hand crafted by a Soda Jerk.  These were the craft mixologist of their day. The moniker was coined and became popular in the vernacular, as a result of the  jerking action it took to pull down the tap to pour the seltzer in the glass.  syrup boxEven though soft drinks like Cheerwine had been sold to consumers in bottles as the industry developed since the 1920s;  these popular soda shops  and then the drive -ins with “car hops” that followed, continued to mix their own, blending soft drink syrups and seltzer together to order.

The syrup came to soda shops and restaurants in boxes shaped much like an oversized paper milk carton. The cartons were labeled “For Fountain Use” but somehow over the years, Cheerwine syrup has found its way into our kitchens where  chefs and home cooks alike, opted to think outside the syrup box, and have loved blending this wonderfully sweet elixir into hundreds of different recipes.

Interestingly, the syrup is not thick and honestly not overly sweet. It definitely tastes of cherries; and while I am not privy to any trade secrets to give away, for me the “deliciously different” taste of Cheerwine, tastes more than just of cherries, there is also a unidentifiable, rooty, rich component – almost as if there is a bit of sassafras in the mix. Whatever the proprietary blend is, a breakdown doesn’t really matter – I love it, both as a beverage and as an ingredient.

the sweet secret - Cheerwine syrup

A glass, bottle or can of Cheerwine,  starts with the sweet syrup pictured front and center here.

The secret I am privy to share is that Cheerwine syrup is  readily available to consumers at an incredible price. It is yours for the asking, ready for you to purchase to use in your own craft cocktails, cakes, ice cream concoctions, candies, and in marinades, barbecue sauces and glazes for beef, pork, chicken, duck, shrimp and other seafoods as well.

While the syrup is not sold in stores, Cheerwine’s sweet secret syrup is available at the Cheerwine corporate headquarters in Salisbury anytime during regular business hours and will also be available for sale in one of the Cheerwine booth’s at the May 20 celebration for just $3 a bottle!!

1eb6dc_dfd76f41f9cc48e0b9d98f5866007a5a-mv2If you find yourself in need of some inspiration before you start to cook  try a jar of another of my favorite Got To Be NC/Goodness Grows in North Carolina products: Cackalacky/Cheerwine Sweet Sauce. The original, and oh so fabulous, Cackalacky sauce is made from North Carolina sweet potatoes. When Cackalacky fans asked for a slightly sweeter version of this delicious slightly spicy sauce, the sauciers at Cackalacky who make the magic happen, reached out to their friends at Cheerwine. The result:  a sweet ‘n savory dip / grilling sauce / marinade  that you’ll want to mop on everything from shrimp on the barbie to that burger on a bun.

Join in the Cheerwine Centennial Celebration

100YearsofCheer_LogoNo cheer-pressure here, but if you’d like to raise your glass in cheer and join in  the May 20 Centennial Celebration in Cheerwine’s home of Salisbury, NC,  you won’t be alone, so my advice is to start early.  You may drive from Charlotte or make the day even more fun and take the train!!

To simplify travel to and from Cheerwine’s Centennial Celebration, the brand has partnered with Amtrak to offer a discounted transportation alternative. Trains will run from Charlotte and Raleigh to Salisbury, with stops at all stations in between. The Amtrak Salisbury Station is just steps away from the action, and Cheerwine will be served to riders while supplies last! To receive a special 15 percent discount on your pilgrimage, Cheerwine fans may book your tickets here 

The City of Salisbury will be closing off two blocks of Main Street to any vehicular traffic all day on May 20, 2017. There will be stands with free Cheerwine with commemorative Koozies,  free biscuits and bbq and a host of live music for everyone to enjoy from noon to 8 pm. In addition, look for Limited Edition Cheerwine merchandise available for purchase and  a People’s Choice BBQ Competition from noon-2 p.m. Here a half dozen or so teams will compete. Celebration attendees can sample BBQ from each team at no cost and then vote for their favorites. After the competition plates of BBQ will also be available for sale.

Come hungry, in addition to the BBQ and plenty of Cheerwine to drink, the May 20 celebration includes food from many of Cheerwine’s partners and friends. Here is what you’ll find in store: Krispy Kreme will be serving fresh made doughnuts from their new “Hot Now Mobile Store”;  Bojangles and Biscuitville will be serving free biscuits; and Select Bakery  will be serving Cheerwine cake. Fatz Café will be on hand with more good eats,  you can sample that famous Cackalacky sauce I told you about earlier; and King of Pops will offer a specially made Cheerwine-flavored popsicle, on my!

For adults there will be a Biergarten with NC craft beer, featuring pours from Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte,  and New Sarum Brewing Company & Morgan Ridge Railwalk Brewery, both located in Salisbury, NC.

Antique carFor kids, look for the Family-Friendly Kids’ Zone, with magicians, jugglers, rock climbing wall, obstacle course, slides, bounce house, lawn games and more.

Remember the Cheerwine exhibit at the Rowan Museum I told you about? There will be free tours of museum’s multi-room exhibit celebrating Cheerwine’s 100 years. And while you are looking around at it all, keep an eye out for the historic 1927 Cheerwine Ford delivery truck – it will be making appearances during the day and will be the perfect back drop for fun #Cheertennial photos with family and friends!

Cheerwine’s $100 Centennial Can Promotion

But that’s not all – the festivities don’t end after the May 20th weekend. There is reason – actually 500 reasons –  to keep celebrating Cheerwine through the end of the year. As you purchase cans of Cheerwine this year, keep your eyes out for the $100 Centennial Can promotion. There are 500 of the specially labeled  cans to be distributed throughout the Cheerwine inventory this year. Find one, peel off the winning label on the back of the can and win $100!

cheerwine cansHere is how it works. Throughout 2017, the beloved soft drink will continue rolling out new editions in its centennial can series with each of the Cheerwine labels used over the course of the past ten decades. Cheerwine fans are invited to collect all seven cans in the series, shown here, before the end of the year. My Cheerwine sources report that there are still plenty cans out there yet to be redeemed so there is still the chance to win! Check out the complete contest details here

PrintLater this year, I will be doing another article about Cheerwine and its importance as a local North Carolina product. I will be including some recipes in that post and invite you to join in the fun. Send me your family’s favorite Cheerwine recipe. it doesn’t have to be original but if its not, be sure to credit the source; or if its an original recipe tell me a bit about the history.

My friends at Cheerwine will send coupons to everyone who submits a recipe and I’ll print three of the top recipes submitted.

Send me your recipe with your photo and contact info – Name, Street Address ( so we can send you your coupons) and email, plus a few words about why you love the recipe  – Heidi Billotto – at Heidi@HeidiCooks.com. Then, stay tuned and look for that second post to come out later this fall.

Meanwhile plan to attend the Cheerwine Centennial Celebration in Salisbury Sat May 20, noon to 8 pm and have a blast! Here’s to another 100 years of cheer!

Want to know more?

Where to buy: Cheerwine is available in supermarkets, restaurants, mass merchandisers and convenience stores in select states nationwide, across the state of North Carolina and on the company’s website at cheerwine.com.

Social Speak: Follow Cheerwine on Facebook at facebook.com/cheerwine; or on Twitter and Instagram @drinkcheerwine.

Hashtags: Always look for the #TellThemHeidiSendYou and #IllHaveWhatHeidisHaving Hashtags for all of my food, drink and restaurant recommendations.

When you post your photos from the Cheerwine Centennial Celebration on your social media, be sure to tag me and Cheerwine too, and use any of the fun Cheerwine  hashtags  #CheerInTheAir, #Cheertennial , #Cheerwine100 ,  #Cheerwine  & #Cheers

16298545_10154919280799085_6495336173437586267_nWant to taste or buy more after or before the May 20 celebration? Innes Street Drug Store (112 S Main St, Salisbury, NC 28144) has Cheerwine merchandise for sale and makes delicious Cheerwine floats and fudge.

In addition to the yearlong Cheerwine exhibits open all of 2017, the Rowan Museum in downtown Salisbury also has Cheerwine shirts for sale. For more information and museum hours, click here.

 

For more information on Cackalacky/Cheerwine Sweet Sauce, visit the Cackalacky Website here.

#TellThemHeidiSentYouTo enjoy more from HeidiBillottoFood.com, subscribe to this blog by following the prompts in the upper right hand side bar of this page.

More posts about culinary events, cooking classes, and restaurants you don’t want to miss coming soon.

And remember, #TellThemHeidiSentYou

 

 

 

Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week: Delicious Tastes to Sip & Savor

Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week Runs Now till April 30, 2017

I always love it when Charlotte chefs and restaurants pull together to put on a food event.  Throughout the year there are many such collaborative events, wine dinners and themed promotions, and I have loved them all. But for me, some of the best events stretch out over a week or two, giving the dining out public the chance to explore, taste and experience at several different venues.

WineandTapasWeek-just-charlotteThe all new, first ever, Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week is just such an event, and it runs NOW through April 30. This eight day long event ( it all started Friday April 21) is about little plates, sharing and tasting – a great way to dine out with friends; and you still have lots of time to participate!  The more than 30 of Charlotte restaurants  are taking part with special menus offered for the eight evening stretch of this Springtime extravaganza.  CWTW founder Phong Luong, owner of Zen Asian Fusion in Dilworth  came up with the clever concept.

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Heidi Billotto with Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week Creator Phong Luong of Zen Asian Fusion on East Blvd.

I caught up with Phong at the Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week kick off event, held in The Bottle Shop in the lobby of the Center City Marriott, just outside Stoke Restaurant.  He explained the reasoning behind the dedicated week –   “Everyone loves tasting new flavors in food & wine and its always fun to share! Little plates are a great way to try just a taste.”  The concept is  a clever approach and an easy, reasonably priced way to get new and repeat customers in to try out a restaurant where they have never eaten,  or perhaps haven’t eaten at for some time..

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Chefs Rodrigo Velazco, Evoke; Chef Chris Coleman, Stoke; Chef Ryan Daugherty, Dogwood Southern Table all cooked at the Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week Kickoff

This CWTW affords customers a change to mix and match and taste a variety of tapas and wines.  Chef Ryan Daugherty from Dogwood Southern Table and chef Rodrigo Velazco from Evoke restaurant were at the CWTW Kick off and joined Stoke’s Chef Chris Coleman to share tastes of the tapas and wine they will be serving at their own restaurants so that kick off attendees could see how the concept would work.

While a few of the participating restaurants have planned seasonal menus just for the promotion, many are featuring tapas or small plates regularly featured as appetizers, sides or salads on their current Spring menus.

IMG_1142For the stretch of Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week, each participating establishment is offering a pre-selected menu of wine and tapas. $30 or $35 dollars ( depending on the restaurant) buys you two glasses of wine and  two tapas offerings. The really cool part is that you can order a CWFW package for yourself, or you can share one order with friends. It makes for a wonderful game of mix and match which helps to  make this culinary adventure even more fun.  Enjoy your Wine & Tapas offering as a start to a meal, or as an opportunity to just  meet for a drink and a quick  bite. You don’t need to specify when you make your reservations that you’d like to order the Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week plates; not everyone in your party has to participate, and you can change it up and order off the restaurants regular menu as well – but only the specific Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week menu items qualify for the special $30-$35 pricing.

IMG_1096The week before the kick off my husband Tom Billotto and I were invited to come by several of the participating restaurants for a taste of what would be on their menus. And then I tasted more at the kick off event. There are lots of big flavors on these little plates and the wine pairings are nothing to scoff at – as always, Charlotte restaurants and chefs are putting their best plates out there for you to enjoy – take advantage, sip and savor your way through the remaining days of April,  hitting as many of the participating restaurants as you can – you’re going to love it!

The list of participating chefs/restaurants is up  on the Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week website as are the detailed menus and wine lists at each venue; and if you would like, there are reservation links here as well.  Check them all out, and eat at as many as you can,  but first  take a look at this quick preview from a trio of the participating restaurants we tried and then make your plans. 

 

LUCA MODERN ITALIAN KITCHEN

For those of you who don’t know, Jessica and Luca Annunziata, Proprietress and Chef, formerly of Passion 8 restaurant here in Charlotte decided just after the first of the year to change Passion 8’s name and concept. The new Luca Modern Italian Kitchen  was born and is still located on Elizabeth Ave. in Charlotte.

IMG_1055The menu and wine list is now decidedly authentic Italian cuisine. You simply cannot wait another minute to go in and check it out. Lots of nightly specials like Tuesday’s Bottomless Bowl of mussels for just $18 and Wednesdays all you can eat pasta night for $30.  You can certainly sit anywhere you’d like in this beautiful restaurant, but truth be told, when it is just the two of us, we love sitting up at the bar. They mix many a creative craft cocktail at Luca Modern Italian Kitchen and will come up with any kind of spirited elixir your would like to try.  While wine comes with the Charlotte Wine & Tapas package, you might just have to start your evening at Luca with a cocktail first.  

Like many of the participating CWTW restaurants, Chef Luca is  featuring some of the regular items from their all Italian menu and all of the wines on the are all spectacular Italian pours. This is the food Chef  Luca was born to cook, literally – its the food he grew up eating and each and every bite of the four dishes we tried – plus the soup and the dessert we decided to add on  was nothing short of spectacular. 

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Pasta e Fagiole at Luca Modern Italian Kitchen. 

We started, as I suggested with cocktails and with a little bite before our tapas  & wine pairings because we simply love Luca’s Pasta e Fagiole, a thick and delicious bean soup with fresh homemade noodles and enjoyed a side of the restaurant’s homemade foccacia on the side.  

Then we made an evening of it and each ordered  the two tapas and two wine package. It was more than enough to make a meal and there was more than enough to share..

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Baked Eggs in Tomato Broth at Luca ModerItalian Kitchen

Among our little plates this evening,  this iron skillet of baked eggs in a savory tomato broth, Parmesan and grilled bread,  or as they say in Italian, Zuppetta di uovo pomodoro    con Parmigiano e pane alla griglia.

We simply had to order pasta, as it is all made in house, so the Gnocchi alla Sorrentina – a hot casserole full of fresh made gnocchi was the perfect next plate.  These soft fluffy little pillows of pasta came baked with a sauce from San Marzano tomatoes topped with mozzarella – ahhhh!

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Tender Grilled Octopus at Luca Modern Italian Kitchen

While the gnocchi was divine and we could have simply ordered more and been quite happy, I decided to beef it up a bit with Luca’s  Polpettine di Bisonte  – these bison meat balls are served with local Urban Gourmet Farms mushrooms and a creamy Parmesan fondue – perfect with the 2015 Scarletto Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo pairing Jessica Annunziata had suggested.  Tom ordered and very much enjoyed  Luca’s tender Polpo alla Griglia (grilled octopus), a favorite on many local restaurant menus this time of year, but served here with a warm potato salad, celery, olives and a bright lemon emulsion,  few do it better than chef Luca and the team at Luca Modern Italian Kitchen.

We ended our meal at Luca with a two servings of Gelato  – a blood orange for Tom  and a coffee for me. Luca and Jessica bring in this perfectly Italian gelato from a company in Greensboro. The name is Gnam, Gnam Gelato and believe me it is nom, nom.  For More info …

EVOKE RESTAURANT AT LE MERIDIEN HOTEL

IMG_0951With a new chef on the team and some major menu development in progress look for big things to be happening at Evoke Restaurant in the Le Meridien Hotel on McDowell Street in  Uptown. Chefs Rodrigo Velazco in the kitchen at Evoke and Chef Oscar La Fuente, the hotel’s executive chef, certainly have plans to take things up a notch, so the Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week affords them the opportunity to stretch their culinary wings a bit and offer some really cool special plates. We had a delicious evening, tasting our way through several plates of tapas. As this is the restaurant at Le Meridien Hotel, Evoke regularly serves breakfast lunch and dinner and the bar is open during those hours.

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A Trio of Trios Marinated Stuffed Olive Plate at Evoke at Le Meridien Hotel 

We tasted several Wine & Tapas pairings at Evoke – The first a clever trio of olives presented three ways – Olives stuffed with Marcona almonds, Dolce Gorgonzola and Fig jam are skewered and dressed in three different combos of oil and vinegar – my fave was the 20 yer old white balsamic with Pumpkin seed oil, but you will love the mix of tasting them all.  Use Evoke’s signature foccacia also on the plate for dipping up the remaining oil after the olives are gone!

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Taste of Spring Grilled Vegetable Platter at Evoke Restaurant at Le Meridien Hotel

The “Taste of Spring”  vegetable plate combines seasonal grilled, sauteed, pickled and raw veggies and was another seasonal winner and a delightful alternative to a simple salad.

At the CWTW kick off, I also tasted Chef Rodrigo’s Middle Ground Farms’ Rabbit Scarpinocc ( a stuffed pasta much like half moon ravioli) served with Sherry jus and manchego; and his delicious fresh Cobia Crudo, a tartar of sorts dressed with aji  rocoto ( a small Peruvian chile) and corn nuts. Sad to say, my photos didn’t come out well, but don’t let that stop you from ordering – both selections are  on Evoke’s  Tapas week menu and worthy of your consideration!

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Corn Soup from Evoke Restaurant in Le Meridien Hotel

As we did at all of these stops, we complimented our taste of the CWTW menu at Evoke with a few extra bites from the restaurant’s  seasonal menu. Chef Rodrigo offered us a sample sized portion of his delicious corn soup served in a tiny saucepan;  and we ended with a a wonderful not too sweet finish from Evoke’s talented pastry chef. On the plate Green Matcha tea mousse with raspberry cream inside, a raspberry puree, and black sesame tuille. Its enough for two of you to share, but you’ll want to order on all your own!

For More Info…  

 

 

THE ASBURY AT THE DUNHILL HOTEL

If its been a while since you have been to The Asbury restaurant in the Dunhill Hotel, its time to get back Uptown and prepare to be wowed. Chef Matthew Krenz’s spring menu has got it going on. If you like what you taste from the Spring menu ( and you will) you’ll want to come back for more. Be sure and check out the detail and make reservations for the one or more of the upcoming  collaborative chef dinners   held monthly from now till the end of they year – Chef Matthew teams with another chef from around the city or across the state and they plan a whole chefs tasting menu dinner around a certain theme –  these dinners are a blast and you’ll want to be sure and make reservations. the next one takes place on May 25 with Chef Greg Collier of The Yolk!

But I digress… all of the Asbury’s Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week offerings are also featured on the Spring menu and you won’t want to miss a single one.  Start your evening  with two of The Asbury’s signature items: the deviled eggs, prepared a different way every evening and the savory sticky buns – yum!!

IMG_1110Each of The Asbury’s  tapas plates is its own little ode to Spring. Take for example the peas bathed in uni butter alongside a pea emulsion with mint and cilantro topped with toasted coconut and springtime blossoms. This is peas like you have never had them before, but this is how you are always going to want then from here on out! See what you’ve started, Chef Krenz!?

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Fried Oysters at The Asbury at the Dunhill Hotel

The fried oysters, dusted with cornmeal and cleverly plated in the shell with onion jam, Cajun-spiced aioli and baby cress are another winner – there are four on the plate – just delicious and beautifully presented.

Heartier Tapas from Chef Matthew include the melt-in-your-mouth Pan-fried Lamb Sweetbreads, that come to the table almost looking like a salad of sorts – the sweetbreads are dressed with  local mustard green and with the made-in-house carrot BBQ sauce the slightly spicy greens are the perfect  foil to the rich taste and texture of the sweetbreads.

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Fermented Chili-glazed Pork belly at The Asbury at the Dunhill Hotel

It is not often that I order pork belly. Those of  you who know me know that I am just waaay over the “everythings-better-with-bacon”, but never say never as there is always the exception to the rule. The Asbury’s tapas of Fermented Chili-Glazed Pork Belly is it. Its tender, and moist and served the way pork belly was meant to be, atop a cornbread puree, braised greens with local turnips and radish

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Pea and ricotta tortellini at The Asbury at the Dunhill Hotel

Finally ( well sort of) I’d like to recommend the pea and ricotta tortellini as a tapas plate to consider. It’s scrumptious! Stuffed with local Uno Alla Volta ricotta and peas, topped with asparagus & crispy ham,  the thin melt-in-your-mouth pasta is bathed in a white wine butter sauce – oh my!

IMG_1132When the tapas and wine pairings were done, we found ourselves totally satisfied, but its always nice to end on a sweet note and Chef Matthew did more that oblige the craving.

Spring in Charlotte means strawberries and in total tribute Chef Matthew has created a spectacular take on a Southern fave – strawberry shortcake. Here macerated local strawberries and blueberries are bedded atop a fresh baked biscuit and then topped with an incredible strawberry mousse with  lightly whipped cream. Nuff Said!   For More Info….

#TellThemHeidiSentYouIf you’d like to try a taste and sip and savor your way through these and other area restaurants participating in the Charlotte Wine & Tapas Weekend, its easy and you still have till the end of the evening on April 30. Visit the CWTW website and scroll down through the entire list of logos so you won’t miss a single on of the 30 + excellent options. Click on the individual restaurant logo. This will take you to the restaurant’s page on the site (I’ve already provide those for the restaurants I highlighted here.) Here you will read a bit more about the restaurant , see the Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week menu and can even use the link provided to make reservations if you would like.

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Post your photos on social media and be sure to tag me in the posts on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter – I will be happy to share. Enjoy! Have fun! Now go forth to Sip and Savor your way through the Charlotte Wine & Tapas Week line up…Cheers!

 

 

 

Heidi Billotto Live: from The Matthews Community Farmers’ Market

PrintWe interrupt the regularly scheduled series of blog posts to bring you a brand new series of social media videos – all LIVE from local area farmers’ markets.

I generally hit 2-3 area markets on any given Saturday morning. Its my Saturday morning thing to do. It’s not just about what I need to pick up for that week’s cooking classes, catering jobs or what Tom and I will eat during the week; for me a farmers’ market trip is about seeing what’s growing, visiting with all the farmers and being there to support what they do. The fact that I can buy all the local produce, proteins and product that I need and know where it all came from and what went into the food that I eat and serve to others is a bonus. Someone commented on the Facebook feed that they were amazed that I knew everyone’s name.

That’s what shopping local is all about: Knowing your local farmers and producers; Shaking the hands that feed you and resting assure that the food you eat was grown and nurtured with love and care, not pesticides and hormones.

This new video series started as a way for me to help the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market promote their opening day last week. I was going to write a blog post about the new additions to the market and the list of new vendors, but alas as it was all new I didn’t have any of these photos to include in the post.

So instead, I decided to hit the market early on their opening day April 15, 2017 and film my very first Facebook Live video. I had a blast! I have always loved spreading the word of all our local farmers bring to the table and this was a fun way to do it in real time. It appears that lots of Facebook friends and fans loved it too. To date that first FBLive video has enjoyed over 1.6K views! I am over the moon!

And you will be, too, when you go to shop at the Matthews Community Farmers market this Saturday and any or every Saturday hereafter, Spring and Summer hours are now officially in effect.

The market, located at 188 N Trade Street right in the heart of downtown, Matthews, is open every Saturday from 8 till noon. Matthews is a “growers only” market and  each of the farms represented by the farmers themselves are located within 50 miles of downtown Matthews.

Currently the Matthews Market is hosting a strawberry fundraiser with fresh delicious berries from Cody Strawberry Farms and new to the market this year is the addition of a food truck or two. Both of these trucks are preparing breakfast items using the local product you’ll find available at the market each week. Last weekend I enjoyed a killer Farmhouse Croissant from Carolina Smash Truck. The savory breakfast sandwich was prepared with Maitake Mushrooms, green onion, egg, and white cheddar – just what I needed to go with that delicious cup of Good Cup Cappuccino I was enjoying after I posted my video.

You can check out all the names of all the participating vendors, and sign up for the Matthews’ Market’s email newsletter by visiting their website 

Each week the market features a different chef presenting a 9 am cooking demo; and a different local musician  there to provide a little music to enjoy as you shop from and visit with each of the market vendors.

Last weekend, Chef Luca Annunziata wowed the crowds with a taste of his traditional Italian cuisine now featured on the menu at his restaurant Luca Modern Italian Kitchen ( formally called Passion 8). This Saturday, April 22 at 9 am chef Adam Reed from Sante Restaurant in Matthews will be cooking  up a storm for the market crowds to  sample and enjoy after they watch his entertaining demo.

And there is so much more, from compost to King of Pops, local honey, chicken, eggs, pork, beef, fresh from the Carolina Coast seafood,  fresh flowers, plants for you to grow and produce for you to cook and eat; From Water Buffalo cheese to locally made cottage cheese and ricotta; From Beeswax candles to Breads, pastries, frozen casseroles and pizzas made from local ingredients, baskets, pottery… whew! Just take a look at the video here and check it all out for yourself… then stay tuned.

Coming up  in a day or so, a post I filmed yesterday Wed April 19  which  features my  Facebook Live Video with market vendor details from the brand new Wednesday afternoon Selwyn Avenue Market in the parking lot of the Mouzon United Methodist Church from 3-7 on Wednesday afternoons.

This Saturday, April 22, I am teaching one of my On the Farm cooking classes at New Town Farms, but before hand I  will be at the Waxhaw Farmers’ Market at 208 N Church St, Waxhaw, NC 28173, open from 9 till noon,  to bring you a FBLIve video of everything from the market there. You can join me on my HeidiBillottoCooks Facebook page to watch the video live – probably around 9:30 -10 or so ( I’ll post a social media heads up about 5 minutes ahead of time), or you can catch it later on my personal Heidi Billotto Facebook page. Or if you are not on Facebook you can view it here in the next farmers’ market blog post.

My plan is to film from a local market once or twice a week  over the course of the next several months – so get ready for your close ups Atherton Farmers’ Market, Mecklenburg County Market, Noda Farmers’ Market, Davidson Farmers’ Market and more! If you know of a market selling local product that I am leaving out or one I might not be aware of – please post a comment here,  let me know and I’ll add it to my list.

My purpose is instead of just offering a list of local markets, you can really have the opportunity to see for yourself, virtually meet the farmers and producers and then make plans to go and shop local so you can eat local, too!

And don’t forget, what ever farmers’ market you shop at this weekend, be sure to #TellThemHeidiSentYou

Cooking Classes with Heidi Billotto

img_7806More Fabulous “At Home with Heidi” and “On the Farm” Cooking Classes coming up soon… 

Get ready to slice, dice, simmer and saute as you make plans to join in on the fun at any one of my exciting hands-on classes cooking classes taught as the name suggests, “At Home with Heidi ”  in my home kitchen; or  come and experience one of my unique On the Farm Classes are held at various farms in and around Charlotte. Each On The Farm class includes a walking Farm Tour and then we settle into the farm kitchen to cook with whatever is in season. You really just have to experience these classes for yourself, there is indeed something quite special about being on all these local farms…

Classes are a perfect  for a fun date night, night out with the girls and a great way to meet new people or host a team building event.  Don’t see a date that fits – Plan Your Own Private Cooking Class email me and lets plan your own private class with work associates or with friends or family.

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Registration links are at the end of each class descriptive.  Make your reservations by simply sending me an email. Payment confirms your reservation and you may pay by cash, check or credit card. As soon as I gets your email, I’ll be right back in touch to confirm your payment and to give you the  address and details for each class.

Looking forward to seeing you at one (or more) of these “At Home with Heidi”  or “On The Farm” Cooking Classes soon…

on-the-farmSOLDOUT On the Farm Cooking Class at Proffitt Family Cattle Company – Saturday June 24, 4-8pm THIS CLASS IS SOLD OUT BUT WE HAVE PLANNED ANOTHER FOR SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 9, 4-8 PM AND ARE ACCEPTING RESERVATIONS NOW…. So excited to be back working with my friend Shelly Eagan at Proffitt Family Cattle Company for another wonderful On the Ranch farm tour, class and dinner. Proffitt is located in Kings Mountain and is a certified organic grass fed cattle ranch. Come join us to meet the herd and the dogs and the chickens, tour the ranch and find out what exactly goes into raising the kind of beef you need to be eating. Class participants will also be able to purchase beef after class if you would like. Josh Villapando will. of course. be on hand with wine pairings – it’s going to be spectacular. Cost is $85 per person.  For reservations email Heidi Here and then check out the blog post I wrote about Proffitt earlier this year – the post included some tasty NC Beef recipes I know you’re gonna love!

imgres-2SOLDOUT Sunday, June 25, 2-5 pm – At Home With Heidi – North Carolina Seafood & SeaSalt with special guest Amy Gaw from OuterBanks SeaSalt
This class was inspired by a recent media tour I took of the NC coast where I met a tremendous group of North Carolina fisherman and farmers raising and harvesting fresh seafood and offering incredible local product. I was inspired and now I want to share it all with you!   Turns out my friend Amy Gaw of Outer Banks SeaSalt will be in town, so the stars aligned to put together this “Fresh from Carolina Waters” cooking class.  Hands-on as always, but to celebrate Amy joining us we’ll start with a special round of appetizers upon arrival and then follow with four fabulous courses of seafood and Outer Banks SeaSalt! Wine pairings for each course by Josh Villapando at Assorted Table Wine Shop, gift bags for each participant  and tons of sea salty fun!!
Cost is $85 per person. For Reservations Email Heidi Here
IMG_3056Tuesday June 27, 6:30-9pm – At Home with Heidi – Vegetarian & Gluten Free  
With so many summer veggies at hand and a host of local North Carolina miso and tempeh products on the market ( from Miso Masters and Smiling Hara brands) I thought it was time to plan a course without the meat and dairy. As always the class will be as hands-on as you would like to be. We’ll prepare 4 courses including a trio of from scratch veggie burger recipes ( one easily adapted into a from scratch veggie dog as well!), rice and noodle bowls, a simply delicious stir fry master recipe you can adapt through the seasons and a spectacular dessert. We will use some local pasture raised eggs as well as some fun egg substitutes  as it turns out these recipes are all delicously Gluten Free as well!!
Cost is $75 per person.For reservations Email Heidi Here

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Monday July 17 – 6:30-9 pm – At Home with Heidi | Food and Wine of France –

With Bastille Day on the 14th, it seemed the time to celebrate with a bit of French flair and flavor. All local ingredients as always and its an entire meal from start to a fabulous flaming finish! Cost $75    Email Heidi To Make Your Reservation! 

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Saturday July 22 – 5-8 pm| On the Farm at Windcrest Farms| Its Tomato Time!!

Farmer Mary Roberts grows more varieties of local certified organic tomatoes than you can shake a stick at! On the menu in this season’s second On the Farm class at Windcrest – all things tomato from homemade ketchup to tomato pie and then some! ‘Tis the Mater season – c’mon and join us! –  Cost $85 Make your reservations by emailing Heidi Now

Sunday July 30, 2-5 pm – On the Farm at Fading D Farms in Salisbury – 

downloadFading D Farms is a unique Water Buffalo Ranch and Dairy in Salisbury NC. Faythe and David DiLoreto are our hosts as we cook with the lean water buffalo meat and the deliciously rich cheeses to make a four course meal. Between courses, well also enjoy a cheese making session/demonstration,  fascinating stuff – don’t miss it!!  Cost is $85 Email Heidi to make your reservations  

Sunday September 24, 2-5pm – On the Farm at Dancing Bees in Monroe,NC –

db_logo116sHoney, Honey – Just Follow the Buzz and learn all about the Business of Local Bees with Master Beekeeper Jeff Knight. Robin Knight will be there too to share with us how she makes all the wonderful bees wax candles, lotions, bath scrubs and more. 5 honey-centric courses make this class extra sweet – Can’t wait to see you there!  Cost $85 For Reservations Email Heidi Here

 

And. last but not least, here are All the Details and the Fine Print on my regular series of cooking classes, both At Home with Heidi and On the Farm….

Living the Loving Local Mantra: In my classes and catering I cook for clients as if I were cooking for my family. It is important to me to use the healthiest, freshest product so I shop Local and cook with produce, proteins and products sourced primarily from local farms and vendors, using certified organic or product that is grown by organic standards when I can’t find what is needed from a local source.

Wine Not?  I partner with my friend Josh Villapando of the Assorted Table Wine Shop at 7th Street Station to provide wine ( and sometimes beer) pairings at each class (with the exception of the cocktail and appetizer class), so you’ll not only leave with some great recipes, but you’ll know what beverages to pair with them as well.

The Take Away: Everyone participates in the preparation of each dish and each class participant leaves with a packet of recipes, wine notes and coupons and other fun party favors.

Class size is limited: Your advance reservations via email gets you on the class list and advance payment confirms your space in class. Once I hear from you with a reservation I will contact you with specifics on how to pay. I will send out directions and any other details you might need, several days prior to  the class date.

Cancellation Policy: I try hard not to cancel events; but reality is. There is a three person minimum for my At Home With Heidi Classes and if weather is a problem we try hard to reschedule. If you need to cancel  more than 7 days prior to class I am happy to provide a full refund of your advance payment. If you cancel 6 days or less before the class date I know you will understand that I will have already started making plans and purchases and am glad to offer you a refund of half of your original payment.

I Heart You! Happy Valentine’s Day!

blog headerIts a little heart-shaped kiss of everyone’s favorite seasonal sweet… and its on my  list of “Things That Make You Go Mmmmmm…

Whether you are planning on saying “Be Mine” or “See Ya” to your sweetie this Valentine’s Day, there’s no easier way to put your thoughts together than through a few Conversation Hearts.

These heart-felt talkative treats are enjoyed by millions of Americans each year. In fact, Americans have been enjoying the candy we now call Conversation Hearts since the 1800s.

wafers-boxMade by several companies, the leading manufacturer of Conversation Hearts is the NECCO/Sweethearts brand. Its  my favorite brand of any heart shaped candy and  shares a history with another longtime favorite of mine,  the much loved NECCO Wafers. Daniel Chase created the idea for the first conversation hearts in 1866 by devising a machine that would press food dye letters onto the candy lozenges made famous by his brother and NECCO founder Oliver Chase. The Conversation Hearts we know and love today came to be in the early 1900s. hearts 2Today NECCO manufactures 8 billion Sweethearts year ’round to meet consumer demand.

From mid-February to January NECCO produces about 100,000 pounds of the iconic candy hearts each day, which adds up to billions of candy hearts—more than enough for everyone in the world to have one, so buy several packs and be sure to share the love .

Through the years, the sayings on Conversation Hearts have been an edible reflection on how our culture has changed, but it is good to know that some of the original sayings are still in rotation, including “Be Mine,” “Be Good,” “Be True,” “Kiss Me.”

In honor of NECCO’s 150th anniversary in 1997, the original phrase “The One I Love” also reappeared in the mix. In the early 1990’s, NECCO’s then Vice President Walter Marshall began an initiative to update the sayings each year, retiring some while adding others. The first new phrase, in years was “Fax Me” which met with a bit of controversy from diehard Conversation Heart fans; but now you can find hearts that suggest a would be lover “email me”, “text me” and “tweet me”, too!ChocolateSweethearts

And they come in Chocolate and  are Gluten Free…Gotta Heart That!

While all Conversation Hearts have been certified Kosher and  gluten free from the beginning, the flavors have made changes with the times.  It all started with the original eight familiar flavors customers found in the company’s Necco wafers: orange, lemon, lime, clove, chocolate, cinnamon, licorice and wintergreen. Now there are just six different flavors of hearts in box.

dazzledsweetheartsWhile the classic flavors are mixed and boxed together, the Necco company also produces  separate boxes of chocolate Conversation Hearts,  and they are, like the rolls of chocolate NECCO wafers, this food writer’s personal favorite…just sayin’

But if you’d like something different, instead of enjoying the classics, you can also now buy sugar-free Sweethearts and for those of you who really like to pucker up, enjoy the Dazzled Tart Sweethearts this season in Pink Lemonade, Wild Berry Grape, Sour Apple, Watermelon, Extreme Tangerine and Blue Raspberry

Here’s how it rolls…

To make this sweet candy confection,  six simple ingredients -sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, gum, colorings and flavoring –  are blended together into a mixing machine, one color and flavor at a time, until they turn into a soft dough.  The dough is fed into a machine that presses the dough until it is flat, a process called sheeting. The sheeted dough moves on to the cut and stamp station where  the sayings are applied on the dough and  a large machine cuts the dough into 100s of little  hearts. Next, the sheets of cut hearts go into a drying tunnel for about 30 – 45 minutes. The finished hearts are lightly dusted with cornstarch and moved to a drying area where they cool and harden during a twelve hour resting period. Once the hearts have cooled and dried, the starch is dusted off and flavors are mixed together to provide the assortment we find in each box or bag. Each year NECCO reports that they receive hundreds of saying suggestions from romantics, candy lovers and school kids, alike. 

Think you have a good conversation heart phrase to add to the collection?  Sweethearts NECCO is happy to accept suggestions for sayings from their consumers. Each saying can be no longer than two lines of four letters on the small hearts and two lines of six letters on the large motto hearts. You can either e-mail your suggestion to the company via their website at Necco.com,  or mail it to Sweethearts, NECCO, 135 American Legion Highway, Revere, MA 02151.

#TellThemHeidiSentYouWhy not surprise your sweetheart  or your best friend this Valentine’s Day with a box of conversation hearts and reservations at any one of my upcoming At Home with Heidi  cooking classes. The list is on the home page of my blog at HeidiBillottoFood.com – just shoot me an email  to make your reservation and I’ll be back in touch to confirm the delicious details.