Tomato Time

Tomato TimeFresh off the VineFor years – honestly,  more summer seasons than I would like to admit –  I have  tried to grow my own produce. Nothing big, mind you, just some patio tomatoes, a few cucumbers and maybe a melon or two. A couple of seasons ago I finally decided to admit defeat.

I still do plant in my raised bed garden and patio pots each season, but now its really more for the fun of it than the anticipation of any great harvest. Tomatoes, in particular have seemed to be my nemesis.

After buying the plants, the potting soil, the lime so the soil will be well balanced, the food, the stakes, the natural bug spray so I wouldn’t get bitten while I was out planting, and all of the stuff to keep the squirrels and other  critters away, I figured that any tomatoes I might be lucky enough to harvest without the dreaded circle of black bottom rot that seems to appear overnight would wind up costing about $50 a piece, to say nothing of what the maintenance and upkeep of the cucumber and melon plants might run me. While I guess I could say that the process does prove therapeutic; I just finally  decided it’s just easier, cheaper and frankly much more fun to make a regular trip’s to any one of our areas fine local farmer’s markets  and buy from growers who know what they are doing.

To that end, my purple thumb and I have retired from the vegetable garden business and have spent this summer season resigned to the kitchen where we seem to know what we are doing. These mid to late-summer months find us at the height of the season for an abundance locally grown tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, melons, squash, zucchini, eggplant and berries and I am having a ball with the abundant harvest. Today we’ll leave the other veggies for another post and concentrate on my love of local tomatoes..

I think I could eat fresh picked ripe and ready tomatoes everyday till the season has passed and still not tire of the flavor. So many ways to prepare them it’s uncanny; but then you could can (or freeze) and have that fresh off the vine flavor for cooking all year round.

You Say Tomat-ah, I say Tomato Sandwich and Tomato Pie

tomato sandwichToday I share my favorite recipe for Tomato Pie, as recently seen on the WCNC broadcast of Charlotte Today.  But before you slice and bake, though, don’t miss one of summers greatest pleasures – the unadulterated old fashioned ‘mater sandwich – a classic for sure.

Don’t even think of adding sliced turkey, roast beef or a leaf of lettuce to this one. The classic recipe calls only for two slices of soft white bread dressed with a little mayo ( Your choice of brands, but I’m a Duke’s gal). Sandwich thick slices of firm but ripe tomato seasoned with a little salt and pepper in between and have at it. If you have really gotten it right, you’ll have to lean over the kitchen sink to eat it as the tomatoes will be so ripe and juicy, that has you take each bite the juices will run from your mouth and hands down to your elbows – consider it a rite of passage of eating your first  (or your 100th) tomato sammy of the season..

For a little more elaborate sandwich, use whole grain bread, spread with homemade  pesto and layered with thick slices of ripe tomato and locally made Uno Alla Volta mozzarella cheese in between. To turn this sandwich into a summer comfort food, wrap it in foil and warm it in a 300 degree oven for about 15 minutes or so.

tomatoes and uno alla volta cheeseMarinate tomatoes for full-flavored summer salads. Use your favorite vinegar based dressing or  make your own by combining a half cup or so each of red and balsamic vinegars seasoned with a couple of tablespoons of local honey,  one quarter cup of fresh minced basil leaves and a small minced shallot. Layer the tomatoes in a shallow glass or plastic dish,  top with the vinaigrette, season to taste with salt and pepper, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for three to four hours. Serve over a bed of crisp greens or toss with fresh sliced Kirby cucumbers and enjoy.

This summer has proved to be a season to indulge, as my friends Zack and Victoria Gadberry have added a new hand crafted cheese to their line up of  already fabulous locally made artisan mozzarella, ricotta, buratta and feta cheeses – behold, local Uno Alla Volta Cheese Cottage Cheese. I swooned at first taste. We all know the joyful burst of flavor to be found in the combination of mozzarella and tomatoes – but just try a ripe and ready-to-slice local love apple with Uno Alla Volta Cottage cheese – my oh my!

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Cottage Cheese Pie By Chef Matthew Krenz The Asbury at the Dunhill Hotel in Charlotte, NC

Must give credit where credit is do – Chef Matthew Krenz at The Asbury at the Dunhill in Charlotte, NC is the first to ask Zack to make cottage cheese and even provided him with the recipe. Zack has made it his own and Matthew often features this new cheese  of the summer season on The Asbury’s menu – go to The Asbury and look for Krenz’s cottage cheese pie on the menu this summer season – its a keeper for sure! When you go to The Asbury , be sure to tell them Heidi sent you!

Aside from pairing them with cheeses of all sorts, tomatoes go great on the grill as well – use firm but still ripe tomatoes and a grill grid, so nothing will fall through the cracks. Slice the tomatoes thick and grill for a minute or two on each side or until the surface starts to char a bit. No need to add any olive oil prior to grilling, save any dressings for after the tomatoes are cooked. Serve the grilled tomatoes, just as they are, chopped and stirred into your favorite gazpacho recipe, topped with grated parmesan, tossed in salads or in the Tomato Pie recipe below for a slightly richer taste.  Grilled charred tomatoes also do well chopped and combined with grilled onions, jalapenos, grilled corn, grilled red bell peppers, salt, pepper and lime juice for a terrific grilled summer salsa – ole!

But on to matters at hand, my recipe for tomato pie. You’ll find a link to the video at the end of this post, so you may want to watch before you cook, but the recipe is an easy one…and technique is little more than layering. Use any variety of local and just harvested tomato that you would like, slice or chop. I love the  vodka pie crust recipe I have included below, but if you want a store bought one to make things easier, I recommend the Immaculate Baking Company’s organic refrigerated crust. Love that it is organic – always nice, and important, to know what is in the food we eat.

Heidi Billotto's Tomato Pie

 

Heidi’s Taste of Summer Tomato Pie

Recipe by Charlotte Culinary Expert Heidi Billotto

Pie crust recipe for a 1 crust pie ( see below)

3-4 firm but ripe local tomatoes cut into thick slices, or use small chopped tomatoes, or a combo of both 

fresh locally grown basil

Fine grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Panko Crumbs

1 local egg ( I used Rowlands Row Family Farm eggs here, available from The Queens Pantry at the Atherton Farmers’ Market)

1 local egg yolk

1 cup local whole milk or heavy cream ( Homeland Dairy Milk again from the Queen City Pantry at the Atherton Farmers’ Market)

Roll the pie crust out to 1/4 inch thickness and fit into a 9-inch French false-bottomed tart pan. Layer tomatoes basil, grated Parmesan and Panko crumbs in the crust until you come to the top – finish with a layer of Tomatoes. Combine the eggs and milk, Pour the custard into the filled pie shell. Top with shredded basil, Panko crumbs and cheese. Carefully place the pan on a baking sheet and bake the pie in a preheated 350 degree oven for 35-40 mins.

Cool slightly, remove from the pan and cut into wedges. Make your pie ala mode topped with a scoop of Uno Alla Volta cottage cheese ( available on Saturdays at the Matthews Community Farmers’ Market or the Yorkmont Road Charlotte Regional Market, directly from Zack or Victory themselves.  Drizzle with balsamic vinegar before serving. 

If you want to do a Gluten Free version of the same – skip the crust and use finely ground local grits ( you can fine ground stone ground grits in a coffee mill ) and then use them as you would the panko)

Gadberry's Uno Alla Volta Cottage Cheese Tomato PieI’ve used Parmigiano-Reggiano in the recipe here – not a local cheese, of course, unless you are from Parma Italy; but obviously one of the best. Feel free to substitute any kind of local cheese -If you are in the Carolinas, Uno Alla Volta regular or smoked mozzarella, Ashe County cheddars, Clemons Blue cheese, and Bosky Acres Feta cheese all work well – as does the Uno Alla Volta cottage cheese and I am proud to say my television spot even inspired the cheese makes to get creative with there own cottage cheese tomato pie – just take a look at these photos I received by text from Zack Gadberry last night – yum!

Easy Vodka Pie Crust

– Its the Vodka that keeps it light and flaky – who knew??

2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tsp  salt

1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch slices

1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces

1/4 cup cold vodka

1/4 cup cold water
Use a food processor fitted with the metal blade to pulse together  flour and salt. Add butter and shortening and process until blended just the dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, but there is no trace of the flour.

Add the cold vodka and cold water over mixture. Pulse again with the processor just until the dough forms a ball. Remove from the bowl. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk. Wrap each in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days, the roll out to 1/4 inch thickness and use in your favorite pie recipe.

video graphicHere is the link to the video Always so much fun cooking on Charlotte Today. Thanks to guest host Ramona Holloway and host Eugene Robinson for making this segment so much fun. And as a bonus – here is the link to a related blog post from this site with a recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes so much fun to cook with all of this seasons bountiful harvest!

 

Patio Picks – Do it Dining al Fresco

HEIDI BILLOTTO FOODDining al fresco – the art of eating outdoors is a pleasure that combines casual atmosphere, fresh air, cool breezes and great food and beverage. The venue can range from family style BBQ and picnic tables or even your car at places like BBQ King on Wilkinson Blvd. or Brooks Sandwich House on North Brevard Street to a setting with comfy patio furniture seating at places such as Osso Restaurant and Lounge at the Music Factory and Bonterra Dining and Wine Room in Dilworth.

Lots of restaurants with patios offer opportunities for dining al fresco throughout the year, but late spring, summer and on into early fall is the time we want to enjoy the out of doors as much as we can. So lap up the sunshine or sit in the cool comfort of the summer shade. Join your kids in a game of shuffleboard at the patio at Zada Jane’s in Plaza Midwood while you wait for a table at breakfast or brunch; take in the splendor of our city’s skyline from the highest heights atop the patio at Chef Rocco Whalen’s Fahrenheit Restaurant  at the Hyatt Place Hotel uptown; or enjoy food, wine and occasional music at several eateries or wine shops with outdoor dining and tastings such as Napa on Providence in Eastover; and Vin Masters in SouthEnd.

Alfresco dining in the Queen City can range from large venues, such as the patio at Mimosa Grill, Uptown that over looks the plaza and a bustling sections of Tryon Street to small, much like the patio at Fenwicks on Providence Road,  with just a few tables on the front porch of this neighborhood gathering spot

Great patios to see and be seen abound at local breweries in NoDa; bars and restaurants surrounding the Music Factory; and in shopping “villages” around town where several restaurants might have patios grouped together off a main courtyard as at Ballantyne Village where patios from Mellow Mushroom, Terrace Cafe and Villa Antonio meet; or off South Main Street in Davidson where the back porch patio of the Pickled Peach looks over the patio behind Summit Coffee nestled up to an adjacent playground – on Saturday mornings this “common area” is home to the Davidson Farmers’ market where locavores can enjoy combine their morning coffee al fresco with a little fresh from the farm shopping trip.

Favorite al fresco eats from Toscana, Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar, Tupleo Honey, The Summit Room and Va da Vie Gelato

Favorite al fresco eats from Toscana, Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar, Tupleo Honey, The Summit Room and Va da Vie Gelato

Tis the season, indeed, and so my June restaurant segment on WCNC’s Charlotte Today with hosts Colleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway features five of my favorite places to dine al fresco with some of my favorite summer menu selections as well… enjoy!

toscana logoWe’ll start with what I have always thought to be one of the most romantic patios in town, Toscana, located in Shops on the Park across from SouthPark, 6401 Morrison Blvd. 704.367.1808. Like all of Augusto Conte’s magical restaurants, the menu at Toscana offer high quality fresh made Italian fare and the patio is like sitting off a small village side street in Tuscany. Comfortable seating surrounded by a shrub lined fencing keeps it tight and cozy, A beautiful fountain offers the cool comfort and pleasant sounds of a water feature and  large pots of herbs define the heritage.  In the evenings the open sky view add the romance of moonlight and the stars. One of our favorite dishes at Toscana is the gnocchi, tender potato pillows bathed in a light fresh tomato sauce touched with basil and mozzarella – add a bottle from the well appointed wine list – perfecto! Toscana on Urbanspoon
Wp white logoNot far from Toscana, is Wolfgang Puck’s Pizza bar located in the Phillips Place shopping center 704.295.0101 Charlotte’s WP Pizza Bar is Puck’s flagship Pizza Bar Restaurant and offers  a relaxing getaway from to enjoy lunch and dinner. The patio is off to the side of the restaurant, away from parking and much foot traffic and offers a cozy comfortable place to great place to getaway from it all.  Perfect for business meetings, ladies who lunch or a midday tete-a-tete.  While the menu offers an assortment of appetizers and pasta dishes, for me this place is about the pizza done in Wolfgang’s signature style a la an aromatic wood burning oven.  While Wolfgang himself does occasionally make appearances at the restaurant, day to day it is the talented Chef Scott Whallen and staff who channel Puck’s vision and creative juices into beautiful  and delicious plates for lunch and dinner. We now enjoy WP as our go to after the movies spot and our go to order is the arugula and asparagus salad lightly dusted with grated Parmesan, teamed with any one of the lists of pizzas – our current faves are the mushroom pizza with rubiola cheese and the slightest drizzling of truffle oil and the margarita pizza – simply perfect for the two of us to share. Wolfgang Puck Pizza | Bar on Urbanspoon

Tupel Honey Cafe (Contributed)Next, Tupelo Honey at 1820 South Blvd. 980-225-9167. The restaurant and patio are located on the second level of the historic SouthEnd Building,  take the stairs or the elevator up and the fun begins. The restaurant is full of action and a buzz most of the time, so the patio offers a lovely slightly quieter dining option. Great for families or dinners for two, big overhead fans keep the climate cool and in case of inclement weather their are outdoor curtains drawn to keep the rain away. The vibe at Tupelo is reconstructed Southern and it is exceptionally well done from soup to nuts. Great service and an assortment of wonderful craft cocktails and local beers round out the experience. Must tries this season include the sweet potato pancakes ( breakfast is served whenever you want it at Tupelo), the black bean burger and tofu wings (three cheers for some great vegetarian options), the fabulous Southern Popcorn ( aka fried okra) and the Carolina Mountain Trout with Goat cheese grits – shooo mercy! and Tupelo’s own Brown Butter Pecan Pie.  Look for bar specials on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday ( the least crowded days and nights to dine at this Charlotte favorite); and while you are there shop for cookbooks, Tupelo’s biscuit mix and of course, jars of Tupelo Honey. Tupelo Honey Cafe on Urbanspoon

summit logoThe Summit Room at 1531 East Blvd. 980.237.2227 is one of Charlotte’s newest places to dine al fresco. In a clever and creative move, The Summit Room owners also own the adjacent restaurant The MayoBird and the two dining establishments share this picturesque porch and patio. The MayoBird is open for breakfast and lunch, while The Summit Room with Chef Brent Martin at the helm in the kitchen is open from early afternoon till the wee hours of the evening.

Several years ago the Dilworth Communtiy made it a mission to  drive neighborhood foot traffic with more pedestrian friendly streetside dining. As a result,  many neighborhood places on the boulevard offer patio dining but not many do it better than this. Rocking chairs with side tables on the porch, patio tables in the sun or under umbrellas –  its a great place for everything from power lunches to a glass of wine or tea – with two very different dining concepts. At  The Summit Room, Chef Martin doing some really innovative things with the menu. Love that the menu changes at his whim, with the weather and with the availability of local product. Specials are always great – the hand cut fries are incredible and  my new favorite – a quenelle (or oval shaped scoop) of chicken liver mousse atop a house made waffle with candied and pickled fruit and microgreens is a real winner! The Summit Room on Urbanspoon

va de vie logo

Wendy and John Paglia create nine different varieties of from-scratch gelato, fresh every day

Wendy and John Paglia create nine different varieties of from-scratch gelato, fresh every day

Finally, the newest patio on our list for today, at just a month old, is to be found in the unlikeliest of locations: the center of the Park Road Shopping Center parking lot!  This free standing building  with the little patio offers big flavors inside –flavors like homemade, almond,  pistachio, coffee bean, chocolate hazelnut, lemon ricotto, local strawberry and blueberry and pineapple and mango! It’s all in the guise of homemade gelato at Va da Vie Gelato, 4203 Park Road 980.201.9159  … owners John and Wendy Paglia use all local product to make their Piedmontese style gelato and sorbet. No bases or mixes just local Homeland Dairy milk and cream and real fruit, fair trade coffee, local cheese and imported Italian nuts –  no chemicals or preservatives.  As this product doesn’t travel well – you can’t really take quantities to go – just gotta eat it there and savor the moment.  During the heat of the  day enjoy the cool marble-lined comfort inside; and  in the evening mix and mingle on the patio with friends and neighbors of all ages, comparing flavors and deciding which one you will order next. Va da Vie Gelato on Urbanspoon

 

To watch the restaurant segment that  inspired this blog post and originally aired on WCNC-TV’s Charlotte Today, simply click on the  caption of the photo of Toscana’s beautiful Italian Patio, then go out and enjoy al fresco dining in Charlotte for yourself.

 

 

Feeling Romantic? Six Sensational Spots to Dine with Your Valentine

This photo is from the first restaurant segment I did for Charlotte Today in August 2013 - now, happy to say, it has turned into a monthly segment with show hosts Colleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway

This photo is from the first restaurant segment I did for Charlotte Today in August 2013 – now, happy to say, it has turned into a monthly segment with show hosts Colleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway

As many of you know, each month I present a “where to dine” restaurant segment on WCNC’s Charlotte Today program. Every 4-6 weeks the show’s producers and I select a topic or theme  and I choose 5-6 restaurants to chat about on air. As February is the month of hearts and flowers, this month’s challenge was to gather a group of Romantic restaurants to share with Charlotte Today viewers and this Blog’s readers.

There was a time in here in Charlotte  that gathering this many outstanding chef driven restaurants may have been a daunting task, but in 2014 there are lots of wonderful restaurants I could have put on this list – I chose the six that for me ( and my hubby Tom Billotto) have come to be the most romantic. For me, a part of that is that these are all chef-driven establishments, with chefs, sous chefs pastry chefs and line chefs who all cook from their hearts. That love and passion is conveyed in the cuisine, making dining out a true pleasure for the mind, body and soul.

No matter if you are just kindling or trying to respark the fire, Romance doesn’t just happen on Feb 14 – enjoy a romantic dinner any night of the week and know that  these fine dining establishments run wine tastings and dinners, special cooking classes and prix fixe menus at all different times of the year, as do many of Charlotte’s chef-driven and independent restaurants.  I’ve added notes about upcoming February events at each post as well as links to all of the restaurant websites at the end of this article, so start making plans now and plan  to try them all – There was never more wonderful time in the Queen City, with more possibilities  for  delighting in dining aux deux, than now…enjoy!

Behind the scenes: finished plates sit atop a Rubbermaid hand cart until it was time to shoot the restaurant segment

Behind the scenes: finished plates sit atop a Rubbermaid hand cart until it was time to shoot the restaurant segment

To enhance the video and the chat with show hosts Colleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway, I ask restaurants to prepare a plate that I can pick up and assemble at the studio – its like having something special to share for show and tell.

Many thanks to all the featured restaurants chefs and sous chefs for helping me out with product for the February segment.  I wish I had taken more behind the scene shots this time. Chefs, sous chefs, pastry chefs and restaurateurs gave me each component of the dish as well as a hand rendered drawing or quick tutorial at pick up as to how to assemble it all.

through the magic of television, these plates would soon be up and center for their close up

through the magic of television, these plates would soon be up and center for their close up

As this segment was on a Monday morning and most of these restaurants weren’t open on Sunday, chefs came in early Monday morning or prepped things for me late on Saturday night or actually came in on Sunday, to help it all come together.

I can’t tell you how appreciative I am of their extra efforts to help me boast about the quality and high caliber that is now standard in the Charlotte restaurant arena . While these are not the only great restaurants in the Queen City, this group of six is great representation of all Charlotte has to brag about.

All of these restaurants are ranked at the top of lists of kudos, yielding recommendation’s not only from this food writer,  but from the likes of Zagat, AAA’s Four Diamond Awards in North and South Carolina, Open Table, the Wine Spectator, DiArona, The Food Network, AOL restaurant rankings, and more. Check individual websites for all the accolades.

From the set of Charlotte Today with hosts Colleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway

From the set of Charlotte Today with hosts Colleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway

To that end, it goes without saying that service, atmosphere and cuisine, too, are all spot on at each and every one of these places;  no such thing as a bad choice here.

Here is my short list of a half dozen of my favorite Romantic restaurants in Charlotte. The video from the Charlotte Today segment follows.

As I mentioned in the video, poet Ogden Nash wrote a little two line verse which said, “Candy is Dandy but Liquor is Quicker!” take those two lines to heart and intertwine a dinner at any one of these restaurants and with a little help from Cupid, you’ll hit a home run for sure…

Bonterra logo

First on my list is Bonterra Dining and Wine Room. This may be the most romantic restaurant here for me because I met my husband Tom at a mutual friend’s wedding at Bonterra and my life has been a wonderfully romantic whirlwind every since. In fact, while we were married out of town, we had a big party after our wedding at Bonterra. Many couple in Charlotte have weddings, rehearsal dinners and big engagement parties at Bonterra. The historic building, refurbished and owned by John “JD” Duncan, was once an old church and simple has an air of romance about it. The dining room offers open seating at tables for 2 to 8 and can accommodate larger parties as well.

The NC cheese plate with Bonterra's hummus and olives along with offerings from Goat Lady Dairy, Chapel Hill Creamery and Looking Glass Creamery paired with 1 or 2 of the 200 wines by the glass is a great way to start an evening at Bonterra

The NC cheese plate with Bonterra’s hummus and olives along with offerings from Goat Lady Dairy, Chapel Hill Creamery and Looking Glass Creamery paired with 1 or 2 of the 200 wines by the glass is a great way to start an evening at Bonterra

Seating at the bar as well with over 200 outstanding wines offered by the bottle and by the glass. Its fun and romantic to each order a different by-the-glass pour and then share sips along with something from the bar bite menu or a cheese tray before dinner. The bottle of Robert Foley Petit Syrah is one of our favorites and I included it in the photo as a shout out to our good friend Bob Foley, winemaker extraordinaire!

With small tables au deux tucked in the alcoves, a  private balcony upstairs and a wine cellar downstairs for private dinners there are plenty of places to sit snuggled away from the main dining area if you would like a bit of privacy while you dine.

Coming soon at Bonterra – a “Girls Night Out” wine dinner on Wednesday Feb 5 featuring Ponzi Wines; regular bar specials each night; and a Thursday night wine dinner as a part of the upcoming Charlotte Wine & Food Weekend in April.

Bonterra Dining and Wine Room is located at 1829 Cleveland Ave. at East Worthington Ave.  Reservations: 704-333-WINE(9463).   Bar opens at 4:30 pm Monday-Saturday The Restaurant opens for dinner at 5:30 pm Monday-Saturday. For more info and to get on Bonterra’s newsletter list, visit www.BonterraDining.com  Bonterra on Urbanspoon

The McNinch House in Charlotte's historic Fourth Ward

The McNinch House in Charlotte’s historic Fourth Ward

Next up, for a romantic evening on the town, the McNinch House Restaurant. Located in Charlotte’s Historic Fourth Ward neighborhood, this Victorian-era house was originally home to  Charlotte Mayor Sam McNinch; now for the past 22 years it has been the McNinch House Restaurant.

Each table at McNinch is set with antique china, crystal and silver

Each table at McNinch is set with antique china, crystal and silver

Beautifully appointed, the home is owned by Ellen Davis, a front runner on Charlotte’s ever growing culinary landscape. McNinch House recently won its 16th consecutive Four Diamond designation from AAA, is listed as one of the top “extraordinary” restaurants in America by Zagat’s Dining Guide. Davis was Charlotte’s original street vendor,  back in the late 1980’s early 1990’s as she sold hotdogs from a cart while the house was being renovated to become a restaurant on the main floor with her private residence on the floor above.

Rack of lamb with mushroom risotto from McNinch's Chef William Parham

Rack of lamb with mushroom risotto, one of McNinch’s most popular entrees, from McNinch’s Chef William Parham

There are no menus at the McNinch House. When you make a reservation, you order your entrée on the phone and then the rest of the meal is built around your selection using seasonal produce and proteins.

The restaurant offers several selections of prix fixe menus: A classic 7-course  menu which includes appetizer, soup, salad, sorbet, entrée, cheese and dessert for $99 per person ( plus beverages, tax and gratuity) or a 5-course  menu at $79 per person ++.

For Valentine’s they are offering an  all-inclusive package for two with a 6-course chef’s menu with wine pairings, for $450 per couple

McNinch House Restaurant is located in uptown Charlotte  at 511  N. Church St.  Phone:  704-332-6159. Open Tuesday – Saturday Reservations Required.  Seatings available  Tuesday-Thursday On the half-hour, 5:30 pm-8 pm;  Friday-Saturday On the Hour    5:30 pm-8 pm.  For more information visit, www.mcninchhouserestaurant.com McNinch House on Urbanspoon

Zebra 2My third suggestion for Valentine wining and dining is Zebra Restaurant in the SouthPark area.  Zebra offers fine continental cuisine with French influences. Since Inception, Zebra has been recognized with numerous honors and awards of distinction.  including OpenTable Diners Choice, Zagat Best Restaurant, Wine Spectator Magazine Award of Excellence, and AAA Four Diamonds for eleven consecutive years.

With two adjacent dining rooms the restaurant also offers seating in a small intimate room off the bar  and when weather permits out on the beautiful, newly decorated patio. Owned by Chef Jim Alexander, Zebra serves breakfast lunch and dinner, is a great spot not only for romance but for the corporate breakfast and lunch crowd as well; and in addition Zebra is hosting several monthly wine dinners in the next several months. Zebra also offers on and off site catering for private parties and events – call the restaurant for details.

The signature salad from Zebra Restaurant

The signature salad from Zebra Restaurant

In the Charlotte Today  segment we featured Alexander’s signature salad at Zebra – a delightful presentation that will make your sweetie smile! Zebra sous chef Chris Wriggle gave me a quick tutorial on how to put it together and I believe I did Zebra proud. Local organic greens gathered in a tuille vase, dressed with a raspberry vinaigrette and  honey Dijon and finished with a garnish of local Tega Hills Farm’s micro greens. As delicious as it is beautiful.

Entertainment at Zebra – music always sets the mood for romance; so its nice to know that on most Friday nights in February, Zebra features live guitar music in the bar with a bar bites menu and tasty $12 wine flights. This month guitarist Harry Bell  performs on Friday Feb 7; and my favorite musician in town, Tom Billotto on guitar and vocals on Friday Feb 21 and Friday Feb 28 from 6-8 or 9 pm. if I am not working, I am usually in the crowd – the official groupie in the room – so I hope to see you there!

On Wednesday February 19, 2014 come to Zebra and enjoy a four course wine dinner featuring SCHWEIGER Vineyards.  The evening starts with an hors d’oeuvre reception followed by a four course dinner with wine pairings for just $75 per person ++.  RESERVATIONS REQUIRED, 704-442-9525

Zebra is located at 4521 Sharon Road, across from SouthPark Mall. For reservations and gift certificates, please call 704-442-9525. For more information visit www.zebrarestaurant.net Zebra Restaurant and Fine Catering on Urbanspoon

The Dunhill Hotel in Uptown Charlotte

The Dunhill Hotel in Uptown Charlotte

Fourth on my list of six is  a new restaurant run by a very talented long time Charlotte chef. After making a name for himself and honing is own sophisticated Southern style at The McNinch House,

Chef Chris Coleman

Chef Chris Coleman

Chef Chris Coleman is now the executive chef and director of food and beverage for The Asbury at The Dunhill Hotel. Named in honor of Louis Asbury, Sr., the Charlotte architect who designed the Mayfair Manor—now The Dunhill Hotel—in 1929, The Asbury celebrates the best of what the South has to offer in ingredients, technique, creativity, and, of course, hospitality. The Asbury is a tribute to Chef Coleman’s southern roots and the culturally diverse community of the New South from which he draws inspiration.

Cheers to The Dunhill's bartender Pete Ladino who makes you feel right at home

Cheers to The Dunhill’s bartender Pete Ladino who makes you feel right at home

What could be more romantic? Its a fabulous hotel dining experience where you can whisk your Valentine away after dinner and maybe a nightcap a the bar to a hotel room right upstairs if you’ve got  a mind; and then go and enjoy the restaurant all over again with room service or breakfast downstairs in the morning. In fact, with a great baby sitter and tickets to a show or concert uptown  you could make it a one stop weekend for Valentine romance!

The Asbury boasts a wonderful little bar where bartender Pete Ladino  makes everyone feel right at home.  Go old school and enjoy a cocktail or  sip on a glass of wine and preview the cuisine with something from the bar bites offerings.  Once seated for dinner, you’ll be wowed with Chris’ eclectic Southern menu in the restaurant featuring as much local product as Chris can source.  And then be prepared to be blown away by the talent that is Asbury pastry chef Patty Greene.   Unable to select just one, I featured two of Patty’s desserts on the show – first a unique take on raspberry cheesecake and then a chocolate espresso cake, my oh my!

Patty Greene's chocolate Espresso cake at The Asbury

Patty Greene’s chocolate Espresso cake at The Asbury

Patty Greene's raspberry cheesecake at The Asbury

Patty Greene’s raspberry cheesecake at The Asbury

The Asbury serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, and brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.  In addition to the ground floor restaurant space, The Asbury caters unique, private dining experiences and hosts special events throughout its intimate second floor   Located in The Dunhill at 235 N. Tryon Street, the parking entrance for The Asbury and the hotel is just off 6th street. Call 704-342-1193 for dinner reservations or more info. For room reservations at The Dunhill call 704-332-4141 or visit www.TheDunhillHotel.com  The Asbury on Urbanspoon

Fifth up, another newbie for Charlotte diners from a much loved and admired chef – Bruce Moffett’s newest jewel in the Moffett Restaurant Group triple crown – Stagioni! After much success with Barringtons and Good Food on Montford Moffett opened Stagioni about a month ago now to rave reviews. The menu is decidedly Italian, with an all Italian wine list of delicious pours.  Moffett and his team lead by executive chef Larry Schreiber have kept true to traditional Italian recipes like porchetta, arrancini, homemade pasta, and wood-oven baked pizza but have  put their own little twist on things here and there.

A tray of Stagioni's snacks and spreads for the two of you to share

A tray of Stagioni’s snacks and spreads for the two of you to share

The menu at Stagioni – “four seasons of food”, is of course, seasonal; and as I have eaten my way through winter I cannot wait to see what’s in store for spring. For the Valentine segment, we features a board of Stagioni’s snacks and spreads, such as fava bean  spread, liver pate, puree of cauliflower with truffles, stuffed peppadew peppers, tapenade and more with flat bread toasts and delicious fried chicken skin “chips” – perfect for the two of you to share while you make your dinner choices.

The historic house was once home to  Blanche Reynolds-Gourmajenko who loved to entertain and the villa traditionally served as a grand place for people to gather at the parties and dinners Blanche hosted.  They say that Blanche loved the home so  much that she hasn’t left and her spirit haunts the estate.

Banche Reynolds -

Banche Reynolds-Gourmajenko

All I can say is that Blanche must be very happy having people gather round the tables in her home once again surrounded by good food and drink.  The softly lit small bar and dining room with open kitchen and seating in front of the wood burning pizza oven are all beautifully designed to keep the integrity of the original home, while offering a modern spin on dining out.

Stagioni is located at 715 Providence Rd. in the Eastover neighborhood. Call 704.372.8110 for reservations. For more information about the menu, the history of the home and links to Barrington’s and Good Food on Monford, Stagioni’s sister restaurants, visit http://stagioniclt.com/  Stagioni on Urbanspoon

passion 8Finally, the last of these six romantic dining spots, Passion 8 Bistro – the name says it all. A place that is passionate about local farms, food, and service. Owned by chef Luca Annunziata and his lovely wife Jessica, Passion 8 Bistro has plans to soon move from its tiny home in Ft. Mill to bigger newer but every bit as romantic, digs in Charlotte on Elizabeth Ave.  The group is still waiting for permits and construction to be finalized, but until the move Chef Luca and his culinary team Chef Matthew Krenz and chef Evan Micek, are still cooking up a storm in Ft. Mill, serving an all market menu every evening,  supporting nearly 50 local farms in North and South Carolina.

A scallop starter from the Valentine menu at Passion 8 Bistro

A scallop starter from the Valentine menu at Passion 8 Bistro

Get caught up in the passion this Valentine’s Day with a special prix fixe Valentine’s Day Dinner menu Friday, February 14th from 5:00pm to 10:00pm; 4 courses with choices for each course. $140 per couple. make your reservations now by calling 803-802-7455. For the Charlotte Today segment we shared one of the first plates from the Valentine menu – a perfectly seared scallop atop a rounded cake of grits, topped with a red cabbage slaw, crispy pancetta and Tega Hills Farm micro greens surrounded by a pool of Charon sauce – a béchamel flavored with tomato.

If you and your sweetheart enjoy cooking together, then start sharing the passion this weekend at a special Valentine’s cooking class at Passion 8 -Saturday, February 8th from 11:00am to 2:00pm  3 courses for $75 per couple with a champagne toast.

from left, chefs Evan Micek, chef Matthew Krenz and chef Luca Annunziata make their Food Network debut on Feb 19 at 9 pm

from left, chefs Evan Micek, chef Matthew Krenz and chef Luca Annunziata make their Food Network debut on Feb 19 at 9 pm

On the Charlotte Today segment I announced that Passion 8 would be featured on a new Food Network show  – Buy This Restaurant – to air Monday Feb 3. My mistake – the show premiered on Monday, but the Passion 8 segment actually airs on Wednesday, February 19th at 9:00pm on the Food Network    http://www.foodnetwork.com/shows/buy-this-restaurant.html   Don’t miss it!

Meanwhile, to make your reservations at Passion8 Bistro simply call the restaurant at 803-802-7455. Passion 8 is currently located at 3415 Hwy. 51 North – just three miles past the tiny historic downtown of Pineville, NC. For more information, visit http://www.passion8bistro.com/ Passion8 Bistro on Urbanspoon

Cheers to the February Romantic Restaurant segment

Cheers to the February Romantic Restaurant segment

Now, that you’ve read all about it,  click here to watch the video from my Valentine segment on Charlotte Today. I’ll be back for my monthly cooking segment on Charlotte Today on Thursday Feb 13, Channel 36 – 6 on cable –  with three great Valentine recipes for Fondue au Deux! See you then! Cheers!

Eat your Peas and Carrots ( and the pods and the stems as well) Repurposing Your Produce Scraps

Heidi Billotto in the kitchen with Charlotte Today hosts Coleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway

Heidi Billotto in the kitchen with Charlotte Today hosts Coleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway

Heidi Billotto’s Shares Fun Produce Tips

on WCNC’s Charlotte Today 

Jan 15 , 2014

Save the Scraps and Repurpose Your Produce…

If you have just made a salad or prepared a fresh veggie or two for dinner, think twice before you toss the scraps in the garbage.  This morning on WCNC’s Charlotte Today I did a fun “cooking” segment with my friends, show hosts Colleen Odegaard  and Ramona  Holloway. How to repurpose your produce “scraps”. This cooking “tip and tricks” topic was producer Allison Andrews’ idea but I was up to the challenge and came up with five or six tasty solutions to avoid wasting the good stuff.

Click here for the  Jan 15 video of Heidi Billotto on WCNC’s Charlotte Today 

And here is what we chatted about during the segment…. 

regrown celeryCelery – First of all, purchase whole celery heads, not just celery hearts – you’ll get tons more flavor and then  when you need celery – slice across the whole head for more flavor than you can get simply slicing up  one stalk. Then when you are done and down to the root, put the root end of the celery in a pot of dirt and believe it or not you can regrow it! use the new celery leaves as you would any flavorful herb.

 

broccoli crowns, stems and leaves are all great to eat!

broccoli crowns, stems and leaves are all great to eat!

Broccoli  – You can buy crowns of broccoli as easily as you can purchase whole stalks, but the stalks are every bit as good as the flowers. So just cut the whole stalks so that your blossom ends have a stalk and then peel the stalk with a vegetable peeler so that it will be more tender as your steam or boil it.  You may also cut the stems for the blossom end, peel and then cut into sticks to serve on a raw veggie tray, or the stalks may be peeled and shredded for broccoli slaw. Or steam or boil the blossoms and then cut the stalks into slices – they will resemble little clouds and you can use them in stirfries or instead of or in addition or in place of the peas in  pot pies

What to do with orange and citrus peels?

What to do with orange and citrus peels?

Orange, grapefruit, lemon or lime peel – Its so easy to repurpose any citrus peel –  just cut it into thin strips and then candy it in a simply syrup made with one cup of sugar and one cup of water .

Make candied citrus rind by puuting the cut rind into a simply syrup - 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar. bring the mix to a boil and then let cool .  Pull candied rind out of the syrup and dust with organic granulated sugar

Make candied citrus rind by putting the cut rind into a simply syrup – 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar. bring the mix to a boil and then let cool . Pull candied rind out of the syrup and dust with organic granulated sugar

The candied peel can be used to garnish desserts and the leftover syrup is delicious mixed with you favorite pour in cocktails or used over ice with a splash of sparkling soda for the family to enjoy instead of a soft drink.

Candied orange rind with a orange peel rosette

Candied orange rind with a orange peel rosette

Buy organic carrots for the vey best flavor in the root and greens as well

Buy organic carrots for the vey best flavor in the root and greens as well

Carrot tops  – I have been enjoying the fabulous harvest of local carrots Charlotte has had this year and always opt to take my carrot purchase home from farmers markets with the greens attached. As I had the greens on hand, I  have been doing a bit of research and while I
knew that the carrot tops are as healthy as the carrots – I didn’t know just how healthy.

Carrots themselves are high in beta carotene, Calcium and Potassium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, C, and E.

The carrot greens  contain 6 times the vitamin C in the carrot and are a great source of potassium. They are also an excellent source of magnesium, which promotes healthy blood pressure as well as strong bones and muscles.

So buy  the carrots with the greens still attached.  Cut of the greens and cook, juice or use them first  – carrots have a longer refrigerator shelf life than do the greens – carrot greens are delicious as the herb in  homemade vinaigrettes ( see my favorite vinaigrette recipe  in the Jan issue of Charlotte Parent Magazine  (http://www.charlotteparent.com/articlemain.php?10-Healthy-Ways-to-Use-Vinaigrette-4890)  and simply add in 2-3 Tbsp. of carrot tops with the dried herbs. You can use minced carrot tops in pestos or to flavor  vegetable, potato or carrot soup as well.

 

Make the leek and potato soup recipe below garnished with minced carrot tops and "hearts" of heavy cream

Make the leek and potato soup recipe below garnished with minced carrot tops and “hearts” of heavy cream

More scraps and peels? Any other veggie peels and stems, stalks etc. can go into a homemade veggie broth – the recipe is super simple – just put all of your scraps in a big pot, add 1-2 cans of organic whole or diced tomatoes and one chopped onion; cover with water and bring it to a boil. After the volume of the water reduces by one half, strain the broth from the veggies parts and pieces, discard the veggies and season the broth to taste with salt and pepper or you favorite herbs or spices. Homemade veggie broth will freeze well for up to a year.

If all else fails – compost – Honestly, this  has been a hard concept for me to wrap my head around, but it really does make sense… and so 2014 may be my year to stop tossing scraps I really don’t use and instead compost them Remember when you first started to recycling and it seems a pain to rinse out cans and jars? Then we got used to it and now it just seems like second nature – plus its so much better of our environment and our landfills. Well, just think of composting as recycling for veggies  – smart to do for your garden and for the environment!

You may start small with tabletop and indoor composters and then move to a bigger outdoor composter when you are ready.

Leek and potato Carrot top soup

Recipe by Charlotte Culinary Expert, Heidi Billotto

HLNC@carolina.rr.com

www.HeidiBillottoFood.com

1 ½ lbs. potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes or slices

2 white rainbow carrots or 1 parsnip, cut into slices

4 medium leeks, chopped

1 cup minced carrot greens

4 cups water

1 cup heavy cream or half and half

sea salt and pepper to taste

minced carrot greens to serve on top

Bring the potatoes, carrots or parsnips, leeks, carrot greens and water to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes,

Puree the soup in a blender or food processor. Return to the pot and stir in the heavy cream or  half and half. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot or cold garnished with additional minced carrot greens

 BEEF AND BROCCOLI CLOUDS

Recipe by Charlotte Culinary Expert, Heidi Billotto

HLNC@carolina.rr.com

www.HeidiBillottoFood.com

3/4 pound lean beef – London Broil or flank steak – thin sliced

1 1/4 cups oil, or as needed

Marinade:

1 Tbsp. rice vinegar

1 Tbsp. organic sugar

1 tsp. Mushroom flavored soy sauce

1 Tbsp. water

1 Tbsp. cornstarch

Sauce:

2 Tbsp. hoisin sauce

2 Tbsp. mushroom soy sauce

1 Tbsp. water

Thickener:

1 tsp. cornstarch mixed with 1 Tbsp. water

Vegetables:

1 pound fresh broccoli stalks cut into “clouds”

4 carrots, sliced or cut into tulips

1 garlic clove, finely minced

Cut the beef across the grain into thin slices. Add the marinade ingredients, adding the cornstarch last (use your fingers to rub it in). Marinate the beef for 30 minutes.
While the beef is marinating, prepare the sauce and vegetables: for the sauce, mix together the hoisin sauce, light soy, dark soy, and water in a small bowl and set aside. In another small bowl, mix the cornstarch and water thickener and set aside.
Wash and drain the broccoli. Cut the stalk diagonally into thin slices. Cut the flowerets into 3 or 4 pieces. Combine with the carrots and boil or steam quickly in ½ cup As soon as the broccoli turns a spring green color, drain it form the cooking water and rinse quickly with cold water. Reserve.
Heat the wok and add 1 cup oil. When the oil is medium-hot (use the wooden spoon test, add the beef. Sear quickly and remove the beef from the wok when it changes color and is nearly cooked (about 1 – 2 minutes).
Drain beef on several thicknesses of paper towels.
Pour the majority of the oil out of the wok leaving only 2 Tablespoons.
Heat wok again, when the oil is hot, add the beef with the garlic and quickly toss to combine. Add in broccoli, sprinkle with ¼ tsp. salt and ½ tsp sugar over, and stir fry briefly, turning down the heat if necessary to make sure it doesn’t burn. Toss well to combine with beef.

Add the sauce and cornstarch mixture in the middle of the wok and stir quickly to thicken. Mix everything together and serve hot over steamed rice.

Great Recipes for Charlotte’s Panther Fever

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Five Favorites for August – On the set photos and video

Chatting about five fabulous new restaurants in the Queen City

Chatting about five fabulous new restaurants in the Queen City

Monday August 5 – A quick evening post for those of you who missed the live edition of Charlotte Today on WCNC  channel 36 this morning.

Here is a link to the video interview/segment  with my friends and show hosts Colleen Odegaard and Ramona Holloway. Our topic: my five favorite new restaurants for August . My husband Tom Billotto was there, too, behind the scenes taking photos as fast as he could – hard to catch all the action, but Tom did a terrific job !

For details on each of the restaurants read the previous post  here – Five Favorites for August and  and enjoy!

As always the show was great fun and time went by fast for this one;  but the response has been overwhelming – so glad everyone like the concept – well do it again sometime in September – stay tuned and I’ll be sure to keep you posted on details.

Meanwhile, as luck would have it , my friend Chef Jill Aker Ray was also on today’s show doing  the cooking segment . Jill is private chef in Charlotte and always comes up with something fun. Here is the link to her spot on the show – a great recipe for a seasonal salsa used three ways – delish!jill and Ramona toocharlotte Today Aug 5. 2013 001

After the  show Tom and I joined Jill and another friend for lunch at American Café. Tom enjoyed the crispy batter dipped fish and chips with a heaping helping of hand cut fries while Jill and I decide to split two different sandwiches – the steak sandwich and Luca’s meatball sandwich, I have had the meatball sub before and was already a convert – but the steak sandwich – Oh my! Off the hook, marinated then seared rare skirt steak thin sliced and snuggled into the soft bun alongside  caramelized onion and a thin layer of cheese – au jus for dipping made it even better – put this one on your must try list for sure.steak sandwich from American cafe