Foodie Travels: Sweet Potatoes, Winston-Salem, N.C.

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When a line forms at a restaurant’s doors before it opens, that’s a good sign. When an artist asks if he can photograph your food for a series he’s doing for the restaurant’s wall decor, that’s another good sign. When your waitress advises you how you can work the menu to get the best sampling to please your tastebuds, that’s ultimately a good sign.

Prior to a recent quick weekend trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., Molly discovered this restaurant with a food name and a tempting menu full of Southern delights. Let me be the one to tell you that everything we read and saw and dreamed of in regards to this place came true. Sweet Potatoes is the stuff of legend in this northwestern corner of North Carolina’s Triad region, about two hours from Charlotte. The first indicator of that fame? The place was full within 15 minutes of opening when we experienced our first brunch during our recent visit.

After being the first ones through the door, we were seated by the corner window with the accompaniment of a pleasing playlist of jazz flowing through the air. Sweet Potatoes has a story behind its name, and the food by that same name is the inspiration behind many of the dishes on the menu. Following a very hospitable consultation with our suggestive but not insistent menu expert (waitress), Molly and I both settled on sweet potato-inclusive main courses. She had the “Un-French” Toast with a sweet potato base and a delicious strawberry sauce, and I had the Chicken and Sweet Potato Pancakes, a glorious local take on the Southern favorite, Chicken and Waffles.

That left us wondering about several other almost-chosen menu items, including a Three-Cheese Macaroni and Country Ham Souffle. No problem. Our waitress suggested the modestly priced savory dish as an appetizer to share, and that’s just what we did. The creaminess of the macaroni and cheese was boosted by the high-flavor taste of the ham, and it was one of the most tasty opening dishes I’ve experienced in all my foodie travels. And it was just enough to be an opening course.

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On to the main dishes. Molly’s “Un-French” Toast had a deep sweet potato flavor and gooey interior, countered by a slightly crispy outer crust, and supplemented by a surprisingly but perfectly paired taste of strawberries and their juices.

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My pancakes were light, fluffy and had the spice and sweet of a piece of sweet potato pie, while the fried chicken tenders (read more about the chef’s delicious chicken coating here) had the best seasoning taste I believe either of us have ever had in a fried piece of chicken.

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Along with the delicious Southern culinary experience, there’s an artsy feel on all sides and senses at Sweet Potatoes. Combined with the jazz, your eyes get a sample of local art and photos from the nearby performing arts scene. Both are ideal fits for a restaurant that sits in the heart of Winston-Salem’s Trade Street art district.

During our brunch, a number of folks continued to wait outside, hoping for a seat. Some ultimately went elsewhere, while others stayed put, obviously knowing the delayed entry would be worth the wait. I was quite possibly as excited about trying this restaurant as any I’ve ever scouted online. And it was every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

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A few final tips for your visit: Arrive early. Arrive hungry. Put down your phone while you’re there. This is one of those places that every one of your senses must experience in full effect.

 

Sweet Potatoes

529 North Trade Street, Winston-Salem, N.C.

sweetpotatoes.ws

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Heavenly Butterscotch Pie

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For me, finding a new pie recipe is kind of like finding treasure. It’s never guarded by a dragon, unless you count the oven; it’s a fairly easy conquest; and the reward at the end is always worth the effort.

This time, I was entranced by a Butterscotch Pie recipe found in the First United Methodist Church of Stanley’s “Lilies of the Field” cookbook. You know the kind, one of those old-timey, spiral-bound cookbooks filled with tried and true delectable delights. This delight was no disappointment.

The pie is light and airy, with a whipped feel that doesn’t quite approach custard. This is due to the final step of folding in the whipped egg whites before baking. It certainly has a delicious buttery, butterscotch taste that I never would’ve believed was this easy to create. Without further ado, the Butterscotch Pie, which I have aptly delineated “Heavenly.”

Ingredients

1 cup brown sugar

3 tbsp. cornstarch

1/2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups milk, scalded

3 eggs, separated

3 tbsp. butter

1 tsp. vanilla

Directions

1. Pre-bake the pie shell at 375 degrees until golden brown.

2. Mix the dry ingredients together with a whisk, in the top of a non-stick pot.

3. Scald the milk in the microwave (I find this easier than scalding on the stove), by cooking for about 2-3 minutes. Keep an eye on it, because it will easily boil over in your microwave.

4. Gradually stir in the milk into the dry ingredients until the mixture is smooth.

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5. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for 15 minutes or until thickened.

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6. Beat the 3 egg yolks until foamy. Add a few spoonfuls of the hot mixture into the egg yolks and stir. Then add the yolks to the pudding mixture. (This is very important so the mixture doesn’t cook the egg yolks.)

7. Cook for about 5 minutes, then remove from heat.

8. Add butter and vanilla.

9. Whip the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the pudding mix.

10. Pour into the already-baked pie shell and bake for 10 minutes (at the same temperature as you baked the pie shell, 375) until light, golden brown.

11. Enjoy!

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Molly’s Take: I don’t think I’ve ever had such a light, airy, sweet dessert as this Butterscotch Pie. It truly delights with its warm, brown sugar, butterscotch taste and the smooth texture created by the combination of the whipped egg whites and pudding. I’ll definitely keep this one on tap as one of my go-to sweet pie recipes. It truly is a praiseworthy pie!

Matthew’s Take: I’ve had all kinds of custard pies. And I’ve had a few butterscotch-filling desserts that my mom has made over the years. This Butterscotch Pie is different than all of them. It has a very tasty and unique texture that, as Molly said, isn’t quite custard. It’s not quite pudding either. The top also offers a different consistency than the tops of most pies. It has what appears to be an ever-so-thin crust on top. There’s an interesting combination of light and richness with this pie that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced. It’s a nice choice for a different option for a simple, light and satisfying dessert.

Foodie Travels: Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack, Belmont, NC

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Barbecue is among the most diverse foods in the American South and Midwest. While you will find it from Kansas City to Texas to Memphis to the Carolinas, its form always varies in some way. And so does its serving establishment.

Molly and I live in a county (Cleveland County, N.C.) that prides itself on delicious pork barbecue. We have three barbecue-specific restaurants that all claim ties to the last name Bridges. All three are tasty, but in different ways. One even claims the title of Best Barbecue in America.

Directly to our east sits Gaston County, the hometown county for both Molly and me. It boasts its own set of delicious barbecue restaurants, slightly different from those in Cleveland County and from each other. But I believe my favorite Gaston spot is Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack, a fairly new BBQ establishment in the thriving town of Belmont, N.C. The place combines the perfect feel of both a modern no-fuss eatery and a longtime establishment that knows its regular customers by name.

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At Peace-N-Hominy (what a great name for a Southern restaurant, right?), it starts with the atmosphere. Rolls of paper towel napkins on each table and a sauce rack with four options is always a good sign at a barbecue joint. We also enjoyed the sign on the wall that notes things the restaurant believes in. At the top, above a reference to smoked meats, is: God. There is a faith element to the restaurant, which may be stepping too far for some, but we found it to be a nice indicator of where the owners stand.

Drawing from the old walk-in diner restaurants where you order at the counter, Peace-N-Hominy displays its menu in easy-to-read-from-the-line print that you can survey while you’re waiting to order. The choices are many and quite varied, even at this one Q joint. You can get your barbecue pork, your chicken, your smoked turkey, specialty bacon and other BBQ favorites. Or you can get a burger or hotdog, or a taco, or even breakfast.

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In many local restaurants, I have to make a cheeseburger my first menu sample. In any barbecue restaurant in North Carolina (because in Texas it must be brisket), I go with the chopped pork, either in a sandwich or on a plate. Going with the plate at Peace-N-Hominy was the right choice. I had the chopped pork, and Molly had the turkey. Both came with flavorful sweet hushpuppies, creamy coleslaw and an additional side. Molly had the bourbon baked beans, and I had the macaroni and cheese for a slight upgrade in price. Both were clearly homemade and did not disappoint.

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What really made this place stand apart was its culture, its deep set of menu choices and its location. You usually find those places either in a big-city spot or in a whole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s been in the same place for decades. Peace-N-Hominy is neither.

This place, however, was an incredible find, and I would recommend it to anybody who enjoys barbecue of any variety. And it was a find. The restaurant’s main wall sign doesn’t directly face the road, so you might drive past it if you’re not watching. Try a few things while you’re there (we didn’t sample dessert or specialty sodas but should on our second visit), and let us know what you think.

Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack
403 Catawba Street, Belmont, N.C.
peacenhominy.com

Cheeseburger with Homemade Cherry Cola BBQ Sauce

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My favorite cheeseburger hands down is a basic burger: maybe something with cheese, lettuce, tomato, a little mayo. That’s usually what I seek out the first time I’m visiting a spot known for its cheeseburgers. Next on the list after the “classic” version is some version of barbecue cheeseburger. I love the combination of meat, bun, cheese and barbecue sauce.

My taste for barbecue sauce on cheeseburgers is why the “Bronco Burger” was an attractive option when we recently planned a cookout at our house.  The Bronco includes, among other delicious features, a homemade cherry cola barbecue sauce that offers a bit of a kick. The accompanying mozzarella cheese provides a cool down effect that pairs nicely with the sauce.

This burger recipe was a fun one to make alongside Molly. As I grilled the burgers in the backyard, she made the barbecue sauce in the kitchen. Let’s dive right into what you’ll need to make your own Bronco Burgers, along with the process for putting the burgers and sauce together.

Burger Ingredients

1.5 pounds ground beef of your choice

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon prepared chili powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Sandwich Ingredients

mozzarella cheese of your choice

hamburger buns

sweet onion slices

dill pickle chips

Barbecue Sauce Ingredients

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1.5 cups ketchup

1.25 cups cherry Coke (or your preferred cola)

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1/4 cup cherry preserves

1/8 cup red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

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Sauce Directions

1. Melt butter in pan

2. Add onion and garlic and saute.

3. Whisk in remaining ingredients.

4. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Cook until mixture thickens.

The sauce will take you about 45 minutes. It takes a while to thicken in some cases.

Serve warm.

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Putting your burgers in the fridge or freezer to get them nice and cool before putting them on the grill will help them hold together better as they cook. This is especially important if you’re cooking with fresh ground beef.

Burger Directions

1. Mix your cumin, chili powder, onion powder, salt and pepper into your meat.

2. Patty out into the size of burgers you’d like to eat.

3. Use your fingers to make an indentation in the centers of both sides of the burger patties to prevent them from forming a dome as they cook.

4. Refrigerate your burgers until you’re ready to grill them.

5. Grill until burgers are done as you desire.

6. Arrange burgers with cheese, pickles and onion on your buns and then top with preferred amount of barbecue sauce.

 

Molly’s Take: One step is left out of this phenomenal burger recipe: Enjoy! The sauce is killer and, despite the time it takes to cook, surprisingly easy to make. Drizzled on top of a perfectly-seasoned burger bursting with flavor and combined with the smoky taste and the texture of mozzarella, all sandwiched between a solid, fresh bun — this sauce is the microphone that makes that burger sing. Add in some pickles and onions and you’ve got a flavor explosion the likes of which I’ve never had at home in a homemade burger. In other words, if you’ve got a minute and a hot grill, try this and tell us what you thought.

Matthew’s Take: These Bronco Burgers are as tasty as any barbecue-sauced cheeseburgers I’ve had, and it’s all because of the barbecue sauce. The spice mixture that goes into the patties has its own role in this #FoodieScore experience, and the mozzarella cheese, pickles and onions create a nice mixture of textures and flavors, but it’s the homemade sauce that provides the lasting impression. And the best part? You can refrigerate the sauce and continue to use it on pork, chicken and other foods for a few weeks after making it. This is a winner if you like barbecue cheeseburgers. I give this one an A for taste, an A- for cost (you may have to buy some spices and items you won’t have on hand), and I give it a B for ease. The sauce took Molly some time and attention to cook. But hey, that’s the point. It wouldn’t be the same with a bottled barbecue sauce.

Foodie Travels: Lankford Grocery & Market, Houston, TX

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Earlier this year, Molly and I took a 2,500-mile round-trip road trip to Houston, Texas, for the wedding of one of her best friends. Of course, we looked forward to the beautiful occasion and the chance to share in a most special day. I also saw the trip as a chance to try a few local restaurants in Houston and a few along the way.

Along with a chance to try Texas brisket barbecue, authentic Tex Mex, Texas-sized pecan pie and a variety of Asian, Cuban and other ethnic foods that Houston offers, I had to sample at least one spot known for its local cheeseburgers. The bride offered us a list of great food options to try during our visit, and I supplemented those choices with a little research of my own. That’s when I found Lankford Grocery & Market, a decades-old Houston institution located between the city’s Fourth Ward and Midtown districts.

On our first full day in Houston, we visited Space Center Houston south of the city’s downtown. On the way back toward town, we rolled through neighborhoods and around the corner home of Lankford Grocery & Market, which is also listed here among Texas hot spots on the roadtrip food site roadfood.com. I was concerned about parking options after seeing online that the restaurant looks like it sits on a full corner with not much on-street parking. Turns out, parking was no issue. Right past the restaurant, there’s a street with ample space for 20 or so cars to park underneath shade trees. Once we parked, we got out and took a short walk around the corner and into our lunch spot.

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The restaurant was busy because it was lunchtime on a Friday, but there’s plenty of seating inside and outside, so we had no trouble getting seats in the corner. A waitress arrived shortly with menus and our adventure began. It was a memorable experience best summed up by these words from Molly (and I paraphrase because I’ve forgotten the exact quote): When you can get a cheeseburger and I can get Mexican, we won’t find a better place to eat than this. And I completely agree. In addition to American favorites like the cheeseburger, Lankford capitalizes on the Tex Mex connection of the state to offer delicious Mexican food favorites as well.

Molly ordered and consumed as much of Lankford’s Super Taco as she could. It was a heaping of Mexican food on top of crispy tortilla shells. I ordered the original cheeseburger and a side of fries and finished the whole plate. It was the best cheeseburger I’ve had since my favorite cheeseburger joint of all time (Kim’s Kitchen in Stanley, N.C.) closed about five years ago. The meat was hand-pattied and incredibly fresh. The bun was soft and hearty to support the patty, cheese and delicious toppings.

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In addition to the food, the atmosphere personified the local joint: regulars trading conversation with the waitresses and cashier, a take-out line with as many people as were seated in the restaurant, businessmen in suits stopping in for lunch, loosening their ties and removing their sunglasses, and a kitchen churning out plate after plate of tasty treats.

Everything about this restaurant was a winner. The atmosphere, the parking, the location, the history, the spot on the Food Network and Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” TV show and, most important, the amazing food and memorable cheeseburger. If you’re ever in Houston, check out Lankford Grocery & Market.

Lankford Grocery & Market, 88 Dennis Street, Houston, TX, lankfordgrocery.com

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Pasta Mama: Creative, Flavorful, Simple

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If I tell you I’m going to make you pasta and scrambled eggs for dinner, what’s your reaction? Does it sound more appetizing if I tell you I’m going to mix the eggs into the pasta? Maybe it further helps if I tell you several Asian pasta dishes include eggs that are scrambled in somehow?

Yeah, I didn’t think so. When I first heard about Pasta Mama seven or eight years ago on one of my favorite Food Network Shows “Best Thing I Ever Ate,” I turned up my nose, too. It didn’t exactly sound like a delicious meal. But I’ve always enjoyed trying new things that involve ingredients I enjoy, so I gave it a whirl, as Kevin McAllister said of a frozen macaroni and cheese dinner while grocery shopping in the 1990 movie Home Alone. And the Pasta Mama blew me away with its simplicity and flavor.

Some people aren’t big fans of marinara sauce, so they prefer an alfredo or other topping for their pasta. This offers another cheap, flavorful option with the eggs and spices, and if you already have spices and dry pasta in your kitchen or pantry, it won’t cost you much at all to make (also considering eggs are pretty cheap). And if you cook the eggs and pasta just right, it’s not too dry or too wet.

Pasta Mama at its best is a very simple and light dish, so don’t plan on feeling extremely full afterward. In fact, it’s a dish you might have as a small meal as part of a plan to eat more than three meals a day, or you might even try it for a simple and quick breakfast. You can use that leftover cooked, plain pasta to get a head start, but even if you have to cook your pasta first, this dish won’t take you more than a half hour to prepare.

The following recipe is a modified take on a suggestion from Food.com.

Ingredients

10 ounces dry pasta

3 eggs, beaten

2 minced garlic cloves

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon fresh grated parmesan cheese

1/4 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon seasoning salt

1/4 teaspoon onion powder

 

Directions

1. Cook your pasta in a pot until it has the softness/firmness you prefer. (If you already have leftover cooked pasta, just heat it enough to knock the chill off before you take the next step in the recipe.)

2. In a skillet on medium heat, saute all of your spices with the butter or oil.

3. After your spices have sauteed, add the pasta and water and stir together.

4. Pour in your already-beaten eggs and combine until the eggs fully cook and mix with the pasta.

5. While your dish is still in the skillet, sprinkle the parmesan cheese on top. You can, of course, add as much cheese as you want.

6. Plate and serve. As with anything, your yield depends on how much pasta you actually use, how much each diner eats and the age of your diners. If you feed this to kids, it will probably go farther with each individual eater.

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Molly’s Take: I wasn’t terribly afraid of the egg and pasta combo here, since I love Asian rice and noodles and those often include eggs of some kind. I also am a person who really can’t stand marinara sauce in most settings, so I was excited about the prospect of an alfredo alternative. The Pasta Mama delivered. Its simple flavor, perfectly seasoned with herbs and spices, was light and tasty. As Matthew said, it isn’t incredibly filling or heavy, but I could easily see adding some type of fish like salmon or shrimp to the dish. However, the Pasta Mama stands alone in its simplicity and flavorful taste. Definitely give it a try.

Matthew’s Take: Of course, I really love this dish, or I wouldn’t be sharing it with you. My favorite way to eat pasta has always been with some kind of tomato-based sauce and beef meatballs or a cheese-based sauce with chicken. This is a completely different dish and one I’ve never had in a restaurant. I’ve never seen it on a menu in a restaurant, despite seeing it recommended on a food show by a professional chef who ate it at a restaurant. Maybe it has a low profile because it would take most people by surprise. I know it did me. Other than not being heavy enough to fill me for a long period of time, Pasta Mama is surprisingly satisfying. The garlic butter and cheese help provide their own deal of flavor, but it’s the eggs that offer the most boost to the texture and taste. You may be skeptical, but I encourage you to give it a try. Creative cooking can be exciting because it can break our normal routine in the kitchen and at the table. And this is a way to be creative and make an economical meal in a half hour or less. I give it an A for taste and an A+ for both cost and ease.