Spring is upon us and it looks like the dust is settling. Our restaurants are starting to get noisy and crowded again. My colleagues in the restaurant seem a little more relaxed although the staff is still an issue. And of course, a good basketball season always contributes significantly to the atmosphere here. So, I’m going to dare to come back to the subject that originally accompanied this mission. Food around town.
Before the pandemic, I often explained that one of the reasons for our vibrant cooking scene is that we are a community of busy people, who often don’t have time to cook for themselves. It will be interesting to see how things evolve now that people have been brought to rediscover cooking at home and realize just how much their work can be done from there. Personally, I got really sick of sitting around my house, but let’s see how other people feel. There are plenty of places to eat here! I plan to randomly visit restaurants, old and new to see what’s going on. Over the past two years, every venue that has remained open has had to constantly alter its routines as circumstances change. Menus, hours of operation, payment methods, elaborate plans for take-out and delivery, curbside dining, and more were constantly changing. And absolutely everything has become more expensive. So, let’s see where things stand now.
I returned to an old favorite, Linda’s on East Franklin St. Like many places, it had opened and closed several times over the past few years, but is now back to a regular schedule. They have outdoor tables and several takeout options. I treated myself to the famous charcoal roast, and rightly so. I had the half portion, which I thought was huge. A nap was then in order.
I don’t see much classical music, but the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Mitsuko Uchida, was at Memorial Hall. I never miss their concerts so I resumed a pleasant ritual for the first time in several years. I got dressed and went to the bar at the Carolina Inn before the show for a glass of champagne and a quick bite that night, a plate of fried calabash shrimp. You can walk to the concert hall from there. I usually grab a second glass of champagne at the small lobby bar before the show, but alas, this one hasn’t reopened yet. Still, I felt very classy and it seemed like a very Chapel Hill thing to do.
Maybe because of basketball games or big club shows, I’m going out a lot this spring. The fact that I sat at my kitchen table and stared out the window for two years probably has something to do with it as well. I was so pissed after the Carolina Duke game that just going to Franklin Street wasn’t enough. It took a Negroni and some Northside District fried chicken sliders on Rosemary Street to finally bring me home. I love that they serve food until very late every night.
And finally, when I needed some kind of fancy lunch to visit friends on a Saturday, I found a delicious one at Tandem in Carrboro. We finished with their donuts served with ice cream and hot cider.
Last month we had Mardi Gras, which means this month we have Lent. I grew up Catholic in the 1950s when the rules about fasting and going without were pretty strict. This led to many fry each spring. I love fried fish and it looks like a fish recipe is in order this month. One of the most popular items on my menu at Crook’s Corner was Catfish Amandine. You can use other kinds of fish with this preparation if you wish. I cooked a piece of plaice from Tom Robinson’s Seafood to retest yesterday. I then ate it before remembering to take a picture, so you’ll have to use your imagination here.
The best frying in my book is produced using self-rising flour and buttermilk. It makes a big puffy crust. I have nothing to say to people who complain about over-breading fried foods. Traditional cornmeal is replaced here by maseca or corn flour. I learned this stuff in New Orleans, not in Mexico.
(for four persons)
- 1 cup whole buttermilk
- 1 egg
- 4 catfish fillets (6 to 8 ounces each)
- ½ cup self-rising flour
- ½ cup maseca
- ½ teaspoon of salt
- Cooking oil or clarified butter
- ½ stick unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1 cup sliced almonds (and blanched, if available)
- 1 lemon, halved lengthwise. Choose all the seeds you see.
Beat the buttermilk and egg together very, very well. Put the fillets in the buttermilk. Thoroughly mix the flour, maseca and salt together. In a restaurant kitchen, you will probably find buckets of clarified butter. Not so much at home and it’s hard to clarify a bit, so any mild cooking oil will do here. Put about an eighth of an inch into your largest frying pan. The pan probably isn’t big enough to cook all the fish at once, so set your oven to 300° and have a baking dish handy. Take the fillets out of the milk, shake them up and press them into the flour mixture, coating both sides. Put the frying pan on medium-high heat. I usually press the fish into the flour a second time for good measure on the way to the pan. Do not overload the pan. Catfish are denser than most white fish. Get it good and brown on both sides. This should be done through, but check at the thickest part to be sure. Place the fillets on the dish and keep them warm in the oven.
Drain any excess oil from the pan. Golden flour crumbs are ok. Put it back on the stove and turn the heat to high. Add all the butter. As soon as it is slightly melted, add the almonds. Turn the pan constantly until the butter and almonds are golden brown and give off a nice toasty aroma. Turn off the heat and immediately squeeze the lemon halves over the pan. Pour the walnuts and butter over the fish and serve immediately. Your favorite coleslaw would make a great side dish.
“Just The Bill, Please” is a regular column on Chapelboro.com written by local culinary legend Bill Smith. Born and raised in New Bern, Bill Smith spent 25 years at the helm of the kitchen at Crook’s Corner – and over the years he has racked up the accolades to match his unrivaled interpretations of classic Southern cuisine.
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