Spring Has Sprung - May Update
May in the mountains begins to bring the summer residents back up to their cabins. Dirt and his crew are out raking yards and picking up branches strewn about in the winter winds. The local Hardware store is brimming with customers asking questions like: “where can I find one of these?” as they hold up a rusty pilot burner or a pipe elbow. The parking lots are lined with pallets towering with bags of top soil, cow manure and mulch. Meanwhile, many of the natives that work seasonally are just thrilled to have a paycheck again. We dream of gardens, warm clear nights and afternoons at the river with the kids.
As of this writing, the maintenance folks on the Blue Ridge Parkway have completed their work on the tunnel at Craggy Gardens and have begun work on the long rock bridge at Linville Falls. One of the Parkway’s largest stone arch bridges and built by the WPA in the 30’s, it boasts three spans of 80 feet each. Their work should be completed by May 30th, just in time for Memorial Day weekend.
In the kitchen here at the Café, we’ve added 2 new salads to our 2016 menu. A Chopped Chef Salad with all the traditional meats, cheeses and boiled local eggs, tossed with Honey Mustard Dressing. But we also added a Kale Salad with roasted Butternut Squash (Yummm!) toasted Almonds, Bleu Cheese, Parmesan and tomatoes and tossed with Lora’s own Lemon Tahini dressing. We’ve found Kale to be a surprisingly wonderful food for us to enjoy. Versatile and tasty, it’s a painless way to enjoy food that’s rich in vitamins A,K and C, Fiber and the B vitamin Folate.
Our Wednesday Casseroles have become more popular than ever! So much so we have decided to expand that offering to Fridays evenings this summer. Beginning Friday May 20th we will be offering BBQ packages for pick-up. These are pre-ordered just like the Wednesday offering, for pick-up Friday evening between 4:30 and 6:00pm. There will be 3 package options to choose from. See our facebook page for details, or you can go to our website at switzerlandcafe.com and sign up for our e-mail announcements.
Everybody’s pretty happy that our Dishwasher Cecilia has gained her US citizenship. She’s 59 years old, has mothered 5 children and instilled in every one of them a strong work ethic that sometimes leaves me in awe. Swollen hands?, “No problema.”, A broken down car?, “Part of life.” That’s Cecilia. She would work 7 days a week if we would allow her. I find her to be one of my heroes.
Many of our staff from last season have returned for another year. Janet, Amanda and Justin are out front and Ms. Ann is in the back with her sister Amanda and Cecilia. We’ve also got some new faces with Juli and Maddie. This week, we’re all headed together to Asheville Thursday night for an Asheville Tourists Game. It’s all about baseball for sure. And beer. No really it’s not about the beer. Yes it is. Anyway, we’re all here and excited about creating and serving great meals for you this summer. Plan your mini vacation today and stop by and see us!
NEW! - Huge Hot Sauce Selection!
The Switzerland General Store now carries a HUGE selection of hot Sauces. Yes, we are riding the wave of popularity made famous by Sriracha and Tabasco because we LOVE the flavor explosion they offer. Generally, the varieties of peppers that are used most often in hot sauces are cayenne, chipotle, habanero and jalapeño. But there is so much more out there! Serranos, Poblanos, The Caribbean and Thai influences as well as Indian spices .
Evidence of hot sauces have been found in all kinds of ancient ruins, and ships. Hot Sauce has been important in making food more palatable as well as being medicinal, aiding in digestion and is great for the liver. It is also believed that it releases endorphins with that surge of HOT when you eat chilies. Some hot sauces, notably Tabasco sauce, are aged in wooden casks similar to the preparation of wine and fermented vinegar. Yes, hot sauces can be fermented. Fermentation not only adds a complexity to the taste, but also can be make your sauce more palatable for some folks.
As far as what’s available in our store, let’s start with those that have no heat at all. “Smoky Mountain Hot Sauce” from Hillside Orchard Farms in Ga. The label includes goofy images of hillbillies and banjos. You know the style. We like it because it has a smoky yet fruit sweet flavor with no heat. Not overly sweet at all. It works as a flavoring for those that are fearful of too much heat. It’s actually a lot of fun to try with beef or pork or just as a substitute wherever you would normally use hot sauce.
Next we offer something called “Cow Pie Hot Sauce” from Hillside Orchards again. We found this one at the Asheville Farmers Market and really love it. Very Mild, no heat. It reminds us of a Remoulade sauce and can be used as a handy enhancement to any appetizer or main dish.
A big seller for us is the Georgia Peach and Vidalia Onion Hot Sauce. Considered mild to medium heat. It’s a little Sweet so it would be great on a broiled salmon or tuna. Another quick and easy meal enhancement that’s just handy to have around.
”Iguana Deuces” brand from Half Moon Bay Trading Company. The label says it’s a “Golden Habanero Pepper Sauce”. On a heat scale from 1 to 10 we give it a 6. Medium-hot, made with veggies and “exotic spices”. We liked that it seemed to have layers of flavor. Good with fish or chicken, or just with steamed veggies.
“Blair’s Jalapeño Death” from Extreme Foods of NY is a green hot sauce that scores a 7 out of 10 in heat. We found it to be one of the freshest sauces we’ve tasted with a good flavor and a versatility that can lend itself to any South American inspired dish.
“Hotter than Hot” is a locally made sauce that scores an 8 out of 10 on the heat scale. One can taste flavors of chilies and even a hint of fruit. Great on wings or BBQ, it’s richness should make even the most seasoned hot sauce lover happy.
A nifty new product from Belize is called “Marie Sharp’s Beware”. It scores a 9 out of 10 on the heat scale. It offers a strong flavor of vinegar, lime and chilies.
Finally, the hottest sauce we found that we liked is “Neal’s Delicious Suffering” from a company called Sauce Crafters in Fl. An interesting blend of dried, toasted chilies, it scored a 9.5 out of 10 on our heat scale. We found hotter sauces, but none with this kind of complex flavor.
It’s common for some sauces to simply provide heat, with no real addition of flavor. Steer away from these. Hot sauce can be a delightful addition to your kitchen if you are brave enough to wade through the hype to arrive at some real flavor.
Spring arrives on occasional breezes here on the Grassy Creek Falls Rd. The March wind is fickle. As though it’s in some sort of wrestling match with Winter’s last struggle. It’s up to us humans to persevere, which we normally do. The earliest and bravest flowers to make an appearance are the Forsythia and the Daffodils. Sometimes their blooms even make it through the cold March nights to greet us in the morning, forcing us to smile while scraping the frost off the windshield.
Over on Altapass, Soggy Bottom Farms is preparing to take some pigs down the mountain for processing. By Memorial Day weekend we will be offering some superb locally raised baby Back Ribs fresh from the smoker. Lora has been preparing some delicious appetizers with pig cheeks, and even tried making some fried pork skins, which we decided were a “bridge too far” for us.
Anyway, all this experimenting helped Lora develop her 2016 menu, which includes just a few changes. A terrific Kale Salad as well as a chopped salad. A healthier lifestyle is elusive for us but we continue to hunt for it. So a morning Hike to the Grassy Creek Falls, followed up by a little lean protein and a Kale salad, makes one feel as though you could take on the world. A little March wind cannot dampen the spirit because you know it’s temporary. Spring is coming. You can hear the toads in the little temporary pools in the fields. The Grouse are flapping their chests as is their ritual, off in the bank of the branch which feeds into the larger creek. They feed on the buds of the Doghobble and Catkin, while Chipmunks scurry among the rocks.
Work crews are beginning to clean up yards here in Little Switzerland. The twigs and branches from winter are being cleaned up in anticipation of summer residents returning. Trout season is just a few weeks away. So once again, we humans prevail over winter’s tenacious grasp. We’re ready to run in this awesome mountain playground. We’re ready to greet our old friends and maybe meet some new neighbors. And without a doubt, we’re ready to start cooking! Because a good meal with friends is the very best part of summer. The very best part of us.
We spent some time this winter traveling to warmer places for a vacation that I like to think was well-earned. I often tend to critique every restaurant we visit, not actually for the sake of criticism, but just because it interests me and I believe in learning from all sources available to me.
The restaurant game has a very slim profit margin. In order to protect that margin, you have to be extremely vigilant. I try and leave no stone unturned in looking for ways to make things better. The model that I like to recall is the one that says: Think of a triangle. The three points are 1. Good, 2. Cheap, 3. Fast. Now…to make a profit you CANNOT have all 3. So pick 2.
I know right?? What a crappy scenario!! Especially since most customers expect all 3. But think about that the next time you go to a great restaurant. If they have achieved all 3 – well that’s something.
One challenge of our restaurant is the layout. We have 2 floors. The 2nd floor has 3 dining areas, main dining room, bar with billiard room & small porch. On our trip, we visited a number of places like that in Florida & the Keys. The buildings are old and they tend to ramble from one room to another.
Of the 17 restaurants we visited on our winter trip, by far our favorite was a rambling old place called “Harrys” in St Augustine, FL. The kitchen is down with just a wait station up. There is ample patio dining as well, with torch heaters every few feet. We enjoyed both lunch and later on, dinner there. Fresh seafood & pasta dishes with a N’awlians slant. I had the French Market Pasta. Fresh shrimp, chicken, spinach and bacon tossed with Orecchiette pasta and a beautiful parmesan basil cream sauce. I know I am still carrying around the 5 extra pounds that dish cost me, but it was well worth it! Lora tried the Shrimp & Scallops Orleans . Lightly blackened shrimp over crispy grit cake with Tasso ham cream sauce. Fresh and surprisingly light enough to bring out all the flavors of the seafood complimented well with the ham. These dishes were easily the highlight of the food dimension of our trip. The multi floor layout seemed no challenge for the staff. Communication was as flawless as the food and the service.
Give Harrys a try next time you are in the St. Augustine area. I’m sure Lora and I will be back.
Buladean, Blue Ridge, and Bacon
“I was the only one that could jump on em & hang on,” she says.
“We had 6-7 pigs year round. We’d kill 4 every winter, all in one day.”
Our waitress Amanda tells of hog killing up on Toms Creek in Buladean, or “Beautiful Dean” as the locals call it, a fitting name for a stunningly gorgeous mountain community in Mitchell County NC, west of Little Switzerland and close to the Tennessee line.
“The grown-ups, they were busy pouring boiling water on the skin and scraping the hair off of the last one killed. So I was the one to slit their throats. I liked it. Then my Grandaddy would bring the tractor up and we’d hook the carcass and lift it up to let the blood drain.”
The Moffits farmed 40 acres on that mountain and still do. Amanda’s cousin still farms up there.
They had cows, chickens, grew tobacco, cabbage and potatoes, most anything they could to get by. This was not long ago. Amanda is under 30. That’s what Lora and love about the Blue Ridge. It’s like stepping back in time. Many of the old time practices are still beloved here. Recessions come and go and we don’t really notice.
“One time my daddy, cut off the pigs head, made it’s face scary and chased me around with it. I ran to the house and hid under the bed!” She is laughing as she tells this. I ask her if she ever felt sad or cried about killing animals. She says “no”, it meant they would eat good.
Now I should say here that while the childhood picture Amanda describes may sound chilling to some, it is real. The meat we American’s consume is killed in a way no less humane than the family farm. Some would say less so. Hiding the messy details of animal consumption may make us feel better, but it is still there and is still a part of our lives. Lora and I do not support cruelty to animals. But neither do we support cruelty to people. Our world is changing fast and not always for the good. The loss of the family farm is a big part of that change.
“Later, after we got done, we’d have fresh tenderloin with biscuits & gravy for breakfast.”
The Moffit smokehouse had stacks of hickory and oak and a steel set-up with rotating racks for meat and hooks for slabs. Using salt and smoke the men would fuss over the meat for near a week or two until it was just right. “Pork is good eatin,” says Amanda with a smile.
At the Café, we use pork shoulders for our pulled BBQ. The tenderloin, the most tender part of the loin, contains no muscle or fat and can be cut up as a kind of small steak or roasted in one piece on a backyard grill or in the oven. The 12 bones of the ribs are smoked and served with our own sauce, whether cut as St. Louis style, (meaty) or as baby backs. In many parts of the south, pig intestines and skin pieces are fried up and eaten as a snack called “chitlins”. The feet are pickled and represent a treat to many a mountain child. And then there is our beloved belly meat, which when cured we call bacon.
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years you probably know that bacon has become a very big deal in culinary circles. It has permeated everything from chocolate to mayonnaise. There’s a National Bacon Day and even Burger King has a baconized a dessert. But until you’ve tasted honest to goodness old fashioned, sweet, smoky, real American-style bacon, made in your home, you’ve never really tasted bacon.
Along with bacon’s rise in popularity, pork belly from which bacon is made, has moved from Asian menus to mainstream menus across the nation. The major difference between the two is that bacon is cured with a lot of salt, slightly sweet, and smoked, while belly is often just rubbed or marinated, and roasted without the smoke. But when it comes to both, there’s room for a lot of creativity, and the lines are blurring.
Far from the beauty and solitude of Buladean, large meat companies make commodity bacon by injecting pork bellies with a brine and flavorings such as liquid smoke. Then the slabs are sprayed with more liquid smoke and baked. The result is the product we have loved and come to know, but there is no substitute for the flavors of slowly smoked bacon made the old fashioned way.
Now supermarket bacon is usually cut from the belly and chest where the ratio of meat to fat can be 1:3. But our favorite bacon is made from the layers of fat and meat that lie on top of the spare ribs, called “side bacon” or “streaky bacon”. It can be about 1:1 or 1:2, with more meat, depending on the breed of hog, age of the hog, feed, and other variables. When shopping, ask your butcher to order some fresh, unfrozen, raw side bacon.
Curing bacon is surprisingly easy and the results are leaps and bounds better than the stuff from large commercial producers. Once you have the basic recipe down, you can vary the ingredients to make a flavor profile to suit your taste. It is an easy process of curing pork belly with a salt and sugar. This process takes about a week, rinsing, drying, then smoking over wood. The smoking can be done in a steel box, a grill with a lid over hickory chips, in your fireplace – most any set up which applies smoke to the meat and maintains a 200 to 250 degree temperature, will do.
Or you can call up Amanda’s cousin. He might could help you out.
Sunday Drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Sundays in my childhood were reserved for Church, family dinners and a drive in the country. Mass was something I endured, dinner was always great but the drive was the highlight of the afternoon. My grandfather always drove a Packard and my Dad loved his Chrysler Fury, which we kids referred to as “The Yacht”. They were huge cars with backseats that held 4 or even more if the youngest ones sat on somebody else’s lap. That would be me.
In the winters we would drive to Ocean Ave and “walk the boards” as they say. The shops were all closed but the Boardwalk was filled with families just like us strolling along . There was usually a guitarist sitting on a bench somewhere and in my memory his melody fills the background along with the ocean roar and the occasional scream from a happy child chasing gulls along the shore.
On other days we would head out to the NJ countryside in search of wildflowers in some field or perhaps a roadside ice cream stand. Mom loved to look at old houses & barns while my Dad loved the yard sales. We kids loved the adventure of finding a tree swing somewhere or a field with horses. Western NJ is filled with horse farms mostly associated with racing. But it’s awesome farm country too. Nothing better than a NJ tomato in the peak of summer, or corn from a roadside stand. They call it the Garden state because it really is.
Food is a big part of any family. The family meal. Favorite dishes from childhood. Even the broken family living on the street has its food traditions. They are formed by economics and personality, of course, but also time and place.
As a child I dearly loved my mom’s cooking. She was good at it. So when I became a mother, I made sure to have a sit down meal with my daughters every night. Always 3 colors on the plate, protein, starch and vegetable. Now that my girls have left and have children of their own I am not as diligent with my healthy eating. But Lora and I do love to cook. We love trying new things. We love to serve guests in our little home. Large events are daunting for both of us, but oh how we love to enjoy good food with friends, family and neighbors at home and at the Café.
Lora grew up in a South Carolina low country Inn and Bed & Breakfast. She worked alongside her mom serving up favored dishes and creating special events ranging from weddings to candlelight suppers.
My mother’s kitchen in Neptune was undeniably aqua in the style of the day. Aqua refrigerator, with matching aqua oven, Formica corner table with built in benches clad in white vinyl with those huge brass colored upholstery tacks. I am 4 years old and watching her roll out pie dough on the counter. It is fall and our area always has an abundance of MacIntosh apples this time of year. After topping off the pie she cuts slits in the top and slips a smidge of butter into each hole. With the leftover dough she teaches me how to make small tarts with cinnamon, sugar & butter. This is a strong memory for me. My mother’s kitchen always contained the basics of any meal. Butter, flour, sugar, milk from the nearby dairy, eggs from the nearby chicken farm. It was 1961. Kennedy had not yet been killed. My brothers had not yet left for the war. My father had a job. Things would change soon enough, but for me, this memory is a big building block in the construction of me.
So let me leave you this beautiful January day with some quotes about food from some people I have come to admire.
“All you need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Charles Shultz
“What you see before you is the result of a lifetime of eating chocolate.” Katherine Hepburn
“After a good dinner, one can forgive anyone, even ones relations.” Oscar Wilde
“Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the desert cart.” Erma Bombeck
“The only time to eat diet food is while you are waiting for the steak to cook.” Julia Child
“We must have pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of pie.” David Mamet, Boston Marriage
How do you critique barbecue?
What do you look for in a good barbecue restaurant? I’ve heard people rave about a place because the portions were “huge” or because a famous person once enjoyed a meal there. Barbecue books are published in which the writer raves endlessly about the metal chair and folding table atmosphere. Some aficionados wax endlessly about how “real” barbecue is always enjoyed with sweet tea and others insist upon enjoying theirs with a cold beer.
Pork barbecue is a honored tradition in the south. According to the North Carolina Barbecue Society, our state is the “Cradle of Cue”. North Carolinians are passionate about their barbecue. But there are two different styles here. Easterners will cook the entire pig, chop it fine, and generously douse it with a vinegar-based sauce. Here in Western North Carolina, barbecue often means cooking meaty pork shoulders, chopping it a little coarser, then serve it with a darker, sweeter tomato-based sauce.
Lora and I kind of fell on the idea of adding barbecue to our menu. The Café has always been known for fresh garden fare, homemade soups and such. But the opportunity was there and we enjoyed playing with different methods, meats and ingredients.
Our “smoker” at the café is actually a wood fired grill with a traditional chimney and damper. After creating a fire in the early morning we bank the hickory coals and pull the damper about three quarters of the way down. This makes the fire hotter & creates smoke in the grill box above the fire pit. It’s a quiet morning ritual during which I have an opportunity to talk with my neighbors out for their morning walk or just simply sip coffee and read last month’s paper piled up in the corner awaiting its use in the next fire. We smoke 20 pork butts every other day. First they are rubbed with a mixture of 12 herbs and spices, then smoked over well seasoned hickory. Lora’s Texas influence has always included a little kick of heat in many of her recipes and this rub is no exception.
We keep the smoker temp at around 200 degrees for 10-12 hours until the meat falls off the bone. To me, the pork is delicious at this stage and would go great in a roasted corn tortilla with a good salsa fresca or just enjoyed by itself.
It’s usually very late in the day when we take the pork off the smoker, so we cool it down and the next day the meat is hand pulled and then slowly simmered in our vinegar and tomato ”que” sauce.
So we have a 2 day, labor intensive process. Our BBQ is always fresh, never frozen, which makes planning to keep enough on hand can be a little tricky.
I know that most Chefs do not dream of becoming a BBQ expert and Lora was no exception. However, we both enjoy pleasing people with a meal that is fresh and familiar, a dish that can be made better with a little hard work, patience and skill.
The Western North Carolina mountains and the Asheville area in general have become an amazing place for good food. The average Mountain traveler however is looking for comfort and an experience that is both delicious and authentic. I hope we bring that flavor to Little Switzerland. I think this barbecue meets those standards.