December 2016 – Merry Mountain Christmas

Christmas 2016 is 3 days away.  50 degrees outside and when this letter is done I’ll be outside working in the yard in shirtsleeves.  Yes, global climate change has reached us here in the Blue Ridge and it is not lost on us.  The Holidays, whether warm and sunny or cold and wintery,  can be a challenging time when family is not near.  This year I am struggling with my children being away and deeply engrossed in the lives and families they are building.  I will not see them or my Grandchildren.  Not sure it’s even OK for me to call.  And you know what?  If it’s actually better for me not to, then I respect that. 

So on the bright side, no money talks, no talks about which child was potty trained at what age and exactly how, no childhood stories that make me want to say;

“uhh, OK that never happened”.

No looking around the room to see every grown-up and every child with their face in a computer, cell phone or Ipad.  No dealing with every child’s food eccentricities.

“Ummm, Ok Mom, she won’t eat those potatoes. She only eats cold pizza.  And not Dominoes, it has to be Pizza Hut.”

Or

“Uhhh, well he’s allergic to celery.”  (WTH?)

Oh and I can be an ass too at Holiday time.  The Bourbon helps, but honestly, sometimes I just can’t shut up.  And by the way, shutting up?  No fun at all. 

But family is honestly the very best thing ever.  I’ve seen my dysfunctional family come together for an illness or an emergency.  I’ve been very happy to see the face of someone that already knows my idiosyncrasies, my history and my odd aversion to talks about religion, base human sounds and excrements, which highway you took to get here or how much you paid for the car your rode in, the gas mileage and how much you paid for that gas.

Let’s cook and eat, drink and talk, walk a wooded road and find woodland homes of our neighbor critters.  (I like to imagine a tiny Christmas Tree in the base of a oak where a Chipmunk family dwells.)

Let’s love one another just as we are, knowing that tomorrow is never promised.  Because it isn’t.  Let’s give and be Merry and Bright.  Let’s do this!

June 2016 – Nature

The conjoinment of water, Armstrong creek and the springs that adjoin it…these places are magical.  They are places of posterity, creativity and understanding.  Places where ancient peoples historically created shelter, both temporary and permanent.  No amount of commercial improvement, modern mechanization, or popular excitement can improve or change these places.

When I look at nature, I see God in her infinite power & wisdom.  Not a God that is above nature and controls it’s every movement, but instead a God that IS nature and one that has much to teach us.  We cannot understand what God has to tell us without being in nature.  Being more and more a more a part of it.  The further we travel from that wisdom, the more confused we become.  Fear will fight us, laziness will fight us, complacency and stupidity will fight us.  It’s too bad that we must fight to be whom we are, but we must. Wildness, quiet… these are necessities for some.

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.
cecilia at the switzerland cafe
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!

Good, Cheap, and Fast

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

house smoked bacon western north carolina

“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.