Not Afraid of Flavor!

Recipes from Magnolia Grill 
by Ben and Karen Barker 
The University of North Carolina Press 
$29.95/hardcover 
51 color & 41 black-and-white illustrations

Supplied to Good Cooking by Lisa Ekus Public Relations Co.


"In an area where new restaurants pop up like hush puppies in deep fat and collapse faster than a cooling soufflé Ben and Karen Barker's Magnolia Grill still packs them in. Indeed people will drive a hundred miles just to eat there What has made Magnolia Grill an ongoing success is that the Barkers have stuck to the original goal consistently imaginative, consistently good food." Jean Anderson, Bon Appetit 

Combine two award-winning chefs (including one who is a James Beard Award-winning Best Chef in the Southeast for 2000) and a menu that changes daily and the result is a dynamic cuisine that embodies the motto: Not Afraid of Flavor. In their first cookbook NOT AFRAID OF FLAVOR: Recipes from Magnolia Grill (University of North Carolina Press; November 2000; $29.95/hardcover; ISBN: 0-8078-2585-9), Ben and Karen Barker share an immense collection of dishes from their Durham, North Carolina restaurant, Magnolia Grill. Adding their own style to traditional (and not-so-traditional) ingredients, the Barker's detailed creativity and Southern sophistication have been labeled "fearless," and Jasper White has hailed their passionate cuisine, "at once unique and familiar a rare achievement." 

From richly textured salads and breads to frosty cocktails and zesty relishes, six sections contain more than 125 of the actual restaurant favorites. Signature dishes such as Cool as a Cucumber Soup with Buttermilk, Dill, & Vermouth Shrimp, Carolina Grits Soufflé and Slow-Cooked Southern Greens burst with contemporary flavor while remaining firmly rooted in their down-home Southern style. Crisp 

Peppered Quail with Country Ham & Spicy Crawfish Hominy is an impressive first course for any occasion, and entrees such as the succulent Herb-Crusted Rack of Pork on Brunswick "Stew" and Striped Bass with Oyster Stew will delight even the most discriminating palate. NOT AFRAID OF FLAVOR also indulges in delectable desserts such as warm, fresh Blueberry-Peach (or Nectarine) Pie, Chocolate Peanut Praline Tart, Maple View Dairy Buttermilk Cheesecake, and an impeccable Banana Pecan Crostata. In addition, the Barkers have included a section entitled "Tar Heel Tapas, Dixie Delights and a Few Cocktails," which contains such surprising creations as Deviled Eggs with Caviar and Barbequed Smoked Salmon with Piccalilli & Buttermilk Herb Crackers and reveals the secret to the perfect Blackberry Vodka Tonic. An invaluable chapter dedicated to "Pantry Basics" offers advice for preparing such staples as roasted chicken stock, basil oil, and creole spice blend; ingredients that can transform an ordinary meal into one that is unforgettable. 

The unique blending of flavors at Magnolia Grill is an outgrowth of the diverse backgrounds of the Barkers, who have forged their knowledge and passions to create flavors which are simultaneously familiar and boldly new. Ben, a native of North Carolina, was raised on traditional southern food. Karen, the 1999 winner of Bon Appetit's American Food and Entertaining Award for Best Pastry Chef, brought her New York savvy to the southern table. Together, they have formed the distinctive menu that sets Magnolia Grill apart. NOT AFRAID OF FLAVOR showcases the talents of these two chefs with flavorful, original dishes that are fresh and fearless from start to finish. 

Questions and Answers with the authors, Ben & Karen Barker: 

On the 14th anniversary of the opening of their award-winning restaurant, Magnolia Grill, the husband & wife team of Ben and Karen Barker discuss their passion for cooking. 

Fearless Cooking from the South
A Conversation with Ben and Karen Barker

Q.: In the preface to your new cookbook, you ask yourselves, "What possesses two people to open a restaurant?" 
A.: As young people embarking on a career and professional track, there was a romantic element to opening a restaurant, being our own bosses, and the possibility of realizing an American dream of controlling our own destiny and expressing our creative talents. We also saw the restaurant as a chance to continue working together and to ultimately reap the rewards that we hoped hard work would generate. 

Q.: How do you stay "fresh" after 20 years of professional cooking and running a restaurant whose menu changes daily?
A.: Some days are "fresher" than others but we continue to be inspired by ingredients, by our staff, by reading about food and cooking, and by traveling. We feel an obligation to ourselves, our staff, and our customers to update dishes that we've done before and to innovate when the juxtaposition of ingredients inspires us. 

Q.: The title of your book is NOT AFRAID OF FLAVOR, and your cuisine has been referred to as "fearless." What are the implications of such an assertion? 
A.: Simply put, it means bold flavors that are powerful but not overwhelming they are in balance with each other while remaining true to the component ingredients. 

Q.: It is not particularly common to see a husband and wife in the same business, but you have been cooking together for more than 20 years. What can you tell us about the ups and downs of being side-by-side in the kitchen for two decades? 
A.: We make a great team because we are willing to listen to each other's opinions on all subjects: operations, people, management or the creation of a new dish for the menu. We respect each other's individual talents and believe our separate arenas of responsibility (Ben is the head chef and Karen is the dessert chef) complement the work we each do. And we get to spend a significant part of our days together, albeit working. On the negative side, as business owners and restaurateurs, our personal lives are often compromised by our work schedules long hours and immense commitment to the business often infringe on normal family relationships. As with most two-career families, there never seem to be enough hours in the day, and it seems like we are constantly juggling priorities. 

Q.: You say that you have adopted the mantra, "ingredient-driven cuisine." What is that, and who inspired you in this manner of preparation and cooking? 
A.: "Ingredient-driven cuisine," "seasonal cuisine," and "cuisine of the market" are all phrases that reflect our desire to present the best food at its freshest time. In North Carolina, corn and tomatoes peak in July, so our menus reflect the bounty of the time; when the shad run in mid- to late-March, shad roe appears on our menu; when our first local watercress appears in late January, it demands that we incorporate it into the menu. This is ultimately farm cooking; you grow what you eat, and you eat it when it's ready to harvest. Our inspiration comes from the farm cooks and chefs who've always adhered to what the season dictates. 

Q.: When people think of Southern cuisine, "homestyle cooking" and "comfort food" come to mind. How would you compare your menu with more traditional cooking of the South? 
A.: Unquestionably, much of our food expresses what we call "Southern sensibility," that is, each dish displays the components of the Southern table: Vegetables are often the foundation, and we generally focus on a protein. Often, we use an underlying element such as cured pork and balance that flavor with a vinaigrette, pickle, or relish to create a unique sweet and sour the result is a traditional Southern dish that's been given an unexpected twist. Karen's desserts capture the soul of Southern cooking to an even greater degree; they're modern and contemporary but still homey and satisfying. Banana Pecan Crostata with Jack Daniels Vanilla Ice Cream and Maple View Dairy Buttermilk Cheesecake served with Blueberry Compote are delicious examples. 

Q.: What are some of the "tried and true" signature dishes of Magnolia Grill found in your cookbook? Can you tell us about some of your experimental dishes? Dishes that have reappeared repeatedly at the restaurant and therefore have so-called "signature" 
A.: status include: Spicy Green Tomato Soup with Crab and Country Ham, Moroccan Roasted Eggplant Bisque with Grilled Chicken and Minted Yogurt, Crisp Peppered Quail with Country Ham and Spicy Crawfish Hominy, Grilled Asparagus Salad with Wild and Exotic Mushrooms, Country Bacon and Truffled Eggs, Black Bass Sashimi with Warm Thai "Shrimp" Vinaigrette, Grilled Beef Tenderloin in Cabernet Sauce with Roquefort and Summer Vegetable Chopped Salad, The Chef's Favorite Lemon Tart, Deep Dish Apple Cinnamon Crisp with Brandied Vanilla Ice Cream, Brown Sugar Pear Poundcake. Something like the Okra Rellenos started out as an experimental idea that we eventually translated into an actual recipe. Maple View Dairy Buttermilk Cheesecake was generated by an experiment to develop a New York style cheesecake with a Southern flavor profile. The dishes that could still be characterized as "experimental" are not included in the book. 

Q.: Being individuals, you must also have your respective preferences. Is one of you more apt to cook one particular dish than another? Ben: How do you critique Karen's pastries? Karen: Which of Ben's soups is your favorite?
A.: At the restaurant, our menu responsibilities are totally separate, but in actuality, our flavor preferences are very broad and very similar. We will both eat just about anything and yet when we are ordering from a restaurant's menu, we will often initially choose the same items. At home, Karen is the pasta queen and tends to cook in a simple, rustic manner while Ben often experiments for the menu and is more likely to do a total composed plate. In terms of critique we each feel free to offer the other constructive criticism. It's always useful to have another opinion of seasoning, plating, or basic approach. Karen doesn't have a single favorite soup depending on the season and her mood she can be equally partial to the Tomato Soup from the Alentejo, the Cool as a Cucumber Soup with Buttermilk, Dill and Vermouth Shrimp or the Celery Fennel Chowder with Oysters and Bacon. 

Q.: With 20 years of testing and tasting, which recipe is a personal favorite? Is there one dish that could epitomize for you the essence of Magnolia Grill? 
A.: Personal favorites include Tomato Soup from the Alentejo, Black Bass Sashimi with Warm Thai "Shrimp" Vinaigrette, Rabbit Confit with Marinated Baby Artichokes, Newly Dug Potatoes and Spring Vegetables, Our Thanksgiving Turkey with "140" Cloves of Garlic, Duck Confit with Barbecued Lentils, Schoolkid's Flounder with Fish Camp Beurre Blanc, The Chef's Favorite Lemon Tart and any of the ice creams preferably with cookies! 

Q.: Characterize the restaurant in one dish? We really don't think there is a single defining dish we'd like to think that the whole collection reflects our direct, flavorful style of cooking. Now that you have decided to share your recipes from Magnolia Grill in this cookbook, will the reader need your expertise? How have you altered your dishes to align with the schedule and ability of the home cook? Are your recipes for beginners and professionals alike? 
A.: Many of the recipes will require a certain level of comfort in the kitchen, but only a very few require a chef's level of expertise to execute. Most of the recipes indicate which components may be made one or more days in advance, and quite a few of the dishes are benefited by advance preparation. Additionally, the home cook can prepare component elements from many of the dishes that would make a quick supper or simple meal on their own. We advise readers to use the book as a tool for their lifestyles. 

Q.: It would seem that the South, with its extended growing season, presents a tremendous variety of seasonal menu opportunities. How have you capitalized on this? Do you include substitutions for those of us in other parts of the country who do not share in this bounty? 
A.: Certainly our recipes reflect a lengthy growing season, but they also represent all four seasons so that readers in many regions can utilize the book. Suggestions have been made where appropriate for optimal alternatives; again the reader is directed to use the recipes as a starting point and adjust them to suit their own taste and individual marketplace. 

Q.: What does the future hold for you and Magnolia Grill? Would you ever consider opening a second restaurant? 
A.: We continue to run the restaurant on a daily basis and often contemplate a second restaurant; perhaps one that is more down-home in style with precise execution of traditional Southern cooking; and sometimes we envision owning a great burger joint and ice cream shop. Most days we're still gratified by the rewards of running this restaurant: the young people we work with and the guests we feed. 

From a conversation with Ben and Karen Barker, authors of NOT AFRAID OF FLAVOR: Recipes from Magnolia Grill (University of North Carolina Press; November 2000; $29.95/hardcover) 

Enjoy the following recipes from the book.

Spicy Green Tomato Soup with Crab & Country Ham 
Romaine Salad with Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit & Roquefort in Pomegranate-Port Vinaigrette 
Striped Bass with Oyster Stew 
Carolina Grits Soufflé 
The Chef's Favorite Lemon Tart
 
Spicy Green Tomato Soup with Crab & Country Ham 

Serves 8

This has become an early fall signature dish at the restaurant, and it is one of our more requested recipes. We suppose everyone needs another use for all those end-of-season green tomatoes besides frying them.
This soup is equally successful chilled or hot, and you can modify the garnish depending on your preference.

Ingredients

5 ounces country ham, julienned
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced thin
6 cloves garlic, sliced
2 jalapenos, stemmed and sliced, with seeds
4 green Anaheims, stemmed, seeded, and sliced
2 green pasilla chiles, stemmed, seeded, and sliced
2 bay leaves
3 1/2 pounds firm green tomatoes, cored and cut into eighths
1 1/2 quarts shrimp stock or homemade chicken stock
1 handful fresh basil leaves (about 1 cup)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons Tabasco (or to taste)
salt to taste

Ingredients for the garnish

country ham (see above)
1 pound crabmeat, picked over for shells, or 1 pound peeled, cooked shrimp, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 cup sour cream, thinned with 2 tablespoons milk
1 cup fresh tomato concasse, combined with 1/4 cup capers, chopped
1/2 cup scallions, sliced

Preparation

1. Cook the ham in the vegetable oil until crisp and golden; drain, reserve the ham, and return the oil to the pot.
2. Cook the onions in the oil over moderate heat until soft but not colored. Add the garlic, jalapenos, Anaheims,
pasilla chiles, and bay leaves and cook 5 minutes.
3. Add the tomatoes and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook 15 minutes, until the tomatoes
soften.
4. Remove the bay leaves, add the basil, and puree in a blender, working in batches.
5. Season with lemon juice, Tabasco, and salt. Cool and reserve.
6. Gently reheat the soup over medium heat and adjust the seasoning. Place crab or shrimp in warm bowls. Ladle
the soup into the bowls, and garnish with sour cream, tomato concasse and caper mixture, country ham, and
sliced scallions.

Romaine Salad with Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit & Roquefort in Pomegranate-Port Vinaigrette

Serves 8

This somewhat incongruous combination of ingredients yields one of our favorite salads: visually, the deep pink grapefruit, blue-veined cheese, and "jewels" of pomegranate seeds on crisp lettuces are dramatic. The flavors integrate sweet, salty, and tangy, and come with a textural crunch. Serve this salad in December and January, when you desire a light but complex salad to precede a roast or braised dish.

Ingredients

8 cups romaine hearts, cleaned and torn
pomegranate-port vinaigrette (see recipe below)
salt and black pepper to taste
2 1/2 cups ruby red grapefruit segments (about 2 grapefruit)
3/4 cup Roquefort, crumbled
3/4 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and skins rubbed off
seeds from one ripe pomegranate (see note)

Preparation

Dress the romaine with the pomegranate-port vinaigrette and season with salt and pepper. Divide between 8 chilled plates. Divide the grapefruit segments between the salads. Sprinkle crumbled Roquefort, then walnuts, and finally pomegranate seeds on top of the salads. Serve immediately.

Note: Fresh pomegranates usually are available from November until January. Look for deep red fruit with firm skins and heavy weight for their size. Cut the fruit in half, pick the seeds from the membrane, and keep refrigerated until ready to use.

Ingredients for the pomegranate-port vinaigrette

1/3 cup ruby port
1/3 cup orange juice
1 cup pomegranate juice (or cranberry juice)
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon shallots, minced
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup safflower or peanut oil
2 tablespoons walnut oil
salt and black pepper to taste

Preparation

1. Combine the port, juices, and garlic in a nonreactive saucepot. Bring to a boil and simmer until reduced to 1/3 cup. Put the shallots in a stainless bowl, strain the reduction over them, and cool.

2. Add the egg yolk, reduction, and red wine vinegar to a bowl and whisk to combine. Combine the safflower and walnut oils and drizzle into the yolk mixture, whisking to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper and reserve. Refrigerate if not using immediately.

Striped Bass with Oyster Stew

Serves 6

At one time, striped bass flourished in the Pamlico Sound on North Carolina's coast. Overfishing and pollution seriously diminished the bass population, however, resulting in severe restrictions on their commercial harvest. Through better fisheries management, there has been a resurgence in the bass population on the East Coast, and we are now regularly able to offer this delicious fish at the restaurant.
This preparation accentuates the terrific crispness that can be achieved by searing the skin side first. In the fall, the fish are particularly fatty from a summer of feeding, and this method protects the flesh from overcooking and drying out.
Serve the bass with the first oysters of autumn and accompany with tomato gumbo and Beanie's cornbread.

Ingredients for the bass

6 wild striped bass or rockfish filets (6 ounces each), skin on and scaled
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
peanut oil for sauteing

Ingredients for the stew

1 pint shucked oysters
2 ounces country ham, sliced thin and cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1/2 cup onion, cut into small dice
1/4 cup red bell pepper, seeded and cut into small dice
1/4 cup celery, cut into small dice
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup bourbon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups roasted chicken stock
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped sage
salt, black pepper, and lemon juice to taste
1/2 cup scallions, sliced crosswise (use both white and green parts)

Preparation for the stew

1. Strain the oysters and reserve the oyster liquor; refrigerate the oysters until ready to use for final assembly. In a medium saucepan, cook the ham in the peanut oil until lightly caramelized. Add the onion, red bell pepper, and celery and cook until caramelized. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf; cook 1 minute.

2. Add the bourbon, lemon juice, wine, and reserved oyster liquor. Cook until greatly reduced and nearly syrupy, stirring frequently. Add the roasted chicken stock and simmer over medium heat, skimming as necessary, until reduced by half. Cool and reserve until preparing the bass.

Assembly

1. Remove the bass from refrigeration and dry thoroughly with paper towels. With a sharp knife, score an X in the
skin side to prevent it from curling when the fish is cooking. Season the flesh side with salt and pepper; rub the
skin side with some of the softened butter.
2. If serving with tomato gumbo, heat the gumbo and stir in the cooked rice as indicated in the last step of the
recipe. Keep warm. Return the stew to low heat and add the heavy cream; bring to a slow simmer.
3. Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add a film of peanut oil, then carefully lay the
filets in the pan, skin side down. Reduce the heat to medium and press firmly on the filets with the back of a
metal spatula to flatten slightly and aid in the searing; cook 3 to 5 minutes, depending on the thickness of the
filets. When the edges of the filets begin to show doneness, turn carefully and cook 1 minute longer. Remove the
filets and keep warm.
4. Raise the heat on the stew to medium-high, stir in the oysters and butter, and cook just until the oysters are
plumped and beginning to curl. Remove from the heat, stir in the sage, and season with salt, black pepper, and
lemon juice to taste.
5. Warm 6 wide, shallow bowls. If serving with tomato gumbo, spoon 3/4 cup of gumbo in the center of each bowl.
Place a filet in each bowl, on top of the gumbo, if used. Spoon the stew around the filets, dividing the oysters
equally between the bowls. Sprinkle liberally with scallions and serve immediately.

Carolina Grits Souffle

Serves 8

This wonderful side dish is inspired by a recipe from Ben's mama, fancied up a bit. It's cheeze-a-licious!

Ingredients

2 cups homemade chicken stock + 1 cup water (or use 3 cups water instead)
1 cup half-and-half
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup white grits (preferably stone-ground, definitely not instant)
5 eggs, separated
1 1/2 cups white or yellow sharp cheddar, grated
1/4 cup roasted garlic puree or 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
salt, coarsely ground black pepper, and Tabasco to taste
1/2 cup scallions, sliced thin crosswise

Preparation

1. Butter a 2-quart casserole or souffle dish.
2. In a 3-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the stock, water, half-and-half, and salt to a boil. Stir in the grits, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, until thick, smooth, and creamy (the consistency of polenta).
3. Beat the egg yolks, temper with a spoonful of hot grits, and then stir into the grits. Stir in the cheese, garlic puree, and butter, and season with salt, pepper, and Tabasco to taste. Cool at room temperature.
4. An hour before serving, preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a stainless steel bowl, beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Gently fold the egg whites and scallions into the grits mixture and spoon into the buttered souffle dish. Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the grits are set. (If the surface appears to be browning too much, cover with foil until set.) Serve immediately.

The Chef's Favorite Lemon Tart

Makes 1 10 1/2 inch tart; serves 8 to 12 

The chef's favorite lemon tart is a somewhat sophisticated take on Southern-style lemon chess pie. This simple tart really is one of Ben's favorite desserts and has been a standard in Karen's repertoire for close to 20 years.

We most often serve this with a mixture of seasonal berries and lightly whipped cream. You can substitute a simple raspberry sauce made from frozen raspberries if it is not fresh berry season.

Ingredients for the tart shell

11/4 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon milk
1 egg white, lightly beaten, reserved for baking

Ingredients for the filling

4 eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup lemon juice
zest of 1 lemon, grated
zest of 1 orange, grated
1/4 cup heavy cream

Ingredients for serving

fresh berries (or berry sauce)
whipped cream

Preparation for the tart shell

1. In a food processor, pulse together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the egg yolk mixture and pulse just until the dough can be gathered into a ball. Flatten into a 6-inch disc, wrap in plastic, and chill several hours or overnight. Let the dough soften slightly at room temperature before rolling.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 13-inch round. Fit the dough into a 10 1/2 inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Trim the dough flush with the rim and freeze the tart shell until firm.
3. Line the shell with foil or parchment, and fill with pie weights, rice, or dried beans. Bake for 20 minutes until set. Remove the foil and weights and bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes until lightly golden. Remove the shell from the oven and immediately brush the hot pastry with the egg white.

Hint: When rolling tart pastry, always save all the dough scraps in case you need them to repair a crack in a partially baked shell. If the pastry "bubbles up" during the baking process, gently prick the pastry with a fork to release air bubbles. Check several times and repeat if necessary. The egg white serves to seal the pastry, which is especially helpful with a liquid filling such as this. It is essential that there be no cracks or holes visible in the partially baked shell. Make any necessary repairs prior to filling.

Preparation for the tart

1. When the pastry is almost done baking, assemble the filling. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, orange juice, lemon juice, lemon zest, and orange zest and cream till smooth. Transfer the tart shell to the oven. Place the filling in a pitcher and slowly pour into the shell as high as possible without overfilling. There might be a bit of filling left over.
2. Bake the tart for approximately 25 minutes, until the filling is barely set. Check the tart after 20 minutes and keep checking it every few minutes after that. It is crucial to not overbake this filling!
3. Cool to room temperature before serving with berries and whipped cream.