It is the height of the summer which means long days, heat, white wine, and fresh local produce. There are few things more delicious than a big juicy tomato from my garden. Tomatoes are full of flavor and easy to cook with. Chop it up in a salad or toss it with your pasta. But, we’re not here to talk about tomatoes. I want to talk about the vegetables that aren’t so easy to cook with.  Eggplant to be more specific. I have always seen eggplant as a beautiful, mysterious vegetable. I admire its shiny bold beauty but have never been able to master the art of cooking it. Do I peel it or leave the skin on? How long do I cook it for? Why do I have to salt it for an hour?! I will admit that once or twice I have spent hours planning and slaving over a dish only  to have a big bit of squeaky, rubbery eggplant. So disappointing. Over time I have simply stopped fooling around with this difficult vegetable and left it up to the experts. However, now that I am the new produce manager here at feast! and that it is peak eggplant season, I have been ordering heaps of  eggplant from farmers and the local food hub. As it comes in and I place it on the produce boat, I am once again struck by its splendor. All I want to do is make some Eggplant Parmesan! Has this ever happened to you? Don’t be embarrassed. Apparently, this is a common occurrence among Americans as opposed to other countries like France and Turkey who use the plant often in dishes. Luckily, Ayla Algar from has the answer.

The possibilities are endless! Ratatouille for dinner? I think so.

Eggplant from Holland’s Three Rivers Farm in Rockbridge County


Israeli Couscous Questions

Hello all.  It’s been a while.  Summer is upon us.  We are finally into the tomatoes, eggplant and squash that a dream about on those dreary winter nights.  Also new in the world of feast! is Israeli Couscous Salad.  We’ve begun making it in the café and selling it with our other café prepared items.  Occasionally we offer it as an additional side out of the café.  I have to say that I’m enamored with these little balls of pasta.

For those of you not familiar with it, Israeli couscous differs from traditional couscous in shape and content.  Unlike traditional couscous which is small granules made from semolina flour, Israeli couscous is shaped into small balls and made from hard wheat flour.  Which begs the question, why is it called couscous and what is the connection to Israel?  These are the kind of questions that keep me up at night.  Luckily, the internet knows all.  Here’s what I found.

Turns out, Israeli couscous was invented in Israel during the austerity period from 1949-1959.  There were many Jewish refugees that immigrated to Israel during this period, and they needed to be fed.  There was a shortage of rice at that time, a staple in their cuisine, so the Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion asked the founder of the Osem food company to create a substitute.  He came up with the product we in the states call Israeli couscous, but in Israel they call Ptitim or ‘Ben-Gurion’s Rice’.  It was in instant success, and remains part of the culture, although it is primarily considered food for children.

So, why do we call it couscous?  Apparently, Ptitim comes in a number of different shapes these days.  Osem, the food company, deemed the round shape that we are so familiar with couscous.  I guess it didn’t stick in Israel, but we in the states have adopted the name.

While we in the café have not invented an entirely new product, like the Osem food company, we have made a pretty delicious salad with their product.  We toss the Israeli couscous in a lemon-tahini dressing and add feta, chickpeas, red pepper and preserved lemons.  Yum!  Putting all modesty aside, I have to say it is one of the better Israeli Couscous salads I have tasted.  Come in and give it a try!

The versatile radish

Spring is in the air!  The days are getting longer, our yard is filled with daffodils, trees are dotted with fragrant cherry blossoms, and local veggies are starting to sprout through the soil.   Radishes, one of spring’s quintessential treats, are one of the first things to arrive on the scene this season.  Their vibrant pink skin and bright green leaves are a sight for sore winter eyes indeed.

d'avingnon radishes from Stone House Farm

d'avingnon radishes from Stone House Farm

We recently received some gorgeous d’avingnon radishes from Stone House Farm in Goshen, VA.  Even though these beauties sold out in just a few days (don’t worry, we are getting more next week!), I had several customers ask me for suggestions on how to prepare beyond adding crunch to a salad.  Here some ideas I’ve come up with:

-Spread radish halves with good quality butter and coarse sea salt – divine!

-Try roasting with carrots & asparagus for a tasty spring veggie side.

-How about braised with shallots and vinegar?

-Chop in to matchstick pieces and add to your favorite slaw recipe.

-Add thin slices to your sandwich.

-I love this recipe for picked radish from Gourmet.

-You can’t go wrong eating them straight up, dipped in feast! Greek Goddess dip!

-Grow your own!  They grow from seed to final veggie in as little as three weeks.  You can even plant them in a container (which I’m going to try this spring).

-Use as a place setting for your next dinner party.

I would love to hear your favorite way to eat a radish!

A simple and lovely idea for a place setting

A simple and lovely idea for a place setting

We’re Number Eight!

A little while back*, rated Charlottesville as one of its “Top 10 Beer Cities.” Now, the list is open to some criticism, for sure – our town is referred to as “Charlotte” towards the end of the article, and I have to agree with one commenter that the list should be called “Top ten unexpected beer cities.” How else do you explain the lack of any cities in California, Oregon, or Colorado? And Albuquerque as #1? I lived there for a bit, and it is a great town, but calling it the #1 beer city in the country seems a bit of a stretch.

Regardless, we’ll revel in the attention when we get it, and Charlottesville is a pretty great place for beer. Besides, this gives me the chance to combine two of my passions, and talk about pairing beer with cheese.

Cheese and wine pairings are everywhere, and no one would deny that they make a classic combination- a nice port with your Valdeon? Tempranillo with the Ossau Irraty? A little bubbly with the St. Angel? Divine.

Culture has some great
beer & cheese pairing ideas.
And mouth-watering photos.

But pairing cheese with beer can open up whole new avenues of taste, and this trend has been gathering more cred with the foodie crowd. There’s lots of good info out there: Artisanal has their pairing tips, and Culture has a really nice American Craft Beer & Cheese guideline.

Since we’re celebrating Charlottesville-area beers, though, I thought a few pairings based on local selections would be appropriate. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my own favorites.**

A creamy, moderate intensity washed-rind cheese like Taleggio*** is really complemented by the hoppy bitterness of an IPA style beer, like Blue Mountain’s Full Nelson. If you really want to up the ante, pair Starr Hill’s Double Platinum with Meadow Creek’s Grayson. Not for the faint-hearted.

Looking for something more approachable? Try one of the local wheat beers (Starr Hill’s The Love or Blue Mountain’s Rockfish Wheat) with one of the local chevres from Caromont or Goats-R-Us. The lightly spicy, fruity beer is wonderful with the bright acidity in the fresh goat’s milk cheeses.

Not ready for spring yet? Cozy up with either the Blue Mountain Evil 8 or Starr Hill Dark Starr Stout and Beemster’s X-O Gouda. The rich butterscotch notes and subtle saltiness in the cheese brings the beer’s dark malty and roasted flavors to the forefront. Just add a fire, and savor our last few days of winter.

I could go on all day. As with anything, though, the best way to find what you like is to experiment. Come in and talk to us about your favorite beer (or bring one to sample- I promise I won’t tell), and we can find the perfect cheese pairing for you. Prost!

*Ok, this list actually came out in January, I believe. Sorry I’ve been such a bad blogger.

**Note that these are local bottled beers only. Devil’s Backbone, South Street, and Wild Wolf are all great breweries, but they’re not as widely available, and they rotate more frequently. So, you’ll just have to take your cheese to them to find your own great pairings. I imagine that if you share your cheese, they’ll be happy to help you out. Be sure to tell us what you discover!

***The Quadrello di Bufala is another great choice- basically a Taleggio made with water buffalo’s milk, it is richer and more flavorful than the traditional cow. Availability is limited, so grab it when you see it!

Mindful Sampling

I am married to a wolf. Specifically, he is a wolfer of foodstuffs. He doesn’t so much take bites of dinner as chomps it whole. We all know someone with those scarfing, lupine ways, a thoughtfully prepared meal is set in front of them, then gone before you’ve donned your napkin to tuck in. Soon after, while others at table are still patiently masticating, Wolfman is howling and starts to slink off towards the den.

I pondered this after reading a recent NYT article on Mindful Eating. An inspired piece on contemplating and recognizing the flavors of food, the healthful benefits of chewing slowly, and how the proper atmosphere and mindset enhances every bite you eat.

Reading it informed my recent foray into mindful sampling. Feast is full of samples and as someone who refills them regularly, I admit I have “tasted” the Praline Mustard Glaze, dried fruit, nut, and cream cheese sample with perhaps more gusto than Slow Food Charlottesville would endorse. So I challenge myself to slow down. Take a zen moment and slowly taste the offering before grazing more, err, getting back to work. Resist your inner canine, I say. Be the contemplative squirrel. For me, I tried the guided meditation approach, dwelling on: the texture of the sample on the tongue; Read the sign in front of me. What am I tasting at this moment? Did one of the cheesemongers create this pairing? Where did the individual elements come from? Which of the salty, sweet, sour, bitter or savory umami notions in the taste buds is this satisfying? Look around, are others experiencing the samples the same way? mmmmmm…. This is fantastic. How can I get more of this? Where’s a basket so I can take every bit of this home with me? Have they called my name for lunch yet? Where’s my ticket…

Ok. I digress. We all do when circling the center table. But the good intentions and advice are intact. We’ve all heard comments on how “dangerous” it can be to come in when you’re ravenous. I don’t think of the danger, just the delicious pleasure of intensely experiencing the sample, the lunch, and all things feast. That and bringing it all home in a cute, brown handled bag.

Spice it up!

I don’t like to toot my own horn.  Luckily, I did not come up with the Spicy Mayo that we use and sell at feast!, so I can go ahead and say without reservation that it is awesome.  Hernan Franco, one of the cooks at feast! and the head chef at Beer Run (the man works A LOT) created the recipe before my arrival at feast!.  Someone recently asked me what I would miss the most if I could never get anything from feast! again, and Spicy Mayo was on my short list.

First and foremost, it is delicious on all sandwiches.  Here, we use it in the Roast Beef Melt that we sell in the café, and it is not a coincidence that this is one of my favorite sandwiches.  Among the staff, it is not uncommon for us to replace the mayo/mustard that we use on our other sandwiches with spicy mayo.

The uses of spicy mayo are not limited to sandwiches, however.  We’ve made coleslaw and potato salad using spicy mayo, and both were fantastic.  Over Christmas one of our regulars bought some to put on top of crab cakes, which I thought was rather inspired.  I will also confess that I have been known to dip the ends of baguettes into the spicy mayo and eat them straight up.  Is it gross to eat huge scoops of mayo off of a small piece of bread?  Perhaps.  But, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Next time you order a sandwich from the café, consider requesting spicy mayo instead of our regular mayo/mustard.  It’s delicious on the Tuna Melt, the Chicken Melt and the Chicken Cheddar Fig (sweet and spicy goodness!).   And don’t forget to bring it home and scoop it up on small pieces of bread away from prying eyes.  I won’t tell anyone.