Oyster ice cream: A surprising scoop of American food history

“People actually ate this...It was once a big deal in Read more

Chocolate, ice cream and N.C. root beer!

In my favorite round, Battle Uncle Scott's Root Beer, Merrell, who runs the tapas restaurant and "cocktaileria" Circa 81 restaurant in Morehead City, prepared one heck of a riff on a Black Cow, that famous chocolate, ice cream and Read more

Cooking lessons learned at 2014 Fire on the Dock

As the contest moves into its final battle tonight, I'm thinking back to the ideas I got during the 2014 tournament, part of the statewide Competition Dining Series that ultimately crowns an overall North Carolina winner from four regional Read more

Southern Collards should be the new kale

Will collards be the new kale, darling of diners seeking farm-to-table fare? If the 2014 Fire on the Dock chef competition is any indication, maybe. Read more

Food touring in Carrboro with Taste Carolina

As I often say, "I'm eat up with it," and Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours fed my obsession quite well this past weekend. Read more


Chocolate, ice cream and N.C. root beer!

Chef Clarke Merrell may not have won the 2014 Fire on the Dock, but one of his dishes has been the competition’s highest scorer to date.

In my favorite round, Battle Uncle Scott’s Root Beer, Merrell, who runs the tapas restaurant and “cocktaileria” Circa 81 restaurant in Morehead City, prepared one heck of a riff on a Black Cow, that famous chocolate, ice cream and root beer float.

A traditional Black Cow involves a squirt of chocolate syrup in the bottom of a float glass. That gets topped with a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream. Pour root beer into the glass and prepare to sing the combination’s praises. So good.

For his plated dessert version, Merrell prepared root beer vanilla ice cream. He placed a scoop next to a crumble of coffee/root beer dark chocolate cake. Salted caramel, cashew candied bacon and root beer drizzle garnished the dessert. The treat evoked an old-fashioned soda fountain while providing an upscale feel. And the candied bacon? What fun!

Chef Clarke Merrell's put the Black Cow root beer float on a plate, earning high marks at Fire on the Dock (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

Chef Clarke Merrell’s put the Black Cow root beer float on a plate, earning high marks at Fire on the Dock (Photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

The sweet earned Merrell 32.21 points. We’ll see if anyone beats that in tonight’s final 2014 Fire on the Dock battle, where Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray meets 1900 Restaurant & Lounge chef Kirsten Mitchell.  The winner will move on to the statewide final later this year.

Merrell has competed in Fire on the Dock since the first competition in 2012. He and his loyal fans travel all the way from Morehead City for Fire on the Dock, staged at Wrightsville Beach. Cape Fear region fans who discovered Merrell at Fire on the Dock now travel to Morehead City, where Merrell not only operates Circa 81 but also Beaufort Olive Oil Company in Beaufort, N.C.

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Cooking lessons learned at 2014 Fire on the Dock

Everyone loves to eat at the Fire on the Dock cooking competition. After all, that’s what diners are there to do, but one of the my favorite things about the contest is discovering ingredients and learning from chefs.

As the contest moves into its final battle tonight, I’m thinking back to the ideas I got during the 2014 tournament, part of the statewide Competition Dining Series that ultimately crowns an overall North Carolina winner from four regional contests.

Each cook-off features a secret, local ingredient that chefs must use. My favorite so far this year was Uncle Scott’s Root Beer. Hops Supply Co. chef Tiffany Eslien used it for a luscious demi-glace she successfully paired with seared scallops and sweet potato hash. Do yourself a favor this Thanksgiving: Find a way to use root beer with sweet potatoes, whether its pie, candied yams or something else. The flavors meld so well.

chaIn that same root beer battle, chef Clarke Merrell of Circa 81 in Morehead City featured creamed collards with truffle oil. I’ve seen truffle oil on collards in previous years’ Competition Dining Series matches, but in this creamed dish, the humble greens truly reached sophistication.

Collards always appear at Fire on the Dock, this year also brought collard soup and deep-fried chiffonade of collard leaves used to garnish fried trout.

Texas Pete is another favorite ingredient that pops up at Fire on the Dock. This year, the company provided a new twist with its tangy, spicy, sweet Cha! sriracha sauce. I see Cha! Buffalo wings in my future as well as Cha!-seasoned brownies.

I sampled elk for the first time at Fire on the Dock. The super lean meat needs little cooking time to avoid tasting dry, which suits my rare preferences. Try it at home, but don’t cook it beyond medium rare.

I know I’ll learn more when Fire on the Dock ends tonight. 1900 Restaurant & Lounge chef Kirsten Mitchell meets Cape Fear Country Club chef Antoine Murray.

Competition Dining Series battles move on to Asheville in March and other parts of the state in coming months. Tickets are on sale for tonight’s final Fire on the Dock and future regional battles.

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, Cooking classes, Fire on the Dock, Midtown Wilmington, Recipes, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Food touring in Carrboro with Taste Carolina

When I’m not eating out, writing about restaurants and leading food tours in Wilmington, I’m dreaming about eating out, writing about restaurDashboardants and taking food tours in other cities. As I often say, “I’m eat up with it,” and Taste Carolina Gourmet Food Tours fed my obsession quite well this past weekend.

The company is based in North Carolina’s Triangle area, and it offers tours in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough as well as Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

I chose the Carrboro brunch tour, which visited the community’s farmers market and some interesting restaurants. I found a lot of delish stuff along they way, as you’ll see here. A list of links is below.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here are links to the places I mention in the slide show:

Neal’s Deli

Carrboro Farmers Market

Chapel Hill Creamery

The Pig

Chickenbridge Bakery

Sweetwater Pecan Farm

Al’s Burger Shack

Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe

Open Eye Cafe

Posted on by lizbiro in Bakery, Brunch, Farmers markets, Local food, Restaurants Leave a comment

Just a few of Liz’s favorite 2013 food pictures!

Posted on by lizbiro in Chefs, downtown Wilmington, Local food, Restaurants, Uncategorized Leave a comment

Make cream puffs like a professional pastry chef

Who you calling a cream puff?

Delicate, airy and light as they are, those little round pastries that encapsulate cream are in no way weaklings. They’re among the most capable and dependable — and easy — elements of great cocktail and dinner parties, whether served as a savory or as a dessert.

Pate a choux filled with pastry cream for a classic cream puff.

Pate a choux filled with pastry cream for a classic cream puff.

I was reminded of this recently while helping out in the Hot Pink Cake Stand kitchen. Owner and chief pastry chef Jody Carmichael was preparing gougeres, pronounced “goo-ZHAIR” for a recent wine tasting at the downtown Wilmington bakery. The nibbles require the same dough used for cream puffs. It’s called “pate a choux,” pronounced “pat-a-shoo.” For gougeres, finely shredded Gruyere cheese is blended into the dough and sprinkled on top before baking.

Years ago, I read a book that described how a kitchen intern working in France was required to stir the pate a choux. In his memory, the task was difficult. No doubt, he faced a huge bowl. Home cooks needn’t panic at his experience. Stirring small batches takes little time and strength while still producing professional pastry chef results.

The process is simple.

Put butter and water, sometimes milk, into a saucepan. Heat until the butter melts. Stir in a near equal portion of all-purpose flour. Take the mixture off the heat and then add eggs one at a time, stirring well after each addition. The resulting dough is soft and silky. Drop or pipe spoonfuls onto a sheet pan and bake or freeze to bake off later.

Pate a choux recipes may call for small amounts of sugar. Mostly, the flavor is mild, allowing cooks to imagine all sorts of fillings, perhaps seafood salad, chocolate mousse or ice cream.

A 1970s-era Betty Crocker recipe box just like the one from my childhood. (Photo from http://wholeykale.blogspot.com/)

A 1970s-era Betty Crocker recipe box just like the one from my childhood. (Photo from http://wholeykale.blogspot.com/)

I feel in love with pate a choux as a child pulling recipes from a Betty Crocker recipe card box. One of my favorite recipes (because my mother liked it so much) was named Danish Pastry Puffs. Almond-flavored pate a choux gets spread atop a shortbread-like cookie crust and baked. Thin almond icing glazes the pastry and sprinkle of sliced almonds goes on top.

The pate a choux for this recipe became my go-to formula for cream puffs, which my mother loved filled with simple, sweet whipped cream and then completely covered with chocolate cream.


Danish Pastry Puffs


1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cold butter

2 tablespoons ice water


1/2 cup butter

1 cup water

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 eggs


1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

2 tablespoons butter, softened

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1 to 2 tablespoons warm water or milk

1/2 cup sliced almonds

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place 1 cup flour in medium bowl. Cut in 1/2 cup butter, using pastry blender (or pulling 2 table knives through ingredients in opposite directions), until particles are size of coarse crumbs. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons water over mixture; toss with fork.

Gather pastry into a ball; divide in half. Pat each half into 12-by-3-inch rectangle, about 3 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
In 2-quart saucepan, heat 1/2 cup butter and 1 cup water to rolling boil; remove from heat. Quickly stir in almond extract and 1 cup flour. Stir vigorously over low heat about 1 minute or until mixture forms a ball; remove from heat. Add eggs; beat until smooth.

Spread half of the topping over each rectangle.

Bake about 1 hour or until topping is crisp and brown; remove from pan to cooling rack. Cool completely.

In medium bowl, mix all glaze ingredients except nuts until smooth and spreadable. Spread over top of pastry; sprinkle with nuts.

Makes 10 servings.

Source: Adapted from a recipe by Betty Crocker.

Posted on by lizbiro in Bakery, Brunch, Chefs, downtown Wilmington, Ice cream, Recipes, Uncategorized Leave a comment

Cooking Classes: Vegetarian chili, holiday treats & more

I’ve got 2 hot cooking classes among a great fall lineup of classes at The Seasoned Gourmet.

I’m giving up my vegetarian chili recipe Sept. 26, and on Oct. 2 I share my recipe and ideas for my cranberry chutney, which was the most-requested recipe from the years that I operated the full-service Liz Biro Catering company.

Forget those vegetarian chili recipes that call for eggplant, mushrooms and all manner of vegetables to produce stews that are nowhere near chili. This version is one that has received many thumbs-ups from meat eaters. Rich and dark, full of texture, it’s great on its own or combined with other ingredients to create different meals. During the class, I’ll show you how to make  Chili Nachos with Salted Margarita Crema and Smoked Chili Mac & Cheese. For dessert, we’ll sample dark Chocolate Chip Dulce de Leche Corn Cake with Habanero-Sugar-Glazed Pineapple. No chili in that last one, of course, but leave the chocolate chips out of the cornbread and it pairs well with the chili.

Cranberry chutney is such a simple holiday favorite, but doll it up with special ingredients and incorporate it into yummy dishes and the chutney becomes extra special. The surprising twists on this cranberry chutney recipe put seasonal cooking on the creative fast track. I’ll demonstrate three recipes:  Cranberry Nut & Cinnamon Honey Cream Cheese Torta; Cocoa-rubbed Pork Tenderloin w/Cranberry Zin Sauce; and Spiced Cranberry Orange Bar Cookies.

I’m not the only instructor on the fall schedule.

Also check out 1900 Restaurant chef Kirsten Mitchell’s homage to her French cooking roots, Catch Restaurant chef Keith Rhodes’ seafood class and GRUB‘s Ryanna Battiste for a grass-fed beef session including gluten-free French onion soup and a gluten-free Thanksgiving class. Most classes happen weekdays and run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. but some morning and afternoon weekend classes are offered, too. Register for the classes at The Seasoned Gourmet at Lumina Commons/Lumina Station, 1930 Eastwood Road, near Harris Teeter.

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Delish garden party for a good cause

Chefs from Catch restaurant, La Gemma bakery and The Seasoned Gourmet unite this eveningt, June 27, for a wine-and-dine fundraiser to benefit a garden serving people with special needs.

The five-course event named Grapes & Grub features casual fare prepared by Catch chef/owner Keith Rhodes aboard the restaurant’s food truck.

Pastry chef Roberta Campani will supply desserts from her La Gemma bakery in Wilmington.

A different “affordable” wine enhances each course, according to information from The Seasoned Gourmet, a Lumina Commons specialty foods market organizing Grapes & Grub to aid The Ability Garden at New Hanover County Arboretum.

Here’s the menu:

First Course: Compressed watermelon with basil paired with Sequin Sparkling Pinot Grigio 2011, California

Second Course: Shrimp gazpacho paired with Sean Minor Sauvignon Blanc 2011, California

Third Course: Spicy pork salad paired with Laurent Miquel Pere et Fils Rosè 2012, Languedoc, France

Fourth Course: Smoked beef tenderloin with blue cheese vinaigrette paired with Shooting Star Pinot Noir 2010, Lake County, California

Fifth Course: Chocolate mimosa cakes with raspberries paired with Shooting Star ‘Black Bubbles’ Syrah N/V, Lake County, CA

The $50-per-person dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. and ends around sunset at New Hanover County Arboretum, 6206 Oleander Drive. Guests should bring lawn chairs.

B & B, a duet offspring of the local band ‘shine, performs at the event.

Purchase tickets online, at the arboretum or at The Seasoned Gourmet, 1930 Eastwood Road.

Founded in 1999 by Friends of the Arboretum, the nonprofit Ability Garden provides professionally directed, nature-based activities to individuals of all ages facing various challenges and diagnoses. Organizers say that participants experience increased self-confidence and self-esteem, learn horticultural skills and take pride in volunteering in a community garden.

Posted on by lizbiro in dinner specials, Food festivals, Food trucks, Local food, Restaurants, Uptown Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment

Homemade ice cream at Velvet Freeze

Velvet Freeze ice creams are made from scratch in classic and creative flavors such as these: sweet potato, salted caramel, and buttermilk poached pear (photo by Velvet Freeze).

Midtown Wilmington’s Velvet Freeze ice cream shop has reopened for the warm-weather season and, again this year, is satisfying consumer cravings for wacky flavors.

Sweet pea pineapple is the latest creation from Velvet Freeze owner Karel Blaas, a chef who introduced Velvet Freeze in spring 2011. The barely green vegetable fruit combination blends a delicate pea flavor with a slight pineapple tang.

The flavor joins other 2013 newbies such as clove- and star anise-spiced orange sorbet and lavender strawberry, a new take on last season’s popular lavender ice cream. Read more…

Posted on by lizbiro in Ice cream, Local food, Midtown Wilmington, Restaurants Leave a comment

Bakeries set up at farmers markets

La Gemma is at Poplar Grove’s farmers market each Wednesday and downtown on Saturday.

Two Wilmington bakeries have dropped their retail sides but continue sales at area farmers markets, via special orders and to wholesale customers.

After four years in business, La Gemma Fine Italian Pastries ceased retail sales March 31 at its 2323 S. 17th St. store near New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Meantime, Sugar on Front closed its spot inside Old Books on Front Street, 249 N. Front St.

Find La Gemma today at the Poplar Grove Plantation farmers market, staged each Wednesday from April to December. La Gemma aso sells at downtown Wilmington’s Saturday Riverfront Farmers Market, open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the Saturday Carolina Beach farmers market, which starts May 11.

“Our family circumstances have changed requiring us to spend more time with our young children,” said Roberta Campani, who owns La Gemma with her husband, Jim Gannon.

La Gemma is for sale, but Campani continues to bake there, and customers may still call the shop at 910-338-1885 to place orders and register for upcoming cooking classes, Campani said.

Sugar Island’s strawberry cheesecake.

A burgeoning wholesale business convinced Sugar on Front owner Samantha Smith to move her 3-year-old operation to the former A Sweet Life bakery, 206 N. Topsail Drive, Surf City. As a result, Smith renamed the bakery to Sugar Island. For wholesale and custom orders, call 910-254-1110. Read more…

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Delicious elements of surprise

Chef Gerry Fong, in black, plating his winning strawberry bacon jam with braised pork butt and a trio of sweet potatoes (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

If you’ve been following the 2013 Fire on the Dock cooking tournament at Bluewater Waterfront Grill in Wrightsville Beach, you know that just about anything edible goes.

A guinea hen liver cookie, sugar-seared duck, jalapeno apple bacon jam, black sticky rice and chocolate cheesecake spiked with Texas Pete are a few of the risks chefs have taken.

Who knows what will pop up tonight when chef Brent Poteat of Wrightsville Beach’s 22 North faces chef Pat Greene of downtown Wilmington’s Elijah’s.

If the elements of surprise are anything like the Feb. 27 battle, I’ll be happy.

Like many diners I talked to who attended the contest between chef  Gerry Fong of New Bern’s Persimmons and chef James Rivenbark of Wrightsville Beach’s South Beach Grill, I was wowed by the little things.

The evening’s mystery ingredients, revealed to chefs just before they begin cooking around noon the day of their face-off, were carrots, strawberries and sweet potatoes.

Rivenbark may not have won the night’s contest, but diners were nuts for the bacon caramel in his doughnuts and coffee dessert. “I wanted to lick that stuff right off the plate,” said pro judge Christi Ferretti, chef/owner of Pine Valley Market and Café Johnniein Wilmington. The crowd also gave Rivenbark high marks for strawberry whipped cream that garnished the dessert’s shot of chilled coffee.

South Beach Grill chef James Rivenbark's strawberry-bourbon-glazed quail (photo courtesy of Competition Dining Series).

The strawberry bourbon glaze he put on quail helped make that dish may favorite of the night. He served the quail with bing cherry compote, andouille sausage, sweet potato-carrot tasso au gratin and mint oil was my favorite dish of the night.

Fong ruled the contest, and his efforts have inspired a five-course Fire on the Dock wine dinner he’ll stage Wednesday night at Persimmons.

Fingers crossed that the evening will include Fong’s Pepsi balsamic reduction, which was the perfect counterpoint to his sweet potato ice cream. Strawberry bacon jam he served alongside braised pork butt with a sweet potato trio (fried, pureed and a fritter) was another favorite.

The wine dinner begins at 7 p.m. March 6. The price is $65 per person.

Fong is a favorite at Fire on the Dock. He was the 2012 Fire on the Dock runner-up.


Posted on by lizbiro in bacon, Downtown, downtown Wilmington, Fire on the Dock, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Wrightsville Beach Leave a comment