In my personal pantheon of comfort foods, a grilled cheese ranks in the top tier of edible idols. And, despite the legion of silly food holidays, this sammie not only warrants a national day of observance, it really ought to have its own month. It’s a particularly cozy comestible because it begins so simply with an irresistible combination of pantry standards that, when treated to a special kind of love in a frying pan or on a griddle, turn into magic: gooey, melted cheese and good bread made better by the unmistakable crunch that comes of frying it in butter. This remarkable combination of flavor and texture make it one of the great joys of eating – especially when paired with a rich tomato soup that you can dunk your sandwich in.
The only downside to the sandwich is that the grilled cheese is all too often shunted over to the kids’ menu. And believe you me, it takes great fortitude and a mighty will for a person of a certain age to order from the kids’ menu under the glare of a disapproving server (and even some unsympathetic spouses), whose eyes smolder with an unspoken injunction, “Oh, please, grow up!”
In most cases, I’m immune to people throwing shade over my cravings but, here, not so much. I love kids as much as the next person, and I don’t mind sharing a grilled cheese with children; but they hardly merit having it all to themselves. Besides, bread and cheese are among life’s most sustaining joys – I’m pretty sure that you could live off of that combination alone. I’m certain I could. And judging from the world’s many essential foods that consist mostly of bread and cheese, I’m not alone. Whether it’s an Italian panino, a South African Braaibroodjie, French Croque Monsieur or an English Toastie, the grilled cheese’s many incarnations are vast and vital, delicious and decidedly grown up.
Although I’m not always in agreement with the urge to update or improve every classic dish in the cooking canon, the sheer number of possible combinations of bread and cheese along with the wealth of foods that meld and melt perfectly between them make it impossible to remain a purist about the grilled cheese.
So, in celebration, the restaurant is going full tilt on the indulgence scale for a sandwich built for the happy adult. Today, which is National Grilled Cheese Day, we’re serving a special combination of Montery Jack, bacon jam, apple chutney, gritz, and crumbled potato chips (yep, you read that correctly) all on delicious Flour Head 100% whole wheat bread. It’s an explosion of everything that we love about the sandwich, from intense flavor to hearty texture, which we’re certain will make you glad you got up and out today.
And what’s more, we’ll celebrate again on Thursday with even more Monterey Jack on whole wheat but this time topped with red pepper pesto and roasted kale.
Of course, if you’re really celebrating, you’ll want a cup of good soup; and for that we recommend our Tomato Chipotle soup, which is now available every day. It’s a rich potage with a lively kick of chipotle’s smoky spice and a smooth but hearty texture that makes it a prime candidate for expert sandwich dunking, which, as far as I can tell, is a life skill that only fully develops in the adult of our species.
We give the devil his due. I mean, everyone knows who the devil is whether he’s an ex-lover or ex-friend, a boss of special evilness or just a particularly vexing detail; even if we mean the angel of light or prince of darkness, we know about the devil in his more obvious guises. So when we say deviled eggs or ham, we understand that we’re talking about food that’s zesty, piquant, or spicy. Though if you ask me, most deviled eggs don’t truly earn the name. If I had my way, the only foods that would be called devilish would be ones that carried a Scoville rating for their inferno-like, spicy heat.
In my mind, other foods where something simple gets all dressed up – like the mild, but beloved stuffed eggs that grace my family reunions – should take their titular cues from a very special sauce that graces many a southern table, especially if there’s a ham on it: Jezebel Sauce.
The sauce is named for one of the Old Testament’s wicked royals who had a particularly sticky end that involved some harsh prophecy from Elijah, a crowd, a horse, and a pack of stray dogs. You can read the whole story in the 1st and 2nd Book of Kings. For our purposes, the important part of that story is that just before [spoiler alert] she was thrown out of the palace window, “she painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out…” And thus the name of Jezebel has forever been linked to women (of course) who are overly made-up, women of loose morals, or any poor gal who fall on the wrong side of the patriarchal standards for approved feminine demeanor and appearance. Isn’t that nice?
In food terms, the word refers to a sauce base, usually something wholesome like apple, peach or pineapple preserves that gets all tarted up with the addition of lots of horseradish, yellow mustard, and some black pepper, too. It functions much in the same way that chutney and other relishes do – it adds additional sweetness and savor along with a mighty kick. In fact some original recipes call for so much mustard and horseradish that in addition to making your eyes water and your nose run, it was potent enough to make you spout steam from your ears.
We aren’t interested in seeing you spout steam from your ears, as fascinating as that might be. But we do think it’s a fine sauce to add to the roster of great Southern accents for living. In fact, it’s essential to a very famous Southern hors d’oeuvres – a Triscuit smeared with cream cheese topped with a dollop of Jezebel. But we’re more likely to recommend it with pork, especially in the form of breakfast sausage on biscuit with Monterey Jack cheese – which is exactly how we’ll be serving it at the Tomato Head this weekend. If you’d like to learn more, Mahasti will be taking to the airwaves to share her own delicious take on Jezebel Sauce – so we invite all of you boys and girls to paint your eyes, fix your hair and tune in to WBIR’s Weekend Today to get saucy with us!
4 cups Pineapple tidbits, drained
2 large granny smith apples, cored and diced
1 1/2 cups of the pineapple juice, (you can add apple juice to make up the difference if you don’t have enough apple juice)
2 Tbl prepared Horseradish
1/4 cup Yellow Mustard
3/4 cup Sugar
2 tsp Black Pepper
2 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Place all ingredients in a pot over medium heat. Bring to boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until apples are soft. Puree the mixture with an immersion blender or cool then puree in a blender.
You can serve the sauce hot, or chilled. Will keep in the refrigerator for quite a while.
As breweries become more of a fixture on the urban landscape, it’s refreshing to find one that’s close to home but situated smack dab in the middle of a picture perfect vision of bucolic Tennessee. Located in Sparta, which is just about an hour and a half from Knoxville and almost due south of Cookeville, our featured brewery for April, Calfkiller, is a backyard operation that’s been patched together in a fashion that’s the stuff of storybooks and beer loving dreams.
Sparta is one of those places in Tennessee that probably doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, though in the 1830’s it was an important spot on the wagon trail to Nashville, and it’s still the home to the Sparta Rock House, once an important inn, tollhouse, and rest stop that’s part of the National Register of Historic Places. Lester Flatt lived there for a spell, and the city hosts an annual bluegrass festival in his honor. Sparta came close to being our State’s capital, but, according to legend, it lost to Nashville by one vote – and that vote was sold for a drink of whiskey. Perhaps it’s ironic or merely just that another thirst quencher has helped Sparta reclaim some of its luster.
Calfkiller, named for the river that flows nearby (which, according to one legend, is named for a cattle loving Cherokee chief), is the passion child of brothers Don and Dave Sergio. Located in the back yard of Don’s house, the brewery was constructed and equipped mostly from reclaimed and recycled materials and gear, though it’s as picturesque as anything you might plan. And it was put together and grew as the brother’s expanded what originally was “an aggressive home-brew hobby” that they started around and about 2001. It wasn’t until 2004 that Don and Dave commenced brewing Calfkiller proper, and they’ve spent the ensuing years honing their craft, ramping up production and distribution, and making a name for themselves.
But the fact of the matter is that the trappings of the building and the burdens of marketing are secondary concerns or, perhaps, just necessary evils to these modern day Spartans – their cause in love, peace, and perhaps battle, too, is a frothy class of “Beer free of the tyranny of stylistic oppression.”
That’s a pretty good fight to fight – at least as we see it. The beer is good and has the added value of being made by loving hands in a beautiful part of the world that you can visit in about the same amount of time it would take you to get in and out of Turkey Creek on a holiday weekend. You can visit their website to schedule a tour or buy some groovy Calfkiller merchandise that will brand you as real beer lover and a smart one, too.
We’re featuring 4 of their brews – maybe some others, too – so you’ll want to hurry on down and see what it’s all about:
It’s an American style IPA that the Sergio boys describe as, “An ode to summer, an ode to magic, an ode to 13 years of brewing Wizardry…the Calfkiller Wizard Sauce. Some things DEFY explanation! Taste the Magic!” 5.3% ABV
This American Style Amber ale gets a colorful description, too: ” ‘She may be a little bitter, but she ‘s still so sweet!,’ describes this hooker to a ‘T.’ Its bright whole-hop flavor is balanced perfectly with a smooth, malty backbone and notes of caramel and honey.” 5.7% ABV
“Traditionally untraditional. An ‘oatmeal and brown sugar entire,’ precursor to the porter. This beer is well balanced, dry, faintly roasty, slightly chocolatey, moderately warm and heavily drinkable!” 6.0% ABV
The approach of Big Ears, in addition to a fantastic slate of music, gives us pause to appreciate things homegrown. It also reminds us of how nice it is to be in Knoxville, and how lucky we are to have witnessed and participated in all the work that has gone into making our city a place where something as cool as Big Ears can find a home. We’re looking forward to the festival and all the good things that come with it. So we’re celebrating in Tomato Head fashion with lots of southern themed specials and, of course, desserts.
In the spirit of East Tennessee and its sense of humor, we’re commemorating one of our most famous soft drinks, Mountain Dew. As with any notable product, the actual origins of the recipe for this soda are subject to some disputation, but it is undisputed that the product was first trade marked by Barney and Ally Hartman who ran a bottling plant in Knoxville. And that’s good enough for our purposes, especially seeing as we’re not here to pick a fight- we’re just baking a cake.
Mountain Dew cake is a recipe that comes from any number of possible sources, but we’ll be using Paula Deen’s recipe which combines a lemon cake base, supplemented by lemon pudding and a can of good ole Mountain Dew. It’s a very limited offering that we’re baking up just for the festival, so if you want to “do the Dew” by living out a few of Mountain Dew’s slogans and “tickle your innards” or “get that barefoot feelin’” you’ll want to stop in early this weekend before the Dew evaporates.
We’re also putting up our Pecan Pie – it’s the kind of dessert that gives us the warm fuzzies and makes us feel at home whenever we see it, let alone eat a piece. Part of that comes from the fact that we like to claim the pecan as a particularly Southern nut- and we’re mighty fond of Southern nuts, particularly if they’re our relations. But if the truth be told, pecans belong to a large swath of the United States – the name itself is an Algonquin word that, according to the vast wisdom of the web, means something like, “all nuts requiring a stone to crack.”
Certainly Pecan Pie remains a decidedly Southern dessert whose nutty, rich, buttery and gooey excellence occupies a place of honor in the pantheon of our regional cuisine and the images upon which fond recollections of an unspoiled youth in the country are founded. It’s also a young-ish recipe, but nobody’s really certain when the pie came to be; it didn’t show up in cookbooks until the 20th century.
Still, it’s a potent symbol of Southern hospitality and tradition and the value we place on gathering together to break bread. Of course, a real Tennessee table knows no strangers – so whether you’re visiting to hear a little music with Big Ears, or if you’re one of the neighbors that we see all the time, we’ll be tickled pink to see you! Come one in and sit a spell.
This month on Market Square, Tomato Head will be the home to an intriguing exhibit by artist Rick Whitehead; it features a dramatic series of pictures from the equally dramatic tornado season of 2011 when funnel clouds and hail descended upon Knoxville in nearly Biblical proportions. “It’s a series of photographs that I took over the course of several days. There’s no zoom and no cropping. I call the series the ‘Tempest Solarized’,” he says, “and that refers to the technique pioneered by Man Ray in the 20’s and 30’s. It’s an effect [that happens to the photo] when you’re in the dark room and open the door to the light for a few seconds.“
This is the first time that he’s had the chance to show the pieces together as a group, and it’s an exciting opportunity to see the sky through Whitehead’s lens. The collection owns an almost surreal effect that’s a natural element of cloud gazing – particularly on the stormy days when Rick was shooting. He remembers that “these were all very close by, all the churning clouds. The formations were very dramatic… this one reminds me of a landscape and this is just the churning of the tornado. And others become more like abstract shapes that you don’t recognize as clouds.”
Photography is only a small part of Whitehead’s métier – painting and drawing are his principle foci, and his show will include some of examples of that work. “I’ve been experimenting with pressed charcoal and I’ll have some of the latest pieces and also some from my Aboriginal Series. I didn’t want to keep the show completely in the clouds.”
Rick draws inspiration for his painting from many sources, including dream-life: “There are dream pieces that are directly from dreams, but mainly I think it is that when I look at certain things, especially a lot of the series of landscapes, they’re more like visions.” Still, the quality of the dream seems to pervade much of his work, which, at least to this eye, gives the whole exhibit a vast array of associations.
Whitehead is a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and his work has been exhibited throughout the country and internationally in Belgium and Spain. And while the exhibit that we’re hosting is only a small part of his work, it’s enough to make us want to know and see more. And while you can see more on his website, you won’t want to miss this opportunity to these absorbing works in person.
Rick’s show will hang downtown through April 4th and then transfer to the Gallery through May 2nd.
As a child, I never liked the mushy texture of bananas unless, of course, my grandmother transformed them into a magical loaf of sweet bread that was as good to eat hot from the oven as it was toasted and bathed in butter the next day. Banana bread has all the qualities I require in a breakfast repast, a mid-morning snack, a treat for lunch and… honestly, banana bread knows no particular mealtime allegiance; it’s good all the live-long day.
Like muffins, biscuits, pancakes and scones, banana bread is a quick bread – one that gets a swift rise from a leavening agent like baking powder or baking soda that, unlike yeast, doesn’t require time to rise. In terms of baking, this means instant gratification. That the bread is quick is only an incidental pleasure where this treat is concerned. It’s also a great tool for the smart manager since it shows its finest qualities when made with fruit that’s over-ripe. So when little Ella, Stanly, Pat and Bing are mortified by the sudden appearance of big, black spots on the once cheerfully yellow fruit, the time for our favorite kind of recycling effort has come.
When the countenance of the banana changes, there’s something sweet going on beneath that darkening peel; all the fruit’s starch is mutating from complex carbohydrates into simple sugars. And not only is the fruit getting sweeter, it’s getting softer –thus, all the nasty mushiness, too gross to eat as it is, will go a long way to making a moist loaf of irresistibly and deliciously sweet character. Talk about sweet water from a foul well – this is it on a plate.
Banana bread makes a fine kitchen staple – it’s a reasonably healthy snack (even with a little butter), but it also makes a neat base for dessert – think a scoop of ice cream with a drizzle of honey or some warm pineapple preserves or cherry jam and a dollop of whipped cream. That assumes, of course, that you and yours don’t succumb to the very powerful temptation to eat it all just after it emerges warm and fragrant from the oven.
There are lots of variations on this particular quick bread, but if you tune in to WBIR’s Weekend Today, Mahasti will show you how to make her favorite version. Here’s the recipe in case you wanna have everything ready to bake along:
FLOUR HEAD BAKERY’S BANANA BREAD
1 ½ cups All Purpose Flour
1 tsp Baking Soda
1/4 tsp Cinnamon
1/8 tsp Clove
1/2 tsp Salt
1 cup plus 2 Tbl Sugar
½ cup Canola Oil
1 ½ cup Mashed Banana (about 3 bananas)
2 TBl Sour Cream
1 tsp Vanilla
1 cup Walnut pieces
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9×5 inch loaf pan.
In a medium bowl, sift Flour, Baking Soda, Cinnamon and Salt – add the nuts, stir with a wooden spoon and set aside.
In another medium bowl whisk the eggs with the sugar, and canola oil. Add the mashed bananas, sour cream and vanilla and whisk well. Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients all at once and stir with a wooden spoon just until thoroughly combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, place the pan in the preheated oven and bake for 1 to 1 hour and 10 minutes (a toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean). Check the banana bread at 40 minutes, if it is getting too dark, tent it with some foil and continue baking.
Cool the banana bread for 30 minutes in the pan on a wire rack, and then remove it from the pan and allow to cool to room temperature.
Serve at room temperature or toasted with soft butter.
February 29th always brings frogs to mind. That bears no great metaphorical truth; it’s just that I can’t think Leap Year without thinking of Leap Frog – it’s a remarkably unremarkable and simple word association that has stuck with me since I first became aware of this calendrical adjustment. For me though, it’s the only simple thing about the varied ways we account for irregularities in time-keeping.
Like passing the International Date Line, the appearance and disappearance of days baffles me – even though I am perfectly aware that it’s really just an adjustment like hemming a skirt or tinkering with a slow clock to get things into order. I do understand that it takes the earth 365.242 days to rotate the sun, and just like anybody, I want to save that time and keep my day planner in tune with the movements of the sun!
Even so, it’s hard for me to compute that we assign and create days – naturally, I realize that all we’re really doing is labeling and adjusting labels to match our perception of the passing of day into night and one season into another. And despite my urge to rational thinking and behavior (something at which I excel at forgetting), Leap Day remains magical. Like Brigadoon, the mystical Scottish Village that appears out of the mists of the beyond only once every 100 years, the quadrennial arrival of 2/29 strikes me as an auspicious, even charmed occasion.
It’s easy to observe the world around us, and this particular day through the lens of facts alone. But romantic that I am, I see this day as a gift. And I like to spend it that way. Just like a 10-spot that I find in last year’s coat, I like to spend 2/29 on something special for someone special.
Maybe I’m getting sappy in my middle age, but I want more magic in my life – and I want the people in my life to be magical, too. But, to repeat a theme from our Valentine’s Day Post, if you want magic, you have to start by making it. I’m not a Luddite – just try to take my phone – but for this day maybe I’ll turn it off when I talk to friends. And by friends, I mean those people who are physically present in my life. I have enough friends on social media who don’t even know me when they see me in person to appreciate real friends who can tell if I’m having a tough day by the way I enter the room (instead of by reading my pitiful posts).
Of course, most of us love technology, but like real food, real friends take a little of the kind of work that you have to be present to complete. So as you contemplate Leap Day, we encourage you to come meet real people for real food that really cooks while celebrating a day that emerges from the numinous whirl of the celestial dance once every four years. It might look like an unremarkable adjustment and seem as mundane as a game of leap frog – but it’s a gift. Grab it.
Although many people celebrate National Tortilla Chip Day with big bowls of yellow or white chips, we like to pause on this auspicious day and ponder the chip less taken; the blue tortilla chip.
My own journey away from the yellow and white chips of my errant youth began in my mid 20’s during a visit to Santa Fe. It was the first time that I had eaten blue food. Of course, I don’t count the many bowls of strangely colored cereal, including Boo-Berry, of my childhood – in retrospect I’m not sure that they qualify as real food, though, in fairness, I loved them. But during that New Mexican fall, when an afternoon cocktail demanded salty afternoon snacks, my traveling partners and I encountered a basket of strangely hued, corn tortilla chips for the first time and learned the reason for this oddity; it was blue corn that did it.
I recall that, unlike my compatriots, I wasn’t surprised by the idea of blue corn because my dad had once planted flint corn, a multi-colored variety which he knew as Indian corn. Even so, the blue triangles prompted a lot of conversation about the merits of corn chips themselves, and, if I recall correctly, we concluded that a blue chip was heartier than a yellow one and that we liked them, especially after a couple more of those afternoon cocktails.
Blue Corn itself is a fascinating vegetable that has more protein than yellow or white corn and has a lower glycemic index. The color comes from anthocyanins – the same flavonoid and anti-oxidant that makes red wine red and blueberries blue, too. Though, to be fair, by the time a blue corn kernel becomes a blue corn chip, it may not have all the qualities that have made anthocyanin a nutritional darling in recent years. But who eats tortilla chips for their anti-oxidant qualities anyway?
Blue corn is in fact a variety of flint corn all of which share a thicker exterior than its yellow and white cousins. That thickness can make it a little harder to grind, and contributes to the textural difference in the resulting chips. And, according to some tasters, the flavor of blue corn has a nuttier quality than paler varieties.
So, despite being under the influence of Santa Fe’s beauty and booze, we weren’t completely off our noggins to conclude that blue corn chips, color aside, seemed somehow different than what we normally munched while swilling tequila. Admittedly, I haven’t reached this conclusion via the scientific method and exhaustive taste tests, but most of the blue corn chips I’ve met, even without a margarita, have more heft and a heartier crunch than the average yellow crisp.
That’s certainly true of the Garden of Eatin’ blue chips we serve at the restaurants. Made from organic blue corn, they have a hint of nuttiness and pack a wallop of crunch that’s perfect with a scoop of hummus. As you celebrate National Tortilla Day in your varied and personal ways, consider joining us in making the party a big blue crunchy one. You may just gain a new perspective on tortilla texture and find, as we have done, on a day like today where crunchy happiness is paramount, that blue has made all the difference.
One of the many beautiful things about food is that not only can it tell you where you are, it can also take you where you want to be. Biscuits and gravy tell me that I’m at home in the South, but, on many of my long spells living away from home, that same dish helps ease the homesickness that seems to afflict Southerners in a particularly poignant way.
Part of this dish’s magic comes from the memory-summoning charms of the smells that fill a house where it’s being made properly: warm aromas of buttermilk biscuits rising in the oven followed by the fragrance and sound of country sausage popping in an iron skillet. It’s a hearty dish, too – the kind that fills you up like only a grandmother’s cooking seems to do. In a way, for me at least, it’s one of the miracle foods; it fills me up, warms my heart, and floods the mind with happy thoughts of people and places that I love.
Ultimately, it’s a simple dish that, like much of Southern food, was probably born of hard times or a least a keen sense of frugality that rests in the memory of times when “waste not, want not” was neither proverbial nor cliché. Just imagine a harried cook over a wood burning stove with a handful of flour left over from rolling out biscuits alongside a pan of fat remaining from frying up pork sausage. With just a little milk and a couple of minutes, there was not only more food to put on the table, there was also nothing to throw away.
Like all classic foods, this breakfast staple has been and will continue to be modified and reinvented with riffs on the breadstuff itself and all sorts of mutations of the gravy, too. And while we Tomato Heads are all about some innovative cooking, we cling to tradition in the basic approach to this most classic of breakfast foods. All it takes is six ingredients and a little bit of love.
This Saturday, Mahasti will present her simple and simply delicious recipe for Biscuits and Gravy on WBIR’s Weekend Today so you can make it yourself. Here’s a link to the recipe for The Tomato Head’s Sausage Gravy. But if you find that your craving is stronger than your will to roll out biscuits, just come on down to either Tomato Head. We’ll share ours with you! And while we can give you all our happy memories, we’re happy to help you make some of your own – one biscuit at a time.