Written by Debra Simon and photographed by Brack Johnson
In the three and a half years since chef Amy Tornquist opened Durham’s Watts Grocery, her New South restaurant, praise has poured in from all around the Triangle — and all over the country.
Check out this rave from the Hot Tables section of Condé Nast Traveler:
“Located in Durham’s up-and-coming Ninth Street shopping area, Watts Grocery combines easygoing Southern hospitality with farm-fresh fare. Chef-owner and Durham native Amy Tornquist named the restaurant after the beloved candy store of her childhood, and the warm atmosphere — paintings of Bull City landmarks and cheery orange lamps — channels that nostalgia.
“A longtime champion of local food, Tornquist prepares dishes that highlight the area’s best products: Peregrine Farms greens, Chapel Hill Creamery cheese and Fowl Attitude poultry.
“Southern favorites are well worth the wait for a table: You can’t go wrong with fried oysters with remoulade, chicken with dumplings topped with cheese biscuits and Meyer lemon mousse.”
When I asked Amy to give me the recipe for a Valentine’s Day dinner I could whip up at home, she enthusiastically agreed. So, of course, I asked more!
Here’s what she revealed:
Q. You were an advocate of all things local before it became a foodie trend. Why?
I’m a native of Durham, actually born at what was once Watts Hospital across the street from the restaurant. I own a Durham catering business, Sage and Swift, which I’ve had for 18 years. (It’s run by my husband, Jeremy Kerman.) I got my start at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, working for Bill Neal.
I’m known for my commitment to local ingredients and, especially, working with local farmers and fishermen.
Q. Jeremy and you work so hard! Who cooks at home?
Jeremy and I have two girls, ages 6 and 10. As parents, Jeremy and I struggle to put food on the table.
I am mostly the last one home at the end of the day, so I evade the cooking chores as a rule. I may help orchestrate the menu, but I rarely execute the dishes.
We really love making pizza and lasagna with our girls, and they are pros in the kitchen. When I helped out with Thanksgiving pie-making at my daughter's school this fall, it was a joy to see how accomplished she was in the kitchen.
Q. How do you balance work and family?
Like many working mothers, I struggle with not having enough time to spend with my children. I’m lucky to have my mother and uncle in town as well as a great friend and part-time nanny. They truly are the glue that allows me to work when I need to without worrying about my girls.
The worst part of my schedule is that it’s intense and not very regular. Some parts of the year, I have tons of time off and can be around pretty regularly. Other times, I seem to be working every shift, and I really miss getting to see my family.
Q. Durham’s received national notoriety for its eateries; where do you go for dinner when you’re not in your own kitchen?
I love the restaurant scene in Durham. It’s great to have so much variety and so many friends doing such great work.
When not at my own restaurant, our favorite place to go is the bar at Nana’s, although we dine around pretty regularly and enjoy many places in town.
Here’s the funky, downhome dinner Amy recommends for home cooks on Valentine’s Day: Bibb salad with blood oranges, toasted pecans and bacon lardons; pan-seared flounder with roast shitake mushrooms, braised Swiss chard and creamy polenta; and chocolate soufflé cake. Enjoy!
Bibb Salad With Blood Oranges, Toasted Pecans and Bacon Lardons
For the salad:
2 heads of bibb lettuce
2 blood oranges
1 cup bacon lardons or cooked pancetta
1 cup toasted pecans
For the blood-orange vinaigrette:
1-1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/4 cup blood-orange juice
1/4 cup champagne vinegar
1 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons sugar or honey (optional)
1. In a food processor, combine the mustard, chopped garlic, juice and champagne vinegar. Once fully incorporated, very slowly add the olive oil in a stream. Add salt and pepper to taste. If the juice is really tart, add a few teaspoons sugar or honey.
2. For the lardons, cut 1 cup slab bacon or pancetta into 1/4-inch cubes. Cook slowly in a hot saute pan over medium-low heat until much of the fat comes out. Lardons should be crispy, not burned, and golden brown. Blot on a paper towel and reserve.
3. Split 2 hydroponic bibb lettuces in half length-wise. Put on individual plates with the cut side facing up.
4. Peel 2 blood oranges, using a serrated knife. Remove pith and as much of the peel as possible. Section the oranges.
5. To assemble the salad: Place bibb on the bottom (cut side up), then bacon, orange sections and finally pecans. Finish it by drizzling with vinaigrette.
Pan-Seared Flounder With Roast Shitake Mushrooms, Braised Swiss Chard and Creamy Polenta
Four 5-6 ounce flounder filets
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil for coating
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups chicken or fish stock
2 handfuls shitake mushrooms
1 bunch Swiss chard
3 shallots, minced
1 stick butter
2 cups half and half
1 cup polenta
1/2 cup goat cheese (we use chevre from the following local producers: Elodie Farms, Goat Lady Dairy, Celebrity Dairy)
1. Pat dry the filets of flounder. Season on both sides with salt and pepper. In a hot sauté pan, put three tablespoons olive oil. Sear the fish on both sides and season with 1 teaspoon chopped thyme, a pinch of cayenne and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Add 1/2 cup chicken or fish stock and finish in a 350-degree oven for 3-5 minutes until just done.
2. De-stem the mushrooms, and slice the caps into ribbons. Rough chop the shallots. In a mixing bowl, toss the mushrooms and shallots. Sprinkle with olive oil and salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spread vegetables evenly on pan and fully roast until golden brown.
3. Take one bunch of chard and de-stem with kitchen shears. Wash and spin dry, then cut into 1/4-inch strips. Sauté 2 teaspoons minced shallots in butter until translucent. Add the chard on medium heat, toss with salt and pepper to taste. Once the chard is just wilted, pull off the stove.
4. Bring the half and half and remaining chicken or fish stock to a boil. Whisk in 1 cup polenta. When it comes back to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer. Stir pretty regularly for 15-20 minutes until you can no longer feel the grit of the polenta. Finish with goat cheese or a bit of butter.
5. To assemble: Place polenta on the bottom of a plate or large pasta bowl with the mushrooms and chard on top. Finish with the flounder.
Make ahead-suggestions: Polenta can be done ahead of time and kept warm on the stove. Note that it’ll thicken so be prepared to add a little stock or milk to keep a creamy consistency.
If you want to make sure you spend an ample amount of time with your valentine, you can add the mushrooms and chard directly to the polenta as more of a garnish than vegetable and serve steamed carrots or green beans on the side. They can hold really well, and then you’ll only need to quickly cook the fish to get a great dinner on the table.
Chocolate Soufflé Cake
1 pound semi-sweet chocolate
1/3 cup brandy
8 ounces butter
1 tablespoon vanilla
9 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
9 egg whites
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1. Melt chocolate, brandy and butter together, and add the vanilla.
2. In a mixer, whip the egg yolks and 1 cup sugar until they are lemon colored.
3. In a separate container, whip the egg whites, 1/4 cup sugar, salt and cream of tartar until just before soft peaks form.
4. Add the yolks to the chocolate mixture, and fold the whites into the chocolate.
5. Bake in an 8-inch springform pan or small, well-buttered muffin tins at 325 degrees for 60 minutes.
Serving suggestion: To complement, make a citrus compote from these fruits:
1 ruby red grapefruit
1 Meyer lemon
1 blood orange
1 juice orange
If they’re tart, you can sweeten them with a few teaspoons of honey to taste. Add sweetened whipped cream, and you have a lovely end to a romantic dinner.