Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Fakesgiving Favorites

Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite times of year. Celebrating a delicious meal with people you care for while giving thanks is, I think, an easy concept to get behind.

Several years ago my girlfriends and I started a tradition of preparing a Thanksgiving meal for our group of friends before we all went our separate ways for the actual holiday. The first year we decided to do this, to accommodate schedules, we held our feast in October. Because of this timing, we began calling this event Fakesgiving. The name stuck, and we’ve carried on this tradition ever since.

The first year of Fakesgiving, in our small apartment, we pushed our couch to the wall and lined up our only proper table, an end table and a card table, then surrounded our creation with a smattering of mismatched chairs, stools, benches and even a box to create seating for about 15 people. We decorated with gourds, candles and mismatched placemats, and we all prepared our favorite Thanksgiving dishes from our family feasts. Over dinner (and a healthy dose of red wine!) we shared stories and caught up. It wasn’t fancy, but those friendly dinners are some of my favorite memories to date and I think embody just what Thanksgiving is supposed to be.

I’ve shared one of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes below for porcini mushroom gravy. It’s vegetarian, but I guarantee your carnivorous friends and family won’t know the difference. It’s rich and savory, and while I love a good old-fashioned gravy made from pan juices, this is one to try. Plus, since it doesn’t require the drippings from the bird, you can make it the day before and reheat it.

My delectable porcini mushroom gravy.

Thanksgiving food is so delicious – think of those pies, mashed potatoes, the turkey – why not have it more than once a year?! Keep in mind Fakesgiving can be celebrated any time, not just in the weeks around the fourth Thursday in November. Enjoy your holiday tomorrow, and just remember, if you get a craving for gravy come June, don’t forget Fakesgiving!

This post also appeared in the Tennessean, here. In the published piece you can also find my recipe for Nutty Whole Grain Apple-Raisin Stuffing.


Porcini Mushroom Gravy

Yield: 6 servings

This recipe is adapted from a Viking Cooking School recipe. Find dried porcinis in the produce section of nicer grocery stores (Publix carries them in Nashville).


5 cups vegetarian broth
¾ oz dried porcini mushrooms
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup dry white white
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
salt and freshly ground pepper


1. Bring dried mushrooms and broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat, cover and let steep 15 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, coarsely chop mushrooms, then add back to broth. Reserve mushroom/broth mixture.

2. In a small non-stick skillet, heat 2 tablespoons butter with flour until a paste forms. Set aside.

3. In a medium skillet, melt remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add garlic, parsley, thyme and rosemary, and saute until fragrant. Add in mushroom/broth mixture and wine, and simmer for 30 minutes. Whisk in flour/butter mixture. Boil until reduced to 4 cups. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fall Inspires Baking

Every fall, I get crazed for baked goods. Like no other time of year, dishes like baked apples, bread pudding, homemade muffins, and pies – glorious pies – scream my name. To me, a warm scone or bar on a crisp fall morning with a steaming cup of coffee sounds like pure heaven.

Ironically though, I rarely bake. I love cooking and do it almost every day, but baking is another story. I like to improvise when I cook, tossing in a little of this and a little of that. And if something doesn’t turn out, I can usually guess why. Baking isn’t like that. It’s a science – a formula is required, and I always hated chemistry.

Luckily for me, there’s a truly amazing bakery a few blocks from my house in East Nashville. Sweet 16th, A Bakery, is quite a treat. On a recent morning I stopped by on my way to work and indulged in a super-moist, heavenly-scented Autumn Pumpkin Muffin and a cup of Drew’s Brews coffee. I also grabbed a square of Lemon Blueberry Coffee Cake for a mid-morning snack. Other items for sale that day were Coconut Macaroons, Pear Almond Coffee Cake, Cherry Cranraisin Walnut Coffee Cake, Sweet Irish Coconut Cakes, Blackberry Oat Squares, several kinds of scones including Toasted Coconut Lemon Scones, Classic Chocolate Chip Brownies, an assortment of cookies and more. And that was just one display case. On the other side they almost always have several kinds of cupcakes, a Yazoo Stout Bread Pudding (to die for), and savory items like quiche, lasagna and mac and cheese to go. They also serve soup, salads and the Dos Papas (two potatoes) Burrito – a must try. Everything they make is fresh, flavorful and vegetarian.

Dan and Ellen Einstein own the place, and are really lovely people. They baked cookies for my wedding and have helped me out on many occasions with special orders for events. As I got to thinking about baking, I decided to call up Dan and ask him for some tips, thinking this cook might just try her hand at baking sometime soon. Here’s what he offered:

  1. Good ingredients matter, especially with flour, butter and chocolate. If you skimp, you’ll taste it
  2. Practice makes perfect – learn from feel and those around you who have baking experience. [The holidays are coming – make a date with Grandma!]
  3. Don’t get frustrated if something doesn’t work. Not every recipe he and Ellen prepares makes it to the display cases. Even recipes seasoned bakers have made dozens of times can fail.

Keeping his advice in mind, I decided to bake up some oatmeal raisin cookies on a recent Sunday. They were delish! When they were finished, I enjoyed them with a tall glass of milk on my patio as I watched the leaves fall – craving satisfied. Granted they may not have baked out just right – they’re a little bit tall – but they tasted great. The addition of banana in the batter made them super moist and gave just a hint of banana flavor. Will I bake more this season? Probably. But it’s good to know I’ve got Sweet 16th right down the street as a backup, just in case.

This post also appeared in the Tennessean.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Feast of Traditions

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish faith. Yom Kippur is marked by a 25-hour fast which began at sundown yesterday. Today is traditionally spent at home with family in self reflection, quietly atoning for the sins of the year. The fast is broken by a feast at sundown tonight.

I’m not Jewish, but I’ve just married a Jewish man (last Saturday, in fact!). In an effort to connect with his family, I’ve begun learning about and practicing the food traditions he grew up with. I’ve always found it fascinating to learn about a new culture through food. And in Judaism, there are some fascinating – and delicious – food traditions!

At Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, apples and honey are traditionally served, along with other sweet dishes with the hope of a sweet New Year. During Passover, leavening is avoided so traditionally matzo ball soup is served which is made from matzo meal, or unleavened bread. I’m told this is because when the Jews were leaving Egypt, there was no time to make their normal bread, so they made what they could without the yeast. A seder plate is also prepared which typically contains parsley, horseradish, an apple/honey mixture called haroset, a roasted lamb shank and a boiled egg, all of which are loaded with symbolism. Hanukkah is celebrated with fried foods to symbolize the shortage of oil for the lamp to light the temple that should have lasted for only one day but miraculously lasted for eight.

I’m no expert in these traditions, but I’m an enthusiastic student. So far I’ve ventured into beef brisket and latke territory for Hanukkah. Latke’s consist of shredded potatoes mixed with seasonings and egg, shaped into flat little pancakes and fried in oil. They’re traditionally served with applesauce and sour cream. I tried my hand at matzah ball soup last Passover. Matzo balls are fluffy, doughy balls traditionally served in a chicken soup with parsley and carrots. My matzah balls weren’t as fluffy as they should have been, but practice makes perfect!As a wedding gift, my mother-in-law wrote down several of the well-known and -loved family recipes for me, one of my very favorite gifts of all. One of the recipes was for kreplach, a dumpling typically filled with ground meat or potatoes, fried, and served in chicken soup. Both of my husband’s parents challenged me to master the kreplach as it’s one of the family’s favorites, but rather involved.There was also a cookie recipe from my husband’s grandmother. Charlotte’s Split Second Cookies are a family favorite for sure – they’re simple butter cookies with a layer of jam down the center, and they bring back lots of memories for him. I’ve had these cookies many times at my in-laws, and I absolutely love them with a glass of milk. You could enjoy them any time of year, but they might also be served as a snack to break the fast today on Yom Kippur, as I’ve learned it’s traditional to have something sweet right away as your blood sugar is low after the 25-hour fast.My husband tells me his grandmother Charlotte would often have these ready for him and his sister when they came for visits. They’re easy to throw together at the last minute and the recipe calls for mostly staple pantry ingredients. They also freeze well. This winter I intend to make dozens of these in advance of the holiday cookie season and unfreeze them as I need for guests, holiday gifts, etc.

Beyond their tastiness and convenience, what’s most important about these cookies is the tradition of them. I loved hearing about my husband’s memories of his grandmother’s kitchen, and eating these cookies with her. And I look forward to making these cookies – and lots of other traditional foods – for our family in the years to come.

before baking

after baking


This article also appeared in the Tennessean.


Charlotte's Split Second Cookies

Yield: About 2 dozen, depending on how you slice them

These cookies are addictive!! I made mine with raspberry and blueberry jam. Apricot is also delicious.


3/4 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup raspberry jam (or any flavor jam)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Gradually add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix well, until a soft dough forms.

Divide dough into 4 equal portions. Shape each into a 12-inch x ¾-inch log. Place 4 inches apart on two greased baking sheets. Make ½-inch depressions down center of logs. Fill with jam.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, till lightly browned. Cool in pan for 2 minutes. Cut diagonally into ¾-inch slices. Put on wire racks to cool.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Properly Browning Mushrooms

Sometime last year, I read an article in Cooks’ Illustrated about browning mushrooms. I wish I’d kept it! I love mushrooms and find myself cooking them quite a bit, and the tips they provided were good ones. So here’s a mushroom primer from what I remember about that article.

  1. Slice mushrooms yourself. The pre-sliced ones may be more convenient, but they’ll just taste fresher if you do it yourself, right before you’re ready to cook them. The more surface area exposed, the more they’ll dry out.
  2. Once you purchase mushrooms, store them in a brown paper bag in the fridge. The styrofoam and plastic you get them in from the grocer keeps them from drying out, but it keeps them from breathing too, and if you’re not careful they’ll get mushy!
  3. Don’t use water to wash them. The excess left on them will cause them to steam when you cook them instead of brown them. Use a veggie brush or a paper towel to brush off any dirt of debris on them.
  4. When sautéing, toss sliced mushrooms into a preheated nonstick skillet dry, stirring often. The water in the mushrooms will start to bead on top of them. Once they really get going, add a bit of oil to keep them from burning. See the before and after shots below.

No oil has been used yet.

At this point, I’d add just a bit of oil to make sure they don’t brown too much. I’d also salt them now.

Do you have any mushroom cooking tips?

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Local Food News: ‘Farm-to-Plate’ Initiative, Perl Catering Signs Lease, Just A Pinch Announces Universal Online Recipe Box

I’ve often talked about how much I love Nashville, especially in this post about my love for East Nashville establishments. I’ve gotten wind of a few neat things food-related happenings ’round these parts, so thought I’d share a little round up.

Lisa Shively’s ‘Farm To Plate’  Initiative

Local food advocate and publisher of The Local Table, Lisa Shively has launched a GoFundMe campaign to create “an online local food sourcing network that will connect Tennessee farmers directly to chefs, schools, hospitals and other institutions…The logistics for sourcing local food can be cumbersome and difficult for both farmers and chefs and this website will make the process simpler for each to connect with the other.” Watch the video below to learn more and check out her GoFundMe campaign here.

Perl Catering Kickstarter Campaign

I found Perl Catering at Food Blog Forum Nashville last year. They’re a husband-wife team committed to local eating and delicious food. We’ve hired them for our upcoming wedding and I couldn’t be more excited to serve our guests local meats, cheeses, fruits and veggies cooked with love. Earlier this year they launched a KickStarter campaign to raise funds for a brick and mortar location and recently announced they’ve signed a lease to open a location in Bellevue. Per a recent e-newsletter, “This spot will be the perfect place to house our cafe, retail deli and market and provide a space for evening events, dinners and catering functions. Our projected opening date is mid-October so that we can be up and running for the holiday season.” Yay!

Just A Pinch Recipes

Full disclosure: I work for Just A Pinch as I shared with you all in this post. We’ve just launched a very exciting new enhancement on the site called “Pinch It!” that allows you to save recipes to your virtual recipe box on from anywhere on the web! So, not only can you upload family favorite recipes of your own but you can now also save your other favorites from anywhere on the Internet. We’re the only major recipe site to do this and we couldn’t be more pumped!

What food news do you have?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Falling for Thai

I remember the first time I had Thai food. It was at a little place in Chicago called Cozy Noodle that was right around the corner from my first apartment there. I’d gone to lunch with my new roommate Leah – a girl I’d never met before we moved in together – in an effort to get to know one another better. 

While Leah has become one of my very best friends over the last seven years, I remember very little about the getting-to-know-you conversation we had. I remember the Pad Thai exquisitely.

I’d grown up in a small town where the most exotic thing one could eat was Americanized Chinese food. I went to college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and while that sweet small town has a lot to offer, while I was there, it was lacking in the ethnic eats department.

That first bite of Pad Thai at Cozy Noodle really blew my mind, with its sweet and savory sauce made with tamarind paste, fish sauce and sugar. Its crisp bean sprouts, fried egg and chewy noodles, all topped with a sprinkling of peanuts, a feathery mound of cilantro and a zesty squeeze of lime, really took my breath away. And it wasn’t just the flavors, it was the textures all working together, too. Each bite was a flavor/texture explosion to this Midwestern girl.

I’ve since branched out from my Pad Thai obsession and now love most any Thai dish. Tom Ka Gai soup, with its sweet and sour coconut broth, crispy fried fish cakes, delectable ginger-garlic salad dressings (though not sure how authentic these are) and any combination of noodles or rice with veggies, meat, seafood or tofu. Basically give me anything with Thai flavors in it and I’ll gobble it up with gratitude.

As much as I love Thai food, and as much as I love to cook, I surprisingly haven’t done much experimenting in the kitchen with authentic Thai ingredients. However, I recently whipped up a Thai-inspired grain salad, and I’ve been craving it ever since. I included elements of Thai cuisine in the salad – cilantro, peanuts, nam plah (fish sauce), Thai chili sauce, scallions, rice – though I wouldn’t claim this was any sort of authentic dish. It was the flavor and texture of Thai cuisine I tried to emulate in this inspired salad. I included black rice, too – a nutty, grainy rice with more bite and flavor that regular jasmine or brown rice in my opinion. Enjoy!


Thai-Inspired Black Rice Salad

Yield: 4 servings

Add shrimp or tofu to make this more of a main dish salad.


1 cup black rice, uncooked
2 cups arugula
2 cups broccoli slaw mix
½ peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped
handful of cilantro leaves and stems, ends trimmed, roughly chopped
3 scallions, green and light green parts only, chopped
1 red pepper, julienned
½ cup raisins
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
½ cucumber, diced
lime wedges

1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon hot chile sauce, such as Sriracha
1 tablespoon nam plah (fish sauce)
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.


Cook rice according to package directions. Once rice is cooked, remove pot from heat and place a clean dish towel over the pot and under the lid. This will allow the rice to fluff without the steam condensing on the top of the lid and dripping back in. Let stand for 5 minutes then flush with a fork. Let cool slightly before mixing with salad.

Mix next eight ingredients in a large mixing bowl, and add cooled rice. Toss to combine. Combine dressing ingredients in a pint-size mason jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake to emulsify. Pour dressing around perimeter of bowl. Toss salad with tongs, moving the bowl the opposite direction you’re moving the tongs, to coat salad evenly. Serve with lime wedges.

This post also appeared in the Tennessean.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ode to the Chickpea

I love chickpeas. I mix them in my garbage salads, serve them heated with spices as a side to fish, add them to tuna salad, and sometimes eat them right out of the can. I love their nutty flavor and grainy texture. Plus, rich in fiber and protein, they’re good for you!

I was pretty excited when I saw this post from One Particular Kitchen blog. I’d heard of people roasting chickpeas like this, but had never tried it myself. In her post, Erin seasoned them with salt and cinnamon. I took a more savory approach and used cumin, chile powder and salt. They were delish! I munched on them as a snack, and also tossed a few into a salad for some extra crunch. This would be a great snack for parties too. Enjoy!


Roasted Chickpeas

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 40-45 minutes

Total Time: 50 minutes

Nutty, crunchy roasted chickpeas rule! The first time I made them I mixed in the spices before roasting. The flavor is much more pronounced if you do it right after they come out of the oven.


1 can chickpeas
Drizzle of olive oil
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon chile powder
1 teaspoon salt


Rinse and drain chickpeas. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. While oven heats, lay chickpeas out on a baking sheet lined with paper towels to remove excess moisture. Using a second layer of paper towels, gently press down and roll chickpeas around to further remove moisture.

When oven is hot, remove paper towels and drizzle chickpeas with olive oil.

Roast 30-40 minutes until crispy and golden brown, being careful not to burn. Remove from oven and top with spices. Roll around with a spatula or your hand until they're well coated. Enjoy!

Adapted from Steamy Kitchen ( as seen in One Particular Kitchen.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hot Watermelon Salad

My mother doesn’t always like to mix sweet and savory. While we are alike in many ways, I am the opposite in this regard. I literally dream about salted caramel ice cream, for example, but I understand how the idea of salt in your ice cream to some could be a definite turn off.

Beyond just sweet and savory desserts, I have a real affinity for all kinds of sweet and savory flavors together. I love turkey burgers with mango chutney, salmon marinated in pineapple juice and cinnamon, pork tenderloin with peach preserves, and simple combinations like fruit and cheese. There is just something about salty and sweet that works for me.

One ingredient I love in savory applications is sweet, juicy watermelon. I spent some time in Mexico a few years ago and absolutely fell in love with the chili-lime watermelon sold by street vendors. It was so simple – a plastic cup filled with cubed watermelon, sprinkled with salt and chili powder, with a squeeze of lime juice on top. An amazingly refreshing and tasty snack! You could also buy mixed fruit cups with mango, melon and jicama with the same seasonings. I found it a perfect nosh in the later afternoon.

A few weeks ago I had dinner at Rumours East Wine Bar. I had a watermelon salad with big bright chunks of heirloom tomatoes and briny feta in a light vinaigrette. I wasn’t sure how tomatoes and watermelon would be together, but it worked wonderfully. The acidity in the tomatoes didn’t overpower the sweet, subtle watermelon, but rather complemented it. The salad was so appropriate for summer, and a really refreshing start to our meal.

That salad reminded me of a recipe I’d made a few years before. It was a watermelon salad with mint and a vinaigrette made with sriracha chili sauce. I made it for dinner with friends one night and everyone raved about it! It worked in part because the, well, watery watermelon helped quench the spice in each bite. The sweetness worked in tandem with the heat, instead of competing with it. After the salad at Rumours, I decided to try out the watermelon salad with tomatoes to see how it worked.

The results were top notch! Acidic tomatoes and sweet watermelon remains a great combination, and the punched up kick of sriracha with rice vinegar totally works. A bit of honey helped further balance the heat. I didn’t have any feta on hand, but I bet that would have been a tasty addition. I also tossed in some basil from the garden with the mint. The flavors literally explode in your mouth with each bite. It’s a fun dish to make for parties because at first glance no one is expecting a watermelon salad to be spicy! (Though be careful it’s marked well for kids.)

That’s one of the things I like best about about sweet and savory ingredients together – the flavor pop is such a surprise to your taste buds. Now if I could just get my mother on board.


Hot Watermelon & Tomato Salad

Yield: 6 servings

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes


1/8-1/4 cup hot chili sauce (such as sriracha)
1/4 cup rice vinegar*
1 1/4 teaspoons honey
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups 1/2-inch cubes seedless watermelon
2 medium tomatoes, chopped into 1/2 inch cubes
chopped fresh mint and basil


Combine chili sauce, rice vinegar and honey in the base of a medium bowl. Slowly drizzle in the oil and whisk together until emulsified. Add in watermelon and tomatoes and sprinkle with herbs. Toss to combine.

If making ahead, mix dressing up in a mason jar and cube watermelon and tomatoes. Drain any liquid from the watermelon and tomatoes. Mix together right before serving and sprinkle with herbs. The longer salad sits the soupier it will become.

*Rice vinegar is made from fermented rice or rice wine. It may sometimes be called “rice wine vinegar” but since rice wine is made from fermented rice they are essentially the same thing. Seasoned rice vinegar means sake, sugar and salt have been added for flavor.

This recipe also appeared in the Tennessean.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Pickled Beets from Scratch

I love beets. I’d never really had them before I did some work for a pickled beet client in Chicago. Aunt Nelly’s Pickled Beets opened my eyes! I now enjoy them roasted, boiled or pickled, and I’ve even juiced a few.

This spring, my fiance grew a bunch of beets from seed. Over the last month we’ve harvested tons of these little jewels from the earth! Since he’s not the beet lover I am, I decided to pickle the beets so we could save them for later.

A simple salad with my homemade pickled beets, goat cheese, carrots and arugula.

The process wasn’t hard, but it was time consuming. In a nutshell, you boil, peel, pickle and can the beets. I was really happy with the way they came out. They weren’t too vinegary or too sugary sweet. And while I did infuse the pickling liquid with pickling spices in some cheese cloth, that wasn’t overpowering either. The pickling spices have cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and other strongly-flavored spices that I think can compete with the earthy flavor of the beets if overdone.

Making pickled beets from scratch reminds me of when I made that pumpkin pie a few years ago completely from scratch. I started with a whole pumpkin and ended with a pumpkin pie. It was a sense of accomplishment for sure, and I learned a ton.

But did I make that pumpkin pie completely from scratch a second time? Nope. I learned not long after that one of the best canned products is canned pumpkin – without any additives and minimal processing, it’s exactly like roasting it yourself but without all the hassle. But I did it for the experience. I had a vague idea how to roast the pumpkin, but I didn’t know how to put it all together, and now I do. And I’ve applied that learning to other dishes I’ve made.

Will I make pickled beets again? Maybe, because I do love them, but it was a bit of a labor of love (if you love beets, that is). But I’m really glad I did it once. If you find yourself with a free afternoon and a bushel of beets, try this recipe!!


Pickled Beets

Yield: 6.5 pint jars of beets

Total Time: 3 hours

A very straight forward recipe for pickled beets! The pickling liquid isn't too vinegary or too sweet, just a perfect combination of sweet and sour.


7 lbs of 2- to 2-1/2-inch diameter beets
4 cups vinegar (I used 2 cups apple cider vinegar and 2 cups white vinegar)
1-1/2 teaspoons canning or pickling salt (kosher salt also works, it just takes longer to dissolve)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
4 tablespoons pickling spices
cheese cloth (medical gauze is a good substitue if you don't have cheese cloth handy)


Trim leaves off beets, but leave stem end and root end intact to prevent bleeding during boiling.

Boil beets for about 30 minutes until a fork can be inserted easily; drain. When they are cool enough to handle, peel and slice them.

Meanwhile, make the pickling liquid. Combine remaining ingredients and simmer with pickling spices in cheesecloth for about 30 minutes. Simmer sliced beets in pickling liquid for five minutes.

Stack beets in sterilized jars and pour pickling liquid over top. Process in a water bath for 30 minutes until cans are sealed. This recipe made about six pint jars and 1 half pint jar of beets.

This recipe was adapted from the National Center for Home Food Preparation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Art of the Food Truck

On this Fourth of July, I thought I’d salute a very special group of entrepreneurs pursuing the American Dream. The burgeoning food truck culture in this town is diverse and exciting, and while the delicious food is often the focus of coverage on these road warriors, I wanted to take a closer look at the artistry and creativity these ambitious small business owners bring to the table.

Recently I was lucky enough to be one of about a dozen food blog judges at DINING LOT 2012, Nashville’s first annual Food Truck Festival. I got to sample fare from about 15 food trucks of all colors and flavors. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.

Beyond drooling over the culinary offerings, one of the first things I noticed about the cluster of food trucks as I approached the festival in Centennial Park was that they’re so darn cute! Clearly a lot of thought was put into the signage, logos, and design. As I perused each vendor I noticed artistic touches in everything from the attire of the vendors to the way their condiments were displayed and food was plated.

While one could easily argue that any small business needs to have a good look and smart design to attract customers, I was struck by a certain something extra about these trucks.

A few weeks ago I read an old post on theKitchn blog about Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, a gourmet ice cream shop. (Nashville has one on the East side.) In the post, I was really struck by this quote from founder Jeni: “When I was at Ohio State [art school before starting Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams]…there was an installation where they had these giant vases filled with scent. You would walk up and pull the top off and smell the scent inside. I had already been making ice cream at home, and I was like, ‘this is art.’ If those vases filled with scent are art, then butterfat filled with scent that melts on your palate and explodes, that’s art too.”

That got me wondering if, like Jeni, any of Nashville’s food truck entrepreneurs founded their trucks as a way to make a living while also getting to flex their artistic muscle.

Tammy Fisher, creator of Dixie Belle’s Cupcakes, was a photographer before starting her truck. She still shoots part-time for certain clients, but mostly focuses on the cupcake business now. “It is pretty cool to have the photography and design background to bring to my business,” she says. “It makes me strive to be sure they look as good as they taste!”

Tammy Fisher, proprietess, Dixie Belle’s Cupcakes. Her sister sewed her decorative, ruffled cupcake apron!

Fisher’s Toffee Crunch cupcake, a chocolate cupcake with vanilla buttercream topped with caramel toffee popcorn and caramel syrup, was as good as it sounds.

Co-owner Jay Jenratha, of Deg Thai, wanted his truck to be eye-catching. A native of Thailand, all the designs are Thai inspired patterns which include a little graffiti. His partner Chad Trout is a musician. He moved to Nashville in 1995 after getting a deal with Mercury Records and worked with country singer Del Reeves for years. They say they both try to funnel their individual creativity into the truck the best they can. “Jay loves being an artist when it comes to food…I love people and am always thinking of how we can market the business with music, videos and photos,” says Trout.

The Tiger Tear Salad I sampled was one of the best things I tried at the festival. It was composed of marinated and grilled top sirloin steak atop a bed of super crisp romaine. The dressing was a combo of lime juice, soy sauce and sweet chili sauce.

At The Grilled Cheeserie, while neither of the two co-owners are visual artists per say, co-owner Joseph Brogan says their logo was inspired by an old French film poster. When not on the truck, Brogan works in the music industry on the recording side. He says the truck is definitely an outlet for his creativity and agrees that food trucks do need to go the extra mile in their design. “When you’re stuck in traffic, driving a 25-foot truck, you definitely want to feel confident that the design of your truck is a good representation for your company.”

The tasty “melt of the moment” I sampled was fried green tomatoes, buttermilk cheddar and Benton’s bacon between slices of rosemary bread.

Herby Mustard and ‘Tot Sauce’ at Grilled Cheeserie

Wanderland Urban Food Park, an event management company, put on the festival. They specialize in working with mobile street food vendors, and help facilitate these mobile entrepreneurs by taking care of the permits, promotion and organization of group food truck outings in exchange for a portion of proceeds. They hold weekly markets

I didn’t have one favorite food truck – they all brought something interesting to the table. After meeting so many of the food truck owners, I have a greater appreciation for the craft of these entrepreneurs, both in their edible art and beyond.

Following are some photos of the fabulous trucks, vendors and fare I sampled at DINING LOT 2012 – a feast for the eyes, for sure!

Wild Bill’s Old Fashioned Soda Pop Co. – the panels attach to the outside of this pulled cart.

The taps, featuring flavors like Rocky Mountain Root Beer and Vintage Vanilla Cream (my two favorites)

Ginger Lemon Italian Soda from the Sugar Wagon

Such a cute sign!

Moovers and Shakers, the OMG – Rhubarb Shake drizzled with honey and cinnamon!

Meatloaf from The Bean and Tater. I loved the sweet glaze and nutty texture of this loaf.

Hot chicken from The Hot Spot. This chicken has a jamaican jerk seasoning on it, in addition to an Asian hot sauce. Not your typical fried chicken!

The Bistro Truck serves up grilled pizzas

I loved the Bistro Truck’s pizza. The crust is grilled, which makes it a bit stiff and crunchy, a bonus when you’re eating pizza outdoors standing up!

Got a favorite food truck?

*This story was also published in the Tennessean.