I try to get down here to Raleigh, North Carolina once a year to visit my mom, stepfather, and brother, as well as my sister in Durham. While typically that happens in October, this year I decided to come during the holidays. Today was a brisk but sunny December day. The photo above shows the tall pines near my mother’s house.

I arrived yesterday on a flight from LaGuardia and a few hours later was dining at Magnolia Grill on Ninth Street in Durham. Dream come true. I’ve long wanted to try Magnolia, ever since Gourmet magazine listed it #11 in its top fifty restaurants in America. Opened in 1986, it was one of the first market-driven restaurants in the country, focusing on seasonal, fresh ingredients with a slight Southern twist.

As luck would have it my sister started working there this fall so it was on the top of my to-do list for this weekend. We made an early reservation, arriving in the cold, pouring rain last night and tucking into some truly satisfying, warm comfort food. My sister’s fiance was with us, so among the three of us we were able to sample at least six dishes.

I had the farmer’s market salad: roasted butternut squash, peppers, Blue Lake beans, fennel, black kale, candycane red onions, arugula, hazelnuts, and ricotta salata. Blu had the red wine risotto with grilled chicken confit, roasted radicchio, pecorino romano, arugula, and sundried cranberry chutney in a walnut vinaigrette. We were joking that his dish would have definitely made a suitable entree rather than a first course. Emily, debating between the sorghum-glazed berkshire pork belly and the citrus-cured steelhead trout with cauliflower tabbouleh, went with the latter.

Our appetizers were so good we sat wide-eyed, mouths full, not saying anything, just poking our forks at each other’s plates and shaking our heads.

For the main course, I had the grilled New Bedford sea scallops in apple cider jus on butter-apple coulis with wild rice “risotto” with frisee, granny smith apples and roasted walnuts. I’m a big fan of wild rice and anything assembling risotto, not to mention the scallops of course, so this was the perfect dish for me. Blu had the grilled angus NY strip in balsamic jus with roasted fingerling potatoes and blue cheese. And Emily had what might have been all of our favorite dish of the night: grilled Eden Farm berkshire pork rib chop on creamed cabbage with apples, sage and bacon, and red wine lentils de puy. Right?

To top it all off we shared three desserts. We only ordered two but the kitchen sent one out on the house. Drum roll please… My favorite was the maple walnut date tart with maple bacon ice cream, everything, including the ice cream, made in house by Karen Barker, co-owner and head pastry chef. The ice cream was smoky and the tart sticky and gooey and with just a hint of the bacon’s richness. The eggnog creme brulee with pecan biscotti was enough to put me over the edge after an already full meal, but was still quite good. And the dessert on the house was gingerbread babycake with pumpkin caramel swirl ice cream. Divine inspiration.

To bed, to bed, and then morning and baking. As is Christmas tradition in my mom’s house, we made chocolate chip cookies this morning. We multiplied the recipe by three and made something like 150 cookies.

Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies
(makes 4 dozen)

2 1/4 c flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 c butter or margarine, room temperature
3/4 c sugar
3/4 brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla
11 1/2 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Stir flour with the baking soda and salt and set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter with sugar and brown sugar on low spead until creamy and lightened in color. Add the eggs one at a time and continue to beat on low speed. Add the vanilla and mix until combined. Gradually add the dry mixture into the creamed mixture, then stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Drop a tablespoon of batter onto ungreased cookie sheets and bake for 9 to 11 minutes, until golden brown.