I want to have a seat at Dawn Holcomb’s table, and here’s why: Her food is familiar but special, deliciously comforting, and made with intention. There’s a look, a feeling, an emotion Dawn is coaxing out of all of us when we enjoy her food; it’s love and appreciation — the same things Dawn feels when she cooks for us. Her love of cooking runs deep. She was raised in North Carolina and was surrounded by food all the time, with both commercial fishermen and farmers in the family and grandmothers who loved to feed people. Dawn described Sunday dinners to me that make me flat out jealous — her grandmother would cook to feed twenty or more people, whoever happened to drop in to enjoy plates and bowls of seasonal vegetables and platters of three or four different meats and desserts.
As luck would have it, I did get a seat at Dawn’s table at her Taste of the Beach event in March. This event was a seven-course Italian wine dinner. More accurately, it was a showcase of beautiful, classic Italian food that my husband and I luxuriated in for the entire evening. This is the kind of food Dawn creates on a regular basis as a personal chef and caterer. Her business is Dawn’s Kitchen OBX, she can cook just about anything you ask for, and it’ll taste better than you could ever imagine.
This particular evening, we were greeted with a glass of Priore Montepulciano, a fresh and fruity red wine, and were led outside to an oceanfront deck where the most stunning charcuterie board I’ve ever seen was waiting to be enjoyed. This board was a collection of thinly sliced dried braciola, salami, and prosciutto, a rich French pate, wedges of fontina, salty parmesan and creamy mozzarella cheeses. All this accompanied by briny olives, perfectly sweet and sour pickles that a friend of Dawn’s makes for her, tiny little sweet-pickled peppers called Sweety Drops that crunch with a satisfying pop when you bite them, spicy mustard, and perfectly oiled and toasted bread for scooping and slathering.
After a few bites from that spread, and feeling relaxed by the wine and ocean air, we moved inside to the dining room to be seated around tables lit with pillar candles accented by cherry blossoms cut from Dawn’s yard that morning. My husband and I got front row seats to the action at the bar, where we watched Dawn and her team arrange gorgeous, creamy oysters Rockefeller on top of piles of salt. We devoured these saucy, garlicky oysters with a glass of beautifully crisp, bubbly La Marca Prosecco. It was the perfect preamble to the next course: shrimp risotto with asparagus. I always want something starchy with or around shellfish and this risotto was exactly right. It was smooth and perfectly dense, lemony, salty from the Parmesan, cooked away into creamy chewiness in a homemade shrimp stock made from the shells and heads of our local shrimp — a 100% flavorbomb. The shrimp dotting the top of the risotto were tender and meaty, just the way you want them. The asparagus added a pleasing, fresh crunch and contrast and we washed it all down with a citrusy Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio.
Smack in the middle of this menu of indulgence, I was elated to find my new true food love: rare seared duck breast with plum and cherry compote on polenta, paired with a ruby red, berry-rich Renato Ratti Nebbiolo. Dawn completely demystified duck for me — season it on both sides, sear it in a hot pan, and finish it in the oven, not too long because rare duck is delicious. How about that? I’m buying duck breast now and cooking it all by myself. Of course, the compote and polenta play an important role here too, a sweet and tart note punctuating the juicy duck and soft, cheesy polenta to round it all out.
In the midst of our duck enjoyment, we watched Dawn and her team tumble bright green sweet peas and salty prosciutto into pots of cream warming on the stove. This would become the sauce for cheese tortellini; the most simple and yummy plate of comfort food. It was savory and a little sweet and the cream coated the al dente tortellini with just enough thickness; delightful when combined with a sip of intense, fragrant Cortenova Primitivo.
At this point, we were feeling entirely spoiled but the best was yet to come — Osso Bucco. Yes! A veal shank simmered into tender submission in Dawn’s unbeatable marinara sauce, wine, carrots, onions, and celery served over buttery mashed potatoes. The wine pairing was absolutely spot on: DaVinci Chianti Riserva. This is the kind of dish I daydream about making in a snowy cabin in the woods somewhere. Turns out, the actual best place to have it is wherever Dawn Holcomb is cooking and serving it to you. To close this extraordinary meal, we tucked into an Italian Raspberry Trifle in between sips of fizzy champagne. The trifle was layers of a zabaione/whipped cream/mascarpone cheese mixture, macerated raspberries, and ladyfingers. Zabaione is a true labor of love: hand-whipped egg yolks, sugar, and sweet wine but, in this case, Dawn used Chambord — a raspberry liquor. A decadent, lightly sweet dessert with a happy mix of textures to end this epic meal.
Dawn’s seven-course Italian wine dinner was a meal and a night to remember. I love food, especially Dawn’s food that night, but what also stands out in my mind was the warm hello and the hug goodbye we got from Dawn, like we were part of her family, joining her for a Sunday dinner. It’s that love and appreciation that Dawn brings to her table and inspires in the rest of us. It will be your pleasure to enjoy anything prepared by Dawn; if you get the opportunity — take it.