A Recipe and a Revisit: Creamy Spinach Pancetta Pasta

I bet a lot of you are "trying to be good," right now, keeping resolutions and eating all those dark leafy greens. But you still like to party, right? Me too. Adulting is hard, but I'm here for you! This recipe is a little bit naughty and a little bit nice. It's our go-to pantry pasta when I don't have meat thawed or a dinner plan, as everything except the garlic comes from the freezer or pantry. 

It also has the benefit of being extraordinarily delicious, which is not something I say often about something that contains (gasp!) packaged ingredients. Please don't send the salt police after me. I would never survive in jail.

Creamy Spinach Pancetta Pasta
2 Cloves Garlic, crushed
1-2 tsp Red Pepper Flakes
1/4 C Olive Oil
1 4oz Package Diced Pancetta
2 C Penne or Rigatoni
1 Package Frozen Creamed Spinach
2 C Fresh Spinach (optional)
2 T Pecorino Romano, grated
Parmesan Cheese, to garnish

So first of all, the whole key to making this dish ridiculously delectable instead of a mundane pasta plate is the spicy garlic oil. Get your garlic, red pepper flakes, and olive oil into a small saucepan over low heat and just let it hang for at least 20 minutes before you start the rest of the cooking. Go walk on the treadmill or do jumping jacks in that time, and then you won't feel guilty about the pancetta!

Once the oil is infused with all that flavor, put it through a strainer and set the oil aside. Then get your pasta on to cook in plenty of salted water, for about 12 minutes.

In a large skillet, cook the pancetta over medium heat until crispy.

Zap the Creamed Spinach for a minute or two in the microwave just to loosen it up enough to pour over the crispy piggy parts.

If you're adding more fresh spinach, do so at this point and incorporate it so that it wilts down.

Take this opportunity to spoon a little of the garlic oil in at this point. It will facilitate the cooking of the spinach and bring all the flavors together.

Check the pasta. Is it nearly cooked through? Good. Add it to the pan after draining, but reserve some cooking liquid for adjusting your sauce in a minute. 

What time is it? Show time! Wait, it's actually cheese time. Sprinkle in your romano, then give it a taste. Does it need more umph? Add some more of the oil. Sauce too tight? Add in a scoop of pasta water and stir.

Sprinkle on some Parmesan once you plate up several big spoonfuls and enjoy! Please ignore my ugly hand. But enjoy this rich, satisfying, hearty pasta filled with greens as soon as you can!

I wish I had a more positive revisit to share, but we had dinner at the Adams Country Club a few weeks ago, and it was not great. Ok, it wasn't even good.

These fried mushrooms tasted fine, but for $8, nine or ten mushrooms is not much. We ended up ordering two portions for the five people in our party.

This Caesar salad was actually pretty good: plenty of parmesan, salty umami goodness with the perk-up of lemon and crisp greens. I wish I had ordered this as my entree.

I ordered the pasta special of the night, which was penne alla vodka with chicken. The weirdest part of the dish was that chicken: it was two whole breasts, sautéed instead of grilled and cut up into bite sized pieces throughout the dish. Was I supposed to cut up the chicken in the bowl, with all the pasta getting all messed up and splashing all over the table? You know what, I was so disgusted by this token of kitchen laziness, I just decided to not eat it altogether. It was impossible.

The injustices of this dish didn't end with the oversized chicken, though. The sauce was bonkers for something called a vodka sauce. Classically, this sauce is bright with tomato flavor that is slightly mellowed by cream, with depth and richness from the cooked-down liquor. This sauce didn't have depth, complexity, or creaminess. It was extremely one-dimensional, which immediately told me it wasn't built as a sauce should be. It had that artificial flavor you get with a cheap jarred sauce. The final nail in the coffin: rubbery, block mozzarella shreds topped the dish rather than an aged parmesan which could have added much-needed salt and nuttiness to this gloppy, flavorless mess.

Let's look at my homemade pasta again to cheer us up, shall we?

I'm not saying there isn't good food to be found at Adams Country Club, but I'm not likely to return, and I was sad to note that the cooking had gone downhill so steeply since I reviewed it for the WDT in 2015. So, that's it for me this week. I'm working on a review of the new Core + life Eatery in Vestal, and there will be a post about Corning coming soon! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


Dispatch from Arlington: I Do Like Green Pigs

How can holiday vacation be over already? Is this for real? I guess, because it's Wednesday and that means I owe you a review! Are you OK if it's from Arlington? Good, because it's all I've got.

A few weeks before Christmas I hit a very hipster-chic spot, the Green Pig Bistro, with my friend Christina down in Virginia. Make no mistake, I am too old and too stodgy to eat here. Despite the almost unbearable coolness of this spot, they still served me. This place is cranking out about the highest concept pedestrian comfort food you can imagine, and serving multi-ethnic beanie-wearing millenials next to tables full of grown-up frat bros drinking brown liquor and destroying gourmet burgers and steak frites with chimichurri.

We were advised by our amiable server to start with the pig tostada, and he did not steer us wrong. I initially harbored suspicions about this "snack," which rang in at $14, but no fear: it was a massive portion for any snack I would normally consume. The pulled pork was well-seasoned and juicy, and lots of fresh jalapeño slices, raw white onion and cilantro on top of the crunchy corn tortilla kept things fiery and bright. A deeply flavored roasted chile sauce and a chunky, tangy salsa verde worked in tandem to keep the pork from sinking the works into too much richness. It was delicious. I really like it when things are delicious.

Onion soup is hard for me to deny myself. This one was good, although it was packed with almost too many sweet onions, making it hard to enjoy the deep, rich beef broth on its own merits. The crouton retained its crunch and a topping of perfectly golden brown, nutty emmentaler cheese and sprinkling of bright, fresh chives crowned it splendidly.

Kabocha squash soup wasn't cloying or dessert-like, as so many squash soups tend to be. It was well-enough seasoned that it balanced sweet and savory flavors with a dose of umami. That masterful flavor balance plus a gorgeously velvety texture, made this dish quite a dish.

That snack, plus our soup coursewas so huge, we ordered appetizers rather than mains as our entrees. Lamb ragu + ricotta cavatelli piqued Christina's interest.

Helllllo gorgeous! Oh hey, do you like rich, savory, tender meat, slow cooked tomato sauce and light, fresh cheese? Hmm, how about tender pasta cylinders? Top it all with a shower of perfectly salty parmesan cheese, and you have this bowl of goodness.

Fried chicken biscuits with spicy honey? O-Kay. I mean, I was so stuffed by this point, I could barely eat them, but that doesn't mean they weren't fantastic. Most often, boneless fried chicken has nothing in common with real, Southern buttermilk fried chicken. Once you shed the bones and skin, you tend to lose all the crunch and flavor and end up with either a flavorless puck of protein or an over-salted mess. Not so at Green Pig. These chicken patties were succulent and peppery - quite tasty paired with the sweet hot sauce. The biscuits weren't perfect - they were tender, but didn't have that pleasing slightly brown crust made by brushing the tops with butter before baking. But I'm splitting hairs here. This was good eats.

I wish we could have sampled some of the main courses, but the inability to stop eating those really yummy soups kind of ruined us, hunger-wise. Dessert was simply out of the question. 

I don't think dinner at the Green Pig is going to rank in the upper echelon of restaurants you visit in the DC area, but I would definitely eat there again. It had the kind of food you want to pig out on, and everything was done well, if maybe not with the most creativity or panache of the city's premiere dining locations. I give Green Pig Bistro an eight on the BHS scale for its buzzy ambiance, gorge-worthy comfort food, and friendly service. This isn't the place for refined, new world cuisine, but you won't go hungry and you will leave satisfied. 

Green Pig Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hey, while we're here, are you following along on Facebook and Instagram with all the Big Hungry shenanigans? You'll find many more photos on IG, and on the Book, weekly meal plans, local restaurant news, and more. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


2016 Big Hungry Awards

The end of the year lists should be upon us this week from every media outlet on the planet. There are a lot of guides out there on how to attract more readers to your blog, and they all tout doing more lists, but for BHS purposes, longer form posts just make more sense. You can't really review a restaurant in a Top 10 format.

But I do have one list for you every year, and it's my own little awards show in a post: The Big Hungry Awards. Annually, I pick the best of what I ate and where I ate it in New York State the previous 12 months. I might have had a better bacon dish in Germany or Philly, but these awards are limited to New York State, as that is really the focus of my blog. So if you're looking around for somewhere really tremendous to stuff your face over the holidays, I've got you!

So here we go, let's not beat around the bush. The Best Appetizer of 2016 is probably also my favorite dish in all of the Southern Tier: the Angry Lobster at Social on State. I'm popping this into the appetizer category because Social does all small plates, although I would eat this as a main course, given that the sheer amount of wine and butter in it calorically qualifies it as a full meal. It is rich, spicy, and just a tiny bit sweet - balancing out all those flavors with huge, tender chunks of decadent lobster. I love it.

Salads are not usually my jam, as you know, but I do like to give you all a Best Salad category because plenty of you probably like them. While this salad wasn't extraordinary in and of itself, the dressing was so good, I was eating it off a spoon by the end of the course. 2016's Best Salad can be found way up in Morristown at Ella's on the Bay, and the big winner is Ella's delectable homemade ranch dressing. This stuff was thick, garlicky, and bursting with fresh herbs. Absolutely fabulous.

Hand and Foot is a relative newcomer to Corning's Gaffer District, and we absolutely loved everything we ate there for lunch last January. The fried chicken sandwich stood out, not only for its crunchy house-made pickles and expertly fried bird, but the thick-cut local bacon on it. The bacon was sweet and smoky, balancing the other flavors and textures on the sandwich handily. It was my Best Bacon dish of 2016

Side dishes, overall, were not super strong this year, but I like to recognize perfect french fries whenever I can, and The Barley Pub, in Belleville, is doing them right. These hand-cut, double-fried, well-seasoned beauties take Best Side Dish of 2016 in my book, and we will be back for more.

Well, we've had our appetizers and salad course, we better move on to the entrees. There were some excellent ones this year, but I'm giving the prize to Gilda's, in Skaneateles. This charming bistro's cozy interior, superior wine list, and small menu of pizzas and small plates won us over immediately, and that impression grew even more rosy with the hot soppressatta pizza, topped with spicy Italian salami and honey, plus pecorino cheese for a little tang. This was the Best Entree of 2016 for my taste buds, because the sweet and the heat played off one another so well, and the cheeses were high enough quality to lend their own personality to the overall flavor.

My next winner is, sadly, a restaurant that is about to say goodbye. It's a favorite of my family's, so I'm bummed to see Carol's Cafe go. But Carol, the chef at the helm of this Staten Island institution, is retiring, and more power to her! I will miss her quaint cafe stuck in the middle of that bustling island, and I will miss her absolutely singular caramel shrimp appetizer, which has won my Best Appy accolade in the past. So this year, Carol's gets my award for Best Dessert for her gorgeous, light-as-air chocolate souffle. Like Carol's Cafe itself, this dish is a masterpiece - a rare treat to find on a menu anymore, and something most chefs just aren't willing to bother with. Now that Carol is retiring, we will have one less spectacular souffle in this world, and we will be the poorer for it.

Corned beef hash is one of my favorite breakfast treats, and it's not easy to find a really good, house-made one in Upstate NY. That's why I was so enthusiastic about the excellent hash at the Highland Park Diner in Rochester over the summer. This was pretty straightforward corned beef and potatoes shredded up finely and crisped on the flat-top griddle, but some fresh parsley in the mix lifted the flavors up a bit, and there was a bit of sweetness in the beef brine that was a nice counter to the overt saltiness you typically get from all that cured meat. This dish wins my Best Breakfast award this year.

Best Ambiance was actually the first award I decided on this year, because it was the easiest to point out. The Krebs, in Skaneateles, is simply one of the most gorgeous dining experiences I've ever had, in Upstate NY or anywhere else. From the gracious front porch, framed in ferns, on which to enjoy cocktails, to the cream and dark wood interior decked out with modern, posh lighting and lots of fabric to absorb sound and render peace, this restaurant has been lovingly remodeled into the most luxurious supper club you'll find. I had a few notes on the food in my review back in September, but the ambiance and service of this five star locale were not among them.

I started a new category last year called Best Surprise, and I wanted to stick with it this year. The choice was really easy - Ella's, in Morristown, again. Have you ever been up to Morristown? It's little, you guys. There is a funeral home, a tiny marina, and maybe an insurance office in this village, and then Ella's. What they are doing, from a culinary standpoint, at this restaurant is far more than they need to do to be successful, because they have a clientele of locals built in due to being the only game in town! And yet, Ella's has expertly mixed cocktails, house-made salad dressings and bread dipping oil, inventive entrees, and desserts that will force you to groan around your fork. I encouraged you all to choose Ella's for a summer date night, and I'm reinforcing that recommendation all these months later, because it's that good there. Who would have thought it?

I'm a sentimental sort of fool. I know this about myself. I'm sad to see Chef Carol retire and close up her Dongan Hills landmark in Staten Island. And so, in celebration of her decades of excellence, I am awarding Carol's Cafe Best Restaurant of 2016. We took new friends there over the summer, before learning it was closing, and I'm so glad we got a last visit in. If you read this and live downstate, there is still time - she's open until December 31st, so run, don't walk, to get your chocolate souffle, liver and onions, and caramel shrimp. Thank you, Carol, for feeding us so well all these years, and enjoy your retirement!

Well, that's about it from me until after Christmas, Hungries. Congratulations to all the big winners. Um, don't, like, watch the mail for your award or anything. These are more pay-on-the-back, bragging rights kind of accolades due to another year of budget constraints around the Big Hungry homestead. But I send thanks to these local restaurants along with my congratulations, because finding food this good in our little paradise of New York State is always a pleasure. Your hard work and dedication to feeding people well is why I blog, and it really makes a difference in our communities.

My hunger is big; my personality is bigger! This is BHS, signing off for now --


Dispatch from Arlington: Binghamton Boys Bring the Bounty

Last year, I gave a mini-review of Liberty Tavern, the Arlington, VA flagship restaurant of two brothers who hail from Binghamton - the Fedorchaks.

Last week, I was back in Arlington for work, and took some colleagues with me for dinner at Lyon Hall, the brothers' French brasserie/German beer hall. I had an exciting conversation about the meal prior to leaving town with my buddy Dan, from Food and Fire, and was pumped to sample this menu, which features food not found on your typical Upstate NY slate.

Lyon Hall, you notice right away, is a very cool spot. It's a fairly cozy space, but very chic - a dark interior with marble floors, close-set tables, and subway tile. Because the tables are so close together, you can smell everything your neighbors are eating, which is a blessing and a curse. The food here smells divine, you guys. No joke. We ordered enough for probably seven or eight people for our four-top, but the mussels and macaroni and cheese on the table next to me where so intoxicating, I briefly flirted with stealing them.

One member of our party had scouted the menu prior to arrival, and was jazzed about the butcher's block, so that was our first order of business. The foie gras torchon was my favorite thing on this board, followed closely by a dollop of truffle mustard that was luxurious but not overpowering. The pate was silky and rich, processed just as the gods intended and absolutely wonderful.

The pile of prosciutto over in the corner was aged 18 months, and was almost as buttery as duck prosciutto - savory and sweet in almost equal measure, and very tender. Thin slices of salami were not only sweet from plenty of fennel, but also just a bit spicy, like a very refined pepperoni. A small dish of wild boar rillettes caused the most consternation at our table. Less challenging than it sounds, this was basically pork pot roast covered in a layer of fat. Smear that combo on a crostini and just let the pork fat sing, man.

Next up? Pork belly, of course! A lot of times, a pork belly appetizer will employ small chunks of meat either braised or fried, but Lyon Hall is not afraid to plunk down a fat cube of the good stuff.  E crispy pork was served over a bell pepper relish with chorizo and basil, the sweetness countering the unctuous richness of the meat. My colleague is a pretty reticent guy, but he actually giggled a tiny bit when he tasted this dish. That's a resounding recommendation, in my book. 

The Alsatian taste was pure comfort food: onions, bacon, and creamy cheese and herbs on flatbread. It was the most simple dish to hit our table all night, but a welcome flavor break from the richness of all the meat we had just plowed through. That may sound boring, but this flatbread was far from that. Its familiar flavors, bit of crunch, and herbal cleanness were just a nice break from the meats.

On the entree list, the schnitzel called my name. The short rib flirted with me. The sausage platter asked for my number. But I went home with duck cassoulet. The promise of confit duck leg AND smoked trotter sauce with creamy white beans was just too much to bear. I was impressed when I read that the executive chef of all the Fedorchak brothers' establishments is a Voltaggio alum, and if the skill illustrated in the charcuterie platter hadn't already proven his skill, this dish sealed the deal. The sauce enrobing the crispy breast, tender leg, and beans was incredibly complex, sweet from aromatic vegetables and acidic from long-cooked wine, garlicky and rich and so good I wanted to lick the plate long after I was completely full.

The root vegetables still retained some toothsomeness, and the texture of the confit leg was tender and juicy. The wonderful sausage was coarsely ground and intensely flavored with garlic, which could have overpowered the duck, but actually worked really well with the beans and vegetables. The breast was just a hair overlooked, unfortunately, but every other component of this was a masterpiece.

A shared side of barely sautéed Savoy cabbage with herbs and shallots was bright and just barely acidic - a perfect foil for the loads of rich, fatty meats we were luxuriating in.

Desserts were less spectacular. My s'mores napolean was so overpoweringly sweet and rich, I couldn't take more than a couple bites, although the cinnamon ice cream was yummy. The graham cookie component, in particular, seemed tough and too thick for the composition.

Overall, though, our feast at Lyon Hall was pretty exhilarating. You don't get a lot of brasserie-style food here in the states, and a lot of what we had here reminded me of the better meals I've had in Germany and France, so it's hitting the notes intended. Best of all, knowing this terrific food is being created, in part, by two hometown guys gives me hope that we could support a restaurant like Lyon Hall here in the Soutern Tier someday. I give Lyon Hall a nine on the BHS scale, because after a less pig-out meal, that dessert may not have struck me as so supremely sugary, and while the duck was overlooked, my main dish was aces anyway. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Lyon Hall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato