Honey Throwdown

This is the fourth year the Broome County Legislature asked me to come be a part of its Fresh From the Farm Throwdown, a partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension to expose young people in the community to locally grown foods and how to prepare them. I serve as a "celebrity" judge (insert cynical laughter here) of the dishes the various youth groups conjure up utilizing an in-season agricultural product each year.

This year, local honey was the ingredient of choice for the Throwdown, and my fellow judges Kristen Cox Roby and Sue Chinyavong were the most fun foodies ever to experience all the wonderful treats the kids cooked up. Kristen writes about food for the Press & Sun Bulletin and Sue runs my new favorite pho and coconut rice hangout, Teasure Ice Cream, in Endwell.

Team 1 was Girl Scount Troop 30245 AKA Francesca, Gianna, Delaney and Sarah. Let me just underscore the extreme Jedi skills of these girls, who experimented with subbing in honey for sugar in a variety of crackers and cookies until they came up with a moist shortbread to serve as the base for their honey fluff fudge s'mores. 

With this delectable s'mores hybrid, we also received a goblet of sweet/tart red zinger iced tea, sweetened with honey from McRey Farm. The kicker to the s'mores was the fluff piled on the fudge-dipped cookie - it was made with honey, and delivered a punch of the syrupy, floral sweetness that plain corn syrup can never equal. It was all presented rather adorably, and that's why this selection won our prize for Best Presentation.

Team 2, the Club Cafe gang from the Boys & Girls Club of Western Broome, actually run a restaurant that's open to the public a few hours a week at the club. Amierah, Luke, Aliviya and Quanez used honey from Berkshire Hills Honeybee Farm for their honey butter delight, smeared on top of corn muffins.

They topped the muffins with a smear of the honey butter and chopped strawberries, and sprinkled the whole shebang with some sea salt to finish. We found the addition of the salt to be so different and kind of nouveau, and awarded them the Most Creative award for their dish.

Sea salt and honey pie, the creation of Team 3, the Fantastic Foodies, is the kind of dessert that is so sweet, your teeth send up signals of protest to your brain immediately as you bite into it. However, your brain's pleasure centers are all lit up already, sending out mental fireworks and moaning noises to your lips, and at that point, your teeth and their dumb cavity concerns barely register. Eve, Kirsten, Kennedy, and Logan? You ladies made us a dessert so complex and ooey-gooey delicious, we didn't care in the slightest that it was a dentist's nightmare.

The juicy, fresh peach frozen yogurt on top added just enough tartness to stand up to the maxed out honey flavor of the pie, but the real genius was the honey mint lemonade, which employed fresh garden mint to stunning effect - a palate cleanser for this multi-dimensional, brilliant dessert. I would definitely pay money for this dish in a restaurant, and I encourage local pastry chefs to reach out to these youngsters for their recipe. Unsurprisingly, it won both Peoples Choice and Best Overall.

Team 4 brought the thunder with a massive tres leches cake in which all the sugar components were made with honey from Earl's Honey. VINES has competed in the Throwdown every year, and you've read here before about how these kids grow all their own food in their urban garden. This year's team, made up of Quitajah, Ariel, Sage, James, Joshua, Jonathan, and Destini, knocked it out of the park with their very sweet, super moist layer cake with honey whipped cream and honey-caramel drizzle. There was no mistaking the rich taste of honey in this confection.

They also made us a tea with mint and honey in it, and again, the mint was a refreshing antidote for the  cloying sweetness prepared for us by the bees and the kids. VINES took home the award for Most Local Products. They even grew the sumac flowers garnishing the cake!

The final group, Team 5, was Citizens U, another returning squad. Nyeatwig, Shazaria, Esther, Kiara, and Emroidery made us a complete tasting plate of inspired honey dishes, including crostini, jalapeño honey butter, fruit, dipping sauce, and honey lemonade. You want to make something awesome with honey? Roast up a jalapeño chile, and dice that into some softened butter with a drizzle of local honey. That stuff is dynamite!

We also loved the crostini, which gave us a salty bite of prosciutto and a licoricey leaf of basil with our honeyed ricotta. Citizen U won our award for Best Taste.

Overall, this group of kids did a remarkable job, through creativity and a lot of hard work, with this year's featured ingredient. I was a little surprised there wasn't a more savory dish in the mix - my favorite use of honey this time of year is equal parts honey and butter glazing slender green beans, seasoned with lots of salt and pepper to keep them from veering too sweet. But, I'll tell you, I came up with that recipe in my mid-20s. At these kids' ages, I too, would probably have chased the sweet preparations with reckless abandon!

We had great food this year (that pie. THAT PIE!), but what I love most about this event is that it forces so many young people into the kitchen to really dissect a locally-grown food and figure out how to cook it. Plus, the kids' pride of their dishes is so evident - they develop the recipes themselves, often through a good bit of trial and error - and to be rewarded for that hard work lays a really wonderful foundation for a lifetime of kitchen experimentation. There are so few opportunities these days for kids to fall in love with cooking, and I'm enthusiastic about supporting any of them that I can.

Oh right, it was also pretty fun to be on an extreme sugar high with these two;) Congratulations to all of this year's Honey Throwdown participants! You are all the bee's knees! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Boca Bistro Will Make Your Mouth Happy

Saratoga Springs isn't a big city, but the restaurant choices can be dizzying. Will you have succulent, satisfyingly crunchy fried chicken at Hattie's? Maybe the freshest artichokes on a simple but devastating pizza at Forno Bistro? Or perhaps a light tuna tartare and a trendy cocktail at Max London's, or even a pungently garlicky falafel pita from a basement cafe on a side street?

If you're cruising Broadway, Saratoga's main drag, Boca Bistro is a welcoming sight, with its yellow metal piggy right outside to greet you. Inside, this Spanish-themed cafe lit with Edison bulbs makes a trendy and tasty place for lunch, though the dinner menu has a seductive array of paellas and tapas I'd like to try on a second visit.

When I read on the menu that Boca's Cuban was made with pork shoulder and serano rather than sliced pork loin and plain old boiled ham, I was sold. A typical Cuban sandwich is out of balance, for me: low on pork flavor and too sour, with the yellow mustard plus the Swiss cheese and commercial dill pickles. This one brought pork fat to the party, along with housemade garlic pickles, a Dijon-flavored mayo, and a very small amount of milder, creamier cheese. It was robust, perfectly salty, with savory, slightly sweet ham, lightly crisp pickles and gooey, melted white cheese. The menu called the bread upon which it was built ciabatta, but it was lighter in texture than any ciabatta I've ever had.

A side of patatas bravas, or fried potatoes, were heavy on the sweet paprika, showered with fresh parsley, and graced with a dollop of light, fluffy garlic aoli. Less oily and dense than store-bought mayonnaise, this condiment was so well suited to the earthy, spiced potatoes, it made me second guess ever having ingested ketchup.

On a house made, house smoked pastrami sandwich, a crunchy slaw and a tighter Spanish cheese (with pull like mozzarella, but more flavorful) accompanied more pickles and tender, juicy, peppery meat. It was really exceptional on griddled bread, with a small dish of spicy aoli served on the side to slather on, if you so chose.

We didn't sample enough of the menu to fully evaluate Boca Bistro, but I did eat enough to to tell you that this is a good spot to stop for sandwiches hovering somewhere above your typical deli selections. Our waiter was flaky, but our cocktails were legit, and we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch there.

Boca Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

This Thursday, I'm returning to judge the Broome County Legislature's Honey Throwdown. My fellow judges Kristen, Sue, and I will taste dishes made by area youth groups made with local honey and pick our favorites. It's my fourth time judging the Throwdown, which teaches kids about the importance of knowing where their food comes from. So stay tuned for next week's blog post, where I'll share photos and results of the event, plus hopefully a recipe or two. If you follow the Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook, you can check out the dishes as I see them on Thursday afternoon! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


A Ray of Sunshine on Endicott's Washington Ave

Washington Ave., in Endicott, receives a lot of sighs, tongue clicks, and shaken heads. "It's not like it once was," they exclaim.

Ordinarily, I like to take on these dooms dayers, arguing about gentrification and about how one good shop or restaurant can revitalize most neighborhoods. But Washington Ave., seemingly, is a hopeless case. Walking back to our office last year, a colleague and I came face to face with a man who, minutes after we encountered him, stabbed several people on the other side of the street. It is rough here! 

On a street like this, a smiling face can go a long way. So walk on in to Khan's Kitchen, right on the corner of the Ave and North St., for a big, bright smile from the owner and cook. This cafe opened in the early spring, serving up beyond generous portions of mostly Mediterranean and American eats, but really, the menu is remarkably diverse. Looking for a great gyro? Khan's has it, handed over with a wide smile and low price tag. The meat is halal, too.

Oh wait, did you want a non-spicy empanada, stuffed with tandoor-roasted chicken and American cheese in a flaky, buttery pastry? These gorgeous babies are only two bucks a piece:

My favorite dishes are the chicken tikka, which is highly seasoned (but not spicy) tandoor chicken, tender and flavorful, served over absolutely delicious long grain brown rice seasoned with cumin and aromatics like onions and green bell peppers, doused in a mild and supremely savory "hot" sauce and a light, thin tzatziki sauce that has less cucumber and garlic flavor than most - I'm guessing it's just yogurt, olive oil, dill or thyme and maybe a little cumin? I haven't been able to fully diagram every flavor, but it's saucy and provides a cool, lightly creamy balance with a hint of sharpness to the chicken and rice. Diced tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and lettuce doused in more tzatziki provides lightness that I like to sprinkle all over the nearly three-cup serving of chicken and rice.

That entire container of food is $7. And here's what's messed up: I have actually eaten it ALL for lunch, in one sitting, because it's so good, but also because I am a monster who doesn't possess a shred of self-control. Rowr.

My other fave is the lamb rice, which is the same salad, same rice, same sauces, but with a layer of savory, deep and rich lamb gyro meat right in the middle. The lamb is saltier than the chicken, so the feeling of this one is a little heavier. It's delicious, but you'll be thirsty later. Get it anyway. 

Khan's also has burgers, fish and chips, and spring rolls, but I haven't worked through the whole menu yet. I'm kind of stuck on that wonderful chicken tikka. My coworker Carrie and I always feel bad that the owner isn't charging more for his plentiful food! This place has been getting steadily busier each week we visit, as people catch on, and rightly so. The dining room is bare bones, the wall color and sparse decor leftovers from Get Forked, the short-lived sandwich shop that used to haunt this space. But we love it anyway. I give Khan's Kitchen a seven on the big hungry scale, and if you have just $7, you've got lunch and an experience that will redeem your belief in Washington Ave.!

Khan's Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Have you joined the Big Hungry Shelby Facebook group yet? Well, why not? I'm serving up extra helping of local and national food news and events over there, so join the feast today! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Share a Pie with Your Brother (or Your Sister) from PieZano's

The South side of Watertown is home to the city's middle, junior, and senior high schools, its hospital, numberous car dealerships and doctor's offices, and many beautiful neighborhoods. But it's never been a great place to eat.

Sure, there's a Jreck Subs. For awhile, a Pizza Hut and a Baskin Robbins took up some space. Way back when I was a kid, the diner inside the Kmart on Outer Washington Street kept busy, and Shelly's Deli did a brisk business for many years just a few doors down from that property. I'm thrilled that Ives Hill Country Club provides a fine dining and lounge setting on this side of town, but a few more casual options have been sorely missing for years. With all of those professional people, close restaurants open for lunch were especially lacking. 

Like magic, PieZano's Pizza showed up just a couple months ago in the Tops Plaza. And there was much rejoicing in the land! I've sampled PieZano's menu on three separate occasions, and I've been waiting excitedly to share my thoughts about this new gem with you all.

Our first visit, we shared a whole veggie pizza, and were immediately impressed by the tasty, chewy, golden crust - not cracker thin or Sicilian, but somewhere in between. It was hearty, flavorful, cooked at high enough heat to render the bottom crunchy, but balanced with the plentiful toppings. The vegetables were impeccably fresh, peppers still crunchy, mushrooms hand cut instead of from a can, and thin shards of red onion for sweetness sharing space with black olive slices for depth. The sauce at PieZano's is sweet and bright, and the cheese has good pull and that creamy, almost salty taste of quality aged mozzarella. 

The second time, we got a pepperoni pie and brought it home, to see if it would get soggy during transport. Fear not! That toothsome crust had appealing, caramelized blisters around the edges, and remained a crisp base for the spicy, greasy pepperoni. It might seem odd that I'm describing the pepperoni - we all know what pepperoni tastes like, right? But I can't tell you how many times I've had slices of cheaper pepperoni without that telltale bite, the mild-but-exciting zing of Italian chile flakes that seem to be missing from bargain brands of this sausage. I only use Margherita brand or better at home, and I was pleased that PieZano's pepperoni - America's most popular pizza topping - was worthy.

This is not NY style or Chicgo style or gourmet pizza, but it's exactly what you might want to order on a Friday night after a long workweek: hearty, flavorful, simple, and delicious. 

Our next visit, we dined in. PieZano's has a small dining room, but are not especially set up to accommodate eat-in customers. The flatware is plastic, and the salad we ordered was already packaged in a plastic to-go clamshell and had to be dished out onto a plate for us. Dressings are from little packets. 

The garlic knots here are large and fluffy, with a lightly crisp exterior. They weren't drowning in garlic butter, like other local knots. They had garlic salt on top rather than fresh, minced garlic, so the effect was much different than most sloppy, super garlicky rolls, more like garlic bread made with pizza dough.

The vegetable beef soup, I didn't think was scratch made, but the menu asserts that PieZano's makes its soups in-house. It was very flavorful, bordering on salty, with big chunks of potato, green beans, peas and soft beef.

Medium chicken wings were coated in a bottled buffalo sauce, I believe, as it was more viscous than a simple butter and hot sauce combo would render. They were cooked perfectly crispy for my tastes. Dipping sauce and celery and carrots are extra, as is the trend these days. No gratis accoutrements, a la Wing Wagon. My suggestion would be to raise the price 50 cents and include blue cheese and celery.

The chicken parmesan grinder was lighter than I expected, dressed with a sauce smacking of fresh tomato brightness and lots of gooey provolone cheese on a light, airy bread. The fried chicken breast itself was standard, and didn't add much flavor to the overall works. Chips on the side were house-made, crinkle cut. Not greasy but aggressively salty. Order an extra cup of water for these babies, because PieZano's doesn't serve beer to wash them down with.

Stromboli with pepperoni and mushrooms was massive and absolutely delicious, as were its leftovers the next day. It was a hair on the greasy side, but not in an off-putting way. Again, the ingredients stuffed inside were high quality and flavorful, the sweetness of the sauce offsetting the earthy mushrooms and spicy pepperoni. 

We tried two individual slices, a red and a white, which are available in addition to whole pizzas at PieZano's. They couldn't hold a candle to the whole pies, their flavor muted by too long a slumber at room temp, and the crust was dried out. My advice: skip 'em.

There are flashes of brilliance on the menu at PieZano's, along with some items that fell short, for us. I should note that they offer gluten free pizza, in addition to my preferred glutinous extravaganza, so for those our you looking out for such things, now you know. 

I give PieZano's a seven on the BHS scale - an overall great addition to this side of Watertown, with mostly terrific eats. While the pizza can't beat Stefano's or Art's Jug, for me, it is something I've been happy to tuck into on several occasions. With a side of crispy wings and some of those massive garlic knots, you can sail away into your carb coma blissfully after a meal here. Mangia! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Piezanos Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato