BHS 2016 Holiday Gift Guide: The Precious Present

Well. It’s been a rough week, to say the least. I can barely tolerate any form of social media right now, and the fact that every single person in our congested newsfeeds and groups feels the need to have their voice heard on the state of our nation, plus the sharing of countless unsubstantiated news articles jamming every inch of every screen, is simply exhausting.

I have very strong ideas about the leadership of our country, and concerns about what the next four years will bring. But what I’m thankful for is the foundation of faith that’s taught me that if we can all ease up a bit and work positively for change in our own little sphere, the cacophony of fear and negativity do not have to become all-consuming. I think part of this faith comes from growing up in the Episcopal Church – a footing that helps me to understand that sometimes, it’s better to quiet one’s own voice in the storm of shouting, and just try to put more good out into the world. When I was a kid, I participated in a bunch of youth ministry activities through my church and its diocese, and one of the parables that meant the most in that time is also a terrific Christmas gift for any families you might know with young children: The Precious Present.

This book is short, and makes really wonderful holiday evening reading in front of the fire or next to the glowing Christmas tree. It’s not religious, but it is a parable in the order of The Gift of the Magi or similar tales. This one focuses on a man’s search for happiness as he grows up from a boy. Finding happiness within is a lesson we could probably all use right now, so think about this for any families on your list.

Looking for something tastier to give to the foodies in your life? As usual, I’ve got the hook-up. Here’s what’s dancing around in my head rather than sugar plums this year.

If the special person on your gift list loved Kitchen Confidential, meat in tube form, or any other iteration of the Anthony Bourdain food empire, you might want to go with Appetites, his first cookbook in years. This one’s on my personal list, as well, and I can’t wait to make Tony’s recipe for savory pie crust. Bring it.

Sur La Table is on my naughty list right now over an unfortunate cinnamon bun mishap, but before that happened, I secured a couple pieces from its new Jacques Pepin line. This colorful, whimsical batch of bakers, linens, bowls, and spatulas features designs painted by the French master himself, and would be perfect in any country kitchen.

Delicacies is a new line of chef-inspired jewelry that I’m craving this holiday season. Each bracelet or necklace features a charm of an ingredient – like a tiny silver pig, head of garlic, lobster, or ear of corn – set either on a thick leather band or delicate metal chain. They let you wear your favorite ingredients loud and proud for the whole world to see, but in an elegant way. Maybe an octopus for my friend Katey with a blog called The Mother Octopus? Or a tomato for the person who brings you fresh vegetables from his garden every summer? That piggy has my name on it, personally.

Have you ever seen the episode of Friends in which Chandler and Rachael steal several cheesecakes from an absent neighbor and shame-eat them in secret, and then Joey comes along with a fork right in his pocket and gleefully asks, “All right, what are we having?”

Well, if you’re the Joey in that scenario (hey, we’ve all been the Joey at least once), or you know someone who is, this next gift may be right up someone’s alley. Andrew Zimmern’s travel cutlery set cracked me up right away when I spotted it, and immediately reminded me of Joey. It even has chopsticks! And it’s only $10! This is a fun stocking stuffer for the Joey Tribbiani in your life, or anyone who frequents food trucks and hates sporks.

Staying with my buddy Andrew, he also has this cool travel toothpick holder for the dude in your life who always needs a toothpick after every meal. I know you know this person – I have one! And he’s getting this for Christmas.

This next treat will seem pricey – they are a splurge, to be sure. But if you are a person who makes bomb gift baskets of food around the holidays, need a tasty hostess gift, or have a nut lover on your list – these are the pinnacle of what cashews can be. DiBruno Brothers’ Black Lava Cashews are a tiny bit sweet, addictively salty, and 100 percent delicious. I know $12 is extravagant for only 10 oz of nuts, but please trust me when I tell you they are worth it. You will be obsessed with them and just as mad as I am that DB doesn’t sell them in a larger package online. I’m placing my holiday order this week.

You probably think you don’t like Israeli cooking. It sounds terribly exotic, doesn’t it? I’m here to tell you that most Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine is much more tame than you might imagine. The spice profiles are warming, rather than spicy-hot, and less complex and funky than Indian flavors. Israeli food is fresh-tasting, the flavors of all vegetables dialed up to 10, with loads of parsley and lemon, plus a sweet spice called sumac, and tahini, which is the sesame paste that enriches hummus. This book, from the chef at Philly’s wonderful Zahav restaurant, is a full-color riot of the vibrant foods of this country and its people. Also, the chicken soup recipe absolutely rocks. And if you have a vegetarian who loves to cook on your shopping list? Bingo.

If you've ever gone on vacation in the Southeast and had wonderful, salty ham biscuits for breakfast, then come home and wondered why you couldn't replicate the flavor, it's probably because we can't get real country ham in stores up here. Our breakfast hams are, for the most part, factory-produced, with smoke flavoring added instead of actual smoking, and curing accomplished by chemicals instead of salt and time. Broadbent's is one of the last, great smokehouses (there's also Benton's) doing it all the right way, turning out spectacular country hams, sausage, bacon, and other cured meats that are the true charcuterie of America. A great gift for a transplanted Southerner or anyone who loves country ham would be Broadbent's Bluegrass Biscuit Brunch. This assortment of biscuit mix, bacon, and country ham slices will cure what ails you, and make any breakfast lover on your list happy as a pig in....well, you know.

No Kid Hungry is an awesome charity that works to insure, well, that no kid in this country goes hungry. They work with school lunch and breakfast programs, as well as community programs to help low-income families feed their children. A really great way to help out this cause AND delight the cook or baker in your family who also has a celebrity obsession (or Nascar, or Cheftestant) is to buy them a spatula from Williams-Sonoma's very cool No Kid Hungry collection this year. 30 percent of the proceeds go to the organization, so you're doing some good while also getting your loved one a spatula designed by Jimmy Kimmel, Danica Patrick, Trisha Yearwood, Ian Garten, Michael Voltaggio, or Chrissy Tiegen. I want one!

So that’s it, kids. My list of the best of what’s around for 2016 for the foodies you need to buy for this holiday season. So bust out your credit cards and warm up your search engines. Hey, some of this stuff may even be eligible for Black Friday deals! Make that food lover in your life extra happy on Christmas morning and try these gifts! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


A Charming Pub in Bellville

My parents were seated at a table with the owners of the Barley Pub at a luncheon they attended last year. The couple said they loved my column for the Watertown Daily Times, and underscored their commitment to cooking from scratch. They invited us to come out and experience what they were doing in Belleville, with the hope I would cover it for the paper.

I never got a chance to visit before the column was canceled, but I don't like to miss out on a chance to sample from-scratch fries and other house made fare, and our Miss TI Olivia and her brother Ryan were singing at Barley Pub this past Saturday night, so we hopped in the car and trekked on down to Belleville for a really fun night out.

Fried pickles are a good time, you know? These had one of the most solid, crunchy coatings of any spears I've ever had in a restaurant, but not at the expense of a crisp, cool dill pickle. We got both a cooling each dressing and a kicked up, slightly spicy thousand island dipping sauce alongside. Switching between the two was the way to go. I don't know if you can tell this from the picture, below, but there was dried dill running through the breading, and there were five big spears in our portion.

I'd been craving chicken wings for a couple weeks. A place that calls itself a pub seems like a pretty good spot to fulfill that craving, no? Dad and I split an order of medium, bone-in wings. I feel like medium is the litmus test for a good wing - mild have no zip, typically, and hot can be too spicy to really tell if the chicken is good. These were real deal, with a perfect butter-to-hot sauce ratio and a non-greasy hit of vinegar and spice.

The wings weren't too saucy, but they were both crispy AND meaty. This was good quality chicken. We were also pleased with the handful of crisp, fresh celery and double dipping sauces we were given. So many places are skimping on those little extras nowadays due to rising food costs, but it's those accoutrements that can be all the difference, even with bar food.

A side salad did the job well. Pristinely fresh vegetables? Check. Lots of ingredients other than lettuce? Check. Peppery balsamic vinaigrette? Check. It wasn't the most remarkable salad ever, but it did tick off some important pros.

I felt similarly about the pizza, which is only available on Friday and Saturday nights. It had a lot of tasty attributes: sweet, flavorful sauce, chewy, well-developed crust, and lots of toppings. For me, though, there was too much sauce on the pie, and the whole shebang was a little blond. The cheese was mostly snowy white, rather than brown and bubbly. Because of that too-short cooking time, the toppings didn't have enough cook time to caramelize, so the thin-sliced pepperoni and canned mushrooms couldn't live up to their full flavor potential. The pizza was good, but it wasn't great.

Shrimp basket! Plump shrimp are there, but you know what else? HOUSE CUT FRIES. They were well seasoned, creamy inside, and crunchy outside. The Holy Grail of fries, right there in Belleville. They were delicious.

May I also draw your attention to the number of shrimp? Seven big ones with slaw and fries for $10.50. This isn't remarkably modern or unique cuisine, but everything we tried was tasty and hearty.

That statement rings true for the rib-eye steak. Perfectly cooked baked potato and a cooked-to-order, glistening slab of beef arrived, with a side of sautéed vegetables. The steak wasn't particularly thick, nor the highest grade of aged steak you can get. But it was a good sized portion, cooked properly, well seasoned, and $16.99. 

One of the things I liked the most about this pub is the bright, open atmosphere it has. Many Irish pub settings are dark, the wood trim dominating the space such that one feels closed in. This is not an issue at the Barley Pub. I will say, as someone will some hearing challenges, with live music, the space becomes very loud. I struggled to hear our friends when Ryan and Olivia were playing, because there's little in the open room to suck up sound. So keep that in mind if you're visiting on a weekend. 

We loved our night out at the Barley Pub in Bellville. For its hearty, house-crafted food, excellent service (our waitress, Tara, was a treat), and a really good time, I award this road house a seven on the BHS scale. I hope you check it out. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Barley Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


A Plan Comes Together

I have a new hobby. It's not very entertaining, unless you're obsessed with food, looking to get back in the kitchen after a summer of convenience foods and eating out, and/or looking to spur conversations about dinner in your household. If any of those things appeal to you, maybe you need to get this hobby in your life.

It's called meal planning. How unsexy is that? It sounds so boring, throw-back, like something the poor housewives of the 1950s were forced to do. It sounds like a chore your grandmother wrestled with, all, "WhatEVER am I going to feed the family this week?"

I've never been one to plan out an entire week of meals. Instead, I would go to the store and buy what looked good, then fly by the seat of my pants each evening, making whatever I felt like eating in the moment. But I'm older and wiser now. Oh, and I'm also older and marginally more exhausted at the end of the day. That means knowing exactly what I'm going to make when I get home is comforting. Not having to call a play while I'm already on the field, cold and hungry, is a good thing.

The other perk is spending an hour or two over the weekend combing Pinterest, magazines, and cookbooks for recipe ideas. As I said before, I'm obsessed with food, so luxuriating in the process of selecting our dinners for the week, mixing cuisines and proteins, is kind of cool. Oh, and then I get to fantasize all week about whatever I'm making Thursday night. Is that weird?

I almost forgot the other bonus: Shawn, heretofore an unwilling participant in dinner decisions, has, in the fridge-posting of my weekly plan, become suddenly much more active in the supper story. Our fridge is stainless steel, and basically acts as the white board for our house. We keep shopping lists and to do lists there, and now, our meal plan. This has let him in on the process in a way that me texting him at work, "what do you want for dinner?" never quite accomplished. The first week I posted a plan, he asked me every night if it was time for kielbasa vegetable bake yet.

In days past, I would buy a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts without a plan of how to use them, then get lazy on a Tuesday night, too hungry and tired to think straight, and sauté them up with dried spices, served with a boxed rice mix and frozen vegetables. That's a fine meal, but doesn't chicken pot pie ragu with egg noodles sound better? Yup!

I'd love to hear your take on this new hobby of mine. Do you meal plan? For you, what are the advantages of this seemingly unglamorous chore? If you're a member of the Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook, you've seen my meal plans the last few weeks. Have you tried any of the recipes for yourself? Sound off in the comments and let us know your tips and tricks! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


A Rather Grand Comeback in Ithaca

About two years ago, an errant truck smashed through the wall of Simeon's on the Commons, in Ithaca, leaving destruction in its path. A few weeks ago, this stalwart of The Commons reopened, with a fresh, airy interior that's modern and classic at the same time - transom windows shining onto elaborately trimmed Wedgewood blue walls, and a marble bar with a two story mirror at its back.

I had never eaten at Simeon's first incarnation, so Big Hungry Melinda and I chose it for brunch before a much-needed spa visit to August Moon Spa this past weekend. We began our repast, as we often do, with particularly delicious cocktails.

This pear, coconut rum and lime concoction tasted like a tropical vacation enjoyed in a colonial mansion. A sweet, light beverage to kick off a weekend brunch.

To counter the lightness of the drink, we ordered the house made chips with fondue sauce, which were crispy and earthy, topped with a mild cheese sauce not quite as distinctive as real Swiss fondue, but tasty nonetheless. The chopped scallions on top added a sharp bite to all the rich cheese. This dish is one you'll want to scarf down quickly, however - as the cheese cooled, it coagulated into a lumpy mess and made the potatoes soggy as well. 

Melinda chose the shrimp roll as her entree, a light mix of chopped, poached shrimp, tomato and green onion, Bibb lettuce and cilantro mayo on a baguette. It was messy, the bits of seafood and vegetables tumbling off the roll with each bite, because while the shrimp was lightly dressed with the mayonnaise, the vegetables were not. But it was also fresh and light - a little easy on overall flavors, but a nice, summery sandwich.

I headed in the breakfast direction with the biscuits and gravy, to which I added a couple over-easy eggs. After ordering, the table next to us received biscuits, and I fretted I had made the wrong choice, because the biscuits looked a bit wan and not particularly well risen. While these definitely weren't top notch southern biscuits, made with lard and Lily White flour and brushed generously with salted butter like the biscuits of my dreams, I needed have worried overall. This was a savory, hearty dish, and though the biscuits themselves weren't the pinnacle, the sausage gravy had great flavor, and the runny egg yolks bathed the whole works in the requisite yellow richness to seal the deal.

You can see the black pepper in the gravy, right? Pepper seems like such an ordinary ingredient, but in creamy gravies, this simple spice can man the difference between blandness and success. Someone in Simeon's kitchen may have a little too much enthusiasm for scallions, but I liked them here, as I had on the chips: they served almost like a squeeze of lemon - a bright punch to point the dish up. The creamy gravy was seasoned well, and contained lots of crumbled breakfast sausage. I wouldn't say the sausage had tremendous flavor in and of itself, but it worked with the cream and the pepper to hit all the requisite biscuits and gravy high points.

We were too full for dessert this time around, but very much enjoyed our first visit to this newly redone Ithaca institution. I will be back to try the raw bar, for sure! Meantime, I give Simeon's on the Commons a seven on the BHS scale, for its absolutely gorgeous ambiance and simple, but well prepared food. This is a solid restart for The Commons' grande dame. I hope you try it out!