11.28.2012

Parker House Rules

Another Black Friday, another wild ride for my parents and me through upstate New York’s shopping enclaves. This year, we ventured out to Waterloo, at the top of Seneca Lake, to the outlets there, to try to get as much holiday shopping done in one fail swoop as possible. Surprisingly, I didn’t maim anyone in Coach, and I even managed to suppress the urge to punch the girl who rudely tried to flip through a rack of dresses in Banana Republic at the same time as I was looking at them right in the mouth. Honestly, the crowds weren’t that bad, the deals were pretty good, and we all came away satisfied – and hungry!

I had set my sights on a late lunch/early dinner at the Red Dove Tavern in Geneva. This joint is one of those extremely trendy Finger Lakes icons doing farm-to-table, weekly menus of funky, fun food. Last week’s menu had pork shank AND duck breast on it. I was more than a little excitedly anticipatory.

Naturally, it was closed. Thanks for all the warning on your website, guys! Starving, we drove around Geneva a bit, finally settling on the nice-looking Parker’s Grille and Tap House. I didn’t know until I glanced at the menu that this is a chain, but the cozy front room featured stacked stone walls, a fireplace and pretty area rug, so I was willing to suspend my usual belief about chains.

Appetizer special: fried pickles. You know I can’t resist them, and the holiday season is not really one for restraint now, is it? Like most Northern examples, these were breaded, rather than battered, spears, rather than chips. Unlike most, though, they were terrifically crunchy, and the breading was seasoned with dill – a nice touch to reinforce the sour pickles. The slightly spicy ranch that came in a little plastic cup alongside was homemade ( or at least dressed up), with more chunks of dill pickle diced into the mix. The spears were served on a bed of commercial tortilla chips, with another little cup of salsa – a bonus appetizer to our appetizer!



After we housed that basket of fried delights, our meal took its first step down. While the service was very friendly and attentive, no one ever cleared away the empty basket or our appy plates. They stayed on the table the whole meal – one of my personal pet peeves.

I ordered the pot roast sandwich, even though the waitress admitted the fries were frozen, and I suspect the gravy and au jus were commercial products as well. The tender roast beef even may have been packaged, as it was super tender and juicy but pretty bland. The onions and melted provolone provided most of the flavor the sandwich possessed. The ciabatta bread was pleasingly chewy, and despite the bevy of processed products, I let that go and just enjoyed the comfort food.



Dad had the hot pastrami sandwich, and was groaning on and on about how tender and juicy the pastrami was. I tasted it – he wasn’t lying. I don’t even know if you can lie when groaning, but rest assured – he wasn’t. It was peppery and fatty, like proper pastrami.


Mom, Queen of entrees from the appy menu, went for the shrimp basket. THE NERVE! She was impressed with the six good-sized shrimp that were butterflied and breaded. I could hear the crunch of the crispy breading across the table when she bit into one, and you know I’m not so hot with the hearing. She sweet potato fries on the side were standard-issue freezer jobbies. The mayonnaise based slaw was made in house, according to our server, but was straightforward and basic as well.



We graded Parker’s a six on the BHS scale. Everything was tasty, and most everything was processed and/or from the freezer. The problem I have with this is that French fry preparation, from scratch, in a commercial kitchen, might be one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways for a restaurant to jump from average to good. Fresh potatoes are cheaper than frozen fries, and the process of cutting them, rinsing them, and frying them is no more labor intensive than frying up a bag of freezer fries. So why? Is it because we aren’t demanding better? I think we need to make a stand here, hungries! Rise up! Ask your local watering hole for fresh, double-fried fries! Your tummies will thank you, and I’m betting your pub could then offer those fries for a buck more per order than they do now.

So anyway, I’ll eventually be back in Geneva for that missed dinner at Red Dove. Is there somewhere else there I should know about? There was a promising-looking Indian place across the street from Parker’s, but Mom and Dad were not feeling the sag paneer at. all. I’m on business travel in Ft. Wayne this week, and will serve up my travel guide to Indiana’s second largest city for you next week. I know you’re excited about that. Meanwhile, enjoy this eCard, my favorite of the week. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


Parkers' Grille & Tap House on Urbanspoon

11.27.2012

Wild Geese That Fly with the Moon on their Wings

I am such a knucklehead. I published my holiday shopping list for you guys, and completely forgot to include a few of my favorite new discoveries this year, which fit in so well with my foodie gifting aesthetic!

How could I forget Flavour Gallery? I happened upon this badass t-shirt shop earlier this year when reading my James Beard Foundation newsletter, and instantly knew we were a match made in food/fashion heaven. From t-shirts and sweatshirts designed by LA foodtruck bad boy Chef Ludo Lefebvre to Andrew Zimmern, South Beach Food and Wine Festival and James Beard wares, Flavour Gallery's items are irreverent, high quality and completely giftable. I've already purchased the don't touch my foie gras and salt tanks, and would be thrilled with any of their fun tees under the tree.


Also high on my list, and I'm betting, on any food lover you might know, is a membership to the James Beard Foundation itself. A friend membership is an entry-level invitation to the world of fine dining encompassed by this organization, which serves as America's governing body for chefs and restaurants. The membership signs you up for informational newsletters and e-mails, and gives you a gift certificate to an event at the famed James Beard House in NYC. As the presitgious, annual James Beard Awards feature a category for blogs, I can't wait to be a member!



Another pretty fly idea, and in line with my previous post's subscription advice, is McSweeney's Lucky Peach, a quarterly magazine featuring generous content from the likes of Anthony Bourdain and David Chang. WANT.



Last but not least, although perhaps the least imaginative: the cookbook. There are lots of good ones coming out this year. I asked my parents for Kevin Gillespie's, of Top Chef fame:



And for this beauty from Shawn's Mom. I'm hoping it will finally reveal to me the secret of Zahav's amazing vegetable dishes.



So, there you go, Big Hungries. Round two of my 2012 gift guide. I hope it helps you find the precious present that makes your loved one squeal with glee and run around the room showing everyone her new score. I hope he posts a picture of your gift on Facebook with the caption, "X rocks. She gifted me with my true heart's desire." I mean, as a holiday shopper, what more could one ask for?

I'll be back tomorrow (or maybe late tonight; I'm on travel and haven't finished this week's official post yet) with a review of a solid pub in Geneva, NY. Meantime, my hunger is big; my personality is bigger. Happy shopping!


11.21.2012

Doorbells and Sleigh Bells

Have you all seen The Sound of Music? I feel ridiculous even asking this. I never would have thought to ask anyone that question a week ago. I mean, that movie feels as woven into the pattern of my life as, like, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, watching the New Year’s ball drop in Time Square, the Wizard of Oz, and Sara Lee cinnamon pecan coffee cake on holiday mornings. But then, my little family has always had a bit of a Broadway bent, which may be making me think something is really mainstream when it’s not. Big Hungry Jill told me last weekend she’d never seen it. When I reacted with horror and the insistence that she watch it with me, she was reluctant. Then I told her there was a yodeling song with goat puppets in it, and she was a bit more on board. As one is.


Where am I going with this? Well, the holidays are upon us. For reals, Thanksgiving really snuck up on me this year, like a lurker on a message board or a spider in the shower. It’s a week early, right? It feels a week early, because I am NOT ready to listen to holiday music yet, but usually I’m sneaking Christmas CDs into the car the week before Turkey Day and trying to justify how that’s OK because I should get started on cards soon and I need to get in the spirit. This year, I’m all, “I’ve gotta go to Indiana on November 26, then maybe I can think about being Christmasy,” so Thanksgiving feels really out of left field. Along with the holidays, inevitably, comes shopping. No matter how much your family has trimmed back, no matter how grinchy you are or how much disdain you express on Twitter for the consumerism that has eaten our country alive, you will do some amount of holiday shopping. And you know what, Big Hungries, I’m here for you. I have ideas – big ideas, tasty ideas – on what to buy this year. So strap in!

First off, let’s talk about My Favorite Things, which is where this whole train of thought started. Yankee Candle has come out with a line of limited edition jar candles in scents inspired by my favorite nun-turned-governess. Naturally, my favorite is Schnitzel with Noodles, a buttery, savory-scented cream-colored candle with no hint of pork funk. You also can pick up Whiskers on Kittens, which is more floral than feline, or Bright Copper Kettles, which is warm and homey.



Want to mull over two really gorgeous words that come together in a phrase that is more than the sum of its parts? Try gravy boat. Mmmmm. Gravy. Boat. It’s a boat full of gravy! Gravy may be my original happy food, before I ever knew pork shoulder, wasabi, or miso even existed. And a gravy boat is a vessel purposefully, solely, reserved for gravy. My favorite example this season is from Le Creuset, because of the fun colors. My kitchen is sadly gravy boat barren, and I would like this one:



If you’d like to bestow a vessel for happiness upon your beloved for only $24.95, proceed to Sur La Table post haste. While you’re there, you also should take a look at the store’s own brand of specialty salts. I picked up the Asian 5-spice blend on a whim in March, and that little jar has become a workhorse in my kitchen. Terrific when making plain white rice as a side dish for a stir fry, or on tuna steaks destined for the grill, this warm mélange of ginger, sesame seeds, and five spice powder instantly renders your meal Asian. A sampler of these $10 salt combos would make a fabulous gift for the food person you love.



Moving right along in the foodstuffs arena is something that will surprise you. I think? I wouldn’t usually encourage you to holiday shop in a grocery store. But Trader Joe's is not your average grocery store, and their chocolates are not average candy bars. I brought the dark chocolate caramel with black sea salt to a work offsite earlier this year, and colleagues A and K were very pleased when I shared this massive bar. Unlike a lot of trendy salted caramel treats on the market right now, this bar is rich and buttery, with gooey, flowing caramel and a pronounced salty tang against the backdrop of the 70 percent cacao chocolate. An assortment of these babies in your wife’s stocking might earn you a little more than a lump of coal this year. Another idea is to curate an assortment of foodstuffs you dearly love and arrange them in a basket for someone on your list. I do this each year for the folks at my hair salon. I might have a bar or two of good chocolate I’ve just discovered that year, some crackers and a yummy jarred dip, and almost always my favorite gray salt from Napastyle. This both provides some nice snacks for the recipient, but also shares a bit of your own culinary life with them as they enjoy each item.



I’m very caught up in the idea of subscription gifts for people this year. Last year, I did Plow & Hearth’s Nuts of the Month for my Dad, which he loved; and you may remember Jill bestowing Bacon of the Month upon me as a consolation prize to losing hearing in my right ear? These subscriptions tend to run on the pricey side, to be sure, but many come in three or six month versions, and I love the idea of someone getting a gift each month that will remind them how much I care. I won’t spoil who’s getting what this year, but here are some of my favorite subscriptions:

Birch Box – Melinda turned me on to this service after her clever man, BLD, ordered it for her. Perfect for all us product whores: a monthly delivery of deluxe makeup, skincare and hair samples, directly to your door!



Zingerman’s – the grandpappy of gourmet foods offers a variety of premium monthlies, bacon to coffee to baked goods or cheese. The most fun might be the culinary adventure society, which starts at $175 and delivers gastronomic oddities like thimbleberry jam, rangpur lime syrup, or regional, artisanal cheese to your door, along with literature on each item and recipes.



I get a lot of compliments on my jewelry, which pleases me because I love it, too. I feel like a lot of women exclusively wear fine jewelry, and that we’ve lost our appreciation of costume jewelry as a culture, although it’s started to re-emerge in the last few years. For my birthday this year, Big Hungry Jill gave me the idiom bracelet from Kate Spade, and bought one for herself as well, so we’d have wonder twin matching arm candy:



The inside inscription reads: mom always said…(don’t play ball in the house, BRADY KIDS!), while the outside says fun things like don’t forget to floss, and eat your vegetables. Between Jill and me, this depicts our early relationship, which largely consisted of me bossing her around and telling her to put on a warm coat. Other adaptations of the idiom bracelet now exist for best friends, bridesmaids, and more broad ideas like get carried away, which would be cool for a friend or relative named Carrie. Other really lovely costume jewelry gifts can be found from Alexis Bittar, Rivka Friedman, and Juicy Couture.

It goes without saying that gift cards are some of the easiest gifting around. What I particularly like about giving restaurant gift certificates is that it encourages the gifted to slow down and share a meal with someone. Think about your recipient’s life and what would be most indulgent or useful. It could be spot she and her spouse like to go on date night, or a deli he frequents for lunches during the week. Most importantly, I encourage you to skip the chains and give gift certificates to mom and pop eateries, as these will not only benefit your loved one but also the local economy.

If gift cards seem too lazy or impersonal for you, there are lots of websites offering gift guides right now for that special foodie in your life. Gilt Taste is one of my favorites, offering high end pantry items, prepared foods and sweets. Another is Fab.com, which has a special section for foodie gifts, including quirky kitchen gadgets, witty serving pieces, and avant garde cookware.

And for those loved ones who regard a glass or three of wine as a sacred right, but also enjoy an active lifestyle, there’s Vino2Go.



That’s right, finally, a wine sippy cup. I have half a mind to buy these for most of the ladies on my list this year, and couple for myself as well.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving, Big Hungries! This year, I am thankful for my job, which I love so much, for the health and love of my family, for the travel I’ve done this year, and for Shawn, who is my home. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

11.14.2012

The Blather: Samantha Buyskes

It’s been a good while since the last installment of The Blather, profiling my blogger buddy Pav, who’s now running social media efforts for New Hampshire’s Taste Magazine and still killing it with his Pavlov’s Blog. I guess I’ve just been too busy gallivanting all over the state and the globe recently to miss a week of restaurant reviewing. So this is one I’ve been sitting on awhile, and am excited to share. You’ve heard me bragging before about my love of Simply Red Bistro, which is no longer gracing Sheldrake Point Winery with its fried chicken presence:


…but is still going strong at Ithaca’s La Tourelle resort. Well, the mastermind behind this delicious conceit agreed to be featured on The Blather some time ago, and I’m thrilled to finally be bringing you her tale.

Samantha Buyskes is a South African-born wunderkind who aspires to mix the culinary bounty of the Finger Lakes region with her personal wanderlust, relying heavily on exotic spices and ingredients indigenous to foreign lands in her food. She has operated Simpy Red Bistros in Trumansburg, Ovid, and Ithaca, runs the concessions at Ithaca’s Hangar Theater, and most recently, the Simply Red Events and Culinary Center. This newest endeavor features cooking classes hosted right in Samantha’s home (!!) as well as events at Highland Lodge in Trumansburg. As if this bevy of activity weren’t enough, Samantha was a contestant on Food Network’s excellent Chopped, in 2011.

Chef Samantha answered my five standard Blather question with no muss and no fuss, which endeared me to her even more than I had been previously. Let’s hear what she has to say:

BHS: How did you become interested in a career in food?
SB: I have been cooking since I was four years old...always loved food, setting the table. My mom was an independent business women in the fashion, shoe, and jewelry business; My brother and I had to make our school lunches, afternoon tea etc...also watching her work, I became interested in ways I could make money and it happens to be around food.

I used to make chocolates for sale at school, pick the huge avocadoes from the tree in my mom's backyard in South Africa, and sell them at the corner store...you get the idea.  

BHS: What is your favorite ingredient?
SB: Mmm..three bacon and anything pig, cheese and mayo

BHS: What was a foundational culinary memory from your childhood?
SB: My mom and grandmothers all cooked only seasonally and from scratch using the best ingredients

BHS: What is your favorite restaurant? (She was coy here…)
SB: Ever-or in the region???? Big Question...  

BHS: Death row meal…go!
SB: Anything pig.......

  
As you can tell, Big Hungries, Chef Samantha is a girl after our hearts. Not only is she not scared to plop a huge knob of butter on top of deep fried chicken, she likes pork with everything AND is kind of a TV star. How bad do you want to go with me to a cooking class at her house?? I know. If you’d like to be like Samantha, you’re in luck, because she shared her delectable, gooey, crunchy, homey fried chicken recipe with me to pass along to you. Consider it an early holiday gift.
Mama Red's Classic Southern Fried Chicken
Created by Chef Samantha Buyskes of Simply Red Events and Culinary Center
• (3-4) pound broiler chicken, cut up into 8 pieces, breasts split
• 4 cups buttermilk
• 1 tbsp salt
• 1 tbsp black pepper
• ¼ cup Tabasco
• ¼ cup smoked chipotle peppers in adobo, chopped
Flour Mix
• 4 cups flour
• 1 tsbp each salt and pepper
Big deep pot at 2 gallon size
8 cups of canola oil
Heated to 350 degrees and maintained at the temp
(Keep fire extinguisher close by)
  1. Whisk buttermilk, salt, pepper, Tabasco and chipotles together
  2. Pour over the chicken pieces and marinate overnight or at least six hours
  3. Drain chicken pieces, dust with flour and place slowly into the oil using tongs one piece at a time
  4. Fry for 15 -20 minutes until pieces start to float and have reached a beautiful golden brown
  5. Pull out place on paper towel and serve
I still haven’t sussed out her wicked mac and cheese recipe, nor the dynamite lavender lemonade I once sipped at Sheldrake’s Simply Red. Maybe this post will curry additional favor and Chef Samantha will smile upon me. If she does, I promise to share. That lemonade haunts me.


Chef Samantha also asks you to come meet her at her Southern Night events on Monday nights at The Red Newt Wine Cellars in Hector, NY. And if you want to go, invite me to come! I might even pick up the tab! From Red Newt’s Website, it appears she’s making shrimp and grits for these dinners. Droooooool. For more info on The Wonderful World of Sam, check out her website at www.simplyredculinary.com. Can you imagine a wedding catered by Sam? I die.

In other news, I checked out the new Basha’s Lebanese Grill on the Vestal Parkway, so you don’t have to. I’m serious, you don’t have to. It was terrible! I ordered the chicken shawarma sandwich with tahini sauce and French fries, and after a few bites, I threw away the majority of it – all $10 worth. The chicken came out of a warming pan rather than being sliced off a meat cone, and furthermore, I couldn’t even see those huge cones of meat in the back kitchen anywhere – a bad sign. The pita was so thin and dry, my sandwich erupted and split before I could even bite into it, and the fries were so very stale and cold (fried hours ago from a frozen product, for sure), I ate about two before giving up. Don’t bother giving this place any of your money or wasting any calories here. The food was terrible and quite counter to all of my other experiences with Lebanese, Turkish or Mediterranean food. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!


Simply Red Bistro at La Tourelle Resort on Urbanspoon

11.07.2012

I Elect Frank's

When I head up to points north from my home in Tioga County, I take a shortcut to Rt. 81 via Rt. 26, which leads me from Endicott through Maine to Whitney Point. Most days, it’s a vast improvement over taking 17 to 81 through Binghamton, unless there are Sunday drivers out along this bucolic stretch, in which case it’s a tedious drive. But there are some interesting things to look at – a few cute homes near the turn-off to the airport, the Country Wagon farm stand, and the old one-room school house in Maine. But overall, it’s a pretty, but dull stretch. So when a pizza place and Italian restaurant began renovating a couple of disheveled, run-down store fronts in Maine a few years back, I paid attention. This space eventually became Frank’s Italian Restaurant, and since it opened, I’ve heard good things. As it’s out of the way, and I’m not usually stopping to eat just a few miles from my house on the way to Watertown, I just hadn’t had a chance to get there…until recently, when Melinda and I made a concerted effort to pay it a visit.


While the outside of Frank’s is very small town Upstate, a bit muddy, and very close to the road, the inside is totally charming and warm: think Tuscan parlor chic. There were roughly one million specials rattled off by our waitress, most notable of which were the frutte del mar, which I’ve heard good things about, and braciole, which I gave serious consideration to before settling on my entrée. One special we did go for was a bruschetta sampler, which was simply fabulous. Our favorite among the trio, which included classic tomato and a mascarpone and jam, was the eggplant and ricotta. On the far right in the photo, below, the well-seasoned eggplant was paper thin and fried crispy, sitting on a thin layer of earthy, creamy, smooth ricotta cheese atop crisp Italian bread. This should be on the regular menu, and also, I need an elf to follow me around all day preparing these freshly every few minutes and placing them directly in my mouth.



We both ordered crumbly blue cheese and Italian dressing on our salads, which is something my parents did my entire life, but until finally acquiring the taste for blue cheese somewhere around the age of 25, I never appreciated. Frank’s salad is scrumptious, with perky, crunchy spring mix, a very creamy blue cheese, and a brightly acidic but still somehow creamy dressing.



I had also heard positive reviews of Frank’s lasagna, which is convenient, because Melinda is a lasagna hound of the highest order. The slab of comfort food was extremely flavorful, unlike so many muddled loaves of pasta, meat sauce, and bland cheese served in the Tier. That’s owing to high quality ingredients, starting with the ricotta, which was just as well utilized here as it had been on the bruschetta, leant the casserole a marked richness, and anchored the bright red sauce and homey meat mixture. This lasagna was very well balanced and never sank into the heavy, insipid space that befalls most restaurant lasagnas.

Wouldn't "Slab of Lasagna" be a great name for a wedding band?

I ordered the gnocchi with pesto, and ignored Big Hungry Dan’s recommendation to get the sauce on the side. I see what he meant about how much sauce they add, but I didn’t mind it. This dish was a bit one-note, as a plate full of pesto can be, but I loved how obviously freshly made, in-house, the pesto was, as well as how very tiny the gnocchi were. They were not fluffy like larger, potato-based gnocchi, but tender and delicious. I kind of wish I had ordered shrimp or something on this to break up all the pesto, but for what it was, I liked it. In the sauce, I could taste the pine nuts and the cheese, but they didn’t overwhelm the more delicate basil and olive oil flavors. The balance was remarkable and the freshness was undeniable:



I’m about 90 percent sure Frank’s is using commercially purchased desserts, which is kind of a bummer, though I think our waitress said the cannoli shells are fried in-house. We went for it anyway, Melinda ordering the lemon berry mascarpone cake…



…while I chose the ultimate chocolate cake (though our waitress couldn’t tell me the difference between this and the regular chocolate cake). Melinda’s choice was moist and tart, with enough spice to remind me of a lemony coffee cake. Mine was delicious and rich, also moist, but lacking any stand-out flavor beyond deep, dark chocolate. A pastry chef would be a happy addition to the Frank’s staff.


I’ve heard people say Frank’s is the best Italian restaurant in the Southern Tier. I’m not ready to take that crown away from Oaks Inn yet, especially since they’ve just renovated, and of course, I have a special place in my heart for Tony’s. Melinda and I gave Frank’s a seven on the BHS scale, which is above average without blowing us away. This meal was yummy, solid, fresh, and filling, but there were few dazzling moments, you know? Head to Frank’s when you have people with you who like old school Italian American flare and a few who want to try new things. It has that good mix of tradition and contemporary cuisine. But don’t expect to be blown away by its modern, eclectic, Milanese fare or anything. Although really, is modern eclectic really happening anywhere around here? Not so much.

What are all my Big Hungries doing with their falls? I do hope you got out and rocked the vote yesterday, and that you’ve sampled some kind of pumpkin treat lately. I made my (by way of Williams Sonoma) famous pumpkin bars last weekend and brought some in to work to indulge my colleagues on Monday. I also cooked up some yummies from Pinterest on Saturday, loving both the broccoli salad and the basil roasted shrimp, which I served over long grain white rice I cooked in chicken stock with some of the extra basil butter from the shrimps. I like to use shrimps because I find that foreigners always say that instead of recognizing our odd singular-but-plural words, and it makes me feel exotic. Anyway, if you want to make either of those recipes, you can find them on my Something Yummy This Way Comes board on Pinterest. My Pinterest account is linked over in the left-hand nav.



I’ve had some conversations this week with local food people about the importance of supporting local businesses. Whether you voted red or blue yesterday, one of the best ways to bolster our limping economy is to patronize small, locally-owned restaurants. Baked Euphoria Café, which opened a few months ago on Washington Ave in Endicott, no doubt counted on a robust lunch service from the thousands of workers at the Huron campus, but now they’re struggling to keep their doors open. If more of us chose to eat local rather than at national chains, we would pump our all-important discretionary dollars into our local economy, and probably get a better meal in exchange. So eat out this week friends, and keep it local. It’s one of the best ways to support your community! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Note: In other local food news, Chipotle has been open in Vestal, near BU campus, for weeks, and no one told me. For shame, Big Hungries! I know this is a chain, but it's one of the better ones, and mama likes her carnitas! Also, there's a new Lebanese grill on the Vestal Parkway that I hope to try this weekend. It's getting mixed reviews online, but I'll let you know what I think. BHS loves herself some shawarma, you know.   Frank's Pizza and Restaurant on Urbanspoon