2.26.2014

Home Fries

Whenever I drive through Adams, NY, a tiny village about 10 miles south of Watertown, I always appreciate what a neat and clean little town it is. The people, at least along the main streets, seem to really take pride in their homes and businesses. While not remarkable, it’s a pleasant little drive. If you decide to breeze through, fill your belly at the locally popular but regionally undiscovered Gram’s Diner.

It sits across the streets from other BHS faves Café Mira and Pearl’s Pastry Shop, but Gram’s has its own game going, and I had heard that its brunch was something special. This seems to be the winter for me to discuss brunch with you, and so, once more into the breach…

It’s an older building, and vestiges of its past were evident in the worn, industrial carpeting and wood paneling. But the current owners have freshened things up with paint and cute, food-themed tchotchkes, plus a much-needed gas fireplace near the door that offers something of a buffer when a newly-arrived patron opens the door and lets the polar vortex gust inside.


Every Sunday, Gram’s offers a special brunch menu in addition to its regular breakfast offerings. Last weekend, the supplementary menu was so appetizing, I struggled to choose my breakfast. The pizza omelet and eggs benedict with black forest ham tempted, but how could I resist something touted as a New York bagel bake? You’re right, I couldn’t. This strata of torn up sesame bagels, eggs, cream cheese, grape tomatoes, and red onions was creamy and dense. It was a bit bland on its own, but the hollandaise sauce I asked for on the side (they offered it on top) provided need richness, while the side of bacon brought on the salt you know I love. The complete plate was really well balanced, with the sesame seeds, cream cheese, and bacon stealing the show, the veggies lending brightness and moisture, and the hollandaise presiding over the works with eggs, luscious authority. Loved it!



Dad went simple, with ham and eggs with home fries, but I was thrilled, because I did NOT want to count the points for a whole order of potatoes on the side of my already shameful meal. It’s hard out here for a Weight Watchers pimp, yo. His poached eggs were done perfectly – whites set and yolks runny, and he really liked the ham, which was of good quality and had great flavor, not just salt. Those home fries echoed really good French fries for me – hand cut and double fried. No seasoned salt, abundance of grease, or onions to get in the way of the pure fried tater goodness. I think you can tell a lot about a breakfast place by their home fries, and while the Koffee Kove still takes the NNY prize, for me, these were aces. 



Mom likes her food tame, and her French toast fit the bill. I would have been a little bored with this very home-style rendition, regular bread dredged in an egg batter and fried, but she loved it. The real maple syrup gave it a little street cred, and this was on par with what I make at home. 




The service at Gram’s was a bit slow, mainly due to lots of hungry customers and just one waitress, but dang, she was a good one. We chatted with her a bit, and enjoyed her immensely. Dad mentioned that they probably keep the wait staff at a minimum in order to keep overhead, and therefore the prices, low. Smart move.

This isn’t a chi-chi, mimosa-soaked brunch joint, but on the flip side, you could probably show up in yoga pants and get a pretty fine breakfast for less than $10. I appreciate the creativity the owners are applying each week, not only to the brunch menu, but also to their desserts – s’mores crème brulee was up on the chalkoboard during our visit. YUM! Gram's just felt like home to me, though I'd never been there before. Right away, we get welcome and cared for. We gave Gram’s Diner a seven on the BHS scale, because of the simple, yet high quality food, comfortable atmosphere, and friendly service. Brava, grandma! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Gram's Diner on Urbanspoon

2.18.2014

Mission Accomplished


We’ve come into the dog days of winter, except you never hear winter referred to in that way, so what are the days of late winter? Cat days? Abominable Snowman days? Sasquatch days? Whatever they’re called, we’re in ‘em. It’s the phase of the year where you wake up every morning and lament, Nancy Kerrigan-style, “Why God? Whyyyyyyyyy?” Driving through the streets of Downtown Syracuse this past weekend, it seemed like the city was particularly bogged down by the precipitous Upstate NY weather. The streets, most unplowed, were encumbered by encroaching snowbanks, sidewalks remained un-shoveled, and yet more snow was falling out of the sky, all proud of itself, like the cat who ate the canary.

Undaunted, we made our way to The Mission, a Mexican restaurant in an old church (get it, Mission?) I have passed many times and always wanted to stop by. After trudging through snowy streets and sidewalks to get in there, we certainly were ready for a South of the Border feast. And the first impression in The Mission is great. It’s a much smaller dining room than I had envisioned driving by, but it’s gorgeous – like the Mexico pavilion at Epcot Center, but about a tenth of the size. But I will say, I was freezing the entire time. Throw on an extra sweater before brunch here, or wait another month and a half. The people coming out of the kitchen were all wearing ski hats, and this is a 19th century building, so I’m assuming the heating system is not really up to staving off a 19 degree day.
 
I will also say that while our waiter was friendly, he wasn’t the most attentive of chaps. He gave us recommendations, and chatted with us about the two beauty queens in cocktail dresses at our booth, but he always seemed distracted, and tended to flit off before we were really done with him on a couple occasions. He also brought my Dad refried beans, when he had ordered frijoles negros, which ended up being yummy, but not what he wanted.



I had arrived intending to order off the brunch menu, either the migas or the sweet potato and chorizo hash. I love hash. Apparently, so do a lot of other Mission fans, because they were sold out of it. He gave us lunch menus as well, though, so I ended up with the Puerco Pibil burrito AKA shredded pork with orange and achiote. Achiote, or annatto, is a seed from a tree that grows in Mexico and the carribean that is chiefly used as a food colorant, to give Mexican food that gorgeous yellow/orange hue that looks so appetizing. The flavor is mild, but can be peppery and a bit bitter. This pork was earthy, tender, with enough fat to make the burrito really luscious and to make me cringe when I had to track my points in my Weight Watchers app. I didn’t care for the crunchy, but flavorless, slaw served on the side – that felt like a wasted opportunity to add some freshness to the plate, but I loved the roasted tomato salsa on top, which was smoky with chipotles and just mildly spicy. The Spanish rice on the side was fine, not the best I’ve had, and not the worst. I honestly wish more Mexican restaurants would go in the direction of a “green rice,” laced with cilantro and green onions, rather than the insipid, timid, mildly spiced, tomato paste-enriched Mexi-rice you get everywhere. Or even a true yellow rice, though that’s more Puerto Rican than Mexican. But no matter, because this was better than Taco Hell or some other chain place. So eat some!
 
My Dad and Jill both ordered the fish tacos, which were made with a Hawaiian fish, wahoo. This was a nice, dense, satisfying fish, and much less flaky than what you usually get in a taco. I liked the lime-chipotle crema on these, and that they had slaw on them rather than lettuce and tomato. Fish tacos demand slaw, but here on the East coast, restaurants don’t always get that right.

 

Mom had the breakfast burrito, and raved about it. I didn’t snag a bite, but if you’ve read BHS for any length of time, you know Susie Q has a pretty conservative palate, and was reluctant to commit to Mexican brunch. She ordered her burrito sans salsa, and she loved the slightly crispy, fried potatoes shoved into that egg and cheese wrap. Next time, I will pay more attention, and try to talk her into some mild pico de gallo on the side, but she was so happy with what she got, I’m not sure she’ll be receptive to my pitch.
 
For dessert, I was hoping to find churros on the menu, and would have ordered them with a Mexican hot chocolate. Churros are the fried dough of Mexico, a bit denser and drier than Italian fritos, and dusted with cinnamon sugar rather than powdered. Alas, Mission failure, no churros to be found. Instead, I took our waiter’s recommendation and got the tequila lime pie, which I quite liked, despite the lack of any real tequila flavor. It was tart, just a bit sweet, and very creamy. The crust, ostensibly a graham cracker base, but possibly jazzed up with some gingersnaps or vanilla wafers, was gangster. I think they put a bit of salt in it, too, or used salted butter to make it, which was smart. It added complexity to the dish that otherwise would have been lacking. The tequila should have brought that to the table, but again, I couldn’t taste any. And my tequila detector is pretty finely tuned, if I must say.
 
 
I liked The Mission, and I would go back. Some of the dinner entrees look really interesting, and there’s a pork belly appetizer, plus, eating in a Mexican restaurant and not having a margarita seemed wrong. It’s weird to me that I’ve never heard of anyone I know in Syracuse talk about eating there, so I’m wondering if it’s not a bit of an undiscovered gem. I give The Mission a six on the BHS scale, and if I gave half scores, it might even be a 6.5. While the food didn’t knock my socks off, it’s a lot better than anything we’re getting these days in the Binghamton area, and we all quite liked most of our food. If they could get a properly working furnace, improve the level of service a tiny bit, and put a little more effort into the side dishes, this place could be off the charts. Ole!

My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

2.11.2014

Spice Up Your Shopping


A brilliant business idea occurred to me Monday morning while getting ready for work (which is when all random, sometimes lightning-like inspiration seems to hit), and I couldn’t figure out a better way to share it with the world and still keep intellectual property rights to it other than here. Because while I am NOT a business genius, a math whiz, or a market specialist, I am a foodie and a public relations expert, and sometimes it takes someone exactly like me to spot a natural synergy in the marketplace (check out that disgusting corporate speak!).

Dried spices, rubs, and spice blends are some of the easiest ways to make healthy, low fat foods taste amazing. As we all journey towards healthier diets, using more fresh produce and fewer fats, fun and exotic spices are natural tools in the kitchen. I have been buying my spices from Penzey’s for years. And so do a lot of the top cooks in our country, including Rachael Ray and Kevin Gillespie, so you know I’m not just whistling Dixie Crystals. There are a few reasons Penzey’s has it all over the McCormick jars you find in the grocery store. For one thing, you can choose the size you order, on every spice. So the first time you order something new to you, you just order ¼ cup, and it doesn’t go bad while you’re trying to figure out if it’s essential to your kitchen; if you don’t like, you’re only out a couple bucks. In the store, there are a couple sizes of the most often used spices, but they don’t have room on the shelves to give you that option for things like z’atar and smoked paprika. You’re stuck with the ½ cup glass jar, and it’s all pretty expensive. Penzey’s is cheap because they’re stocking everything in bulk, and then decanting your order when you place it. Two other bonuses: insane quality and enormous selection.
 

The downside to stocking my spice cupboard exclusively with Penzey’s fabulous wares is that, in a pinch, if I need something that day, I’m forced into buying it in the store. And that is where my idea comes in. It comes as no surprise to you guys that Wegmans is my favorite grocery store, and it occurs to me that while Penzey’s does have a few stores across the U.S., there are only five in all of New York State. If I was someone in charge of such things at Wegmans, I would reach out to Penzey’s to form a unique partnership – to have a mini Penzey’s inside all of the bigger Wegmans supermarkets. Doing that, Wegmans could stop carrying McCormick and Spice Islands, in order to differentiate themselves from all of their competitor stores that only carry those brands, and have exclusive rights to carry Penzey's. Just like the peanut better grinders and coco-puff puffers that make Wegmans special, this would be a real boon to the foodie crowd that comprises the chain’s rabid fans. And because Wegmans is now serving so many more markets than Penzey’s would be able to reach from a retail perspective, they will benefit by reaching millions of customers who never would know about them otherwise.
 

I can see all kinds of cross-promotional opportunities, like Wegmans including recipes from Penzey’s fun catalogue in their monthly magazine, having spicy cooking demos in their liquor stores, and Penzey’s letting their Northeast customers know through their own catalogue that they can now grab a jar of Galena St. Rub on the fly at any local Wegmans. Because dried spices have so many health benefits, I can imagine Wegmans touting the partnership in all of its Foods You Feel Good About marketing as well. Just like you can buy DiBruno Brothers goods in some Philadelphia-area grocery stores, this relationship would give Wegmans shoppers unique access to one of the top gourmet brands in the world without waiting for pesky shipping.

Of course, I would be happy to consult on the teaming agreement, should either company require my services. Or, I’d be thrilled to just be invited to the grand opening of the first Penzey’s inside a Wegmans! At least I would know my idea helped mankind. So consider this an open letter to both companies – get together, guys! Your foodie fans wish it so.


Did you know that I share musings just like this all the time via my other social media channels? Yeah, I do. So, if you’re smart, you’ll join our Big Hungry Shelby Facebook page, and follow me @BigHungryShelby on Twitter and Instagram for more pics, recipes, and tales from my gastronomic wanderings. Your tummy will thank you. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

2.05.2014

Dispatch from SC: Aw Shucks!

Shelby’s take: My clever college girlfriends from my sophomore year at St. Andrews Presbyterian College - in rural, deep-south Laurinburg, NC - are weighing in this week on the Lowcountry Oyster Festival in Mount Pleasant, SC, which we all attended a couple weekends ago together. You hear my perspective on things all the time, so I thought it would be fun to recap this casual, celebrity chef-free food festival through their eyes. I’ve provided the photos, though they were taken from all three of our phones and captured everything from the buckets of delicious, roasted oysters to the shucking contests held at the festival. 



First up, Robin’s recap: Holy Mother of Pearl!

The Lowcountry Oyster Festival made good on every delicious promise it offered up on our Charleston “Suite 3 Reunion Tour." The oysters were muy fresh and steamed to perfection, with a succulent balance of marshy salinity and not-too-chewy chewiness. Served with a plentiful supply of saltines, cocktail sauce, and southern salt air, it was hard not to get lost in the mediocre country cover band and sense of community as everyone was shucking, without shame, right there in the open in front of God and everyone. 



The beer was cold, the bloody marys were spicy, and the tantalizing aroma of fresh seafood offered a hug to your senses like that of an old college friend. We came with our appetites and oysters knives and left blissfully satiated and full of distance-sustaining memories; ready to go again next year- you’ll have that on those big jobs. 



And now, for Katie’s view: Low Down on the Lowcountry Oyster Festival 

The oyster festival is amazing, but if you want the best experience, you better come prepared.



Katie's tips: 1. Arrive early. This shindig starts at 10 a.m., so be there by then. If you at all possible, arrive by 9 a.m. and tailgate. Seriously ya'll, this is serious stuff. If you're not there early, you'll have to park in BFE, take a tractor-drawn wagon to the entrance, and you won't get a prime spot to set up camp. Trust me, you're going to need room to set up camp and you probably want to be near the stage so you can enjoy the local musicians. 
2. Bring a chair and a fold out table. We didn't do this. We brought a chair, singular. There were three of us. Luckily, Robin thought ahead and brought one of those nice picnic blankets that fold into a bag. The table is essential to setting up your oyster shucking assembly line. We didn't have one but others did and I was extremely jealous. 
3. Bring the proper utensils and accoutrements. You gotta have an oyster knife, but don't worry if you don't own one because you can buy one at the festival. Same goes for an oyster glove. These two items will help you shuck the oysters quickly and efficiently so that you can enjoy them while they're still hot. If you don't have them, I honestly don't know how you're going to get those delicious bi-valves out of the shell. You also need to bring some hot sauce and horseradish. There's plenty of cocktail sauce and crackers provided with your buckets of oysters, but you'll have to fight over a bottle of hot sauce.

 
4. Purchase your souvenirs early. Seriously, if you want a shirt, a koozie, or a hat, go ahead and buy it on your way into the festival. If you don't, you'll end up going home empty-handed. They were out of the good stuff by 2 p.m. 
5. Do not come to the festival hung over. I cannot stress this enough. The thought of slurping down an oyster while struggling through a hangover turns my stomach just thinking about it. 


Moral of the story: plan ahead. We were about 75 percent prepared and we had a wonderful time. Next time, we're going to be professionals and the newbies will be jealous of our setup.