Big Hungry Awards 2011

The stockings have been hung by the chimney with care. At night, visions of sugarplums dance in our heads. That’s right, girls and boys, it’s the holiday season. Make sure the overdraft protection is in place on your checking account and your house is stocked with scotch tape. Around these parts, the shopping is finished and the cards have been sent out. I gave up baking cookies long ago, because there’s no need to inflict that misery on people at Christmastime. So that means my idle hands are the playthings of the second annual Big Hungry Awards! Gird your loins, peeps, because something yummy this way comes.
Again, I will remind you that while I am happy to hand out accolades, I have not as yet figured out the monetization (is that a word?) of Big Hungry Shelby, and therefore, there is no actual award. Restaurateurs: I will give you a hug next time I stop in your establishment.

First up, as with any great meal: Best Appetizer. Just recently, you may have read my post about Shawn’s and my trip to the Culinary Institute of America. It was a dream-like day, in which I spontaneously pronounced my love for Shawn at several intervals, did a lot of gasping and running to things which were exciting to me, and ingested many times over the USDA’s caloric recommendation for a human my size. There were many, many items that tickled my taste buds that glorious day, but one of the best was the pumpkin flan appetizer at the campus’ Italian restaurant Caterina de’ Medici. The flan itself was unparalleled in texture – airy but still dense with fresh squash flavor, and the little canels of goat cheese served on the side were hands-down the freshest, creamiest examples of goat cheese I have ever tasted. I would eat this every day, which is a good indicator of a fabulous dish.

Goat cheese so snowy white, it barely shows up against the plate

The next award is for Best Bacon. You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Now, this would go, hands-down to the Blue Duck Tavern’s pork belly dish I had in Washington, DC in October, except that I feel like granting BHS awards to non-New York restaurants counters the whole mission of the blog. I’m really here to highlight local New York businesses, not gallivant all over God’s creation and point out all the places you can’t go. That’s why this is instead going to the house-cured pork belly dish, again at the Culinary Institute, at the Apple Pie Bakery Café. Talk about a bowl of something good! A base of coarse ground Anson Mills white grits, topped with savory chunks of braised pork belly (bacon’s less salty older brother), a perfectly over-easy egg, and a house made chile sauce to kick all that luxurious fat in the behind. I moaned when I took the first bite…and the last.

This dish lives only a couple hours from me. I need to visit it more often?

There was only one choice for Best Dessert of 2011. Over the summer, my parents and I were lucky to score a gorgeous table at a pretty little restaurant in Clayton, Bella’s Bistro. The kitchen there was led by the talented Gabe Aubertine and his sous chef Andy Wehrle, a team committed to bringing Top Chef-quality food to the Northcountry. Mark my words, folks, one or both of these rapscallions will end up with a James Beard Award in the next few years. Anyway, they made me the vegan nightmare, a mash-up of maple ice cream, chocolate-covered bacon strips, and churro-style crispy pastry batons that scarred me for life as far as desserts are concerned. It was epic, and it was delicious. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Gabe will be returning to Bella’s for another season, but stay tuned for his next move. You better believe I will be following it.

The name of this dish just cracks me up

Best Cocktail is something I had over the summer, but never had a chance to really share with you, Big Hungries. You know I’m a fan of all things at the Sheldrake Point Vineyards, in Ovid, NY, including the winery’s lovely restaurant, Simply Red Bistro. Over the summer, I introduced this enclave of good wine and good food to Big Hungry Lindsay’s friends when I hosted her bachelorette party here in the Southern Tier. Several of the ladies ordered the lavender lemonade – sans alcohol – and I could not believe how scrumptious it was. Unlike lavender-scented bath items, which are what I assumed this drink would taste and smell like, the lavender hints served to add an herbal, ethereal quality to the tart lemonade. It would have been simply fabulous with a splash of vodka, sitting outside on the patio, enjoying sunset over the Cayuga Lake.

Ain’t no Countrytime

Next up, the award for Best Ambiance….struggling with this one a bit. I’ve had many moments in the past calendar year where I leaned back, cocktail or wine in hand, and muttered, “I am so happy right now,” which is my usual barometer for good ambiance. At Forno Bistro in Saratoga Springs, I drunk in the beautiful surroundings with a kind of sophisticated appreciation. Seated on the patio at South Fin Grill in Staten Island, watching a newly-married bride and groom lead their loved ones down the beach, I hadn’t a care in the world. And at Café Mira, in Adams, I admired the pressed tin ceiling, beautiful balconied seating area and warm fireplace. We had terrific service at all three, but I’m going to have to award this one to Forno Bistro. Everywhere you look there is a feast for the eyes, we were fawned and fussed over from the moment we arrived, including chats with the chef and owner, and the food didn’t let down its end of the bargain at any juncture.

So happy…at Forno

September was a rough month. I turned 34 (seriously, how can that even be true?), my place of work and entire community were flooded, it was a lot. But the Best Surprise of 2011 also brightened my door, in the form of a birthday box of goodies from Big Hungry Laura in Albuquerque, NM. The best thing in that surprise box of sauces and salsa was Green Chile Sauce from Santa Fe Ole Food Company. In New Mexico, they put chile sauce – either red or green – on just about everything. Eggs, tacos, burritos, soups, stews, beans and greens all come covered, smothered, graced and laced with these magical elixirs. When traveling in New Mexico, just about anything you order, the waitress will ask you, “red or green?” If you’re cool, you answer “green,” if you’re a heat-seeker, you answer “red,” and if you’re really, really hip, “Christmas,” will net you a plate featuring both boisterous sauces. To best utilize your green chile sauce, get yourself a pork butt, cut it into a 1- 2 inch dice (discarding any overly fatty bits, but you want some fat), sear it off over high heat in canola oil, then drain off your fat, pour in the entire jar of sauce and braise at barely a simmer for a couple hours. You will get insane chile verde pork for tacos, burritos, juevos rancheros, migas, or any other Mexican delicacy you can image. It’s killer.

It’s less green that you think it will be

Hand in hand with the best surprise comes the Best Blogger Perk of 2011. From time to time, companies send me goodies to review. While I make no promises to gush about such things, I’ve found that mostly, these goodies really are good. This fall, one such package arrived from O’Kroft Family Foods, out in Texas. An assortment of Willie B’s Texas Salsa was inside, and I’ve found the fresco variety to be everything I like in a good jarred salsa. That is, bright, fresh flavors mimicking a homemade pico de gallo, with cilantro, lime and tons of good tomatoes. If you like to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, the haberno salsa is for you. I made a recent batch of my Triplett Dip (queso fundido) with this, and set the mouths of everyone within a five mile radius en fuego. I just wish the salsa verde had been included. I may have to order a jar.

Best Entrée of 2011 is another nail-biter. It’s so hard to pick just one! Everything from the DeAngelo pasta purses at Wise Guys Pizza and Pasta in Chaumont to the harvest dog and poutine at the Hops Spot in Sackets delighted me. I’ve toyed with awarding this honor (heh) to either Forno Bistro, for the spectacular braised lamb shank and polenta, or to Café Mira for the osso bucco made with so much care and finesse. But then, what about the braised oxtail at the CIA? Name one braised wonder, and I feel bad for the other two, when really, all three were sublime. So I’m moving in a different direction, embracing my “everything delicious, no pretense” philosophy, and naming Dinosaur BBQ’s Pork Sket sandwich platter, with their sonnet-worthy, rich, macaroni and cheese and terrific collards. Honorable mention to their dirty rice, which I have a special place for in my heart. This sandwich has everything you want from a great BBQ joint: succulent pulled pork, smoky beef brisket, cool, crisp, cole slaw, melty cheddar cheese and zingy, pickled jalapenos. Oh great, now I’ve drooled on my keyboard. I’m blaming the dinosaurs. OMG, and I most forgot: homemade pickles! Can I marry a plate of food?

Uh-oh. Now I need to eat this again. God, these awards are FILLED with culinary landmines!

And the award you’ve been waiting for, naturally, Best Restaurant of 2011. Last year, this coveted title was given to the Ithaca Ale House, which remains a favorite. This year, again, I was a little stumped. That’s why I started writing this post last week! But I’ve given it a lot of thought – probably more than it deserves, given the fact we’re talking an imaginary award here – and my Big Hungry Shelby Best Restaurant of 2011 is an overall award to the Culinary Institute of America. In all my travels this year, no other place so captured me, delighted me, filled me with yummy food and a warm feeling. From the gorgeous campus roamed by neophytes in chef whites, overlooking the breathtaking Hudson River Valley, to the vast array of fun, fancy grey, pink and black salts all along the waiting line at Apple Pie Bakery Café, to the theme-appropriate farm sinks in the ladies room at Caterina de Medici, every moment there is pure pleasure. If you’re looking for a quick getaway from existence as you know it, I beg you to schedule a weekend here and avail yourself of the fabulous on-campus eateries. We ate way too much that entire day (and drank too much, too), but a little gluttony makes you feel alive!

Cheers! Now let’s eat.
And so we wrap up another year of eating, Big Hungry-style. It’s shocking to me that another year has gone by, and that some of you nice people still read all my blathering about food. Thanks for sticking with me! In 2012, I’m moving the whole shebang over to Blogspot.com, so that I can bring you better quality pictures and a little more flexibility in my layout, so I hope you’ll follow me there. Don’t worry, I’ll still post things on NNYorker.com, and you’ll see me pop up here and there…especially on Twitter (@BigHungryShelby) and Facebook (join our Big Hungry Shelby group today!).

For now, I’m going to take a couple weeks off for the holidays. No need to blog about Christmas or New Years. You know there will be bacon, and gravy, and hopefully some really good cookies. What else do you need to know, right? If you find a new place I simply must check out, share it in the comments, below, or on the Facebook page. I’d be happy to follow your recommendations into the new year. See you in 2012…something yummy this way comes!

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