The Spice of Blah

Y’all, this low sodium diet blows. I am so over it! It’s put a major cramp in my Big Hungry style, and while undoubtedly, the masses of fruit and salad are better for me in the long run, I do not enjoy limiting myself to such puritanical pleasures.
Needless to say, my usual gallivanting and restaurant hopping has been curtailed in favor of cooking at home and almost daily stops at Wegmans for more fruit. So, I don’t have a real restaurant review for you this week, Big Hungries. But we did have the pleasure of hosting some houseguests this past weekend, and I managed some pretty impressive feasts despite my dietary restrictions. Saturday night, the boys and I collaborated on a couple different rib rubs and made a few racks in the smoker Shawn’s Mom and I got him for his birthday this year. I rounded that out with my grandma’s recipe for macaroni salad, a low sodium iteration of Paula Deen’s classic broccoli casserole, a little corn and scallion salad, and my own colby jack cornbread with fire roasted poblano chili peppers. Melinda and Derek brought hot dogs and chips, and we were in business!

Sunday, Shawn and Rob went golfing, while I was armed with a plan to make homemade pizzas for dinner. Because we live in the country and no good pizza places deliver to our house, Shawn and I began making our own on a regular basis about two years ago, and we just about have it perfected. We buy the dough at Weis, which is one of our local grocery stores, pre-sauté red bell pepper strips and mushrooms with Penzey’s pasta sprinkle (and usually, pizza seasoning, although the recent salt drought put the kibosh on that this week), and use our homemade “S&S” sauce. The other key is baking them on a pizza stone at a really high heat; this ensures the crust is baked through and the liquid evaporates from the veggies before the cheese gets too brown. We do 500°, but if your oven goes higher, crank it.


Farmstand veggies and pasta sprinkle await their saute

Anyway, while the low-salt, veggie pizza was obvs my only option, Rob and Shawn requested a sausage pie, which sent me on a small odyssey that I thought might be worth sharing with you this week. As you may know, there is a fairly significant Italian population in the Endicott area, which is right near where we live. As I was out and about on Sunday, I didn’t feel like hiking way over to Wegmans in Johnson City, so I thought I would source the sausage for the pizza, plus some other fixings, from some of the little Italian groceries and such.

First, I hit up the Russell Family farm stand on Old Vestal Rd. for some really gorgeous plums, as well as bell peppers for the pizzas and cucumbers for a salad. They also carry River Rat cheese, so I picked up a brick of extra sharp cheddar for Shawn to snack on this week. I love having a River Rat source this far south of home! I also love these little farm stands that pop up all over in the summertime; I can never seem to get it together to make it to scheduled farmer’s markets, so the permanent stands in Maine, Apalachin and Vestal are my mainstays for great produce this time of year.

Unfortunately, because I hatched the plan of hitting up these mom and pop shops on a Sunday, some of the Italian places, Butcher Boy and S&M Groceries in Endwell, were closed. Too bad, so sad. But Jimmy Roma’s, in Endicott, was open for business, and while I didn’t find any sausage there, I picked up some of their fabulous Italian bread and these gorgeous, dense clamshell pastries that are like croissants filled with cheesecake. I noted for the future that they have entrees like lasagna, ravioli, meatballs and manicotti in their freezer case that would be a good solution for a weeknight meal pinch.

Clamshells...from the bakery, not the ocean

Next, I stopped at Shelly’s Quality Meats, just down the street from Roma’s in West Corners. There, I found the grail: links of house-made hot and sweet Italian sausage, sold individually from a bona fide meat case. I purchased two hot links for, like, $2, and scooted on home to cook ‘em up. And boy, did they smell good! Clearly, sausage is not on my approved eating list right now, but the pizza made with this sausage smelled divine and looked Heavenly. The guys approved, and I thank Shelly’s for making me a popular girl in my own house.

Such a deal!
If you live up North, chances are none of these shops are on your radar screen, but there are still plenty of good ones in your neck of the woods! We love the
River Rat Cheese Shop in Clayton, for cheese (derr), chocolates from the Croghan Candy Kitchen, and specialty sauces and snacks from around New York State. Art’s Jug has a lot of entrees to go, frozen and ready to be picked right up, from their take-out area on Huntington St., and Bernardo’s, on Coffeen, has the same. And of course, I can’t neglect the Croghan Meat Market, churning out NNY’s fav summer sausage, the more than a century-old recipe for Croghan Bologna.

My point is, when you make up your mind to avoid the supermarkets and shop a little more locally, you always come out on top. I may have driven all over town on Sunday, but I talked to lots of nice folks, came home with far superior foodstuff compared to what the Weis would have yielded, and had fun at the same time. I don’t dispute that one stop at Wegmans would have been more convenient, but I like getting out and about once in awhile and finding cool stuff like those clamshell pastries. I think supporting these locals businesses is a good thing for a bunch of reasons – call it karma, community or simply a happy tummy.

Oh by the way, wanna make your own tomato sauce, which freezes up beautifully and keeps for up to a year? Here’s our basic recipe:

S and S Sauce

2 lb Tomatoes, preferably fresh from your garden or a local farm stand
¼ Cup Olive oil
2 – 4 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
Kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, to taste

The kind of tomatoes you use for this recipe isn’t important. Shawn grows romas and beefsteak, and we just chunk them up and throw them all in together.

Preheat oven to 275°. Quarter the tomatoes and spread them in an even layer, seed-side down, on a rimmed baking sheet with the garlic cloves. Drizzle olive oil evenly over everything and sprinkle with salt and pepper. You can toss it all together if you’re feeling ambitious, but with the buckets-full of tomatoes and the amount of sauce we make in the later summer each year, we don’t bother.

Roast for two hours. A lot of the juice will be concentrated down and the tomatoes will be sweet, rich and browned in some bits. At this point, you scoop the whole mess into a food mill, and grind away. The food mill will take the skins and seeds out for you, and all you get is your red reward! We typically cram anywhere from two to four sheet trays of tomatoes into the oven at a time, to maximize our two hours’ roasting time. A tray full will yield about three, maybe four cups of sauce.

We use this straight up on pizzas, but if you want to make it into delicious red sauce for pasta, add some onion, Penzey’s Pasta Sprinkle and tomato paste, and you’re golden.

That’s about all I have to share this week, Big Hungry Nation. If you have any off the beaten track gourmet shops or local food paradises that I should know about, please share your knowledge in the comments, below. You also can follow me on Twitter @BigHungryShelby or join our little group on Facebook (search for Big Hungry Shelby). Remember: BHS t-shirts are for sale. They are $25 a piece, and I have a bunch of sizes available in both men’s and women’s styles. If you would like to wear your hunger for all the world to see, email me at shelbyc@stny.rr.com and I’ll hook you up. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS: The reason I'm posting so late today is that I had a doctor's appointment at which my dietary restrictions were lifted. LOOK OUT, PIGS!

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