Kick Start My Heart

I never thought of driving as a strenuous activity,” I murmured to myself while on my way to Syracuse last Saturday and trying not to nod off. It was the middle of the day; I should have been wide awake. But I had forgotten the golden rule of the diet kick-start/cleanse: work out at your own risk when you’ve dropped your caloric intake down to infinitesimal levels.

For the first time since 2009, I am taking a beach vacation this summer. And let me clarify, while Shawn, Melinda and I went to San Diego to visit Big Hungry Lance and Annie in 2009, the weather was cold and overcast, as it was in 2008 when we went to Ocean City, MD. I haven’t had a real beach vacation that included actually lying on the beach in swimwear since sometime around 2004. This is a sacrilege, as laying on the beach with a good read is one of my very most favorite leisure time activities ever.

So I’m really excited to be hitting Hilton Head, SC this July with Katie and Robin, with whom I shared a suite sophomore year at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College. We haven’t all been together since 1999, a very bleak period in fashion history:

I know this picture is small – it’s scanned. But you may notice Katie’s kind of epic ombre hair, my do-it-yourself highlights and choker necklace, and Robin’s clunky footwear. Oh, 1999, ya done us wrong. I’ll have a new set of worries to address for this summer’s trip: while Robin was born svelte and never looked back and Katie regularly runs in 5K and other Ks with numbers higher than I can keep track of…I blog about food and count bacon as my favorite. I shudder to imagine myself in even a one piece, let alone a bikini, but am determined to enjoy this vacation looking great in a two-piece. That’s a swimming costume, not a basket of fried chicken.

Enter, Dr. Roger Adams, AKA Gomez, husband of my colleague Lisa/Morticia, and nutrition and exercise coach extraordinaire. As I explained last fall, when I worked with Sheri Oppenheimer at the 100 Women Project, I do better dieting with rules. I’m a goal-oriented gal, and my type A personality and Virgo birth sign set me up to do best with a strict meal plan and a disciplinarian to guide me. Otherwise, I am fully capable of convincing myself that bacon, pork shoulder, flour tortillas, and mac and cheese are all within reasonable healthy eating plans. Roger’s EatRightFitness business is currently my Jedi Master.

The first step of Roger’s plan is a bit brutal, and that’s what landed me in the car on Saturday, driving to Syracuse for a fundraiser and feeling like I might keel over in the driver’s seat. A three-day cleanse or “Kick-start,” as Roger calls it, is a great way to get your metabolism in gear, but one would be wise to skip one’s usual 60 minute treadmill workout when one is consuming mostly fruit and a few protein shakes. Sheri used to say a cleanse was a good time to lay off the cardio and practice “self-care,” and I should have heard her voice in my head this time.

I was wiser on Sunday, and stuck close to the couch, doing some light stretching, laundry, helping Shawn lift flat screens around the house and whatnot. But Roger’s EatRight mojo is already working – I’ve lost five pounds of water weight just since Saturday!

I’m writing this on Monday, and start Phase 1 of the diet itself tomorrow. I also am traveling to Austin, TX tomorrow for a work event, so it will be fun to maintain a really strict eating plan while rushing through airports and whatnot. Luckily, I’m staying in my favorite Austin business-approved hotel - Courtyard by Marriott Downtown – so I’ll be in a comfortable and familiar location from my IBM freelancing days. I believe I’m meeting Big Hungry Jill’s sister Alison for either lunch of dinner at Max’s Wine Dive there tomorrow, so I’ll blog about that later in the week, although my schedule will most likely preclude a post Wednesday morning this week. Max’s looks pretty amazing, and I’m using it as my cheat meal this week, though Gomez has warned me not to undo all my progress by going overboard. I’ll look into sampling a few appetizers, probably, and maybe splitting an entrée with Alison.

Meantime, if you need a little help getting ready for bikini season, check out EatRightFitness.com to read more about Roger’s shtick. His guidance is very much different from the soft touch of the 100 Women Project. It’s an interesting change to have defined meal plans with amounts of food I can eat, and even the times in the day I should be eating. He’s also sent me a workout plan that will be challenging when I’m on the road this week, but has me moving six days a week, which is basically what I was doing when I worked from home and have slacked off on majorly since taking an office job. The thing is, I think we’ve all passed the days where we think a magical diet will cure us forever. It really is all about calories in/calories out, and if I want my work-from-home body back, I have to find a way to work exercise back into my weekday routine. It won’t be easy, but I didn’t actually expect it to be.

If you do decide to call Roger up and enlist his help, please let me know. We can be wellness buddies and get on track together! As much as being more spartan in my diet pains me from a BHS standpoint, I do love all the things I learn working with these experts. For instance, I’ve battled restless legs for years, and Roger told me last week that increasing my water intake up over 100 ounces a day and more cardio workouts could help, and sure enough, Saturday, I only needed one of my crazy legs pills to get to sleep!

Don’t forget to check in on our Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook, where I’ll talk more about my day-to-day dieting goals, and follow me @BigHungryShelby on Twitter, where my tweets range from food musings to Gavin DeGraw commentary. Have a great week, Big Hungry Nation! My hunger is big, my personality is bigger!


Not a Mob Wife in Sight

Pageant duties this past weekend landed me, my parents and our Miss TI Allison back in Staten Island for the 2012 Miss New York workshop. This was my third visit to the fifth borough, and I feel like my parents and I are finally starting to get our bearings in this area of NYC some describe as suburban, but which seems pretty urban to a girl from Watertown.

Since our fantastic lunch at South Fin Grill last summer, I’ve been seeking out other Island gems on Urbanspoon and the like. But it was my friend Big Hungry Lisa who turned me on to Carol’s Café in the Dongan Hills neighborhood of SI. When I did a little online hunting, I found that Carol is quite famous – a cooking school teacher, media darling and Bobby Flay pal. I was hooked and primed for a an excellent meal.

So after a long day at the St. George Theater of meetings, talent reviews, clashes over white pants suits (Hillary Clinton wasn’t even there) and photos, our worn out quartet drove to the ritzy end of SI – think opulent McMansions crammed onto tiny lots with no yards and security gates – for dinner.
Our Miss TI is the tall brunette in the back row

Carol’s Café is charming on the inside, if a tad outdated. I loved the exposed brick walls, but the floral upholstery and pink napkins took me back to some unfortunate outfits I sported in the sixth grade. Then again, the smells from the kitchen and the sweets in the dessert case were so fetching, who was concentrating on the decor?

With Allie’s vegetarian palette in mind, we ordered two appetizers: the caramel shrimp and beet tart. The first thing you should know about Carol’s was evident before those plates even hit our table: the Italian notion of abondanza, or abundance, is being done proud here. The portions are massive! The caramel shrimp was an oval platter with six delicious medium to large shellfish swimming with green onions, roasted garlic and coins of spicy ginger in a pool of sweet sauce. This complex pottage no doubt contained an ample amount of sugar, but also some wonderful Asian components like soy and sesame oil. I will be googling savory caramel sauces and trying to recreate this dish sometime this week in my own kitchen. It was fabulous and would have made a delightful entrée with sticky rice or lo mein noodles.
I wanted to lick the sauce off the plate after the shrimp were gone- but I didn’t

The beet tart was served with goat cheese and a thick balsamic drizzle, which is a very classic interpretation, but was wonderful. I had honestly hoped the “tart” connotation would bring with it an actual pastry shell and some more creativity, but honestly, the flavor and satisfaction were not lacking for this simple composition. The beets were cooked perfectly and not a bit mushy or overly sweet, the tiny cannels of goat cheese were clean and tangy, and the entire dish was subtle and mild. Fantastic.

But I’ll give you this, it looks like road kill on the plate

I struggled a bit in choosing from the very appetizing menu. At one point, I was trying to narrow my choice down from five good-looking entrees. God, I’m greedy. Allison saved the day by choosing one of them: the wild mushroom rigatoni. It was fantastic – earth, rich and hearty just like you want a mushroom-centric dish to be. The pasta was perfectly al dente without having too much of a bite, which bugs me. The various mushrooms and gorgonzola created a sauce that was almost dark in flavor, velvety in the mouth and extremely comforting. This dish is a winner, even without meat.

Vegetarians, rejoice! Carol has your back!

With that pasta dish out of the running, I swayed between one of the pastas on the specials menu and the beef stroganoff. Our cheery, helpful waitress recommended the stroganoff, and I’m so glad I followed her tip. This was an entirely unique dish for a restaurant menu – shaved filet mignon, tender as can be, flamed in brandy and enrobed in a melted onion and mushroom gravy, alongside brown butter egg noodles. I found a sprig of fresh sage nestled in my noodles, and luxuriated in the deep, rich brandy sauce that coated the steak. There was very little sour cream in the dish, which relied much more on the flavor of the meat itself, plus the brandy and brown butter. This was comfort food elevated to fine dining echelons, and I loved it.

My grandma’s beef stroganoff casserole is yummy on a cold winter’s night, but can’t compare to this.

Mom’s panko shrimp with house made potato chips were perfect for her lighter side appetite. The shrimp were perfectly cooked; light and crispy, with their panko breadcrumb coating, and had a very shrimpy flavor. What I mean is, they actually tasted like shrimp are supposed to taste, of the ocean and brine, not just a vehicle for some sauce or fried breadcrumbs.

Jumbo shrimp is my favorite oxymoron
 Dad had the weakest dish of the table, although I still really liked it. Here’s the thing, Dad: you like Mom’s meatballs and Giovanni’s sauce, from Watertown. Notwithstanding the fact that Giovanni’s closed before I even had a driver’s license, it’s probably risky to order spaghetti and meatballs outside of your comfort zone. But I understand the inclination to go for something familiar and comforting after a long day, so I’ll cut him some slack. While Dad didn’t care for the non-mom-made meatballs, I thought they were delicious: light, herbaceous and fresh tasting as opposed to heavier, earthier versions that are more frequent in these northern climes. He also was disappointed by the marinara-style red sauce, as he prefers a more cooked-down, tomato paste-heavy sauce. This, again, was fresh and light and very tomato-y. While I also appreciate a more cooked-down sauce, I thought it was pretty good.

Gorgeous basil explosion
 Also, please notice on these pasta dishes: the edges of the bowls are wiped clean! Do you see that, Cortese? Fireside? It takes about half a second to run a kitchen towel around the edge of the plate, and look at the glorious, pristine result!

We also got dessert to go, and I completely forgot to photograph either my moist, spicy, divine carrot cake with pineapple, raisins and cinnamon cream cheese frosting, or Allie’s decadent, creamy, light as air oreo cheesecake. Sorry about that, guess you’ll have to go to Carol’s and see them for yourself.

I posed a score vote to my weary dining companions and we came up with nines all around. So, I’m scoring carol’s Café a nine out of 10 on the ever-precise BHS scale. Yes, you might be sitting next to a mobster or his wife at this Staten Island treasure, but with food like this, you won’t mind. Ok, maybe you wouldn’t have minded anyway. Maybe you think gangsters are gangsta? I don’t know your life!

We’ll be back in SI in June for the Miss New York Pageant, with plans to hit up more Island eateries, so if downstate strikes your fancy, stay tuned. I’ve heard Pizzeria Giove is awesome. Meantime, I’m hoping to have another pageant-centric dinner in Syracuse this weekend after our girls volunteer at an event for Shades of Orange art studio and Golisano Children’s Hospital. Hope you’ll join me as something yummy this way comes. My hunger is big, my personality is bigger!

PS - Today is Big Hungry Melinda's birthday. Melinda is my best friend, consigliere, secret-keeper, fun finder and all around gal pal. She is ridiculous, gorgeous, intelligent, hilarious and kind. I'm so glad God put her on this Earth, because we're all better off for her presence. Happy Birthday, my darling! Every year we're closer to our condo at the Good Shepard Home, where we will wear gold shoes, complain about our aches and pains, and flirt with old men every day! Fancy a day drink?

Carol's Cafe on Urbanspoon


Binghamton Restaurant Week: Cortese Restaurant

Restaurant Weeks around the country are typically good chances for ordinary folks to try out a palace of culinary delight for a reasonable price, promoting a big city’s gustatory upper echelon to those usually unable to afford such luxuries. But Binghamton Restauarnt Week offers something a bit different: a good lure for our locals to steer away from Red Lobster and The Olive Garden and towards locally-owned restaurants like Sake Tumi and Loft at 99. If the brisk business and packed spaces in Binghamton’s local eateries during this spring’s RW are any indication, the plan is working and Binghamton restaurants are getting the boon they’re hoping for by participating.

This time around, Big Hungries Lisa and Melinda and I hit up Cortese Restaurant, a Binghamton institution I have somehow missed in my 12 years living here. Cortese sports an extensive menu of Italian classics, a less impressive wine list, and a noisy, somewhat dated space that is the hallmark of a family-owned Italian joint.

As Lisa helpfully modeled for you in the above photo, the mozzarella sticks at Cortese are breaded in an extremely fine crumb, but are pretty ordinary. A good, classic staple, though not remarkable in flavor or presentation.

Another appy, the Toscana bread, was a little more memorable, although I was overpowered by the garlic content. This pizza dough-based garlic bread is dressed up with fresh tomatoes and basil. The menu promised pesto, but none was delivered. I’m always a little annoyed when a menu description doesn’t fit the dish, and this bread didn’t wow me, although Lisa liked it.

Whither my pesto?
The house salads were really nice. Again, a strong punch of garlic was the hallmark of the dressing, and the plain iceberg was offset nicely with a pile of shredded (not crumbled) blue cheese on top.

Melinda’s lasagna was surpringly light, considering the huge portion and casserole-style presentation. There was a nice, sweet spice to the sauce, and the ricotta/mozzarella/sauce/noodle ratio was spot on. She loved it.

A unique addition to the Resaurant Week menu was the parmigiana sampler, which both Lisa and I ordered. This was a hearty portion of homemade linguine with a sausage link, a meatball, and a surprisingly large slab of chicken parmesan. The sausage was the standout on this plate – spicy robust and garlicky. The pasta was homey and tender, clearly homemade and rough-textured. I quite liked it. The chicken could have been pounded thinner, for my tastes. I like a true cutlet in my parmesan – duh, more fried surface area that way! This was thicker and less tender than I prefer. The meatball also lacked luster. It was too tightly packed for me, and a little dry on the palate. Overall, though, this dish was successful, and a great way to try a lot of Cortese’s staples within the RW framework.

But you know I have to deduct BHS points for the presentation. I just can’t stand a sloppy plate, and look at the cheese splatter around the edges of this parmigiana. How long would it have taken the chef to wipe these edges before slamming the plate in the salamander? How much would it have cost to accent the sea of red sauce and cheese with a sprig of Italian parsley or fresh basil? I know this is down-home, traditional Italian fare, but in 2012, I just expect a little more…flair.

Our tiramisu for dessert was only OK. Melinda and split it, but found it lacking texture. The coffee flavor was good, but rather than espresso-soaked lady fingers on the bottom that tend to retain a little chew, this was based on a layer of angel food or sponge cake which just couldn’t stand up to the mascarpone and cocoa and turned to mush.

Lisa loved her brownie ala mode. I didn’t get a chance to try it, but this might be a stronger bet to nicely end cap your meal.

As a group, we chose to give Cortese a seven on the BHS scale. The food here is on the garlicky end of the Southern Tier Italian food dining spectrum – most of the dishes we had a chance to try were predominated by a strong garlic overtone. I like garlic, so this was a fine overtone for me, but I know plenty of people for whom this would be a deterrent. The dining room also was incredibly noisy, which Melinda told me is typical there. It was packed during our weeknight visit, which I always like to see. Clearly, this is a beloved Binghamton eatery, and I can see why. The generous portions and homey environment beget a comfortable family dinner spot.

It should be noted that Cortese’s pizza are a big deal around here. While I didn’t taste any that evening, I have certainly been known to bring home one of Cortese’s frozen pies available at most of our local grocery stores. Lisa ordered one that evening to take home to her kids. The buttery crust, garlic-laden red sauce and layer of thick mozzarella are pleasing, indeed.

This was a pretty straight-forward meal, but I’m glad Restaurant Week gave me the excuse to try it out. I hope RWs expand to more of Upstate NY’s cities. I know Rochester has one, though I haven’t heard of Watertown or Syracuse joining suite. Please correct me if I’m wrong. In any event, I’m glad my local city has embraced the trend, and look forward to Binghamton’s next RW. My hunger is big, my personality is bigger!

Cortese Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Bonus Easter Monday Recipe: Ham Glaze

I tweeted and Facebooked up a storm late last week trying to figure out what to do with my Easter ham. Because Shawn and I usually end up in Watertown for holidays, while I'm a good cook, I'm not super comfortable being the polished holiday hostess. But my parents came for Easter this year, and I wanted to make sure to fill their bellies with knock-out eats.

After some Foodnetwork.com searches and Twitter conversations, I devised the following concotion for a glaze:

1/2C Maple syrup
1/2 C Light brown sugar
2 T Spicy brown mustard
1/2 tsp Dry mustard
1/2 tsp Ground cloves

And this method seemed de rigeur for an average-sized spiral sliced ham: Bake at 325 degrees for 2 hours in a roasting pan with a little water in the bottom, covered with foil. Remove from oven, re-heat to 400 degrees, score top of ham with a sharp knife, then pour the glaze down over it. Bake at the higher temp, uncovered for 30 more minutes.

It was so much better than I expected. Next year, I may even go whole hog (heh) and order a specialty ham from The Piggery in Ithaca or Smithfield Hams in Virginia. Because I think it could have been even saltier and porkier than the good quality Wegmans spiral sliced baby I procured. The quality of the meat, to me, makes all the difference.

For sides, I did my patented scalloped potatoes, which are from a recipe I pulled off iVilliage approximately 150 years ago and dress up with really gorgeous, aged, sharp, NY cheddar and fresh, ground nutmeg; and carrots, parsnips and shallots roasted in EVOO, salt and pepper. Easy and delicious.

What culinary masterpieces did you pull off yesterday? Share it in the comments!


No Stone Unturned

Before we launch into another mouth-watering review, can I please drive home that this is the last couple of weeks to enjoy 15% off from Santa Fe Ole Food Company, purveyors of fine green chile sauce? Just use the code bighungry2012 on their site through April 16 to receive your discount. In addition, I’d be tickled if you’d sign up to actually follow my blog, which is easily clickable in the left-hand nav on this page. Join the Big Hungry Shelby Facebook page today for an extra photos, fun, and frequently, bacon. You also should think about following me on Twitter @BigHungryShelby. You know, if you’re cool.

A couple weeks ago, my parents and I took another fun road trip with two of our pageant girls, Allie and Maggie, and two of our pageant board members, Stan and Deltra. We were heading from Watertown down to Verona for the Miss Mohawk Valley Pageant, and stopped off for a pre-event dinner at the Turning Stone Casino and Resort. After running around the place like chickens with our heads cut off trying to find a table that could seat us with no reservation on St. Patrick’s Day (whoopsie!), the kind folks at Pino Bianco Trattoria took pity on our black souls and granted us passage, and a pretty fine meal, to boot.

Lovely light fixture over our hard-won table

Pino Bianco is one of Turning Stone’s more upscale dining options, which range from fast food counters in a food court set-up to fine dining. It is utterly lovely inside, though we were seated outside the actual trattoria in a sort of inside “sidewalk café” area, apart from the main aisle of the casino but also from the main dining room.

For starters, we were brought a tray laden with white bean dip, oil cured olives, bruschetta, and foccacia bread with roasted tomatoes and herbs baked right in. The dip was a showstopper, better than any old bean dip I’ve had before – smooth with pungent lemon, oregano and garlic flavors.

Phenomenal bean dip. I’ve never typed those words all together before.

The salad round was pretty standard, with the exception of a very acidic house vinaigrette and a snappy, yummy little parmesan frico, which gave me the opportunity to teach my tablemates about the method of baking or dry-pan-frying off a little pile of grated parmesan into a crunchy little cheese chip.

Get your frico on; fly your frico flag

Allison, our Miss TI 2012, is a vegetarian. Sometimes, it’s hard for us to hang out. Guys, she has a pet pig. And she does NOT appreciate it when I offer to come over and eat him for her. But on this night, being an animal lover paid off in the form of her eggplant rollatini, which was delicious. As Pino Bianco has a pizza oven, I imagine the smoky elements I tasted in this rolled eggplant dish originated there, and the bubbly, browned mozzarella cheese over top provided a comforting blanket of yum.

Not a hint of pork in this
I taught her a lesson with my order: osso bucco. Sigh. Big Hungries, I cannot resist the siren song of braised shank meats. It’s a real problem. I was all set to order the lobster ravioli, but once our waitress listed braised veal shanks as a special, all plans went out the window along with the following: smaller belts, my willpower and any chance Allison will let me in her house, ever. Luckily, this dish was worth it, with the fall-apart tender meat cascading into the pool of stone-ground polenta underneath and everything bathed in the clean, sweet flavors of tomatoes and carrots. There was even a nice bone with the marrow still in it, which I scooped onto a piece of bread and gobbled up, completely alienating at least 50% of my fellow diners. Welcome to Caveman’s Table, folks.
I mean, they put the spoon right in the marrow. Wasn’t I supposed to eat it?
Mom got one of the specialty pizzas, which wasn’t particularly remarkable, but certainly very tasty. It had very mild sausage and good garlic flavor to it. The crust was on the thin side, but not shatteringly so.

Dad and either Stan or Deltra took it easy and ordered the antipasto platter. The cippolini onions were a big hit. I think they were marinated in a sweet and sour agridolce mixture like on the Mediterranean bar at Wegmans. Plus, someone took some time to arrange this plate. Pretty, right?
Say it with me: agri dole chay

So yeah, this meal cost a pretty penny. And we were sitting in a casino. But I’ve got to say, this was fine, fine food, and the lengths these folks went to find a spot to feed our large party on a busy night is admirable. You know what else? While casinos aren’t really my scene, I mean, if I’m spending money, I like there to be something definite to show for it – a ton of people legitimately flock to these places in their leisure time. Plus, Turning Stone has done a remarkable job renovating over the last few years. If you haven’t been in five or ten, give it a shot. The spa is high end, they have new tower rooms for overnight guests, and there are several good restaurants like Pino Bianco on premise. And the sound of slot machines, but that’s beside the point, right? Hee.

We awarded Pino Bianco a surprising 8 on the BHS scale. There wasn’t a thing on that table that wasn’t delicious, and the service was downright warm and welcoming. From a glance at their dessert menu, I’m betting (Ha! See what I did there?) it’s delicious as well, but as there’s a cheesecake café directly across the hallway, you may want to take a respite at the roulette table and then grab your treats elsewhere.

I’ve been busier than a one-armed paper hanger the past few weeks at work, Big Hungries, so my Facebook and Twitter time has been cut down. If you have anything yummy or fun to share, pop on over and do it. You don’t need me to start the fun. I’ll be back next week with a Binghamton Restaurant Week review and just maybe some fun details on my latest celeb encounter. I know you’re waiting with baited breath. Until then, mis amis…my personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Pino Bianco on Urbanspoon