Holiday Extemporaneity

I didn’t think I had another post in me this year. I might not, really. Like The Bloggess always writes, “this isn’t a real post.” It’s a collection of random thoughts, my type-A need to say something about last week’s tragedy in Connecticut, and a rad gift I received from my buddy Robin the other night. I’m done with my holiday cards, the end is in sight on wrapping, I was never planning on baking anything, anyway, so blogging is about all I have left in the vein of spreading holiday cheer.

But before we get to the cheer, let me add my sentiments to the deluge of words, prayers, sparklies, and thoughts being sent in the direction of Newtown this week. Shawn and I were intermittently glued to the TV most of the weekend. There were times I had to change the channel, to find relief from the crushing repetition of images of frantic parents and terrified children, and I will not apologize for needing those breaks. What those people are enduring is unimaginable, and yet, so human, so relatable, that each of us cannot help but be able to empathize utterly and completely with their grief. The sorrow in Newtown is reflected in all of us, and yet, somehow, year after year, these tragedies occur and there’s someone at the center of it who seemingly slipped through the cracks of our society. Americans are wonderful at coming together to grieve, at showing support to a community in need, but we’re pretty lousy at identifying those souls who need help in advance of the day they snap.

Yes, gun control is an issue at hand right now, but much more urgent is the need for a rational, national conversation about mental illness. No need to point the finger at parenting, nor autism. Let’s start with the issue of thousands of parents across this nation who know very well there is something amiss in their child, but cannot find the resources they need to adequately secure care for this person they love, but fear. Funding for mental health and pay for mental health professionals is on the decline. The trend these days is to medicate and explain away mental illness as a disease without the understanding that some of these people need more than pills to be OK. Yes, they are people, they have rights, and the asylums of old were horrific institutions of abuse and terror. But tell me, are the faces of those children in Newtown, or the vision of sweet Emilie’s grieving father on CNN, any less horrific? I don’t pretend to have an answer to this issue, but I do know this: we need a better system for treating mentally ill individuals, with care and respect, before they get to the point where violence is the only outlet for their disease. We must come together in an apolitical manner to manage this phenomenon in a sane and fair way before another massacre happens. Because the victims and gunmen alike are our children, and they all deserve a chance to live and be well.

OK, hold on, I’m about to pivot, because this is the week before Christmas, and I want to step off my soapbox and into a vat of eggnog.

Melinda’s having her second annual winey ornament party tonight. Some of us girls get together, exchange fun ornaments, eat a bunch, and drink a bunch. Exactly what a party should be! I bought my ornament from Target’s cross-collaboration with Neiman Marcus this year, and I’m pretty excited about it. I’m going to bring food, but I haven’t decided what yet. Culinary procrastination is only a thing in which I participate around the holidays. I’ve been told there will be nog, which would be an excellent title for my forthcoming album.

One thought I had was to make these babies, which have been going around (again) on Pinterest lately, and which seem too good to be…good. Ham and cheese sammies drenched in flavored butter and then baked until they’re crunchy and ooey and gooey? Sign me up!

Returning home from a particularly grueling last-minute holiday shop Monday night, I received a really fun gift in the mail from Big Hungry Robin, who served time with me at St. Andrew’s College back in the late 90s. It was a tiny recipe box full of bacon recipes that break all the rules, like bacon peanut brittle, bacon and egg tapas, and bacon apple topping for pancakes. Thanks, Robbie! I don’t know where you got this, but I bet my readers would like to know. Can you help out with that in the comments?

The Miss America Pageant is in three weeks. This year, Jill and I are making sausage balls, pizza dip with Wegmans wine and cheese sausage, turkey meatballs, buffalo chicken balls, and stuffed mushrooms for my eighth annual Miss America party. We’ll have our usual competitions for best interview, best walk, best tiara, Miss Congeniality and Miss Owego, but I haven’t settled on prizes yet. If you’d like to get in on the fun of selecting American royalty (at Miss America, not at my party, although public voting would add an intriguing element), you can vote to put a contestant in the semi-finals via America’s Choice.

Melinda and I were out shopping last Saturday and (natch) wished for cocktails to accompany our lunch. My disastrous idea was Tully’s, on the Parkway. My thinking was, although it’s a chain, at least it’s a NY chain, and that they have a big bar, so maybe they’d have some festive holiday drinks. Well, lunch was terrible, there were no festive cocktails, the place with filthy, and we won’t be going back. You shouldn’t either. How have we come to a place in which places like this manage to survive when others, serving good food in a nice space, fail? Demand better food and better restaurants in 2013, Big Hungries!

I’m heading up to Watertown on Friday so that I can take part in our annual gift wrapping fundraiser for the Miss Thousand Islands Pageant scholarship fund on Saturday. Yes, it’s a wee bit off the beaten path, at the Ritz Salon and Spa just off Arsenal St in Watertown. But isn’t the allure of having someone else wrap ALL your gifts worth leaving the mall? And not just someone, a beauty queen! That’s right, Miss TI 2013 Lonna McCary will be there, and in exchange for your donation, will wrap all the wacky-shaped stuff you’ve bought for your wife. Genius solution to a holiday problem! Hope to see you there Saturday!

I’m sort of out of steam on this post, as I am for this year. I was wrapping presents and writing cards last night, and practically required a fainting couch at one point – all of my energy was just depleted. Have a joyous and delicious holiday, my Big Hungries. I’ll see you back here in 2013. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

PS: This is Princess Max, of The Netherlands. Isn't she fabulous? I'd just like to put you all on notice that she is officially my style icon for 2013, so expect me to show up places a lot more in fascinators and crazy sleeves. I wish I had run into her in a bar in Amsterdam. I feel like we would get on famously. 


2012 Big Hungry Awards

Let nothing you dismay, for the 2012 Big Hungries are nigh! This is my third annual conferment of honors upon Upstate New York’s culinary bounty. Or, to put it more realistically, one woman patting some local chefs on the back for good deeds done in regards to the peoples’ stomachs. Rejoice, for delicious delicacies lie here! It also marks what is most likely my last post for the year. But don’t worry, as long as you’re hanging out with the cool kids in the Big Hungry Shelby group on Facebook or following me @BigHungryShelby on Twitter, you’ll still be able to keep up with scrumptious eats and treats throughout the holidays.

Now, I did a somewhat ridiculous amount of traveling this year. I just looked back at this year’s posts, and was shocked at how few upstate NY restaurants I reviewed, and what a plethora of yummies I blogged about from points south, east and west. This makes my awards tough, because I had some mighty fine grub outside the confines of our great state, and while I implore you to get out there and sample the wares of DC, Austin, Amsterdam, and New Hampshire, they are technically beyond the scope of what I’ve set out to do here, and should be frozen out from these honors. I may be forced to make an exception, but here goes:

Appetizers have totally been my jam this year. I’ve eaten in two tapas restaurants, ordered small plates as my dinner countless times, and generally been more enthusiastic by the creations lurking on starter menus than their big plate counterparts. Pino Bianco’s bean dip at Turning Stone Resort & Casino was fabulous, the caramel shrimp at Carol’s Café was a wonder, and Bandwagon Brew Pub, in Ithaca, served up fried potato and cheese wontons that sang like sirens perched along rocky cliffs. Even the new Thai Time, in Binghamton, has those wicked curry puffs that were surprisingly, addictively, tasty. But the Best Appetizer of 2012 is actually found just a few blocks away, at Loft at 99 in Binghamton. The baked polenta shone where so many of its cornmeal comrades haven’t: it was soulful and crusty, hearty and healthy. The braised chard it’s served with is earthy and warming, and the dusting of parmigiano on top crowns the works with its nutty, salty depth.

2012 Best Appetizer: Loft at 99 Baked Polenta

Let’s not kid each other, you and me. We’ve been friends too long. I love bacon, and I know you do, too. Bacon is the answer to many serious afflictions affecting our planet, and probably even the fiscal cliff. Who could forget the pile of salty, fatty slices placed atop the potato pancakes at Creekview Restaurant in Buffalo? Nor the sneakily terrific bacon pizza at Beso in Staten Island? Both graced my palate and made me grin, but neither could compare to 2012 Best Bacon winner Bistro Elephant in Syracuse, with its steaky bacon appetizer. Niman Ranch organic bacon, stewed, served with tamarind, garlic, and chile sauce and delightful, tiny, slightyly-sweet, fried Asian buns. This appetizer was the perfect way to enjoy bacon in a perfectly classy way: bao-style. C’est manifique.

2012 Best Bacon: Bistro Elephant’s Steaky Bacon
It’s been a year for cocktails over wine. I have no idea why this tectonic shift occurred, but I can tell you that, arriving at a restaurant, I have been more eager lately to peruse the bar menu than the wine list. If I wasn’t shutting out non-New York restaurants in my awards, this would go hands-down to Founding Famers bone, that delightful bourbon and bacon confection I devoured in July, or even Tattooed Mom’s Mexican lunchbox, in Philly. But alas, I live here, I blog here, and lately, I’ve been loving Remlik’s concoctions in Binghamton. I don’t always like some of the food at Remlik’s. Some is pretty good, but a lot of it is lazy, given the prices and the gorgeous surroundings you get when you dine in the Kilmer Building. But I love their cocktails. Just last week I had 2012’s Best Cocktail: eggnog with bourbon. Yeah, that’s right. Simple, warming, sweet, and seasonal. For some knuckleheaded reason, I did not take a picture – but I did love it.

Ambiance is such a tricky factor for a restaurant. There are lots of good eats to be found where ambiance is a word unpronounceable to most of the clientele! I include it in my reviews because there are absolutely nights when my friends and I will choose atmosphere over food. When you want a quiet night out or a good place to party, environment can make all the difference. At Creekview Restaurant in Buffalo, I loved the sight of the rushing creek we had from our table, and Loft at 99 is currently sitting as my favorite locale in Binghamton. But 2012’s Best Ambiance award is a no-brainer: Mirbeau Inn and Spa in Skaneateles. I mean, the gardens were designed to look like Monet paintings, for crying out loud. This place is not really establishing a level playing field with joints in Watertown or Buffalo. We took my Mom to Mirbeau for Mother’s Day brunch, and while the food was a bit less than spectacular, the setting hit the mark.

2012 Best Ambiance: Mirbeau Inn and Spa
  As I mentioned previously, entrees have not been high on my list this year. The allure of a variety of small plates has won out in my positive dining experiences, to be sure, though there were high points. Amici’s pizzas have to technically be included in this category, and I absolutely love the pancetta and roasted peppers offered on their rustica pie. I can’t ignore the fabulous osso bucco at Pino Bianco, nor the noodles at Thai Time. But I did have a really unexpected showstopper back in April at Carol’s Café, in Staten Island. The 2012 Best Entrée was Carol’s beef stroganoff, an inelegant but finger-lickin’ take on Russian comfort food. This amalgamation of melted onions, tender, juicy filet, browned butter noodles and deep, rich gravy warmed the cockles of my stone cold heart, Big Hungries. Sure, you’ll have to go to Staten Island to eat there, a quite daunting task in this post-Sandy era, but this one dish makes the journey worth it.

2012 Best Entrée: Beef Stroganoff at Carol’s Café
 The Best Surprise of 2012 came on that harrowing, hungover morning in April, at the Bandwagon Brew Pub in Ithaca. It came not as our appetizer, nor even our entrée, but as the condiment to our burgers: divine, smoky beer mustard. I am left wanton by this silly yellow thing. I am somehow less for having eaten it once and not since. Where for art thou, beer mustard?

2012 Best Surprise: Bandwagon’s Beer Mustard

Last year, I didn’t have a Best Brunch. It must not have been a brunchy year? This year, we enjoyed brunch at Mirbeau, we skipped one at SI’s South Fin Grill, and adored one at Betty’s, in Buffalo. But now that the Hops Spot, in Sackets, is serving up Sunday brunch, it’s the clear winner of 2012 Best Brunch. We loved the beer donuts, citrusy sausage, bacon cheddar bread, and snickerdoodle mini muffins. With both the Hops Spot and Tug Hill Vineyards serving up such proper brunches in the Northcountry, I’m surprised Tin Pan still has those long lines snaking down S. Main St.

2012 Best Brunch: The Hops Spot
 It wasn’t really a year of epic desserts. I kind of feel like cocktails outweighed desserts in my tally book in 2012. That said, I had some great ones in Philly and Charleston. The Best Dessert in NYS was undoubtedly the chocolate chip pie at ChannelSide in Clayton. I suspect this place is closed for the season right now, but I wouldn’t mind another bite of this underbaked cookie in pie form right about now. It was simple, classic, not at all haute, and completely scrumptious.

2012 Best Dessert: Chocolate Chip Pie at ChannelSide
The Best Restaurant mantle is always a hard one to bestow. If I wasn’t putting NY limits on myself, I’m thinking Zahav and Founding Farmers would be engaged right now in a duel to the death for the title. Zahav, in Philadelphia, is the restaurant I most often wish I could eat at on any given night. Its roasted pomegranate lamb shoulder calls to me, and its double roasted eggplant ensnares me in a delicious trap. But the New York guidelines are there for a reason: I want to bolster New York State small business with BHS, and I intend to hold true. This year, when Hurricane Sandy so marred our home, I award Beso Restaurant, in Staten Island, as 2012 Best Restaurant. The meal we had there in June was fun and good – not the best tapas ever, but each dish was solid – and the ambiance was lovely, but it is this restaurant’s staff’s actions in the days following Sandy that have won the prize. Beso is less than two blocks from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, so I have no doubt they experienced some storm surge damage of their own, but immediately after the coast was clear and the storm passed, the cooks and servers of Beso were serving free meals to rescue workers and flood victims in Staten Island. The restaurant’s Facebook page and website were a beacon to the tempest tossed, and they took their job of serving others in the most literal way. Thank you, food friends, for coming to the aid of your neighbors. Well done.

2012 Best Restaurant: Beso Spanish Cuisine

This post has grown long, the year has grown late, and the hem of my dress is unraveling (What? Your clothes don't quit working when you've blogged too long?). Such is life. Tidings of comfort and joy to you, my Hungries. I’ll be back in the new year with many more treats to share. Congratulations to all the recipients of Big Hungry Awards for 2012. No, I don’t have actual awards to give you. I’m a blogger, not a sultan. But I hope Santa brings you your heart’s desire on Christmas Eve, be it bacon, a Lexus with a big, red bow on top, or a partridge in a pear tree. Happy Holidays! My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Beso on Urbanspoon


Dispatch from Indiana: Just Like Home

My company has a facility in Ft. Wayne, Indiana that is vibrant and employs more than 1,000 highly-skilled people, many of whom I quite like. It also is home to a Miss America local and executive director I’ve become internet friends with this year and whom I’d very much like to meet. Apart from that, the most remarkable thing about Ft. Wayne is…that it is so similar to Endicott, NY. The weird thing about that is that Ft. Wayne is Indiana’s second largest city, while Endicott doesn’t even make New York’s top ten list. But Ft. Wayne has a lot of residential territory, a lot of industry, a lot of chains, and almost no traffic, which was all incredibly familiar to me. Colleagues, know that if you get sent on assignment to FW, you’ll be right at home there.

I traveled to Ft. Wayne with B, my marketing co-worker who also is from the Southern Tier and who also found FW to be remarkably similar to home, if a tad harder to navigate. Our first night in town, we took recommendations from colleagues T and K and hit the Oyster Bar downtown for dinner with our Communications friend J. J and I split the cajun BBQ shrimp appetizer special. If you’ve ever watched any specials about New Orleans cuisine, you may have seen this special take on “BBQ” shrimp, which has no BBQ sauce nor any interaction with smoke. This preparation is based on two delicious ingredients: Tabasco sauce and butter. The Oyster Bar tossed us some lemon, celery, and blue cheese to take the edge off, as well as tons of good French bread to sop up all that peppery liquid. These were fiery and fantastic. Much more in the vein of “Buffalo” than “BBQ,” but who am I to tell a Cajun what’s what?

I should mention here that our waitress, who may have been an owner for all I know, was one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic servers I’ve had the pleasure of dining with in a long time. She knew her menu inside and out, including cocktails and desserts, she understood the preparation of each dish, she was keen to share the restaurant’s best features with us, and make our dinner the most enjoyable experience it could be. She highly recommended the clam chowdah, and all three of us took her advice. Luckily, it was great advice, and this was definitely up there in the top five of all chowders I’ve tasted. It was decadently creamy and rich, with deep shellfish and salt pork flavor. The clams were large, plentiful, and incredibly tender as well. Don’t miss this when you go.

There are several cool things about the Oyster Bar. One is the history of the joint, which opened in 1954 as its most recent establishment, but began as a saloon in 1830! Another is the fact that you can pick any two entrées off the menu and combine them as a half and half. Can’t pick between filet mignon and tuna? No problem, just do half of each! I saw this as an opportunity to sample more than one thing from the tempting menu, and chose both the scallops and stuffed shrimp, with the smoked bacon risotto as my side, naturally. I’ve been on a kick lately where I’m more interested in appetizers than entrees, but I wasn’t disappointed by a single bite from this plate. The food is unabashedly old school, but prepared in masterful style. Isn’t that how we like our classics? Two jumbo shrimp were butterflied and stuffed with a delicious crab and breadcrumb mixture, then broiled, while the scallops were crusted with crushed pistachios and grilled, lending the already creamy, perfectly cooked bivalves that distinctive and also somewhat creamy nuttiness. The risotto underneath was maybe a smidge tighter than I like it, but cooked al dente and deeply flavored with smoky hints of bacon and salty parmesan cheese.

For dessert, I again took our waitress’ recommendation, and ordered Oyster’s bar’s signature Ho Ho Cake. It was far, far, too rich and sweet for my palate, but dense, sugary, and chocolately, just like its namesake. I would give Oyster Bar a solid seven on the BHS scale. No cutting edge cuisine here, but a surprising expertise with seafood, considering Indiana’s landlocked status.

The other notable meal I had in FW was at Casa Ristorante, which was very close to B’s and my hotel on W. Jefferson Blvd. Come to find out, the owners of the Casa chain, which is comprised of four restaurants in FW, are related to a woman who sits in the cube next to mine and whom I bother constantly with my loud mouth. Sorry about all the noise, Aimee, but I hope I can make up for it with this love for your family’s pizza.

I started my dinner at Casa with the chop chop insalata. I want to like salad more in general, but my big problem with it is leaves. I don’t like the feel of leaves in my mouth. Wedge and chopped salads are the antidote to this problem, and I loved Casa’s interpretation. A bed of crisp, chopped iceburg was topped with an attractive multitude of vegetables: kalamata olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, sundried tomatoes and peas, plus ham, salami, provolone and gorgonzola. The bright, homemade Italian dressing delivered a punch of tart acid to counteract all that salt and fat. And a crispy shard of salty, herbed garlic toast rose out the top like the Titanic in her last moments. Delicious moments, that is.

To go with my salad: pizza. B wasn’t feeling well that second night in FW, so I was dining alone, and pizza seemed the quickest, easiest answer to my lonely table of one. Turns out, it was a totally kickass pizza, and I wasn't sacrificing anything by ordering this quickie. I got the Tutti, which had been recommended on Urbanspoon. This mix of kicky, spicy sausage, pepperoni and shrooms was pizza perfection, bubbly and brown from the brick oven, and proof that Urbanspoon reviewers are smarter than their Yelp brethren. Next time in FW, I will be back at Casa, and I will bring friends.

Ft. Wayne seems to have a proliferation of Mexican Restaurants. I love Mexican food, so we asked one gent in a meeting which one we should choose for lunch. I didn’t care for his recommendation: Cebolla’s. I didn’t bother to take pictures there, as our meal was only so-so. I never understand it when a restaurant can’t get carnitas right. Pork shoulder is one of the most luxurious, flavorful, unctuous cuts of meat available. When it arrives in front of me dry and blah, that’s unacceptable.

B and I had a better lunch at Biaggi’s, which is in a relatively posh shopping plaza not far from the plant. This Italian place has a chain feel, but is apparently locally owned, and our colleagues all raved about it. We both got a salad and pasta lunch special, and were pleased with our food, but not blown away by it. It was fine. I would certainly acquiesce to lunching there again on a return trip.

The overwhelming feeling I had dining in Ft. Wayne was the same as the feeling I had while driving around it – it’s much of the same we have here in Upstate NY. The food is all fine, without a ton of innovation or boundary-pushing, and the people seem OK with that. I really think writing the blog has made me into something of a snob, in that if my dessert doesn’t have smoked salt or basil lavender emulsions in it, or my appetizer isn’t kicked up with duck fat, pork belly, or bone marrow, I’m not all that impressed. I’m like the damn Makayla Martell of food. But I can still appreciate pedestrian food that’s executed well and tastes great, and there were some good examples of this aesthetic to be found in Ft. Wayne.

We’re nearing the end of 2012, Big Hungries, and you know what that means: I’m tallying my thoughts of everywhere I’ve eaten this year for the 2012 Big Hungry Awards. I hope to have them ready for you next week, so get ready for a round-up of yummies! In the meantime, remember that our friends downstate are still hurting and starting to rebuild from that bitch Sandy’s assault. If you’d still like to give, try Governor Cuomo’s organization: Empire State Relief Fund. Governor Cuomo visited the Southern Tier yesterday, and our site was part of his itinerary. I was touched by how concerned he and his staff members are about the storm victims downstate, and how much help we all got last year when our area was flooded. Please help if you can. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Casa Ristorante on Urbanspoon