Hootie Hoopla

A really cool opportunity came my way this weekend, and actually being around (for a change) to participate in it was pretty extraordinary. I'm heading to Vegas this week for a few days of day drinking, night eating, and sun soaking with Big Hungry Melinda, so this is the post for the week, and I hope you think it's fun.

If you're a Top Chef fan or you watch The Chew on ABC, you might have heard of Carla Hall. As a Top Cheftestant, she was quirky and heartfelt, though she took some razzing by her colleagues for her somewhat simple, "pedestrian," food. Maybe her most distinctive episode of her first season on the show was calling out, "Hootie Hoo," in Whole Foods to her teammates to signal her whereabouts, apparently something she and her hubbie do in grocery stores at home in DC. By the time she returned for Top Chef All Stars, she was a fan favorite, beloved for her kind demeanor, soulful cooking, and eclectic style. Now she's on The Chew, which enabled her to serve as a judge at Miss America last September. I kept my eyes peeled for her in AC, and was sad I never got to call out Hootie Hoo across the boardwalk. Imagine my delight, then, when I spotted this a few weeks ago:

Squeeeeee! I blocked today on my calendar, and eagerly awaited my chance to meet her. Well today was the day! I shot out of bed like a rocket this morning, and arrived at a Wegmans two full hours ahead of her call time. The event was incredibly well organized, and I had fun standing in line with new foodie friends Diane and Naz in Group A, the first bundle of people to meet and greet Carla.

Around 11, Carla came out to speak shortly about her new book, Carla's Comfort Foods. She took questions from the crowd, and I asked her why she initially tried out for Top Chef. Turns out a bunch of her coworkers encouraged her, but it was the way she told the story, with inflection, excitement, and massive energy, that gave me a peek into why this woman has become a star. She has that essential spark that draw people to her - like the successful beauty queens I know - that's undeniable. As people walked by her in our (always busy) Wegmans, she complimented them on the groceries in their carts. So imagine her description of her new book interjected with, "Ooh, mango! I love it!" She's funny!

Once she sat down to sign cookbooks, the wait was pretty short. Naz was first up in our little trio to meet her:

She's so friendly and genuine! Check her out, giving Naz's arm a gentle squeeze! I was so excited once I was this close, I missed getting pictures of Diane with Carla (sorry about that, Diane!!) and seconds later, it was my turn.

Yeah, she's a hugger. How fun is that? She noticed my BHS shirt, so I told her briefly about my blog. She asked if I would put a recipe from her book on the blog, and I noted that I was excited about the minted mushy peas recipe, because my mother-in-law had asked me to make mushy peas for Thanksgiving this year.

See? We are both very excited about mushy peas! Her book is all about taking classic comfort foods we're all accustomed to here in the US and giving them some world flavors with herbs and spices. Seriously, how in tune is that with what I've been preaching for the last couple of years? All hail ras el Hanout, curry powder, and the liberal use of cumin and coriander! So let's look at them peas - this one's for you, Stephie:

Mushy Minty Peas
From Carla's Comfort Foods

1/4 C Heavy cream
Kosher salt
2 C Cooked fresh peas or thawed frozen peas
1 T Finely chopped fresh mint (chiffonade) 
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring the cream and 1/4 tsp salt to a boil in a large skillet over medium heat. Boil for 2 min.
2. Add the peas and mint, and stir until heated through. Transfer to a blender or food processor and pulse to purée half the peas. Season to taste with salt and pepper, shout Hootie Hoo, and serve immediately. 

Oh, and I know a couple of you whiners are thinking right now, "Ew! Mushed up peas? Gross!" To you, I say, try them! I've had them in the UK twice now, very different versions, and loved both. Especially made with fresh peas, they are spring's version of squash purée - bright, clean, and vegetal. Very delicious. Don't knock it until you've tried it!

I'm super inspired by Carla, because like me, she came to her food calling a bit late, and she's only become famous recently, which by our celebrity standards is late in life. Maybe there's hope yet for a Big Hungry Shelby show on the Travel Channel? Here's hoping!

When I get back fom Vegas, I can't wait to rip into her book and make chicken soup with chicken liver dumplings, roasted tomato jam (well, I'll wait to make that until Shawn's garden starts cranking out red this summer), and her version of palak paneer, my favorite Indian spinach and cheese curry. 

Meeting Carla today has left me reinvigorated about my blog - I've been so busy at work and with the pageant recently, my passion has been waning a bit. But to meet this woman so invested in her love of flavor and translating world cuisine in a comforting way for Americans, and absorbing her warm, funny, gregarious presence, has relit the flame. In Vegas, we're set up for sushi, modern American, and Chinese-Meixcan fusion, so get ready for some fun posts next week and beyond. Something yummy this way comes, my Hungries! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


I'll Gladly Pay You Tuesday for a Hamburg

I know you guys want to know what happened when I was in Germanythe week before last. But what I think you really want to see is pictures of beer, glistening, buttery potatoes, and schnitzel. I mean, don't we all? So, I present to thee, my pictorial gastronomic tour of Hamburg!

First beer of the trip, at Fransikaner. Like all the pils, or pilsners, I drank during my four days in Northern Germany, it was light, served somewhere between ice cold and British-warm, and on the more bitter than sweet side. Deeper than a lager, but more refreshing than I expected.

My best dish of the trip, salmon tartare with potato pancakes, at Friesenkeller Restaurant. If I'm going to eat salmon, I prefer it raw, and though salmon and dill are a combo as classic as can be, this play with crispy, rich potato pancakes was genius. The fish was sweet and clean, almost antiseptic with the fresh dill, and those lucious potatoes presented the opposite sensations of earthy, salty Heaven. Loved this, and would order it ten more times.

If you wanted to see something freaky, here you go: pig knuckles, braised. Fransikaner also served them fried and crunchy. I liked the flavor of this, but it needed longer in its braise. A bit sinewy and tough for me.

But let's get really freaky, and gaze upon Friesenkeller's prized pig - sauerfleisch! Literally soured pork. This cold delicacy tastes much better than it sounds, though my friend Bob was the brave orderer, not I. Think pulled pork, mildly spiced, in aspic. Not as scary as it sounds.

Here's some more beer if the sour pork upset you. I'm sorry.

Potatoes absolutely fried in butter will also correct whatever's ailing you. If, perhaps, your feet hurt from standing for eight hours straight at your trade show booth, for instance? Potatoes! Butter! Salt! Yay!

Schnapps and kirsch also happen to be traditional German aching feet cures. Who knew?

Obligatory Wiener schnitzel. Garnished with lemon and capers, which are really nice with the lightly greasy, crunchy coating. I thought the veal could have been more tender. Are we getting all the tender meat over here in the states? Are we just pansy cakes who can't chew food properly anymore? These are questions beyond my scope.

How badass is this plate of meats? This was Becky's, not mine, but those plump little meats in tube form made her happy. And when Becky's happy, I'm happy. Notice: more potatoes. There are always more potatoes.

Beef tartare, in a French bistro, not a German restaurant; but we were in Germany, so it counts. And I love raw beef just as much as I love raw fish. More capers here, and those charred green onions were a smart addition.

Potatoes. DERR.

Apple rings, fried up in a pancake-esque dough, and served with walnut ice cream. I did NOT expect that from the sour flesh place. And you know, I'm not saying I know this for a fact, but it's probably pretty terrific with a little kirsch. Kirsch is a cherry liquor that is not at all like Niquil, and very much like a delicious cordial that goes down waaaay too easily.

Bob, my new eating buddy for work trips, and I toast you! Now be a good little fräulein and eat your potted meat and potatoes before I send you to the forbidden forest and let the witch bake you into a pie! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!


I Just Met a Wine Bar Named Maria!

All you Big Hungries out there know I frequent Staten Island, as it’s the home of the Miss New York Pageant. A couple weeks ago, our little pageant family trekked down there for the spring workshop, discovered some areas of SI that are quite nice – nicer than those we’ve seen previously – and began to understand why our friends who live there have so much pride in their borough. That being said, I know a lot of my NYC Big Hungries consider SI the forgotten borough, and really have no desire to board that ferry and explore the Island being called Staten. Well, consider your incentive discovered, guys.

Enoteca Maria is about two blocks from the Staten Island Ferry terminal. That means you barely have to come ashore to eat there. It’s a tiny wine bar in the St. George neighborhood, unassuming from the outside, and Carrera marble-enrobed inside. The coolest thing about Enoteca Maria, however, is who’s cooking there. No executive chef hides in the kitchen, torturing line cooks and dishwashers – the restaurant has a revolving cadre of nonnas, Italian grandmothers, who cook the dishes of the village in Italy from whence they came. So while on Wednesday, you may have Luisa from Piacenza serving up the soup her nonna made for her as a child, by Saturday, Teresa from Sicily will be wowing you with her prosciutto-laden lasagna. To guild the delicious lily even more, the owner, Joe, grows many of the vegetables and herbs for the restaurant right in his own garden. So we’re talking hyper-local, authentic Italian food, graced by a spectacular wine list. This place is totally worth a quick ferry ride, and our meal was so good, I didn’t even mind the cash-only policy. 

They start you out with a complimentary plate of focaccia and three little dishes containing tomato and onion bruschetta, roasted, earthy eggplant, and syrupy sweet roasted peppers dressed with really, really good olive oil. The kind of olive oil that makes you question your oil game. The kind that makes you order it online from Zingermans or DiBruno Bros, because once you’ve tasted it, you know the supermarket stuff is inferior. Yeah – it’s that tasty.

We ordered meatballs as an appetizer, even though Livi, our Miss TI, is a vegetarian. We’re cruel like that. Dad called them excellent, Mom intends to order them as her entrée next time, Joelle scarfed hers down, and I loved how bright and acidic the tomato sauce on them started on the tongue. The meat was ground very finely, and I could detect no filler, which produced an intensely meaty, savory meatball. There may be breadcrumbs or cheese or eggs in them, but none of that is interfering with the juicy, robust meat of these balls.

Our other appy was the imported burratta, which came with the hefty price tag of $25 for one ball of cheese. Get over the price and save your sheckles, because you’re gonna want this. I was shocked they didn’t make it in house, it was so fresh. It was clean, squeaky-fresh, other worldly in its interior creaminess and exterior bounce. Even the grape tomatoes surrounding it were fresh and flavorful, which is unheard of in March. Livi scooped up a morsel onto a piece of bread and proclaimed that it was the, “best possible way to cheat on a pageant diet.” High praise, indeed, and don't worry, Livi is lovely and quite fit. She can withstand a few bites of full-fat, cream laden mozzarella goodness. Anyway, I’m fairly certain that this dish is what they hand you right after St. Peter has given you the nod through the pearly gates. Tiny little cherubs fly over with a plate of this and sing, “Welcome to Heaven. Try our burratta!” 

Someone was ordering the braciole at our table – either me or Dad; I decreed it. It ended up being me, and I found this iteration of the classic rolled, braised beef to be unique and yummy. It was stuffed with green beans! The meat was fall-apart tender, extremely thinly rendered, and the pool of tomato sauce around it was the same as what came with the meatballs, but in this case enriched with the hearty, savory juices of the beef. 

Dad ordered the sausage rigatoni, which he found really spicy, but I utterly loved. The riggies were bathed in a very light tomato sauce, thinned out with more of that fabulous EVOO, and all the heat was packed into the sausage. The heat would hit you slowly, so that your first bite was pretty mild, but by bite three, you were reaching for the bread basket. The sauce was so unctuous, so rich, you needed bread anyway to sop it all up. So let go and let spice with his one - embrace it.

Livi and Mom got the four cheese risotto, which is based in vegetable broth and reinforced with gorgonzola, fontina, mozzarella, and parmigiano cheeses. Freshly ground nutmeg was sprinkled over the top as a garnish, which is a totally ninja move my Nonna Christina, from Bergamo, Milano. The depths of the cheese were layered, so that you tasted different flavors as each bite moved on your palate, and the little crisp-tender bits of minced onion throughout were like sweet treats to interrupt all the richness. Risotto is basically rich man's Mac and cheese, and this was a particularly comforting rendition.

Joelle is our teen titleholder, and Mom and Dad were a bit concerned that she wouldn’t find anything she liked on this very adult, very foreign menu. But lo and behold, Maria’s has a pizza! The authentic margherita pie had a thin crust that wasn’t overly crisp – plenty of chew left in it to make this small pie into a meal. It tasted like a chewy, thickened saltine cracker, and the goopy cheese mellowed out that shockingly fresh tomato sauce. I loved all the fresh basil on it, but that flavor was a little robust for our Little One, who picked those bits off, and raved about her meal.

Though we were stuffed to the gills at this point, grandma knows best, and she wanted us to order dessert. A plate of Italian cookies appeased Mom, Joelle and Dad, and please understand, these were not the run-of-the-mill cookies your third generation Italian friends pass around at Christmas. They were tender but not crumbly, nor too sweet, studded with almonds, spread with Nutella, and dusted with powdered sugar.

I ordered the chocolate sponge cake with orange ricotta, and all I could think through the haze of each bliss-filled bite was: more desserts should have cheese in them. I’m not usually one for fruit and chocolate together, but the orange in this was very subtle. It was more like a chocolate cannoli made into a cake, again not too sweet, but creamy and light. 

Livi had her last hurrah before Miss New York’s punishing swimsuit competition courtesy of the berries topped with cream. Those strawberries and blueberries were like jewels, glistening in their macerated juices, and the whipped cream on top was so rich, it must have been made by those burratta cherubs fluttering about up in Heaven. 

It was a no brainer to award Enoteca Maria a 10 on the BHS scale. While our waitress wasn’t the most attentive girl on the block, the place is so tiny, we were never at a loss, service-wise. We even received attention from, and heaped praise upon, the owner, who was never more than eight feet from us the entire meal. Enoteca Maria is just two doors down from the theater in which Miss New York is held, and I’m so grateful, because I would like to taste all the nonnas’ specialties and eat here about five more times. Yes, it’s pricey, yes, you need a reservation, and YES, it’s worth the ferry ride from Manhattan. If this place catches on, Brooklyn may have a rival for coolest outer borough! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS: our girls are competing at Miss New York in just a couple weeks, so send your luck and love their way!

PPS: I would be remiss in failing to wish a Happy Birthday week to the woman without whom I might fall off the face of the Earth. The fabulous, funny, cookie-baking, good-time-making countess of weather reports, the bride to be, and my best friend Big Hungry Melinda! Have a wonderful birthday, my love!

Enoteca Maria on Urbanspoon


Brooklyn Reppin’ in the 607

TShawn and I were fortunate to be invited by Big Hungry Melinda and BLD to join them at the Binghamton Club’s Brooklyn Brewery beer pairing dinner last week. The City Club has a new chef, who decamped from Remliks somewhat recently, and seems to be doing good things. I would not have wanted to necessarily blog about dinner at the Bing Club in the past, but this meal was definitely a step up, and as Shawn has been known to enjoy a beer or two now and then, this event was right up our alley. 

As ever, the facilities at the Bing Club are lovely. You kind of can’t beat the ambiance created by the epic, three story double staircase, and the dining room we were in for the dinner was small enough to be intimate, but big enough for comfort. We weren’t jammed in there, but neither were we in the big ballroom, shouting to each other about beer. I do wish they’d take a couple months of one family’s dues and update their restrooms a bit. The one on the third floor is a bit elementary school-chic for me, but I’m mincing hairs here. 

We began our evening with a full can of Brooklyn Lager, the brewery’s flagship beer. You might think canned beer an odd choice for an ostensibly upscale dinner, but our brewery rep Lindsey explained that, because the can prevents light from reaching the beer, it actually keeps fresher longer and you get a better product. Who knew I was such a gourmet all those years ago, buying sixers of Busch Light at the mini-mart next to campus in Laurinburg, NC? Thank GOODNESS I knew enough to preserve all the taste and flavor of that magical elixir! Brooklyn Lager is a prohibition-style beer, meaning its brewed with real hops and malt, not cheater ingredients like corn or I don’t know, pig trotters. It was a bit more robust than my usual Labatts Blue Light, but I liked that there was no bitterness but quite a bit of depth to the drink. 

The first course was a small sweet potato encrusted crab cake set atop lemony sautéed spinach. Again, having eaten at the Binghamton Club for years, I wasn’t expecting much from this, so I was pretty blown away by how good it was. I expected the sweet potato to add too much sweetness, and the wilted greens to lack in flavor, and I was mistaken. The crab was high quality and fresh, not put together with too much binder, the potato crust was done very subtly but nicely crunchy on the outside, and the lemon in the spinach really added to the overall flavor profile of the dish. The beer served with this was Brooklyn Pennant English-style Pale Ale, and it was my favorite of the night. It was crisp, light, and played off the seafood very well. I would buy this beer out at a restaurant, which is an out of the ordinary statement for me, but I liked it that much. 

The salad course was next, and again, I anticipated a boring, humdrum bowl of romaine, but was instead given an incredibly well balanced small plate of romaine and arugula, with a light lemon vinaigrette, sweet roasted red peppers, earthy walnuts, and really gorgeous, full fat creamy feta. I often eat reduced fat feta at home, so I’m always taken off guard about how good it is when it’s the real thing. Yum. The salad beer, if you will, was Brooklyn Summer Ale. This was very light and nearly citrusy – sort of the Fresca of beers. I didn’t find it as smooth as the Pennant Ale, and a bit less drinkable, for me, but it was good with the salad. 

The fish course was, surprisingly, my favorite of the meal. And I cannot stress to you enough the degree to which I expected to dislike the dish, which was salmon. I love seafood, but have never much liked salmon – the oily, heavy uncle of such delights as halibut, scallops, and tuna. It actually kind of bums me out that salmon is almost always the fish choice on standard menus, and I was not looking forward to this course when I initially read the menu. So Mr. New Chef, well done! This small, blackened medallion of salmon was cooked perfectly, nice and pink in the center. The scallion cream sauce served under it was rich and a pretty glorious foil to the dark, caramelized blackening spices on the fish. Lindsey served it with Brooklyn India Pale Ale, which is just not my bag. I can’t take all the hops, man! I passed this glass over to Shawn and let him drink his fill. I had plenty to occupy me in that creamy, dreamy sauce and spiced salmon. 

Pour me some of number 4! Next up, peppercorn-crusted London broil slices with tamarind glaze. This one fell short, for me. I think a couple slices of ribeye or a short rib cooked in beer would have worked better. I know what they were going for with the tamarind, which is a sour pod used in Indian cooking, but honestly, I could barely taste it. The meat was a bit on the tough side, and there just wasn’t enough going on on the plate for me, to stand up to the Brooklyn Brown Ale served with this plate. The beer is caramelized, deep, and slightly bitter (though not as bitter at the IPA), and for me, a fattier cut of beef or smoked barbeque would have balanced those malty flavors. 

We finished up with another really good beer, Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, and a dessert I was excited for, but didn’t quite live up to its promise: chocolate crème brulee. The coffee-tinged, dark, deep, beer was smooth as silk and incredibly yummy with the chocolate flavor of the crème brulee, but the custard was all wrong in texture. The small cup I received was gritty, as if the sugar hadn’t been properly incorporated into the egg yolks when the base was prepared. I liked the berries on top, and the chocolate flavor was fairly good, but the mouthfeel was so discordant, I drank my beer by its lonesome. 

Special events like these are so fun. PS Restaurant, in Vestal, one of my longtime favorites, does a wine dinner every few months, and I'm desperate to go, and ditto to the beer dinners at the Hops Spot in Sackets. Now that we've participated in one, I'm hoping our little group will want to do more. As a side note, if you're looking for a way to fire up your social life, do look into membership at the Binghamton Club. If we lived closer to Binghamton, we would definitely be members. Not only does membership afford you events like this one and the great Parade Day buffet, but free, nearly private bowling becomes available to you, there's a very nice gym and saunas for members only, reciprocal membership with Vestal Hills Country Club, which means pool use (!), plus bowling leagues and the ability to snootily tell people you're going to the club tonight. Just like Mad Men! 

I'm jet setting again - this time a unique combo deal of two nights in Staten Island, followed by four in Hamburg, Germany. I'm very excited to bring you all the review on SI's Enoteca Maria, where Italian nonnas cook you dinner, but almost more excited for whatever Hamburg has in store for my gustatory system. I'm betting it won't be hamburgers! So I'll see you back here two Wednesdays from now...My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!