We Must Be Busy When the Corn is Ripe

For the second year in a row, I was tickled to be asked to judge the Broome County Legislature's Fresh from the Farm Cook-off again. This year's featured in-season produce was corn, quite a difference from last year's blueberry throwdown, but the point of the event was the same: help local kids get excited about real food, grown in their own community, and give them a positive experience within which to learn about cooking. They get to learn about foods grown right here in the Southern Tier, and the competition gives them the opportunity to develop their own cooking skills along the way. When you think about those lessons, the honor of judging is even greater.

We had two Girl Scout troops competing this year, plus a summer youth employment program called VINES, and Cornell cooperative Extension's Citizen U group. I was hoping for some killer hoecakes, which were not in the cards, but nonetheless I was blown away by the cuisine cooked up by these phenomenal kids.

My fellow judges were the esteemed Paul VanSavage, co-founder of SpiedieFest and secretary of the new Southern Tier Independent Restaurants organization, and Ed Wesoloski, owner of Remlik's, and therefore, dude who gets the credit for my favorite local cocktail, the Elderberry Fizz. We settled right in to tasting, impressed by the exquisite presentation of all the dishes this year. Here's what we came up with:

Best presentation: Girl Scout Troop 30510 (Nina Collavo, Genevieve Picciano, Maeve Verity) for Corn Avocado Salad

How pretty is that? This salad was comprised of fresh corn, avocado, tiny brunoise of sharp cheddar, cilantro, and lime. I loved the crunchy texture of the corn in this refreshing salad, but I would have liked to see more cilantro, more salt, and more lime - basically more assertive flavors. The tiny bits of cheese were a nice surprise, but I thought more tasting and more tinkering would have brought this dish up to a higher level.

Most Local Products: VINES (Saarah Abdur-Rahim, James Montgomery, Gabrielle Shepard, Destiny Sposito, Jordan Walker, and Elijah Yard) for Fried Polenta

So, these guys grew their own vegetables. Show offs! I'm kidding, because I was so impressed by the enthusiasm they had for this challenge, the audacity of serving collard greens in Yankee country, and the mature, developed flavors in this dish. The aromatics in the collards, the gorgeous summery freshness of the tomatoes, and the well seasoned polenta indicated a more experienced chef's palate. Paul and I agreed we would have loved a little spice or acid to finish this dish off, and I would have loved the polenta cake to be finished off on a griddle, to add a pleasing golden brown exterior, but I'm mincing hairs here - it was delicious.

Best Taste and People's Choice: Citizen U (Macalah Frink, Desiree Keys, Embroidery Williams) for Cornbread with twisted maple butter and corn soup

I was hoping for corn soup! This silky, glorious one was a hair on the salty side, but that was a totLly ninja move, because the butter on that moist cornbread was super sweet. Once I tipped that tiny spoon of optional hot peppers in my soup, this dish came alive and was popping on all cylinders. Adding those peppers on the side was inspired - big ups to whomever figured that out! There were chunks of corn in the cornbread, which maintained the theme of the event, as did this group's adorable booth, adorned with. Real corn stalk and a festive bowl of fresh produce from CCE's gardens.

Most Creative and Best Overall: Girl Scout Troop 30292 (Natalie Novak, Christy Sherman, Shannon Tolomei) for Corn Surprise

The surprise here is that these little geniuses made us delicious, refreshing popsicles out of corn! They came up with this idea and recipe on their own and tinkered with it until it was perfect. The caramel sauce drizzled around the plate was smart, adding more sweetness to these delicate, subtly-flavored pops. Because corn already has that starchy milkiness to it when it's fresh, as well as a good amount of sweetness, the recipe of pulverized sweet corn with milk, sugar, and eggs totally made sense. We were I awe of how young Natalie, Christy, and Shannon are, given the creativity and skill put into this fun dish. Well done and congratulations, ladies! 

Corn Surprise

2 C fresh corn (about 4 ears)
1 C Half & half
2 C Milk
2/3 C Sugar
3 Egg yolks

Husk corn and cut the kernels off the cobs. Combine corn and half & half in a blender and buzz up until it's smooth. Pour puréed corn mixture into a sieve over a large bowl to get rids of all the solids. Into the remaining liquid, add milk, sugar, and yolks; stir with a whisk. Pour the mixture into a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 10 min (do not boil). 

Let mixture cool, then pour into ice cube trays and freeze, adding toothpicks when partially frozen to serve as handles. Popsicle molds work, too! Once they are completely frozen, they're ready for a caramel drizzle and some hungry mouths!

I also want to thank the local farms that supplied all that corn: Castle Berries, Country Wagon Produce, Farmer Ground Flour, and North Windsor Berries! Check these places out, folks, and cook up you own corn creations before the season's over!

Thank you as well to Jerry Marinich, Chris Dziedzic, and the BC Legislature, for inviting me back for this fun event. It's really so joyful for me to see young people in our communiy all jazzed up about cooking, food, and the farm to table movement, and to be a part of encouraging them to flex their culinary creativity is a privilege. I want to commend and congratulate everyone who participated - you're all rock stars in my book!

My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Stepping Out of the (Pizza) Box

We have a lot of Italian restaurants in Upstate New York. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an immigration boom brought mostly Southern Italians to our shores when that region of Italy became overpopulated. And after the Civil War, American companies recruited in Italy to fill the labor shortage caused by the war. Thankfully, along with those working men came nonnas and papas and recipes and red sauce.

And that's what you find in many of our Italian food institutions: red sauce, meatballs, chicken parm, and pizza: the mainstays of the Italian Ameircan diet that evolved once all these immigrants got here and melded their traditions with the foods available in the new world. I love these dishes, but once in a while, it's fun to find a spot riffing on the old favorites to create something a little different. 

At Gentile's, in Syracuse, eclectic Italian is the order of the day. Well, it's the order everyday, but that's a less elegant turn of phrase. This joint was recommended to me ages ago by my friend Amber, and a couple weeks ago, the perfect opportunity to eat there presented itself in the form of the Miss Central New York Pageant. I met my parents and former Miss TI Morgan there, who had come from Watertown, and we settled right into the soothing, warm atmosphere thanks to the welcoming staff. The exceptional focaccia may have helped as well.

I don't mean to get all romantical about carbs, but this right here is exemplary bread service. Both loaves were fresh that day, tender crumbed, with a wonderfully toothsome exterior. The sweet, aged balsamic swirled in the accompanying olive oil was mellow and full bodied. It was hard to stop cramming it into our mouths, even though we had already ordered bruschetta as an appetizer and were eagerly awaiting its arrival.

And what bruschetta Gentile's is turning out! No simple tomato and basil for these folks - we got a trio of flavorful, inventive creations. The beef and burratta was my favorite - salty, bright and deep with basil pesto, which was creamy and rich. The beef was dried a bit, concentrating its flavor and giving a chewy texture to counter the fluffy cheese and crunchy bread.

The corn and fig with mushroom offering also stood out, with sweet, summery corn lending snap and crunch, while earthy chanterelle mushrooms grounded all that sweetness with deep, woodsy funk.

The last was a bit more conventional, deploying more of that candied balsamic and impressing us with gorgeous, creamy ricotta.

Mom chose the penne alla vodka. Bless her. This dish was ridiculous - porky, creamy, rich, cheesy, and tangy, with absolutely perfectly cooked pasta. I literally just ate dinner, but if I had this in front of me now, I would devour the entire plate and dream tonight of delectable legs of prosciutto wrapping themselves in Parmesan blankets and taking luxurious afternoon naps. Even better than the expertly crafted components of the dish was the finely tuned ratio of pasta to sauce. The al dente penne was enrobed in a rather scant amount of the velvety vodka and tomato, but because the sauce was potent, the result was a symphony - each bite allowing you to taste pasta, pork, cheese, tomato, and booze in perfect harmony.

My rigatoni with chick peas, zucchini, celery root, and pancetta in a cognac cream sauce exhibited the same control and practiced hand. I loved the lightness of this dish, which balanced a good amount of richness, salt, and fat from the sauce and bacon with a homey-ness from the celery root. That celery root and the chick peas grounded the dish just like the chanterelles did on the bruschetta - a fine hallmark indeed from Gentile's wise chef. The cognac cream could have been heavy or cloying, but again, it was used sparingly, lending flavor and cohesion without bulk or heft.

Morg went for the orecchiette with classic Mediterranean treats like kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and goat cheese. It was light and savory, utterly scrumptious; the secret weapon of this dish being cashews for crunch and depth. Genius.

The one, tiny dip in the high tide of the meal came in the form of the shrimp in Dad's soppressata-wrapped shrimp in strawberry sauce. The dish was again, well balanced, delightfully flavored to deliver sweet and salt without heaviness. But unfortunately, the shrimp were kind of tragically overcooked. The result was tough instead of wonderful, which was a total bummer.

We had dessert, of course. Both were very good, of course, though not the most wildly inventive ever. We adored the vanilla bean frosting crowning the hazelnut torte, all flecked with tiny vanilla caviar and resplendently creamy without being too sweet, and the caramel crunch cake sported just enough delicate sea salt to deliver that gorgeous balance of flavors we'd enjoyed all evening.

We unanimously awarded Gentile's an eight on the BHS scale. If not for the sad shrimp, that score would have been a slam dunk 10, and we've wistfully wished several times since that we were back there eating gorgeous pastas. From the subtle strawberry mint water refilled all meal long to the real whipped cream served with the desserts, this dinner was different, memorable, and yes, eclectic. Who would have thought this gem was hiding right in Syracuse, amid so many chicken riggies and red sauce haunts? I'm glad I found it. Your turn! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Gentiles Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Can a Taco Make You Famous?

There's been a nagging in the back of my head lately. It's like an errant bit of cuticle you want to pick at, or a tiny crack in your windshield that makes driving hard because you can't stop staring at it. As much as I love all the aspects of my life - work, family, pageant, home, blog - life is hard, life is long, life is short, and there are times when you pick your head up, or maybe you hang it down, and even the most upbeat of us lets the shameful thought slip: is this it? 

At work, I try my best, and still receive feedback that it's not enough, I'm too emotional, that I should blindly accept more and more and more workload with a smile and perfect execution. For Miss TI, my family and I and our incredible network of volunteers work for an entire year to put together a competition that will honor the past and the future of our wonderful organization, an organization that cherishes and honors the strengths and voices of women, and ugly cowards on message boards undermine it all with a few careless digs. Is this it? Is that the best I can expect for years of hard work, accepting criticism from people who fundamentally don't know how to speak to other human beings, and from jerks who hide behind anonymous screen names? I can accept my weaknesses and approach things with an openness and willingness to improve, but I also care about protecting the part of me that's emotional, that cares about others and that wants to find a path to success that isn't punitive or painful for everyone involved. 

It's in times like this that I want to put even more kindness out, perhaps in hopes I'll get some back in return. And you know what's great? When it's easy to say great things about someone or something, because you can tell they're doing their best, too. So I might brag a little too much on some of my friends, some of my pageant girls, and some of my favorite chefs. And I'm about to do it again. Because every time I run into Chef Gabe Aubertine, good things go in my belly.

As you've already read here this summer, Gabe is at the helm of Gabe's Taco Kitchen in Clayton, a temporary gourmet taco shack making good eats while the new folks running the Thousand Islands Inn continue to renovate this landmark. Most of the time these days, the word gourmet is thrown around haplessly, and doesn't mean what we wish it would. This is not one of those times. You guys, these are tasty tacos.

And this is where all my is this it? postulating meets tacodom. Because Gabe named one after me, and it is good. The Big Hungry has pork loin, Brussels sprouts, bacon jam, and sweet potato fries jamming every square inch of space that flour tortilla has available, so you might say it has wall to wall flavor. Or you might point out that while you would expect the bacon jam to steal the show, it's the Brussels sprouts chewing the scenery, popping with crisp, bright texture and that earthy funk sprouts have. Gabe was wise to keep the bacon jam on the savory side, as the fries are packing so much sweetness, and the herb-crusted pork is snowy white and crispy on the sides from a trip to the flat top. This thing is savory gluttony at its finest, and for me, half the fun was ordering my namesake dish. I got to tell other diners that it was named after me, and be proud of my contribution to the North Country's culinary landed scape. I don't know if this taco can make me or Gabe famous, but here's hoping.

I didn't think it was possible, but it might have enjoyed The Codfather taco even more. I love a good fried fish taco, and this one with cilantro rice, pineapple salsa and pickled red onion, is banging. I'm not always a huge pineapple proponent, so I wasn't sure how I'd feel about all the sweetness, but the tang balanced well with the prickly vinegar of the onions and the crunchy lightness of the battered and fried cod. This taco was intensely summery, crunchy, sweet, and light. The acidity and sweet levels were perfectly balanced, and I could eat one every day for the rest of summer and be pretty happy.

Our pageant friend Deltra wanted Le Canadienne, but can't eat tortillas due to dietary restrictions, so she requested the taco fillings on salad greens. The kitchen accepted this challenge without a blink, and even topped this duck confit wonder with crispy, crunchy fried duck skin. So imagine a salad with unctuous, salty, shredded poultry on top, sweetness from caramelized onions and Granny Smith apples, the funk of a whipped up mousse made of tangy goat cheese, and a gorgeous, mellow thyme vinaigrette. Again, these flavors are complex, and Gabe combines them in the right ratios to achieve harmony. This is terrific. And I want a bag full of those salty, crunchy duck skins right now.

My parents both went for the Americano, and Mom was pleased with the savory, rather than overtly spicy taco meat, while Dad squirted on some hot sauce and ate with gusto. We also got some chips and salsas, and we were all impressed with the ranch flavoring on the chips, which cooled everything down and added zing when paired with the ultra fresh pico de gallo and guacamole. 

The following day, I brought some beauty queens over for lunch, and went for the Dirty Sanchez, an almagamation of chorizo, slaw, dirty rice, and black beans. The flavors in this taco were less pronounced and more traditional for me, but thats not a bad thing. The chorizo was on the milder side, but very spiced and savory and deliciously fatty, and I adored the crunch of the slaw. I would recommend more liver in the rice to make it "dirtier," and I think this would be a good place to deploy some heat with roasted serranos or something of that ilk, since you have the slaw and lime aioli right on hand to cool down the finished product.

Quite simply, both my meals at Gabe's Taco Kitchen were superb. Yes, I wish there was indoor seating, because even though I love sitting outdoors in Clayton, this past weekend was so windy, I got a mouthful of hair with each delicious bite of food. But that's just me. I know you're built of sturdier stuff, Big Hungries. 

Oh, I shouldn't forget to tell you about the ice burger, which Gabe brought out on the house. This creation, from the mind of one of the Inn's owners, is a sweet brioche bun topped with a chocolate ice cream patty, sliced strawberries and kiwi, shreds of dried coconut made to look like lettuce, and drizzles of caramel and strawberry sauce. It's a sugar bomb, of course, but so fun. My favorite part was the juxtaposition of the creamy ice cream and tart fruit against the dense bread texture.

Again, I don't know if we can get enough people in tiny Clayton to risk mealtime on gourmet tacos, and I don't know if having a taco named after you is enough to garner fame, but I do know that people like Gabe and his bosses, who take risks, who care enough to feed people and nourish us, and who gamble on something as fun and insane as a burger made out of ice cream, are bound for some kind of greatness. Here's to the good ones, you guys. May each of us know more of them. Viva Los tacos! 

If you're smart and you like to eat yummy things, you'll make that short drive up the River and get your hands on one of these pronto. And you'll stay tuned to BHS, because I have a review from Syracuse coming next week, and tales and recipes from the Broome County Legislature's Corn Cookoff coming soon. My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!