Fresh from the Farm: Tomato Throwdown!

This year marked my third judging the Broome Count Legislature and Cornell Cooperative Extension's youth cook-off. I've told you about the experience before - what a thrill it is to see these kids get fired up about local produce and ways to use it - and this year's event was no exception.

Three groups of wonderful kids threw down:

- VINES' Grow Binghamton group: Chris, Kareen, Trenashia and Gabby
- CCE's CITIZEN U: Nye, Danielle, Idasia and Mikayla
- Girl Scout Troop 30075: Miah, Autumn and Sarah

The Grow Bignhamton team made us salsa, straight from the VINE (get it?) with tomatoes from their very own urban farm, plus Chroma's excellent wheat bread jammed with shredded zucchini, garlic, butter and cheese, and then baked up until it was something mellow and savory and delicious. If you use Pinterest, you might call it pull-apart bread, if not, just call it yummy. The salsa was piquant and well seasoned, so good I wanted to drink the liquid out of the bottom.

To the Grow Binghamton squad, we awarded Most Local Products and Best Taste.

Team 2/CITIZEN U made tomato bisque with a twist and bruschetta, made with tomatoes from Lone Maple Farm. The soup's twist was sherry, and it was big, complex, creamy, sweet, savory and so very, very delectable. Because these kids just don't quit, their bruschetta was no mere diced tomato piled on bread - the tiny rounds of baguette were toasted, there was some nice red onion in there for sharpness, and mellow, sweet balsamic glaze made the big finish, the sugary flavor of the bruschetta setting off all the acidity in the soup with perfection.

CITIZEN U garnered the People's Couce and Best Overall awards.

Our friends at Troop 30075 laid it down with dehydrated tomato chips and a wonderful veggie dip served in a tomato cup, flavored with about a million vegetables plus honey and fresh basil. The chips were chewy, robust with sweet, cooked-down tomato flavor. Very concentrated and addictive, and unstoppable with the terrific dip. By unstoppable, I mean I couldn't stop shoving them into my greedy maw. This group's produce came from the Catskill Cattle Company, in Deposit.

Troop 30075 won Best Presentation and Most Creative.

I always find the enthusiasm of the contest's participants infectious. Their pride is evident and comprised of pure joy. But what I'm always surprised by is how good the food is at this thing. I am sure there's an Italian grandmother to be counted somewhere in each one of these groups, but no Sunday sauce here. These kids stretched. Heck, the CCE group's soup was sophisticated enough to be on a restaurant menu, and I would have gladly brought home jars of both VINES' salsa and that veggie dip.

We think kids don't know that French fries come from potatoes or that pickles start as cucumbers, and some don't, which is why progrMs like this one are so important. In many households, Mom and Dad aren't home to cook, so how wonderful it is to hope that these kids will learn about real food in absentia of the lessons from Mom and Grandma each evening. Their energy is evidence that there is, in fact, hope. I also hope they aren't sneaking nips of the sherry.

And I can't miss being thankful to the Broome County Legislature and Cornell Ooperative Extension for encouraging learning with a program that recognizes the participants along the way. My fellow judges Paul Savage, STIR secretary, and Kristen Cox Roby, Southern Tier Eats reporter for the Press and Sun Bulletin, deserve some love, too. It's so fun judging with these two who love food and are as knowledgeable about it as I hope I am.

This week, in recognition of the Tomato Throwdown, I'm going to make Carolina Tomato Pie. I'll post the recipe once I perfect it. Congratulations to all the winners, and thank you for feeding us so well! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

A couple of PSs: 

- my beloved Booker's Backyard in Ithaca, closed last month. I can't tell you how upset I am. They made one of the best lobster rolls I've ever had, and it was a splendid date night spot. I only got to eat there twice! If any Big Hungries has the scoop on what happened or if the owner or chef is planning a curtain call, please report out in the comments!
- we procured a birthday cake for my mother-in-law Stephie last weekend from Chrissy Beanz, in Sackets Harbor. I am feasting on a piece as I write this. It is moist, rich, deep and utterly fantastic. You need a cake from Chrissy Beanz in your life, if you know what's good for you.


Dispatch from Boston: Let Me See that Lobster Roll

Well, if I'm being honest, I don't just want to see it. I want to eat it. In every region of this country, there are gastronomic to do lists for visits. In Charleston, it's pimento cheese and shrimp and grits. In New York City, pizza. In Austin, I was tacos and I want them now.

In Boston, the to do list is tacked with seafood. And while I love clam chowder and oysters are great, the lobster roll has climbed to the top of my list in the last couple of years. Once owned by Maine, Boston is starting to establish its lobster roll cred. And since I visit Boston a lot more than I do Maine, that works for me just fine.

I've been to Boston plenty of times, but disappointingly, I'm always there for a constrained amount of time and with a specific purpose - never just to relax and be a tourist. I've been to two games at Fenway, though that would never be my choice of what to do in this cool, historic city. Last weekend was no exception to the time limit - it was a one night only deal - but at least I got to choose the restaurant.

We were spending the night in the Back Bay area, which is the same neighborhood where Sonsie, home of bone marrow baked oysters, exists. This time, we kept to Boylston St, had some delicious raspberry lime rickeys at Dillon's, then scooted down the way to the Atlantic Fish Co. for dinner.

The good news is that Atlantic Fish Co. has a clubby, elegantly masculine feel and romantic, dim lighting. The bad news, at least for you, is that low lighting equals terrible food pictures for my Big Hungries. I do apologize. But you've got the white tablecloths here and an upscale level of service - our waiter knew what the chef wanted pushed that evening, and while his knowledge of the food was extensive, his attentiveness and willingness to please was just as replete.

You would be wise to spring for the raw bar seafood platter for your table. It isn't cheap, but the pile of lump crab meat and the entire steamed lobster, served cold and halved, will assure you of its worth in due course. That crabmeat, each morsel dipped in a bit of mustard cream sauce, was firm, sweet and just barely briney. Absolute shellfish heaven. The shrimp were big and plump, pristinely fresh, and nearly equally delicious in the mustard sauce, but also delightful in the freshly prepared, spicy cocktail sauce.

The oysters were succulent and briney as well, but the mignonette sauce was so powerfully astringent it was overpowering for my palate. The tiny raw clams were sweet and slippery - terrific little shooters with a squeeze of lemon.

You'll also need to get the fried Ipswich clams. They kind of have it over those raw littlenecks up there. The frying process, in a corneal coating, intensified the sugary flavor of the gorgeous, local bivalves such that no dipper was needed. You didn't want anything to mask the bursting oceanic flavor of these golden creatures.

Lobster crab Louie was recommended by our server. Clever fellow. There was no way not to love this cylinder of lightly dressed lobster, avocado, tomato and crunchy endive. I wish someone would make me this dish for lunch once a week.

Yeah, I ordered clam chowder. I had to, you guys! It was yummy, very creamy, good celery and smoky pork flavor, but not super packed with clam or clam flavor. Stick with the fried bellies for your clam fix. This didn't drive me wild.

And then it was lobster roll time. Gosh, I wish it was always lobster roll time. I loved that I could order this seafood shack, casual classic in a more upscale setting. The lobster in it was plentiful and lush, lightly dressed in mayo on a toasted, buttered roll with crunchy chunks of celery in the mix. But there was something lacking here. It was hard to put my finger on, but I think the answer was salt. Sometimes citrus can replace salt in a dish, but a squeeze of lemon didn't remedy the slight lack of flavor in this roll. I liked it, but it was not the best lobster roll I've ever had. That said, it did fulfill the craving. And the fries were hand-cut, which you know is my thing.

As so often happens lately, the appetizers were my favorite part of the meal at Atlantic Fish Co. He flavors in our appetizers were varied and assertive - more so than the chowder or entree. Maybe it's that my palate is more ready for good food at the start of the meal? I hope that's not it. I think it's just that good things come in small packages, and there's more creativity and effort being put into starter menus, while entree selections are often required to cover very de rigeur items that the chef is perhaps less excited to prepare.

I give Atalantic Fish a seven on the BHS scale. I would definitely go backand try some crab spring rolls, tuna tartare, and more of those fried Ipswich bellies! They were seriously epic.

I'm judging the Broome County Legislature's Annual Ag Day kid's cook off again tomorrow! I'm not cited to see the kids who come out this year to cook tomato dishes for me and my fellow judged Paul and Kristen - I'll be back next week with the recap and a favorite tomato recipe of mine! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 


Take a Dip at The Clipper

The Clipper Inn Restaurant in Clayton has long had a reputation as one of the more sophisticated fine dining establishments in the Thousand Islands. I first ate there in college, on a date, and reveled in what I then considered the height of haute cuisine: a glass of white zinfandel and chicken Parmesan.
Because it’s not right on the water, though, sometimes I forget about this special place for dinner. So when I sampled the restaurant’s excellent oatmeal cake at the Taste of the Town event earlier this year in Watertown, I added it to my to-do list.

We were seated, on a recent Friday evening, in The Clipper’s back dining room, although the restaurant also has a more formal dining space to the left of the entrance, plus a large, nautically decorated lounge to the right. The room in which we dined was festooned with twinkle lights, with exposed beams and cedar shakes giving the room an indoor/outdoor feel.
One of the few rules the Times gives me for reviews is that we have to order off the regular menu rather than from the specials, as readers like to be able to order what they’ve read about when they visit a particular eatery. I’ve got to tell you, that rule was exceedingly hard to follow on this occasion, as The Clipper’s specials the evening we visited included braised lamb and duck breast stuffed with mushroom duxelle. Be still, my hungry heart!
No fear, the regular menu features many temptations all on its own. The shrimp scampi ($8.99) was called out in a little box on the appetizers page, so we figured we should try this specialty. The shellfish were expertly seasoned, wonderfully lemony without too much sharpness, with fierce garlic fire brightened up by fresh parsley — the flavors were sparkling and assertive but balanced as well.

The bread basket brought to us by soft-spoken, gentlemanly server Ian was chock full of airy, crusty ciabatta. He also brought us oil for dipping and butter for spreading, so this was a versatile freebie as well as being generous.
Since the shrimp scampi was so refined a choice, we chose potato skins ($5.99) as our second starter. They were homemade, not a freezer product, with good quality cheddar cheese and bacon. They were ooey gooey, cheesy calorie bombs, not the thin, crispy, tiny things you get in a chain restaurant. Hearty and yummy.

The starter salads at The Clipper have always been exceptional, with lots of ingredients and house-made dressings. That hasn’t changed, and while mandarin oranges and kalamata olives together in one dish are not exactly my cup of tea, it’s nice to get a salad with more than just a solitary slice of cucumber and one grape tomato with a mound of iceberg lettuce. The slices of pepperoni, shredded cabbage and mixed greens were a good base for the sharp and pleasantly salty horseradish dressing — I just could have done without the tangy, sweet orange segments.
The yellowfin tuna ($24.99) was super flavorful and cooked exactly to order (rare, in this case). The inside of the steak was gorgeously hot pink to contrast with the pale yellow, rich, eggy, herbaceous béarnaise sauce served on the side, which worked with the impeccably fresh fish to create a simple, but beautiful dish.
Frogs legs ($18.99) are a unique menu item for the north country and a treat I remember fondly from childhoods spent at our family’s hunting camp, with a creek running through the property. A lot of people crinkle up their noses at the thought of eating this French delicacy, but I love the tender meat. If I had to describe both the flavor and texture, think a very subtle-tasting balance between shrimp scampi and the flat part of a chicken wing.

Rice pilaf, one of the side dishes we shared, was buttery but a little boring, for me. We all know I’m a salt junkie, but I would have liked to see some toasted pasta, shallots or herbs running through the rice to kick it up.
Chicken Alaska ($22.99) was built upon a tender chicken breast, with a smack of lemony tartness and a light, floral saffron flavor. Here’s a bonus: the chicken actually tasted like chicken! Imagine that — how often are we served really bland, tasteless chicken breast? This dish started with great ingredients, and that’s a large part of why the food at The Clipper is successful.

Horseradish mashed potatoes, another side dish, were fantastic: skin-on spuds with lots of personality but not so much of the powerful root as to be hot. They were prepared chunky, with good potato flavor, but still creamy and satisfying like a good mashed potato should be.

Chicken Parmesan is available in two sizes. Mom ordered the small ($16.99). She's petite, you know? The chef marinated the breast after hand-pounding it, which is a special touch. The finished product was cheesy, but still light. It wasn’t drowning in sauce, and the breading on the fried breast wasn’t a breadcrumb base, but lighter — possibly just egg and flour? It brought me right back to that big date so many years ago — a tasty reminder.

Filet mignon ($29.99) was simply presented, with a nice sear on the outside and cooked to order on the inside. It was well-seasoned, but pretty standard otherwise — a small, well-cooked cut of steak on a plate, no frills. More of that decadent béarnaise sauce was provided in a small cup on the side, in case the diner desired a little frill.

Our waitress, Shannon, was attentive, friendly and knowledgeable. The few times we stumped her with our questions, she retreated to the kitchen and reported back with an answer right away. We also appreciated chef and owner Michael Simpson coming out to greet the tables during service and chat about our desserts.
Oh yeah, desserts are a must at The Clipper. I told you earlier that the oatmeal cake ($4.99) is what triggered my desire to visit. Well, it triggered groans of pleasure around our table, as well. This moist, deeply flavored, spiced and nutty delight swims in a shallow pool of hazelnut cream sauce that is so delicious, Chef Michael could pour it on the floor and I might just lick it up. I have no shame when it comes to something this delicious.

Coconut cream cake ($5.99) wasn’t too sweet, which I appreciated. The toasted coconut sprinkled around the outside lent a nutty, caramelized sweetness to the light cake, and the frosting was made with whipped cream to lighten up the affair even further. The cake itself was so light, it could have been angel food, it was so airy.

Baked meringue ($6.99) was what Martha Stewart would call a Pavlova, an egg white mass baked until crunchy, serving as a base for mixed berries. The sweetened, baked egg whites dissolve in your mouth soon after you crunch down into a bite, leaving your palate flooded with a riot of bright, sweet berry flavors.
The crème brulee ($4.99) was very sweet, thick and rich — made with a lot of skill, not gritty or eggy like inferior versions. The napoleon ($5.99), a Clipper classic, was very sweet and a little boozy, but the puff pastry in it got soggy very quickly, so the texture wasn’t successful, for me.
The total for this feast came to $204.52, with four adult beverages for our party of five. The reason a night out here is worth $200 is that Chef Michael uses high quality ingredients, and then spends the prep time he needs to on some, while staying out of the way of others, presenting them simply and to their best effect. He’s educated enough to know when to enhance what may be a lackluster product, like marinating chicken breast for chicken Parmesan, and when to leave a stunning piece of yellowfin tuna alone, to shine on its own.
I give The Clipper Inn a nine on the Big Hungry Shelby scale. While not every single dish was a home run, there’s a lot more that is right here than is wrong. The big accomplishment is how long The Clipper’s excellence has been maintained. It’s incredibly hard to achieve consistency, especially in a seasonal restaurant, but The Clipper has been doing it for decades.
Attention to detail, a pleasant atmosphere, excellent service and a strong menu with good variety are a testament to robust management and a well-run kitchen. I have heard before that sometimes the staff at The Clipper can be a little bit arrogant, but on this trip, I realized that maybe a slight ego is deserved.
I actually think a lot of our local restaurants aspire to what The Clipper has been achieving for ages, and that’s something of which to be proud. If that pride comes off as superciliousness, maybe we can let this one slide.
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Teach Your Children Well

Ok, I'm not a teacher. I'm not particularly wonderful with kids, either, although I adore my pageant girls. I'm always a little apprehensive about putting myself into situations involving children and me in any kind of authority position, but I guess kids enrolled in culinary programs might be the exception to my anxiety.

VINES is a local program in Broome County and one part of the organization employs kids from Binghamton High School to help in its urban garden for six weeks every summer, in turn teaching them how to grow and cook their own food. This kind of learning is so important for future generations - home ec programs in schools have largely gone by the wayside, and many working moms don't have time to teach their sons and daughters how to cook at home. For that matter, many moms don't have time to cook full blown meals at home like the mothers of past generations, so many children are out of touch with what real cooking even is. Hint: it doesn't involve a microwave, for the most part.

Recently, VINES reached out to STIR - Southern Tier Independent Restaurants - and asked for a chef willing to hold a cooking demo for the "Growing Binghamton" group of children. I eagerly stuck my hand in the air and volunteered to sous chef for whomever stepped forward. I've met some of these VINES kids before, judging the Broome County Legislature's Annual Ag Day Cookoff, and I couldn't wait to hang with them some more.

I'm the goober with her eyes closed. The other lady is Natalie, and she is a total rockstar urban farmer and agricultural wizard who helps run the Grown Binghamton summer employment program.

Sue Chinyavong, the new owner and chef at Treasure Ice Cream and Cafe, on Watson Blvd in Endwell, was our chef for the demo. So while I entertained the kids with dumb stories about blogging and eating everything in the Southern Tier that's not nailed down, she actually taught them cooking skills, like how to make spring rolls and egg rolls from scratch.

The dude in the green shirt is my buddy Paul VanSavage, partner in STIR, fellow Ag Day judge, and co-founder of Spiedie Fest. He came along to help out, take pics, and (duh) eat egg rolls.

The pop of fresh basil in spring rolls is heavenly, but chopping all those veggies makes a mess. Let's keep it real, shall we?

Sue, Paul, and I are holding a contest for the kids, with which I hope they're having fun. Over the next two weeks, they've been asked to Facebook, Instagram, Tweet and Snapchat as much as possible about my blog and local restaurants, tagging me, so I can keep track. Whomever has the most posts plus likes, retweets, etc., will win a cool bag of food related swag we're putting together. It will include a few cookbooks, some cool gourmet ingredients and cooking utensils, and a gift card to Treasure Ice Cream and Cafe.

In addition to the rolls, Sue made chicken stir fry with the kids - one of my favorite ways to use up vegetables from our garden! 

Sue is a veggie chopping gangster. I'm just running my mouth and not helping at all, as usual.

The kids helped with the presentation of the spring rolls. These were veggie spring rolls, with crunchy, bright-tasting carrots, kale, and green onions inside, plus all of ethereal fresh basil. Thai chile sauce was served with them, for dipping.

Here, I helpfully tell the children that if they want to make real spring rolls, they must dress in the traditional garb of the women depicted on the packaging. This is why I am generally not allowed near young people.

In addition to ice cream at Sue's place in Endwell, you can get egg rolls, spring rolls, and pho AKA Soup of the Gods. I'm going there soon to chow down, and you should, too! Or, if you're feeling charitable, check out VINES online. They take donations here.

These kids will be the next Rick Dodds and Jay Piscullis of our local restaurant scene, so I think we need to give them every chance to love food as much as we do. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!