If You're Going to be a Cook...

There's been an issue nagging the edges of my consciousness since I started my column for the Watertown Daily Times about a year ago. Why are there so many mom and pop restaurants serving processed foods straight out of the freezer or off the distributors' trucks, rather than cooking from scratch?

I assume most restauranteurs don't open their establishments intending to serve a largely frozen, processed menu, but staffing issues and budget concerns must lead to this unfortunate circumstance. The most confusing aspect of this fact, for me, is why the people working in these kitchens want to be cooks and then not actually cook anything? Put another way, why pursue a career in food service to end up serving food that you don't prepare in-house? 

Especially in this era of paleo diets, gluten-free pundits, clean-eating Pinterest guides and WHO admonitions on processed meats, it's seems like a weird time for our local restaurants to copy their chain restaurant competitors and stop cooking. But time and time again in my dining adventures, I find frozen French fries, jarred gravy, pre-cooked chicken, frozen and fried appetizers, and pizza shells pre-made and topped in the kitchen. The fact that the last one happened at an actual Italian restaurant boggles my mind.

A working theory I have is that most family owned restaurants start out with the intention and the staffing to do I right. They're making heritage recipes and doing most of it from scratch, and then, they lose their chef or there's a major life event or something else, and it all changes. It happens a lot here in the Binghamton area when the patriarch of the Italian family retires - the recipes don't translate to whatever line cook gets the promotion or the new head chef has a different palate...and the menu changes and slowly starts to transform from the authentic Italian-American eatery beloved in the neighborhood to something resembling a shabbier Olive Garden. 

I think it's obvious by now that I'm an advocate for real food, begun from fresh ingredients, cooked with flair by people who care passionately about stepping into the kitchen each night and wowing their guests. If that's not the goal of both restauranteur and chef - what's the point? If that's not what you're  turning out from your kitchen, I might as well stay home. At home, I sometimes rely on convenience ingredients because I have a full time job and serving dinner is an extracurricular for me. But if your job is cooking, you better be going it yourself. 

But I'm most interested in what the masses think on this issue, and here's why: I realize that these places that are serving fryers full of frozen, breaded finger foods and everything else pre-prepared and straight off the truck are still busy. People eat at those restaurants even though there are better alternatives. I don't get it. Is it a disposable income thing? Are our collective palates that accustomed to salt and preservatives rather than vegetables, meats, herbs and cheeses? Please someone, enlighten me. Why aren't we demanding better?

I hope you all will weigh in on this train of thought, because this is an issue I think about a lot. Will we soon have only chain restaurants and processed food in our local joints because we didn't bother to show small business owners that they need to actually cook things? Will this new generation of foodie kids give way to food service workers who only microwave and fry, but don't chop or sauté? Help me figure this one out! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 


Dispatch from Portland: Get Your Mustaches and Tattoos Here

A fabulous team dinner at Ox Restaurant wasn't our only meal in Portland, oh no. We Urbered far and wide and had two more pretty great dinners in the city.

Olympic Provisons, which is lately calling itself Olympia Provisions owing to some squabble with the International Olympic Committee,mwhich I find hilarious. Are The Olympics really worried about a Portlandian meat emporium interfering with its brand? Ok, sports people. Whatever you say.

The night we visited Olympic Provisons, a couple members of our party were perhaps more hungry and worn out from a day standing and pressing the flesh at a trade show than an adventuresome, hipstery dining experience could bear. We called ahead for a table, and arrived when the hostess thought one would become available, but that party elected to stay for dessert and lingered over drinks. Rather than allow our group to break up into two tables, the polite but slightly inflexible young lady insisted we wait. We lost one diner to sheer exhaustion and ended up sitting at the counter, which suited me just fine, since it afforded a view of the line, open to the dining room.

By the time we were seated, at nearly 9 pm (and remember, some of us were still on East Coast time), our party chose to skip the admittedly delicious-sounding appetizers and go straight for entrees. My short ribs were downright fabulous, and it was educational and fun to watch the dish prepared right in front of me.

The meat itself was perfectly seasoned, juicy and tender, and the slabs of potato underneath were the ideal roasted spud: with a delicate crisp outside and fluffy, earthy insides. But the surprise here was the extras: briny olives and crunchy fried lardon added pork fat and selenity to the taste profile, for a comforting yet still unique dish.

I didn't get to try a variety of the food at Olympic Provisions, but what I did try, I adored. It's worth checking out if you're up for a leisurely night of good food and drinks.

Olympic Provisions Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Our last night in town, we hit up Mother's Bistro based on recommendations on Trip Advisor. This downtown bar and restaurant is much like what I've always imagined opening: multiple, intimate dining rooms furnished with a mix of homey antiques and crystal chandeliers, a menu focused on classic American dishes made in their ultimate iterations, and service so friendly and casual, you think you're at a friend's house.

After a massive basket of rolls and biscuits to share and and a delectable cup of matzo ball soup dominated by a tender, slightly salty matzo ball - the tastiest one I've ever eaten - I dove into this gigantic bowl of chicken and dumplings. Imagine the best Thanksgiving gravy you've ever had. That's what the sauce in this dish reminded me of - deeply flavored with roasted chicken and aromatics, well seasoned but not salty. 

Lisa Schroeder, the "mother" at Mother's, came out, and we all heaped praise on her. She's doing something special and real and decidedly un-hipster in this town full of flannel, tattoos and ironic mustaches. Her food is hearty, nuanced but not tortured into submission, and well, really yummy. It's not fussy, it's certainly not neuveau, but you will leave Mother's house full and happy. Enough said.

After leaving Portland, my friend Jenn and I continued on to Seattle, and ate at famed The Walrus and the Carpentar, so check back in next week for a peek at what we got up to in the Emerald City! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Dispatch from Portland: If That Ain't Love, then Tell Me What is

There's a song by Loretta Lynn and Jack White called Portland, Oregon. It's about cocktails and love, and the second I left for a recent business trip in Portland, it was on a continuous loop in my head. I didn't mind a bit.

I also didn't mind planning a group dinner for our team while we were there, and chose Ox Restaurant, thinking an Aregntinian meat fest would suit our male-dominated party just fine. Luckily, this hunch led to a spectacular home run.

Ox, just a short jaunt up the street from the Portland Convention Center, is a smallish place, so they ask larger parties to chose a family style menu in advance. The experience I had setting our menu up, and the welcome we received upon arrival, was the warmest we received in PDX (though we had one other personnel experience worth covering, and I intend to do so next week).

Before our first course came an amuse bouche for all, served in demitasse cups presented en masse on trays: luxurious, unctuous, earthy creamed mushroom soup. It was deep, dark, rich - mushroom duxelles cooked slowly in butter with aromatics, puréed, and enriched with enough cream to create soup but not so much as to blot out the umami flavor of the fungi. Simply fabulous in three quick gulps.

Even as colleagues around the table were still smacking their lips (literally!), the first course began to hit the table. It was a bounty the lies of which few had tasted before.

Dungeness crab bruschetta was a great way to start this trio of deliciousness. Dungeness is less sweet than blue crabs, with a more fresh, saline, oceanic flavor. Watery cucumber and creamy avocado, plus peppery radish were splendid foils, and with bracingly tart shiso and earthy, crusty, charred bread, each bite was filled with texture and flavor.

Flaky empanadas were filled with well seasoned ground beef and the genius combo of green olive and raisins, a sweet/salty pairing that played differently on the palate with each bite, grounded by the spice and fat of the beef. These were tasty treats.

And our favorite of the trio: baked house made ricotta cheese topped with button mushrooms slow cooked with tomatoes and doused in balsamic brown butter, to heap onto more charred country bread. This is something I'll be trying to replicate at home, and you should too, if you like gigantic mouthfuls of creamy, concentrated, warm ricotta with tiny mushrooms coated in sweet, rich butter tinged with reduced balsamic vinegar piled on top of thick, crunchy toast.

And we barely had time to rave about course one and pour more wine when course two began to arrive, plate after plate. Some mumbled that they were already full, but grabbed serving spoons anyway. First up: endive salad with fresh figs, crispy rendered chorizo sausage, creamy, sweet chèvre cheese and sherry vinaigrette. This was a bracing salad, due to the bitterness of the endive and ample acid in the dressing, but the sweetness of the figs, fat in the chorizo and cream in the cheese balanced out the astringency in a particularly successful harmony. It was a really beautiful salad.

Small plates of ridiculously good, house made chorizo a,so touched down around this time. It was more tender and more loosely packed than commercial chorizos I've purchased, and almost luxuriously fatty. That's not to say it was greasy, but the word decadent comes to mind when I think of each bite. The casings were crisped up perfectly, but the inside of each fat sausage were finely ground and not quite as redolent with paprika as I expected - spicy, but not hot.

Next: marinated skirt steak cooked to medium rare over Ox's open flames, sliced thinly and dressed with the restaurant's robust, herbaceous chimichurri sauce. This green sauce had also come alongside  great crusty loaves of bread at the start of the evening, and everyone was pre-primed to adore the slightly spicy mix of parsley, cilantro, chiles and olive oil. This steak was the favorite of some members of our party, and it was hard not to just shovel slice after tender slice into my gaping maw with abandon.

Rather large bowls of roasted potatoes, exposed surfaces bronzed in the open oven and then blanketed with spoonfuls of sharp, garlicky horseradish aoli and fresh dill were next. I wanted to eat more of these and of yummy, grilled onions with blue cheese, but the ribeye kind of ruined that plan.

At this point in such a feast, one has to start making important decisions; strategic decisions about the malleability of one's pants and such. There is no room for for error in such calculations. Beef wins. The bone-in ribeye is a specialty at Ox, and this ruby red, juicy, thick-cut steak was absolutely unparalleled in flavor and texture. 

Dessert was an option presented by our waiters, but there wasn't a chance I could have stopped eating that steak in order to save space. A girl's stomach is only so hungry, my pets! But you knows, even sans a sweet ending, this meal was one for the record books. Ox isn't as famous as some of its PDX compatriots, but it should be. There's a reason the chefs here, a husband and wife team, have been nominated for James Beard awards. The secret's in the juicy burst of the chorizo, the bursting brightness of the chimichurri, the earthy richness of the mushroom soup, and the sweet umami of the baked ricotta - these two understand their taste profile and how to echo it throughout a meal without ever serving sameness or repetition. 

I give Ox a 10 on the BHS scale, and will remember this meal fondly. If you're in the land of mustaches and flannel, put it on your list, and for God's sake, wear stretchy pants!! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!