Long Island Road Trip

 

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I’ve been a road tripper for literally as long as I can remember. Literally, because the first memories that I can specifically tie to a date and time are from a road trip my parents took me on from Atlanta to LA and back about a month after I turned 3. The colors of the Painted Desert, the scenery, prairie dogs outside the tent one morning,  big horn sheep crossing the highway at dusk, wet-suited surfers and the cold of the Pacific (one foot in and I ran screaming- some things never change). My first conception of scale that was much bigger than I had known before- my mom saying “see the big hole, Christine?” from the windy observation deck at the meteor crater in New Mexico, my scanning the landscape for a hole such that you might plant a tomato in and then realizing that the landscape dipping vastly in front of me was “the big hole.” Road tripping the US from end to end and top to bottom and zig-zagging in between has continued to open my eyes to new things.

We celebrated out wedding anniversary this weekend. My ankle and my continuing inability to walk very far or very well caused a last-minute change of plans. We rented a car and drove out to the east end of Long Island for a couple of days. At its eastern end, the island forks around a wide bay and several islands. The South Fork, home to The Hamptons and Montauk, is the better known of the two, while the North Fork has been an agricultural area with a growing wine industry. Quieter, less glitzy, the North Fork reminded me of the more laid back Sonoma County wine country in California where you were less likely to find yourself in a limo traffic jam than in neighboring Napa Valley.

Silver Sands Motel, Greenport, NY

Silver Sands Motel, Greenport, NY

We stayed at The Silver Sands just outside Greenport, NY,  a retro shabby (but very comfortable) U-shaped motel and a sprinkling of cottages beside a curl of gold beach. When we checked in, Elle magazine was doing a photo shoot in front of our cottage, a model in a glittery dress on a spit of rocks that reached into the clear, smooth bay. Oysters washed up into the shallows from the oyster farm next door, “so you know the water is perfect, because they have to test every week,” said the hotel manager. It felt incredible that we had driven through midtown Manhattan on our way here just an hour or two before.

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Our plan was to relax, try to eat as much seafood as we could, do some unhurried driving through the scenery, and taste some locally brewed beer and wine.

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After driving up to the tip of the North Fork where Orient Point slices the Atlantic from Long Island Sound and watching the Cross Sound car ferry dock, we had dinner at a nice restaurant in Greenport, known for its locally sourced seafood and produce. I’ll confess, the downside to being me is that I not infrequently have the frustration of being underwhelemed by the food that restaurants serve me. I dislike paying a lot for food that I have made (better) at home. This was my experience: nothing I disliked or found objectionable, but I wished the food had been a little more memorable. The highlight of the meal was a pair of locally brewed beers that the restaurant had on draught: Greenport Harbor Brewing Company’s Harbor Ale and Montauk Brewing’s Driftwood Ale. We noticed something that we had been discussing-the distinct regionality of beer.

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I really started learning and appreciating beer on the west coast. The dry climate, cool nights, the hops with their intense resinous flavor, the grapefruit and apricot and  pine, all worked for me. I loved hoppy intense beers. After moving to Hoboken, I continued to look for similar styles but found that even the hoppier beer brewed around here (like Ithaca Flower Power for example) had a subtle shift in accent from what I was accustomed to in California. And when I started paying attention to the subtle variations, I began to appreciate and even look for beer that was a good east coast version of those types. I like the subtle hints of English hops that tended to be overwhelmed by the boldness of California styles, the subtle uptick in the flavor of malts; the flavor and body of the good beer I was finding here was working for me in the climate in a new way. Beer that I had not enjoyed as much when I tasted it in other parts of the world was becoming more what I craved.

I started thinking about beer in terms of accents (as in “how y’all dewin’?” and “fuhgeddaboudit” accents). The subtle shifts in accent from city to city, region to region, the shift in vernacular and colloquialism is one of the things I love about travel and living all over the country. It adds a richness to discourse, the subtle hints and clues to be gathered about where someone (and their ancestors) came from. And I am beginning to find the same to be true in food and drink. The whole accent of the beer changes (as it should) based on the region in which it is made and drunk. Maybe less specifically about the earth or terrior than wine, the flavor “accent” of the brewer should come through, even if it is as subtle as my accent usually is.

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So back to the North Fork and our beer: we tasted two beers at dinner that night, same type of ale, different brewers. They were both hoppy, but with different hops emphasized. The Montauk had a little more of a caramel flavor to balance the hops. But the interesting thing to us was that they tasted like beer that belonged here. The briny air, the humidity, the hint of the winter cold to come, the beer had a far eastern Long Island accent.

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With this on our minds, we visited a biodynamic winery that a friend in the wine business had recommended. I was curious about Long Island wine, especially one with a reputation for being very carefully crafted like that at Shinn Estate Vineyard. Again, my familiarity with wine was cultivated in Northern California but working with wine in the New york area with a heavy emphasis on wine from Europe as well as its own reemerging wine culture has tremendously broadened my palate.

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We visited Shinn Estate Vineyard on a quiet afternoon during the beginning of their harvest. A tractor towing loaded bins of Sauvignon Blanc grapes shuttled back and forth from the crusher beside the tasting room to the south block of grapes that were being picked. We split a 6 wine tasting: a steel aged chardonnay and an oak-aged white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Chardonnay, then a Merlot blended and a 100% Merlot, then and a Cabernet Sauvignon  and an unusual 100% Petit Verdot (usually used to add structure to a blend). Tasting the succession of wines gave me the spectrum of the aesthetic of the winemaker; interesting, restrained, sophisticated.

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Again, the thing that struck me, especially with the Merlot, was the dramatic difference between the grapes grown and wine made in California and what we were tasting. Wine has more of a reputation for reflecting its terroir, so while the differences between grapes were less of a revelation that my observations about beer, the difference between the Merlot we tasted and many of the Merlot we had in California was incredible. I have tended to avoid Merlot, often finding it very flabby and dense, like a down comforter for your tongue. This Merlot, while still lush with the fragrance of fruit, had a little crackle of herbs and structure and a burr of tannin that lifted the wine from stodgy to vibrant and thought-provoking. My take away: don’t dismiss a grape varietal because the way it is grown and treated in one region displeases you; give it a second and third chance from other regions. You may be as pleasantly surprised as I was. I bought two bottles to take home!

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Back to the beer. We were able to visit the tasting rooms for both of the local breweries over the next two days. Tasting a flight of beer by a brewery is a great way to get the same sense of the brewer we got from our wine tasting. One of Greenport’s brewers just happens to be a local hops farmer, so their beer was more aggressively hopped than many I’ve tasted in the north-east but still with a distinctive bass note of toastier malts that I think of as having English beer roots than a comparably hopped west coast beer. They don’t bottle their beer yet, so we had to forgo bringing any home with us but Montauk Driftwood Ale was for sale in the  7-11 so we got a six-pack to bring home.

The thing about road tripping is all the stuff in-between where you start and where you end up the add the tones and highlights and shading to the big picture. Flying from one big city in America to another is great but I’ve picked up so much of those little bits of accents, the subtle variations that tell you you’ve entered a new place. I remember my last cross-country drive, getting out of the car to switch drivers, taking a breath, and realizing I wasn’t in the West anymore. I love when I run across a favorite beer or bottle of wine from back in California, but I’m also loving that I’m starting to pick up on the accent of the things I’m tasting here too.

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Spicely Organics & Pumpkin Hummus

My recipe for pumpkin hummus went up on My New Usual a couple of weeks ago, a tasty and seasonal alternative to traditional chickpea hummus. My friend Becky was hanging out in my kitchen while I was finalizing the recipe and I used her as a guinea pig to see if I could re-write my recipe to   make the ingredients a little easier for everyone to find. I started making pumpkin hummus when we lived in California and I was buying most of my spices from a San Francisco based organic spice company called Spicely Organics. Long story short, Becky and I agreed that while the simplified recipe was good, the addition of the shawarma seasoning blend made the recipe so much better.

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 I hadn’t been able to find Spicely on the east coast since we moved, and when I had looked for them online, couldn’t find a user-friendly shopping portal. I ran across their booth at the Fancy Food Show in NYC this summer and was excited to hear that they were expanding to sell more nationally and had developed their online presence a lot. After posting the recipe, my friend Kate said she had even found the shawarma spice mix at Whole Foods in Montclair NJ, so it’s become much more widely available recently.

The first thing that I loved about this spice company besides the quality and flavor of their herbs and spices is the packaging. I use a huge variety of herbs and spices in my cooking and I don’t want a load of new glass jars every time I resupply my stock. Spicely’s herbs and spices are mostly packaged in small 1 inch square cardboard boxes with a cellophane bag inside. I also like that they are sold in smaller amounts than the standard jar size. The most important factor in spices maintaining their flavor is freshness and it’s a lot easier to use up the small packages before the fragrance starts to dissipate and the flavor becomes stale, especially if it’s a spice I don’t use constantly. For those go-to spices that I use most often, they also carry cardboard or glass jars in larger sizes and a bulk jar called the “sous chef”. Another benefit to the variety of sizes is that stocking up on a few spices isn’t going to be expensive, especially if you often end up throw away the dregs of an old jar that you never get around to using.

They also have a  tremendous variety of  spices in their line. I’ve bought sumac and mace and nigella seeds, black and green cardamom, whole anise, ground turmeric and juniper berries as well as more everyday spices like Italian and Mexican oregano, cumin, thyme, and smoked paprika. The seasoning blends skew toward more exotic, less standard “steakhouse seasoning”, like the shawarma blend, which I use for chicken and vegetables, not just hummus. There was a curry blend that I didn’t love and I prefer a Cajun blend from Louisiana, but I love the unique Ras El Hanout, the harissa blend, and the za’atar seasoning. They list the ingredients of the blends on the package so you can get a sense of the flavor before buying; I got a lot of inspiration from their blends, new ideas for how to combine flavors. I noticed on their website that they now have tea and spice infused chocolate in their product line, none of which I have tried.

The icing on the cake is that all of their products are organic, non GMO, and fair trade certified. My opinion is that if an organic product doesn’t taste good or isn’t well made, I’m not eating it. I also realize that there are a lot of great foods that are grown or made very naturally that aren’t organic or certified. But if food that I use can taste great and is also organic, I’m happy about it.  The Fair trade certification means that the company sources its spices from producers who do not use forced or child labor, have unsafe working conditions or substandard wages. I don’t want my food to come at the expense of anyone’s health or well-being and I want their work to provide them with a livelihood, so fair trade certification is something that I look for when possible, particularly in categories that have a history of abuse. Going to a little more trouble (or expense) for more carefully sourced food isn’t everyone’s prerogative, but it is important to me. I explained my position in this comment about why Rancho Gordo beans, whose farmers are able to make a living growing the beans, are (to me) worth the higher price:

I grew up eating lots of beans, so I too was a little skeptical when I saw the prices of RG beans. Then I tried them. Their flavor and texture is far, far better than the .69 per pound bags of black beans I’ve always eaten. And while I realize that there is still a big price difference, $5 divided by 6-8 servings is not particularly expensive. 
The real test for me however was when my mom ate RG beans for the first time. She is the one who taught me to use beans as an inexpensive meal. She hasn’t had the extra money to spend on frivolous “gourmet” products, and yet she is sold on RG beans. 
Normally, beans are farmed as a commodity product that has to be produced in bulk for the farmer to make any profit. Steve’s approach is completely different. Smaller yields of more costly beans mean a better profit margin for these farmers. While everyone may not be in a position to buy their food at a higher price in support of smaller farmers, I think it is certainly worthwhile for those who can. It begins to change the food supply system, making it possible for small farmers to support themselves growing better quality produce, enabling more food to be grown locally, and creating a more diverse agricultural polyculture.
If you are a new cook who wants to stock your spice basics or an adventurous experimental one looking for spice inspiration, I think you’ll find something to love about Spicely Organics. I wrote this without any “swag” or payment of any kind to motivate my opinion; I am just really happy that they are now more widely available and wanted to spread the word about something I like and use.
Once you track down that shawarma blend, try this pumpkin hummus recipe:
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Pumpkin Hummus

makes about 2 cups

1 ½ cups pureed roasted pumpkin

3 tablespoons tahini

3 cloves roasted garlic

1 clove raw garlic, crushed or grated on a microplane

½ teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon Spicely organic shawarma seasoning (or ¼ teaspoon each of ground bay leaves, cinnamon, coriander, and thyme)

2 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil plus more to serve.

Sumac (optional)

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the pumpkin, tahini, garlic, and spices. Process until smooth. Mix about half of the lemon juice and olive oil in , check for taste and consistency (you don’t want the hummus to be too liquid) and then add the rest to taste.

Brussels Sprouts and Wild Rice with Mustard Vinaigrette

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Back in May, I talked about our decision to adjust our diets and try being mostly vegetarian for a while. It had been a rough winter, especially in the kitchen, and we were really craving fresh, crisp, flavorful fruits and vegetables. I wouldn’t say we’ve become vegetarian, because if the craving for something hearty and meaty hits, we go for it, but we’re definitely vegetable enthusiasts. I’ve really been creatively invigorated by the challenge of re-thinking what a dinner plate looks like without meat as a regular anchor. I’ve grabbed as many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits and I can find at the farmers markets and figured out what to do with them. Some experiments have worked out better than others, but even with failures, I’ve learned something new every time.

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I’ve been using a wide variety of whole grains. I have always loved brown rice with beans and whole grain grits with sautéed mushrooms and barley in vegetable soups, and it was love at first bite when we were introduced to faro in Italy. Whole grains are just so satisfying and hearty. You aren’t left feeling hollow an hour after you eat like you might after eating a salad. I’ve posted several of our favorite (and somewhat unusual) whole grain dishes hoping to encourage you to give some of these great grains a try. This wild rice with brussel sprouts is another, perfect for Fall and it would rock as a side for Thanksgiving dinner. Bear in mind that once you are comfortable with preparing the grains, they are very adaptable and great to experiment with. I love the smoky richness that the hint of bacon adds, but if you are vegetarian, leave it out and add a little smoked paprika to the pecans and sage.

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Brussels Sprouts and Wild Rice with Mustard Vinaigrette

serves 4 as main course, 6-8 as a side

 1 pound brussels sprouts

¾ cup wild rice

4 cups salted water plus more to cook

1 piece natural smoked bacon

1 shallot or 1 small red onion

3 teaspoons dry crumbled sage leaves (about 8-10 leaves)

¼ cup pecan pieces (or ¼ cup cooked chestnuts if you prefer)

2-3 tablespoons olive oil (approximately)

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

salt

1/2 to 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

 the wild rice method:

Option 1: soak the rice in about 4 cups of water overnight before cooking.

 Option 2: In a large pot, bring the rice and about 4 cups water to a boil, turn the heat off and let the rice soak for about an hour.

 After an hour add a couple more cups of water to the soaking water and rice. A generous amount of water, similar to what you would use to cook pasta, will help the grains cook evenly and more quickly and evenly. Add about a teaspoon of salt bring to a rapid simmer and cook for 30-45 minutes until the kernels have begun to blossom and pop open and the rice is chewy but not hard or crunchy. Drain in a sieve and set aside.

 The sprouts:

Wash the sprouts, and with a sharp knife trim the tough ends off the stems. Cut each sprout in half and then each half into 4-5 slices. You can shred them in the shedder of a food processor or use a mandolin if you have the equipment but I like to use a knife. Slice the shallot or onion into thin half moons. Mince the strip of bacon into very small pieces.

Heat a large skillet, sauté pan or wok over medium high heat. Add the bacon pieces and a splash of olive oil. When the bacon has begun to crisp, add the onion or shallot slices and stir. When they have wilted, add the nuts and crumbled sage and stir to toast both. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan. Boost the heat to high and stir in the shredded sprouts a handful at a time. Stir occasionally, but give the sprouts time to have contact with the hot pan so that they will caramelize. The sprouts will turn bright green, soften and start to get a little brown on some of the edges.

 Test the tenderness of the sprouts after about 5 minutes. When they have a little browning and are still a little chewy, turn down the heat to low and stir in the drained cooked wild rice. Add a generous pinch of salt.

 While the sprouts cook, mix the mustard, apple cider vinegar and a generous amount of black pepper (½ teaspoon or more depending on how much spice you like). Once the rice and sprouts are combined, pour the mustard mixture into the sprouts and toss everything together. Let the vinaigrette warm through. Remove from the heat.

 Taste for salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.