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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My Berkshire Break

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Purple coneflower and a honey bee at Natural Roots, a horse-powered farm in Conway, MA

I spent most of August house sitting in western Massachusetts. I happened to discover that the aunt of a good friend would be travelling and needed someone to stay in her sweet 200 year-old cottage in the Berkshires and take care of her cat. And as anyone who lives in The City knows, August is the time of year when the air starts to reek of hot garbage and humidity, so anyone with half a chance to be elsewhere decamp to more balmy climes. I spent the months before planning my time in the country, looking forward to hiking, biking on the rail trails in the Pioneer Valley, canoeing and swimming in the clear cold rivers, visiting farmers markets, cooking from the garden.

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Pausing for a photo over the Connecticut River, Northampton, MA

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I took Amtrak’s Vermonter up from Penn Station to Springfield, Massachusetts on a Thursday evening. The first thing I did the next morning was go for an 18 mile bike ride from Easthampton, through Northampton, across the Connecticut River into Hadley and back.

The second thing I did was break my ankle. I was walking up a slick slab of  rock beside the South River up in the mountains. I had gone up to the house to get the “tour” before my friends left for their flight, and while checking out a secluded local swimming hole with my friends’s aunt, felt my ankle just go from beneath me. I went down on my hands and knees feeling like a roaring black cloud had just bowled me over. My brain wasn’t allowing for a lot of pain, just a survival rush that almost blacked me out. How was I going to get up the trail and to the car? I steeled myself, trying to still my mind enough to figure out a way out. When the fog began to clear, the roar of blood in my ears receded so that I could hear the waterfall beside me and I found a limb to lean on up the trail to the car, I tried to decide what to do next.

Two things were going through my mind: my belief that if I was able to walk at all, it must be a sprain and not a break and might heal quickly, and my determination to enjoy this time away from the city. I was alone in an unfamiliar area with an unfamiliar injury so I decided to grit my teeth through a trip to the grocery store and hole up at the house with lots of ice and ibuprofen for the next few days to see if this were a short-lived problem. As it turned out, it wasn’t, but despite the swelling, insistent pain, the massive bruising, I hobbled around for the next 3 weeks until I got home and my orthopedic doc, grimacing and shaking her head, told me that the reason I had been so uncomfortable was that I had been walking on a broken fibula.

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The South River, Conway MA

It’s almost 6 weeks from the break now and I’m healing well. I just transitioned from a massive knee-high Velcro boot to a smaller brace and a prescription for physical therapy. I should be able to walk around more easily with the smaller brace, which is a relief; being car-free is really difficult when one of your legs is out of commission. The bone had already begun to knit together and did not need to be re-set. It’s more of a dull ache and an inability to move my foot at this point. Despite it all, I actually did have a good time in the Berkshires.

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Amherst Farmers Market, Amherst MA

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Smokey Bro’s BBQ, Shelburne Falls, MA

The first week I was alone, I explored in the car, turning down any lane that looked interesting, driving through pretty New England hill town. I visited a great horse-powered farm with a CSA and farm store for produce. I sat on the deck in the sun and read, foot in a bucket of ice or perched on a pile of cushions on a chair. I sketched in the art studio in the house, watched the river, cooked. After Scott arrived the next Friday I was able to do a little more with his help; we went to farmers markets and found some good breweries, restaurants, and roadside stands. We cooked together and drove out to Stockbridge to the Norman Rockwell Museum and up to Williamstown and back across the beautiful Mohawk Trail. It was beautiful and peaceful in spite of my pain.

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Tasty Top Dairy Bar, Easthampton, MA

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I feel a little queasy thinking about what I did, walking in the grass, in the river, through the grocery store on a broken fibula for 3 weeks, but I’m glad I was able to spend time up there. It’s one of those places that combines the serenity of natural beauty with the culture of university towns, some notable art museums, and a really strong emphasis on good, well-made food and drink. While I wasn’t able to write the posts I had hoped to while I was there, I did put together a Google map of places we visited, restaurants, farmers markets, as well as some practical stops like grocery stores. I’d like to go back and get a little more of an active experience next time, visit more restaurants, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, so I’ll probably update this map over time. There is a lot still to be explored in the Berkshires.

My Berkshire Break Map:

Eats, Drinks, Drives, Views, Shops

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Deerfield River, Shelburne Falls, MA

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Let me introduce you to my friends at

MYNEWUSUAL

If any of you have ever had a loved one struggle with a terrible illness (and if you haven’t, lucky you!) you know that feeling of helplessness, of standing around unsure of what to do with your hands, of what to say (or not to say), of what to do to try to make it even a little bit better. So when someone who is going through breast cancer treatment sends you a Facebook message that says:

Christine – Just wanted to take a minute to tell you how much I enjoy your blog, your postings and your photos. I want to come and eat at your house!! Hope you are well, Amy

you say “Thank you, ma’am” and thank God you accidentally did a good thing!

I met Amy Kelley a few weeks after we got the news that we would be moving to New Jersey at a birthday party for a mutual friend in Santa Cruz. It was one of those “ships in the night” meetings, but one with a fortuitous “click” so as we both entered the upheaval of the next few years, we kept in touch on Facebook. I knew about her move back to Dallas, her marriage, the cancer diagnosis, and her mother’s illness but in a peripheral way. I was finding my own equilibrium in a new place, putting a lot of creative energy into pictures I took of the new geography of my life. When Amy sent me that message last year, I was so grateful to know that some of those messages in bottles were finding their way into welcoming hands.

Then, this Spring, Amy started talking to me about a new project she was launching. She asked if I would be interested in contributing to a site she was building  to enrich the lives of those who were walking in her shoes. As much as anything in my life, my approach to food and cooking has been shaped by my dad’s life-long Type 1 diabetes and the neuroblastoma cancer my sister Grace had in infancy coupled with no health insurance for our family and my mother’s determination to keep us as healthy as she could with food. We gardened and ate strange things like sprouts and tried everything on our healthy dinner plates and all of us developed a love for adventurous whole food diets, but as an artist, my mother emphasized a colorful, bright dinner plate. This ethos is the backbone of the way I cook: food should nourish the eyes, the tongue, the soul, and the body.

So obviously, my answer was an enthusiastic “YES!!”

Friday, Amy posted my first story, a little guide to my new hometown Hoboken, New Jersey, as Contributing  Food Editor for My New Usual. I will be adding my two cents there regularly, talking about ways to flourish in a new way of life, eating things that both taste and look good but also make you feel good, pulling from my experience to offer new ways to look at nourishing the body. I hope I can be encouraging to those who might find themselves faced with the paradigm shift that illness often is. You’ll still find me here at Cognitive Leeks, but if you or a loved one are faced with a “new usual”,  stop by the website for some encouragement. We would love to see you there.

Warm Summer Green Bean Salad

Here’s another  vacation-conjuring dish, one we had during our trip to Italy last year.

This salad is an example of one of those simple dishes that, when each element is full of flavor, needs no embellishments to sparkle on the taste buds.

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During our stay at La Tavola Marche last year, the farm had just passed its tipping point from summer to fall. The inn was close to the end of its season, the yard-thick stone walls too expensive to heat for guests through the Appenine winter. Jason and Ashley were stripping their gardens of the last of the summery produce, stacking crates of tomatoes to can, drying the stalks of onions and garlic. The days in the valley were warm in late September, but frost was closing in.

Our meals were shoulder-season fare too- warm braised and roasted meats and pastas interspersed with fresh vegetables and salads. Our last evening, Jason pulled the last of the green beans from the vines and made us a delicious warm salad.

As soon as we got settled in our apartment in Siena and found the market, I recreated his lovely combination of crisp, sweet, and piquant so I wouldn’t forget it. I’ve made it  lots of time since then, and I can say unequivocally that getting the best tomatoes, green beans, and red sweet peppers is the key to its success. Gardeners, you’re way ahead of the game here.

Market basket: Siena Tuscany Italy

Market basket: Siena Tuscany Italy

If you’re like me and suffer from garden envy, my tip for finding good tomatoes and peppers elsewhere is to sniff them. Color and texture can be misleading, but a good tomato actually has a fragrance. Green beans are easier, just look for slim, bright pods without discoloration, no lumps from seeds forming inside (these will be too tough for this quickly cooked salad). Although they can be expensive, the little French haricot verts are usually very toothsome and tender.

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We had this salad at the end of the season but it is just as, if not more delicious now at the beginning of green bean season.

Warm Summer Green Bean Salad

1 pound slim green beans, stems removed

1 red bell pepper

1 ripe tomato

1/4-1/2 sweet red onion (depending on the size)

red wine vinegar

olive oil

salt

fresh ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil

Meanwhile, slice the pepper and onion into slivers about the same thickness as the green beans. Cut the tomato into thick wedges. Toss together in a serving bowl.

Once the water has reached a boil, plunge the green beans into the water and return to the boil. Cook the beans briefly, for about 1 minute after the water boils. Remove the pot from the heat and quickly drain the beans in a colander. Allow them to cool enough to handle.

Pour the green beans over the peppers, onion, and tomato and gently toss them all together with your hands. The heat from the beans will slightly warm the other vegetables. Drizzle with a tablespoon of vinegar and a couple of glugs of olive oil, sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Toss to coat everything in the dressing. Serve at room temperature.

Anyone ever feel like your vacations don’t last long enough?

I do.

This is how I made my vacation last into the weekend (at least on my plate).

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That octopus dish I had at the shore was preying on my mind, haunting me with memories of lemony deliciousness. I was combing the web for recipes and techniques for cooking octopus, thinking about how to recreate a similar dish at home. The octopus info was quite frankly, a little daunting. Then Saturday morning, I noticed a new seafood vendor at the Uptown Hoboken Farmers Market. He had lovely fresh calamari from Long Island, and I thought “hey, they’re both Cephalopods, I can cook calamari!” and grabbed a pound. Cooked with lemon butter, a shaved fennel and parsley salad tumbled on top, and juicy fried lemon on the side and I’m right back, salty breeze in my hair, sand between my toes.

What I ended up with was more a reminder than a faithful recreation of the octopus dish. That’s the point- re-entering real life is inevitable but the reminder of a fun relaxing trip can make even a mundane workweek in the kitchen feel more celebratory.

What’s a memory of a great trip or a great meal you can tug out and use to make your daily grind a little more like a day at the beach?

Long Weekend- Charleston SC

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We had the serendipitous combination of a friend’s wedding in Hilton Head, South Carolina and a business trip to Charleston last week which we combined for a very long weekend trip to warmer climes. I hadn’t been to Charleston in such a long time, and having read so much over the last few years about the tremendous resurgence of its food culture, with chefs, food writers, and restaurants getting awards and rave reviews, I was really excited to visit again.

After a beautiful beach wedding weekend, time with my family (especially my fabulous 1-year-old niece!!!) we drove Hwy 17 through the Low country from Hilton Head to Charleston. I think I’ve mentioned before, there are few things as compelling to me as a hand painted roadside sign advertising “Boiled P-nuts” and after a crushing disappointment on the way from the airport (“Closed”) at the roadside stand we passed, salty peanut satisfaction was finally mine! A plastic baggy full of hot drippy boiled peanuts is the ultimate road trip food (possibly only improved upon by the addition of a bag of chicharrone).

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 The bad news is that there is no way you can physically eat everywhere you want to during a weekend in Charleston. In order not to waste time, we stopped for brunch on our way into town at Hominy Grill. Hominy Grill is in an old house, its high ceilings and light interiors evoking the house my mother and grandmother grew up in Alabama. The food is Southern, but the type that I know, garden fresh vegetables, meat accented by tangy pickles and slaws, prepared flavorfully and simply, deep-fried being an anomaly rather than a staple. We had a fried green tomato BLT with vinegar slaw and a pickled okra, and a pork belly sandwich with pickled cabbage and a side of grits. They did a Tequila Sundrop and a Cheerwine Negroni that were killer!
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Fried green tomato BLT with vinegar slaw, pickled okra, Tequila Sundrop, Fried pork belly sandwich with pickled cabbage, egg and cheese, grits, pickled okra, and Cheerwine Negroni

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After checking in at The  Indigo Inn we went for a walk through the historic downtown to the waterfront. The weather in late April was cool enough to be pleasant and warm enough for the fragrance of the jasmine and tea olives to perfume the air. I prefer a sort of “self-guided” approach to wandering through historic districts and Charleston lends itself to the leisurely amble, but there are lots of tours available. The economy of the area is very tourist driven, but unless you are in the old market area, you don’t feel crowded and jostled.

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With this trip being last-minute, I wasn’t able to get a reservation at Husk, one of the better known newer restaurants in the area but our hotel told us that the restaurant’s porch was first come so we went and got a locally brewed beer at the bar and waited for a porch table.  We went with the local Westbrook White Thai witbier with our Kentuckyaki pig ear lettuce wrap, fried chicken skin with pimento cheese and pickled green tomato, and cornmeal dusted catfish with tiny brussel sprouts and tomato gravy. My favorite was the lettuce wrap, S’s was the catfish.

Coffee break : City Lights Coffee 141 Market St, Charleston, SC 29401

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On my own the next day, I wanted to go back to Hominy Grill for their lunch specials. Besides being a very comfortable, quiet, pretty hotel, The Indigo Inn is the kind of place that when the front desk couldn’t get a cab to the restaurant for me within about 5 minutes of my request, one of them offered to drive me to the restaurant and gave me a guided tour of the area on the way.

I got the 4 Vegetables and cornbread lunch plate, an amuse bouche of boiled peanuts and the restaurant’s cookbook.

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tomato pudding cornbread, mustard greens, squash casserole, and fried eggplant

Walking back to the hotel, I walked through the Westside, Cannonborough, and Radcliffborough neighborhoods which provides and much more diverse and varied perspective of the city after the grandeur of the historic downtown. Students and professionals are eating and drinking coffee in the restaurants and cafes, a little trendier and hipper than the statelier downtown. It was a nice walk in cool weather but if you visit when it’s hot, cabs are flat rate $6 on the peninsula and restaurants and hotels will happily call a car for you.

Coffee break: Coffee: Black Tap Coffee

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Back in the French Quarter that afternoon were two of my favorite spots on the trip: Goat. Sheep. Cow.  a gem of an artisan cheese, wine, charcuterie shop with local baguettes, goat milk caramels and chocolates. Its owners Trudi and Patty love Charleston and are happy to talk cheese, restaurants, food, bakeries. This cheesemonger spent a very happy hour or so there, talking shop and getting the local lowdown and where to eat and drink. It’s the perfect place to put together a picnic to enjoy in one of the waterfront parks.

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They told me about the very newly opened  Craftsmen Kitchen & Tap House, and since it was close by and raining, we ducked in for some local craft beer and very well made bar meal: catfish fingers and chips and a really great burger.

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The next day, I headed back north to the Cannonborough to a filling station converted into Xiao Bao Biscuit, an Asian restaurant with a local vibe.

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I had the Som Tum with chicken, a black bean paste encrusted chicken with rice and spicy papaya salad and a Howling Wolf Hefeweizen

Coffee break: Kudu Coffee and Craft Beer

Another little gem in the French Quarter was Charleston Beer Exchange, one of the best little beer shops I’ve ever visited, educated and  happy to share their love for great craft beer with customers. They are friends with the ladies at goat. sheep.cow and do beer and cheese events with them as well. I talked to Brandon, their Cicerone certified manager about the little beer department I’m trying to build here and he gave me some good beer and cheese pairing ideas.

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For our last night, we drove out to Bowens Island Restaurant, a fish camp on the tip of Bowens Island overlooking the beautiful low country marshes.

It’s basically a big screened porch on stilts that serves big plastic trays of oysters with a knife and a towel (shuck your own!) fried seafood on paper plates, hushpuppies and slaw and cold beer. the plywood walls are covered with the graffiti of visitors, the kind of place that you bring your kids or a group of friends and stay for a while. I love these undesigned places, ate my first oyster at just such a raw bar in the Florida panhandle and was sorry to see that it had gotten decorated and remade after  hurricane George. Something in the organic rough and ready personality of these places appeals to me.  It was recommended to me by Amy Evans, Oral Historian with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was the perfect place to fulfill our yearly deep-fried fresh seafood and shuck your own oysters craving. It was also the perfect place to watch the sunset from the porch and then make a running leap into the car as soon as the sun went down- next time, bring bug spray!

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Tray of oysters

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Big ol’ fried shrimp

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Fried fish and Westbrook White Thai

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SFA did a great little short documentary film on Bowens Island Restaurant: http://southernfoodways.org/documentary/film/bowens-island.html

Places I want to go next time-

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SNOB

Carolinas

27 State Street B&B

Martha Lou’s Kitchen

Closed For Business

Tips:

Taxis are $6 flat rate on the Peninsula

There is a free shuttle bus marked “King/ Meeting” the 2 main shopping streets that I didn’t use, but would next time.

Bring bug spray to Bowens Island

Porch seating at Husk is first come if you don’t have a reservation.

I made a map of the places I mentioned in the post:

http://goo.gl/maps/6b1qe

“Mutz” and Farm-to-Table Dinners

Rynn Caputo and I met because she made a provocative comment about mozzarella on Twitter. Fresh mozzarella is the stuff of legends in Hoboken NJ but is something I have only become familiar with recently. Every deli worth its salt has bowls of white, milky “mutz” waiting to be sliced into creamy slabs for giant sandwiches or tomato and basil salads. So when Rynn tweeted in response to Josh Ozersky’s article “Masters of Mutz” about where to get the best mutz in New Jersey by saying basically “too bad none of it is real mozzarella,” I was intrigued.

She explained that almost all commercial American mozzarella curds are formed by adding an acid to milk rather than a more time-consuming rennet set which actually cultures the milk, eats the lactose, and gives the curds a richer and more tangy flavor. (I think she actually said “if you add acid to grape juice, it doesn’t make it wine.”) She and her chef husband Dave had recently started Caputo Brothers Creamery in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania where they make the more traditional Italian fresh cheeses with cultures, and she invited me to a cheese stretching demo that she was holding at The Cheese Store here in town where she would be able to explain the process and differences more thoroughly.

You can’t go to a Rynn Caputo cheese stretching demo without catching some of her infectious enthusiasm for artisan cheeses and Italy, and she supports her enthusiasm with a thorough knowledge of her topic. Since I am fascinated by fermented and cultured foods, I peppered her with questions during her demo. By the end of the afternoon we had decided that two girls who love cheese as much as we do should be friends, and she had invited to me to come out and make cheese with her at the creamery, and to bring Scott out for one of the farm-to-table dinners that she and Dave host in their home.

So a couple of weeks ago, we found ourselves out in the Kodachrome green Pennsylvania countryside at the Caputo’s old stone farmhouse with a dozen or so friends and neighbors eating a mostly locally sourced Spring feast.

Here’s what we had for supper:

Tuscan white bean and wild onion fritters  with house-made sour cream and basil pesto

Freshly stretched Oaxaca cheese with green tomato relish (made by Rynn’s mom) and olive oil

Sunchoke pasta with sauteed sunchokes and dandelion green pesto.

Wild garlic frittata with straight-from-the-garden asparagus

Berries with homemade limoncello and fresh house made ricotta

Everyone brought bottles of wine to share and one guest who owns an olive oil and vinegar shop brought a couple of bottles of olive oil to taste, an Italian and an Argentinian oil. Once we had tasted both and decided which we preferred, we drizzled the oil over our fresh cheese that Rynn stretched and rolled for us.

I’m looking forward to getting back out there soon to actually make cheese, rather than just consume it (although that’s not a bad idea either).  When I do, I’ll fill y’all in on what I learn.

Creole Gumbo-Southern Food Challenge 6

Calvin came into town this past weekend to hang out, spend time in NYC, and celebrate his birthday with us.  Of all the things we miss about our life in California, spending time with Calvin is near the top of the list. So, as usual when we do see him, we took the opportunity and crammed about a month’s worth of hanging out into one long weekend. I think we may have crammed about a month’s worth of eating into one weekend too. I had my first ShackBurger in Madison Square Park and my first John’s Pizza on Bleeker Street. Eataly was a culinary mosh pit; we got espresso and dodged elbows. We drank beer at the Blind Tiger and the Ginger Man. We got cannolis and lobster tails at Georgio’s across the street. For Calvin’s birthday, we took him to a little Japanese “soul food” restaurant we tried for Scott’s birthday called Hakata Tonton.  The three of us shared their signature hot-pot, full of vegetables, pork belly and feet, dumplings and goji berries in an amazingly unctuous broth. And before we put him on the train back out to JFK, we had lunch at  Ippudo, the best bowl of ramen I have ever eaten. I had tonkotsu ramen in Hong Kong for the first time last year; the creamy white pork broth and dark garlic oil with chewy ramen noodles, so lip-smacking and savory and have been craving it since……I ate so much I felt like a pork belly myself.

It made me think about the nitty-gritty of what it is that makes great soup really great. I think it is unarguably the broth. It’s the bones and cartilage and collagen and meat that slowly infuse their essence into water, creating something that tastes incredibly rich without fat. In beauty, one hears about having “good bones”; stock is literally the “good bones” of beautiful flavor.  I’m not asserting that good soup can’t be made with bottled chicken broth or water and aromatics, but every once in a while, it’s worth it to go the extra mile to make a rich, collagen filled stock, full of the most intense essential flavors and make a special meal superlative.

The easiest entry point for stock has to be fish (or seafood) stock. Using the shells, heads, and bones of the seafood going into this gumbo to make a simple stock creates a layer of flavor that deepens and echoes the sweetness of the shrimp and fish in every rich, spicy bite.

Creole Seafood Gumbo

1 pound of head-on shell-on shrimp

1-2 pound fish, fileted, bones and head reserved (I used red snapper)

about 1 cup bay scallops

1/3 to ½ pound of andouille

roux

1 medium white or yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery diced (celery leaves have lots of flavor, chop them up too!)

½ green bell pepper, diced

2 fat cloves garlic, minced or micro-planed

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon thyme

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

salt

1 can diced tomatoes, undrained

2 cups sliced okra (frozen works well off-season)

1 ½ quarts fish stock*

hot rice

hot sauce

Rinse the shrimp and fish. De-head and peel the shrimp. If you’re hard-core like me, filet the fish, slicing the filets into bite-sized pieces. Keep all the bones and shells for the stock. If you get a whole fish from a market and have the fishmongers do the dirty work of fileting, specify that you want to keep the bones and head. Some stores will sell packages of fish trimmings for stock; get a white-fleshed fish for this recipe.

Make a roux

I use less roux for seafood gumbo than for meatier gumbos. For this recipe, I used about ¼ cup each of flour and oil.

After the roux is dark enough, add the Trinity of diced onion, celery, and bell pepper (similar to mirepoix, onion, celery, carrot) to the roux and stir until the vegetables are softened.

Slice and quarter about a link’s worth of smoked andouille (maybe 1/3 pound). The only brand I could find here in town this week was D’ Artagnan; I don’t prefer their seasoning though. Stir it into the roux in the pan, getting it to brown a little on the edges.

When the sausage begins to render a little of it’s fat, add the garlic and spices; I usually gently toast spices for a moment before I add any liquid. When I began learning about Indian cooking and their treatment of spices, I started assimilating the technique of dry toasting or frying spices and herbs often along with the aromatic vegetables and it really seems to bloom and infuse their flavor and fragrance better.

Add the tomatoes, okra and stock. Bring to a simmer and stir until the roux is smoothly incorporated into the stock and cook it until the okra is tender. It shouldn’t take too long, maybe 20 minutes, but cook it slowly and gently so that the assembled throng has time to mingle their flavors. Taste for salt.

Finally- and I mean finally so as not to overcook- stir the scallops, shrimp and fish into the soup. Heat just to a simmer, very gently stirring the seafood into the broth so that it is just opaque and barely cooked through. Be gentle with the fish so the pieces don’t get too broken up

When the seafood is cooked, scoop some hot rice into a bowl and pour the gumbo over. Shake a bit of hot sauce on top.

*Make this basic seafood stock with the fish bones and head and shrimp shells and heads, a little onion and celery. I used the shells and heads of 1 pound of shrimp and the bones and head of a 2 pound red snapper, a stalk of celery and ¼ onion and two quarts of water. Bring it all to a simmer, covered and let it burble away for about 20 -30 minutes. Strain out the solids and reduce the stock to about 1 ½ quarts.

One for the road

What holiday road trip interstate food will you be eating this year? With such a plethora of food choices presented to me, how do I know what I really want to eat within the bounds of what is available at my nearest exit? Here to help us navigate through the perplexing array before us, and in handy flow-chart form, is                    “Where should I eat? Fast Food Edition

Safe travels, everyone, and happy eating!

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

When I reflect on this epochal year in my life, it’s too easy to concentrate on the parts of it that have been painful, uncomfortable, overwhelming. And while I know that there is a “time to mourn and a time to dance,” there are so many things that I am thankful for this year; I’m thankful for the grace of enduring friendships, for precious time with my family, a new nephew and brother-in-law. I’m grateful for the stability of employment and healthy babies born to friends, for dear friends beating cancer, for adventure, for a sense of humor, for not going through this year alone, for love.

We’re celebrating the holiday in the South this year at my in-laws. We drove down through nine states and the remnants of a beautiful East Coast Autumn in time for my mom’s birthday, a couple of my youngest sister’s senior year events, had a hilarious evening with friends at our favorite pub in Atlanta. We have eaten a little more BBQ than I care to admit. We’ve been having weather that is warm enough to allow us to sit outside with a fire and play guitar. We’ve had time to connect with friends that usually get squeezed by the holiday rush. It’s been nice.

I’m grateful to have been cooked for a good bit on this trip. In contrast to last Thanksgiving where my brother and I did an Amazing Race-meets-Top Chef Lightening Round style turkey dinner between his kitchen and our hotel at the beach in La Jolla, the only thing I really cooked this Thanksgiving dinner was a rather homely but delicious pecan tart. The recipe comes a little late for all of your Thanksgiving dinners, but it’s also eminently suitable for Christmas dinner, or Thursday night supper for that matter.

Pecan Tart

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into squares

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup corn syrup

6 ounces pecans, toasted and broken up into large pieces

1 recipe of Cream Cheese Tart Pastry

With the oven rack in the middle of the oven, par-bake the pie crust at 325 degrees.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a heat-proof bowl over simmering water. Remove from heat. Mix in sugar and salt until all of the butter is absorbed. Beat in eggs, then syrup. Return bowl to hot water; stir until mixture is shiny and hot, about 130 degrees. Remove from heat; stir in pecans.

As soon as the pie crust comes out of the oven, reduce the heat to 275 degrees. Pour pecan mixture into hot pie shell. Bake until the center feels soft-set, like gelatin, when gently pressed, 35-40 minutes. Transfer to cooling rack and let it cool completely.

The tart shell is the same one used for the lemon tart in “Sweetart” except that I omit the pistachios.

Cream Cheese Pastry

Makes 1 9-inch pie or tart crust

1 1/4 cups all- purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool

2 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool

Lightly grease your baking tin. Whisk flour, sugar, and salt together.

Beat butter and cream cheese together with your electric mixer at medium-high speed until completely homogenous, about 2 minutes. Add flour, sugar, and salt and mix on medium low until the mixture looks like coarse cornmeal. Increase mixer speed and beat until dough forms large clumps and pulls away from the bowl.

Form into a disk and press into the pie tin with your fingers, working out from the center and up the sides until the dough is evenly distributed.

Wrap well and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Bake at 325 for 35- 40 minutes for a fully baked crust or 20-25 minutes for a partially baked crust.