Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Local Heros

Did you cook my rabbit?- Mac MacIntyre
There has long been a developing of trend of cooks doing what they can to feature locally raised food.  I would credit Alice Waters with bringing it to America's attention, but I am sure that there were precursors.

It is certainly not easy to do it here in the northeast.  A short growing season to start with. Seafood is flown in or frozen, though I would like to see more pickerel on local menus. A restaurant needs to be canny to make use of local products.  Take meats, for instance.  As Jim Guarino of Shango pointed out at a Farmer/Chef conference last winter local producers cannot supply things like say a T-bone on a regular basis.

But a lot of cooks are making the effort to try their best to still utilize local stuff.  Sometimes as a special when available.  They have also been curing things - a little bit of really good dry cured ham goes a long way as an app or ingredient.

Wild Russian Boar is not native to Western NY, but like all "heirloom" piggies, good souls (and apparently brave souls) like Rich Tilyou of T-Meadow Farms , the place that brought us some of those lovely hams people are curing, acquired some and made them available to local restaurateurs.

So, when two restaurants we have been dying to visit were featuring it, and we were surprised by a chance for a "date", we jumped at it.  The choice of which one would have been tough, but for the fact that one would have kept us away from the construction at the I-190/290 interchange and on the Grand Island Bridges and that the Chef at that Restaurant has done everything but get down on his knees and beg me to come in with Trish so he can show off.

Steven Gedra of Bistro Europa is hot cook, and the kind of friend who offers the gift of meat when you stop in to say hi (cured pork usually) and you do the same in return. But, in a bizarre twist the same night we had a rare date, Steven had rare night out of the restaurant.  With apologies to Bruce and the rest of the crew, I wasn't going without the Gedra.

That meant going to Lewiston, freaking out at the traffic delays and arriving 15 minutes late for our res - something I HATE to do.  It was worth it.

First there is something going on on Center Street that we liked.  It reminded us of Niagara-on-the-Lake when we liked it and Honeymooned there. There is the Little Yellow Chocolate House a sweet shop and ice cream parlor.  An olive oil emporium called D’Avolio which was discussed in the BuffNews a week ago Wednesday. A bunch of restaurants from pubs to fine dining, including Carmelo's our destination.

I think I may have briefly met Carmelo Raimondi at the Farmer/Chef conference last January, but I really have wanted to go to his restaurant for a while (like Steven, Carmelo lists his local producers on the menu).  We even overcame our fear of Niagara County water.

There are some basic indicators of a good fine dining experience.  One is the amuse - the pre-app - the thing put on your table before you even get to peruse menu. The baseline is a boring bread and bland butter offering. I have had some amazing ones, but I don't need them. All I want is a step above B & B to show that some thought has gone into it - a compound butter, the bruschettas we did at DACC's, seasoned olive oil.  It doesn't matter.

Here it was a good bread served with EVOO (damn you RayRay) and an Italian celery based relish whose name I have forgotten (though I am sure it's in one of my Italian Cookbooks). Perfect.

Another is those little things a kitchen can do to show you are not an imposition.  Trish and I are not appetizer people, unless we are making a meal of them, but the beet salad on the menu just sounded seasonal and good. We asked to split it and would have been happy to have a plate placed between us.  When the server came back (and she was good) it was with two perfectly arranged plates with a half order on each. Nice touch.

Of course one must deal with with the entrees.  Trish had the Squid Ink Tagliatelle. It was lovely. It is so easy to overcook small seafood.  I, of course, had the boar off the specials menu (below). I had been prepared for some gaminess, but there was none - only a rich porky flavor. Anyone who has ever dined with me knows how little I eat.  I can live for a week on the leftovers.  There was barely a morsel left on the plate.

The bottom line is that we are never going to get to 100% local, but when you can support a Chef who thinks local and puts on a good feed it's worthwhile. We will be back.  With friends.

Don't worry Gedra, the next time the the Moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, Europa is top of the list.

PS.  Carmelo, if you read this, my 11 year old daughter, who is becoming a good cook, would like lessons in making your panna cotta :)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Soup of the Day

"No soup for you!" the Soup Nazi
 So, this started of as an offhand comment to Elissa Altman, a food writer at such places a Saveur, the HuffPost and her own blog Poor Man's Feast. Now I have never met her, though I hope to some day, but when she put a call out to find a way to comfort her partner Susan who was suffering from a cold I jumped in.  My suggestion was Tom Yum Goong, part of why I am married, and something I was planning to make that night (author's note - I wasn't able to do it until last night - wonderful with a nice Torrontes).

Elissa took the idea, and was even kind enough to acknowledge it, but then she got sick too and posted this piece on comfort soups.  I hope you are feeling better, Elissa, and that chicken soup recipe sounds remarkably like my own grandmother's, but this discussion made me think of a top five list of me favorite soups.  After all, the term restaurant comes from a soup that restores. Google the name Boulanger.

So, here they are:

5. Barley Broth (aka Scottish Broth). If you want a hearty soup for a cold winter night, this is a hearty choice. Lamb, peas, barley, cabbage, and root vegetables, thickened slightly by the barley. This is truly a restaurer. Eaten with a dense crusty loaf of say oat bread it's a complete meal.

4. Onion Soup Gratinee (aka French Onion Soup). This is a perfect example of simple peasant austarity. Broth from simmered meats, stale bread, cheese and onions stored for the winter.  Yum. Hints: saute the onions low and slow and let them caramelize naturally. Don't buy $19 a pound Gruyere no matter who tells you.  I love Gruyere, but it's lost here.  My favorite is Jarlsberg. This is one of the two soups on the list that suffer from bad restaurant versions.  Soup base and cheap cheese don't do it.

3. Hot and Sour Soup.  This is the second soup butchered too often by bad restaurants. It should be prepared gently, with the best ingredients.  When thus prepared it is an awesome experience. When not - it's liquid snot. When it's done right it's heaven.

2. Tom Yung Goong.  More heavenly than Hot and Sour, this is a soup that brought my wife and I together. It is a perfect balance of hot, sour salty and sweet with the punch of umami. Laced with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and mushrooms, Thai basil and mint, I don't care what seafood or protein is in there. I just want slurp the wonderful broth.  It should be number one on my list, but it cannot because:

1. Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls.  I am Jewish.  I have no choice.  But, I really love it.  I usually take care of the broth, and Trish takes care of the kneidlach using David Rosengarten's seltzer recipe.  But my Mom has taken to buying a chicken soup mix, and tossing out the soup part and just making the matzoh balls. They are not bad.

When I am sick the Jewish Penicillin always works - as do the others - what works for you?

Hope you are better Elissa!

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -