Any Good Thing to Make Us All Merry

It's here! My annual gift guide for the foodies in your life, because it's finally time to eat all the turkey and gravy, then put on your stretchy pants and get out your credit cards. Rejoice! The holidays are upon us!

My first two suggestions, I received for my birthday this year: two cookbooks from Staten Island, where we go annually for the Miss New York Pageant. First up, Nonna's House, a cookbook straight out of Enoteca Maria, my favorite Italian restaurant anywhere. The book is filled with authentic, regional cuisine straight from the nonnas who rule the kitchen at Enoteca Maria. You won't find traditional Italian-American red sauce and meatballs here, but you will find lots of good eats. I personally can't wait to make Neapolitan potato pie, which is mashed potatoes mixed up with eggs, cheeses and cured meats and then baked with a breadcrumb topping. Yum.

The second, Staten Italy, is a cookbook put out by the two guys who are the Pizza Cousins on Cooking Channel. It has every old school, red sauce, comfort food Italian dish you could possibly want. I recently churned out the Sunday sauce and stuffed shells from this book, and they were absolutely fabulous. 

You can find both of these at Amazon or in your local bookstore. 

Next up, two new favorite ingredients of mine, discovered in 2015. The first, retrieved on my recent trip to Portland, is Jacobsen Salt Co's sea salt. Inside this pouch, your loved one will find sizable flakes of oceanic, briny salt. Less sharp than table salt, but more robust than kosher, this tastes like the air near the sea tastes. It's wonderful as a finisher for roasted meats and seafood and really gorgeous on roasted veggies. The company is a small purveyor near Portland, so this is hipster artisanal product at its finest.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns is purportedly one of the most incredible dining experiences in all of Upstate New York. I haven't succeeded in making it there yet for one of its famous three hour, multi-course dinners, but I did avail myself of the farm's internet shop earlier this year. This tomato salt has grains a bit coarser than Jacobsen's flakes, but a more refined flavor, with less salinity. The tomato lends sweetness and the savory depth of tomato paste. I love this used in white rice, to give it personality, and also with avocado. It might seem odd to buy someone salt as a holiday gift, but I love to receive fun spices and ingredients as stocking stuffers, and I'm willing to bet your favorite foodie does, too.

I have a wee obsession with Kate Middleton/Duchess Catherine of Wales. Part of that obsession includes stalking her appearances though various fashion blogs, and Kensignton Palace's Instagram account, which revealed to me last year that Kate had done a special pottery pattern with British company Emma Bridgewater. Whilst perusing that brand's website, I discovered its Black Toast line, which combines British cheek with fun and functional serving pieces. I haven't bought any yet, but I want to. I'm willing to bet you can find a piece in this line to make anybody on your gift list smile. Check out the entire line at emmabridgewater.co.uk

Keeping right on the housewares track, my handbag and jewelry fave, Kate Spade, has been making chic tableware for a while, but it's always been kind of higher priced. This year, the line has debuted some more affordable items, like melamine travel coffee mugs and feminine, fun coasters, plus kitschy kitchen towels, glam notecards and an adorable recipe book. Pick something like this up for the fancy ladies in your life, and don't worry about breaking the bank. You can get them on Katespade.com and Macy's.

In August, I reviewed The Kitchen in Alexandria Bay for my Watertown Daily Times column, and rediscovered French press coffee. The richness and consistency of French press coffee is far superior to any K-cup, but I realized that part of the problem with most press coffee pots is that the glass exterior lets the coffee get cold so quickly. Enter the Espro French Press, available at Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, which has insulated side walls and stainless steel construction to retain heat. It also has a finer strainer than those cheapie versions, so you'll end up with less sediment in your cup. 

If you have a coffee aficionado on your list, this isn't the most economical option - it runs nearly $100 - but it may be just the ticket. This one's on my wish list this year! 

I've read this online magazine called Good. Food. Stories. for years. When its editor, Casey Barber, started mentioning that she was writing a whole cookbook solely on pierogies, I knew I had to have it. The master dough recipes are the keys to the whole book, and are super easy to create at home. The next ones I'm making are the French onion soup pierogies, topped with crispy Parmesan frico. God, just writing about that makes me drool, you guys. I actually won this book from my friends at Go Fug Yourself, but you can grab a copy on Amazon. It's only $20!

I don't go in for a ton of gadgets in my kitchen. A single set of tongs and a really good knife get me through most meal prep, you know? But Shawn and I do love pasta, and since I'm usually only cooking it for two, I hate to haul out a huge strainer every time. Plus, dumping all that starchy cooking water out before the dish is finished limits your ability to adjust your sauce with that salty liquid's magical thickening qualities. So I love my Joseph Joseph strainer scoop.

This hand-held colander scoops out sizeable portions of short cut pasta and lets you strain out the water without dumping it all before you're ready. I use this thing probably once a week, and it's $9. Coming to a stocking near you! 

I don't mean to be corny, but my final suggestion is to grab the foodie on your list and take him or her out for a meal before 2015 is over. When you do, hit up a locally owned restaurant, obviously. There is something primal and undeniably intimate about sharing a meal with someone, which is why generations of moms have insisted that you be home before dinner - it brings people closer. Moreover, the foodies in your life almost always get stuck with kitchen duty (we're good cooks!) so treating them to dinner out with you will likely mean some relaxation mixed in with the fellowship. More so than fancy salt or witty crockery, a meal out at a restaurant that will really turn your loved one on is probably the best gift you could possibly give.

I wish that love and joy will come to you this holiday season, Hungries. In this, my fifth year as Big Hungry Shelby, I know that really good food plays one of the biggest roles in how people come together. May the magic of the season show up under your tree and on your plate! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger!


WDT Review: The Lobster House has Your Seafood Fix on Lock

A restaurant focused on seafood seems … unlikely to succeed in a landlocked locale like Norwood. I have this general rule about eating seafood solely near the shore. But on a recent visit to The Lobster House, about 100 cars clogged the parking lot of this north country institution that’s been cranking out hearty dinners since my parents were newlyweds. That's a good sign.

Inside, despite the large dining room and hordes of guests, the space was restful, hushed and homey, with artwork depicting wintry scenery lining the pale green walls.

Our party of five settled right into a circular table in the center of the action with a round of very reasonably priced cocktails and a basket of The Lobster House’s much-lauded cheesy biscuits, lightly crispy on the outside and tender and steamy on the inside — the tastier, more finely crafted cousin to the biscuits you may have had at a certain national seafood chain restaurant.

Stuffed mushrooms ($7.99) were positively jammed with a breadcrumb and crabmeat mixture and drenched in enough gooey, melted mozzarella cheese and garlic butter to make my more health-conscious readers blush. They were baked in that highly seasoned butter, to lift the earthy, woodsy mushrooms and sweet crab into a very decadent territory. 

Coconut shrimp ($6.99) were large, plump and perfectly cooked, the shrimp sheltered inside deeply golden, sweet coconut shreds and served with a slightly sugary, slightly sour, fruity dipping sauce. Our waitress led us to believe these were battered in-house, which I can’t guarantee, but they certainly had more flavor than your typical frozen coconut shrimp — and dunked in the sauce, they were crowd-pleasers at our table. 

Clam chowder ($3.99 a cup) was deeply flavored and rich, the cream and fat brightened by celery and fresh parsley. One diner found it to be too salty and inferior to the lobster bisque ($3.50 a cup), which was quieter in flavor. I found that broth silky, creamy and accented by the zing of Old Bay spices, but with not much lobster running through it. I prefer bisque finished with sweet sherry, and this version was lacking that flavor, so the chowder won the day, for me. This is why I bring other mouths with me - everyone likes different things!

Homemade dressing on a Caesar salad was a bit on the piquant side for me, with a squeeze too much of lemon juice and not enough egg and Parmesan in the mix. But the romaine was crisp, the croutons crunchy, and the diner who ordered it as his starter was pleased. Apparently, he can handle the sharpness of lemon juice better than I can. 

Shrimp scampi ($15.99) could have been as buttery and garlicky as the mushrooms, but instead I found this entrée surprisingly light, full of fresh, sweet shrimp flavor. The garlic butter sauce was plentiful but not heavy, and the sautéed veggies served with the shellfish were crisp-tender and well seasoned. A squeeze of lemon here was well placed and brightened up the flavors even more.

The same shrimp came with the Triple Play ($25.99), along with a tender, petite lobster tail and chateau tenderloin, a steak cut from the tenderloin filet of beef. It was cooked medium-rare and was perfectly juicy and very well seasoned — an uncommonly good steak for a combo platter and a very upscale trio of proteins for just $26. The Lobster House seems to be a place where hearty portions are doled out for fair prices, which may explain the packed parking lot. 

I was less enamored of the baked rigatoni ($13.99), which was an equally generous portion, but composed of those stuffed, frozen pasta shells crimped uniformly at the edges. You know the ones, they come in a bag from the dreaded food distributor. Plus, the cheese blanketing the top of this baked dish was not browned or bubbly — just a swath of white. I think we can all degree that when faced with topping a dish with cheese,browned and bubbly is the right going to do, yes?

The pasta was cooked correctly and avoided being gummy, but I found both the tomato sauce and melted mozzarella to be bland. However, the diner who ordered this entrée loved it, describing the marinara as extremely tomato-y. Different strokes, you know? Again, this is why I bring friends to dinner!

The maritime platter ($17.99) was bursting with seafood: fried clams and shrimp, plus scampi and broiled white fish. I found the clams tasty, with a burst of shellfish brine and a crunchy cornmeal coating, but the fried shrimp tasted like breading only — the shrimp flavor was completely lost in there. Again, the diner who ordered it loved everything, noting the flaky, fresh fish and the shrimp among her favorites. Maybe we were just an agreeable bunch that night.

The stuffed lobster ($26.99) was a beautiful, whole-creature presentation splayed across my plate in majestic style. Before anything else, this thing was a feast for the eyes, and I don’t even mind putting that cliché down for you all to read. 

The crabmeat stuffing was redolent of celery, bell pepper and rich, sweet crabmeat, but there was almost too much of it — my palate wore out quickly from the sheer amount of this opulent dressing. The lobster itself was no slouch, weighing in at 1½ pounds and with lots of tail and claw meat, but it was just a tad overcooked and therefore really tough. It’s always a pretty good deal to eat lobster, but this could have been done a bit better. 

A baked potato served on the side was fluffy and cooked perfectly, dressed up with butter and sour cream, a delicious, tangy and earthy break from the heavy crab stuffing. Yeah, I get that a butter- and sour cream-laden spud should not qualify as a break from anything. 

Desserts were all straight from the food distributor, and we were full anyway, so we skipped this course in favor of heading south a half hour earlier. 

The crowd here was as varied as the menu: Everyone from date-night college students and very casual families to larger groups dressed up for a special occasion were tucking into the big plates from the big menu. 

One of the things I really liked about The Lobster House was the higher-end food served without the fuss of fine dining. No white tablecloths here — just grab a fork and dive in. 

I give The Lobster House an eight on the Big Hungry scale. While not every dish was executed absolutely perfectly, the value and portions make up that point, and our waitress, Ashley, brought it home with her attentive and good-natured service. 

I absolutely understand why this is a destination in St. Lawrence County. Any member of your party will find a dish on this menu. Indeed, we didn’t even manage to order one of the eight chicken dishes offered, and we barely made a dent in the pasta and beef entrees! Our dinner for five, with four adult beverages and two appetizers, totaled $154.89, a fraction of what it would have cost in just about any city in the country. 

So head to Norwood and bring your appetite! The Lobster House may not be near the sea, but it has your seafood fix on lock. Landlock, you know?

Are you following my eating exploits all over the interwebs? Join me on Instagram @BigHungryShelby and at that same handle on Twitter, and for even more content, join my Facebook group. It's called (you guessed it) Big Hungry Shelby! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


Just East of Binghamton...

People have been telling me to try restaurants in Afton for years. Here's the thing: I live near Owego. By the time I get to Bingamton, I've already traveled what seems like far enough for dinner. Why would I keep driving? But recently, Big Hungry Melinda was up for a food adventure and we both had a free Saturday, so we hopped on 88 and headed East.

The Main Street Grill and Bakery is (duh) on Main St right in the heart of Afton. Right away, I was impressed by obvious effort made inside to create ambiance, with bold bistro colors of red, black, and gold dominating the two dining rooms.

The soup on the day we visited was Italian chicken, which sounded right up my alley. The second fall switches on and the temps heads north, my cravings set to soup mode. This cup was well seasoned and vegetal. Chunks of zucchini, celery, broccoli florets, chicken and fresh spinach packed the broth, which had a subtle tomato flavor but not too much acidity or sweetness. There was also shredded white meat chicken and rice in the mix. Savory and satisfying.

Melinda had the Main St melt - roast beef, bacon, and cheese with lettuce and tomato grilled up on buttered bread. The roast beef had good flavor, and we both appreciated that the bread was generously buttered to give it that crispy, greasy, slightly salty grilled cheesiness. But there wasn't quite enough cheese to make this a true grilled cheese, nor enough roast beef or bacon to make it particularly decadent in the meat category. I don't know if it's five years of food blogging under my belt that have ruined me for a simple sandwich or just plain gluttony, but I found this one a little boring.

The French fries were thin and well-seasoned - like the ideal McDonald's fry. Not hand cut (a demerit), but tasty.

I ordered the sandwich special of the day: loaded turkey. This delicious monstrosity was piled with deli turkey, bacon, cheddar cheese, caramelized onions, ranch dressing, and potato chips. Yeah. Crunchalicious! The ridged chips not only added great texture and heft to the works, but a salty edge that was tempered by the sweetness of the onion and the tang of the ranch. It was crafted on really good herbed focaccia bread that was soft and pillowy. Toasted bread would have been a little much with the chips, so I liked the focaccia with this particular combo of ingredients.This sandwich should be on the menu permanently - we both loved it.

The dessert case at Main St Grille and Bakery is a pretty big deal. Throughout our meal, we watched other parties get up to inspect the cakes and pies before they ordered their final courses. And I think every table indulged in dessert.

The coconut cream pie had a fantastic, tender crust studded with finely chopped walnuts and shredded coconut running throughout the vanilla custard. That custard filling was the perfect consistency, if you ask me - not gelatinous nor so thick as to be heavy - just creamy and flavorful.

Carrot cake had a super sweet cream cheese frosting top with an absolutely delicious, robustly spicy cake base, dotted with plump golden raisins and dried cranberries, and a layer of vanilla pastry cream in the center. The frosting was a little overly sweet for me, but the cake was so strong, it kind of balanced everything out.

I can't imagine what business would take you to the tiny town of Afton, but maybe lunch is enough of an excuse on its own? We really liked the Main Street Grill and Bakery, and I give it a seven on BHS scale - above average, but not quite stellar. A few minor upgrades (like hand cut fries) would propel this place, serving high quality food and hand crafted baked goods, into the stratosphere.

I'll be judging and emceeing the Taste of South Jeff event this Saturday night in Adams. Info is on the Facebook page - come on out and see me while you support local restaurants! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

Main Street Grill & Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Dispatch from Seattle: O Oysters, Come and Walk with Us!

After about four days in Portland earlier this fall, my colleague Jenn and I snagged a ride with our rather  gallant co-worker Dave to Seattle, to tour the Boeing factory and see our company's offices there. It seemed silly to rush off - neither of us had been to the Emerald City before. So we stayed an extra day. Here was the view from our plum, lakefront rooms at the Courtyard by Marriott Lake Union:

Not too shabby, eh?! That first day was just what you expect and want from the Pacific Northwest: drizzly, cool, and grey. But for our special bonus girls' day, we had sunshine and warm fall temps, which we took advantage of by walking all over the city.

Pike Place Market was cool:

But coolest of all was dinner at The Walrus and the Carpentar, a place I had seen on the Cooking Channel and that appeared in many of the best of lists I checked out when researching Seattle.

This tiny place in the city's Ballard neighborhood is famous for long lines and no reservations as well as phenomenal shellfish, so went went early and were able to snag the last two seats on the restaurant's sunny patio. The menu here focuses on oysters and seafood in general, and its menu changes nightly.

Jenn went for a tasting platter of all that day's oysters, and then we shared a bunch of other plates. She was bowled over by the freshness and gorgeous plumpness of every one, but particularly impressed by three varieties, which she concentrated on for her second plate.

She also ordered cauliflower beignets, which capitalized on every essence of sweetness inherent in this cruciferous veg. The stars of bagna cauda dipping sauce/foam, made with anchovies and olive oil, but tasted savory and complex and light rather than greasy or salty, and stole this show. It crossed my mind to lick that stuff directly off the plate.

I liked the scallop tartare, but with the beet purée, there was a little too much sweetness to this dish. The scallops, raw and minced, were flawless, peerless - clean and sweet. That's probably why the beet flavor didn't work with this, for me - I needed something to anchor the dish and balance out the sweetness, and neither the purée nor the cucumber slices could handle the job. The roe should have been the salty element, but it just wasn't quite enough to bring the flavors home for me. It was pretty though:

My foie gras torchon was much more successful, translating salt and fat in the most refined way, with impeccably creamy texture and that unquantifiable richness only foie can communicate. The brunoise of sauternes gelee (that's wine jelly for us rubes) was my favorite part - its tart acidity and sweetness perfectly countering that expanse of luscious offal. My only complaint: not enoug crusty bread!

Dessert was required. Because we said so! I like bread pudding, and this is hands-down, the best one I've ever had. There was some maple syrup in there, which was fine, whatever. But the kicker was the espresso butter moat surrounding the tender, moist bread custard. It was deep, rich, sweet, butter and I had a fleeting inclination to suck it up into a syringe and inject it straight into my bloodstream. I probably would have had to order a second dessert, though, because I didn't have a drop of this slamming sauce to spare. It was delectable. Cue me, in my kitchen, trying to replicate this wonder for the holidays.

Our dinner at The Walrus and The Carpenter was surprising in its spare, simple qualities as well as in its decadence. None of our dishes was complicated - each one was presented simply, with three or four ingredients arranged artfully and employing impeccable ingredients. This is modern fine dining, in a completely casual environment. Our waitress was totally cool, explaining dishes to us, chatting about the Walrus' sister restaurants and all the fame this one has garnered, and fun facts about celebs eating there. Overall, it was a pretty great experience, and if you're visiting Seattle, I would recommend a meal at this or another Renee Erickson joint. She actually has a place much close to where we stayed, on Lake Union, that serves a braised lamb shoulder with tzatziki sauce as an entree. TZATZIKI!!! Would that we had had another night in town to try that!

We had an absolutely lovely day in this beautiful city, and I can understand why people visit there and stay forever. It's like California for people who like cooler weather. It's a foodie city with enough weirdos to maintain a humble attitude, and enough wealth to add some good sparkle. I could grow to like it here. My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 

The Walrus and the Carpenter Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato