12.17.2014

2014 Big Hungry Shelby Awards

It's here, folks! My annual round-up of the best eats in New York State! Well, most of New York State. I didn't step foot in Manhattan or Buffalo this year. I do what I can as a part-time blogger, full-time PR professional, part-time food columnist and volunteer pageant director, but what I can isn't always as encompassing as I wish it could be.

As always, I looked back through all my BHS reviews a couple days ago, and was bowled over by the great food I was lucky enough to try in our great state this year. I know I sometimes make fun of the proliferation of chains, the near omnipresence of stalwarts like chicken parm on our menus, and the scarcity of really good ethnic food (apart from Italian) in our towns. But just try to get to the end of this best of list and deny we eat well in this little pocket of the country. 

I will remind you that I don't have actual awards to give, but heaps of praise and gratitude from my tummy are sent to each of the chefs responsible for these delicious bites. And in appreciation for the bounty of 2014 and my personal thanksgiving that I'm able to partake in such a decadent hobby, I will be donating some cash to Share Our Strength, and organization that helps needy children get some yummy in their tummies. If you'd like to help, go to nokidhungry.org and throw some sheckles their way.


So let's get down to it...while not everybody places an emphasis on this aspect of their dining out,  ambiance is important to me. There are nights a bustling, noisy, nightclub-esque dinner are just what the doctor ordered, and other days that I just won't be happy unless I can have a lobster roll on a sun-soaked patio. This year, that blissful, I am so content right now feeling came from a little place in Clayton that's grown up right before my eyes over the last couple years. 2014's Best Ambiance was found on Bella's Bistro's riverfront deck at sunset. The deck is multi-level, twinkle light-lit, and absolutely charming. 





The Best Appetizer is always a hotly contested category, and my friends over at P.S. Restaurant in Vestal nearly clinched it with Rick's fabulous wedge salad - the best I've ever had. But this year, I have to give top honors to a simple ball of burratta that stole my heart, surrounded by perfectly in-season wedges of heirloom tomatoes and packing the most heavenly, ethereal cream center a wad of mozzarella ever encountered. Congratulations to Enoteca Maria in Staten Island!
 


I am who I am, and I love bacon. The bacon obsession seems to be going out of vogue, to my immense sadness, but I'll cling to my pork fat for as long as the foodie gods let me. The Best Bacon of 2014 was at newbie Social on State in Binghamton. The pork belly and pineapple tapas there was sweet, salty, with crispy, rendered fatty lusciousness - there was a hint of spice in there from sweet chili sauce, and the sourness of the grilled pineapple balanced the sugars of both the fruit and meat nicely. 



Side dishes were more interesting than usual this year. Thank goodness! I loved the lemony mushroom risotto that came alongside my duck at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel's Seaway Grille in Clayton, but I have to pick the resolutely perfect sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi at Podlasie in Endicott as 2014's Best Side. These tiny, homemade dumplings had delicate dough, mild kraut, earthy mushrooms, the perfect amount of butter and shatteringly crisp shards of bacon to garnish them. I want them right now, please. They were homey, comforting, and fantabulously delicious. If you've never had a homemade pierogi, run to this place!




Last year, I sort of lamented that I wasn't finding entrees to be as exciting as the appetizers I was finding all over the state. I'm happy to report that this year, I have three contenders in this category, and on different days, any one could be the winner. In Clayton, I adored The Codfather at Gabe's Taco Kitchen - a masterpiece of a fish taco that could rival San Diego's best. At Dasher's Corner Pub, in Homer, the Wellington sandwich rocked my world - you just don't find a lot of pate as a sandwich spread in these parts, but I wish we did! But 2014's Best Entree goes to the confit chicken with corn purée at Loft at 99. What they billed as confit chicken was really the most tender, chickeny fried chicken ever, and the corn purée they served with it last summer was stupid. Or it made me stupid when I ate it, because I loved it so much I wanted to marry it. And THEN they put a glob of honey butter on top, and they murdered me.



Desserts were sort of my lame duck this year. I had lots of good ones, but few greats. I very much liked the custard-filled donut served with hot chocolate at Dasher's Corner Pub. But taking the honors home this years for Best Dessert is the sweet, achingly sour, tender and creamy coconut cheesecake at the Colgate Inn in Hamilton. 



I've struggled with brunch lately. I want to eat it more. I wrote about it for the Watertown Daily Times, and for the blog as well. At Loft at 99, I had this amazing pasta with bacon, bechamel, and a perfect, sunny side up egg on top a few weeks ago and freaked out about how good it was. But 2014's Best Brunch is definitely to be found up in Adams at Gram's Diner. Every weekend, hoards of folks are packing it into this humble restaurant in the tiny village's downtown block to sample savory egg bakes, fruit-laden French toasts, bonnie breakfast casseroles, comfort food-influenced omelets, and a ridiculous buffalo Benedict that I particularly loved. 



After five years of blogging about everything interesting I eat, I always think I'm out of surprises. But they're still out there! At the gorgeous Seaway Grille in Clayton's new jewel, the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel, our delightful waitress brought three complimentary, homemade chocolate-covered fresh cherries sitting on tiny thrones of whipped cream to our table. They were terrific, and it was the Best Surprise ever. 


You guys, Best Restaurant is hard to choose. I love Enoteca Maria, in Staten Island, deeply. I want to eat there every time I go to NYC - forever. Having real Italian nonnas cook for you is genius, and every aspect of the two meals I had there this year were flawless. But the Best Restaurant of 2014 fed me even better, somehow. 2014's Best Restaurant is Loft at 99This little spot in Bingamton lost some clientele when they closed for a bit last year and switched owners, but they are back and totally killing it. The cocktail program is utterly superb, the specials and sides are inspired and creative, and several dishes, like a pickled watermelon, corn, tomato and bacon "salad," just knocked my socks off this year. If you haven't been there since they reopened, go. Make haste. Enjoy the blond wood interior, the jovial chef and owner, and the wonderful pisco sour they're mixing up at the bar. Go, and simply eat well. 

Loft at Ninety Nine on Urbanspoon



In the coming year, I'm looking forward to trying the new Thousand Islands Inn in Clayton, Binghamton's The Colonial, and Muddy Waters in Baldwinsville. I'll round up at least one more dinner in Corning for you, and I'll head back to the Capital Region in April with some good eats on the agenda. But for now, I'm going to stay in, mix up a batch of Tom and Jerrys, and enjoy the rest of 2014 with my family. I hope you head out over whatever vacation you're managing in the next couple of weeks and try some of these really wonderful restaurants and dishes - I promise they're worth your while! Eat local in 2015, y'all! So, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, my Hungries. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

12.09.2014

A Spoonful of Fennel

Caution: this is not a real post. It's Christmas, I have a million meetings this week, and I'm working on my 2014 Big Hungry Awards. But I didn't want y'all to go a Wednesday without hearing from me. So, just a couple tidbits...

I just bought this. You should get some, too. It's $8.50 on Napastyle.com. On Sunday, I took a brined pork roast from Wegmans, rubbed it with this and some garlic powder, let it sit for a couple hours, then sprinkled grey salt on top and baked it in a 9X13 pan with a head of garlic, cut up potatoes from our garden, and a bunch of carrots all tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper, and I added a couple of tablespoons of water in thebottom just to keep everybody moist, moving, and grooving. 350 for a little over an hour, and it was FABULOUS. 


Fennel is a new flavor for my cooking repertoire, and I'm welcoming it more heartily than I expected. While the fresh stuff has that licorice tone that not everybody likes, the dried stuff is pleasantly sausage-y, a tiny bit sweet, and aggressively good when combined with garlic. I'm excited to have welcomed this little tin of flavor to my pantry for the holiday season.

I made the best cheapo ramen ever this week, and I'm going to let you in on my secret. First off, upgrade ever so slightly from the 30 cent brand and buy this:


This brand also makes a spicy miso flavor I love, but this recipe calls for this. So, start by sautéing some leftover pork (fennel rubbed pork roast works!), julienned, with the whites of a couple scallions in some cooking spray with a little white pepper sprinkled on it, till crispy and brown. To the water I bring to a boil (2 cups), I add about 1/2 a tablespoon of Penzey's pork soup base. You could add chicken base or whatever you have around to boost up your flavor. So get your water boiling, and gently fry an egg to over easy in another pan; I use cooking spray for this to keep the flavor neutral. 


Cook your noodles for three minutes in the enriched boiling water, then remove from heat, add the pork and scallions and any other veg you might have (I had some leftover roasted carrots, but I usually use frozen corn and peas), plus the little seasoning packet. Stir in about 1/2 teaspoon dark sesame oil, chuck it in a big bowl, the top with the egg, the chopped greens of the scallions, and a drizzle of sriracha. Slurp it all down, then send me a thank you note and something pretty. You won't make fun of college student food again for a while.

My Flavour Gallery giveaway is now closed and we have a winner! Congratulations to reader Gwen Carmack! FG confirmed last night that they're getting your t-shirt right out to you. When you get it, will you grab a pic wearing it so we can see? I can't wait! 




12.03.2014

A Delish Giveaway

Each week, in both the summer and winter, the first two shirts I wear after doing laundry are from my favorite foodie t-shirt company, Flavour Gallery. In the winter, I enjoy my two James Beard shirts,  one simply imploring, "eat," the other extolling the virtues of pork. In warmer climes, the "don't touch my foie gras," and salt tank tops are my go tos. I wear them because they're soft, roomy, and funny. The quality on all four shirts is excellent, and they are the best for sleeping or working out, because they're  so soft and non-constricting.


If you've read my blog around the holidays for any of the last five years, you've probably noticed how much I pimp Flavour Gallery...well, they noticed too. So when the brand Instgrammed a photo of the Rachael Ray Show's official shop a couple weeks ago - stocked with RR-themed Flavour Gallery goodies, I freaked out. And then I contacted them.



I love Rachael Ray. Some of you more highbrow foodies, the culinary school grads and Bourdain devotees, will scoff at this. "She's not a chef," you're shrieking. I know all the arguments! But you know who Rachael is? An Upstate NY girl who liked food, persued a way to make her passion for it pay her bills, worked hard, and made good. She's taught thousands of people to get dinner on the table for their families in an unpretentious but delicious way, and despite her fame and fortune, she still remembers her hometown purveyors like Oscar's Smokehouse, near Lake George, encouraing her viewers to patronize them. 



As an Upstate NY girl passionate about food myself, I am inspired by Rachael, and I simply love Flavour Gallery. So when I deduced from Instagram that FG was starting an RR line, I jumped on the opportunity to blog about it immediately. Erin, the super cool social media maven at Flavour Gallery, and I have chatted before about them sponsoring a giveaway for my Big Hungries, and I knew this was the perfect time.

So, here's the deal: Flavour Gallery and I are giving away a women's t-shirt from their brand spanking new Rachael Ray Show line. The shirt simply and stylishly lists yumm-o Italian ingredients and dishes for which Rachael is known. The winner will get to choose the size of the shirt (small through XL), and it will be shipped to you on culinary angels' wings post haste from FG headquarters. All you have to do is add a comment to this post (not on my Facebook page or Instagram) with your name and why YOU love either Rachael Ray or Flavour Gallery (or both!) by midnight on Friday, December 5. I will contact the winner, chosen at random from the entries, for his or her mailing info.



It's cool, yes? Let's be honest, I'm going to have to get one for myself. I adore it already and can tell I'm going to want to wear that to Zumba class in January, as I vainly try to shake off the metric tonnage of macarons and gravy I'm bound to consume this holiday season. 

I'm hoping you guys are as jazzed by this contest as I am. My enthusiasm for Flavor Gallery's designs (a couple of Anne Burrell's shirts were on my Christmas wish list this year, too) paired with Rachael's infectious foodie energy is an irresistible combo, especially at the holidays. You could choose to give your prize to a loved one on your Christmas list or keep it for yourself. You might cook in it or wear it to your favorite Italian trattoria for a plate of carbonara and a nice chianti. 

You should check out the rest of the Rachael Ray line at FG, plus designs from Andrew Zimmern, Chris Cosentino, Jeff Mauro, and a bunch of other badasses. I actually already have an FG shirt in my possession for someone on my gift list - that person is so lucky!





So think up a fun comment and throw your hat in the ring. May the odds (and the ciabatta) be ever in your favor! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger! 



11.26.2014

Make Sure You’re Eating the Hole Shebang


I heard something blasphemous the other day. A good friend whom I hold in high esteem, upon hearing that I was considering a column focusing on donuts, suggested I get over to Tim Hortons to try theirs. I have a lot of love for this person, but I was shocked! When did our community, especially considering the fried dough-steeped Italian-American majority in it, begin to accept that chain restaurants were the alpha and omega of this morning confection?

Nearly every major food culture has a fried dough among its staples. In China, you might have Cantonese donut holes with your dim sum, Hanukkah in Israel wouldn’t be complete without jelly doughnuts called sufganiyah, and in Greece, instead of powdered sugar, they coat little spheres of fried dough with honeyed water lightened up with lemon juice. And why not? The combo of sugar, dough, and deep fat frying produces a dessert that’s socially acceptable to eat in the morning. What a great concept!

We have lots of options of homemade donuts in the north country! Each offering is different, but will start your morning off with far more soul and personality than anything you’ll find from the frozen, factory-produced fry cakes available at either of the two national chains which dot our countryside.

My personal favorites since childhood are hot and ready seven days a week on Eastern Blvd in Watertown, at Jean’s Beans. Jean’s was begun in the 1950s in Syracuse, but today, the Watertown store is the last in the empire. Its donuts are made fresh daily, and while they offer raised yeast and filled varieties, it’s the fried cakes I recommend.
 
These deep brown babies have the most aggressive fry of those we’ll cover today, resulting in a crisp, fragile crust with crunchy, sweet nooks that dissolve slowly in your mouth and yield to a moist, barely sweet, toothsome interior. The yeast donuts are sweeter from Jean’s, and I think that’s why I love the fried cakes, which are a hair on the greasy side, but so much more substantial than your standard, airy breakfast pastry.

This time of year, The Cider Mill, in Burrville, is ground zero for everyone’s fall cravings. It’s an autumnal destination in our area, and rightly so. You go for apples, hot cider and family photos by the waterfall, but why not pick up a dozen donuts for your office? Bring a gallon of cider along with them, and look out, because a promotion may be on the way. These donuts are more delicate than their cake-style cousins at Jean’s Beans, as well as packing more sweetness from the apple cider in them.

 
When you bite into an apple cider donut from the Cider Mill, your mouth is flooded with the natural sugars and tang of in-season apples. Your teeth crunch through a light coating of cinnamon and sugar. Half a second later, the airy, light interior collapses into a one-chew experience. They are sweet, but not with the fake saccharine candy-like quality of cheap chain donuts. There’s so much more flavor going on. Also, they have fruit in them, so they’re healthy, technically. Right? Hmm, don’t check in here for medical advice, people.
 
Mr. Rick’s Bakery, on Watertown’s North Side, is another donut institution. I’ve found that the donuts here are best very, very fresh, so go early and go often. The cake style donuts at Rick’s – that’s Mr. Rick, to you – are more crumbly than our other examples. This also means they’re a little less greasy, although that trait isn’t a problem for me at either other purveyor. Frankly, they’re mostly uncomplicated and delicious. This joint is newer than Jean’s or the Cider Mill, so you might not have heard of it, but there are many in Watertown who swear by its breakfast delights. They are handcrafted and available only on weekdays, so get on over to Mill St. and grab a few to dunk in your coffee tomorrow!

Homemade donuts also are available at Pearl’s Pastry Shoppe, in Adams, but I’m sad to report I haven’t tried them. I intend to, don’t worry. I have had Pearl's English muffins, and they were fantastic. Fluffy, fresh, spongy, and wonderfully bland - ready for a generous slathering of butter. Frankly, I’m just glad folks down that way have a hometown option in order to avoid the junk from the chains. This is donut season, people! The downward diet slide into the holidays is well on its way, so why not forgo a healthy breakfast for a sweet treat and some stretchy pants? Just make sure to do it with good food made with love by real people, not factory-made dough shipped in from a far off locale.
 
I want to hear about the fabulous fried dough elsewhere in the north country, and I know you all will fill me in on how to fill up. What we do seem to be lacking is the hipster twist now popular in some bigger cities like cronuts, creatively filled yeast donuts and bacon-topped indulgences. I do think Pearl’s has some special flavors it runs, and as I’ve sampled the English muffins there and adored them, it is next on my breakfast list.

You’ll hear this a lot from me, but I really do believe that eating local and supporting our food families is important, not only to our economy, but also to our souls. The people of Northern New York are a close clan, and when you nourish your body, even with a naughty treat like a donut, doing so with something created by the hands of a neighbor feels better than just shoving mindless food down your gullet.

When you keep your money and your yummy local, your friends and family prosper while you get so much more than just a meal – you partake in the communion of what makes our region so special: its people. Yes, the chains are convenient and consistent, but the food at them is loaded with salt and fat that contribute nothing to the taste; when you eat there, you’re sending your money away from your own hometown. Keep it delectable and eat it local, folks.
Northern Jean's Beans Co on Urbanspoon