Dispatch from Portland: If That Ain't Love, then Tell Me What is

There's a song by Loretta Lynn and Jack White called Portland, Oregon. It's about cocktails and love, and the second I left for a recent business trip in Portland, it was on a continuous loop in my head. I didn't mind a bit.

I also didn't mind planning a group dinner for our team while we were there, and chose Ox Restaurant, thinking an Aregntinian meat fest would suit our male-dominated party just fine. Luckily, this hunch led to a spectacular home run.

Ox, just a short jaunt up the street from the Portland Convention Center, is a smallish place, so they ask larger parties to chose a family style menu in advance. The experience I had setting our menu up, and the welcome we received upon arrival, was the warmest we received in PDX (though we had one other personnel experience worth covering, and I intend to do so next week).

Before our first course came an amuse bouche for all, served in demitasse cups presented en masse on trays: luxurious, unctuous, earthy creamed mushroom soup. It was deep, dark, rich - mushroom duxelles cooked slowly in butter with aromatics, puréed, and enriched with enough cream to create soup but not so much as to blot out the umami flavor of the fungi. Simply fabulous in three quick gulps.

Even as colleagues around the table were still smacking their lips (literally!), the first course began to hit the table. It was a bounty the lies of which few had tasted before.

Dungeness crab bruschetta was a great way to start this trio of deliciousness. Dungeness is less sweet than blue crabs, with a more fresh, saline, oceanic flavor. Watery cucumber and creamy avocado, plus peppery radish were splendid foils, and with bracingly tart shiso and earthy, crusty, charred bread, each bite was filled with texture and flavor.

Flaky empanadas were filled with well seasoned ground beef and the genius combo of green olive and raisins, a sweet/salty pairing that played differently on the palate with each bite, grounded by the spice and fat of the beef. These were tasty treats.

And our favorite of the trio: baked house made ricotta cheese topped with button mushrooms slow cooked with tomatoes and doused in balsamic brown butter, to heap onto more charred country bread. This is something I'll be trying to replicate at home, and you should too, if you like gigantic mouthfuls of creamy, concentrated, warm ricotta with tiny mushrooms coated in sweet, rich butter tinged with reduced balsamic vinegar piled on top of thick, crunchy toast.

And we barely had time to rave about course one and pour more wine when course two began to arrive, plate after plate. Some mumbled that they were already full, but grabbed serving spoons anyway. First up: endive salad with fresh figs, crispy rendered chorizo sausage, creamy, sweet chèvre cheese and sherry vinaigrette. This was a bracing salad, due to the bitterness of the endive and ample acid in the dressing, but the sweetness of the figs, fat in the chorizo and cream in the cheese balanced out the astringency in a particularly successful harmony. It was a really beautiful salad.

Small plates of ridiculously good, house made chorizo a,so touched down around this time. It was more tender and more loosely packed than commercial chorizos I've purchased, and almost luxuriously fatty. That's not to say it was greasy, but the word decadent comes to mind when I think of each bite. The casings were crisped up perfectly, but the inside of each fat sausage were finely ground and not quite as redolent with paprika as I expected - spicy, but not hot.

Next: marinated skirt steak cooked to medium rare over Ox's open flames, sliced thinly and dressed with the restaurant's robust, herbaceous chimichurri sauce. This green sauce had also come alongside  great crusty loaves of bread at the start of the evening, and everyone was pre-primed to adore the slightly spicy mix of parsley, cilantro, chiles and olive oil. This steak was the favorite of some members of our party, and it was hard not to just shovel slice after tender slice into my gaping maw with abandon.

Rather large bowls of roasted potatoes, exposed surfaces bronzed in the open oven and then blanketed with spoonfuls of sharp, garlicky horseradish aoli and fresh dill were next. I wanted to eat more of these and of yummy, grilled onions with blue cheese, but the ribeye kind of ruined that plan.

At this point in such a feast, one has to start making important decisions; strategic decisions about the malleability of one's pants and such. There is no room for for error in such calculations. Beef wins. The bone-in ribeye is a specialty at Ox, and this ruby red, juicy, thick-cut steak was absolutely unparalleled in flavor and texture. 

Dessert was an option presented by our waiters, but there wasn't a chance I could have stopped eating that steak in order to save space. A girl's stomach is only so hungry, my pets! But you knows, even sans a sweet ending, this meal was one for the record books. Ox isn't as famous as some of its PDX compatriots, but it should be. There's a reason the chefs here, a husband and wife team, have been nominated for James Beard awards. The secret's in the juicy burst of the chorizo, the bursting brightness of the chimichurri, the earthy richness of the mushroom soup, and the sweet umami of the baked ricotta - these two understand their taste profile and how to echo it throughout a meal without ever serving sameness or repetition. 

I give Ox a 10 on the BHS scale, and will remember this meal fondly. If you're in the land of mustaches and flannel, put it on your list, and for God's sake, wear stretchy pants!! My personality is big, my hunger is bigger! 


Dispatch from San Diego: All the Leaves are Brown

The leaves may be brown and the skies grey this time of year in my beloved Upstate NY, but Shawn and I were on vacation just last week in sunny Southern California, and it was anything but muted.

San Diego County, snaking up California's coast from Mexico, is soaring palm trees, glittering water, blue skies and vibrant flavors. It is, basically, the antidote to a fall season that's come too soon. Don't believe me? Ok, here's the view from the pool deck at our hotel:

Oh, and that tiny house at the bottom of the frame? That's the house Maverick rode up to on his motorcycle in Top Gun to woo Kelly McGillis. Yeah. Sexy results.

I was truly on vacation, from PR, pageants and food writing, so I didn't take detailed notes at any of the restaurants we visited in Cali, but I wanted to share some of the tastiest bites and our favorite spots during our fabulous vacation.

At the Oceanside Terrace at George's at the Cove, in La Jolla, the views were breathtaking, even if the fumes from the coves jammed with sea lions and hundreds of birds took our breath away in a very different way.

On the night we visited George's (also my birthday), ceviche was the appetizer special, and it stole our hearts. Less acidic than most ceviche dishes I've tried, this starter was more like a tomato salsa accented with fish (in this case, halibut). The acid in the citrus and tomato "cook," the fish without heat, changing the texture but not the temperature. I loved the generous slabs of avocado on top, which added luscious mouth-feel to each bite, along with the crunch of the tortilla chips. The ceviche was bright and sweet, while the avocado was creamy and the chips were salty. You know, yum.

At Hello Betty Fishhouse, in our hotel, The Springhill Suites in Oceanside, I had two dishes that wowed me. Garlic and beer butter peel-and-eat shrimp served with thick slabs of garlic toast to soak up all the earthy, salty, shrimpy sauce and hamachi crudo with fresh Serrano chiles and crispy fried onions. The hamachi, a delicate white fish, sung with bold, assertive, clean flavors - bright and fresh - sort of the antithesis of the homey, comforting shrimp. Both were fabulous.

In Solana Beach, the chic Wild Note on Cedros, an upscale street of shops, wineries and breweries just blocks from the beach, served us delectable lobster dumplings. They were served in a simple soy sauce sweetened up a bit with maybe a little honey or fruit (maybe fig?), and the lobster filling and potsticker wrappers were supremely delicate and soft, with micro pea shoots on top which provided freshness to the dish.

Jennie's Cafe, in Oceanside, is comfortable and welcoming, with this fun sign over the counter:

For my birthday breakfast, I had the California Benedict, which replaced boring Canadian bacon with avocado and REAL bacon! I was wondering how avocado would work with the hollandaise, and the jury came back with a positive verdict. The bacon, saltier and smokier than a sad slice of Danish ham, stood up to the creamy fattiness of the avocado and the buttery richness of the hollandaise sauce. I grooved on the double fat dose, completely. This was a genius combo, plus, as the above sign promises, calories don't come from food!

In Carlsbad, we found Garcia's Mexican Restaurant just a couple blocks from the train station, thanks to Zomato. I didn't grab a picture, but the beef taquitos there were utterly delicious, and this was one of the cheapest meals we ate all week. They were deep fried all crispy, with soft, shredded beef inside each, and guacamole and really excellent, spicy salsa served alongside elevated their simple flavors. You could see flecks of red chiles in the salsa - it was so good we chewed through two bowls. 

When I first visited San Diego, back in the very early 90s, my parents and I visited Old Town and ate at Cafe Coyote. It was the best Mexican food I've ever had, and still ranks in my top five. So of course, I insisted we go back. We started with appropriate beverages:

Then I wolfed down this mammoth plate of carnitas with house made tortillas and the most flavorful pinto beans I have ever had the privilege of eating. That's right - beans were a privilege. It's tricky to season beans correctly so that they're savory without being heavy or too salty. These hit that mark with perfection.

The heap of pulled pork shoulder, slow cooked in its own fat, was no slouch, either. A mouthful of pork with raw onion and a squeeze of lime in one of those perfect tortillas was a savory, chewy, fatty bite I won't soon forget. Cafe Coyote has multiplied in size about threefold since I first ate there, but they haven't compromised one iota in quality.

One more! At Bagby Beer Company in Oceanside, the pork belly sliders are something special. Pork belly is one of those buzzy ingredients that all cool restaurants serve now, but I can't help it. I love bacon's thicker, more luscious sister, I just do! But these little sandwiches combined crispy, fatty pork belly with a layer of thick jam made of jalapeños, plus peanut butter and crispy onions. I know the peanut butter would throw off a lot of you, but hey, peanut butter and jelly with salty bacon makes sense in a salty/sweet/spicy/fatty flavor profile kind of way. You need to eat these things!

So, as you can imagine, I'm back to real life now and struggling to purge my liver of all the day drinks and regain some vestige of a healthy diet. Except I'm heading on business travel to Portland next week, so what's the point? Someone hire me a trainer! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!


X Marks the Spot...in Endwell?

I told you a few weeks ago about the fun I had taking a turn as sous chef at a cooking demo in Binghamton for the VINES Grow Bingamton group. Part of the fun was, of course, helping inspire kids in our community to grow and cook their own food, but a big part was the thrill I got watching Sue, from Treasure Ice Cream and Cafe in Endwell, cook up Southest Asian cuisine as simple as you or I would throw together a tuna noodle casserole.

To me, Asian cooking isn't exactly hard, but neither is it simple. There are lots of condiments, a million veggies to chop, and rules governing the balance of salty, sour, sweet and hot. Rice must be rinsed, wrappers must be soaked, and everything needs to be cooked in order to achieve optimal results. But for Sue, spring rolls and stir fries are her casseroles, and she made it all seem so accessible, I couldn't wait to hit up Treasure for more of her food. 

I've been twice now to the tiny yellow building on Watson Blvd, right across from the Broadway Diner, and I think you're going to need to check it out for yourself. Like a treasure, there's something special hiding in this unassuming ice cream joint.

First off, order yourself some egg rolls. You deserve a treat! At Thai restaurants, these would be called crispy rolls or spring rolls. When these small, golden cylinders hot your table, you can smell a whiff of fish sauce before you even bite into one - the calling card of SE Asian food. That's when you know these aren't egg rolls from your typical Chinese restaurant. The wrappers are thinner and more shatteringly crisp than the robust crunch of standard egg rolls wrappers, giving these a delicate texture reinforced by subtle spices. 

That's not to say they lacked flavor, no way. The flavor was big in these diminutive rolls, and dipped into the sweet, spicy Thai chile sauce, the ground pork, veggies and white pepper inside acted a wallop.

Sue is making fresh stock for her pho every day from the "mother" stock left over from the previous day. I added lime juice, torn basil, bean sprouts, crushed Thai chiles, pungent chile paste and beef base to my soup from the little plate of fixings provided. 

The soup was fiery, bright, and sharp, the flavors dissolving into sweet heat at the back of the throat, which comes from the charred onions and aromatics in the broth. The noodles stayed firm, and the beef was tender. Tiny meatballs, made from finely ground beef which always makes me think of the meatballs in Spaghettios, are screaming with flavor and juicy from cooking in the soup.

My lips were tingling by the time I finished the huge bowl, so Sue made me a very special dessert - a taste of her childhood kitchen: coconut sticky rice with mango and coconut ice cream. It was as beautiful as it was delicious.

This dish tasted like sunshine and pretty brown boys lugging surfboards on the beach. It's like a tropical paradise on a plate. The sweet, glutinous rice is more separate and less cooked down than American rice pudding, and the sweetness of the coconut milk is more subtle than sugar. You get the greater punch of sweetness from the ice cream, and lush fibrous pleasure of the mango slices with each bite.

A return trip delivered Treasure's bahn mi into my belly. I wish the menu had warned me this came with garlic mayonnaise, as mayo is not my thing, but I scraped off most of it and enjoyed this small sandwich immensely. The savory roasted pork, bright, grassy cilantro, crunchy raw cucumber, and lightly sour pickled carrot shreds combined on a super sturdy French roll with sweetly spicy Thai chile sauce to make a really delicious and unique conbination that hits all the senses. Now, a traditional Vietnamese bahn mi also has a smear of liver pate on the bread, and you know my affection for pate knows no bounds, but I also understand the logistical nightmare it would be spot Sue to keep this costly ingredient on hand and fresh, especially before she can start to ascertain how many sandwiches she can move per week.

Each sandwich comes with pita chips baked and sprinkled with a really yummy, savory spice. They are far crunchier than a tortilla or potato chip, and pretty yummy, especially dragged through your extra chile sauce.

My friend Carrie got the toasted caprese, and while she loved the mozzarella, garlic mayo, basil, roasted red pepper and tomato, she felt like Italian bread would have worked better with all those ingredients. 

We both liked our regular Anerica ice cream desserts just fine on that 90+ degree day.

I can't tell you how enthusiastic I am about a lunch place that serves a full range of ice cream delights, plus Asian dishes and creative sandwiches. That's a very fun combination of treats for little old Endwell!  Everything here is homemade, and Sue's care for her customers is evident as she visits with every table. Her kids help out when they're not in school, and they're just as charming; her daughter made herself a dish of coconut ice cream with some goodies when I was here the first time, and gave me a taste. And pho? In Endwell? Yes, please. I will frequent this place all winter for that delicacy. 

I give Treasure Ice Cream and Cafe a seven on the Big Hungry Scale. It's all above average, not perfect, but quite good. I would love to see this tiny gem thrive and grow. So get out your treasure map and look for the X on Watson Blvd. Tell Sue I sent you! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

PS: Shawn and I are headed to San Diego for vacation next week, so no blog, but if you follow me on Instagram @BigHungryShelby or join my Facebook group, I guarantee you'll see some pictures of delicious fish tacos and Top Chef Richard Blais' food from Juniper and Ivy!


Are You Drowning in Overabundance?

There are moments, in August and September, when Shawn is pulling literal buckets of vegetables out of the garden, and I actually get cranky about trying to use them all before they go bad. That's right, we wait six months of good weather and fresh produce, and then I throw a fit. I am not proud of this behavior, but sometimes I'm overwhelmed because they all come at once.

But I make do. Last weekend, I got creative and used some of our harvest in creative ways. I thought I'd share the results. 

From Grits and Groceries, in South Carolina, I found a recipe for tomato pie and made it my own. This recipe I found on MyRecipes.com, and adapted it to use up some of the basil riot happening out front and some shallots I had lying around.


medium-size ripe tomatoes 
2 teaspoons salt 
1 cup (4 oz.) shredded sharp Cheddar cheese 
1 cup mayonnaise 
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil  
1/4 teaspoon pepper 
3 shallots, minced
1/2 (14.1-oz.) package refrigerated piecrusts 


1. Preheat oven to 350°. Slice tomatoes into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Arrange tomato slices on several layers of paper towels over a wire rack. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt; cover with more paper towels, pressing gently. Let salted tomatoes stand 1 hour, replacing paper towels on top and bottom after 30 minutes.
2. Combine cheese, mayonnaise, herbs, pepper, and onion in a medium bowl; stir well, and set aside. Roll piecrust into a 13-inch circle on a flat surface. Fit into a 9-inch pie plate; fold edges under, and crimp. Firmly pat tomato slices dry with additional paper towels. Arrange tomato slices in piecrust; top with cheese mixture.
3. Bake at 350° on lowest oven rack for 40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack.
It was absolutely mouth watering, and looked like this:

Tomato pie is a bit soggy, by nature. Make sure to really drain the tomatoes on paper towels as the recipe instructs. It tastes like a delightful conbination of bruschetta and a grilled cheese sandwich. I don't think true Southern versions use as much basil as I did or sharp cheddar cheese, but as a Yankee, I need those flavors in my life.

You probably do, too.

I had a bunch of beets, as well, so I scrubbed the crap out of them under running water, wrapped each one loosely in foil, and roasted them at 400 for about an hour. I took them out and let them cool completely, then rubbed the skins off with paper towels and made a salad with wedges of beet, crumbles of local goat cheese, balsamic, EVOO, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. I used a ratio of about four to one, beets to cheese, and hen just a drizzle of vinegar and oil. The salad is tangy and sweet, rounded out nicely by the creamy funk of the cheese and pointed up by the flaky salt.

I've already been on zucchini overload for weeks. When I recently stuffed zucchini with my usual hot Italian sausage, zucchini, onion, bell pepper, garlic, Turkish spice, and goat cheese mixture, Shawn commented that the filling would make a good pizza topping, so earlier in the week, I had made a second batch and we had pizza. But I had extra cooked zucchini mix and pizza dough left over, so Friday night, I made garlic knots stuffed with zucchini, hot sausage, and a little cheese. They were so delicious, these may be the new way I use up zucchini!

I divided up the half a portion of pizza dough I had left into five, flattened each piece out a bit, put a tablespoon of mixture and a tablespoon of shredded mozzarella and provolone on top, then formed the dough around it and twisted the top. I nestled them into this baking dish, topped them with a mix of fresh, minced garlic (also from the garden), some dried Italian herbs, and olive oil. I baked them for around 20 minutes at 350. I let the garlic tell me when to pull them out; when it was golden, they were done. 

My at-home pizza secret? I buy Battaglini's pre-made dough in balls from the Weis. Wherever you live, I bet a local pizzeria or grocery store sells decent dough to save you the headache of multiple proofing cycles and fermented dough.

What have you made with the season's abundance of veggies? Share your solutions in the comments, below!