Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Chain Travel

By day I'm a Librarian, and with approximately 17,000 other attendees I spent last weekend in Orlando where, you may have guessed, it was really hot. If I wasn't melting in the sun I was freezing cold in the Orlando County Convention Center. My powers were getting sapped quickly, so I started looking closely at the culinary opportunities nearby.

The OCCC is on International Drive, close to Universal Studios, Disneyland, and Seaworld, hotels and resorts, and lots of smaller attractions (I use that word loosely), such as the Orlando Eye and Ripley's Believe it Or Not and, for you shoppers out there, the Premium Outlets. The area is crawling with tourists and visitors - umpteen thousands of us - and every type of chain restaurant you could possibly imagine, all doing a booming business.

Chain travel.

I get it. The rents are sky high along the strip, downtown is far away, and heck, let's face it, America loves its chains. Outback, Carrabba's, Denny's, Sonic, Jimmy Buffets, Dave and Busters - burgers and fries and big breakfasts and noisy noisy noisy - good for families with hyper kids. And chains are not always cheap: think Benihana and Capital Grille and Texas de Brazil. The Pointe has dozens of better quality chains all snuggled together at 9101 International Drive - a busy place after dark, trust me, including lots of zombies and vampires and werewolves enjoying the lightening storms - but Zena was taking a break. Just another reminder to keep an eye on your kids.

Anyway, because daytime drinking is such a joy, we started with lunch at The Pub Orlando, in which the beer selection was very good. My Caesar Salad with Chicken and Red's Crispy Shrimp were both skimpy but tasty. The burgers looked good coming out of the kitchen. I suggest you stick to the stick to your ribs food that most pub crawlers crawl to pubs to enjoy.

The B-Line Diner, located in the Hyatt, was actually very good, also not cheap, but open 24 hours, which is cool. The Caesar Salad with Chicken (agin') was great - beautiful tender, seasoned chicken, a nice creamy dressing, not too garlicky. Colleagues both ordered the Mahi Mahi Sandwich served up on a toasted Hawaiian brioche - tasty, nicely prepared, too much bun. We liked this place a lot, and the service was terrific. If you have to live at a hotel for a week I might suggest the Hyatt just to eat at the B-Line.

Coopers Hawk has locations nationwide - they are a wine bar, serving only their own wines by the glass and a $$$ menu, each item listed with a recommended bin number. We had a table for 5 and everyone enjoyed their meal, and the wines were good, better than good maybe, and fairly priced ($7 up). The Soy Ginger Salmon was cooked through, as I'd asked, with a nice brown crust on one side, tender and slightly sweet, with a side of Asian slaw that was absolutely delicious. I like that the menu is varied - lots to choose from, from the smallest appetite on up.

The big blowout was at Copper Canyon Grill, currently with only four locations in Florida. The wine list was excellent (we enjoyed a couple of bottles of King Estate Pinot Gris from Oregon). There were a few steaks, fish options, pork ribs, even meatloaf - large servings, almost everything doused with their "signature spice blend" of mostly garlic and salt. My NY Strip was cooked exactly MR, and tender, but the sides weren't all that great. Dessert made up for it. Try the Key Lime Pie if ever you're in the area. One diner had some food allergies which they treated with great care and respect. I have to like that.

Chains have their place but they can't keep me down. We found some good meals, despite all, well deserved after a hard day at work, and at play.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Eating Well: Do the Numbers

So it wasn't Zombies this time, it was a trip to the doctor that started the fight.

I need more calcium in order to continue to kick ass, and I need to lower my blood sugar, apparently because I'm too sweet.

For the calcium - that's easy: take a pill. Oh, and cheese. Bonus points on eating more cheese.

This is what Heaven looks like. Really. 
But lowering the blood sugar is going to be a little bit harder. OK, a lot harder, so I put on my foodie nerd disguise and did some reading and surfing and soul searching. And I found the App of My Dreams, and it is NOT Angry Birds.

No, it's MyFitnessPal, a free online tool that can help you set goals, track what you eat and it's nutritional content (they have a huge database so you can load your daily food with some ease and accuracy), log your exercise routine, and your water by the glassful. There is a premium service, but the basic service is pretty flexible and easy to use.  I only wish I could take the data and graph it somehow - the printed reports are just pdfs by day, so it's hard to see what you did this week, or over the past month, in terms of making progress.

Yes, I had an 812 calorie breakfast. Back off. 
There's a social networking side of it too, but I'm not big on that - too friendly.

OK so they obviously need a librarian to re-set the data - Ken's Steakhouse Lite Northern Italian Salad Dressing is in there about 20 times scrambled up in a 20 different ways, including spellliing misteaks. So, even if you've added it in your Food Diary (the program will let you re-use the entry without having to search for it every time) it can be hard to find later. Salad Dressing, Italian, Northern Italian, Lite, Ken's Steakhouse, in that order. Yes, OK, my cover is blown: I'm a librarian by day - by the power of Zeus this organizing thing is a curse!!! But the nutritional content seems accurate - just watch for the "homemade" entries, which likely won't have much behind them except calories.
Basal? Really???
The exercise database is big, too, but does NOT include fighting crime, so I've replaced it with Elliptical, FYI. Here are the goals of a typical middle aged female superhero in upstate NY:

Yeah, well, maybe not.  (:
And low and behold, there was light - really bright light, and for a fire goddess and food nerd it just about burnt my eyeballs: too many simple carbs! So I've been cutting back on all those things that I thought made life worth fighting the forces of evil for: cookies and ice cream and pastries and white bread and white rice and potatoes and crackers and candy and chips and french bread and brownies and oh yeah, pie and cake.  And you know what??? I guess I found out that I really like oatmeal and brown rice and wheat pasta and winter squash, I'm eating more veggies and getting more fiber, and I actually feel better. I lost a few pounds, too. And while entering all that info about what you eat and do everyday can become as obsessive as a librarian cleaning up a database, I'm suggesting you won't need to do it forever, but long enough to see what you're doing right, and doing wrong, while you develop better habits.

OK so the wine is going to be a problem. I'm working on that.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

P.S. The database even had Mysore Dosa. Is that not amazing???

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The "Simplicity" of Milk

There is nothing better than dunking a cookie in a cold glass of milk. Simple, delicious, reminiscent of after school snacks, and even a little bit naughty if your Mom also told you it was bad manners.

But when you asked Mom "Mommy, where does milk come from?", she probably answered "Price Chopper", if just to shut you up.

I had a chance to meet with Mark Stanton, 5th generation owner of Stanton Farms, in Coeymans Hollow, with his friend and long-time colleague Tom Gallagher, now with the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, and along with his wife Kathy and my good friend Mistress of the Hounds, learned about milk production on the family farm.

Did you know that all of the milk production in NYS is family farms??? I think I'm right on that. Let me know if I'm not.

Anyway, first of all I learned that milk comes from COWS and that cows are big and smelly and inquisitive and that it takes a lot of cows and equipment and feed and workers and hard work and space to make enough milk to earn a living - so much goes into producing what finally leaves the farm. Some of the Stanton success is raising their own grass and alfalfa and corn for feed, with some soybeans and other from suppliers, and they do their own repairs and maintenance at several sites in the area. The feed bunkers are enormous.

Dairy milk is cheap and plentiful in this country, loaded with protein and calcium and potassium and natural sugars. It comes in whole and 1% or 2% and skim, organic, lactose-free, even chocolate. If you go to the farm you can get it raw, although all of the Stanton supplies are now pumped into a truck and delivered to Garelick for processing. Milk and milk products are part of a global market so supply and demand and pricing schemes and structures all come to bear.  Besides liquid milk and cream there's dry milk and powders, cheese and yogurt and butter and ice cream that can be shipped all over the world. The U.S. is the world's largest producer, and NY is the third most productive state with over 625,000 dairy cows. A big driver is our yogurt industry, which is cool.

Cows in NY are mostly Holstein's raised on regulated feed for maximum yield. Because Holsteins produce more milk than other breeds of dairy cow they generally have a higher yield of fat and protein in their milk, and better quality milk fetches better prices. But that means the cows aren't in the fields like beef cattle; here they live in airy, well-managed all season barns. So I don't know if they are happy cows or not, but of the 1600 at Stanton the half that aren't milking you'd think they could be outside, although it seems they don't seem to manage that well on the hillsides out in the open. I'm not criticizing - I'm a city chick so I'll shut up while I'm ahead.  Mom taught me that too.

Thanks and best to the Gallaghers and Mark for the informative tour, and the cookies. All that for a glass of milk. I think I'll appreciate it more from here on in. Much, much more.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Monday, June 6, 2016

Cheese and Ciders!

Boy oh boy - knocking back delicious local cheese bites and washing them down with delightful local cider is something we New Yorkers should do much more often. It's good for the soul, good for the local economy and just plain tastes good. The Hudson Valley Cider & Cheese event in Hudson on June 4 gave us our most recent opportunity. Zena and I got the VIP tickets and cruised in early to an airy space with freshly set up tables arranged beautifully with some of the best stuff on earth. 

The cheeses were also a gorgeous part of the mix - great spring weather, great cheese, great cider and interesting people who choose to try these delicate and risky crafts!  I predict that you will see more cider tasting events that are akin to our blossoming craft beer tastings - get out there and try one this year.

Basilica Hudson is big, so it was nice not to have to push our way through crowds. Basilica is determined to promote lots of good foods and drinks that are gaining ground in the Valley.  All was very civilized and I can't think of a better way to cop a buzz on a warm spring afternoon. One of the delightful parts of this tasting is that it wasn't a mob scene.  Some beer tastings can get that way, but this was way laid back and there was plenty of time and space to talk with producers. I think the location had a lot to do with the vibe. It's apparent that a lot more people could take an interest in ciders and begin to understand them as the varied and subtle beverages that they are. Bravo to Basilica for taking on the promotion of these excellent ciders. We were treated to everything from quite heavy and sweet Angry Orchard fare to the citrus-y, bright and energetic Sundog Cider, to the light, dry, airy fairy wispy Stone Bridge pear.

I proudly carried home one of the growlers on the left filled to the brim with Stone Bridge pear cider. These folks use apples and pears from their orchard and produce dry, light, delicate ciders that I'm sure will go well with foods of many varieties.  I was so grateful for the choice the organizers made to match up cheeses with these beautiful fruit flavors.

I know...they don't look like mom and pop, but most, if not all of the producers in this carefully selected group are couples and families who are making their magnificent foods and drinks in small batches.  Most sell locally. Many cider producers are using local apples from stock that has been around the Hudson Valley for generations.  Some are fooling around with stock from Europe and taking advantage of the carefully cultivated varieties that the Europeans have been working on for centuries. Most of them have web sites and we happen to have a few discriminating shops like Cheese Traveler, Honest Weight Food Coop, Capital Wine & Spirits and more that sell the products locally.  

Our friends at Nine Pin Cider in Albany arrange tastings in their space on North Broadway, and I recommend that you hustle yourself over there every chance you get in order to keep on top of what New York State is producing.

It's time to stop saying "I don't like cider" because you tasted something you didn't like ten years ago.  It's a new day here in New York and there's a very good chance you'll find something you love.

Don't miss out on the opportunity to taste New York's finest, whether you go to tastings, or search for these amazing foods in our local shops.

Doc's Draft Cider table, where Doc and all the best Gods and Goddesses were hanging out on Saturday.

Cider Vendors
Aaron Burr Cider, Angry Orchard, Bad Seed Cider, Brooklyn Cider House, Doc’s Draft Cider, Gravity Ciders, Greenpoint Cidery, Hardscrabble Cider, Hudson Valley Farmhouse Cider, Joe Daddy’s Hard Cider, Kettleborough Cider House, Naked Flock Cider, Nine Pin Ciderworks, Orchard Hill Cider Mill, Pennings Orchard/Cidery, Slyboro Ciderhouse, Stone Bridge Farm, Sundog Cider, Wayside Cider, Westwind Orchard, Yankee Folly. 
Cheese Vendors
Acorn Hill Farmstead Cheese, Chaseholm Farm Creamery, Five Spoke Creamery, Four Fat Fowl, Hawthorne Valley Farm, Nettle Meadow, Old Chatham Sheepherding Co., Sprout Creek Farm, Sugar House, Vulto Creamery. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Help Save the World One Cuke at a Time

Today I'm going to use my superpowers to help save the world. You're welcome.

Can you believe that 25% of the food that U.S. consumers buy goes in the trash, either because they bought too much or because the "Best By" date got the better of them???

Learning this, my first heroic act is to eat ALL the leaf lettuce that I bought this weekend, as well as the rest of the cuke before it gets slimey, that green pepper before it dissolves, the last half of that oversized hunk of cheddar before it turns blue and furry, and to drink up the milk before it turns. Better freeze those hot dogs, too, before they are green. Oh, and I'll be sure to take care of those chips and dip, too, just to be on the safe side...

My next feat will be to eat to the bottom of the deep freeze, but that's another blog.

Anyway, lowly human consumers, take heart: this is only part of the problem. According to the Food Policy Action Education Fund, American consumers, businesses and farms spend $218 billion a year on growing, processing, transporting and throwing out food that is never eaten. Now THAT'S awful, and sad, especially in a world where an estimated 805 million people go to bed hungry each night.

There's another superhero on the scene I'd like to recognize: Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine, who recently introduced two pieces of legislation to begin to address the problem. The Food Recovery Act is comprehensive legislation aimed at addressing food waste from farms, corporations, and at home. The Food Labeling Act aims to make food date labels more consistent and less confusing. "Best if used by" will designate that period of time when foods are at their peak of quality, but should still be OK if you don't use it up on time. It will replace "Best by", which should now only be used to close a kind letter. "Expires on" will be used for perishables like meat and dairy products. Also, if you have any sense at all, use your nose.

Back to that lovely display of fruits and veggies at the store: most of it comes from too far afield (like ALL the cukes at Market32 on Saturday - Produit du Canada), so it isn't going to last that long in the fridge anyway. But those good looks also means that the #2s and less than beautiful but perfectly good produce isn't being stocked, and much of that goes into landfill. Europe has been addressing the issue of several levels for a number of years - what to do with the ugly stuff - and I'm proud to see Hannaford joining the effort with their Misfit line. At the supermarket on Friday there were lovely limes and lemons and oranges, as well as a few blemished squash and cukes that weren't yet squishy, all marked down and up front instead of in the back of the store in Clearance.

But another customer and I got to talking and she had NO IDEA what Misfit was about. Hannaford: time to do a bit of marketing, or this isn't going to stick.

Mostly citrus fruits at the end of the season, the Misfits were all in good condition and notably less expensive

Anyway, pay attention, buy what you need, plan ahead, eat your veggies, heck feed your friends AND foes if you have to, but let's all be part of the conversation, and the solution.

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Doing Dishes: Bongiorno's and Veal Sorento

I love my neighborhood restaurants in the abstract because it’s great to be able to stroll over to a place for a nice meal. I love Bongiorno’s in particular because in the warm weather there are a few tables outside with red checked table cloths and neighbors having dinner there greet neighbors strolling by as they take in the evening air. Being a couple blocks from the heart of state government, there are always a few staffers enjoying a dinner together and sometimes the place is chock full of them. So this is another Italian restaurant that is more than the food, but a part of the social fabric of its location. It’s teensy, so no matter how much of a stranger you were when you entered, you must work at it diligently to stay a stranger when you leave.

The staff is friendly and attentive, greeting quickly and getting everyone seated, then always on the lookout to take away plates and glasses or to check to make sure you are having a good experience.  In my last visit I asked the staff member to completely rearrange the meal in several ways - hold the sauce on the pasta, bring the salad at the end and other little adjustments to personalize it.  Each request was handled immediately and exactly the way I needed, and it was lovely. Several times I have been dining beside a table for eight or ten and each guest was treated with the same attentiveness, often with a full room of smaller parties as well.

It’s serviceable Italian fare, with the common categories of antipasto, pasta, salads, meats, poultry and fish. These are  preparations by the children of Italian parents, so there is a little spin on the "nonna's recipes story". They are also, however, classic preparations that are common in our Italian-American family owned red sauce joints, served in a transformed old house for the past thirty or more years.  So- it’s truly a neighborhood Italian place with all the same intentions as similar institutions so pervasive in our little town. Which is to say there’s a sense of predictability that is comforting and we know in our hearts when we need a dinner like this.

My Veal Sorento was described uniquely as veal and eggplant parmesan. It was a heap of medallions, which is a sort of blending of the heap presentation and the medallion presentation. The breading was the most outstanding feature - there was too much of it in my not-so-humble-opinion.  The flavors were all there and balanced, once the predominance of the breading was inevitable. It was tender and moist, easily cut with a fork, which unfortunately is not all that common in this dish. The sauce was strikingly plain with no added dimensional flavors in the form of herbs or vegetables. I personally prefer the kitchen to add a signature in the form of special combinations in their sauce.  I know that this kitchen does do this for many of the sauces, but apparently the other flavors of the dish are sufficient in their opinion.

So even though I love this place and have tasted my way through most of the menu, I think it’s imperative that they close for a couple weeks and overhaul the  inside of the building.  They’ve let it go for too long, and they have to update the carpet, the paneling, and the furniture.  Sure it’s cozy, but there’s a difference between cozy and skeezy, and Bongiorno’s is learning too far toward the latter. The good staff and good food won’t compensate for this shortcoming in the long run.

My recommendation for you, dear readers, is to go in the warm weather and sit outside when the local tomatoes are at their peak ripeness and you will have a lovely and typical Albany Italian experience.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Villa Tuscan Grille

If you think life in Albany is boring, you’re doing it wrong. - The Profussor, Fussy Little Blog

One thing that's nice about driving around with a Goddess of Fire who is a superhero is that she needs to replenish her energy after dueling with all those super villains, so we go to cool places for dinner.

As we tooled into the parking lot of Villa Tuscan Grill, the outside mystified us.  What kind of a place were we getting ourselves into? We had driven practically to Duanesburg. A large party was gathering around the door and we wondered what effect this would have on our experience. We were tired and hungry and didn't like to think about waiting while the staff took care of a huge party, when we were only two people.  Well, one person and a Goddess of Fire.

But when we were ushered into the very large dining room, there was no sign that a large party would put a dent in our good time.  They had been led into the deep recesses of what was obviously a space set up for parties of all sizes. Our friendly welcome continued into the service for all of our stay. We love to ask questions and all our questions were answered, glasses filled, and dishes served with a professional touch.

The extensive menu gave us plenty to ponder as my goddess companion sipped her "forgettable" sauvignon blanc and  we took in the crowd.  It's obviously a very popular place, with young couples sharing a special dinner as well as big families out to celebrate nonna's birthday. I chose their shrimp scampi and Zena chose veal saltimbocco from the standard Capital Region Italian menu.  Most of the standards are there, organized in the typical European categories. VTG makes salad  dressings on site, so we were pleased to choose ours from among several of those.  They also make fresh pasta, so I ordered the cavatelli as my side.

The sauce was lemony and I was very glad that there was a lovely toasted bread  beneath the shrimp for mopping as much as I could. The shrimp were perfectly tender and beautifully complemented by the chopped tomato and herbs. I wish I could say that the side of fresh pasta fulfilled all my dreams.  While I was dunking it in my superb scampi sauce it was good - but everything was good in that sauce.  Once left to its own devices, it didn't stand up very well. Maybe the flour was not well considered that night.

The veal was served in a bit of a scattered heap rather than in medallions, with prosciutto akimbo, but it was nicely sauteed with mushrooms.  Zena could have done without the bed of frozen spinach, but was more than satisfied.  Even though she'd been out saving the world and using unbelievable amounts of energy, this dish provided enough for a second meal.

Due to ample salad, bread and main course we weren't interested in dessert, but the list contains many favorites, and deserves a look.

In the Capital Region we have dozens and dozens of Italian restaurants. Villa Tuscan Grill has friendly and professional service, ample space for parties of all sizes and all the Italian classics you could desire.