Tuesday, October 28, 2014

“We want people to come in and sit down and eat and be a part of the community.”

It's Albany's Soul Cafe, in Center Square.

In the fellowship hall (that most of us know from our church-going or synagogue-going childhoods if we had one) the evening unfolds. Volunteers have organized the food, the cooking and the serving.  Fantastic aromas are emanating from the bee-hive like church kitchen, there are seats for about 80 people and a long serving table.  It's not fancy, but it serves the purpose.

Suddenly at 6:00 the door opens and there's a line of people at the donation box, contributing what they can.  It's families from all walks of life who want to be together in the atmosphere of community and service.  It's wholesome food for anyone who shows up.  There's raucous donated piano music, trays of food and furor as everyone lines up and chooses what they'd like to try for the evening's supper.

When everyone has been served the group settles in, the children begin to race around the room or go to the play table, and there is conversation of the contented. Those who want to get up and move can join in the zumba. For each person it has a different meaning, and that's the beauty, I mean, besides the generosity and the kindness and the welcome and the community.

Go - I mean it.

Albany Soul Café Community Dinner 
Westminster Presbyterian Church 
262 State Street, Albany 
(Parking and Entrance at 85 Chestnut Street) 
All are welcome! 
Dinners are the last Monday of each month from 6 to 8 p.m. 
November 24 • Harvest Dinner 
Suggested Donation: 
$5 Adults / $3 Kids 
All proceeds go to support the Soul Café.

More about Soul Cafe



Monday, October 20, 2014

Zena Hosts: Sweet Italian Sausage Tasting

I like sausage.  I expect it to contain weird pig parts. We should be using every part of the animal if we can. Get over it.

Surely the origin of sausage in particular is connected to using the entire beast, and then learning to preserve it. Sausage is one of the oldest meat products in history (1500 B.C. by one account), and the world has many varieties to choose from.

Piglets at Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield MA -  May 2014
In particular I love fresh, sweet Italian sausage - meaning it's not cured or salted or smoked, and it has to be thoroughly cooked before eating. It's relatively inexpensive, versatile, quick if it needs to be, and usually very tasty. It can also contain a host of ingredients like stabilizers and binders and extenders (like starch-based fillers) and tenderizers, in addition to the necessary salt and added fat and spices and sugar.  When I buy locally I can hope that these additions are natural and necessary and mostly about taste, and that the quality of the starting meat product is humane and free of antibiotics. Unnecessary gook saps my superpowers, and I know the effects can be much worse for mortals.

I purchased my sausages from six area retailers and organized a blind taste testing with a dozen or so friends and superheroes. Here is the lineup (in alpha order descending):

6 sausages, three votes, funny stickers went on the place cards and comments onto sticky notes
OK so maybe we don't know exactly what the ingredients are, or where they came from, but one thing for sure - we were only tasting pork sausages today (no beef or chicken or turkey or vegan options). We expected salt (which does three things - it binds the meat, inhibits bacterial growth and gives the mixture flavor), black pepper, maybe some fennel seed, other flavors like wine or vinegar or mustard, and herbs & spices such as parsley (usually), paprika, garlic, oregano, basil, ginger, sage, coriander, red pepper flakes and/or onion. Uh, just about anything, actually.  It may have a bit of sugar, but "sweet" only differentiates this sausage from "hot" Italian, which would have much more red pepper. Fat is key: a ratio of about 80 percent meat to 20 percent fat is about your minimum - 30% would be typical. We need that fat for flavor but we don''t want gristle. We want our sausages firm but not too dry. We want it to smell good and be tasty. Sausages are ugly so today we won't talk about things looking delicious.

Sausages are laid out on the left in the aluminum pans. Our feast also included a lovely potluck of salads, bread and desserts

I cooked about a pound of each - sweet Italian only. No pre-boiling. No poking holes. No cutting or changing the shape of the links until it was time to check that the interior was cooked through.

Despite long discussions about the need for perfect weather with other gods and goddesses leading up to this event, I can only figure someone was pissed at me for something, because the day of our party it was raining for the first time in a month, so we ended up being indoors instead of cooking on the grill. The sausages were simply browned and cooked through on the stove top in a skillet lightly seasoned with olive oil, then kept warm in tightly covered dishes in a 200 degree oven until we were ready to taste.

I have special powers and that included being the only one that knew which of the choices, A to F, were which. Each guest got three stickers to vote with, and comments were to be written down on Post-its for me to decipher later, but this crowd was boisterous and loud and really fun so we knew EXACTLY what was on everyone's mind, except Po, a puppy brought by the Mistress of the Hounds, who was quiet but probably thinking SAUSAGES the whole time.

Anyway, here are the results:

Cardona's (A) - $5.69/lb
These were small, red, compact links that LOOKED like hot Italian when I opened the container, but didn't taste like it. It had plenty of black pepper and fennel. This one got 6 stickers. Tasters, not yet silly on wine, because I could still read their handwriting, remarked "Tender and flavorful; nice consistency to the meat and not too peppery; nice flavor; moist, great flavor; robust - not just pepper but more; good sausage flavor; yum, salty."

Smaller, compact sausages from Cardona's
Falvo's (B) - $3.29/lb if you buy 3 pounds
These were large and lean (the lady behind the counter told me when I bought them that they were leaner than usual). When I was cooking them I got a lot of gray "gook" in the pan (blood?), which didn't appeal to me. They smelled strongly of sage. This sausage got NO stickers. Comments included "Bland; too dry; is this really sausage?; not a lot of seasoning - kinda plain; blah, dry; bland, not much flavor; good meat flavor but bland; and my favorite, 'As an Italian I am offended that this is called Italian sausage. I think it's neither.'" My tasters, neither sober nor professional, totally rejected this product.

This was the only sausage where we got "gook" in the fry pan
Garofalo (D) - $4.49 if you pay cash; $4.69 if you use a credit card (sheesh)
This went into the pan as one, large one pound plus link. It had lots of small fatty deposits seen through the casing. This choice got 13 stickers - a clear winner!!! This is what we thought: "Pow!; Can never have too much pepper cuz I like hot/not sweet - this is more like hot than sweet; great flavor; very flavorful; pepper and fennel is good - bit of a [huh?] to it; pepper! the best; hot black pepper, salty; too much pepper for my taste; and little spicier than (A); YUM A&D fave so far peppery LOVE" (assume wine assisted with the last taster's expert opinion).

Sausage from Garofalo's - lots of visible fat through the casing

Pellegrino (C) - $4.29/lb
This was also one large link that had lots of large bits of fat. These guys got 6 stickers, tying for second place with Cardona's, with friends saying "Mild by really nice; fatty, blah, had to spit out a hunk of fat; yum, fennel; and nice flavor." This was one of my "go to" sweet Italian sausages over the years and I still like it a lot, but it didn't go over as well as I thought it would, keeping in mind, of course, that there were mostly mortals at this tasting.

Our Store
This is a picture of Pellegrino's from the parking lot that I took from their web site because it seems I don't have a picture of their sausages like I do the rest. My apologies to all.
Roma: (F) - $5.19/lb
This one didn't have any visible fat globs, and was really pink. It was very wet and slow to brown, and there was a lot of excess fat in the pan, more than any of our other sausages. It got only one vote, with comments like this: "Weird texture, grainy, nice flavor; not a fan; not for me; dry - tastes too dry and bland; kinda plain - needs more seasoning; somewhat plain but tender, not fatty, needs more seasoning," and, to the point - "meh".
The sausages from Roma's took forever to brown. They were "wet".
Sindoni (E) - $5.49/lb - available from Hannaford's
This one was pretty fatty, with four stickers from our noisy testers. Comments included "Peppery and fennel?; this one is OK; little fatty but OK; too fatty, yeah, gristle." Nobody too excited over this sausage, but it did come in third. Too bad, because I really like the idea of a local outlet being sold out of our chain grocery stores.

Sindoni's sweet Italian sausages are available from area Hannaford's
These were all so very different - that was a real surprise to all of us - but the great variation made our sausage tasting a much more worthy culinary experience than we expected. I was SO impressed with Garofalo's that I'm now much more willing to set my GPS and drive into deepest, darkest Schenectady to get a stash of their sausages for the next time I'm dreaming up a batch of anything (spaghetti sauce, sausage and peppers, lasagna, etc.) that includes sweet Italian sausages. BRAVO!!!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: I'll share my recipe for Pickle Soup - one way to use up leftover cooked sweet Italian sausages - in the very near future.  (: 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Dinner Guests and the Art of Being a Good One

When Megan Gordon wrote her five ways to be a great dinner guest on The Kitchn blog I had an emotional reaction that made me sit up and take notice. I think about manners and considerations between guests and hosts quite a bit, so when Megan put up her preferences, I thought I might as well throw mine into the ring.

At the bottom of this posting is a list of several web pages about dinner party manners - there is some overlap, but some of these things bear repeating.

Here are my opinions about being a good guest when someone invites you for dinner:

Feasting together is an ancient tradition that is a celebration of life - bring a whole hearted attitude; this is a time to celebrate being together, so if it's possible let go of life's common irritations, or the trouble you're having at work, and try to be joyful for the duration of dinner.  This will not only spare your fellow guests from having to bear your burdens but will also be good for you. A good dinner party nourishes everyone's soul and that's why we ask our friends to join us for dinner.

If you want to boil it down to one principle so that you don't go crazy being self-conscious about your behavior: Be Considerate. Your consideration should be for your fellow guests and your host/hostess.

Show up when you say you will - making the host/hostess hold dinner and having everyone waiting around until you arrive isn't chic - it's extremely bad manners and a drag. If you're really hung up with something, text  or call the host/hostess and tell them what is going on. Expect them to start without you.

Take something interesting that is either a discussion topic or an actual thing. If it's a discussion topic, try your very very best to make it something to talk about while eating.  This means excretions, blood, gore, guts and veins in your teeth are not good.  Save this for beers and movie night.

Make it clear that you're enjoying the food -  a lot of silence at the table might be nerve wracking.

Be gracious! This is a time to show your best manners.  See below for more tips on taking a gift, sending a thanks text and other behaviors that tell your hosts that you liked being invited and enjoyed the dinner. Don't make them guess! Be kind and considerate of their efforts. They're trying to make a little oasis of happiness - tell them they succeeded. It's a way to extend the jolly feelings.

This is not the time to get sloppy drunk, but a time to enjoy the company of others while having a great supper. Stay coherent and able to manage a knife and fork - giggly is great, slobbery and knocking over the crystal or dropping the meat platter is very, very bad.

Unless your host/hostess has arranged for entertainments that go into the wee hours, leave. They have been working on making this a great DINNER party all day - don't keep them up all night.

If you really like doing the former two activities - invite people over to your place and let 'er rip.

* * *
Zena, Goddess of Fire, let fly on her opinions regarding potluck manners:

WARNING FROM ZENA: This is a rant!!!

I think some of these blogs on being a good guest are well worth summarizing and sharing on AlbanyDish. Thank you Foodie Friend. When asked for my worthless opinion on the subject, I just had to twist the scene a little bit, since when I host a party, it's usually, at least in part, a potluck. Friends LIKE to bring a dish of their own (most of the time) and really LIKE to contribute somehow to the feast.  
When I throw a potluck I usually say “bring anything” but sometimes I have suggestions – very general ones: salad, dessert, appetizers. I don’t think these gatherings should be orchestrated – that misses the point. I clean the house, I set up a bar, I arrange the table/house for sit down or buffet depending on how many are coming, and I expect (and look forward to) a meal that is a bit more casual. Usually I prepare several dishes, including the main course/s. I do as much as I can in advance so I can enjoy my company. The point is to get together with friends and talk and laugh and share for a few hours. The eating thing is a bonus. A good potluck hostess helps guests get their own dishes together and ready for service. 


Please bring your own damn serving dishes and utensils. I hate when people show up with a grocery bag full of stuff and no way to put it out. And if your contribution requires some last minute prep please do it yourself. Don’t give me directions!!! Oh, also, unless I know you for who you are, and love you anyway, I expect guests to bring something more than a bag of chips. If you aren’t a cook that’s no excuse not to bring something delicious for the table. And seriously, if you’re picky about what you will and won’t eat, please eat before you come. At least bring a dish to share that you WILL eat. Kindly keep your restrictions to yourself unless you are going to keel over and die from a peanut or something.

Oh, and if you are coming late for some reason don’t bring a stupid appetizer. That was two hours ago, and so are you.

A few other things about etiquette for ANY party or gathering:
  • Take off your shoes if its wet or mucky outside. Bring “indoor” shoes if you need to, ones that won't scuff up or mark or scratch my immaculate as always floors.  
  • No one should get wasted. Exceptions if your host/ess is a goddess or something.  (:
  • Everyone needs to respect the furniture/surroundings.
  • Please discreetly tell the host if something needs attention, like there’s no TP or we’re out of ice.
  • Please don’t stay too late. If I’m cleaning and packing up, you should too. Note that I always appreciate some help in the kitchen, and I like when I can go to bed (because I might be trashed) without the kitchen being trashed (as well).
  • Put your f&#*@%g phone away. Thank you.
My question to you, good reader, is this: What makes a good POTLUCK??? We'd love to hear your comments here on Albany Dish!

Love to all, 
Zena, Goddess of Fire

Short list of web articles on dinner party manners;


Basic Essentials of Dinner Table Etiquette

Modern manners: the dinner party guest Felicity Cloake

Should I bring a hostess gift?

Party manners 101

Friday, October 10, 2014

Meeting Up at Samurai Sushi

The Albany Sushi Meetup made a special evening of gourmet sushi at Samurai Japanese Restaurant after one of our organizers had an extraordinary experience there during the summer. With some advance planning and a decision on the prix fixe the group of 20 allowed the chef to serve his choice of delicacies.  This is a group that has been eating sushi together for several years, so there were high expectations and high spirits as the crowd gathered in the sushi bar area. Going to dinner with a group of 20-40 other sushi lovers truly enhances the experience, especially once the introductions are made and people warm up and the sushi starts arriving at the tables.

The hibachi grill in the next room was in full swing and announced the entrance of Zena, Goddess of Fire with a huge ball of flame.  Once the Goddess was seated and introductions were made, the evening's banquet unfolded, course by delightful course. Our table companions were a great young couple who are new to the Meetup and who love sushi - so we had a great basis for conversation.

I, like most of the sushi lovers in the room, have found myself going for the same sushi flavors after awhile, and so handing the choice over to the chef was an adventure worth taking.

Below is the lineup of courses:

Tom Yum Soup

Crab, seaweed and octopus salads - wakame with the octopus and a delightful salad.

Fresh scallop with fresh wasabi and lemon - adorable lights under the shell cheerfully twinkling and changing colors.  That is FRESH wasabi on that slice of scallop and the curled darker pieces are the membrane.  This had so many things going on that the four slices were gone before we knew it, but each slice allowed us to experience this dreamy shellfish in a different combination.

Sea urchin - one serving of uni per table was enough to give us all a plentiful taste.  I had not had uni for about 20 years, so it was a great walk down memory lane.

Hamachi collar with the most wonderful fish sauce in the world.  This was a great cooked course and provided a whole treasure chest of flavors.  Then there was the sauce.  Oh my.

The man in the photo below is JP giving us the rundown on the platter, which served as the "main" course.  We were almost defeated at that point, but when the party is all about sushi, one soldiers on for the cause.  

In spite of having to serve 20 sushi lovers the same sushi dishes at the same time all evening, the wait staff was very cheerful and helpful. They were prepared so that even the platters could all arrive at all of the tables at the same time - that's an organized staff. They didn't rush, and they did their best to keep up with drinks and sundries and to explain and introduce what we were getting. There were breaks between courses that allowed for conversation and a pause to recover one's palate and prepare for the next course, and that gave the staff time to clear dishes, refresh drinks and keep on top of what everyone needed.

We should all definitely start demanding fresh wasabi with our sushi instead of the paste, by the way. We all saved our little dishes of wasabi in order to dip and slather it over various kinds of fish and I for one will seek it out in all future sushi evenings. It's funny how over the decades of sushi in America the range of what is served has narrowed to a few standards.  This dinner was a great reminder that sushi exotica is still possible.

Sushi and Sashimi Platter of classics:
The shot glass in the middle is an oyster, quail egg and scallion with a heavy drop of srirachi.  After the staff poured a thimble full of hot sake on top it was ready for shooting.  We did.  It was a burst of about fifteen separate and combined flavors.  The oyster was magnificent and the last flavor.

Ice Cream and Bananas

After groaning that we couldn't eat another bite, we caved in to the ice cream and bananas dessert. Zena, Goddess of Fire had to save several overwhelmed diners. It was a light ending to an incredible night of foodie adventure.  There were enough delights to tweak even the hardened sushi veterans in the group, and the crowd dispersed among exclamations about one course or another as people talked over their favorite dish of the evening. We groused about how much there was, and if I could do it over again I'd give the customers more control over the quantities of what was served. 

As we wandered into the night Zena took me under her protective cape to make sure I got into my ride safely, although the poor darling was like one of those bees that drinks all the sweet pickle juice from the picnic table.  I don't know what exactly got saved later that night, but I think she might have taken one of the fire chariots instead of taking off to her next destination a la Wonder Woman.

Bryan Fitzgerald reviewed the hibachi side of Samurai in the Times Union:

Monday, October 6, 2014

DOING DISHES: Lettuce Entertain You! - Salads from the CoOp

The best part of this salad series has been discovering, and tasting, so many (potentially) delicious salad concoctions sold as take-out from our area grocery stores and delis. Trouble is, they don't get any feedback from their customers, at least not directly like they might in a sit-down restaurant. But then again, we are all probably guilty of saying "everything's fine" instead of kicking up a fuss.

Which is why blogging is such a kick! And Zena, Goddess of Fire, is here today to kick some butt.


In addition to a "make your own" salad bar, the Honest Weight Food CoOp offers a variety of salads freshly scooped by the pound from a deli case.  But Foodie Friend and I were pressed for time, so we kicked up our heels and just raced in and out of their newly located store on Watervliet Avenue, not far from Everett Road off Central Avenue, with six (three sweet, three savory) salads from the refrigerator section that we were going to eat at work. There were literally dozens of salads choose from. I liked that they all had labels listing the ingredients so I could eat this one cilantro-free. In fact, anyone who is sensitive to ingredients - gluten, nuts, dairy, etc.-  benefits as well.

In order of tasting, here's a summary of our kick back lunch on the job.

The first was a cabbage Slaw with Apples, Walnuts and Poppy ($8.99/lb), sweetened with a bit of honey and orange marmalade. It was very light with a nice crunch - we loved the texture, partly from the nuts and partly from the fruits and veggies. It was mellow - so much so that you could almost taste the nuttiness of the poppy seeds. But it was colorless and really not very flavorful, almost like the taste leaves you as soon as you swallow. I wanted more vinegar, and if I was home would have added a few splashes to kick things up a notch.
Slaw with Apples, Walnuts and Poppy Seeds.
Next we tried the Balsamic Roasted Eggplant Salad ($8.99/lb), which tasted like eggplant and balsamic with a big hit of garlic. In fact, roasted garlic bulbs were added whole to the salad - and there were SO many of them, we just started pushing them aside. I liked that the eggplant was a bit firm, but FF thought it could have been roasted longer. Neither of us got much of a kick out of this salad.
Balsamic Roasted Eggplant Salad on the left, and their Pineapple Kale salad on the right

The third salad that we tasted was called Moroccan Carrot Salad (($7.99/lb), flavored with finely chopped dates, and pistachios, and laced with spices like cumin and cinnamon. This was a wet, wet salad that was almost gloppy. It was way too sweet and really cuminy, and the nuts were squishy. Yes, squishy nuts. Gugh.  We had a few other folks at work interested in what we were tasting and NO ONE wanted to finish it. OK labeling - we noticed the "packed on" date. This one was on it's fourth day on the shelf. It tasted old. We kicked it into the trash. (NOTE: Three of our picks - the Slaw, this one, and the broccoli salads were dated 9/16 and the date of our foodie adventure was 9/19. Next time I'm going to pay closer attention to the packing dates)

Then we tried another savory mixture, the Lemon-Garlic Broccoli-Almond Salad ($9.99/lb). This one got a quite a few compliments - "fresh, bright, a bit of tang; perfectly cooked broccoli; nice texture; garlicky". There was a goodly amount grated parmesan in there that personally I didn't like (I thought it made the salad heavy and gloppy and grainy). This salad could have been a meal in itself in that it was so rich and had a bit of protein in there. It was pretty good, but I don't think it would win in a kick-off.

Next was a beet salad they called Rawsome Veggie Salad ($7.99/lb). Loaded with shredded beets and carrots, as well as red and green bell peppers and broccoli, we agreed that it was rooty and purple, but also that is tasted weird and confusing. FF described it as "too many strong flavors going in too many directions all at once". Oh, and the ingredients said "tomatoes", and there were definitely no tomatoes in this medly. Honestly Honest Weight - did anyone taste this before packaging??? (Kicked that one to the curb as well).

Last but not least (in this rant, anyway) was their Kale and Pineapple salad with shredded coconut and cashews ($19.99/lb). The kale was tender and mild, the pineapple fresh, the shredded coconut was delightful, and the cashews were totally absent, as was any amount of dressing. It tasted like pineapple and coconut and kale, an interesting combo, but so is Watergate Salad, which also doesn't cut it as far as I'm concerned. This one came SO close to being a really good salad idea, but my sense is that no one is paying close enough attention to the preparation to make it kick. And why the high price tag???

I imagine a world where at the checkout the saleslady asks me to fill out an online survey about their products or services to win a prize or a discount and I actually do it, which I usually don't, but maybe the Co-op could do something to get input when they see their customers leave with take-out meals. Either that or host a meal and ask everyone their opinions (in which case my work here is done). Or leave it to the bloggers.

But don't feel kicked out, Honest Weight - you have many other salads there that I still want to try, and I'll bet some of them are pretty darn good. Aim for high kicks.

Zena, Goddess  of Fire