Thursday, May 28, 2015

Burgermeister Meisterburgers of Albany


Burger and fries at Burger21 in Latham, NY May 2015
Did you know that May is National Burger Month? And that May 28 is National Burger Day???

Me neither. Two more stupid things not to care about.

BUT, let's get really serious for a minute. I do love a good burger, and since Americans eat 50 billion burgers a year (3 per week/per person) I assume there are others just like me (superheroes and otherwise) that love a good burger, too.

Now we can all play Burgermeister and flip a few burgers on the grill. Don't take much lurnin' justa brewsky and some meat and a flipper and maybe some gasoline to getchagoin and a bun and ketchup and let me tell you MAN that first burger you ate off the barbie was delicious, wasn't it?  YES, it's not a work of genius: cheap, quick, tasty, and iconic, especially if you are cooking in flip flops.

Which is PROBABLY the reason (i.e., that it doesn't take a genius) why we have a "new obsession" in the Capital Region with burger restaurants. But we're NOT a bunch of edible dummies around here, and we're getting smarter.

The local chapter of the Alliance for Women in Media therefore organized a panel discussion on May 14, hosted by Steve Barnes of Table Hopping fame, at the Century House in Latham, NY to explore this complex and highly politicized modern gastronomical phenomena: new burger joints opening in Albany. On board were Bill Lia Jr. (franchise owner for the area of BurgerFi [along with Angelo Mazzone, another name that should be familiar to you]), Colleen Pierson (spokesperson for Sonic Drive-In, apparently owned by Patricia Bruder and now hiring, note this especially if you rollerskate), Bobby Mitchell (independent restaurateur and owner of Juicy Burgers), Leo Butera (operating partner of the local Smashburger franchise), and Mike Stygles, franchisee for Burger 21 (along with his partner Bruce Anderson, and owners of the Melting Pot). Steve asked the panel a series of pretty standard questions, and the answers were mostly honest and believable and sometimes funny.  So what kind of amazing things did we learn ???

  • There is not a burger war in Albany. Thank goodness.
  • There are lots of burger joints in the area (duh), so there is competition, but these guys are into quality, tasty food that is not "fast food". 
  • Sonic is a "quick serve" restaurant, not a "burger restaurant". Please update your brain.
  • Juicy Burgers also sells salads, which are good for you (75% of sales, however, are burgers).
  • Burger21 is selling you an experience, not just a burger. I hope yours is as memorable as mine
  • Kids are looking for something fancy because they now watch cooking shows. Really?
  • Sonic in Latham is currently open 24/7 because there are no walls or a roof yet.
  • Sonic should appeal to families because of good value and fast service. They make peanut butter and bacon shakes. OK, let's move on.
  • Smashburger was #6, Americas Most Promising Companies in 2014 according to Forbes. OK let's move on again because that's just boring unless you are an investor.
  • Community involvement is heartfelt, not just another marketing ploy. (I gleaned this; it was not actually spoken in so many words).
  • Saturdays are the busiest days at burger joints to experience a burger at one of these new locations. 
  • Online ordering (with mobile apps especially), take out, and even delivery services can ramp up revenue. (Note: I must get more organized when I have the munchies and start ordering ahead instead of staying "I'm really really hungry let's stop for a burger right now").  
  • BurgerFi will have beer and wine. Thank goodness: a REAL family restaurant where even Mom might enjoy herself for a change.
So the menus are more diverse, the shakes and burgers and "crafted", the fries are hand cut, the cooking techniques are more controlled than using gasoline and briquettes, and these "experiences" are MUCH better than drive-thru (and more expensive, but that's OK - the quality is MUCH better). Whatever the marketing hype, the food is good, even great at times. I WILL go that extra 10 feet to get a better burger. 
I've done Juicy Burger over the years and love them. Burger21 was a joy. I've got a free entree coupon to Smashburger that I will test drive next week, and I look forward to Sonic and BurgerFi opening up. QUESTION: Will any of them move to downtown Albany??? Even my superpowers can't crack that one, but let me tell you, the burbs is burgeoning with burgers. 

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: Oh, and happy National Burger Day. At least you didn't have to get that card in the mail by Thursday.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sip and Stroll in Saratoga Springs

A fund raiser for Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and the United Way, "The Sip" offered a view of Saratoga establishments that one might easily overlook. Since the town has so many little interesting places to eat and drink that it's difficult to merely see them all, let alone step inside. So my collaborator Zena, Goddess of Fire and I decided to take advantage of a programmed evening and at the same time make a donation to an organization that cares for animals who might otherwise be in vulnerable circumstances.

We picked up wristbands and maps at Gaffneys and proceeded to stroll around the downtown area and survey the scene.

The Bourbon Room offered a wheel of cheese and a peach and bourbon cocktail that was a perfect refreshing starter for an evening.

The Circus Cafe Crown Bar served up popcorn and wine.

The Swedish Hill Winery, in its new digs, was holding a tasting of a lightweight white.

Forno was offering canapes on one of their lovely patios

We skipped Mingle on the Avenue because they were a bit too crowded for our taste, but we both think it looks really gorgeous.

The Parting Glass had a jam session going and a lovely wheat beer.

Henry Street had an outdoor scene happening.

The Goddess had a little bit of evil to vanquish and we were nice and strolled-out by the time we got up to the Lake and Henry Street corner, so we called it a night.

My impression was that the establishments weren't organizing their evening around the event, and that they didn't expect much of anyone to come by.  Most didn't have extra staff and one bar even ran out of glasses (!) within the first hour.  There was no sense that planning had taken place for what would be on offer for the $25.00 wrist band fee on the part of the organizing group, so each establishment thought about and presented what they had for participants in a different way.

That aside, we had an interesting evening in Saratoga and a list of places we'd like to revisit.  You'll see more posts regarding our trips to the northern reaches of the Capital District coming up over the summer months.

Map/Guide to participating places.  Click on the map to get a larger image and see the full list of participating restaurants and bars.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

The On Ramp at Basilica Hudson

How many ways can  ramps be prepared?  This is an excellent question.  I know now that there are many more than 20.  This small local plant that is oniony and garlicky can inspire chefs to reach for the mild, the pungent, the bizarre and the downright floor-banging fantastic.

In the pre-event quiet the 19th century factory is clean and ready for 20 + chefs to unload and display what will be on offer for the fifth annual Ramp Fest. It's located very near the Hudson Amtrak station.

A couple dozen volunteers form the bulk of the staff, and this year I decided to join the crew to see all the action up close and personal.

The biggest crowd yet!

It wasn't all hard work being a volunteer.  There were plenty of opportunities to taste the delicious fare. Some of the beautifully crafted ramp treats were: 

Another Fork in the Road - Ramp and lamb kofta
Ca'Mea - Galatina di pollo with ramp aioli
The Crimson Sparrow - ramp tofu, pork cheek lemon grass, wasabi
The Farmer's Wife - spring chowder of mussels, bacon, ramps and asparagus w/cornbread croutons

and the list went on and on.  Everyone looked delighted as they went down the rows of serving tables and tried things no one had ever heard of before. In the hands of skilled chefs the ramp can be muted or  a highlight.

The one I broke the "one and done" rule for was Gaskins ramp arancini - little crisped balls of rice with the perfect rice texture on the inside and a little garnish of bright green ramp aioli on top, like a little cap.  This is the perfect food as far and I'm concerned and I returned to their table a few times for that scrumptious little bite.

The Fest had its first ever panel discussion, "Ramps and the Food Choices We Make" with Andreas Schneider of Hawthorne Valley, Sara Grady of Glynwood, Jori Emde and Zak Pelaccio of Fish and Game which used ramps as a "metaphor for the future of food."

As the festival wound down people lingered to enjoy the last of the offerings and the diffuse light in the old-fashioned  industrial surroundings.

LorreBob sez:  put the 6th annual Ramp Fest on your calendar and head down to Hudson in the spring next year. Everyone should try it at least once - to get the sense of what this little plant can inspire.

Below is the whole list if you are interested in the participating chefs and restaurants. Click on the image and you will get a size that is more reasonable.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Little Lambs and Chicken Yoga at Kinderhook Farm

Baaaaaaaa. Baaaaaa. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. The ewes and lambs were pretty noisy at Kinderhook Farm in Valatie, NY when I visited last Saturday for a tour. Being the sensible, conservative, thoughtful, and mature superhero that I am, I baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa'd right back. It was fun.

These one day old Dorper sheep triplets are just about the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
It's lambing season and the folks at the farm were busy - long days and nights tending to their animals. Laura, one of the hands and a wonderful guide, told us about the challenges of managing all these newborns. I was impressed with her attentiveness to, and respect for all the animals we met that day. A sense that everything was right and clean and happy and good just permeated the air.

After a day or two the lambs and their moms are moved to the field closest to the lambing shed.
Kinderhook Farm is a special place. Animal Welfare Approved in 2009, it has just been Certified Grassfed by AWA for their sheep and cattle. Better yet, it is the FIRST farm in the United States to be awarded this gold standard for their sheep.  This means that the animals are raised outdoors on pasture their entire lives, eat only grass or forage, and are cultivated and slaughtered according to the highest standards of welfare and care. I felt honored to share their good news so soon after it was announced. Oh, and there were little lambs everywhere doing cute little lamby things. I smiled so much my face hurt.

Freedom Ranger hens grow quickly. Kinderhook raises four rounds of babies to broilers each summer.
We then visited baby Freedom Ranger in the nearby coop, awaiting release to the apple orchards once their enclosures had tarps in place. There were also a couple dozen laying hen chicks - multiple species and colors - still penned and safe until they get a bit bigger. Oh, and fuzzy yellow goslings that move together in a gang, in and out of the enclosure, making high, sweet little honking noises. I prompted two little girls, ages 3 and 5, to mimic the sound, but they were better at baaaaaaaaaaaa-ing.

Above, laying hen chicks. Below, two little girls meet the goslings outside the coop. Inside the babies are protected and warmed with heat lamps early in the growing season.

From there the visitors walked back to fields where the laying hens had their mobile coops, but trust me, there were chickens EVERYWHERE, having dust baths, congregating, running around at top speed because they could, doing chicken yoga, preening, etc. They were, um, BEING CHICKENS, the way chickens were meant to be. Downside was they had a way of setting up nesting sites all over the farm, so Kinderhook wasn't getting the yield they should have from all those birds in terms of egg production, but they were working on it. Laura talked about the possibility of building new coops that would be more inviting to the various species and sizes of birds, all of whom seemed to get along well. We got to pet a couple that she picked up and cradled for us. Soft and friendly.  The "Peace Train" - two buildings on wheels, is moved around the farm to fresh pasture throughout the season.

Feed in the low trough, near the center, supplements the bugs and stuff to keep the birds healthy and well fed.

Chickens like to roll around in the dirt. It feels good. It makes them happy.
We didn't get a chance to visit the piglets - there was some construction at that site so we'll have to do that the next time we go to the farm. And we didn't get across to play with the cows, either, but we understand they, too, were busy calving somewhere in this 1000 acre paradise. Kinderhook Farm has an active Facebook site where you can watch 15-second videos and see all kinds of pics of what's happening almost each and every day. Being an office girl it's really nice to go and watch their dogs work the farm, to see the lambs learning to stand up, and to hear the chickens baaawk as they get released from their coop in the morning, instead of actually working. Much nicer than the sounds of traffic and telephones. Much, much nicer.  And I get to baaaaaaaaaaaaaa back, which feels good, whether I'm doing it because I'm happy or pissed off or just need to amuse myself so I can get through another day. Charming, but visit if you can if you really want to understand about sustainability and where food really comes from and the importance of caring for your land and beasts.

There's a farm store on the property that's open year-round, probably the best place in the area to buy their products, including all parts of the animal, ground meats, whole chickens, sausages, and eggs. Kinderhook also sells to chefs that handle whole animals. It may seem expensive, but the quality is amazing, and you will have the grace of knowing you are part of the solution.

Thanks to everyone at Kinderhook Farm who made us feel so welcome and who took the time out of their busiest season to share their story. It was a beautiful day.

Zena, Goddess of Fire 

Spring in Valatie at Kinderhook Farm

Monday, May 4, 2015

1st Friday and A Fork in the Road -- Food Trucks!!!!

Yeah, I'm into food trucks - having them lined up around a nice little park on 1st Friday with Albany Center Galleries nearby makes for a nice evening out. 

All Over Albany provided some very nice photos too: 

The weather was perfect and you couldn't ask for a nicer little park for a food truck gathering. There are plenty of sitting places and people can spread out while sampling the fare.  Someone commented that music was needed and I heartily disagree.  Why ruin a lovely quiet Friday evening with some over loud band?  I'm not into having to scream to my dining companions.

I'm not sure how much I can go on about food truck food. I don't know what the attraction is, but it's got something to do with being outside and having dishes I don't have very often and it brings back feelings of dairy bars at the beach and summer. It is what it is and there didn't seem to be much out of the normal fare of burgers and fries, but there were a few different things to try and I hope in future there will be more. I had chicken spiedies from the Chuck Wagon and tried to get the fabulous looking bacon wrapped mac and cheese balls, but they were gone after the first hour. The chicken spiedies were tasty.  

 I was consoled with an ice cream from Emack & Bolios after the bacon wrapped mac and cheese balls were erased from the menu.  I know...not too shabby. 

 I look forward to drifting downtown on future 1st Fridays to sample a few more food truck delights this summer.