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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"The Emergent Agriculture" - Gary Kleppel's Personal Story

It was a room full of mostly students and academics, a couple of farmers, and one Goddess of Fire who was NOT the center of attention.

Gary Kleppel gave a fascinating lecture this week at the University at Albany based on his recently published book "The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy". A professor of biology, Dr. K told us the story of his and his community's transformation to becoming successful farmers after what was, for some, many years far removed from the land. And while it's fun to think of smarty-pants lawyers having nervous breakdowns and ending up in the dirt, I think they did it for some very good reasons.
Dr. Gary Kleppel talks about his book, "The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy" at the University at Albany (May 3, 2016)
First, Dr. K made us all really, really depressed. He started with getting us to think about two fundamental assumptions many of us make about the food we eat: (1) it is safe, and (2) it is a commodity. Short answer: NO it is not safe (48 million cases of foodborne illness a year in the U.S.), and (2) NO it is not a commodity (everything is NOT the same, except the price). Monocultures of both plants and animals, the move away from family farms to industrial agriculture, the push for more production and yield and profit, has come at a cost: loss of diversity and overuse of pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers and antibiotics, feed lots and the mistreatment of animals, food that is old and poor quality and tasteless, huge investments in moving food across the globe, negative effects on climate, and sucking up all the water that isn't in California. He attests that it is wars, politics, and policies that prevent everyone in the world from getting enough food.

After a good cry (not that I cry, mind you), we were given hope that there are alternatives.

The bottom line: we need to be more sustainable, and we can do this by supporting local farms and farming and buying local, and by truly being part of this big change in terms of the way we produce and consume food. Local food that connects consumers and food producers in the same geographic area will make us self-reliant and improve local economies, our health, and the environment. Dr. K gave all kinds of data suggesting that local is emerging as a viable means of feeding the planet.

So he decided to try life on the farm, with a couple of sheepies to start and two cute herding dogs, looking at "the whole system", thinking environment/economics/ethics, and worked with other neighbor farmers to learn even more as he built his business (while not quitting his day job, I note), and Longfield Farm was born. Dr. K described farmers as "gritty, creative, smart" - a real community.

Farmers Only, here I come.

Anyway, while many of the students were likely inspired and may go "wwoofing", here's some things YOU can do to be part of this revolution:

(1) Go to the Farmer's Markets - Delmar, Troy, Schenectady, the Plaza, many more - be part of the action, be part of your community - and buy what's in season or produced locally BEFORE you hit the mainline grocery stores. It will be tastier, too.
(2) Consider a CSA (Fox Creek, Roxbury, etc.) - there's more out there than just veggies. Denison has fruit and egg shares, for example, and Blackhorse has meat.
(3) Join a community garden, or replace those perty flowers with some vegetables in your own back yard. Dirt is good.
(4) Stop at the farm stands and farm stores every chance you get. Note to Self: Try not to buy a pie EVERY time.
(5) Get involved with Field Goods - they have a service that's convenient and affordable and includes more than just produce if you wish. I like that you can buy for a family of four or just a single.
(6) Smarten up about what you buy in the grocery store. I bought some AMAZING cocktail tomatoes from Backyard Farms, ME in Hannaford's two days ago (closer than FL, anyway). Try one of the area food co-ops, Whole Foods, or Fresh Market to find local food.
(7) Oh yeah, learn to cook. Really.

Gary sells bread at the Farmer's Market in Delmar on Saturdays
Zena, Goddess of Fire

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Chritos Anesti: Greek Easter Celebrations

Zena, Goddess of Fire, is only half Greek. That should explain everything.

As a rotten kid I would gloat when Easter and Greek Easter were on different Sundays, because then I got more chocolate. Even on a solemn, religious holiday and all I could think about was food. Nothing's changed.

So my big, wonderful, loud, crazy extended family gathered this past weekend to be together, laugh, love, drink and eat too much. We always start with about two hours of appetizers, this year featuring Humbolt Fog cheese (creamy, delightful), wild caught U.S. shrimp from the Korean market (jumbos, with cocktail sauce), taramasolata from somewhere near Pleasantville (whipped and light, not too salty), and more. I tried not to overdo it, but, of course, I did.

At top, eggplant, taramasalata and hummus. Below - a lovely selection of cheeses, shrimp, nuts and salami. 
Then the loukaniko hits the grill - pork and lamb sausage laced with orange and fennel - served straight up or with a hit of hot mustard - this is always such a treat.

Loukaniko sausages - made with lamb and pork - amazing
Then a load of grass fed lamb ordered direct from a farm in PA - loins and lollis - marinated simply in olive oil, salt and pepper and oregano, burned on the grill (controlling the heat with a spray of beer) and finished with fresh lemon. The best lamb I've ever had.

This is just one tray of the lamb

The fire went out. It was an emergency so we called the Fire Chief to start it up again.

This is an action shot. Beer nicely controlled the flames. Really.
After a mad scramble to clean up the first round (I didn't help) dinner is served - spanakopita, green beans, a Greek style salad with sweet peppers and cuke and feta and tomatoes (dee-lish), bread from the store because I burnt what I made to bring (typical), grilled veg, orzo, sliced ham, and lots and lots of lamb. A feast!!!
A feast!!! Lamb not shown for some reason...
Then we bop eggs - butt to butt and pointy end to pointy end - something to do with the resurrection - and s/he with the last intact egg gets good luck. Me, I lost and ate the egg. It was good.

Time for dessert - sesame cookies, baklava, fruit salad, and even "extra dessert" - one wonderful cuz had his 50th birthday. That's a Napolean cake - the entire thing. Amazing. I skipped the fruit....

Happy birthday, Cuz!!!  
This is not a selfie
It was and always is wonderful to share a special day with those I love, and so I share my love of food and family with the rest of you. Christos Anesti!!!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

Everyone is smiling, even Cooper the dog, who kept the carpet clean of crumbs