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Archive for April, 2009

Spring!

This past weekend was a weekend of good eats for me.  Spring was in full force… the weather was nice and warm, and I ate some great food that I wanted to tell you about.

On Saturday, I was out doing errands and noticed that Malench Farm Stand was open again at the Boulevard and Sherman.  Yes, spring has definitely sprung.  It’s that time of the year when our local farmers begin selling the fruits and vegetables of their labors.  I pulled onto the gravel parking area and up to the stand, which consists of two long flatbed trailers.  I said hello to Denise, and told her how glad I was to see the stand open again!  After chitchatting, I grabbed a few handfuls of dark green, leafy spinach as well as a few bunches of radishes and several pots of live herbs.  The radishes looked adorable, small bright red globes with lush looking green tops.  Denise said that the radishes were from Pontano Farm on Lincoln Road, and that her own radishes likely had a few more weeks until they were ready.  (The radishes I have at home in the garden look pretty shrimpy looking as well.)

As soon as I got back to the bakery, I showed Jill the little red and green bouquet of root vegetables and she got even more excited than I did.  She loves radishes and has fond memories of picking them out of her grandmothers’ garden when she was a child.  I plucked a few from the bundle and cleaned them up by cutting the greens off the top as well as the long stringy root from the bottom.  I then rinsed them under cold water to rid them of the dirt that clung to their sides.  They were then ready to eat.

The cool crunch was so nice and clean tasting.  There was just a little spiciness to the radishes (sometimes you get radishes that burn your mouth!), and we quickly gobbled them up.

The herbs that I picked up (thyme, oregano, and sage) I planted in the little garden that I started in front of the bakery.  There was a barren looking spot right in front of our steps that has bugged me for a little while.  Not because it looks bad, but because it just looked kind of blah.  A few weeks ago, I scooped out all the old grungy looking mulch and put a few buckets of compost and peat moss, and a few bags of topsoil on the patch.  I tilled everything in and planted some daffodils, mountain pinks, pansies, grape hyacinth, and pot of gold.  Now, I added an edible component to the garden so that I have ready access to fresh herbs when I’m at work.  It didn’t take too much work to make the plot look nice, and as the spring and summer progress, the flowers and herbs will fill in and the little plot that I’ve taken ownership over will be beautiful!

The next day, my friend John had a cookout at his place in honor of his birthday.  Again, the weather was nice and I got there a few hours after the celebration had started.  I was hungry, so I went over to the grill to see what was cooking.  I opened the lid to see a large pan of sausage, peppers and onions simmering in a rich looking broth.  The smell hit me, and I began salivating!  There were also burgers on the side, ready with cheese.  John wandered over at this point and proudly told me that the burgers were from Joe’s Butcher Shop and the sausage was from Serra Sausage.  Naturally, I had to try both.

I went onto the porch, grabbed some buns as well as Charlotte’s pasta salad, some potato salad and some green salad.  Back to the grill I went, where I loaded up the buns… one with a burger and one with sausage, peppers and onions.  The sausage was devoured first, and I was impressed with its flavor and texture.  Serra Sausage never disappoints!  It was awesome, and of course the onions and peppers added a pungency and sweetness that made me thoroughly happy.  The burger was next.

Now I don’t usually eat burgers.  Usually, they’re tough and greasy and they don’t really do it for me, so I usually bypass burgers.  (Plus, I generally stay away from red meat… not that you’d know it from reading my articles!).  Anyway, John said that these burgers were special, and as soon as I took a bite, I knew he was right.

These burgers were not greasy or tough, but actually had great flavor and texture.  They were excellent!  I’ve still never been to Joe’s Butcher Shop, but I will surely have to check it out now.  Joe’s clearly used quality meat with these patties, and they were cooked to perfection on the grill.
I can’t wait for summer.  The fresh fruits and veggies… the cookouts… I can almost taste it now!

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Broccoli rabe season snuck up on us this year.  Out of the blue, my mother-in-law called me at the bakery to say that she just drove by our secret stash of wild broccoli rabe and that they were ready to harvest.  In fact, she even saw a few patches of yellow sprinkled throughout the field, which meant that some of the plants were just about ready to go to seed.  At that point, the flavor drops and the toughness increases.

Ideally, one would want to harvest just before this point, so it was time to go!
That next day we had off, a few days after the phone call, Jill went with Brittany and our friend Kindra to the field to get wild broccoli rabe.  They returned a few hours later with eight plastic grocery bags full of freshly picked broccoli rabe.

Now the hard part began.  In order to preserve the wild bitter greens for future use, they needed to be cleaned, blanched in salted boiling water, and put into freezer bags.  Paula took one bag, and grandmom took two.  We went to the bakery to process our haul, because it’s certainly easier to clean them all in a professional kitchen.

The process was easy, but time consuming.  The first thing that we did was to get a big pot of water on the fire, and while we prepared the greens, it would slowly come to a boil.  We then went through each bag and filtered out all of the non-broccoli rabe pieces… weeds, wild onion greens, grass, etc.  We also removed any yellow or wilted pieces of the greens.  They don’t taste good, so we didn’t want to include those.
After the edible portions were separated, we proceeded to cut the greens into smallish, bite sized pieces.  The thicker stalks were split in half (so that they would cook at about the same rate) and then everything (stalks, leaves, flower buds) was put into a bucket.  Into the bucket went copious amounts of cold water to wash the dirt from the greens.  We filled the bucket up until the greens were covered and then used our hands to plunge the greens into the water in the same manor that a washing machine washes your clothes.  The greens were then scooped out by hand into a colander to drain.  We didn’t want to pour the bucket into the colander, because the dirt would have simply fallen right back onto the broccoli rabe.

After the initial washing, the greens were still a little dirty, so we washed them a second time (dandelion greens need to be washed three, four or more times because they are always really dirty!).  There was no reason to dry them in a salad spinner though, because they were just going to go right into the blanching water, which by this time had come to a nice rolling boil.

Into the churning salted water went handful upon handful of broccoli rabe.  We wanted to pre-cook the greens until tender so that they could be frozen and finished for future use.  After a few minutes of boiling, the water had turned a sort of army green color and the broccoli rabe was done.  Using a long pair of tongs, we removed the greens and placed them into a deep pan to cool.  This process was repeated several times, until all of our haul was completed.  (Thank you Jill, Kindra, and Brittany for taking care of most of this process!)

After the greens had cooled to room temperature, we portioned them into quart sized freezer bags, labeled them with masking tape, and basked in the knowledge that we would have a whole year worth of free, wild, nutritious, local, and delicious broccoli rabe in the freezer!

So what to do with all of these yummy greens?  That question inspired me to commit to a broccoli rabe filled lunch menu for family meal at the bakery this week.  The first day, we got some Kaiser rolls from Donkey’s Place across the street and made sandwiches of fried onions, mozzarella cheese, and broccoli rabe.  The next day, we had grandmom-style egg sandwiches with locally grown eggs, onions, and broccoli rabe, topped with thin slices of white cheddar cheese on crispy whole wheat bread.  The following day, we had Puerto Rican pigeon peas over brown rice and broccoli rabe.  On Wednesday we had burritos with brown rice, kidney beans, avocado, yogurt, and of course broccoli rabe all wrapped in whole grain tortillas.  Thursday for lunch, we had whole-wheat rotini pasta tossed in a sauce of olive oil, onions, garlic, Serra Sausage, Pecorino cheese, and naturally, broccoli rabe.  Friday, the broccoli rabe went on pizzas that we made at the bakery…

As you can see, broccoli rabe is very versatile and can be used in almost anything!  And considering that this is the first fresh veggie that’s been available in our region (asparagus is starting to come up, but isn’t harvestable yet and dandelion is a bit more limited in its uses), we seriously loaded up.  Perhaps after this week, we’ll tone down the consumption.  But this is what local eating is all about… eating what’s in season because it’s fresh, tasty, nutritious, and in our case with the broccoli rabe, totally free!

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Jill and I made plans last Wednesday to attend a cooking demonstration at Bellview Winery.  The chef that evening was Joe Messaglia from Mama Mia’s Ristorante & Pizzeria in Seaville.  Although I’ve never been to Mama Mia’s, I heard that the food was excellent and that Chef Joe puts on a good show!

We arrived a bit late, as we tend to do at evening events during the week, but I knew there would be a cocktail hour before the actual demo started, so we weren’t too worried about it.  We gathered ourselves together, and opened the front door to the winery.  There were about twenty-five people inside the lobby area, most chatted amicably with the folks around them, and everyone was sipping a blush colored beverage from Bellview-branded wine glasses.

Jim and Nancy, the owners of the winery, warmly greeted us and Nancy quickly poured us each a ‘cranberry spritzer.’  This was the blush colored wine that everyone was enjoying.  Nancy explained that it was a mixture of their own cranberry wine with seltzer and lemon-lime soda.  A twist of fresh lime clung to the rim of the glass, and we were encouraged to give it a squeeze into our drink.

As soon as we tasted our surprisingly refreshing spritzers, we turned to see who else was present for the demo.  Part of the fun of going to events like these is running into people that you know and sharing the evening with them.  Jill and I were pleased to see some familiar faces.  Mario Ruiz-Mesa, and his wife Carmen, were there.  They each own businesses downtown on Landis Avenue, Mario an insurance agency and Carmen, a real estate business.  We’ve socialized with them before on a professional level, but we’d never shared a meal before.  Sharing good food a drink brings a relationship to a whole new level in my opinion, so we made it a point to sit with them and their neighbor Sandy Jones who had joined them.

After moving us into the demonstration area and finding our seats, Jim took the whole group into the back to give us a tour of the winemaking facilities.  In an abbreviated manor (we were to see a cooking demo after all), he went through the wine making process from when the grapes come in to when the wine goes out.

As we stood listening to Jim, Jill nudged me and pointed out a gurgling sound off towards the rear of the large fermentation room.  Jill and I being former homebrewers, she recognized that gurgling as the sound of an airlock letting out carbon dioxide from a fermentation chamber.  I asked Jim about it, and he explained that it was a huge batch of their cranberry wine that was making the noise.  The cranberries had been added to the wine several days before, and the yeasts in the wine were happily digesting the sugars introduced with the cranberries.  He pointed to a large, silver fermentation vessel that had the telltale airlock on the top, in which we could see the water inside bubbling vigorously.

By this point, we were all getting to be quite hungry.  The cranberry spritzer had whetted our collective appetite, and we could smell delicious foods being prepared somewhere nearby.  We returned to our seats, and chef Joe Messaglia was introduced.  He came out into the demonstration area and spoke for a few minutes about himself.  I must say his story was quite impressive.  It included growing up in the family trattoria, attending an excellent culinary program in Italy, and working on cruise ships and fine restaurants all over the world.  This guy was made to cook good food!

Soon, he began preparing the first course; little purses of pasta, stuffed with a ham and prosciutto filling and tossed in Mama’s sauce.  The sauce was quite tasty and was a mixture of caramelized onions, peas, tomato, brandy, Marsala, and Parmesan cheese (among other secret ingredients).  It was an excellent first course, and the wines paired nicely with it.  I preferred Angelo’s Red Table Wine, although the 2006 Chardonnay was very good as well.

The main course was ‘Veal Rollatini Milanese’ which was pounded veal rolled around a filling of sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and ground sausage.  It was served with a stuffed tomato and a very interesting, slightly sweet lemon polenta.  For this course, I preferred the white wine, the 2007 Viognier.  Jim said that the Viognier grape seems to be growing particularly well in the vineyards, and it certainly tasted so.  It had a nice peachy aroma to it, and was the perfect acidity for the veal dish.  About half the people at the demo, though, preferred the red wine, which was a 2005 Chambourcin, an earthy mellow red wine that was very drinkable and very tasty.

Tiramisu was the final course of the evening, and that was paired with the sparkling wine Lettizzia, and the newly released 2008 Dandelion wine.  The real show-stopper though, was the bottle of 1971 Dandelion wine that Jim said the family found recently in the basement.  He was generous enough to have popped the cork on this extremely special wine, which was the color of honey and tasted like a fine sherry.  I couldn’t believe how good it tasted, how intense and complex the flavors were, and I seriously didn’t want it to end.  In all likelihood, we’ll never have a wine like that again, and Jill and I kept thinking back to Aunt Ada all those years ago on her hands and knees picking dandelion flowers from the very yard that surrounded the winery now.  Thank you Jim for sharing this special treat with us!

The evening was a blast, and I’m glad we got to sit with Mario and Carmen and share such a special night with them.  The food, the wine, the company… and of course the ’71 dandelion wine that I can still taste in my mouth.

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Why I write for you…

I hope you enjoy reading my articles as much as I enjoy writing them.  From the number of comments that I get from folks around town, it seems like you do.  Here’s a little bit about why I write for you…

First of all, I want this column to be a celebration of all foods local.  I am what you might consider a locavore, someone who seeks out and enjoys eating foods that are grown and produced locally.  The reasons for this are many, and include supporting small farmers, cutting down on the transportation costs and fuel consumption that goes along with moving food all over the world, keeping my money in the local economy, and the simple fact that local, seasonal food has the tendency to taste better.  But I feel that eating locally really connects me to my environment and to my region.  The constant changing of the seasons gives me a progressively changing menu of foods throughout the year.  Dandelion greens for instance are a being eaten all over south Jersey right now, not because they are available year-round in hermetically sealed bags at the grocery store, but because they are growing right here, right now in the soil that surrounds us.

Eating locally grown foods also connects me to a past that I know little about, but strive to learn from.  The immigrants that first moved to the area so long ago ate dandelion greens because they didn’t have the endless options for year round foods that we have now, and eating the foods that our recent ancestors ate, when they ate them, allows me to understand and respect them a little bit more.

I also want to use this column to highlight restaurants and eateries in Vineland, and in our region that are doing something truly special.  Too often, our culture gives in to the idea that homogenized, consistent foods are the best option.  With that idea, though, come bland foods, uninspired foods, foods that lack soul.  With the constant barrage of marketing that comes from corporate advertising, it’s easy to forget about the local food artisans that give our fair city something special.  The Greek salads at Olympia, the Chambourcin at Bellview Winery, the ravioli at Conte, the subs at Giovanni’s, the strawberries from Pantano Produce… these are the foodie spots that give Vineland something to be proud about (and there are many more that I don’t have space to write about!).

Another reason for my article is to inspire pride in Vineland.  Not being from the area and having lived in quite a few different places in this great country of ours, I have a different perspective of Vineland than many of our residents.  I was surprised, when I first moved here, about how many people were down on their town when there is so much great stuff around!  Mike Epifanio, the publisher of The Grapevine, and I share this passion for reigniting pride in our home city, so I’m happy to share my angle, which of course, is food.  In the past year, I’ve done stories from traditional Ukrainian Easter dinner, to the local soup kitchen, to a good ol’ fashioned family-style crab and spaghetti feast.  There is wonderful food stuff going on in Vineland, and I want to share with you as much as I can.

I also like to use this column to write about special events that happen in Vineland and our surrounding region.  The Rock n’ Roll n’ Ribs n’ Chili cook-off in downtown Vineland comes to mind as an awesome event that took place and is a source of pride.  The Dandelion Festival, which took place last weekend, is another really cool event that is very Vineland.  The chamber does a wonderful job of putting on this event every year, and the Savoy makes it happen without a flaw.  I know not everyone can attend these events, so if I’m fortunate enough to go, I enjoy sharing my experience with my readers so that they can attend vicariously.

Now that spring is here, and I’m feeling revitalized from the winter blues, I can’t wait for another year of food and drink.  Downtown Vineland has several food-oriented events… of course, the rib and chili cook-off, as well as the enormously successful seafood festival and the fresh and specialty foods market.  There will be new restaurants opening, and new possibilities for food and fun all over Vineland.  So make sure you go out this year and eat!

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