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Archive for May, 2009

Road trips are a delicious opportunity to try new foods.  I shun the typical road food that lines the interstate highways, corporate soul-less fast food joints and the like.  Sure, you know what you’re going to get, but I’m an adventurous sort of guy and I like eating the regional specialties of where I’m traveling.  I especially like to eat what the locals eat, because I can tell a lot about folks by what they eat.

Jill and I recently made a road trip down to South Carolina to make the wedding cake for my cousin Katie and her new husband.  The trip down was an adventure in itself, mostly because of the rather large wedding cake that we had packaged up in boxes in the trunk as well as the ridiculous amount of traffic that lined the beltway around Washington D.C.  What should have been an eight-hour trip, ended up being an eleven-hour trip.  Fortunately, the cake made it safe and sound, and the Katie was tremendously happy that her cousin and his wife got to play such an important role in her special day.

Once we got the cake safely in the fridge at the reception site, we decided to head out to explore.  Since we were in Dillon, South Carolina, we wanted to get some southern food. (Anyone who has driven down I-95 has been by Dillon, although they may not know it… Dillon is the home of South of the Border, the Mexican themed kitsch tourist trap just south of the North Carolina border.)

So how does one find a good restaurant in unfamiliar territory?  Ask the locals, of course, so that’s what we did.  Unfortunately, the nice young lady at the desk (with an almost incomprehensible southern accent) wasn’t too much help.  She mentioned a few places, but since she seemed to be debating with herself about where the best barbeque place was, none of them were directed towards me.  She finally settled on the BBQ joint next the hotel, which struck me as suspicious since she didn’t seem too confidant in that choice and I tend not to trust that the best food in town is also where all of the tourists are going.

Jill and I decided to drive around a little bit, and we’d see what we stumbled upon.  We headed towards downtown Dillon, since downtown is usually the first place I go when visiting a new area.  The downtown was a little dilapidated, and there wasn’t too much there in the way of food.  We stopped into one place, a local grill that had one occupied table and a not very impressive looking menu.  We moved on.

We were headed back towards the hotel, to the original place that was half-heartedly recommended to us, when we drove up to a small restaurant with a full parking lot and an unassuming façade.  Papa Tom’s it was called, and as soon I saw it, I recognized that this was one of the places the lady at the front desk had mentioned to herself.  We quickly pulled in.

Jill and I walked up to the ordering window and a nice woman with short bleached blond hair asked what we’d like.  We perused the menu and settled on a BBQ sandwich platter and fried chicken, both came with fresh slaw and French fries.  To drink, we of course went for sweet tea (your only other option in the south is lemonade).  We were warned that it would be about twenty minutes before our order was done, since they make everything fresh there… always a good sign.

After seating ourselves in the tiny dining room off to the side, and watching the locals filter in, our food came out.  The chicken was lightly breaded and golden brown.  It looked and smelled incredible.  I tore off a piece of the meat, and the juices literally dripped from the meat.  It was steaming profusely, and so I blew ever so gently on it before popping the piece into my mouth.  It was everything I could ever hope for in fried chicken.  It tasted as good as it looked, and we quickly devoured both pieces.  The tea, which I had found too sweet by itself, was actually a wonderful foil to the salty, greasy chicken.  The slaw, sprinkled with flecks of green and white, was clearly freshly made and was crunchy and creamy and cooled my mouth.  The fries were okay, but with a few squirts of catsup, went well with the rest of the meal.  Jill’s BBQ was not be ignored though.  The pulled pork was tender and vinegary, and on a white bread roll with slaw on top, it was darn good.

We chatted it up with the blond-haired woman, who owns and runs the shop with her sister, and she was happy to see a couple of northerners enjoying her southern food.  There certainly is a certain charm to the south… perhaps it’s the hospitality; maybe it’s the accent.  I don’t know what it is, but I like it and I can’t wait until my next excuse to head back down south for some fried chicken and BBQ.  If I’m back in Dillon, I’ll be sure to stop at exit 193 for some more of Papa Tom’s.

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I pulled into the parking lot of Wallace Middle School and gathered my belongings.  At the front door, I checked in with the security guards, one of whom showed me upstairs to the classroom that I was looking for.  Inside, Rob Buono, the chef at the Greenview Inn at Eastlyn Golf Course, was standing at the front of the room at the whiteboard.  He had just drawn the rough outline of a tongue, and was labeling the areas of the tongue that perceived taste.

I was at Wallace to sit in on a lecture and cooking demonstration by Rob to the middle schoolers.  I had been invited by one of the teachers to observe and since Jill or I are usually the ones doing demos, I thought it would be fun to experience one from a different perspective.

Several classes began filtering into this one classroom, and Rob began passing out packets of information that included basic information including food safety, a bit about his culinary philosophy, and info about the taste sensations.  The kids quieted down, and Rob spoke briefly about his background and restaurant.

Rob then spoke about the tastes that one can sense (did you know that besides salty, sweet, bitter, and sour that there is a fifth taste called umami that is detected in meats, mushrooms, and soy sauce?).  Paper cups with various snacks were then passed out that had examples of the tastes (minus umami)… chips for salty, chocolate covered raisins for sweet, lemon juice for bitter (boy was it funny watching the facial contortions the kids made when they sipped the lemon juice!), and sour patch kids for sour.  Rob pointed out to the kids that talented cooks can use different tastes in conjunction with each other to create complex and delicious combinations of food, like how the sour patch kids incorporated sour and sweet together.

The class was quite full, and when that many middle schoolers sit packed into one room, it gets a little noisy!  It didn’t take too long for the kids to become progressively more fidgety, so it was decided that the time had come to move onto the hands-on portion of the morning.

Downstairs we went, all 60 students, several teachers, some assistants, one chef and one writer into the cafeteria.  The tables and chairs had been arranged into individual stations for the kids to work at.  Rob announced that he would be demonstrating how to make a stromboli (sort of a calzone) and that each student would be making their own as well!  A certain electricity buzzed through the room at the mention of this…

Rob and his assistants passed out scoops of flour and balls of dough, and then showed everyone how to press and shape the dough into a pancake shape about 12 “ in diameter.  He then ladled some sauce, sprinkled some cheese, and tossed some sausage onto the dough.  He swiftly, but ever so tenderly, folded and rolled the dough into the proper shape; an envelope of pure goodness.

Over the course of the next hour or so, the kids went to town.  Flour flew through the air and onto witty tee shirts and fashionable shoes.  Everyone was having fun.  A line formed behind a table in the front of the cafeteria where Rob allowed the kids to fill their own stromboli with a number of yummy fillings, all of which were generously donated by the Greenview Inn.

Into preheated ovens they went.  The cafeteria filled with the savory smells of tomato sauce and baking pizza dough.  The kids then dug in, hopefully a little more empowered to cook their own food and experience the joys of getting into the kitchen and creating something nutritious and delicious.  I asked a table of kids what they thought of their creations?  Perfect, was the unanimous reply.

Two more Signs of the Season

As you read this, fresh strawberries from local farms are being consumed right here in Vineland.  Yes, it’s that time of the year… strawberry season!  We got our first of the sweet, red, juicy berries a few days ago from Pontano Farm Stand on Lincoln Avenue and are they ever good.  There are many places to get local strawberries around town, so make sure you take advantage of the local bounty and frequent your neighborhood farm stand for Jersey Fresh strawberries.

It’s also the time of year for chicken barbeques.  Since moving to New Jersey, I’ve noticed that many churches and organizations run chicken barbeques in the summer as fundraisers.  I’d like your help in finding that one chicken barbeque that you wait for every summer.  Is it the one where all the ladies of the church make a huge batch of the tastiest potato salad?  How about the one with the most succulent chicken?  E-mail your favorite, and I’ll promote and write an article about the fundraiser that seems to have the most fans around town.  I look forward to hearing from you, and thanks in advance!

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Day Trip to Philly

The crew of The Sweet Life Bakery took another day trip to Philly a couple of weeks ago to spend our tip fund.  Thanks again to everyone who put their change (or more!) into the jar.  And to recap, we used the funds from our tip jar not only for fun, but for learning as well.

A guest of ours, Bob from Napa Auto Parts on Landis Ave, had been telling us about an excellent crab shack called DiNardos.  We all love crabs, so I went onto their website to do a little research and it looked like a winner to me.  Bonus points for dinner on Monday evening because it’s all-you-can-eat crab night every Monday night.

Since we were going into Philly, we also thought we’d check out some pastry shops and bread shops, and so I Googled a few places to visit and mapped them out on my blackberry.  We also were told about a cheese shop (we LOVE cheese) on Chestnut called DiBruno Brothers that we wanted to see.  But first, we’d start the day off at the Mütter Museum… the museum at medial oddities that is housed at the Philadelphia Physicians College.

On the day of our planned trip, we met at the bakery for quick coffees.  It was raining and dreary out, so we packed umbrellas and ponchos and headed to the big city.  We arrived at a parking lot behind the Mütter and Ariana skillfully wedged her car between a mini-van and a sedan.  The three of us were hungry and since it was raining, we didn’t want to walk too far.  Fortunately, we happened upon a pizza joint and went inside.

The pizza place wasn’t too busy, I imagine the rain was keeping folks away, and so we ordered a margarita pizza and water and waited for it to come to the table.  After eating the saucy pie, we headed over to the Mütter.  It was a wonderful day for a visit to a museum, and we spent the next several hours wondering through the interesting and sometimes creepy exhibits at the Mütter.

By the time we left, the rain had slowed to a sputter and so we took the opportunity to walk down Chestnut.  There’s nothing like walking in the big city, so interesting and exhilarating.  We found Swis Haus bakery, which would have looked at home in a European village, and sat inside while we ate tiramisu, almond pear tart, crumb-topped cheesecake, and a simple and very tasty woopie pie.

After leaving Swiss Haus, we walked to a nearby bread bakery called Le Bus, and grabbed an almond croissant and a loaf of black olive bread to try the following day.  The rain started coming down again so we quickly found DiBruno Brothers at 1730 Chestnut Street.

We walked in and I immediately knew that I had found a special place.  DiBruno Brothers was stocked full of all the great foods that I love… cheeses, breads, coffee, pastries, meats, prepared foods, and pastas!  I thought I had died and gone to heaven!  The first place we went was to the cheese counter, where hundreds of cheeses were laid out like a paints on a painters palette.  We were somewhat hungry, so we thought that we’d get a loaf of bread and eat it with cheese.

I told the cheesemonger that we were there to eat, so I asked him for direction.  I think that he appreciated the challenge and the opportunity to sell some cheeses that he liked.  We thought perhaps we’d get three or four cheeses, so he picked out a variety of different textures and flavors.  Before we decided to purchase the cheeses he suggested, he gave us each a little sample to see what we thought.  Since the cheeses were on the expensive side, it was great to be able to try them first (and good cheese costs good money!).  After picking out a soft Italian brie, a fresh goat cheese from California, an English blue, and a hard cave-aged Gruyere, we grabbed a loaf of fresh ciabatta and sat at the front of the store and ate.  It was lovely.

After walking around a bit, and being stranded for a while in Barnes and Noble because of the weather (not a bad place to be stuck!), we took a cab to DiNardo’s Famous Crabs.  We arrived at the restaurant at 312 Race Street ready to devour some crabs.  DiNardo’s gets their crabs fresh every day from the Gulf of Mexico, where blue crabs are always in season due to the warm water temperatures.  Monday is ‘all you can eat’ day, so the four of us prepared ourselves with a pitcher of cold beer on the table and plastic bibs around our necks.  The steaming crabs began to arrive on big platters, piled on top of each other and coated in a special seasoning.  These crabs were not cleaned, which we were not used to, but the placemats that sat in front of us showed us the way.  It took a little getting used to, but we figured it out pretty quickly and ate many crabs before the night was done!

Because we used our tip jar money, we each paid special attention to the food and the service everywhere we went.  Everywhere we visited, even the museum and bookstore, offered an opportunity for learning.  Thank you to all who left change in the tip jar for giving us the opportunity to learn and eat in Philly!

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Two years ago, we planted asparagus roots in our backyard garden.  Last year, when the slender green shoots starting slinking out of the ground, we were forbidden from harvesting them to give the roots sufficient time to build up energy reserves (okay, so maybe I picked a few…).  This year, enough time had passed to cut the asparagus spears from the ground when they emerged.  Early in April, one or two began to poke out of the soil and I knew that the time was near for fresh asparagus.

There are only a few plants in our garden, enough for a side dish of one meal at a time, but I love fresh asparagus and I knew our little harvest would not be enough for me.  Ever since my asparagus began rising out of the garden, I’d been eyeballing the tight bundles at the grocery store or produce market to see if they were from Jersey.  Sadly, they were from Peru or Mexico, and I knew that it would be cheating to buy those foreigners so close to the Jersey asparagus season.  I mean, when we’re so close to the harvest here, why spoil it by eating imported asparagus… Sure it would be ‘good’, but ‘good’ pales in comparison to the tender, crisp, incredibly flavorful spears of local, in-season asparagus.

Finally, my mother-in-law called Walkers, the local supplier of asparagus and they informed us when the spears would be ready at their farm stand.  On the very day last week when they said the asparagus would be ready, she showed up at the bakery with a medium sized brown paper bag filled with several handfuls of the green spears!  The time had come at long last!  This is why I love spring, the longing is over… the weeks and months of eating shipped produce quickly comes to an end!

The following Monday, Jill and I made our way up Route 40 just past Malaga and turned left onto Porchtown Road.  Just up the road on the right hand side was Walkers Farm Stand.  We pulled into the dusty parking lot, and made our way inside.  There, at a small round table in the front, were several tubs of asparagus.  One of the grey tubs had pre-bundled spears, but the other two were stacked with loose asparagus that was thirty cents cheaper per pound.  Jill loaded up a bag with several pounds of the slender green spears, and we were ready to check out.

I started up a conversation with Troy.  He was very nice and helpful, and I asked if he eats a lot of asparagus… naturally, he does this time of year!  His favorite preperation is to grill the asparagus, which happens to be my preferred way of cooking asparagus as well.

At about this time, Jeff, the market manager showed up and I had the opportunity to talk to him for a while.  He was a very nice gentleman, and we talked about the farm; how big it is (300 acres with 30 devoted to asparagus), how long the farm has been around (since the 1840’s with 30 years of asparagus production and five generations of Walker’s working the Earth), and his favorite way to prepare asparagus (steamed in the microwave or raw right out of the ground).  I have to say that I do this as well in my garden… there is nothing like eating asparagus right out of the ground with nothing on it.  It was obvious to me that this family loves farming and loves good food, they’re clearly experts at the craft of growing fresh produce.

Jeff also told me about where one can buy Walker’s asparagus in and around Vineland, including at Malench, Weavers, Levari farm stands.  The cool thing about buying it right at the farm stand is that the asparagus that you buy there was picked that very day. Any leftovers they have from the market go to the produce auction and then onto the wide world of asparagus eaters.  Like a lot of produce, the minute that it’s picked, it begins to deteriorate in flavor and texture.  So definitely plan on stopping by the farm stand at 105 Porchtown Road in Pittsgrove. Or at least check out the website at < http://www.walkersfarmmarket.com/&gt;

So Jill and I took that bag home, and consumed the entire contents within a few days.  I made sautéed asparagus with pea shoots and green garlic (all from my garden) when we got home that night.  The asparagus was so tender and delicious!  That week, we also ate asparagus and peas over pasta, grilled asparagus, asparagus soup…

Before I left Walkers, I grabbed a recipe sheet they had available.  There was salad of cold asparagus and vinegarette that I’m looking at now that looks really tasty… perhaps when I go back for more this weekend, I’ll have to try that one out.  Who knows, it may become my new favorite way to eat this tasty spring veggie!

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