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Archive for October, 2009

Caldo Verde (“Poor Soup”)

Caldo Verde 03Right now, I’m sitting in the kitchen, typing and listening to the spattering of the soup that is bubbling on the stove.  Perhaps I love this time of year so much because I really enjoy cooking and making soup.  There is something so satisfying about eating a warm bowl of soup on a cool evening, especially when it’s made with the last of the fresh local veggies of the season.

It seems as though the stars have aligned for me to cook this particular soup, not only because of the brisk air outside, but because a) I recently got a bag of fresh veggies from our CSA group (community supported agriculture) that Jill and I joined this year and b) I had two of my wisdom teeth out this morning and just about all I can eat is soup!  But the most important reason for my being compelled to cook this soup was because of a chance encounter at the bakery.

Jill and I had been closed for a few hours on Saturday evening when a very nice older woman, Maria I believe was her name, came in with her granddaughter.  I saw them walking towards us from across the street, and as soon as they entered the doorway, the woman asked what I would be doing with the collard greens that were sitting out.  I had just gotten them from the farm that day and, since I don’t have much experience cooking collards, I had been wondering myself how I would prepare them.  She then began to tell me what called, ‘poor soup.’

The nice woman, who had a sharp Portuguese accent, told me about using collard greens in her ‘poor soup.’  She told me that it’s very simple, and at it’s most basic, the soup is simply pureed potato soup with thin slices of collards in it.  Caldo Verde is the proper name for it, and I saw later online that it could be considered a national dish of both Portuguese and Brazilian cuisines!

I could also see she why called it ‘poor soup,’ since it was nothing put cheap ingredients, bulked up with water to stretch the number of people it could feed.  Borcht would be the ‘poor soup’ of Jill’s Grandmom, since beets, cabbage and potatoes are featured prominently (and cheaply) in Ukrainian cooking.

Vegies1Caldo Verde is farm food, which I love so much!  Maria told me how she doctors up the basic soup, maybe a carrot and onion with the potatoes, and always with pieces of a good Portuguese sausage for a little meaty richness and salty boost.

After a few minutes of chatting, Maria’s daughter showed up and after telling me how to properly clean and prepare the collards and feeding me a few stories of ‘poor soup’ she pulled from her memory, the three women purchased the last of the pastries we had left in the case and took off into the evening.

Today though, I’m not feeling well on account of my now-removed wisdom teeth, but Grandmom made me a pot of lentil soup to help me recover.  When I returned from the surgeon’s office this afternoon, I enjoyed the hearty vegetarian lentil soup down to my soul.  Real soul food… Thank you Grandmom!

But then as it got closer to dinnertime, I wanted to make a pot of soup for myself, and ‘poor soup’ seemed the rational choice of what to prepare.  The cool thing about a basic recipe (like Maria’s ‘poor soup’) is that you can add endless amount of variety.  The recipe is so simple, it’s essentially a method and with practice one can prepare all sorts of new dishes.  This is on reason why I love learning about new foods, the foods of different cultures, because once you learn the basics of that cuisine, you can tweak it to make it your own.

Caldo Verde 02Caldo Verde 04In my CSA bag, besides the collards, were a few sweet potatoes and a sweet pepper.  I thought I could chop those up and add them to the potatoes as they simmered, as well as a carrot, an onion, a few cloves of garlic and about a cup of leftover white wine that I had in the fridge.  I also added to a bay leaf, for flavor and to aid in digestion, as well as some salt and pepper.  While that simmered, I prepared the collards by cutting the stems out (too tough), rolling the large deep green leaves into tight bundles like a cigar and then cutting them into thin strips (which is called a chiffonade cut).  I then washed them in the salad spinner and they were ready to be cooked.

The soup was ready at that point, the bubbling had slowed a bit and sounded like the aromatic vegetable broth was thickening.  I quickly and carefully poured the soup into the blender to puree and back into the pot, where I added the collards and let it all simmer for another few minutes (not too long, I was instructed by Maria).  I didn’t have any sausage (I could have used a nice Italian pepperoni or Spanish chorizo if I had either) so it was a vegan soup.  A little EVOO drizzled on top to give it an extra layer of richness, done.  Wholesome, healthy, satisfying and, from the smell coming from the bowl in front of me, very tasty.  Perfect on a cool, fall evening…

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Padre Pio

The weather a few Sunday mornings ago was awful… overcast and rainy.  It was too bad, I thought, because the Padre Pio Festival was going to take place later in the day.  As the morning progressed, I began to doubt that I would even go because it was simply yucky out.

Friends and Neighbors meet and dance at the Padre Pio festival

Friends and Neighbors meet and dance at the Padre Pio festival

Well the weather looked as though it was letting up, so Jill, my mother-in-law and I piled into the car and took off for Our Lady of Pompeii on Dante Ave.  We arrived to ever increasing good weather (the sun actually came out!) and a grass field absolutely packed with cars and trucks.

There were so many people there, I couldn’t believe my eyes!  We walked closer to where the action was, ducked under yellow caution tape set up around the perimeter and dodged several large puddles that the rain had left earlier in the day.  Under the canopy of trees were dozens of picnic tables, almost all of them with ringed with people eating, drinking, and talking.  The hum of hundreds of conversations filled the air, as well as the cheerful sound of Italian singing and instruments coming from the stage.

Almost immediately, we saw folks that we knew… friends, family and guests of ours from the bakery.  It was silly how much of a social event this festival was.  Not only did we see all sorts of people that we knew, it seemed as though everyone there was running into people that they knew as well.  What an amazing event!

But as much as I loved talking to friends and family, what I really went for was the food!  In the middle of the festivities was the dessert and coffee area, which was loaded with Italian pastries, but that would have to wait since I was hungry for lunch!  Along the back of the festival was a long covered area, with little kitchenettes, each filled with busily working volunteers.  Above each kitchenette was a sign; just a single word that announced what was being served underneath.  ‘Pizza, Sausage, Eggplant, Meatballs, Porchetta.’  Porchetta sounded interesting, so I immediately went to that booth to see what was going on.

As I walked up, I caught the savory smell of roasted pork.  It’s aroma was heavenly.  Behind the counter, there was a crew of gentlemen carving up whole roasted pigs.  The crusty brown skin of the pig was no match for their sharpened knives as they carved and the meat from the animal and then placed it onto cutting boards.  From there, large cleavers dramatically chopped the meat into small pieces before it went into a warming vessel.  Squares of foil were laid out, and rolls were placed in the center.  Tommy Merighi then placed a tong-full of pork onto the roll, wrapped it up, and handed it to me.  ‘Buon appetito!’

The ‘porchetta’ was phenomenal.  The pork was very moist, a bit salty, and the roll absorbed the juices from the meat.  It was so good I could have eaten another one, but I wanted to try something else!  I then got in line to get the sausage sandwich.  Dozens of sausages were browning on a flat top range, and when I ordered my sandwich, one was plucked off the heat and placed in a too-short bun.  I was instructed to put grilled peppers on my bun, if I so pleased, and was directed to two pans… one with sweet peppers, one with long hots.  I wedged a few sweet peppers under the glistening sausage, and placed one long between the meat and bun.

Folks enjoying the Italian food and fellowship

Folks enjoying the Italian food and fellowship

I savored every bite of that sandwich too.  It was simple, but delicious.  And eating it with all those people around, the Italian music filling the air, and the smell of pork in my nose added to the ambiance and enjoyment of the food.

The Padre Pio Festival also had the added benefit, aside from the amazing food options, of offering dirt cheap, local and fresh-as-can-be produce.  Local farms donated all the produce sold that day, with the proceeds going straight to the church.  It’s a true community event, because the farmers and their families actually worked the booths as well!

You can't get any fresher than Jersey Fresh!

You can't get any fresher than Jersey Fresh!

All sorts of vegetables, herbs, and greens were being sold, all for next to nothing.  We picked up leeks, escarole, beets, lettuce, arugula, basil and more.  All told, we spent $13 and got bags and bags of produce!

Chef Jill with her fresh produce

Chef Jill with her fresh produce

Before leaving though, we had to get some dessert.  After walking out to the car to drop off the produce, we went back to the dessert island to pick out what we wanted.  Since it was an Italian festival, we went for the homemade goodies… tiramisu, cannoli, and sfogliatelle.  To be honest, I’m kind of a dessert snob (I can’t help it), but these desserts were excellent.  They were moist and creamy, crispy and flavorful, and I was definitely impressed.

The Padre Pio Festival ended up being blessed with great weather and a great turnout.  It was nice that there were so many places to sit… to eat, drink, be social, and marvel at how lucky we are to live in such a wonderful area.  I already can’t wait for one of those porchetta sandwiches next year… Salud!

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Jill and Stephen at the CIA

Jill and Stephen at the CIA

Several months ago, Jill and I were invited to return to our alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), to put on a cake decorating demonstration for our fellow alumni as part of a reunion weekend.  We were honored to have been asked, and we agreed with much enthusiasm.  After all, it had been several years since we had last been to our beloved college and October in upstate New York is a beautiful time of year.

We prepared the bakery accordingly, and left it the capable hands of Brittany and Ariana.  The drive up was uneventful and a mere four hours after leaving Vineland, we arrived in Hyde Park.  The campus was beautiful and it was great seeing the old sights; the bakeshop where Jill and I first became friends, the kitchens we worked in, the classrooms where we learned so much…

After settling in and finding a home for the cake (and various equipment) that we had brought, it was time to eat!  We went first to the Apple Pie Bakery/Café, where we drank espresso and ate a lovely brioche tart filled with spiced mascarpone and topped with candied butternut squash.  This was far more avant garde than the pastry that Jill and I made when we attended that class, which was a curious surprise!

Stephen celebrates his birthday with Jill and Paula

Stephen celebrates his birthday with Jill and Paula

Since it was my birthday, my mother-in-law treated us to dinner at one of the restaurants on campus, the Caterina di Medici, which specialized in Italian cuisine and is the shining jewel of the five eateries on campus.  We started with cocktails, which I rarely get, but hey, it was my birthday!

We ended up eating very well that evening, the standouts being Garganelli al Ragù (a pasta similar in shape to penne, served with a classic Bolognese meat sauce), Costolette d’agnello con Peperonata e Zucchine (Lamb Rack with pepper/tomato stew and sautéed zucchini), several ridiculously good Italian cheeses as well as a platter of bite sized cookies and candies.  The service and food was excellent, especially considering the staff is composed primarily of students who rotate in and out of the kitchens every few weeks.  It was good to be back on campus, and we left quite satisfied.

Jill demonstrates cake decorating while Stephen answers questions about running a small business

Jill demonstrates cake decorating while Stephen answers questions about running a small business

The next day was the day of the cake demonstration.  Our nerves were a little on edge leading up the demo, as the gravity (at least in our minds) of what we were doing caught up with us.  For the most part though, we were relaxed and excited to be there.  The demo went off without a hitch, and in addition to Jill showing off her cake-decorating prowess, we got the opportunity to talk up Vineland and south Jersey to the roughly 60 people who were in attendance from all over the country.  It was a good time, and we hope to do it again in the future.

The Sweet Life Bakery cake demonstration was a success!

The Sweet Life Bakery cake demonstration was a success!

Stephen enjoys the alumni dinner

Stephen enjoys the alumni dinner

That evening was the alumni dinner, and if there’s one thing you do at the CIA, it’s  eat well.  After the demo, we had time to change at our hotel before heading back to campus.  We walked into the main hall and were greeted by students of the soon to be graduating class, who had organized and executed the entire alumni dinner.  Platters of wine, both still and sparkling, were being passed.  The sparkling was good, dry and crisp, but the still wine was gorgeous in its fruity aroma and full body.

In addition to the wines, there were little hors d’oeuvre being passed.  My favorites were tiny piles of cold, rich lobster salad on crisp round toasts, and triangles of toasted bread on which sat a thumb-sized piece of seared fois gras that hid a dab of lingonberry jam.  Fois gras is, in my opinion, the height of decadent dining, and I relished the opportunity to eat several of these bite-sized delicacies (doubly so since they were complimentary!).

A selection of NY cheeses

A selection of NY cheeses

What Jill and I hadn’t noticed when we first arrived was a table of cheeses that was set up outside the dining hall.  We meandered over to discover that there was a wide selection of cheeses all from New York available for us to sample.  There were quite a few creamy goat cheeses, a few pungent sheep milk cheeses, and several classic cows milk cheeses.  I am an avowed cheese-a-holic, so I was in hog heaven at this particular table.

Dinner soon followed; rich lobster bisque, butternut ravioli, and pumpkin crème brulée among other delicious foods.  Again, everything was wonderful and like the previous evening, everything was done by the students.  I must say, I was proud of them.  To put on a banquet of such high caliber is no easy task, and not only that, they ended up raising over $6,000 for scholarship funds through a Chinese auction to boot!

It was great visiting the CIA.  It’s a beautiful campus, stunning actually, but what I liked most (and what I liked most when I attended) was the passion for food that is evident everywhere you look.  The dorms are named after culinary spices; kitchens display student chefs learning their trade, and everyone (students and visitors alike) eat well… very well.  It’s definitely my kind of place.

Close up detail of the Sweet Life cake

Close up detail of the Sweet Life cake

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Talula’s Table

The Sweet Life Gang is getting bigger!

The Sweet Life Gang is getting bigger!

The crew of The Sweet Life took another culinary adventure recently, this time to Talula’s Table in Kennett Square, PA.  I had heard about Talula’s Table last summer when a piece aired about it on the radio, and so Jill and I had been wanting to make the short trip over there ever since.  In fact, soon after the piece aired last summer, my mother went and raved about it, and so our resolve to visit had been steadfast since then.

Jill and I actually first visited two weeks ago with my mother and sister, and we had such a positive experience that we needed to take our crew with us so that they could experience the phenomenal service, excellent food, and unique concept and atmosphere.  We also wanted to return because unbeknownst to the four of us, the day that we visited coincided with the 24th annual Kennett Square Mushroom Festival.  Mushrooms are a big deal there, since the town bills itself of the ‘mushroom capital of the world’ and so needless to say, there were severe crowds, little parking, and a general crushing feeling.  Regardless of the mass of people in Kennett Square that day though, we felt that there was something special at Taula’s Table and we needed to return on a more normal day.

The very next Sunday, the eight Sweet Lifers piled into two cars and began our road trip to Pennsylvania.  The traffic was light and the weather was perfect, and we arrived there about an hour and a half after leaving Vineland.  I had heard that downtown Kennett Square was very cute and so I had expected to feel pangs of jealously walking down their ‘main street.’  But seeing the stereotypical downtown cutesiness made me realize how far Landis Avenue has come in the two years since we opened The Sweet Life.  Kennett Square was cute, but Vineland’s downtown has its own unique feel and I didn’t feel any sort of jealously from the ‘main street’ I was visiting.

The family table at Talula's Table

The family table at Talula's Table

Then we arrived at our destination, the eight of us forming a stream a people as we walked in the open door with gusto.  Jill and I had made nice with the manager, Titus, the previous week and she welcomed our group warmly.  I went to the back of the self-described ‘gourmet food market’ and hovered around the one large family table in the rear of to save our group seats while everyone else explored the medium sized shop.

Oh and how there was much to explore!  The front windows featured much plant life (which Jill especially loved), as well as a few prime sunlit seats.  Along the walls were shelves with jams and jellies, pastas and sauces, oils and vinegars.  Many gourmet products were to be found, and before we left, we managed to grab a few boxes of organic teas.

But first, we were hungry.  In addition to having grab-n-so salads and sandwiches near the front of the market for those in a hurry, towards the back of the retail area was where the good stuff was.

There were refrigerated cases of house-made sausages, ravioli, soups, and salad dressings.  A cold case in the back held copious amounts of delicious cheeses, as well as platters of such dishes as lobster pot pie, eggplant rollatini, fresh succotash, mac n’ cheese, roasted beet salad, lamb tenderloin kebabs…  An old-fashioned pie saver case near the cheeses held a modest variety of fresh baked bread; baguettes, sourdough loaves, soft rolls and pretzels.

Needless to say, we ate quite well.  Titus arranged a nice platter of six different cheeses, complete with a little dish of local honey. Small plates of food arrived one after the other, and we each had our favorite dishes.  In my mind, the succotash, cheeses, and lobster pot pie stood out.  Everything was phenomenal though, and I kind of didn’t want lunch to end.

A beautifully prepared cheese platter

A beautifully prepared cheese platter

Of course we had dessert and coffee after the food.  Behind the seating area in the front there was a small coffee bar with a tiny pastry case full of tarts, mini-cheesecakes, and chocolate tortes.  On the other side of the bar, a rack of cookies, scones other baked pastries stood admirably.  The peanut butter sandwich cookie was my favorite, although the slice of carrot cake seemed to be the most popular with the rest of the crew.

Talula's staff kept the Sweet Life team happy!

Talula's staff kept the Sweet Life team happy!

For the true foodies out there, Talula’s Table in Kennett Square is definitely worth checking out.  While on a road trip there, you can also stop at Longwood Gardens (which is a few minutes away), any of the wineries or antique shops in the area.  But the real star in my mind is the unique and incredible dining experience at Talula’s Table.  Cheers!

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