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The best kinds of fundraisers are the ones where food and community come together to raise money for a worthy cause.  The spirit of the community really shines at these events, since they are typically organized and executed by an all-volunteer staff and enjoyed by many people.

Greenwich Fire Hall

The events that are an annual tradition are the best, because they’re looked forward to all year long, and a shining example of this is the annual ‘Asparagus and Egg Breakfast’ at the Greenwich Fire Hall.

Two foodie friends of ours live in Greenwich, so they knew how much Jill and I would appreciate the meal.  I had wanted to attend for the past few years, because I’d heard so much about it, but scheduling conflicts had prevented me from doing so.  This year, Misty sent me an e-mail invitation many weeks before the event, so I eagerly wrote it in my calendar.  Jill and I invited my mother and sister along, so last Sunday we got into the car and made our way over to the historic township of Greenwich.

The drive there was beautiful in the late spring morning.  Along the way, we passed many fields of newly planted vegetables, the rolling fields of peach trees at Sunny Slope Farm outside of Bridgeton, and progressively marshier lands as we approached the small township of Greenwich.  We weren’t exactly sure where the Fire Company was located in town, but we were confidant that we’d find it when we entered Greenwich.

Our prediction turned out to be quite true.  As we crossed a small bridge and looked over the Cohansey River to our left, Greenwich came into view and there were cars parked all along the side of the road.  Satiated people walked slowly down the street, away from where the fire hall must have been, while hungry-looking people walked in the opposite direction.  They were our homing pigeons, and we followed them to where the food was.

The fire hall was a cute older structure (much of the town would fall under this description), and there were dozens of people outside.  Most were waiting in a rather long line on the left side of the building, with the line snaking into a doorway.

A dining hall full!

In the middle of the structure, the doors that normally hid the fire engines were open and the fire hall itself was filled with tables and chairs, where hungry patrons were eating and talking.  In front of the fire hall, community notices were being passed out for everything from FEMA notices regarding the recent flooding to info on registering for dog tags.  Some folks also were selling plants and historical booklets about the town, and the event even had it’s own branded shirts, coffee mugs, and other merchandise all advertising the ‘Asparagus and Egg Breakfast.’

The four of us got in line (where we saw quite a few Vinelanders) and waited as it snaked up the stairs and into the hall on the second floor where many people were eating and the food was being served.

Stephen being served by Misty and Charles Reinhart

Our bellies rumbled as folks walked by us down the stairs, plates loaded with food and assuring us that it was well worth the wait.  Before long, we reached the buffet where our friends Misty and Charles were fortuitously serving at the front of the buffet.  Misty said that this was the busiest they had ever been (serving a total of 885 people!), and the kitchen was definitely busting out some serious amounts of food.  Our hello to our friends was brief though, as they had many more people to serve.

We helped ourselves to eggs and potatoes, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, ham and sausage, Italian bread, and a ridiculous amount of home-baked muffins and cornbread.  Coffee and orange juice was served too, and at $10, was quite a deal.  We made our way downstairs, where there were less people eating and we could enjoy the open air.

The food was nice and we enjoyed our breakfast tremendously.  And at these types of events, the community fundraiser, it’s always good to know that the money is going towards a good cause.  But not only is it just a simple fundraiser, it’s a time for friends and family to reconnect over an annual small-town tradition.

We noticed a group of about eight seniors sitting at the table next to us attempting to get a group picture.

McKenzie and Tracey Wilson (aka Sis and Mom) enjoy breakfast

While Jill volunteered to take a few photos for them, my mother and I hypothesized that they’d been gathering here longer than both of us had been alive.  That’s what these events are about, strengthening and reinforcing the bonds of a community… the food is just an excuse, but at the annual ‘Asparagus and Egg Breakfast,’ it’s a darn tasty excuse nonetheless.

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Franklin Fountain

I hadn’t had good ice cream in a while, and I was definitely craving some. Frozen custard is good, and I do enjoy going to Serene’s on the Boulevard for my twist fix (or sometimes a thick chocolate malted milkshake).  But when my mother-in-law came back from her brothers house talking about an old-time ice cream fountain in Philadelphia that her niece told her about, we made plans to go visit.

Jill and I owed her a dinner in the city anyway, since our original plans happened to coincide with the last major snowstorm we had in February.  So we made plans to go to Philly to walk around old city a bit, check out some restaurant equipment places, find a bakery or two to nosh on some goodies, get dinner, and of course to wander into The Franklin Fountain for some ice cream.

Franklin Fountain

We drove into the city across the Ben Franklin Bridge and turned onto the Eighth Street exit.  A quick left took us onto Market Street and down to Second, where we found a parking spot.  We got out and walked down almost to the end of Market Street, and there at 116 Market Street was The Franklin Fountain.  I opened the door, and we walked inside.

A gentleman wearing a white apron, paper hat and a sharp looking black bow tie warmly greeted us.  He certainly looked the part of the soda jerk.  Directly in front of us was the ice cream counter, and behind the jerk (so named because of the jerking action the soda handles required back in the day, and not the attitude of the person working the counter) was the menu.  It was quite extensive.

I didn’t really know where to start, nor did my companions, because there were so many delicious flavors to choose from.  Most were classic flavors (vanilla bean, strawberry), but there were some contemporary ones (black raspberry, green tea) and some unusual old flavors (teaberry and hydrox cookie).  While we waited, another man came in and seemed to know what he wanted.  We told him to go ahead, and he proceeded to order an egg cream.  I watched as the jerk mixed up a fresh drink of chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer for this customer, and boy did it look good!  I didn’t even know you could order egg creams anywhere.  I’d heard of them, but never had one before, but my mind was kind of set on ice cream.  Oh, the sorrows of limiting oneself to one indulgence at a time…

Since we didn’t know where to turn, we asked the professional for help.  The jerk told us that he would be happy to give us a sample of any flavor we wished, so we proceeded to try the teaberry (a little too much like Pepto-Bismol in taste and color), the black raspberry (very tasty, but not quite what I was looking for).  The pistachio was next, and it was the real deal.  Not the florescent pistachio ice cream I usually see, but a muted green color with big pieces of real pistachio nuts in it, bursting with the complex pistachio flavor that I adore.  But that still wasn’t quite what I wanted.  I tried the butter pecan next, and I thought I had found a winner until my mother-in-law declared that is what she would be getting!  (It always feels strange to me to get something that someone else has already ordered…).

The jerk scooped her an enormous ball of ice cream and placed it onto a cone, and it looked lovely.  Jill then discovered that there were sundaes that we could order as well, so we decided to split one of these.  Again, there were too many delicious sounding choices, but we settled on the Mt. Vesuvius.

The Mount Vesuvius

It consisted of two scoops of ice cream (we went with rocky road and coconut), topped with hot fudge sauce, brownies pieces, a sprinkling of malt powder and finally, whipped cream.  Totally ridiculous, I know.

It was as good as it sounded.  The ice creams were amazing, thick and creamy… real ice cream, not full of air (overrun, to use the industry lingo).  The coconut was assertive, yet subtle, while the rocky road was chocolaty and I loved the salted almond pieces and swirled-in marshmallow (which, I was informed was made right here in Vineland by Limpert Bros!).  My mother-in-law declared the butter-pecan to be the best she’s ever had, and since I didn’t get a taste, it must have been that good.

A few days later, after returning home, we decided to make our own ice cream.  It being strawberry season, we opted for this seasonal selection.  It was easy enough with our little ice cream maker, but it does involve a decent amount of work.  Next time I’m in Philly, I think I’ll make a trip over to The Franklin Fountain for another diet-bursting treat.  There are so many flavors to choose from, so many other options, perhaps I’ll leave the ice cream making up to the pros and try my hand at something else from their counter.

Be sure to check out their website at www.franklinfounatin.com

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Spring Eatin’

The garden, although still early in the season, is full of eating opportunities.  Sunday was another busy day for me, between all the household chores that needed to done as well as a little bit of work at the bakery, so it was nice to come home and prepare dinner with Jill… and we looked to the garden for inspiration.

Asparagus poking up through the soil

Since it’s asparagus season and I had a big bag full of the slender green vegetables from Walker’s Farm, I knew that asparagus would certainly be on the menu.  I wasn’t sure of which direction to take it though, and was torn between either making asparagus risotto or making a breakfast dinner with asparagus and eggs.  I asked Jill what she preferred, and I was pleased that she went in the breakfast dinner direction.

I had some nice local eggs that one of our guests at the bakery had brought us, as well as some challah bread from the bakery.  The challah, since it is enriched with local egg yolks and vegetable oil and is a beatuful shade of saffron, makes, hands down, the best French toast in the world.  That would be a great way to use the extra loaf that I had brought home.  The brown and green eggs that were a gift would make a wonderful scramble.  But what to put in the eggs?

I ventured outside to the modest little plot of land that I call my vegetable garden to see what Mother Nature had in mind for the brown eggs.  Most of the time, she is the best judge of what to eat, and she does a superb time dictating my dietary habits throughout the seasons.  I grabbed a basket and headed outside.

In the garden, I discovered plenty to eat, even though there was still a little chill in the late April air.  The Swiss chard called me over first, its majestic green and yellow leaves standing straight up from the ground, the sunlight glistening through the tender green leaves and exposing the circulatory system that ran throughout the them.  With scissors in hand, I snipped a few handfuls of the plant.

Behind the chard stood onions left over from last year.  The dark green tops faded into a white/purple blend towards the ground, which hid slender fragrant red onions, still very small and shaped more like a scallion that the globes that they’ll become later in the year.

Rhubarb

I gently tugged on several stalks, and the Earth easily released them to me, dirt still stubbornly clinging to the roots.

Of course, I knew that asparagus would be going into the eggs and I do have a few plants that give up some stalks for me every year.

I cut the spears, about a half dozen, that were ready to harvest and placed them in my basket with the onions and chard.  Several parsley plants were at the base of the asparagus row, so I cut a small handful of the tight bunches of herbs.  Fresh parsley is one of my favorite herbs to grow and it tastes infinitely better the dried stuff one can buy at the store.  Fresh parsley adds loads of flavors and gives the dishes it is put into a ‘fresh’ and ‘green’ characteristic, one that I knew would be perfect for my eggs.

Towards the back of the garden, I saw the rhubarb plant that I planted a few years ago.  It is always one of the first plants to grow in the spring, and its enormous leaves beckoned me over.  I did have a quart of fresh strawberries that I got from my organic berry farmer outside of Bridgeton (she gets a jump on the season every year by growing a few rows under tunnels), and I thought that a quick rhubarb/strawberry compote would be the perfect spring topping for the French toast I would soon be making.  My mouth watered at the mere idea!

Back inside, all the veggies and herbs were rinsed and cleaned under cold water.  Jill got to work preparing the French toast, cracking those beautiful eggs into a bowl and adding organic milk and raw sugar until the right custard proportion was achieved.  The challah was sliced, soaked and pan-fried in one of our trusty cast-iron pans.

I started frying some bacon in the cast iron, and soon the kitchen filled with the salty smell of crispy bacon.  On the back of the stove, the halved strawberries went into a pot with the chopped rhubarb, a dab of butter and a spoonful of molasses.  I brought that mixture to a boil, and within a few minutes it became a luscious, complex but oh-so-simple topping for the French toast.

With a little bacon fat in the bottom of another cast-iron pan, I sautéed the onion, and while that cooked through, I chopped up the chard, parsley, and asparagus spears.  They went into the pan and cooked for another minute or two.  Jill had cracked a few eggs into a bowl, added a splash of milk and some salt and pepper, and I poured that over the veggies with a sizzle.  After some loving stirring, the eggs were soft and gorgeous, with yellows and whites, broken up by various sizes and shapes of green permeating the pan.  The eggs went into a bowl, and some goat cheese that I had bought last week joined them on the table.  What a wonderful combination that turned out to be… the tart creamy cheese, combined with the veggies and eggs proved to be a winning combination.

The table was set, juice was poured, and we ate.  I ate my fair share of French toast, the sweet/tart compote making it that much more delectable.  The salty bacon and creamy, fresh eggs filled my belly, as well as my soul.  There’s nothing like the taste of spring in southern New Jersey.  It’s the taste of here and now, the taste of fresh local foods to come… the taste of finally being through the winter that I’ll never forget.

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Family Dinner

Sometimes my mother-in-law gets the urge to cook special dinners for the family, and those are happy times for me.  Although she is a great cook, she doesn’t cook for the four of us very often and so when the urge strikes her it is a wonderful occasion.  Apparently, she was talking with a friend of hers recently who was raving over the stuffed pork chops from Joes Butcher Shop on Landis Avenue, so Jill, grandmom and I were invited over to dinner last Tuesday night.

Naturally we were running a few minutes late but the three of us arrived at my mother-in-laws house just as dinner was being finished.  The house smelled wonderful, full of competing, delicious aromas.  The roasting pork chops hit my nose first, then the subtle smell of browning potatoes.  The grassy scent of fresh asparagus followed immediately afterwards, while the sweet smell of cooked apples wafted through the air on the coattails of the savory aromas.

Grandmom slowly settled into her seat at the four-person dinner table set just off of the kitchen in a little nook with windows surrounding it, while my mother-in-law scurried around the kitchen, pulling pans from the oven, peeking under lids, and putting the finishing touches on her mini-masterpiece.  I asked what I could do to help, and it was decided that I would open the wine.

From the fridge, I pulled a bottle of Terra Fossil Pinot Grigio that had been placed in there earlier to chill a bit.  I pulled the cork and brought the cool bottle over to the fridge.  With a few glugs wine was soon in each glass (although just a splash for grandmom).  The food then started to come over to the table from the kitchen; first a bowl of little red skin potatoes, flecked with black peppercorns, shiny salt crystals and fresh rosemary from the garden.  When no one was looking, I grabbed a potato and popped it into my mouth.  It was perfectly cooked, crispy and flavorful on the outside, creamy and buttery on the inside.  The rosemary added a lovely quality to the potato, while the caramelized edges provided a nice rich background.  Turns outgrandmom saw me, but she didn’t tell anyone!

The pork chops found their way onto the table and they looked ridiculously good.  There were two on the plate, plenty for the four of us, because not only were they huge, they were stuffed to the max.  The chops were a golden brown color and glistened in the light of the kitchen.

Asparagus spears appeared on a plate, skinny and a beautiful shade of green, topped with super-fine shavings of Parmesan cheese and black pepper.  Next to the asparagus was a bowl of stewed golden apples, not quite applesauce because chunks of fruit were still clearly visible, but cooked enough to make them soft and luscious.

We all sat down at the table, including my mother-in-law who was finally finished with her preparations.  The glasses were raised and a toast was called, a toast to family and the sharing of meals, and of time spent together in the kitchen and the table.  Crystal was clinked and wine was sipped.

Of course, the pork chops were torn into first.  I tackled the two Flintstonian sized pieces of meat with a sharp knife and large silver spoon to steady them with.  I cut along the bone to get as much of the meat off that I could, and the knife cut cleanly through the flesh.  After de-boning, each chop was cut into half (although as per grandmoms instructions, I cut her half a little smaller and mine a little larger!).  Inside each chop was a delicious looking stuffing that tasted even better than it looked!  The meat was tender and perfectly cooked (good job mom!), and the stuffing was soft and flavorful.  I’m not sure exactly what it consisted of, but it was bread based and it totally knocked my socks off.

The asparagus, freshly picked from Walker’s farm, was cooked al dente and had an explosively fresh flavor.  This is one of the first vegetables of spring, and it always tastes wonderfully of sunshine and chlorophyll to me.  Of course, the potatoes were awesome, and the apples provided a nice foil to the salty taste sensations present at the rest of the meal and added a different texture to the meal as a whole.

The pinot grigio, a white wine also called pinot gris, ended up being a perfect wine for this dinner.  The tart, crisp wine cut through the richness of the stuffed pork, and mellowed the buttery potatoes somewhat.  It proved to be perfectly drinkable with the meal, and drink it we did.

After the plates were cleared and the wine was drunk, we relaxed for a few minutes and talked a bit.  Coffee was offered, but not taken, and Jill brought out dessert.  It was a simple selection of sweest brought from the bakery, four cupcakes, one of each that we offer at the moment, each cut into quarters and laid out on a plate.  Each of us got one quarter of each cupcake, and it was debated as to which was the best.  My wife and mother-in-law loved the carrot with cream cheese icing, while I enjoyed the red velvet with the same icing.  Grandmom seemed partial to the devils food cake with chocolate ganache icing, but the vanilla with buttercream was enjoyed as well.

It as a lovely evening spent with my closest family; a meal and drink shared along with conversation and the comfort of being together.  Cheers.

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Farm Fresh Chicken

The feet were interesting.  The more closely I looked at the chicken’s feet, the more I could totally see them being related to dinosaurs, as is the current scientific thought.  They were smooth, scaly and very reptilian looking… much like our friends’ pet snake.  It was fascinating!

Why, you may ask, was I holding a chicken foot?  Well I came into the possession of a chicken recently, and not any supermarket chicken.  This was a chicken that was clucking around the yard that very morning, a chicken that had lived its little chicken life roosting and laying.  This chicken was a throwback to the days in the not-so-distant past when people raised their own animals in the farms that surrounded Vineland.

Sure there’s a nostalgic feeling that I get about eating farm food.  Maybe it’s because I appreciate the flavors of real food, foods that existed before the days of factory farms, red #40, and high fructose corn syrup.  I have heard from a lot of older folks about the way food used to be, not only the culture of eating, but the flavor.  It was different they said, the meat was more rich, but all I could find was the tender and flavorless chicken of today.  I longed to taste real meat; the taste of a chicken that developed flavor is its muscles from using them.  It’s the same idea with beef, as many cooks know.  Tenderloin is tender because it’s a muscle that isn’t used much.  You can cook it fast and hot, right on the grill or in a pan.  But the shank, which is part of the leg and is used extensively, must be cooked low and slow in order for it to become the amazing dish known as osso bucco.

A few weeks ago, my article on eggs was published and shortly thereafter came an offer for an older hen for me to cook.  It was on.  Because a friend of ours, Janice, and I had been talking about this very subject recently, she invited Jill and I, as well as Brittany and Kate, to her apartment for a dinner of roasted chicken.

As the day of our dinner plans approached though, I began to have thoughts that roasting the chicken would not be the ideal cooking method for the chicken that we would be getting.  Since, as I mentioned previously, the chicken was older and had a life lived moving and working the muscles, this hen would need to be slow cooked in a liquid. Stew, soup or something of that nature was in order here.

Two days before our dinner, I heard on The Splended Table (a lovely radio show devoted to good food that comes on at 4pm Saturdays on 89.3), about a gentleman in a similar situation.  He had an older, tougher bird that he didn’t know what to do with.  Coq au Vin was the reply that came from the hostesses mouth, ‘chicken in wine,’ a classic French dish that has been eaten for centuries.  Of course, I thought!

Janice Aseltine chillin'

For Christmas, Jill’s mother got her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the classic Julia Child tome that helped bring French cooking into the homes of many Americans.  Sure enough, there was a recipe for coq au vin in the poultry section.  I looked it over, and it was nothing too crazy… an older chicken, red wine, tomato paste, garlic, etc.

The day arrived and I went to get the chicken.  I was informed that she was about eight months old as of that day, and had been alive and well only that morning.  This was as fresh as it gets.  I was glad to hear that my intuition was right, and the path that had led me to coq au vin was the right one.  I was told that she wouldn’t be suitable for roasting.  Chicken of this nature was different, not as tender as I was used to, but full of flavor in cooked the right way.

At Janice’s the chicken came out of the bag, and that was when the aforementioned feet came in.  I don’t think I’d ever really seen chicken feet before, which seemed weird because I’d eaten chicken my whole life.  Was I that disconnected to my food that this was the first chicken foot I’d held?

Fortunately, the feet were not attached, and the animal was cleaned out.  Janice got to work breaking it down into the various parts that we would be eating.  She said that she hadn’t broken down a chicken in a while, but it was bringing back memories of her childhood when her family used to raise chicken and her father would do all the intense and precise cuts.

As the recipe required, Kate cut a few strips of bacon into chunks and I rendered the fat out of them in my big stainless steel pot that I don’t use as often as I’d like.  Once the fat was out of the bacon and that unmistakable smell filled the kitchen, I removed the crunchy meaty bits, added a tablespoon of butter (it’s Julia’s recipe, and she does not skimp on the fat!), and added the chicken pieces.  They browned beautifully and I was surprised at the dark color of the meat, another sign of a well-exercised fowl.

I added the bacon pieces back into the pot, covered, and let steam for about ten minutes.  Then into the pot was a splash on whisky (recipe called for cognac…) to deglaze followed by leftover red wine and chicken stock to cover the meat.  Seasoned with a spoonful of tomato paste, thyme, pepper, a bay leaf along with some carrots and celery (not a French addition, but I took a little liberty there).  It came up to a simmer (where it would stay, covered) and it smelled good, although very winey.

After about an hour of simmering, we were hungry!

The coq au vin

The alcohol had cooked off and the winey smell had mellowed into a rich, unctuous aroma.  The chicken pieces had taken on a red wine stained hue, and the sauce had thickened slightly.  I dipped a spoon in to taste, and… it was hot, but oh wow did it taste good.

The potatoes were mashed, the mushrooms and onions were done sautéing, the French bread was sliced, the wine was poured, and the salad was tossed.  I gently took the chicken out of the pot and placed it into a platter.  The braising liquid was strained and thickened with a little roux, and it was then spooned over the chicken.  It smelled so good; we were salivating at the thought of eating. We thanked the chicken for giving its life to us, and we dug in.  Dinner was ready…

Kate Fellows portioning out dessert

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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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