Sunday, April 26, 2009

Eating Like a Hipster in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

The Williamsburg Bridge serves as a kind of Yellow Brick Road gateway to the foodie enclave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I’m not a hipster. I can barely affect “hip.” When I do, it’s usually with the frequency of leap year.

I’ve heard legends of Williamsburg, but I always thought it was a colonial theme park in Virginia. Thankfully, there are people who can set me straight. Enter my college roommate “Ford McKenzie,” once a radical underground journalist and now a respectable member of the financial world, a home-canning expert, and a grass-fed beef addict. One night over Manhattan cocktails (which I introduced him to and he now has a clearly unhealthy obsession for) he informs me that Williamsburg (in Brooklyn, not Virginia) is the happening place where foodies go to play.

So, on the first sultry weekend of Spring I find myself trotting after Ford and his wife, Mrs. M, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge and the skyline of Manhattan as we attempt to take a bite out of Brooklyn.

Ford has thoroughly briefed me on the nuances of Williamsburg. “If you put a fence around it you’d think you were on a college campus,” he tells me. There is certainly a youthful vibe. Half-naked, chiseled bodies whiz past us on skateboards or bicycles. Geeky-looking guys are locked arm-in-arm with gorgeous women. Here and there, someone carries a guitar slung over his shoulder. Amidst all this action, and a plethora of graffiti, we are three visitors in a strange land attempting to satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst. Dare I say it? “Toto, I get the feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

You’d think we would have planned better. When foraging in the urban jungle, one must always bring ice packs and insulated totes. We haven’t, but we quickly establish a workable “layaway” system, in which we purchase now and pick up later.

At Marlow & Daughters, the young butchers are prepping sausage, which is made on site. The meat cases are bulging with intoxicating cuts of beef. We purchase a selection of sausage, all made from local pork.

Ford can’t resist a thick stack of pork chops. His standard preparation technique for pork chops is Shake & Bake, but these beauties might require more delicate handling.
Nearby, at Mast Brothers Chocolate, the cacao beans are ground on the premises. We sample artisanal Dark Chocolate Single Origin, and I can’t resist a bar of Dark Chocolate + Fleur de Sel …

At the D.O.C. Wine Shop, rows of blushing rose are a welcomed rite of Spring …

We stop by the Bedford Cheese Shop and admire the lactose-inspired dairyscape …

All this foraging has made us ravenous. We take a table at Marlow & Sons (a family tree might be helpful to fully comprehend the Marlow progeny present in Williamsburg) where we order Fried Eggs and Potatoes with House-Made Chorizo …

A huge stack of a sandwich made from house-cured meats and garnished with olives ….

And a crisp spinach salad dotted with tart, sweet cherries …

As the afternoon wanders on, we follow crowds of sun worshipers down to the shoreline of the East River, where the skyline of Manhattan glistens ….

Intense thirst consumes us and we stop at Radegast Hall, a genuine Biergarten, where a crush of young graduate students sit at long tables consuming wurst, fries and buckets of ale imported from Germany …

Still a tad thirsty, we descend on the bar, Spuyten Duyvil for a few sips of raspberry ale imported from France …

This kind of research is quite strenuous, and we are now famished, so we head for Fette Sau, a barbecue joint located in a former machine shop …

The bar stools are made from tractor seats, and athletic bartenders race from end to end pouring flights of whisky …

The beer taps have been customized with a range of razor-sharp items from Sweeney Todd’s tool box …

I join the chow line, which is adjacent to long picnic tables where raucous groups indulge in communal gluttony. The brisket, pulled pork and Berkshire pork sausage is served on a sheet pan, which Ford slathers with different varieties of barbecue sauce …

We try a flight of whisky, where vanilla is the predominant flavor note …

Ford grabs another heaping tray of meat, this time with ribs, succulent, charred cheeks, and a slab of pork chop ….

We soar again, with a second flight of whisky. The marriage of whisky and barbecue is frankly quite thrilling, even for a couple of faux hipsters …

And, we finish with a smoky splash of Wasmund’s Single Malt Whisky from Rappahonnock County, Virginia, topped with a big, chilly ice cube.

By the way … “Fette Sau” is German for “fat pig.” I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 20, 2009

Eric Steinman’s Edible Hudson Valley: Chronicling the Story of a Food Region

Eric Steinman (right), editor of the magazine "Edible Hudson Valley," talks with Don Lewis, owner of Wild Hive Café in Clinton Corners, New York.

New York’s Hudson Valley region has a deep legacy of agriculture, legends and storytellers. In 1819 author and essayist Washington Irving published The Sketch Book which includes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and “Rip Van Winkle.” Irving used descriptive prose, humor and satire to depict the people and customs of the lower Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains. For the better part of this past winter, food writer and editor Eric Steinman has been preparing to join this tradition. In just a matter of days, the inaugural issue of his new magazine, Edible Hudson Valley is set to debut.

We meet at the Wild Hive Café in Clinton Corners, New York to talk about the undertaking. The café and bakery sits at the cross roads of the tiny village. There is lazy jazz music playing on the stereo and the aroma of freshly baked bread fills the room.

Steinman – who has worked for Bon Appetit and various online properties – speaks with the thoughtful candor and clarity of a writer who is quite comfortable using language to persuade and illuminate. The food of the Hudson Valley region is fertile ground for the Rhinebeck resident’s method of storytelling, but he found as editor he needed to evolve his standard approach of writing food stories with a very singular focus.

“I felt like I had to step back and look at the task at hand,” he tells me. “What I came up with were multiple, interlocking narratives – all of those telling a story about the region, and having to do with history, sociology, immigration patterns, economics and politics and honestly, problems. Social problems and economic problems in the area.”

The nationwide Edible community of magazines originated with a publication in Ojai, California about eight years ago covering local food trends. Over time, individual communities expressed interest in customized versions of an Edible magazine that would depict their local food culture. Steinman learned more about the family of magazines when he wrote a story for Bon Appetit, and was eventually recruited to shepherd the development of a publication for the Hudson Valley.

There seems no limit to food lore in the Hudson Valley region. One can find abundant apples, sweet corn, dairy and livestock production. New York State is third behind California and Washington in wine and grape production with the Hudson Valley one of several major wine producing districts. It is also home to the Culinary Institute of America located in Hyde Park. Steinman is unearthing exceptional stories of individuals who are working to innovate, recreate and reform the local food system.

The Spring 2009 cover of "Edible Hudson Valley" depicts the human element inherent in regional food.

Amy – one of the staff at the Wild Hive Café – brings us a platter of just-baked, sliced whole grain breads and describes the selection – Walnut Multi-Grain, Onion Rye and Italian Toast accompanied by bean spread made from local beans, yogurt cheese and wild ramps and a sweet, golden carrot spread.

Steinman has chosen the Wild Hive Café for our meeting because the enterprise is illustrative of many of the food trends emerging in the Hudson Valley. He features Wild Hive Café in the first issue of the magazine. All of the grains used in the bread are from local organic farms and are milled on the premises. The owner, Don Lewis, began the business as an apiary in 1982, and over time became committed to reviving the cultivation of local grain in the Hudson Valley. The shelves of the store are stocked with rustic loaves of artisanal bread and plump packages of just-milled wheat flour, corn meal, oats and other grain varieties. The grain is 100 percent local, grown just a few miles away from the café which opened onsite last November. Lewis’s business model is a radical change from traditional thinking where grain is traded as a commodity, shipped long distances and can often sit for long periods of time.

Exterior of Wild Hive Bakery and Café in Clinton Corners, New York.
“Don’s whole approach is, do not treat grain like a commodity - treat it like you would a fresh stalk of broccoli, or a plum and get it harvested and milled and used as soon as possible,” says Steinman. “His whole idea is to reframe how we think about grain, as essentially a fresh ingredient, which I think in itself is pretty revolutionary.”

As Steinman looked at the story of the Wild Hive Café, he wondered what the future might look like for the operation and what it might mean to the national discourse on sustainable food.
“It’s very inspiring what he’s doing, but I also looked at it as, well, how far can he take it? That was my initial interest in approaching the story. Okay, he could probably take this pretty far at the local level, but where does this go on the macro level? Can this model be sustained on a larger level, which is a question I think a lot of people are asking with our national food system and even our international food system.”

A sampling of breads baked from local organic grains available at the Wild Hive Bakery and Café.

“This is the beginning of the story for Don, and I think in three years it might be a different story, and I would love to pick it up in three years and see where it’s developed. Where are the problems? Where are the obstacles?”

The question of the viability of local food systems is one that seems to intrigue Steinman. He plans to revisit stories over time, and by doing so, view the region from a more holistic, long-term perspective. He intends to embrace difficult stories, and even report on failures, as all will educate and inform. It is a fundamental departure from the approach of a traditional food magazine.

“When a lot of people think about food and lifestyle magazines, they think about these sort of unyielding celebrations like, “Isn’t this an awesome plate of food!” he says. “But there are also other stories involved like, how did the plate of food become awesome, what are the problems in actually producing the food and distributing it, who has access to it and who doesn’t? My intention is to slowly unravel those stories and make them very unique to the region.”

He acknowledges that the very essence of food writing is undergoing a transformation.

“The level of consciousness has completely changed in this evolving food story and food writing,” he tells me. “We are going from a food culture that is about elitism, to a food culture that is about access and enthusiasm. It’s not limited to this erudite culture. Everyone has their food story and everyone has those aspects of food that they’re enthusiastic about.”

While Edible Hudson Valley may take a different path, there are certain aspects of food journalism that Steinman will embrace.

“There is something elegant and austere about the magazine,” he says. “There will be continuity with the rest of the Edible publications, emphasizing photography, artwork and letting pictures tell the story. But the written word is the intellect of the magazine.”

Steinman has ideas for many stories to explore. He wants to examine the relationship between the arts and food and look at children and their relationship to food. He hopes to look at local history, generational stories, foraging and root cellars, but also take a critical look at the state of institutional food in the region, from the school system to correctional facilities.

“I think there is inherent value in storytelling, because it raises the consciousness as well as celebrates what’s happening, but it also poses questions,” he says. “This is going to be in part a celebration of the region, but I’m going to endeavor to ask hard questions, that I probably won’t be able to answer about food systems and distribution and justice and whether things actually work, and who these food systems serve and who they don’t.”

Right now, the California native is focused on bringing the first issue of Edible Hudson Valley to the community. He tells me that his understanding and appreciation of the region has grown deeper with the varied seasons since he and his wife first arrived in New York three years ago. He cites the “new beginning” of spring as a fitting time to introduce this new magazine into the communal history of the valley.

“Upon coming here, it seemed like there wasn’t much going on, but it’s ever evolving,” he says. “It started taking on this form and life of a story, and my role is to try to tell that story, not just by myself, but to use photographers and artists and writers and compile it or curate it in a way to really make sense of it.”

In a way, Steinman sounds a bit like the people of the Hudson Valley community he is reporting on. For now, his role is to cultivate and nurture these interlocking narratives – this collective local story – and see how it grows. But, that could change over time.

“Right now I’m very focused on getting the magazine out, getting writers and getting stories and really contributing something to the local conversation,” Steinman says. “But, I don’t necessarily want it to stop there. If it evolves in such a way, and there’s a need there, I would totally be willing to step up and become more of an advocate and more of a voice. I come from a long line of activists. There’s part of that that’s just in my DNA.”

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fashionable Food Forecast

I'm going to make an important fashion prediction. While it might not affect how you dress, it will certainly affect what you eat. Now, I don’t typically dabble in fickle fashion trends. I tend to favor the classics, myself. But, here goes …

I predict that the Brownie is the new Black.

Now you may not have had any inkling of this the last time the fashionistas descended on New York City, but I'm telling you the brownie is going to be the chic confection in the current comfort-craving, back-to-basics environment. Consider the evidence in favor of this most enduring treat. Let’s start with versatility. Like the little black dress, the brownie is stylish on its own, but it’s also easy to accessorize. Serve it plain, or with a scoop of ice cream, some fruit, add walnuts or an elegant frosting. And, it goes anywhere – great for a lunch box, dinner or even a late night tryst.

Then there’s the brownie’s practical affordability. In this age of economizing, frivolous chiffon cake is out. Lemon meringue pie misses the mark. The brownie is simplicity with substance, delicious but never dowdy, frugal but always fun. You've probably got all the ingredients for this Fudgy Skillet Brownie right in the pantry.
Let’s not forget the brownie’s timeless elegance. You probably didn't know the brownie's tony origin. The brownie was created in the kitchen of Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Mrs. Bertha Palmer asked the hotel chef to create a dainty ladies dessert that could be included in box lunches at the fair. The recipe is still served at the Palmer House today. By 1898 a Sears Roebuck catalogue had dubbed the dessert, “The Brownie.”

Finally, there’s the seductive power of chocolate. You've probably seen the headlines. Tired of all the dismal news, we are flocking to chocolate for a little boost. Well, chocolate and the brownie? It’s the whole scrumptious package.
So, go ahead. Treat yourself to a brownie, and enjoy a luscious moment on the cutting edge of fashion. Trust me. When you see the brownie strutting its stuff down the runway on “America’s Next Top Model,” you'll kick yourself for ignoring my advice.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Announcing the Winner of the Foster Harris House Cookbook Giveaway!

Congratulations to Brilynn of Jumbo Empanadas who is the winner of the random drawing for the Foster Harris House Cookbook! Brilynn says her favorite breakfast is Eggs Benedict with a side of Smoked Salmon, and she'll have lots more tasty options for breakfast when the cookbook is delivered to her. Brilynn, please contact me at to provide me with shipping information. Happy Eating!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

What I Didn’t Bake for Easter and Spaghetti with Shaved Asparagus

I had great plans for Easter. I was going to bake one of those ridiculously sweet, fluffy coconut layer cakes to herald the arrival of spring. But, I’ve been felled by a wicked sinus infection. You know what they say about the best laid plans of mice, men and bakers. At this point, my only responsibility for Easter dinner is to show up, which is not the worst thing in the world, given how I’ve felt the past few days.

Clearly, I am in need of the restorative powers of the season. While it’s not exactly a coconut cake, Spaghetti with Shaved Asparagus, found in the April issue of Everyday Food, is a bright and invigorating harbinger of spring. “The Field Guide to Produce” says asparagus is a perennial plant in the lily family (there’s an Easter connection already!) and wild asparagus was prized by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as a seasonal delicacy.

I used thin, wholegrain spaghetti to give the dish a nuttier flavor. The asparagus is shaved into strips with a vegetable peeler, so it takes almost no time to cook and is simply added to the pasta pot just before draining the hot water. The asparagus shavings retain a crisp and vigorous, just-picked flavor. The spaghetti and asparagus shavings are tossed with lemon zest and salty-tart shavings of parmesan cheese.

Asparagus spears grow underground. The tender green and violet shoots peak out of the ground in early spring, and are harvested by hand for about 6 to 8 weeks.

With any luck, I may just be about ready to peak out from under the covers today, myself.

Happy Easter and Happy Spring!

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 05, 2009

A “Foster Harris House Cookbook” Giveaway – Recipes, a Memoir and a Visual Feast

Every cookbook tells a story. Rarely is a collection of recipes simply an instruction manual. The life experiences, family connections and personal passions of the creator flavor every ingredient, measurement, technique and photo. In total, a cookbook is a very personal bequest – a delicious meal wrapped in memories and seasoned with a collection of unforgettable experiences.

The debut of the Foster Harris House Cookbook is a significant chapter in the culinary journey of John and Diane MacPherson, owners of the Foster Harris House bed & breakfast in Washington, Virginia.

“It’s somewhat of an unexpected chapter,” says John. “I don’t think we had it in our plans to write a cookbook.” But, over time, the compilation of the volume, which includes more than 80 recipes and 130 full-color photographs, came to reflect, not only the extraordinary food served at the Foster Harris House, but the personal story of John and Diane.

“When we were putting it together, we didn’t plan on it being a memoir, but it just kind of evolved into that,” John explains. “We felt that for someone to pick this up and look at it, we really wanted them to have a sense of the place and a sense of the people. So the recipes came first, and then we added the story about the inn, and the story about us, and the story about our guests.”

The MacPhersons left their jobs in September 2004 and purchased the Foster Harris House, located in the heart of Virginia food and wine country. They quickly established a reputation for imaginative breakfasts and warm hospitality.

“In the end, the cookbook really kind of encapsulated our whole life and our journey to get here, and also what it feels like to be here at the Foster Harris House,” says John.

Guests would frequently request recipes and initially the MacPhersons thought the cookbook would be a simple spiral-bound paperback. But then, John Spaulding – a professional photographer and visitor to the Foster Harris House – offered to photograph the recipes. The photos truly capture the artistry of the food served at the Foster Harris House. When Spaulding got involved, John MacPherson says the vision for the cookbook changed.

“The first night we sat down and looked at the day’s pictures, we realized it had to be more than a spiral-bound paperback book.”

From recipes scribbled on yellow-lined paper and stuffed in a three-ring binder, emerged a handsome coffee table edition featuring John’s signature breakfast entrees as well as recipes for soups, salads, dinner entrees and desserts.

With each page, the reader is treated to personal anecdotes (John’s mother Jan influenced his love of cooking), favorite family dining experiences and glimpses of the morning rituals at the Foster Harris House. Diane served as editor and taught herself computer design to assemble the book. She also asked visitors to contribute their favorite food memories. The book represents the collective experiences of the MacPhersons and the many guests who visit the Foster Harris House. “We live this place, and this is what we do,” says John, “So, I guess we were really fortunate that it was able to be transposed onto the page.”

The photos and text convey a critical element of John’s culinary philosophy – that breakfast “be a feast for the eyes, as well as the stomach.” Indeed, the visual experience is a key dimension of the gastronomic pleasures found at the Foster Harris House.

“When it comes to the food, it’s just really important to convey a level of anticipation,” John explains. “When that plate comes and it’s set in front of someone, it needs to look a certain way. It needs to look incredibly appetizing, and it needs to have dimension to it. A few ingredients on a beautiful plate, placed-well, can convey so much about the person that’s cooking it, the place that they’re eating it, and what they should expect when they first put a fork into it.”

John says the cookbook allows guests to recall memories of visiting the Foster Harris House in a very tangible way. “I want them to remember their stay here and remember it fondly. They get to experience the meal here and the place and then take this book home, and are able to replicate these dishes at home and share them with people. They just get to relive the experience a little bit more.”
The tempting aroma of baked goods is one memory all guests recall as it signals the start of breakfast at the Foster Harris House each morning. As you take a seat at the table, Diane places a towering basket of scones in front of you, creating that kind of anticipation for the meal that John describes. Here is John’s recipe for Ginger Scones. John says: “No one is able to resist these light, buttery scones. The key to great scones is keeping everything cold. I put the cutting board, mixing bowls and pastry blender in the fridge before I start. After cutting the butter into the dry ingredients, put the bowl back into the fridge for a few minutes.”

Ginger Scones

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter
¾ cup chopped candied ginger
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup heavy cream, plus more for brushing
Raw sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place ungreased baking sheet in freezer. Place flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a cold, large mixing bowl and whisk to combine. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender until pea-sized pieces are left. Stir in ginger. Set aside in the fridge.

Whisk together egg and cream. Pour egg mixture into dry ingredients and mix just until incorporated. Knead a few times in the bowl to bring the dough together. Turn the dough out onto a cold, floured surface and form into a flat disc about 3/4-inch thick. Cut out 2-inch rounds with a biscuit cutter and place on a cold, ungreased baking sheet 1 ½ inches apart. Brush tops with cream and dust with raw sugar. Bake for 10-12 minutes until just golden brown. Makes 12-18 scones.

Cookbook Giveaway Details: If you leave a comment on this post between now and 11:00 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on April 15 and mention your favorite breakfast dish, you are eligible for a random drawing. The winner will receive a copy of the beautiful Foster Harris House Cookbook sent directly to their home.

(Photography of John MacPherson and Ginger Scones by John Spaulding)

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Power of Polenta

I’m eating down my pantry, and while the box of Instant Polenta hiding in the back of the cupboard isn’t quite 400 years old, maize was cultivated in Italy beginning in the 16th century. But, the venerable history of corn mush wasn’t quite the motivation – I’m trying to use up those staples that are crowding the pantry as I prepare for the influx of fresh garden vegetables that will soon fill the kitchen.

Just to give you an idea of exactly how chock-full of potential my little pantry is I’ve been working though the reserve stock for about three weeks now, consuming grains, rice, pasta and legumes – and haven’t had the need for a single serious supermarket shop. I figure at this point, I’ll be eating pretty well, and spending very little until about the first of June.

I predict that instant polenta is “the next big thing,” and will perhaps be bigger than microwave popcorn. Inexpensive, and easy to prepare, it’s the perfect recession food. One batch cooks up in five minutes and yields a substantial amount of corn mush. For those of us who are artsy-crafty types, it has the pliable tendencies of modeling clay. Pack the warm mush into a glass pan and pop it into the fridge and within an hour it becomes a sliceable loaf – about twenty meals worth, I’d say. Polenta slices can be layered, stacked or cut into uniform rounds, and fried, baked or grilled. Given a little time, I’m thinking I could even build one of those miniature Christmas Villages.

Use polenta slices as a base for a rustic Lamb, White Bean and Rosemary Ragout (Remember that leftover lamb? It’s the gift that keeps on giving!)

Or, cut slices of polenta into two-inch rounds for an updated take on the Southern classic Fried Eggs and Hominy Grits:

Right now, I’m pumped with polenta – overflowing, in fact. I’m estimating I can get about seven or eight more meals out of this golden brick. I see a few Polenta Ice Cream Sundaes in my future.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved