Sunday, August 30, 2009

Casey’s Cookies – Chocolate Chip Connoisseur Makes Dough and Helps Others

There’s a lot of goodness baked into Casey Blankenship’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. Folded into each delectable batch are scores of rich, silky chocolate chips, a dash of dedication, a sprinkling of business acumen and a spoonful of public service. Casey Blankenship is an extraordinary baker – and at age 14 – he is one exceptional teenager.

Each Saturday – while most of his peers are still asleep – Casey rises at 7:00 AM and packs dozens of cookies – baked the previous night – into a wagon, which he pulls to the edge of Huddy Park in Highlands, New Jersey. There, he sets up a card table, attaches a placard printed with the words “Casey’s Cookies,” and puts out a spread of chocolate chip, oatmeal, peanut butter and snicker doodle cookies. By 9 AM he is opened for business and is selling his cookies to a loyal clientele who also visit the farmers market held at the park each weekend.

Casey has taken the iconic neighborhood lemonade stand to a new level. Through word-of-mouth and a smart distribution program, he does a brisk trade. Ten percent of all his profits are donated to Heifer International, a fact that is prominently noted on his glossy business cards.

I meet up with Casey at his headquarters, in front of the Water Witch Coffee & Tea Company on Waterwitch Avenue in Highlands. He is trim and wiry and wears glasses. And, his blonde hair is tinted emerald green. He is courteous, well-mannered and straightforward. He explains that he started baking when he was 8-years-old. Why, I ask?

“Because I just like eating cookies,” is his very direct response.

A love of cookies seems to have inspired a budding entrepreneur. At the age of 11, Casey was already baking for his family and since he liked to cook, he stopped by a local restaurant – The Lusty Lobster – to ask the chef for some culinary advice. He’d bring the restaurant staff his homemade cookies as a thank-you gift for the guidance they gave him. The owner suggested that Casey should try and sell his cookies, and let him place a basket of cookies in the restaurant foyer with a money jar, so that patrons could purchase the cookies. The cookies proved so popular that soon Casey had set up baskets and jars at several other eateries in town. Today, he bakes between five- to six-hundred cookies a week to meet the demand for his product.

He is a self-taught baker. His signature recipes were achieved with some tinkering and experimentation. Chocolate Chip is Casey’s best-selling cookie and his personal favorite. I ask what his friends think of Casey’s culinary enterprise.

“They think I’m crazy,” he replies casually. “They say, Hey Casey, let’s go play basketball, but I’m like, no I have to go bake cookies.”

He charges fifty cents per cookie and says he has donated nearly two-thousand dollars of his profits to Heifer International. Since 1944, Heifer has helped 10.5 million families in more than 125 countries move toward greater self-reliance through the gift of livestock and training in environmentally sound agriculture. Casey chose Heifer International for his philanthropic efforts because it is the preferred charity of his favorite celebrity, Alton Brown of the Food Network.

The oldest of four brothers, Casey spends two hours baking every day, and all day on Friday during the summer. For the annual Highlands Clamfest in early August, he baked nearly two-thousand cookies.

I ask him why he thinks the customers keep coming back for more. He shrugs. “Because they like cookies?” he suggests, and then pauses and adds drolly, “Maybe it’s my green hair?”

He clearly seems to enjoy the social aspect of his work. “Doing this, I get to meet a lot of new people.”

He is well-equipped to keep the business functioning smoothly. “I’ve got a really big mixer and it’s really cool,” he tells me. “It’s a heavy duty one and I got it for Christmas, and it has flame decals on it.”

Casey freely offers advice for home bakers who are interesting in making cookies: “Make them from scratch, and don’t use mix. And, use actual flour and not corn syrup. And, actually use sugar and good ingredients.”

Does he aspire to a career in baking? “I don’t want to have a big corporation,” Casey says. “I just want to have a little town bakery.”

Ken Harber is the owner of The Baking Company and the Water Witch Coffee & Tea Company in Highlands. He has been a friend, mentor and role model to Casey. Says Casey of Ken, “He’s so cool and he has so much advice he can give me.”

“The baking is just a symptom of a great person under construction,” Ken tells me when I ask him to describe Casey.

Harber is impressed by the teen’s business skills. “His math is very good. He knows how to figure how much he can make in his allotted time, and his ingredients and all that. He’s learned a lot.”

Harber was more than willing to make a place for Casey’s Cookies in his store. “I told him it’s good for the neighborhood and it’s good for you.”

“He’s just as nice as could be and I would do anything for him,” says Harber. “If one other kid around here sees this kid making something out of himself, then it’s worth it.”

Meanwhile, Casey has heard talk that he is a local celebrity, and gives me a slight smile when I bring it up.

“Everyone keeps telling me that, but I’m trying to stay modest.”

Casey’s Cookies accepts special orders. Please give at least 24 hours notice for orders of 12-100 cookies. For orders of 100+ cookies, please give one week’s notice. Delivery is available within Highlands for a $2.00 delivery charge.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 27, 2009


You heard it here first. Dawging is the next big thing.

What is Dawging? Well, it’s not quite as counter-culture as raving, but it does push the culinary envelope, just a bit. Hold onto your nitrites.

Our saga begins when I am sitting in Atlanta, sweating, and reading the New York Times. I bypass all the really important news and go straight to the Food Section where I learn that a new establishment, Bark Hot Dogs has just opened in Park Slope, Brooklyn. They promise “local hot dogs” from an upstate artisan.

Immediately, I ping my college roommate, “Ford MacKenzie,” once a radical underground journalist, and now a respected and well-dressed member of the financial world, a home-canning expert, amateur meterologist and a resident of Park Slope.

We have to try this place, I type frenetically. I can already smell the condiments.

Dawging. It’s the next big thing.

For somebody like me – born and raised in Long Island’s Casserole Corridor – Brooklyn is wild country, and I need a Sherpa. Ford does not disappoint. Shortly, he is sending me suggestions for additional stops on a proposed night-long odyssey of samplings at hot dog hot spots. He sets up a few ground rules:

“We shouldn't start with the dogs, but work our way up to them. How about some $3 Pabst Blue Ribbon at Blue Ribbon on 5th Ave. and 1st Place?”

Sounds like the perfect recession-era, pre-dawging cocktail to me.

Then we start to obsess over the number of calories we are likely to consume. In a brief moment of self-doubt, Ford begins to question the sanity of multiple dawging. He writes:

“It's the sides that I am worried about--maybe we should take them off the table altogether?”

My colleague Mad Me-Shell is horrified at the very thought. “No sides?” she asks, aghast. “But, what if they have Tater Tots?”

Ford and I agree on a system. We will split the dogs so that we can each taste a variety, and we’ll try and show a little restraint when it comes to the sides. We’ll try …

So I hot tail it back to New York, and we kick off the adventure at the prescribed time at Blue Ribbon in Brooklyn.

The Pabst Blue Ribbon proves to be the perfect chaser – light, crisp and palate cleansing for the gluttony ahead.

At Willie’s Dawgs at 351 Fifth Avenue, they promise “Plump, juicy and delicious hot dogs grilled any way you like them and reverently tucked into our hand rolled homemade buns.”

We are greeted by a hot dog mural in the front dining room. It’s kind of Marc Chagall meets Coney Island.

Willie’s also features a well-stocked condiment bar. Ford is bewildered at the range of choices. “I thought mustard just came in yellow,” he says.

We order the Mutt, an all-beef dawg with natural casing, and Best in Show, all natural grass-fed beef with natural casing. What does “natural” mean? I don’t ask. I don’t care. We take sauerkraut and relish on the side, and a serving of onion rings fried in Panko bread crumbs. The Mutt tastes solidly-traditional and the Best in Show is darker and spicier.

We then make a brief stop at a French bistro – the name of which I no longer remember – so that Ford can cleanse his palate with a splash of beer. In an effort to create an authentic European experience, the air conditioning at the bistro is out-of-order. Then, it is on to Bark at 474 Bergen Street. The establishment literally barks its name to people on the street with a white-hot neon sign above the door.

Inside, the approach is minimalism. The room is bright and scores of people are perched on high, family-style tables of polished wood.

We order a NYC Classic with Sweet & Sour Onions and Mustard, and Bark Dog, which comes dressed with Sweet Pepper Relish, Mustard and Onion. At this point, the beer, the mustard, and the onions take control and there is no more restraint regarding the sides – we dive off the deep end of the pool, and order the gravy fries.

The dogs are savory and satisfying, although eventually, the condiments are a little overpowering. The sweet & sour onions are very sweet. Perhaps it’s the heady nature of the condiments, but Ford is getting sentimental. Hot dogs evoke memories of youth and he starts reminiscing about Cricket Car Hop in Connecticut, which stood on the horizon like a vision of Shangri-La.

“Cricket was famous for its foot long dogs,” he says. “That's why we used to drive from Bridgeport to go there. You used to go inside on the left and order from a window. To the right of the door was a pinball machine just below the window and I think some seats. When I was a kid, the space behind Cricket was all empty marshland and it stood at the beginning of what felt like a causeway. There was a kiddie amusement park at the other end and I used to feel like I was at one of those places you see in the movies in the Midwest somewhere in the middle of nowhere.”
At this point, I don’t think offering up a fond childhood memory of purchasing Oscar Mayer Wieners from the freezer case at the A&P will wash here, so I do the next best thing. I place an order for the Pickle Dog.

Have you ever seen such a dawg? All beef, two kinds of pickles, and a marriage of mustard and mayo. It’s a mind-bending work of art.

We wrap this night of debauchery at The Chocolate Room at 86 Fifth Avenue with an order of chocolate pudding and red wine. Have we now completely regressed to nursery food? Yes. The red wine is the only thing that saves our sanity, and our arteries. And, it’s all so freakin’ good.

As I head for the train, I point out to Ford that we’ve managed to consume no green vegetables during the entire evening.

“So what’s your point?” he asks.

In order to assuage any nutritional guilt, we make a pact and agree that technically, hot dog relish qualifies as a green vegetable. And, we’ve had plenty of that.

Dawging. It’s the next big thing.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Over-the-Rainbow Chard Pie and Sunset Dinner at Restoration Farm

Somewhere, over the rainbow, my CSA share would never end and I’d have a bounty of vegetables twelve months of the year. Ah, well, I can dream of “vegetable heaven.” In the meantime, I can bask in the bodacious and fanciful Swiss chard that proliferates at Restoration Farm.

The large curly foliage resembles colossal green fans, and the stems are multi-colored. I once found these imposing greens intimidating, but I’m working them into stir fries and frittatas. This recipe for Over-the-Rainbow Chard Pie is similar to a quiche, uses one giant bunch of chard and emerges from the oven with a vibrant, lacy patina.

Over-the-Rainbow Chard Pie

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
1 clove garlic minced
1 bunch Rainbow Swiss chard, cleaned, with leaves and stems coarsely chopped
½ tsp dried thyme
Generous pinch red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
8 eggs, beaten
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
1 9- inch prepared pie crust

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat olive oil in pan and sauté onion and garlic until soft. Add Swiss chard and sauté until wilted. Add thyme, red pepper flakes and salt, stir and remove from heat. Beat eggs until foamy. Add vegetable mixture to prepared pie crust. Sprinkle with cheese and place on sheet pan. Pour beaten eggs over vegetables and cheese. Bake at 400 degree oven for 35-40 minutes. Let cool and serve at room temperature.

I take the Chard Pie to the annual pot-luck dinner in the field at Restoration Farm where I am joined by my parents. We amble down the rutted dirt road to the farm with food treasures in hand.

Just beyond Pond Field where berries are ripening, rows of rustic wood tables and benches have been set up in a field. A red tailed hawk swoops over the historic barn where garlic is curing.

Tables are set with brilliant flowers clipped from the cutting garden.

Members of Restoration Farm begin to stream onto the field carrying picnic hampers, covered dishes and homemade bread wrapped in kitchen towels. Soon the field is teeming with people chatting and getting acquainted. Children play catch, and the sounds of barnyard animals mingle with the twang of fiddle music.

The buffet table groans with delicious offerings. We join the Kalamidas family at a table and feast on Zucchini Pie, Southwestern Salad, Chard Pie, whole grain salad, carrot slaw, luscious cheesecake studded with fresh fruit, and so much more.

It feels like stepping back to a simpler time. It is a perfect summer evening, and there is a tangible feeling of community and a sense of oneness as we share in the edible and emotional delights of Restoration Farm.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Summer Feast, Foster Harris House-style

Blue hydrangeas embellish the table, stemware shimmers and candles flicker, casting an ethereal glow. Diane MacPherson puts a whimsical menu at each place setting and fills each wine glass with cold, crisp Sauvignon Blanc. This is the culmination of the visit to the Foster Harris House in Washington, Virginia - a singular dinner created by Chef John MacPherson, which fêtes the edible gifts of the summer season.

The menu unites the elements that inspire Chef John’s culinary muse – fruits and vegetables from the rich soil of Rappahannock County, surprising flavors, bold splashes of color and family traditions – with each plate artfully composed to entice the eyes and the appetite.

Grilled Halloumi and Roasted Beet Salad is a tangy offering of earthy red beets and salty cheese, charred on the grill.

A sunny Yellow Squash Soup takes on a touch of playful attitude, topped with a sassy swirl of parsley-mint pistou.

Cedar Plank Halibut with Lemon Tarragon Butter, Toasted Pine Nuts, Grilled Eggplant and Patty Pan Squash is Chef John’s re-imagining of “surf and turf” – glistening white fish, perched atop smoky eggplant and surrounded by neat wedges of summer squash plucked from the fields at The Farm at Sunnyside.

Mom’s Meatballs with House Made Tagliatelle is a MacPherson family classic, first created by John’s mom, Jan and served at the table growing up in Boston. The meatballs are presented on a nest of tender, fresh pasta ribbons and the rich sauce has a touch of sweetness from brown sugar balanced with just a hint of cinnamon.

The sweet finish starts with a prelude of Basil Mint Lady Grey Ice Cream a recipe created just for the dinner. Luxuriously-smooth ice cream is flavored with handfuls of fresh basil and mint, plucked from the kitchen garden at the Foster Harris House and accented with a perfumed kiss of Lady Grey tea.

Finally, individual Blackberry Frangipane Tarts with Vanilla Bean Cheesecake Ice Cream feature flaky puff pastry studded with plump, inky blackberries and glistening wineberries discovered at The Farm at Sunnyside.
We savor the sweet elegance of the tart and Diane and John join us at the table. The wine flows and we talk well into the night. We finish with a nightcap of Wasmund’s Rye Spirit, hand-crafted at the local distillery down the road – a fitting conclusion to a celebration of good company, edible Virginia and Chef John’s culinary gifts.

I visited the food and wine country of Virginia July 23 – 27, 2009.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Flavor, Labor and Neighbors at The Farm at Sunnyside

Breakfast has concluded at the Foster Harris House, and John MacPherson sheds his chef whites in favor of a green tee-shirt, shorts and baseball cap. We hop in the truck and head out into the rolling hills of Rappahannock County. Chef John is putting together a special dinner and he is in search of local ingredients.

We drive several miles and finally arrive at The Farm at Sunnyside, a source for much of the produce prepared at the Foster Harris House. The farm was established in the late 1700s with an apple orchard and some cattle. In 2006, Nick and Gardiner Lapham took ownership. The CSA program has 65 members and has been in operation for two years.

We park the truck and enter a wooden structure. I am introduced to Casey Gustowarow, a young bearded man in a red tee-shirt and one of four interns working on vegetable production at Sunnyside. Casey is the CSA manager. Immediately, my eye is drawn to bins of vibrantly-colored vegetables in shades I don’t always see. There is rainbow Swiss chard, eggplant the color of indigo, blush-pink potatoes, purple bell peppers and sun-drenched gold tomatoes.

Chef John is like a kid in a candy store as he looks over the selection. I’m getting a sense of the chef’s creative process. He has no shopping list, but as he examines the produce and the range of colors and textures, his plan for the dinner begins to take shape.

As John looks over the produce, I chat with Casey. He graduated college with a degree in biology, joined the Peace Corps and did conservation work, but found himself drawn to sustainable agriculture and a desire to provide sustainable food for others. He says community sponsored agriculture brings people together around food.

“I like the CSA a lot because everyone comes to the farm, rather than dropping off a box somewhere,” he tells me. “I really like that people get a community feeling – you know, come here, and talk to their neighbors and exchange recipes.”

It turns out Casey knows a lot about the subject of local food and has been a proponent at the highest level of government. He says interest in sustainable agriculture is increasing and change is possible.

“I went around on a crazy bus tour to get the White House to put a garden in,” he tells me. “Around the country, everywhere I went on this tour, people were incredibly interested in the local food movement and changing the way we eat in this country. And luckily, the President, or the First Lady, decided to do something about it, so I’m glad that’s the case.”

As we chat, Casey will periodically stop to talk with CSA members. He takes a minute to extol the virtues of the Cherokee Purple Tomato, a chunky fruit with deep-colored flesh.
“This one says, I am a tomato!” he tells a member.

Chef John takes note. “There is a tomato salad in our future,” he tells me.

Casey will often make recipes available for members. “I try to put out recipes – and every once in a while I’ll cook something and have a sampling,” he says. I ask him if the farmer is ultimately focused on the plant, or the taste that people experience.

“I think a lot of small scale farmers really care about delivering a good product to their customers,” Casey replies. “For me, I certainly think about what I would want to grow is what I would want to eat and how I’m going to prepare it.”
I’m admiring the perfect potatoes and notice that Chef John and Casey are deep in consultation. Casey disappears and returns shortly with a cardboard basket of tiny, jewel-like red berries. They are wineberries – a relative of the raspberry – and they grow in thorny bramble bushes all over the countryside.

Chef John considers their potential for the menu that’s been percolating in his head. The wineberries may find their way into a dessert. He drops a tiny berry into his mouth and offers me a taste.

“They’re like little pockets of summer,” says John “They’re like sweet-tart caviar the way they pop in your mouth.”

We return to the truck and bounce along a meandering road out into the vegetable fields. Shortly, we spot a woman on her knees tucking bright shocks of lettuce into a long plastic white strip. The midday sun is hot, and the attentive Virginia gnats are swarming. John introduces me to Emily Cook, who manages vegetable production at Sunnyside.

“I’m transplanting lettuce which we do every week,” explains Emily. This season, they have planted 30-35 generations at Sunnyside. The white plastic strip is used for week control. She tells me that varieties such as New Red Fire, Tropicana and Jericho do really well in the summer.

Emily has a Master’s degree in horticulture from Penn State. She started farming in 1997, shortly after completing her undergraduate degree.

“I went back to DC where I grew up and started looking for a real job in the non-profit world,” she says. “I couldn’t find one. My mom sent me out to get some cucumbers one day and mentioned there was a little farm stand in town. It was the first farmer’s market I had ever been to. I just stood there and thought, My God, I’ve never seen half of this stuff. What is kale?”

Shortly after, she started working at the farm stand, and then worked on several farms before completing her graduate work. She tells me that organic farming is not without perils. Right now the staff at Sunnyside is desperately trying to keep the tomato crop healthy, as a late blight attacks tomato plants throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

I ask her what people take away from their experiences at the Farm at Sunnyside.

“I model our CSA as a CSA that I would like,” Emily says. “I think they get huge diversity. We try to give them more choice than a lot of people get at a CSA. They’re getting the freshest produce that anyone could possibly get. And, hopefully learning a little bit and making friends with people who are interested in food.”

She says that CSA members become much more conscious of the effort required to grow wholesome, nutritious food.

“People are thinking about everything that’s going into producing their food, which I think is really important,” says Emily, mopping perspiration from her brow. “It just makes people more aware of how hard it is – like all the little steps that go into this head of lettuce. It started in the greenhouse a month ago, and somebody had to mix the soil and fill the flats and then seed, water for a month and fertilize. Now, somebody’s on their hands and knees out here putting it into the ground.”

Along with gorgeous varieties of summer lettuce, the best of zucchini – tended with care – is now available at farmers markets and CSAs. At The Farm at Sunnyside, Casey Gustowarow recommends a recipe that adds a dash of spice and heat to all that summer goodness:

Puree of Zucchini

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/3 cups finely chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
¼ tsp ground tumeric
4 medium zucchini (about 2 ¾ pounds) peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp cayenne
Freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tsp tomato paste

Put the olive oil in a medium frying pan and heat to medium-high. When hot, sauté onion and garlic for 10 – 12 minutes until onion is soft. If necessary, reduce heat to avoid browning. Add tumeric and stir once. Remove a third of the onion-garlic mixture and set aside. Add the zucchini and salt to the frying pan and return the heat to medium-high. Stir and cook for 1-2 minutes or until the zucchini begins to release a little liquid. Cover, turn heat to low and cook for 10 minutes, until zucchini is soft. Uncover, add the cumin, cayenne, black pepper to taste and tomato paste. Mash zucchini with a potato masher in the frying pan, allowing it to cook gently as you do. Keep cooking and mashing for a minute or two, until you have a course, well-mixed puree. Add the reserved onions and mix well. Serve hot, warm, at room temperature or chilled.
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Chef’s Canvas

A succession of rectangular plates is arranged on the counter in the kitchen of the Foster Harris House, like a gleaming mosaic of perfect white tiles.

Chef John MacPherson steps back and silently considers the potential of the pristine, blank canvas for just a moment. Then - quickly and precisely - he sets to work.

I have been given a backstage pass. Welcomed beyond the kitchen door of the Foster Harris House, I sit at the work island – with a steaming cup of coffee in hand – watching Chef John MacPherson in action. Few guests get this behind-the-scenes glimpse. It’s like entering the artist’s studio. This is where glorious breakfasts begin.

Chef John applies technique, artistry and imagination, and I watch – riveted – as a dazzling tableau takes shape. Every step is deliberate. Colors, textures, aromas, flavors and dimension all work in concert to shape the total creation. Flaky puff pastry elevates the dish. A curl of hickory-smoked bacon catches the eye. A brilliant fresh salsa of red tomato and green avocado is scented with tart lime juice and cilantro. Luminescent poached eggs are meticulously trimmed. Deep red pepper, finely-diced is scattered across the plate, with a flourish of chipotle cream.

The finished entrée is indeed a masterpiece. One’s first inclination is simply to gaze, and take in the spectacle, but then, the appetite is inspired.

Art is to be admired and appreciated, but is food ever too beautiful to eat? At the Foster Harris House – never!

I visited the food and wine country of Virginia July 23 – 27, 2009.

©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Do I Dare to Eat a Virginia Peach?

No sooner have I entered the Foster Harris House in Washington, Virginia when I spot it – a deep straw basket delivered by a neighbor, piled high with luscious round orbs, streaked with pink, blush and gold.

It has been just a few hours since I’ve departed the Big Apple, and I am confronted with a mountain of giant peaches. The Southern air is a touch sultry and the peaches simply glow with enticement.

Diane MacPherson invites me into the kitchen, and she brings along the basket. I perch myself on a stool. There are lots of things to catch up on after almost a year’s absence. Chef John MacPherson offers me a glass of wine. Diane slices one of the tempting peaches.

If it is true that one can actually taste the anticipation of a pending holiday, the flavors of the adventures that lie ahead are surely locked in these succulent peaches. The fruit is impossibly bright, ripe and laden with juice. The nectar sweetens my lips and clings to my fingers. All past peaches seem dry, woody and withered by comparison.

We talk for hours about food, wine and plans for the future. Time seems to pass differently in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And, the taste of these decadent peaches is like an infusion of sunshine.

John scoops servings of his homemade vanilla ice cream and surrounds the velvety rich concoction with more sliced peaches. Does anyone want a shaving of chocolate on top?
Heck, yes!

The cold, silky dessert and the peaches rejuvenate, signaling an awakening of all the senses neglected by just a tad too much responsibility.

It is good to be back at the Foster Harris House.

I visited the food and wine country of Virginia July 23 – 27, 2009.
©2009 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved