Preserving America's Food Traditions.
(First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 15 December 2011)
I was destined to love pork. Though it has not been medically proven, there must be pork in my DNA. Spanish by heritage, raised in the South and married to a woman of Puerto Rican descent, the pork stars aligned at my birth. In Spain, the pig has been revered for centuries, a practice probably cemented during the Spanish Inquisition when eating pork was considered proof of ones Christian virtues. Spaniards dedication to pork is so robust there is a saying that the only part of the pig a Spaniard wont eat is the squeal.
Here in the South, we love our barbecue, and authentic barbecue in our region means only one thing pork. I admit it: I am the kind of guy who will plan a road trip around noted Southern BBQ joints, going completely out of my way to make stops in rural stretches of the Carolinas to pay homage to the great pit masters of our region. I painfully recall an eight hour drive to Ayden, N.C., to dine at the Skylight Inn, the place many barbecue experts consider the Capital of BBQ. Having called ahead to be assured they would be open, we trekked there only to be heartbreakingly told they had already run out of pork. Ive roasted whole pigs in my back yard, slow cooked ribs all day till the tender flesh falls off at the slightest tug, and even left a bacon-wrapped pork loin or two on the grill overnight, gently cooking as I dreamt about my pork-on-pork breakfast. Lets be frankthe pig is a tasty beast.
My wife, God bless her, is even fonder of the pig than I. In Puerto Rico, where roadside pig roasts are far more commonplace than fast food restaurants, pork is heavily featured in every restaurant menu. Lechon, or roasted suckling pig, is the pride of the island.
I recently took a father-son trip with my dad to the island, rented a car in San Juan, and drove about an hour south into the mountainous interior, making our way along winding Highway 184 to Guavate, home to so many roadside pig stands that the road is nicknamed La Ruta del Lechon or the Roast Pork Trail.
With dozens of eateries to choose from, the trip did not disappoint. Every one of them offered a spit-roasted pig, crispy skinned on the outside and succulent on the inside, as well as all the typical Puerto Rican side dishes, and many of the bigger establishments had salsa and merengue bands to entertain us as we gorged ourselves. My favorite spot was a place called El Rancho Original, but any of the lechoneras will leave you very satisfied.
Fortunately, I no longer need to make such a distant journey for Puerto Ricanstyle pork, as a new restaurant has opened in St. Augustine that specializes in the islands cuisine. Located of all places in the Ponce de Leon Mall, Carmelo Foods is a no-frills establishment that lets the food do the talking. Saturday is roast pork day, and the owners make a tasty version of pernil, or roast pork shoulder, marinated in garlic and spices, that is moist and delicious. It is accompanied by arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), red or black beans, fried plantains, and other Caribbean specialties.
I also suggest trying the mofongo (mashed plantains spiked with garlic) and if you are adventurous, ordering a batch of pasteles to go. Pasteles are traditional Puerto Rican tamales filled with pork, olives, chickpeas and other tasty morsels. They are especially typical during the Christmas season.
What Carmelo Foods lacks in ambience it makes up for in porky deliciousness and will leave you squealing with delight.
(First Published in The St. Augustine Record on 17 Nov 2011)
Some ingredients are so closely associated with a particular cuisine that their relationship is instantly identified by just about anyone who has ever stepped one foot in a kitchen. Say pasta and youre propelled to Italy.
Think curry and youll be in India in a hurry.
Feta fetches thoughts of Greece, while jalapeos hustle you down to Mexico. In Southern cooking, pecans and sweet potatoes are ingredients that have taken on a status of almost mythical proportions.
Just think about the number of classic Southern dishes that these two ingredients star in: Pecan pie, pecan-crusted trout, pecan pralines, butter pecan ice cream, candied pecans, pecan brittle, sweet potato casserole, sweet potato biscuits, sweet potato pie, sweet potato fries, sweet potato mash, sweet potato hash the list could go on and on.
In autumn, Southerners harvest their sweet potatoes and collect the fallen pecans that cover their orchard floors (or front yard, in my case) and add them to the treasured regional dishes that are celebrated and passed down from one generation to the next timeless recipes immortalized in prized family cookbooks, pages marked with oil stains and batter blemishes.
In Cross Creek Cookery, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings called her sweet potato souffl one of the most luscious and utterly deadly dishes she served, adding that she constantly expected guests to fall in convulsion after partaking.
While I have never witnessed anyone having a spasm attack after eating one of these dishes, I can testify that the recipe that follows, which employs both pecans and sweet potatoes, will make you jump from the table and kiss the cook. (At least thats what happens at my house sorry, no money back guarantees for you.) These seasonal pancakes please the palate and tingle the tongue with their subtle sweetness and spiciness. They are excellent topped with a pat of butter or a light drizzle of pure maple syrup.
Like the prize pig at the county fair, these are blue-ribbon pancakes that make a first rate meal no matter what time of the day they are eaten.
Sweet Potato Pancakes with Spiced Pecans
(To purchase local sweet potatoes, go to www.smithfamily produce.com)
1 cup of sifted all-purpose flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. local wildflower honey
1 cup mashed cooked sweet potatoes
2 eggs, beaten
1 cups of milk
cup butter, melted
Sift dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Combine remaining ingredients; add to flour mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. Drop tablespoons onto hot greased griddle or skillet and fry, turning once, until browned on both sides. Serve with spicy pecans (recipe follows) and pure maple syrup.
For Spicy Pecans:
1 cup pecans, chopped
1/2 tbsp. European style butter
1/2 tbsp. local wildflower honey
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
Combine all ingredients and mix well to coat pecans. Cook on medium heat in a skillet until pecans toast mildly, tossing throughout. Remove from heat and set aside. When cooled, crumble over sweet potato pancakes.
First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 20 October, 2011
My wife and I visited the Merridale Cidery on Vancouver Island this summer and getting there is part of its charm. We drove our rental car from Victoria up and down winding roads through gorgeous scenery for about an hour, passing stunning coastal vistas and pastoral green fields set on a rolling rural landscape. Merridale itself rivals the drive, welcoming visitors with its serene setting, traditional farm buildings, and endless rows of British and French cider apple trees that line the orchard. It must be a postcard-perfect panorama in the Spring with infinite apple blossoms dotting the trees, their floral scent filling the valley with each passing breeze.
Still, even in July it was hard to complain about anything, especially after placidly strolling the grounds and spending a couple of hours dining in the bistro, languidly luxuriating in good, honest food and sampling flights of Merridales numerous award-winning ciders, an impressive array that runs the gamut from sparkling, sweet ones to crisp, dry ones.
The bistro is housed in an old converted farmhouse, which the owners lovingly restored and improved upon, fitting it with a wood burning oven, a lively bar area, and a small shop in which local delicacies can be purchased. Many of the menu items are locally sourced or locally inspired, focusing especially on the apples from their orchard or from their neighbors farms. Its the kind of first class operation that makes you want to buy an orchard, open your own cidery, press some good apples, share comfort food with visitors, and toast yourself as the rest of the world whiles away at work. While a tasting of ciders should not be missed, dining at the bistro is equally recommended. The owners of the Merridale Cidery were kind enough to share one of their delicious recipes, a perfect dish for autumn evenings.
Parsnip and Apple Soup
Courtesy of Merridale Cidery, www.merrdalecider.com
This dish is on Merridales bistro menu all year round; the end result will depend on the quality and size of the parsnips used. Medium parsnips have fewer cores and therefore more flavor, and the chef at Merridale only washes them, never peels them, as the taste is near the skin. As with all blended soups, the smaller you can cut the ingredients, the less time is needed to boil and therefore, more taste is retained.
12 medium parsnips cut into small dice
2 medium onions cut into small dice
3 medium peeled Granny Smith apples, cut into small dice
1/4 cup madras curry powder
8 oz. butter
1 pint Merridale Traditional Cider (or other dry cider)
3 pints (approximately) vegetable stock
1/4 pint of whipping cream
Melt the butter in a thick bottomed pan and add the onions and parsnips; cook over medium heat until they start to color lightly and break down, as this releases all of the parsnip flavor. Add the curry powder, stir, and cook for 1 minute. Add the apples and cider and boil until the cider is reduced by half. Add the vegetable stock and boil until the parsnips are soft. Add the cream and boil again then liquidize and pass through a fine sieve. Check seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.
One of my favorite things about traveling is discovering a familiar cuisine or dish that a local chef has reinterpreted, adding to it local flavors, ingredients, and his or her own personality.
This was the case on a recent trip my wife and I took to Victoria, the stately capital of British Columbia, Canada.
Like the United States, Canada is a multicultural country made up of a host of ethnicities which blend together to form a vibrant nation. Victoria is often called Canada's "most British city" because of its elegant gardens and Victorian-era buildings which have been handsomely restored.
The waterfront and historic core are teeming with the expected: manicured green spaces, dark pubs, fish-and-chipperies, tea houses, and charming eateries reminiscent of the Old World. Yet with little effort, one can easily see that, below the surface, Victoria is a modern, dynamic city in which immigrants have shaped the cultural fabric over successive eras.
In fact, Victoria has Canada's oldest Chinatown. Though much more compact than Vancouver's, it is a flourishing zone downtown full of shops, restaurants, and unique architecture. Italians also left their mark here as fishermen and as the region's first winemakers, a tradition that thrives today in British Columbia's booming wine industry.
It was an Italian restaurant, in fact, that most captured our culinary attention in Victoria. Just a 30 minute stroll from downtown in a leafy residential neighborhood, we discovered Pizzeria Prima Strada, an authentic Italian eatery specializing in Neapolitan-style pizza. With wood-fired, smoke-infused, slightly-charred crusts and artisanal toppings, such as hand-crafted local fresh mozzarella and house-made fennel sausage, the pizza was so wonderful, we dined there twice in our short stay. The restaurant also features exquisite platters of locally produced cured meats and cheeses, local wines and ciders, and a small gelato bar. But as good as the pizza was, the perfect ending to our meals at Prima Strada was a seasonal panna cotta dessert. Panna cotta, which is Italian for "cooked milk," probably originated in northern Italy, a region famed for its dairy products. In essence, it is a simple custard made by simmering milk and cream and adding gelatin, along with sweeteners such as sugar and vanilla. What set this one apart was that it was infused with lemon zest and fresh thyme and topped with a sour cherry compote, which was delicious, although the ultra-creamy panna cotta itself was so delightful it needed no extra fruit adornment, in my opinion. The owners of Prima Strada were generous enough to share their recipe for this dessert and I have adapted it here to American measurements. I hope you enjoy this enchanting spoonful of summer!
Vanilla Lemon Thyme Panna Cotta
1/2c. of milk
2 c. Heavy whipping cream
1 vanilla bean
10 sprigs of thyme
Zest of 1 lemon
11/2 tsp. gelatin
Pour milk into medium sized bowl. Sprinkle gelatin into milk and let mixture sit for 15 minutes or until gelatin softens. Set aside. Meanwhile, place 1 cup of cream, sugar, vanilla bean, thyme and zest into pot and bring to quick boil. Stir gelatinized milk into hot cream mixture and bring cream mixture to a simmer, stirring until gelatin dissolves. Cover, remove from heat, and let cool for 10 minutes. While mixture is cooling, mix 1 cup of whipping cream until soft peaks form. Pour the cooled cream mixture through a strainer (to remove solids) into larger bowl. Whisk whipped cream into cooled cream mixture and stir. Pour into ramekins or serving glasses about 2/3 full. Refrigerate until set, about 1-2 hours. Top with a fruit compote, if desired before serving.
I've spent more summers in Spain visiting family than I can count on my fingers. Even on an off-year when I don't get to fly across the Atlantic and get spoiled by my aunts' marvelous home cooking, I somehow feel tugged at by some sort of deep rooted food nostalgia for good Spanish comfort food. It's as if somehow a part of my subconscious (located somewhere near my stomach) sends me subliminal messages to cook and eat like a Spaniard because it's summer and that's what I should be doing. And although my family is from Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain, my wife and I love to fly into Barcelona and drive westward across the northern stretch of the country, sampling regional dishes along the way.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, a cultural, economic and gastronomic powerhouse region of Spain. Home to wide, leafy boulevards, fashionable boutiques and stunning architecture, Barcelona boasts some of the best restaurants and tapas bars in the world. But the best place to taste fresh Catalan food is at La Boquer
After wandering the stalls and browsing their tempting offerings, we buy a little here and a little there and assemble a picnic lunch to eat in the park. Or if we just can't resist the sights and smells coming from Bar Pinotxo, a delightful tapas bar near the entrance of the market, we pull up a couple of bar stools and order whatever they are cooking that day. Everything is fresh, seasonal, and delicious. My favorite dish at the eatery is one of garbanzo beans cooked with butifarra, a Catalan sausage. It's a fantastic dish we eat at home often that takes us back to Barcelona. Following is my recipe inspired by the version at Bar Pinotxo. As the Catalans say, Bon Profit!
Catalan-style Garbanzo Beans
2 cans of organic garbanzos (chickpeas) or better yet dried ones soaked overnight!
Handful of pine nuts
Handful of raisins, preferably red flame raisins
Large sweet onion, diced
Nice spoonful of freshly crushed garlic
Generous dusting of cumin
Light sprinkle of fennel pollen (Can be purchased at www.zingermans.com.)
3 fresh Italian-style chicken or pork sausages (Stewart's Market sells fresh homemade sausages.)
Handful of flat leaf parsley, chopped
Etra virgin olive oil
Remove sausage from casings, crumble and brown with a bit of olive oil on medium heat. When cooked, remove sausage from pan and set aside. Toast pine nuts lightly in the same pan with a bit more olive oil. Add onions and saute till soft and translucent, then add garlic and saut for another minute or so. Stir gently. Dust generously with cumin and toss. Add the garbanzos and raisins. Toss gently and cover so everything sautes and steams at the same time.
When garbanzos look ready (about 3-5 minutes), return sausage to pan and mix. Sprinkle with fennel pollen and toss again. Let sit a little on very low heat for a minute then spoon individual servings onto dishes. Drizzle a fresh, fruity extra virgin olive oil lightly over garbanzos. Toss a little torn parsley and sea salt on there for good measure.
Interview with Chef Brian Siebenschuh of Restaurant Orsay
Thank You, Northeast Florida!
"Transformational." That is how one person--a self-described skeptic--expressed his take on the Slow Food First Coast Tour de Farm held April 10 across Northeast Florida. For the first time ever, 24 of our region's small family farms and artisanal food producers opened their doors simultaneously to the public and you responded. Thousands of citizens descended on the venues to feast, frolic, and learn about a traditional way of life that is fast disappearing.
You drove. You pedaled. A few festive groups got there by charter bus.
And a couple of intrepid folks even arrived by boat.
At every venue, city slickers rubbed elbows with country folk, jostling in line for samples of sorbet, pulled pork, gourmet salads, and goat cheese. I have never seen so many people delighted by freshly picked Brussels sprouts! Kids of all ages came from near and far to pick strawberries and pull potatoes.
This day was made possible by the small family farmers that toil their soil, by the beekeepers who tend their hives, and by the cattle ranchers who care for their herds. It was a success because of the countless laborers that plant and harvest our cabbage and lettuce and the artisans that skillfully transform grapes into wine.
But this day would also not be possible without the support of all those who flocked to the two dozen venues in search of our region's bounty. One person told me: "It had the quality of a brand new romance -- the city people were delighted to drive around and see where their food came from and were charmed by these small family farms and the farmers were bewildered but delighted by the attention. It was like they finally found each other!" It was a match made on the green pastures of heaven.
But supporting local farms is not just about the fleeting "romance" of the moment, nor should this be a one day love affair. Farmers need our support daily just as we need their food to nourish us day in and day out. When you purchase local foods you are preserving a way of life. The dollars you spend on local foods are re-spent and reinvested in our own community. They allow farmers to maintain open spaces and wildlife habitat and contribute to the conservation of wetlands and aquatic systems. And since the average meal in America travels nearly 1,500 miles from farm to plate, local foods help reduce the amount of fossil fuels it takes to transport our calories and can lead to a significant reduction in the associated pollution.
To learn more, go to www.slowfoodfirstcoast.com.
Special thanks to the farmers, artisans, chefs, sponsors and volunteers who participated in the Tour de Farm and, in particular, to Slow Food First Coast Board members Marcia Macpherson and Mimi Ianuzzi and webmaster Kari Beauchamp for spearheading this event and spending countless hours to make it an overwhelming success. We are forever indebted.
Strawberry Fields Forever
Recently, I took a group of middle school students out to Sykes and Cooper U-Pick Farm in Elkton for some strawberry picking with their elementary school buddies as part of a mentoring program that Ive organized. There we were, admiring the pastoral landscape of rural St. Johns County and breathing in the fresh country air, when one of my students asked our host, John Sykes, a young, fifth-generation farmer, a very good question: Mister, are you a Yankee?
No sir, John, Southern-drawl and all, replied with a chuckle. Been here my whole life and so have my dad and his dad and his dad and his dad before him My student nodded with approval. Im not really sure if he was impressed with Johns deep local roots or just with the fact that he was not a Yankee, but it was clear that he and the other students were genuinely struck by his familys commitment to farming and community and his personal connection with the land. We can grow just about anything you want here, John told the children. Look around youwe have broccoli, sweet onions, collards, and yes, lots of those strawberries yall came to pick!
For many of my students, this was their first trip to the countryside. Lookchickens! shouted one. I didnt know broccoli grew like THAT! thought another aloud. Is it a strawberry field or a strawberry patch? wondered others.
The first thing I want to tell you, John told the kids with a sarcastic smile and a laugh, is stay in school so you dont have to be a farmer like me! Farming isnt easy, but it was tough to explain that to a bunch of children with strawberry picking on their minds. And pick strawberries, they did. Lots of them. Containers and containers of them. Mouthfulls of them. Pocketfulls of them. Pickings the easy part! John mused.
Can I get sick from eating too many strawberries? asked one of my students, red juice dripping down his chin. You might want to save some for home, I replied. John, I think these kids are gonna put yall out of business, I declared.
To be honest, watching the kids march up and down the rows of strawberry plants, filling their containers and eating away the Sykes profits with reckless abandon, was one of the coolest things I have observed as a teacher. (And I have a lot of stories, believe me.) But seeing their eyes (and mouths) so wide open with delight as they picked and picked was really something to behold.
I had taken them out to Elkton to teach them about local farms, our community, and why eating fresh food is so important to their health and well-being, but what I was witnessing was much more than that. It was an immediate connection with the air and the soil, the sheer pleasure of picking ones own food, the awe of looking across a field stocked with a bounty of fruits and vegetables and realizing that not all food comes from a box or a can. I may be a romantic, but I do believe that morning was transformative for many of those kids.
And thats why, Dear Readers, I am so excited to share with you that you too can experience the simple joys that only a visit to the country can offer. On April 10, Slow Food First Coast, the non-profit organization I founded over three years ago, and 24 farmers and food producers in our region, will welcome the public from 1 to 5 PM to the first annual Tour de Farm event in Northeast Florida history. It will be an opportunity for you to meet the people behind your food. It will give you a chance to connect directly with farmers, wine makers, beekeepers, and chefs, and sample their products. And it will bring you a little bit closer to the unheralded citizens in our very own community that toil the soil, work their crafts, and share their bounties with each of us. Its also a way to show them that we as a community think they are important.
There will be something for everyone, including on-site tastings, hands-on activities, and educational workshops that will leave foodies, gardeners, families, and friends of farms all elated. You can customize your visits and plan your route at home by checking out the Tour de Farm map at www.slowfoodfirstcoast.com. The website has descriptions of the various sites and what is being offered at each, and the Tour covers a wide geographic area, so you can visit as many venues as time and ambition allows.
A number of local celebrity chefs are partnering with farmers to cook special dishes with farm fresh ingredients for visitors at select locations. Participating restaurants include The Augustine Grille, Bistro Aix, Bistro de Leon, 29 South, Chew, Restaurant Orsay, The Floridian, and the Purple Olive, among others. The chefs have all promised that visitors will be well fed and happy.
There will be grass-fed beef burger samples on hand, farm fresh sausage to enjoy, and just-picked herbs and vegetables will be showcased in all manner of ways. French fries will be fried. Wine will be poured. Smoothies will be slurped.
Well have beekeepers sharing their sweet honey, cheese makers offering up their dairy delights, a sorbet or two on hand, even tea and cookies for a proper welcome. Some farms will offer a goat milking experience; others will have a petting zoo. And lets not forget about those strawberries. Ill be back out at Sykes and Cooper Farm, along with John and his family, welcoming visitors and watching kids of all ages pluck those gems like a thief picks pockets. Be sure to stop by and say hello. Ill be the kid with red juice dripping off my chin.
Twelve to Try in 2011
The following list is composed of some of my very favorite culinary discoveries from the past year. They are listed in no particular order and originate from both near and far. Try one a month in 2011 and let me know what you think!
You Are What You Eat.
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