Where to eat in Saratoga Springs during the racing season

The 147th season of the Saratoga Race Course began last week, and my town is choked with tourists. It’s fun to observe the passing crowd with their big hats, limos and cigars, but it can also be very difficult to get a meal. Here are a few suggestions from a local. I haven’t included links because they are readily available from the touristic websites, and when you explore you might find other options you want to explore.

1. Make a reservation at 15 Church (original restaurant or patio) as soon as your travel plans are decided. This is by far the best restaurant in town and wildly popular, but with sufficient advance notice you may be able to score a table. If you do, you’ll be treated with courtesy and an excellent meal instead of being rushed through. The recently opened patio is a more casual place that’s very loud and even more popular than the sedate original, which I prefer.

2. If you’re going to the races at lunchtime, remember that you’re allowed to bring in food and a cooler full of beer and beverages in non-glass containers. I recommend an Italian Mix from Roma Imports, a vegan buffet box from Four Seasons, or a sandwich and a carton of gazpacho from Putnam Market. All these places are very crowded from about 11 to 12:45 with people trying to get to the track, so go early, phone in your order, or miss the first post and pick up your sandwich around 1. Get the beer at EBI on Excelsior… cans only, remember.

3. Take at least a couple of your evening meals as picnics in Congress or Spa Park instead of waiting on line for restaurants. Any of the above lunch suggestions are good, and since we’re not going to let the food sit around I would add a Comfort Burger or Mac and Cheese from Comfort Kitchen (note that they close at 7) or a bucket of take-out chicken from Hattie’s Chicken Shack in the Wilton Mall.

4. For breakfast, have at least one meal (or take out a box of pastries) from Mrs. London’s. You can also get an excellent diner-style breakfast at Triangle Diner or Compton, two locals-only places that are remarkably free of high rollers (though you may have to wait in line with the working stiffs).

Most (not all) of the above places are right downtown, so don’t even think about driving. Leave your car where it is and walk to the track (it’s about a mile). The exercise will do you good after eating all that food.

Posted in Eating | Tagged | Leave a comment

Recipe: Texas Schoolburgers (IMPROVED)

Texas Schoolburgers Improved

Texas Schoolburgers, ready to be covered and put in the oven. I ran out of burger buns and hot dog buns worked fine.

After preparing a palatable version using my recollections of school lunches in Dallas and ideas I’d found on the web, I finally bit the bullet and converted the original institutional recipe. Guess what: it is terrific. No idea why we hated this as kids or why the Dallas Morning News food editor wisecracked “I’m not making this up” when sharing the recipe. It’s a commonsense mass-produced burger that will work in any situation where you want to make a lot of them in advance, like a kid’s birthday party or a prison. Makes 12 schoolburgers.

Ingredients:
1 ½ oz white bread, the cheapest you can find (I used a couple extra buns)
½ c beef stock
4 oz potatoes, peeled and cooked very tender
½ to 1 t salt (depends on how salty the beef stock is; there was a very small amount in the DISD recipe making me think they used a salty canned stock)
3/8 t ground pepper
2 lb ground beef
¼ lb chopped onions
¼ c green pickle relish
¼ yellow mustard
2 T white vinegar
Additional beef stock as needed (I used additional ½ c)
12 hamburger buns

Schoolburger meat

The meat

Method: tear the bread into bits and soak in the beef stock till hydrated. Add potatoes and mash with a potato masher into a slurry. Add beef, salt and pepper and mix thoroughly. Transfer to a shallow baking pan and cook in a 425 degree oven until meat is thoroughly cooked (about 25 minutes), frequently using the potato masher to break up any lumps and make sure the meat does not brown and crisp. Pour off any excess fat after cooking. The above steps can be done well in advance and the meat can be refrigerated until needed.

Schoolburger Mix-ins

The mix-ins. I added a bit of green food coloring in hopes of recapturing the neon relish of my youth but it didn’t make a difference.

Combine chopped onions, relish, yellow mustard and vinegar in a bowl and mix in the reserved meat. Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed. If dry and crumbly, add a bit of beef stock to moisten. You don’t want it as liquidy as sloppy joes but you do want a cohesive mixture. Spread on hamburger buns (about 1/3 c per bun); place in a hotel pan or other pan that will allow you to stack the buns and arrange them in a double layer then cover with aluminum foil. (This steaming procedure is essential to the texture of the finished product.) Heat through in a 350 degree oven, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately, or allow the burgers to sit around so the flavor sinks into the buns. Any leftovers may be reheated in microwave and served for breakfast the next day with little loss in quality.

Schoolburger Breakfast

Just as good for breakfast the next day.

Posted in Mains, Recipes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Recipe: Go-To Sourdough Bread

Go-to baguettes

Baguettes made with my go-to recipe

This is my favorite sourdough recipe which I’ve been tweaking for the past couple of years. I am obsessed with making presentable baguettes, but it also makes excellent and reliable boules and baguettes for sandwiches and everyday use. It was inspired by Maggie Glezer’s description of the Acme baguettes in Artisan Baking, though I’ve replaced the yeast with sourdough starter and made a few other tweaks. You’ll end up with about 1200 g (2 1/2 lbs) of dough, enough for one miche or two boules or four baguettes.

Ingredients (more on proportions later):
All purpose flour (I use King Arthur brand)
White sourdough starter at 60% hydration
Water
Salt

Method: this is a leisurely prep that evolves over several days. Timing is extremely variable and depends on how lively your starter is and how warm the room is. As Jeffrey Hamelman says, “man drools, bread rules!” meaning you have to be guided by when the dough is ready for the next step.

Day 1: simultaneously make the pate fermentée (unless you’ve done this before and have some “old dough” from a previous batch), poolish and refresh your starter.

Pate fermentée: dissolve a pinch of starter in 60 g warm water. Mix in 100 g flour and a pinch of salt. Knead with your fingers until ingredients are incorporated and some gluten development is happening. Cover and set aside.

Poolish: dissolve a generous dollop (about 5 g of starter) in 147 g warm water. Add 148 g all purpose flour and mix thoroughly. Cover and set aside.

Starter: refresh your 60% starter (after removing the pinches for the poolish and pate fermentée) with 90 g water and 150 g all purpose flour. Cover and set aside.

Poolish after rising

Poolish after rising

Day 2 (or possibly later on Day 1): when the poolish has turned from a paste to a liquid covered with tiny bubbles (see photo) you are ready to move to the next step. Add 120 g of refreshed starter to the poolish, reserving the rest for future use. Add 287-315 g* lukewarm water and mix thoroughly, dissolving as much of the solids as you can. Add 500 g all purpose flour and mix thoroughly. Autolyze 30-60 minutes, but before you do this tear the pate fermentée into scraps and place on the top of the dough along with 2 t kosher salt.

After autolyze, proceed through several stretch-and-folds according to your preferred technique until there is good gluten development and the dough is starting to puff up. For me, this takes half a dozen stretch-and-folds over an hour or a bit more. As you do this, taste the raw dough for salt and adjusted as needed. I’ve deliberately under-salted the initial recipe expecting you will add more. The final dough will be slightly on the salty side but not overwhelmed by salt; the salt will be offset by the sourness of the finished bread.

Cover and set aside for bulk fermentation for a couple of hours. You just want the process of rising to begin.

Now, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and toss it in the refrigerator for a couple of days. If the dough has risen significantly during the bulk fermentation, punch it down first so it doesn’t climb out of the bowl.

Day 4: after 48 hours or so (you can adjust the timing by a few hours to fit your schedule) remove dough from refrigerator. Remove 150 g dough for pate fermentée, label and reserve for next time. Divide the rest of the dough into loaf portions and preshape. Recipe will make four 300 g baguettes or two 600 g boules/batards or you can just make one giant loaf.

After preshaping, let the dough rest a bit, especially if you are making baguettes. Once it comes up to room temperature (possibly 45 minutes or an hour) shape into your final loaves then place in bannetons or on couche for final rise. When it starts to puff out and fill seams created by shaping, turn on the oven to 500 degrees and preheat dutch ovens/baking sheet/baking stone depending on how you are cooking. Dough is ready when it’s puffed up enough that you can make an impression with your finger and it will slowly recover; if the dough pops right back then it’s unfortunately overproofed.

Load the bread and turn the oven down to 480 degrees. Manage steam according to your preferred method; I use a cast iron dutch oven for boules and remove the cover after about 20 minutes. For baguettes, I now use this method and have also had recent success dumping a bunch of ice cubes into a preheated aluminum tray in the oven. Continue to cook until bread is rich brown but not yet charred, maybe 45 minutes. Remove, cool, enjoy!

* This apparently small range of water amounts makes a huge difference in the final result. At 287 g it’s at 67% hydration which is a very manageable dough that’s fine for baguettes and boules. 315 g is an upper range over 70% that will be difficult to handle but can produce attractive open crumb in baguettes. My advice is to start the low end of hydration and add more water as you feel comfortable with it.

** Variation: for extra sweetness and complexity, I’ve been adding about 10% spelt flour by total flour weight, which is 80 grams or so.

Posted in Baking and Baked Goods, Recipes | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Recipe: Pickled Beets

Pickled Beets

Pickled Beets

I followed the recipe in Food in Jars, which is an excellent source of canning advice, but reduced the sugar content significantly. These are nice with arugula or green lettuce, blue cheese and glazed walnuts and a mustardy vinaigrette like they used to serve at Vicolo’s in San Francisco. Makes 3 pints.

Ingredients:
2 lbs red beets (you could also use pink or chioggia beets)
2 c apple cider vinegar
2 c water
2 T kosher or pickling salt
¼ c sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 chunk of ginger, about 2 inches by ¾ inch, peeled and thinly sliced.

Method: Scrub the beets and remove greens and long roots, but don’t trim too much because the outsides will come off in cooking. Bring a big pot of water to the boil and add beets; when it comes back to a boil reduce heat to a simmer and cook until beets are tender, about 45 minutes. Plunge into cold water to stop cooking; when cool enough, scrub with your hands to remove skin and any residual roots/stems. Cut into quarters or eighths, depending on the size of the beets.

Beets In Salad

Beet, walnut, gorgonzola, arugula salad

In a saucepan, bring all other ingredients to a boil and reduce to a simmer; heat 5 minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Add the cleaned beet chunks and turn off the heat. When cooled to lukewarm, transfer to pint jars. If needed, top off with 50% water/50% cider vinegar. Keep in refrigerator for up to 2 months (they’re ready to eat after 5 days). You can also put them up using sterilized jars and your preferred canning method.

Posted in Condiments, Recipes, Sides, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

My first barbecue judging

pulled pork variations

Look at the variety in the pulled pork submitted for judging at the Troy Pig Out.

Although I am very judgmental about barbecue, I had never officially judged a barbecue event until last Saturday, when I got to give my opinion on chicken, ribs, brisket and pulled pork at the Troy Pig Out thanks to an invitation from my friends at Albany Yelp.

Most of the judges other than me were KCBS (Kansas City Barbecue Society) certified. This means they’ve taken a 5 hour class in what to look for in barbecue and how to apply those standards consistently. My friend Melanie is a KCBS judge and was kind enough to prep me with some links, such as this blog that describes the judging process in some detail.

I found the group to be earnest and diligent at their work and I have no doubt the contestants got a fair shake. The three criteria are appearance, taste and tenderness, each given a separate score. I learned that smoke ring does not figure in the judging process and that you can be disqualified for using red leaf lettuce as a garnish. (Green lettuce and parsley are fine.) Also, because this was not itself a KCBS sanctioned event, we were able to exchange comments on the tastes though we were all careful to wait until after we’d voted to do this.

How was the barbecue? I feel a little reticent due to my novice status, but will say that chicken had the greatest range of preparations (you should know that judges like thigh meat because it’s easy to make it tender, and that the portions should be uniform in size). It’s hard to mess up ribs, and most people didn’t. I was most disappointed in the brisket, which tended to be lean grey strips, but that’s where professional standards come in because others didn’t seem to feel as I did.

Pulled pork was where things got interesting, and I gave the highest score of the day to a dish I generally avoid. Look at the variety in my photo. It ranges from what most people settle for as pulled pork—well sauced strands that could have been cooked in a crockpot—to discrete chunks to pork shoulder which had been smoked into submission and then pulled apart with fingers or forks, which I think is what pulled pork was like before the chain restaurants redefined the genre.

By the end of the event my table mates were asking if I was ready to get myself certified and the answer is, quite possibly. The class costs $100 and that includes lots of barbecue. However, there’s nothing scheduled in the Northeast for the remainder of 2015 so this will have to go on the bucket list.

Posted in Eating | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What a great meal!

I put together a Yelp list of my regular dining rotation in Saratoga Springs, New York, and was embarrassed to discover I’d used the word “great” in almost every review. This was painful because I pride myself on being very specific about my experiences.

Mine is a tourist town chock-a-block in restaurants most of which are decidedly not great. The dozen or less places I visit again and again rise above the average for a variety of reasons. There’s a burger place, a fine dining place, a couple of delis that craft generous and well-balanced sandwiches, an Italian bistro that makes a standout pizza with home-made mozz, and even a passable Thai/Japanese place (sadly, no Chinese). All are “great” in my eyes.

I think I’m using the word “great” as in “Alexander the Great”—to describe a consistency of performance over a span of time. It also recognizes that there are ways a place can be measured with identifiable levels of accomplishment. Excellent service, quality ingredients, imaginative recipes, superior execution of a familiar job like smoking meat are examples.

So what I need to do, and will do from now on, is spell out why an experience is great. That also tells a review reader my thought process to sync up with theirs. I like a nice setting, for example, but I’m not going to give a lot of points for it, so if that’s your “great” it may not be mine.

After this embarrassment I used the handy search function to your right to see if I was also sloppy with the use of “great” on this blog and it appears you guys are getting better work from me. In several cases I use “great” as I should, setting it up as a standard and then describing how a restaurant (15 Church), a sub and a bahn mi (which is not the same as a sub, as we know) can be great. But I also use “great” too liberally in describing an accompaniment (Annie Somerville’s couscous salad) and a bread base for sandwiches (my country style miche). So there’s work to be done.

P.S. While still in the mood for self-flagellation, I looked up occurrences of the vastly overused “amazing”. I’m happy to report there are far fewer of those than “great” and most of them are used correctly, as in a discovery or experience or stat that totally takes you by surprise. If you are very bored, use the handy search box and see what else I am or am not abusing.

Posted in Eating, Food for Thought, Something Else | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Recipe: Mediterranean Carrot Mezze

Mediterranean Carrot Mezze

Mediterranean Carrot Mezze

Make this easy recipe a day ahead. It will definitely taste better. It can then sit around a couple of days in the refrigerator until you want to serve it as part of an assortment in the Mediterranean/middle eastern way.

Ingredients:
1 lb carrots, peeled
3 T lemon juice
3 T good olive oil
2 T finely chopped fresh mint
3/4 t salt
1/4 t cayenne

Method: Shred the carrots with a box grater. (Don’t cut off the ends first because those will protect your fingers as you hold the carrots.) Mix everything in a glass or stainless or pottery bowl and refrigerate overnight before serving.

Posted in Recipes, Sides | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Texas-style cookout

I was gratified by the hundreds of hits on the Vincent’s Garlic Cole Slaw recipe over the holiday weekend, along with Texas-Style Potato Salad and Highland Park Squash Casserole. Makes me feel good that folks are celebrating with the same foods I grew up with.

Back in Dallas, we might eat these foods with some fried chicken from Bubba’s or maybe we’d barbecue that chicken like this. Oddly enough I’ve never published a straight-out burger recipe, which I will need to rectify. But if you’re awash in Texas nostalgia you can try this.

Hope there’s nice weather where you are, and it’s not too unpleasant to get back to work after the holiday. And thanks for reading, y’all.

Posted in Eating | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Recipe: Egg Foo Young

Egg Foo Young

Egg Foo Yung. This pancake is too big; you’ll make a nicer presentation with 4-inch pancakes that are overlapping on the plate but not stacked.

I had a surfeit of bean sprouts so decided to experiment with this Chinese-American classic. On the way I investigated a few options which will give you better results than mine on your own batch. Serves 4.

Ingredients:
6 eggs
1 bunch scallions, sliced thin including some of the green
1 cup or more bean sprouts
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ c ham, finely chopped (or use leftover chicken or pork or a smaller amount of crispy bacon)
½ t salt
½ t pepper

For sauce:
½ c shao shing cooking wine (if you don’t it, substitute 6 T chicken stock or water and 2 T rice vinegar)
1 T sugar
2 T soy sauce
2 T cornstarch

Method: Beat the eggs and add salt and pepper. Using a non-stick skillet (essential, unless you have good wok skills and a very well-seasoned wok) heat 1 T oil then ladle in enough egg to make 4-inch “pancakes”. Add a spoonful of the vegetable/meat filling to each pancake and cook on medium heat till the surface is firm. Flip to brown the other side, then reserve on paper towels and repeat with more oil, egg and filling until all pancakes are cooked.

Make the sauce: Mix sugar with wine or other liquid in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Off the stove, mix the soy sauce and cornstarch in a small bowl jar or glass then pour into the stock. Simmer, stirring constantly, until sauce thickens to coat the back of the spoon.

Serve immediately, three pancakes per person with some gravy drizzled on top. You’ll likely end up with some nicely browned pancakes and others that are ragged or short on filling. Put those on the bottom.

What I learned:
• Smaller pancakes will make a nicer presentation than one egg per pancake which is what I did.
• You don’t need to pre-saute the filling as most recipes recommend.
• You need a sweet-tart gravy, not the American brown gravy (shudder) that some recipes specify.

Posted in Mains, Recipes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How not to close a restaurant

The middle eastern place closed down in my town. I figured this out by showing up two nights in a row at prime dinner hour and finding the door locked, the room dark, with no sign of activity. I called while standing outside and the phone rang and rang. They’re still taking reservations on Open Table, and still selling discount coupons on Local Flavor, but a colleague checked out their other location and got positive confirmation they’re gone for good.

I’m sorry for the personal or financial issues that caused this to happen, but they could have done a better job of saying goodbye. Announce it, for one thing, instead of slinking away. Better yet, since they have another location 20 minutes away, do promotions to draw diners to that location.

Javier’s, a Nuevo Latino place that fell victim to a bad venue last winter, did a much better job of going out of business. They had a series of special nights where you could commiserate at the bar and drink up their inventory at bargain prices. (Apparently you’re not allowed to take alcohol off the premises when you close a place.) They even honored outstanding gift certificates. The result was a reservoir of good will that will follow Javier to his next restaurant.

I know that restaurateurs have a reputation as bad business people, but this isn’t about business. It’s about common sense, and common courtesy. It really shouldn’t be that hard to say goodbye in a positive way.

Posted in Eating, Something Else | Tagged , | Leave a comment