A visit to the Casola Dining Room at SCCC (Schenectady County Community College)

SCCC table setting

Welcome to Casola Dining Room at SCCC

There are two things that the Casola Dining Room has in common with the legendary Chez Panisse in Berkeley. First, you have to call exactly two weeks in advance of your desired dining date and time to have any hope of a reservation. And second, if you do score a table, you are going to have an excellent meal.

Salad Nicoise

First course in the Provence themed menu: Salad Nicoise

Casola Dining Room is the showcase of Schenectady County Community College’s Culinary Arts Program. Students who have completed three foundation courses work together on a menu that is American Regional in the fall, International in the spring. (It changes every week, but those are the overarching themes.)

There are two seatings at lunch and two at dinner and you will get attentive service in a white-tablecloth setting as you enjoy a carefully prepared appetizer, entrée and dessert for the grand sum of $16 (plus a scholarship surcharge at dinner). No tax, no tipping (though you can, and should, leave something extra which goes to the program) and you can bring alcoholic beverages for a modest corkage fee.



SCCC is a treasure in Upstate New York that has spawned countless chefs and front-of-house folks who are broadly distributed throughout a region filled with eateries. Because of the known quality and work ethic of its graduates, some of the best establishments make a practice of focusing their hiring on SCCC and those grads, in turn, hire their fellow students. Between 550 and 650 students are in attendance at any given time, pursuing a two-year associate’s degree path that can lead them to hospitality or casino management as well as culinary arts. If you attend full time, the entire two years will cost less than $7000. That’s a ridiculous bargain.

Almond Pear Tart

Almond Pear Tart (look closely for some spun sugar latticework)

My server mentioned she was a first year student which caused me to ask Instructor Jay Larkin (a hotel management specialist whose classes are always full) about prerequisites for front-of-house staff. He had a great response which I’ll share in full:

For the service class there are no prerequisites and this is both a challenge and a blessing. The challenges come in the form of nervousness on the part of the student serving the guest for the first time as it truly can be the first time they have experienced fine dining service as a server or even as a guest. The blessing comes by way of no preformed habits to modify in service techniques. Many “seasoned” professionals have come through the program only to find their skills are not as well honed as once thought. We instruct at a high level of service to make any service thereafter easier to understand.

I think that gives you a good idea of why this program is so special and so successful. If you’re planning a visit to Upstate New York, consider putting Casola Dining Room on your itinerary. Be sure to check schedule because they only serve during school semesters. And don’t fail to call exactly 2 weeks in advance.

For the current Casola Dining Room menu, check here. For reservations call (518) 381-1391. And if you know someone who is ready to consider a career in cooking or hospitality, send them to the SCCC Culinary home page.  (Remind them if you learn to cook for a living, you’ll likely always be able to find a job, and you’ll likely never go hungry.)

P.S. There are students of all ages at CCC including lots of mid-life career changers. Jay and Dean of Students David Brough and Supervising Instructor
Rocco Verrigni told me about one student who completed the curriculum while still in high school, and another who got her certification at age 72 and is now pastry chef at one of Albany’s most prestigious restaurants. So no excuses. Come on down!

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Recipe: Tunisian Chickpea Salad

Tunisian Chickpea Salad

Reverse engineered Tunisian Chickpea Salad, with the original at left

This is my reverse engineering of the wonderful Tunisian salad from Healthy Living Market. The flavors and textures are nicely balanced and the unexpected spices (ground coriander and caraway) add a note of mystery. Serves 8.

2 c cooked chickpeas (canned, or prepared from approximately 7/8 c dried)
1 c carrots (about 4 medium), peeled and grated
1/4 c currants
1/4 c finely chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley, leaves only, or a combination
1 1/2 T olive oil
1 T lemon juice
1 T fresh squeezed orange juice (optional, but nice if you have it)
1 t Kosher salt
1/8 t ground black pepper
1 1/2 t caraway seeds
t t ground coriander, or to taste*
1/8-1/4 t cayenne**

Method: Add all ingredients to a glass, metal or ceramic bowl and toss to mix thoroughly. Allow flavors to develop for an hour or more, then adjust spicing to your preference. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled.

* Ground coriander quickly loses its flavor, so get a fresh batch for this recipe. Start with 2 t then add more if needed. It should contribute a prominent but not overpowering taste.
* 1/8 t will be nicely peppery while 1/4 t will give you something bordering on “hot” which is how Healthy Living serves it.

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Food for thought: ChefSteps

I was introduced to ChefSteps while doing some work with Modernist Pantry. ChefSteps has short, elegantly produced videos of food preparation, typically modernist cuisine but also some old favorites like crème brulee and pan gravy. My favorite sequences are like this for steak tartare where there is no narration, just beautiful photography, with captions explaining what you need to know.

Modernist Pantry bundles a set of videos on spherification with its products which otherwise you’d have to pay for. But most of the videos are free. You can see them on Youtube, but I advise you to to to the site where you’ll find the text for the recipes and the opportunity to browse for more inspiration. Check it out.

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Recipe: No-Knead Pizza Dough

Pepperoni no-knead pizza

Pepperoni Pizza made with no-knead dough

This is a variation of Overnight Pizza Dough for those without stand mixers, kitchen scales, pizza peels or a work ethic. Time does all the work. This is so easy, you’ll shake your head at those bags of pre made pizza dough they sell in fancy markets these days. Makes 4 personal pizzas.

1 1/2 c lukewarm water (340 g)
1/8 or 1/4 t rapid-rise yeast*
3 1/2 c all purpose flour, unsifted (500 g)
1 1/2 t kosher salt
silicon pad or parchment paper

Method: Add yeast* to warm water in a bowl and allow to bloom 5 min. Add flour and mix with a spoon until all water is absorbed. Allow to rest (autolyse) 30 minutes. This step hydrates the flour and is the beginning of the autopilot dough development. Add salt and mix with moistened hands to smooth out dough and work out any lumps of dry flour. Cover and rest in a 70 degree room until doubled: 4 hours for 1/4 t yeast, overnight if using 1/8 t. Punch down the dough and divide it into four balls; dust with flour then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. (You can also put the wrapped dough in a freezer bag at this pooint and freeze for future use.)

Approximately 2 hours before baking, take dough out of refrigerator. 1/2 hour before baking, heat oven to 500 degrees with a pizza stone or overturned cookie sheet on center rack. Form the pizzas by flattening one ball on a silicon pad or parchment paper; press flat with the heel of hour hands then work the dough out from center till you have a thin, uniform circle or rectangle.

Allow to rest 10 minutes and push outward again to expand the size of the pizza; while resting the dough will gather tensile strength so it’s easy to expand. Rub the top surface with olive oil then add your preferred sauce (I like a good jarred tomato sauce–I used one of Uncle Steve’s) and mixed cheese and possibly some meat or veggies. Transfer pizza on its mat or parchment paper directly onto the hot stone or cookie sheet. (Begin to prep the next pizza while the first one is cooking.) Bake 10 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and edges are browned but not burned. Serve hot.

*Use 1/8 t yeast for an overnight ferment, 1/4 t if you’re making in the morning to bake that night.

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How to rate suburban sushi

Hibachi Saba

One fish, same price, two very different results

OsakaSabaI live in a town of 30,000 that has five restaurants specializing in sushi. Can a community our size really support that many establishments providing a top quality dining experience? My suburban sushi tour aims to find out.

I go at lunchtime and try to order the same thing at each place—the lowest priced sushi combo, plus a side order of saba (mackerel marinated in rice vinegar) to see what the restaurant can do with a custom order. The two saba orders at left show the wide variation I’ve encountered. One was beautifully prepared and presented and generous, the other raggedy and sparse.

Nigiri (raw fish) sushi is best for comparative critique because there are fewer variables. There’s the fish, rice, the presentation. That’s pretty much it. I don’t like to eat sushi with my fingers so I generally use chopsticks, turning the fish over into a shoyu/wasabi mix before I eat. If the rice falls apart while I’m trying to do this, it gets demerits from me. In addition, the combinations also include a bowl of watery (but not always) miso soup and a forgettable California roll.

You can find a detailed listing of my findings (which I’ll continue to update) through this Yelp list, but Yelp isn’t necessarily the best source of sophisticated sushi advice in a non-sophisticated region. Not a few of our locals think sushi is from Thailand, and most focus their reviews on the rolls rather than the nigiri which is where a sushi chef makes his (I’ve never seen a female sushi chef) mark or falls short.

Also, a frequent criticism of Yelpers is that the fish tastes frozen, an easy slur that’s not always relevant. I’d rather have sushi grade fish that has been flash frozen at sea and carefully defrosted than “fresh” fish that’s sat around awhile. However, I expect most of the local places do have access to fresh fish if only from the Sysco truck. What happens after it arrives is what counts. How is it kept (and for how long, before it makes way into a Spicy Tuna or Dragon Roll)? And most important, how skilled is the chef at interpreting each piece and making sure, elegant cuts?

I found one place that really knows fish, though it’s not great on presentation, and one which is great on presentation and fair on the fish. The other three are going through the motions, for those for whom “sushi” is an end result rather than a complex tasting experience. I bet It’s the same in your town, but if not let me know.

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A tour of Chinese vinegars

I was going to do a post on Chinese vinegars when I ran across this Youtube video. Cooking teacher Eileen Lo takes us on a tour of an oddly non-busy grocery in New York’s Chinatown and tells not only what ingredients are used for, but which  brands to buy. The tour is courtesy of finecooking.com, which provides the recipes mentioned in the video here.

And about those Chinese vinegars. Sifu Lo explains that Black Vinegar, which appears in Orchid’s Noodles and as a dipping sauce for dumplings, is made with rice vinegar colored and flavored with caramel. I’ve used it in place of much more expensive balsamic with excellent results. Look for Koon Chung brand in your Asian market or order it from Amazon.

Chinese Red Vinegar, with shaved fresh ginger, also makes an excellent dumpling dipping sauce. But apparently it’s just rice vinegar with red food coloring, so you might be better off with an inexpensive red wine vinegar like Cora brand and you might even try that with ginger for Chinese dipping. (It was in the Amazon reviews of Koon Chung Red Vinegar that I found a tip from EJ that pointed me to the Eileen Lo video.)

And on the subject of substitutions, what if you don’t have access to basic white Chinese rice vinegar? No problem, says Eileen Lo. Just use Heinz distilled (white) vinegar instead.

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Recipe: Nair’s Moqueca (Sea Bass) Bahai-Style

Here’s another recipe from my Brazilian chef friend Nair. I like how the seafood gets three different styles of preparation—acid marinade, sauteeing and stovetop stewing. Serves 8.

2 lbs fillets of sea bass, mahi mahi or other firm-fleshed fish
1 lb shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 c onions, coarsely chopped
1 c tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped (Nair says it’s okay to use canned tomatoes)
2 fresh malagueta chiles seeded with stems removed (can substitute cayenne, piquins or red Serrano—a little bit of spicy red pepper to add color and heat)
2 garlic cloves, minced
14 oz can coconut milk
3 T lemon juice
2 1/2 Tbs azeite de dende (palm oil—or substitute ½ c extra virgin olive oil)*
2 t cilantro, chopped
2 T parsley, chopped
2 T green onion, sliced crosswise including some of the green
1 t grated ginger
Salt and pepper to taste

Method: Cut the fish into serving-size pieces. Make an herbal mixture of chiles, cilantro, parsley and ginger. Marinate fish and shrimp in lemon juice, half the herbs and salt in pepper for 1 hour in refrigerator. Heat oil in a large skillet and add shrimp; sauté for about 3 minutes until pink. Remove shrimp and reserve. Add onion and garlic to the same skillet and sauté until tender but not crisp.

Combine the fish, onions, tomatoes and remaining herbs and cook, covered, on stovetop for about 20 minutes or until fish is tender. Remove from heat and rest for 20 minutes. Add shrimp and coconut; return to stove and bring to a simmer, then turn off heat and let rest 10 minutes. Serve with your favorite fresh vegetables and rice pilaf.

* Aziete de dende is a red palm oil that has a unique color and flavor. If unavailable, substitute olive oil and consider adding some annatto (possibly steeped in that oil in advance) to provide red color but not the flavor. You might also try coconut oil, another palm oil that’s solid at room temperature.

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Recipe: Rule of Ones Pancakes

Don't forget the bacon!

Rule-of-One Pancakes

A universal pancake recipe that’s easy to remember since everything’s in ones. Helpful for children or hungover adults. Courtesy of Carol Maxwell. Makes about 10 5-inch pancakes.

1 c all-purpose flour
1 T sugar
1 t baking powder
1 generous pinch salt
1 c milk, buttermilk or combination
1 egg, beaten
1 T (or more) melted butter or unflavored oil (not olive oil)

Method: Thoroughly mix flour, sugar, salt and baking powder in a large bowl. Beat egg in a second bowl and add milk, then the melted butter. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients then pour in the liquid ingredients; stir until they are well blended but still a bit lumpy. Cook in a preheated saute pan or skillet, adding a bit of oil if needed.

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Jake’s Famous Barbecue Sauce… good enough to pour on my meat!

Jake's Famous sauces

The Jake’s Famous lineup

Of the hundreds of products I tasted at last month’s Winter Fancy Food Show, Jake’s Famous barbecue sauces really stood out. His Asian-inspired Blue Oak reminded me of the complex espresso sauce provided at the legendary Franklin’s in Austin. It was one of the very few sauces I’d gladly put on my meat (though not use for mopping). And Jake was kind enough to send samples to test.

BBQ tasting setup

My barbecue tasting setup

I procured a tray of pulled pork and a tray of brisket from Park Side Eatery, an excellent local establishment that has an indoor smoker so is able to deliver barbecue in the dead of winter. Cheap buns and sides of cole slaw and baked beans* were set out as accompaniments, then I invited in my tasters.

Blue Oak BBQ sauce

Blue Oak

Judging time. Blue Oak scored well, though I may have stuffed the ballot box to bring it to the top. It’s what hoisin sauce might taste like if it had been invented in Texas. Ingredients include soy sauce, mango puree and ginger on a flavor base of tomato sauce and molasses. (Update: Jake informs me he’s changing the name to Asian Style Chipotle BBQ Sauce, to better reflect the Asian influence.) This is a must-try in my opinion.

Memphis Blues BBQ sauce

Memphis Blues

The runner up was Memphis Blues. It’s Jake’s only sauce that has mustard ahead of tomato in the ingredient list, but it’s still darker and more robust than the watery yellow mixtures often poured on pulled pork. That’s its primary application, but it’s sturdy enough to use on beef as well.

Texas Medium BBQ sauce

Texas Medium

We really liked the Texas Medium Hot, which is a great all-purpose sauce with just enough kick. This is what I’d put on my brisket. It doesn’t contain cumin, which I consider a hallmark of a Texas sauce, but is very well balanced without it.

Maple Bourbon got mixed reviews. It’s as complex as the Blue Oak but some felt the flavors didn’t come together as well. I want to try this mopped onto some ribs where I think it will mingle with the meat and smoke flavors and produce a standout result.

Maple Bourbon BBQ Sauce

Maple Bourbon

There’s also Original Mild Southern which was pleasant and closest to what most people think of as a jarred barbecue sauce, but with better ingredients; and Really Hot that really is, to the point where I almost don’t recommend you use it on its own. (Southern barbecue places often offer a “mixed” sauce, combining mild and spicy.)

Except for Memphis Blues, molasses is the key to the flavor profile. That’s good if you like this bittersweet ingredient as I do, but it’s not for the raised-pinky set. When you pour Jake’s sauce on your meat, some serious business is going to happen.

There’s not a drop of high-fructose corn syrup, the favorite ingredient of grocery store sauces, yet Jake’s has plenty of body with thick tomato sauce and bits of ingredient (I like it that he did not puree it to a uniform liquid).

So, where can you get these elixers? Start by going to Jake’s “locations” page  to see if there’s a retailer near you. Distribution seems to be mostly in the west with a bit in the south, including Austin-based Central Market.

If you live in the frozen boondocks like I do, you’ll have to order direct.  At present there’s a relatively hefty shipping charge, which Jake says simply passes on his own cost and he’s working to negotiate discounts with the shipping companies. Relative to other costs in life, I think it’s worth a few extra bucks to try what may be one of the best jarred sauces on the market.

Disclosure: I was provided free product for my review, but no other form of compensation.

* By chance, I bought a can of B&M Bacon & Onion Baked Beans. Not bad at all. The first canned beans I have tried that did not demand extensive doctoring with dried mustard, Worcestershire, brown sugar and cider vinegar, though those ingredients woudn’t have hurt.

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The Saratoga Beer Week curmudgeon

Sour Beer Event

Brendon Knight of B United, our tour guide at the Sour Beer event

I was going to write a snarky article about Saratoga Beer Week, just concluded, after finding this post from the very first Beer Week in 2012. Then, the organizers were worried that no one would come to a beer event in the middle of winter. Tickets for the “Beer Summit” were maybe $30 and there was a Groupon to reduce that by half. Now, the tasting is $50 to sample the same brews I can get every day at my local beer store.

However, as Yogi Berra might say, not only did nobody go because it was too expensive, but it sold out. I wasn’t at the Summit, but I did attend a few events during the week and ended up in a markedly better mood. Highlights were Brew Salt Night at Olde Saratoga Brewery, where one could have a flight of six beers paired with beer-salted foods for $8, a “Sour Hour” at Henry Street Taproom, and the San Diego Takeover at that same establishment featuring the magnificent Duet IPA from Alpine and a pepper-laced Imperial Stout from Green Flash.

sour beer setup

Sour beer tasting setup, with paired cheeses

There are a few reasons a craft beer festival might not be on the same level as a comparable event focused on wines. Unlike vintners who are steeped in their terroir, brewers use commercially available ingredients and many are part-time hobbyists. Also, the folks who pour the samples at the tastings are often distributors, rather than the brewers themselves. And then there’s the pricing. How much is too much to pay for a workingman’s quaff?

I balked at $40 for “Wild Thing—A Celebration of Sours” but it turned out to be fair value. We drank five extremely unusual sours that would have been $6-8 at the bar and each was accompanied by a generous portion of an appropriately sour and stinky artisanal cheese as well as HST’s buttery sourdough bread. I do wish the event had stretched out a bit and there had been a break between flights; 5 sours in an hour is a lot. How about a trivia contest focused on wild yeasts? (I’m serious.)

A few restaurants in town featured beer dinners but did not tempt. They were devoted to a single brewery and, unless it’s a powerhouse like Green Flash or Alpine, I’m not interested in tasting your entire line because I don’t like lagers, porters or, god help me, pumpkin-spiced and other flavored beers. How about an IPA dinner, in which you pair each course with an appropriate ale of that category? A stout will be permitted for dessert.

Olde Saratoga Brew Salt tastig

Beer, Brew Salt and snacks at Olde Saratoga Brewery

My suggestion for the distributors, who have a vested interest in presenting their product to an audience of eager neophytes, is that you take more of a leadership role. Don’t just showcase your most popular lines. Throw us some curves from oddball brewers and challenge us to demand them at our local outlets.

And, let’s have more events like the Brew Salt Tasting that are inexpensive and just plain fun. The OSB bar staff, not some fancy caterer, made the paired snacks including moustache-shaped peanut butter sandwiches (to go with PBJ Stout and Chocolate Brew Salt) and they were great.

Okay, glad I got that off my chest. Can’t wait for next year.

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