How to win a food festival

Hamlet and Ghost

How to win a food festival: candied bacon on a skewer and minty whisky cocktails from Hamlet and Ghost at the 2016 Saratoga Wine and Food Festival

This year I attended the Saratoga Wine and Food Festival as a guest of my friends at Yelp, so was able to skip my usual blogger duties. I took the opportunity to think about how to make the most of an event like this one, after you’ve paid $75 or so for a short window of merriment. Here are a few strategies:

  1. Arrive early. The crowds tend to get thicker as the event goes on, and many of the most popular stations will run out of food. Why chance it? There’s usually a backup at the gate when the event opens, so 15 minutes after is just right.

  2. Head for the back. People tend to gravitate to the first thing they see once they get inside, so those first few stations will be mobbed. Walk right past and head for the rear wall. Remember, when you’re standing in line you’re not eating/drinking (unless you’ve brought something from another station, which doesn’t seem a proper thing to do).

  3. Eat before drinking. The food runs out first. Plus, not a bad idea to coat your stomach before pounding beer/wine/hard liquor.

  4. Have a liquor strategy. You can’t drink everything and don’t want to since quality is likely to vary widely. Decide on a particular drink category and stick to that. This day was hot and muggy, so the choice was easy: iced punches with vodka/bourbon/tequila/whatever. I had exactly one beer and one sip of wine beyond that.

  5. Wear dark clothes. Should have put this first. You are inevitably going to spill something from those awkward plates so be prepared. And if you get through the afternoon without an accident (which I actually did today) give yourself a high five at the end.

  6. Study the program. Should have put this first as well. At this event there was a map of stations so I could be sure I wasn’t missing anything I wanted to try. I also checked the kitchen demo schedule to find a nice time to take a break and watch some entertaining chefs grilling off meats.

  7. Take off your wristband when you get to your car. Presumably you have not over-imbibed. Even so, why advertise the fact you’ve just spent the afternoon at a booze fest?

The restaurants, too, have a strategy for winning a food festival: serve something that is dramatic, with wide appeal, unlikely to be repeated by others, and characteristic of the experience of dining with them. The clear winner for me was Hamlet and Ghost, a retro bar known for its innovative cocktails and small plates. Candied bacon on a skewer with a minty whisky cocktail on the side was just right. This treat was gone within the first hour of the fest—see #1 above.

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Refried beans from the can

Old El Paso Traditional Refried Beans

Old El Paso Traditional Refried Beans

There are very few items I will heat and eat straight out of the can. Old El Paso Traditional Refried Beans is one of them. When a guest approvingly guessed I had added lard, my answer was no ma’am, that’s the way they come.

The one embellishment I generally do add is to grate some cheese on top while it’s heating in the saucepan, then cover and let the cheese get nice and gooey, Tex Mex style. After the meal, I’ll mix in leftover chopped onion, jalapeños, salsa and whatever other bits might remain from the condiment tray and use the result to make quesadillas. Give this a try.

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Cracking the code for Kentucky Fried Chicken

Kentucky Fried Chicken

Kentucky Fried Chicken

A cousin of the legendary-but-real Colonel, not realizing it was anything special, recently shared the recipe for the blend of 11 herbs and spices he would mix up in the garage for the family chicken stand. The Chicago Tribune reported it, and I had to give it a try. I was planning to stop by the fried chicken store for some comparison pieces but no need: every taster bit in and immediately said, “yep, that’s Kentucky Fried Chicken” though it was also fresher and more flavorful than you’ve ever had it in a fast food place. Serves 4.

Frying chicken or chicken pieces, up to 4 lbs total
1 c all purpose flour
4 t salt
¾ t dried thyme leaves
¾ t dried basil leaves
½ t dried oregano leaves
½ t celery seed
1 ½ t ground black pepper
1 ½ t dried mustard
4 T paprika
1 t granulated garlic
1 ½ t ground ginger
4 ½ t ground white pepper (not a typo)
¼ t MSG
1 c buttermilk

Method: thoroughly mix spices and flour. Soak chicken pieces in buttermilk at least 1 hour, turning frequently. Preheat frying oil in fryer or dutch oven to 350 degrees. Drain chicken pieces and dredge in flour mixture and cook a few pieces at a time, turning occasionally until done. Serve hot.

Notes: the original calls for celery and garlic “salt” which I’ve converted into a ratio of 1 part herb to 2 parts salt. My recipe is half the Tribune recipe because I had a huge amount of flour mixture left over; feel free to double it and then sift the leftover mixture to use another day. Finally, the Tribune recipe included a beaten egg mixed in with the buttermilk soak which didn’t seem to add anything; try if you like.

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Recipe: Corn Cucumber Salsa

Corn Cucumber Salsa

Corn Cucumber Salsa

Inspired by a memorable onion and cucumber salsa at Taqueria GDL in Glens Falls, NY. I had on hand some leftover Mexican grilled corn and Pickled Onions a la Mexicana, but you can use the instructions below to create it from scratch. Corn cucumber salad is cool and refreshing and goes well as a condiment for tacos or any Mexican dish and can also be eaten as a vegetable. Makes 2 c (4-6 vegetable servings or quite a few more salsa portions).

2 ears of corn, roasted or raw
1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 medium onion OR 1/2 recipe Pickled Onions a la Mexicana
1 t cumin seed (omit if using the picked onions)
1/2 t salt (omit if using the pickled onions)
Juice from 1 lime
1/2 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped OR 1/4 cayenne pepper (omit if using the pickled onions)

Method: Shave the niblets off the corn and discard the cobs. Combine with other ingredients. Allow flavors to develop 1 hour before serving.

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How to win a cookoff contest

Ilium Enchanted City

Winning dish in the 2016 Emerald City Trial by Combat cookoff

Last Saturday I was a judge in the Trial By Combat cookoff, part of the Enchanted City steampunk festival in Troy, NY. The contest was sponsored by Yelp and organized by Daniel B of FUSSYlittleBLOG. We went shopping in the local farmers market and gave each of the five contestants a bag of goods they could use as they wished to create a dish in 45 minutes. The rules were somewhat looser than Iron Chef competitions: the chefs didn’t have to use all the ingredients (though they had to use at least some of them) and could add their own products.

First place went to Darla Ortega of Ilium Café, for the second year in a row, serving up a lesson in how to win a cookoff contest. Like Arrogate in the Travers Stakes the same day, she pulled away at the start and never looked back. Her dish took a toasted brioche from Bountiful Bakers, topped it with a chunk of funky Tobagi cheese from Cricket Creek which had been wrapped in uncured Mariaville bacon, then added her own seared scallop with a sprig of fried sage from the farmers market. The bacon was cooked off in a sauté pan till it almost disappeared and the cheese turned into a glorious gooey mess which was transferred to the bread at the perfect time.

On the side was Israeli couscous which had been cooked with some of the other supplied ingredients (notably golden cherry tomatoes) and a spoonful of micro greens in a tart dressing, and the dish was completed with a splash of maple raspberry jam from Jamtastic of Rupert, VT. The judges agreed the couscous was the only weakness of the dish. It didn’t add much since we already had a starch in the brioche, and we would have liked more of the micro greens to offset the fatty cheese and bacon.

Darla Ortega and son

Ilium chef Darla Ortega explains her presentation, with her son/kitchen assistant at her side

Two of the other contestants had pretty good entries, but there was really no question about the outcome. Darla Ortega followed some rules that I think are key to consistent success in an event like this.

  1. Make the flavors come together. Everything worked—the unctuous protein, the sweet jam, the tart greens, and the rich scallop as a platform they could play off against. By comparison, most of the other contestants gave us separate tastes in different parts of the plate.

  2. Do something dramatic. The chef brought big, beautiful scallops from her restaurant kitchen knowing this expensive, somewhat exotic ingredient might go well with the products supplied, and it worked. (Not everybody likes shellfish and some are allergic, but judges in a food competition agree to eat what is put before them so this is less risky than it appears.) Seem like cheating? Our bag of foodstuffs included a bunch of fresh shiitakes which could have been turned into an equally dramatic centerpiece and nobody took that bait.

  3. Presentation is a big deal. It was one of our three criteria (the other two were creativity and taste), and Ortega got top marks, but presentation is more about serving a pretty plate. Plating is the first impression your diner gets and it gives them clues about the different ingredients and how they are to be attacked with knife and fork. It also shows you care enough to pay attention to the details.

Tellingly, Ortega was the only chef who’d brought her own cutlery and napkins, which subsequently were borrowed [with no penalty assessed] by the other chefs.

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Experiments with smoked vegetables

Smoked Beets

Smoked Beets at left with fermented beets, pickled scapes, fried caraway seeds

The other night I fired up the Weber Bullet in the usual way, loaded some nice applewood… then, instead of a brisket or turkey on the lower rack I put in vegetables. And on the top, a tray of maple syrup. The results were interesting.

I’d heard about the beet that’s carved table side at Agern in NYC, and this was more an homage rather than an actual recreation (especially since I haven’t eaten there, though I’ve been to the Northern Food Hall next door). There, the beet is encased in an egg white crust that is cracked open for the diner. The *smoked beets are combined with raw, pickled (I assume sweet and sour) and *fermented beets and dolloped with *fried caraway seeds and scrapings of fresh horseradish. I only had the * items, but I added some pickled scapes which I expect contributed a similar flavor balance.

The verdict? Like I said, “interesting”. The smoked beets were tart yet retained a raw taste (in a good way). Not surprising since roasted beets get up to 400 degrees and the inside of the smoker isn’t close to that. The flavors of the individual items didn’t really come together as a cohesive whole. Guess I will have to force myself to go to Agern and try the real thing.

Smoked Brussels Sprouts

Smoked Brussels sprouts with smoked maple syrup

Then, on to smoked Brussels sprouts. Braising these with bacon for a smoky flavor is currently a thing, so why not just eliminate the middleman and actually smoke them? And I wanted to toss them with smoked maple syrup which I’d made by letting some good Grade B spend time in a flat aluminum pan on the top, as well as a bit of butter.

Again, interesting. With smoked meats, the bitterness of the smoke flavor is usually balanced by fat. No such luck here. These items were bitter but by no means inedible. I’ll happily use them as garnishes rather than complete courses.

The smoked maple syrup? It’s okay and I will use it in small doses for some cheese grits, maybe. I have no doubt I could have gotten the same effect with some Liquid Smoke. If we don’t experiment with smoked vegetables and other new concepts, we don’t evolve. But next time I’m sticking to brisket (with maybe a few veggies… eggplant?… around the edges).

NEW TO BURNT MY FINGERS? As you’ll soon discover, we’re  little obsessive about slow cooking over wood and coals. My original brisket recipe is as good a place to start as any.

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Sad about sub sandwiches

Roma Italian Mix

Roma Imports Italian Mix sub made by Mike at the Saratoga Springs store on 8/15/16.

Our local Tour De Italian Deli 2.0 happened the other day, and I will refer you to the excellent and very detailed write up on the Fussy Little Blog with analysis of the sub sandwiches we tried. But here’s what that post doesn’t mention: only six tasters showed up for our Italian subs, compared to two dozen or more for other Fussy tours, and one of them didn’t really count because she had no teeth and couldn’t talk.

I had already sensed a worrisome trend when I was unable to find a jar of Pastene Crushed Peppers to bring to the event (local brand Casa Visco was a fine substitute, except that the jar was smaller and more expensive). Could it be, for health reasons or some other ridiculous excuse, these behemoths of the deli counter are declining in popularity? Is something terribly wrong in Italian Sub Land? Let’s hope not.

La Gioia Italian Mix

La Gioia of Schenectady was the winner on our Italian Deli tour. It was pretty good, though no match for Roma.

I wanted to calibrate my tasting experience against the best local submarine sandwich, so a couple of days after the tour I stopped by Roma Importing in Saratoga Springs for the Italian Mix shown above. The ingredients are nothing special. Cittero Genoa Salami, Boar’s Head (sic) Capicola and BelGioso sharp provolone on a nice puffy roll. But the assembly and the good Italian dressing bring it all together.

Note the multilayered presentation of the meat and cheese. Roma’s thin-slices the ingredients (each from a roll perhaps six inches in diameter), stacks them up on a plastic sheet, then rolls up that sheet to the width of the sandwich which means each product is doubled for a more profound eating experience. So much better than random meats poking out the sides of the sandwich, as its done at most places.

This October I will be across the continent in Los Angeles for a conference, and I plan to hightail it to Giamela’s in the Atwater district for their Italian Combo. It comes on a sesame roll and the meats are covered with chopped pickles, onions and tomatoes and you get spicy peppers and carrots on the side. (Read my Yelp review for essential advice on how to mod this sub to perfection.) It’s as different from Roma’s as Giotto is from Michelangelo, yet both Roma and Giamela are masters of their craft. Like the Medici, we need to cultivate them so they can continue to practice their art.

Made properly, an Italian style submarine sandwich is an everyman’s treat that should be enshrined, not eschewed. The balance of roll, protein and vegetable add up to a complete meal in your hand. Hopefully our hot summer is responsible for the hiatus of sub lovers. I am counting on a redolent, cappy-filled fall.

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Recipe index…. check it out!

For way too long I’ve been promising to index the recipes on this site, which are now close to 200. I’ve just installed the Visual Recipe Index plugin, which you can see in action here.

At last you can see everything in one place, organized by category, each recipe with its title and a clever little thumbnail. If the visuals take too long to load, you can save time by using the search box in your BROWSER (not the Burnt My Fingers search box) to take you to a particular recipe on the page. Then, open as usual to retrieve the recipe.

Wow, we’ve been busy…. lots of stuff there and most of it looks pretty tasty. Let me know how you like it.

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Recipe: Utica Greens

Utica Greens

Utica Greens

Utica Greens, named after that central New York city, are the traditional accompaniment to Chicken Riggies. They are also nice with grilled steak or chicken, or maybe as a topping on an eggplant parm sandwich. Note that my version is quite a bit lighter than what you may have had in an upstate restaurant, where they often pride themselves on packing in the prosciut’, peppers, cheese and oil. This just has a nice balance. Serves 4.

1 medium-to-large head of escarole, 1 pound or more
1/4 c chicken stock
2 T olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 c onion, thinly sliced
1 pickled cherry pepper, seeded and chopped*
1/4 c vinegar peppers or bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1/4 prosciutto or pancetta, chopped
1/2 t dried oregano
1/2 t salt
1/4 t ground black pepper
1/3 c bread crumbs
1/3 c Parmesan cheese, grated

Method: thoroughly wash the escarole, removing any brown ends or leaves, and chop into 1-inch strips. Place in a covered saucepan with the chicken stock, bring to a boil, lower heat and sweat 5 minutes until the greens have reduced by half. (At this point you can refrigerate the greens and bring them out when it’s time to cook and serve.)

Utica Greens in 8-inch oven pan

Utica Greens in 8-inch oven pan. Some recipes use a lot more product, but mine is ample to serve 4 as a side dish.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a medium saucepan and add garlic and onion and bell peppers if you’re using them. Sauté until tender. Add prosciutto or pancetta and cook till it crisps a bit; add cherry peppers and vinegar peppers. Add spices and reserved escarole and its liquid (if there’s a lot you can drain some off) along with a little cheese and a little parmesan. Mix well and transfer to a 8-inch baking pan or a small cast iron skillet. Cover the top with an equal mix of bread crumbs and cheese (you might want to just mix them up in a bowl). Bake until cheese melts and the liquid is bubbling, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately or at room temperature.

*Do try to find Italian style pickled cherry peppers. But if you fail, sprinkle in some flakes of crushed red pepper and increase the vinegar peppers/bell peppers a bit.

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Grumpy about Growlers

Bigelow Growler

Bigelow Brewing growler

On my recent visit to the Kneading Conference in Maine, I stopped by Bigelow Brewing which was a sponsor of the event. (They pride themselves on using locally grown grains when possible, and even include some spent malts in the crust for their wood-fired pizza.) Enjoyed a solid double IPA which was also fairly priced—except that I had to pay an additional $6 for a Bigelow growler, even though I had another growler empty in my car.

What’s up with that?

Maine is one of a number of states that will only allow breweries to refill growlers (64 ounce jugs, usually glass) that have their name on them. These are the same bluestocking legislators that used to prohibit listing ABV on containers in Maine because they thought people would seek out the higher alcohol beers; it was later determined that knowing how much you are drinking helps you drink responsibly. Duh.

In California, they’ve repealed the similar law that required me to purchase a growler at Green Flash, but Tom McCormick, Executive Director of the state’s craft beer association says many of his members still refuse to refill such “third party growlers”.

Claims McCormick, “breweries are allowed to refill growlers from another brewery (with restrictions), but many (I would say most) choose not to. This is mainly due to concern over the cleanliness of the growler. Brewers know that growlers they provide are clean, and when their own growler comes in for a refill, they can exchange for a clean one.” He goes on to say, “… Most brewers are just as concerned about the branding of their beer as they are about just ‘selling more beer.’ A growler wrapped in duct tape with a label slapped over it just doesn’t work for most craft brewers.”

I have never, ever seen a barkeep say “hey, your growler is skanky, I’m giving you a new one for free”. On the other hand they’re usually happy to give your bottle a rinse if necessary. And the reference to duct tape above is about the bizarre requirement in some places (I’ve encountered this but can’t remember where) that you can refill a third party growler but you have to obscure the other brewery’s name.

If a brewery’s concerned about branding, they can do that best by making great beer. And the person who takes the trouble to bring in his or her own growler is clearly an enthusiast, a conservationist, and fiscally responsible. What’s not to love? Let’s set those third part growlers free!

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