Monday, August 31, 2009

Summer meals in Ohio

Just the other week, I spent some time in Ohio with my folks. The sun was shining, the farmers’ markets were overflowing with produce, my parents’ garden was brimming with veggies and herbs, the pizza was hot and the beer was cold. I thought I’d share with you some highlights of a few special Midwestern summer meals.The tomatoes in the above basket were plucked from my parent’s garden, and were the star of the show throughout the week. They found themselves saucing silky eggplant gratins, piled atop cottage cheese and showered with coarsely-crushed peppercorns, wedged into sandwiches, and colorfully layered with basil and sweet raw corn.Speaking of corn. *sigh* Ohio corn-on-the-cob in August… OHIO CORN-ON-THE-COB IN AUGUST. Wow. It was so sweet, so tender and fresh that I nibbled it raw off the cob as soon as we got it home from the farmers’ market. The juices squirted unpredictably every which way with each bite. We had it for dinner that night, steamed for a few short minutes and lightly sprinkled with salt.This ethereal corn was purchased from Angiuli’s market in Canfield. I’m sure they’d stay in business if they solely sold their corn, but they also have all sorts of produce, preserves, and dried Amish noodles. We also got some ripe figs.With all this abundance everywhere you look, my parents often can pickles and sauces and peppers this time of year. One of my favorites is my dad’s peppers. He infuses oil with garlic, softens spicy and mild peppers in the oil, and preserves them with in jars.They’re great on just about anything, and we had them on sandwiches and with pulled beef BBQ. We wished we had tucked them in our purse when we went out for pizza at The Elmton in Struthers, one of my favorite pizza joints in the world with a pie that can only be improved by my daddy's peppers. I wrote about it here. The Plaza Bakery, also in Struthers, mostly sells cookies and cakes and turnovers and pastries and donuts, but if you get there early enough you just might get lucky and score a loaf of jalapeño bread. Luckily, my grandparents live just around the corner, and along with a box of pastries we picked up two loaves of the light and spicy bread. For the rest of the week, we made grilled sandwiches loaded with tomatoes from the backyard, Dad’s canned peppers, and melty cheese. The juicy tomatoes and garlicky oil from the peppers oozed out of the messy sandwiches, dripping down our arms all the way to our elbows. One night, we cooked thick slices of the bread on the grill to accompany our grilled summer veggies. The jalapenos turned smoky, and the bread was chewy on the inside and crisp on the outside.Home-cooked meals weren’t the only highlights of the week. My mom and I met my aunt at Drake’s Landing one afternoon and enjoyed a fabulous and affordable lunch overlooking a marshy pond. We each had French onion soup – with a twist. Not only did this soup have the traditional thick crouton topped with bubbly Gruyere, it was also topped with crispy fried onions. With unlimited bread and a bottomless salad bowl – all for only $5.99 – it was the best deal I’ve run across in awhile.This part of the country has some interesting and unique food traditions, like the Italian wedding soup I wrote about here. Another is what is simply called a chicken salad. When I grew up, one of the only ways I would eat salad was topped with grilled chicken, grated mozzarella cheese, and hot French fries – topped with ranch dressing, of course. When I went off to Boston for college, I was shocked that none of my classmates had ever eaten a salad this way, and that I couldn’t find chicken salad a la Ohio on the menu of a single restaurant! On the way home from the Pittsburgh airport, my parents took me for dinner at Sal’s in Beaver Falls and my dad ordered a massive chicken salad. Salad greens topped with a marinated, char-broiled chicken breast, olives, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, two cheeses, and fries. Who said salads are for sissies?
Cheers to a fun-and-food-filled week with ma and pa!Angiuli’s Market
9610 Columbiana-Canfield Road, Canfield, Ohio
(330) 533-2046

Plaza Bakery
620 Youngstown Poland Rd, Struthers, OH, 44471
(330) 755-4561
Plaza Bakery on Urbanspoon

Drake’s Landing
2177 West Western Reserve Road, Canfield, OH 44406
(330) 729-9757
Drakes Landing on Urbanspoon

2764 Darlington Road, Beaver Falls, PA
(724) 843-4020
Sal's Ristorante & Bar on Urbanspoon

The Elmton
586 5th Street, Struthers, OH
(330) 755-8663

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pittsburgh's Strip District

Close your eyes and imagine a friendly, livable, cosmopolitan city with world-class universities, top-notch eateries, and two professional sports teams better than any other in the nation. Picture a city with a unique culinary culture that spawned a much-beloved food recognized internationally as an American icon. And now imagine that city has a vibrant, historic ethnic food district with an array of offerings that could hold its own with any major American city. Sounds like a pretty cool place, right?

Would you be surprised if I told you the city you’re imagining is… Pittsburgh?

I grew up about an hour from Pittsburgh, and made a trip into the Steel City on a recent visit to see my parents. Boy, was I impressed…and surprised! I knew the Steelers and the Penguins were the pride of the area. I had heard the city was hosting the G-20 Leaders’ Summit next month. And everyone knows Heinz, with its uber-famous ketchup, is based there. But I must admit to harboring a stereotype of Pittsburgh as a gruff, strictly blue-collar, second rate city. I am very happy to say that I was completely wrong, and that this exciting place is really moving up in the world.

The Strip district is a microcosm of a city with a veritably American, sometimes difficult past, avigorous present, and an auspicious future.
Today, the area is a market district well known for its ethnic grocers, produce, meat, and fish shops, restaurants, and clubs, and the industrial warehouses that date back to the city’s nineteenth century steel days are being converted into luxury lofts. Here are some of the grocers, vendors, and restaurants I visited with my ma and pa.

Our first stop was Reyna Foods Mexican grocer.

Reyna is a very colorful place with piñatas adorning the ceiling. The shop is not limited to Mexican products but rather touches on the cuisines of much of Latin America and the Caribbean. I picked up a bag of Argentine yerba mate and admired the spice racks, massive cans of beans and Peruvian yellow peppers, and myriad spicy sauces.

There’s a taco stand outside and prepared foods on offer inside, such as lots of different kinds of fresh salsas…

And a host of empanadas and burritos. We snacked on black bean empanadas…

And a chicken burrito.

But, we passed on the larvets, crick-ettes, ant candy, chocolate covered insects, and scorpions trapped inside lollipops that were located next to the cash register.

Next, we headed to one of many Asian shops on the Strip. This one had a vendor out front cooking scallion pancakes to order on a griddle and was chock full of pickles and kimchi and veggies and teas and sauces and spices and seafood and frozen foods and prepared foods…

And of course a number of rice options.

Dear me, how I wish I had a local place like this!

We also strolled around Labads Grocery and chatted with the friendly Syrian owner.

Labads had an impressive array of Middle Eastern ingredients, including the extremely difficult to find molokhia greens. The greens are used most notably to make a popular Egyptian stew, but they’re used as a thickening agent all over the Middle East and I’ve had them as one component of a goat stew at a Sudanese restaurant in Adelaide, South Australia, that you can read about here. Labads had beautiful frozen quails and quite an array of labne and braided Syrian cheeses.

The pastries were very tempting. Many were layered with flaky phyllo dough, like the ubiquitous baklava, and some looked as if they contained nuts and various sticky sweet fillings. Next time I’m in the Strip District I look forward to dining in the restaurant at the back of the store and trying some of these goodies!

No visit to the Strip would be complete without a meal at the famous Primanti Bros. (hey ma and pa!) This casual spot has been a Pittsburgh institution since the 1930s and has been featured on many food shows for its legendary panini sandwiches and local color. The Strip District location is the original, but now Primanti Bros. has 14 other locations in the Pittsburgh area, and two in Florida.

The purpose of a trip to Primanti Bros. is a sandwich known here as a panini (no, it’s not the Italian kind – actually, it’s far from it). The sandwich typically has some sort of meat as its base, and every sandwich comes piled with fresh-cut fries, coleslaw, and a sliced tomato, all on soft, Italian-style bread. We had one with egg and cheese, and the other with pastrami and cheese. I’ve heard various legends on the origin of this sandwich from different sources. One television show claimed the meat, potato, and veg were all squished between two slices of bread so the local workers could have a compact meal that could be easily eaten without utensils. Another source claims the restaurant one day found itself with a glut of potatoes, and one enterprising employee fried them up and piled them on the sandwich. Either way, it’s a quintessentially Pittsburgh experience to eat a panini at the historic bar – at any time of day or night.

You might wonder how we kept up the motivation to continue to browse the food shops after eating these massive sandwiches, but we were troopers, and we pressed on. Another local institution just around the corner from Primanti Bros is Wholey’s Market. Here since 1912, the place has a staggering array of fresh fish and meats and dry goods.

Before I even saw the sign for the next grocer we visited, I was blown away by the huge food mural decorating its outside walls. Just look how tiny I am compared to that massive hunk of prosciutto!

Yes, you guessed it, Sunseri’s has every Italian ingredient you could possibly want for. Not only that, it has 50 options for every Italian ingredient you’d ever desire!

Breads, pastas, meats, cheeses, bulk olive oils and vinegars.

They even had cans of Cento wedding soup, which I’d never seen before. I wrote about Italian wedding soup, a dish that originated in the northeastern Ohio/ western Pennsylvania area where I grew up, here

And of course, Sunseri’s had a selection of produce, most notably heirloom and locally grown San Marzano-type tomatoes.

After all this food shopping in the summer heat, we stopped in Chicken Latino, a Peruvian rotisserie chicken place, and were psyched to find them selling horchata. The banana with tamarind juice cooled us down and fueled us up for the car ride home.

Reyna Foods Mexican Grocer
2023 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 261-2606

Labads Grocery

1727 Penn Ave
, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 261-0419

Primanti Bros.

46 18th Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 263-2149

Primanti Brothers (Strip District) on Urbanspoon

Wholey’s Market

1711 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 391-3737

Wholey's Fish Market on Urbanspoon

Jimmy and Nino Sunseri’s

1906 Penn Ave,
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 255-1100

Chicken Latino

155 21st Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15222

(412) 246-0974

Chicken Latino on Urbanspoon

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lake Placid Farmers' Market

Of the mountain towns and quaint hamlets and rustic villages I’ve visited in the Adirondacks, I think I like tony Lake Placid the best of all.In the winter, Lake Placid bustles with vacationers drawn to the area for skiing and other cold-weather activities. It’s hard to believe this small, out-of-the-way village hosted the Winter Olympics – twice! Once in 1932, and most recently in 1980, when the U.S. ice hockey team beat the Soviets in “The Miracle on Ice.” You can visit the famous rink today, and other relics of the village’s Olympic glory are scattered throughout the streets and ski slopes.In summer, Lake Placid turns into a resort community where scenic views and a plethora of outdoor adventures are well complemented by shops, galleries, and a number of diverse dining options.On a recent Wednesday morning, I visited Lake Placid specifically to check out the Adirondacks’ premier farmers’ market. The Lake Placid Farmers’ Market is located at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. Apart from having the pleasure of browsing through the Center’s gallery, which was showing a collection of portraits from a Vermont photographer at the time of my visit, guests to the market can also enjoy the beautiful seasonal garden.We were so excited by the local veggies, breads, prepared foods, local meats, flowers, syrups, and cheeses, and we stocked up on organic hummus, breads, heirloom tomatoes, herbed farmers’ cheeses, spicy lettuces and pea shoots, pattypan squashes, monster spring onions, and a variety of herbs.After enjoying picturesque vistas over Mirror Lake, and stopping to appreciate the many colors of the season…We headed back to camp for a simple dinner using our farmers’ market bounty. Juicy heirloom tomatoes with fresh herbed cheese, sautéed pattypan and two-toned summer squash with basil, spicy lettuces and pea shoots dressed with olive oil and lemon, and watercress bread…… and the star of the meal, creamy sweet summer corn chowder. (Recipe below)It was all washed down with a Lake Placid Ubu Ale, a dark brown American strong ale with a surprisingly high ABV of 7%.We continued to enjoy our farmers’ market abundance throughout the week, with BLTs nearly ever afternoon.
Creamy Summer Corn Chowder
Serves 4.
It is imperative that this recipe be made with the sweetest corn at the height of summer.

6 strips bacon, cut crosswise into 1/4 inch strips
2 large green onions or young leeks, chopped, green and white parts separated
Pinch of red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 ears corn, kernels removed
5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade (can use vegetable stock)
3 tbsp heavy cream
Basil, for garnish

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot or dutch oven, sauté bacon until fat is rendered and bacon is crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with a paper towel.

Add the white parts of the spring onions or leeks along with the red pepper flakes to the bacon drippings, and sauté until translucent but not brown. Add the garlic and stir for a minute, just until fragrant, then dump the corn kernels and the green parts of the leeks into the pot. Sauté, stirring every once in awhile, for 5 minutes. Pour in the chicken stock and simmer for 20 minutes.

Carefully puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor and return soup to pot. Add 2 tbsp cream and heat just until warmed. Ladle soup into warm bowls, drizzling remaining cream over top and garnishing with reserved bacon and a basil leaf.

Lake Placid Farmers’ Market
Wednesdays, 9:00AM to 1:00PM, June 10 through October 14
Lake Placid Center for the Arts, 17 Algonquin Drive, Lake Placid, NY