Sunday, December 19, 2010

Local food gifts for the holidays

Local is better.  Especially when it comes to food.

This holiday season skip the mall and get your gifts from one of Jacksonville’s locally-owned, locally-operated food businesses.  Besides impressing your friends and family with the tastiest treats in town, you’ll contribute to the local economy and help support the unique places that make our city such a great place to live.

Inspired by the GoLo (Go Local) initiative launched by Riverside Avondale Preservation, Downtown Vision Inc, Springfield Restoration and Revitalization, and the San Marco Merchants Association, here are my top GoLo food picks for 2010:

1. Beer swag from Intuition Ale Works
So yeah… maybe I’m biased.  But a gallon growler from Jacksonville’s newest craft brewery is a gift that anyone would love to receive. Present the glass growler with a gift certificate for a fill and an Intuition-branded T-shirt, hoodie, or sticker… or even better, give that special someone a year-long membership to the Intuition Ale Works Mug Club.  It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

2. Membership to the Veggie Bin
Another gift that keeps giving… a bin of fresh, local, sustainably-grown vegetables delivered to your door every week during the growing season.  So far this year the Veggie Bin has delivered an awesome variety of produce and has kept me culinarily stimulated week after week.  Expect lots of greens like kale and mustard greens in the autumn and winter, with optional add-ons like bushels of citrus or local honey.  

3. Sustainable Springfield Cooking in Season classes
Wondering what to do with all of that local, seasonal produce?  Sustainable Springfield has planned cooking classes for 2011 with some of the area’s best chefs. At the start of each season the Executive Chefs from ‘town, 29 South, Restaurant Orsay, and the First Coast Technical College’s Culinary Arts Program will teach participants about upcoming local produce and how to cook with it. Buy all four classes before the end of 2010 and get a big discount.

4. Bold Bean Coffee
We all know that Bold Bean Coffee’s small-batch, artisanal approach to roasting beans makes their coffee is the best in town.  But Bold Bean Coffee also makes a stellar coffee rub and sells some branded swag like coffee cups and baseball caps. Go for the Community Connections Rise-n-Shine or St. John’s Riverkeeper Roast and your caffeine addiction will benefit a good cause.

5. Sweet Grass Dairy cheeses and Five Points Honey
This is the party season, so give a gift of local cheeses and honey to the host of your next holiday soiree.  Grassroots Natural Market in Five Points sells Sweet Grass Dairy’s heavenly concoctions. My favorites are the Asher Bleu and the Green Hill camembert, but really you can’t go wrong with any of their cheeses.
Pop over to Five Points Coffee and Spice to pick up a jar of Five Points Honey.  It’s crafted from an apiary right here in the neighborhood.

6. Datil peppers
Food artisans from Saint Augustine feature the locally-grown datil pepper in spice blends, jams, jellies, and even mustards.  Search the endless rows of spices at The Spice and Tea Exchange for blends that incorporate the native pepper, like the Pirate’s Bite spice grinder or Spiced Cocoa Mix. (You can consult with Colleen, the friendly shopkeeper, if you’re pressed for time.)

Minorcan Datil Pepper Products sells a range of products made from the local pepper. Go for their chutneys, barbecue sauces, garlic-datil mayonnaise, or award-winning piquant Minorcan Datil Pepper Mustard. Dried whole datils make a great gift for food-lovers who enjoy experimenting in their own kitchens.

7. Seacow Confections
Besides his delicious artisan, hand-crafted sorbets, PJ from Seacow Confections sells candies and brittles and other holiday-appropriate treats from his bicycle-drawn cart. He’s usually parked outside of Intuition Ale Works on Friday and Saturday nights, but visit the Seacow Confections website to place a special order for goodies like chocolatey spiced nuts, candied citrus peel, or pepita brittle.

8. Jacksonville apron from the Cummer
You don’t see many Jacksonville-themed holiday items out there… making this apron from the Cummer's gift shop that much more special.

9. Homemade treats
Crafty in the kitchen? It’s citrus season in Northeast Florida, so take advantage of the abundance of satsumas and red navel oranges and can your own citrus marmalades and jams.  Novices should head to the Jacksonville Canning Center for a primer.

If you’re REALLY crafty in the kitchen, whip up a batch of homemade sausages like these Thanksgiving-themed ones from my friend Jodi at Eat Jax.  Hers contain turkey, pork belly, nuts, cranberries, and holiday spices, but be creative and come up with your own.  Even better: order a pig share from DelKat Family Farm and use the fresh, all-natural local meat in your sausages.  thisisthepigfarmer@hotmail.com

10. Baked goods from your favorite local bakery
Jacksonville is swarming with excellent bakeries, and most offer special baked goods around the holiday season.  Bakery Moderne on Stockton in Riverside makes stellar cakes and pies, Let Them Eat Cake in Avondale whips up a mean almond croissant, and the new New Broadway Square in Five Points bakes up something different every day.

11. Swag and gift certificates from your favorite food spot
Most bars, restaurants, food vendors, and farmers markets have cool swag that make great holiday gifts.  Gift certificates to your favorite locally-owned and operated restaurant are always welcome, and T-shirts are both stylish and a great way to help advertise your favorite spots.   

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Apples in autumn

Autumn is easily my favorite season in New England: changing leaves, crisp days, chilly nights, cozy sweaters, and… warm, sugar-dipped apple cider donuts.

I think I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.  But I just couldn’t wait to tell you about those donuts, which I devoured at Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, Massachusetts.  Phil and I spent a few days in Boston visiting friends, and my best college buddy Jackie organized a day of apple and pear picking on a sunny, perfect New England fall day. 

There’s a quaint little shop where you can purchase jellies, jams, preserves, butters, and sauces made from produce grown at Honey Pot Hill.  That’s also where you get the donuts…

…and honey sticks.  Which are quite literally sticks filled with honey.

There were also fresh ears of late-summer sweet corn available when I visited.

And some random farm weaponry.

If you wanted, you could purchase heavy bags of pre-picked apples.  But why would you do that?  Doesn’t that take all the fun out of apple-picking?  If the apples are already picked?

Luscious Cortlands and Empires and Royal Galas and Spartans… such regal names, for such an unpretentious fruit.  We ate ourselves silly on apples but made room when we came to the pears.

It was just a rollicking good time.  Dogs, pumpkins, pigs, goats, hayrides, and warm sugar-dipped apple cider donuts.

We spent some time in Boston, eating dinner on a friend’s roof deck and rambling around our old neighborhood.

We always loved to do breakfast and brunch at Charlie’s Sandwich Shoppe, which really is more a diner than a sandwich shop.  The place is a real local gem and has been around for ages.  Since 1927, to be exact.  Rumor has it that Sammy Davis, Jr. used to tap dance in front of the restaurant for change when he was a kid.  There are no bathrooms at Charlie’s, and they still use wooden refrigerators purchased the year they opened.

We parked at the counter and I started the day out strong with Charlie’s famous turkey hash topped with a runny fried egg.

Later, Phil and I slurped oysters from the cold New England shores.  Wellfleet, Pemaquid, Wianno…

Trips like this really make me miss Boston.  But on my flight back to Jacksonville I remembered the snow drifts and the dirty slush and the gray days and the biting winds that would all begin soon and last more than half the year up there… Know what?  I’ll take palm trees any day.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Eataly and Union Square Greenmarket

Say your flight to JFK is severely delayed and it turns out you only have four hours in Manhattan.  What to do?  Go to Eataly.  Then stop by the Union Square Greenmarket.

This post mainly offers jealousy-inducing photos of my time spent browsing around Eataly, the new mega food extravaganza created by culinary superstars Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich.  The place is part specialty food mart, part greengrocer, part bakery, part restaurant, part deli, part import market, part espresso bar, part cheesemaker, part seafood market, part gelateria...  You get the point.  The place is huge and it is where you can find anything and everything that is Italian and that is delicious.

Lots of folks complain that Eataly is crowded and there are too many tourists and it’s expensive and the wait for tables and food is ridiculously long.  I say, shut up, folks.  Really.  Quit complaining about having access to the highest quality Italian tomatoes and pastas and meats.  Don’t whine that the wait for your hand-made mozzarella cheese was over twenty minutes, or that your razor clams were too expensive, or that a stupid tourist bumped your elbow while you were sipping on a perfect, frothy espresso.  I am not sympathetic.  If you don’t like crowds or tourists or high prices, you shouldn’t live in Manhattan.  Okay.  I feel better now.

I was there on a Friday morning at ten, just when the market opened.  The place was nearly empty so while the restaurants had yet to open for lunch, I had free reign of the market.

So I did some intense browsing.  At the seafood.

At the meat.

At the vegetables…

… like sea beans and zucchini flowers…

I stopped in my tracks at the cheese case. 

That’s when Phil and I decided to scoop up some meats and cold cuts.  We chose a hunk of caciotta mista (a semi-soft cow and sheep milk cheese from Toscana).  We grabbed some freshly sliced meat, a loaf of bread, and a couple bottles of fancy Italian sodas.

And we had ourselves a picnic across the street in Madison Square Park.

Phil laid out our meal while I soaked up the Manhattan vibe.  It was a sunny day, so the park was bustling with activity: a meditation circle, a good amount of camera-touting tourists, some kids splashing around in a fountain.

But soon I was focused on my lunch.

Mortadella flecked with pistachio and Parma black label ham, both from Emilia Romagna.  With cheese.  On a baguette with a shatteringly crisp crust and chewy interior.  I could get used to this.

We then strolled down Broadway, to Union Square.  To meats, cheeses, jams, and honeys.

To heirloom tomatoes displayed like jewels, and piles of bright summer produce.

Yeah.  I could get used to this.
Eataly on Urbanspoon

Friday, October 15, 2010

Northeast Ohio & Cleveland's West Side Market

During my visit to Ohio, my Ma and Pa planned a trip to Cleveland’s century-old West Side Market, a temple to all things delicious.  It’s a vibrant, bustling place, with a sense of purpose: seek out the juiciest plum, pick out the prettiest cut of marbled beef, find the most towering cake.

As with all food markets, the West Side Market tells a story about Cleveland, about the history of the area and the culture of the people who call this city home.  Owing to the large population of northeast Ohioans who can trace their family lineages back to Central and Eastern Europe, you’ll find sausages of all sizes and persuasions: white bratwurst, smoked Slovenian sausage, Hungarian kielbasa, German sausages and cured meats.  You’ll also find endless varieties of pierogi, Amish cheeses, bacon.  Other culinary influences are thrown in; a Mediterranean grocer, a European bakery, a Middle Eastern foods vendor, a creperie, Cambodian and Mexican stalls. 

And you can’t ignore the piles of fresh red meat beckoning from every other stall. 

When we arrived, my parents made a beeline for Czuchraj Meats.  They’d learned about Czuchraj’s locally famous smoked meats on the Food Network, when Michael Symon declared their beef jerky “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” 

Czuchraj’s stall was loaded with not only jerky in a multitude of flavors but also other smoked stuff like Amish bacon, smokies (meat sticks), kielbasa, and sausages. We ordered paper-wrapped sacks of honey-smoked jerky and smokies and made our way to the outer edge of the market.  There, we climbed a staircase to an elevated space where we munched on jerky and watched the bustling world of the market below.  

After we made our way back down to the main floor of the market, we spotted a crepe stand called Crepes De Luxe near the stairwell.  My parents had never had a stuffed crepe before, so I ordered one with chevre, spinach, and tomato.

With a swift and circular turn of the wrist, the crepe guy spread a thin layer of batter on the crepe griddle.  He then sprinkled the batter with chevre, tossed a handful of spinach and tomatoes on top, and covered the griddle with a wide dome to allow the spinach to wilt and the tomato and chevre to warm through.  After a practiced amount of time, he removed the lid with a flourish and folded the crepe into a crisp triangular pocket.

In the same aisle as the creperie is Judy’s Oasis, a stand that specializes in the foods of Syria and Lebanon.

This kind of food is also foreign to my parents, so we picked up an assortment of items so they could get a sampling of Middle Eastern treats: spiced hummus, warm globes of falafel, and a spinach and feta pie pinched into the shape of a tricorn hat.

While my parents enjoyed trying something new, spinach and chickpeas aren’t enough to fill up a big guy like my dad.  Thank goodness for Frank’s Bratwurst.

Frank’s has been slinging brats out of the same stand since 1970 and is run by the third generation of the Austrian Ratschki family. 

Whenever I visit Ohio I always try to get in my pierogi fix.  Descendents of Polish immigrants to the region craft some of the best savory dumplings I have ever eaten, and while I usually go for the traditional potato and cheese filling there is no limit to the combination of ingredients cooks devise to stuff into pierogi.  Here at the West Side Market, the pierogi goes global with eclectic fillings such as Italian sausage, kraut with bratwurst, reuben, cream cheese and garlic, pork with tomato lime sauce, eggplant parmesan, Texas BBQ beef, refried beans with chillies, bacon double cheeseburger, and roast beef with horseradish.

We also poked around Mediterranean Imported Foods, a grocery store packed to the rafters with specialty ingredients like pickled herring, coffees, spices, breads, canned goods…

…and CHEESES.  Lots of cheeses.

I’m not one for desserts but I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the bright colors and creativity exhibited by Vera’s Bakery: gooey, coconut-topped German chocolate brownies… towering red velvet cake… rich blueberry and cheese crostata… fluorescent orange Dreamsicle cheesecake…

My parents loaded up a box with dainty clothespins, a few slices of key lime cheesecake, and a German chocolate brownie or two.  For later.

Back at home an or so south of Cleveland, my parents’ vegetable garden was heavy with red ripe tomatoes, glistening purple eggplants, peppers of all colors and varieties, cucumbers, and a variety of herbs.

We harvested a colorful basketful of sweet and spicy peppers, sliced them into rounds, sautéed them in olive oil with a smattering of garlic, and used them throughout the week on sandwiches and pizzas and whatever else made us happy.

BLTs made an appearance.  Juicy garden tomatoes and local bacon squished between slices of toasted ciabatta we’d bought at Mediterra Bakehouse in the West Side Market.  And you see that sweet corn in the background?  I know I’ve talked about it before, so I won’t go into it too much, but the summertime sweet corn in Ohio really has no equal.

Home-cooked meals during my visits to Ohio are all about familiar comfort food.  For Labor Day, my dad grilled his famous barbecue ribs and I tried my best to fit them on a plate already overflowing with macaroni salad, baked beans, cheesy potato casserole, turkey, and Puerto Rican rice (which happily makes an appearance on almost all of our holiday plates).

The Sanchez clan gathered for a Puerto Rican feast of epic proportions.  My cousin Celeste was in town from Tejas and she woke at the crack of dawn so she could slow-roast a garlicky pork shoulder.  She cooked a pot of rice and beans while my Aunt Katie fried tostones.

A Puerto Rican dinner wouldn’t be complete without pasteles, little labor-intensive packets of love.  Pasteles are one of the most beloved Puerto Rican dishes and they contain braised pork shoulder and olives tucked into a dough of grated green bananas, green plantains, and calabazas.  My family used to have pastel-making parties where everyone would gather and be given a duty: grate the plantains, braise the pork, mix the dough, assemble the pasteles.  Hand-grating the plantains and bananas was guaranteed to give at least one person a bloody knuckle or two, and even with the whole family involved it would take at least an entire day to finish a batch.  Nowadays, Mimi purchases her pasteles from a Puerto Rican lady who sells them out of her kitchen.  If anyone knows of a source for pasteles in Jacksonville, please let me know!  I spend a lot of time cooking, but I don’t have THAT much time.

My grandma on my Mom’s side is also keeping alive a culinary tradition her family practiced when she was growing up in West Virginia: air-drying shuck beans.

Back in the day, my grandma’s family (she was one of twelve siblings!) would grow huge quantities of green beans during the summer.  To preserve them for the winter, they would string the beans onto long lines of thread and hang them outside to dehydrate in the sun.  Once the beans were dry, they were gathered and used throughout the colder months.  My grandma also calls shuck beans “leather britches.”  I totally love that.  Because she didn’t have a huge quantity to dry this summer, she instead opted to spread the beans on drying racks.  To cook them, she soaks them overnight, drains them, adds fresh water and boils them with salt pork until they are very tender. 

Other memorable meals?  German food and beer at Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh…

… and sipping beers from mason jars and gobbling up hearty fare from the Iron Bridge Inn in Mercer, Pennsylvania.


Next stop: Manhattan.