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Archive for February, 2009

Beyond Foodie

I remember a piece Elaine Tait, the former food critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote 15 or more years ago. She predicted that in the year 2000, people who cook for themselves would become minor celebrities. Amidst all the convenience foods popping up in supermarkets in the 1990s, Tait saw the demise of home cooking. And this before Wegmans ever came to Pennsylvania!

I often think about this prediction. On one hand, I disagree. Who could’ve foreseen the success of the Food Network? Or that cooking would become a spectator sport? Americans seem more into cooking than ever.

Then, on the other hand, part of me agrees with Tait. At the risk of sounding immodest, I sometimes cook or bake things that people don’t believe I actually made. “Where did you buy this?” they ask. “You made it? No!” I think I’m a decent cook, but I’ve eaten in enough fine restaurants, not to mention in the kitchen of my brother, a former professional chef, to know my place in the standings.

And then there’s Sharon.

Sharon in her kitchen

Sharon in her kitchen

Sharon Schwartz isn’t just a good cook. She’s not just a foodie. Among our friends, her cooking is legendary. An invitation for a meal at her house is always accepted. I hope you’re fortunate enough to have a friend like this, the kind of person Elaine Tait may well have been thinking of when she wrote “minor celebrity.” In Sharon’s case, anyway, the moniker fits.

When I sat down to interview her a few weeks ago, Sharon provided for lunch an exquisite Greek lemon soup, made moments before, followed by a simple but perfect Greek salad. Mark was jealous. All in a day’s work for me.

I wanted to interview Sharon for several reasons. She’s lived in Bucks County for twenty five years and has seen the changes to its food scene up close. She’s also evolved from someone who simply likes good food to a discerning, semi-professional cook.

Professional chefs live in a different world from the rest of us. Their kitchens are set up for cooking. Their equipment is top-notch. They have studied. They have sweated. They are not like the rest of us. Really. Just watch the Food Network.

So I was fascinated by Sharon. How did she make the transition from Mom-cook to Wow-cook? I also wanted to pick her brain about where to get the best ingredients in Bucks County, but that will have to wait for another blog, a kind of “Sharon Schwartz: Part Two.”

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We had a wonderful dinner the other night at the Summer Kitchen in Penn’s Park , taking advantage of its mid-week suppers, which allow you to enjoy chef Mario Korenstein’s creativity without going overboard on your dining budget. This isn’t an overpriced restaurant by any stretch, but the suppers make it a nice mid-week option.

The night we went was cold and blustery, the perfect night for chicken pot pie – so perfect, in fact, Lynne and I both ordered it. Served in a wide dish, topped with a light puff of pastry, the pie’s filling was a blend of fresh vegetables, big slices of chicken, potatoes, balsamic-infused mushrooms and a lightly peppered fontina cheese cream sauce. I’m not a big fan of mushrooms, but these were wonderful.

The Kitchen’s weeknight suppers, their prices ranging from $10 to $14, are served Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights. The restaurant call the portions “sensible,” but I thought they were pretty generous. Live guitar music goes along with the meal on Friday nights. The Summer Kitchen is BYOB, and is in the Gathering Shopping Village at the corner of Route 232 and Penn’s Park Road.

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Basilleaf’s Delight

When thinking about our dinner at Basilleaf, a BYOB Vietnamese restaurant at 2808 South Eagle Road in Newtown, I keep coming back to the word “delightful.” First off, it’s a friendly place, with everyone from the wait staff to the kitchen staff showing up at your table to make sure your service is good. Then there’s the food, which is fresh, imaginative, flavorful and subtle all at once. With entree prices ranging from about $9 to $21, you can have a wonderful meal there without spending a lot of money.

Lynne and I visited with Sally and Arnie (I owed Arnie dinner for going beyond the call of friendship when he helped me schlep a desk from my old office in Trenton to home.) For an appetizer, we shared an entree-sized bowl of hu tieu, a pork broth with clear noodles, served family style. Dinner was pan-seared flank steak, spiced colossal shrimp, an outstanding tofu in diced tomato sauce, and grilled lemongrass curry chicken with rice.

Note the guy who considers himself a carnivore first used the word “outstanding” to describe the tofu. But it was. Lightly fried and served in a not-too-spicy tomato, garlic and bacon sauce, the tofu was infused with the sauce’s deep flavor. Like everything else we tried that night, the flavors were a delicate mix of spice and freshness. We clearly tasted vegetables, meats and spices all at once.

We’ll be back. A lot.

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Driving around one weekend, Lynne and I visited two great places a little off the beaten tracks on both sides of the river.

The first was Brig O’Doon at 239 Durham Road in Ottsville, a charming coffee house we stopped in on after our friend Stephanie recommended it. It offers lattes, capuccinos, espresso, plus good plain old coffee, along with sandwiches, soups and cookies that required an act of will to pass up. Big windows overlook Durham Road, letting in lots of light and making it a pleasant place to sit, read the paper and just while away a Sunday afternoon when you’re in the mood. And right behind the coffeehouse, in the same building, is an excellent natural foods store, Kimberton Whole Foods.

The next was the Café at Rosemont, a Hunterdon County institution. It’s the kind of place that has the feel of an old kitchen, furnished with sturdy tables and chairs, its walls lined with books and soda bottles, the air filled with aroma of coffee during breakfast time. The food here is imaginative – brie and pear omelets were on the menu the morning we had breakfast there – and good, as proved by one gentleman we spoke with who said he’s been having breakfast there for 30 years. The Café’s open for lunch and dinner as well, and features a three-course “Eat Global, Drive Local” dinner each Wednesday night for $24 per person. Thursday nights are Tapas nights. The Cafe’s located at the corner of 519 & 604 in Rosemont.

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Sitting around the kitchen table, nibbling away on Super Bowl Sunday, a friend shared her desire for fresh, local produce… in winter. “Now?” we said, glancing out the window at the frozen snow. “In Bucks County?”

Not so many years ago, you couldn’t get decent produce in winter. Then they started shipping stuff from Chile and other parts of South America. And we got spoiled. Avocados in January? Why not? Cheap asparagus in December? Of course! Most Americans don’t even know the origin of their produce, be it domestic or international. It’s just there. If it’s not, we get annoyed.

I know container shipping has gotten more sophisticated – vacuum-packing, temperature-controlled, yada, yada. But, yes, wouldn’t it be better to eat something locally produced? Two miles versus two thousand?

It’s happening here in Bucks County. In a small way, to be sure, but it’s happening. We’ve mentioned Blue Moon Acres in Buckingham and their excellent micro greens. And now Maximuck’s Farm, on the outskirts of Doylestown, is growing greens hydroponically. Over the past year, they’ve built a state-of-the-art greenhouse and began selling a variety of salad greens in their market on Long Lane. In case you don’t know Maximuck’s, this family-owned and operated farm sells its own produce, hormone-free beef, hormone-free milk, bedding plants, flowers, bird feed and more, year-round.

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As I walked into the bright, sunny greenhouse last week, I was blown away. I spent the first five minutes taking photos of the greens. Then Matt Maximuck, Jr., and I spoke about the new venture.

First off, why would a traditional farm go into hydroponics?

“We’re running out of farm ground,” explains Matt. “This way we can grow a lot more in a little amount of space. It’s also the best way to grow stuff. Plants get more nutrients and it goes right to the roots. The plants don’t have to spend time (energy) searching for nutrients, as they would in the soil.” It also conserves water, since the water is re-circulated.

Right now, Maximuck’s is concentrating on growing lettuces and greens: romaine, butterhead (Boston), red and green leaf lettuce, spinach and even bok choy. “We’re starting to grow some mesculin mixes. And trying some heirloom lettuces too,” says Matt.

What about the future?

“Eventually we want to be able to grow everything, all your normal vegetables, so people have fresh vegetables all year round,” Matt  says. “But not everything that will grow outside will grow in a greenhouse” or be economically feasible. You may also find these greens showing up on local restaurant tables as Maximuck’s increases its wholesale business.

For now, you can purchase the greens at the Maximuck Farm Market at 5793 Long Lane, near Street Road in Doylestown/Buckingham. The market is open Tuesday through Saturday (winter hours may vary). Phone: (215) 297-9894

Update: You may see Maximuck’s greens at your local farm market under the name, “White Star Growers Inc.” Markets carrying them include: Tanner Bros. , Altomonte’s and Del Val Farm Market by Shady Brook.

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See more pics at Photo Gallery: Maximuck’s Farm

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Here’s something I learned about chocolate yesterday: Never bite it, chew it and swallow it. Instead, let it melt on your tongue, then press it against the roof of your mouth. In a few seconds you’ll experience a wave of flavor – spices, herbs, whatever the chocolatiers have seen fit to include in their recipe. It’s like a special treat for people willing to take the extra moment savoring requires.

Judy Logback of the Kallari Association taught us that yesterday during her talk at the Northampton Library, sponsored by Slow Foods Bucks County. The Kallari Association is an 850-family agricultural cooperative in Ecuador that specializes in organically grown, high-end chocolate. Between describing the world of chocolate farming and artisan production, she led us through a blind tasting of nine chocolates that ranged from several of Kallari’s offerings to tidbits of Lindt and Ghirardelli. Going into her talk, I’d have waxed on about Lindt and Ghirardelli, and though I still wouldn’t turn them away I’ve come to appreciate the difference between a good chocolate and an exceptional chocolate.

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Here’s another thing I learned about chocolate. The politics surrounding it are as complex as its taste. It won’t come as a surprise that large companies sell most of the chocolate in the world, and their recipes, production and storage methods often have more to do with economies of scale than outstanding quality or subtle quality. What Judy has done is point the Ecuadorian farmers toward carving out their niche as producers of exceptional chocolate. Though the event was billed as a tasting, it was quickly obvious she’s as business-smart as any executive from Hershey’s (and I’ve met some of them – they’re pretty smart), and is more interested in developing something that’s good for the environment, good for her colleagues in Ecuador, and good for people who love chocolate. Kallari’s growth argues against the notion you have to sacrifice quality in order to succeed.

Kallari’s chocolates are available at Lilies of the Field in Doylestown, the Chocolate Box in Lambertville and Whole Foods.

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