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Archive for March, 2009

Bucks County Taste has moved! You can read this post on our new site.

The Pineville TavernWhen you walk into the Pineville Tavern , a couple of things hit you right off the bat. It’s warm. Everyone – staff and customers – seem to be in a good mood. There’s a buzz of people enjoying themselves. And it feels like it’s been this way forever.

In fact, the Pineville Tavern has been around since 1742 (see its Web site for more history). It sits at the intersection of Route 413, and Pineville and Township Line Roads, straddling two townships, Buckingham and Wrightstown, in central Bucks County.

Like a lot of good things, what seems natural and effortless has a lot of intention and hard work behind it. As regulars at the Pineville, or PVT, we were curious as to how the staff was doing it and what got them there.

To find that out, you have to go to Andrew Abruzzese, owner of the PVT for the last twenty years. It was our pleasure – Andrew is a wonderful storyteller – to sit down with him and his son, Drew Abruzzese to talk about their history and their future.

“Cooking has always been a passion of mine,” says Andrew, almost as soon as we start. It began when he was a young boy, helping out in the kitchens of his grandmother and aunts, and at neighborhood events in the Italian section of Baltimore, where his mother was from, and then South Philly, his father’s childhood home. Both families’ roots go deep into Italy, his mother’s from Naples, his father’s from the mountains of Abruzzi.

His father’s father was a chef, his aunt was a chef, his father a “natural” cook. On his mother’s side of the family, his aunts catered and sold baked goods. You get the picture. Andrew comes from food.

But he was also inquisitive. He spent a lot of time hanging at everyone’s elbows to learn all he could about cooking. “I knew I could get anything out of any cook if I helped clean up,” he says. “I became an expert at cleaning up.”

That passion continued into his marriage in 1976, when Andrew became the “one who cooked dinner,” and then after the kids came along (Drew, then Phillip), entertaining for friends and family.

It wasn’t until 1988 this love of cooking and entertaining took shape in the form of a restaurant. And it almost didn’t happen. Originally, Andrew’s plan was for a family-style restaurant, designed with help from his friend Jim Hamilton (of the Hamilton Grill in Lambertville) in a property further south on 413. The deal fell through, and while sitting at the bar of the Pineville Tavern, crying in his beer so to speak, an idea was born. Joe Turner, then owner of the PVT, said, “Why don’t you buy this place?”

(more…)

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DVC ProduceJust in time for Spring, the Del Val Farm Market has reopened its doors. The Market by Shady Brook Farm at Delaware Valley College will have its grand opening this weekend, Saturday, April 4th and Sunday, April 5th, with fun activities for kids and product samples for all visitors.

Shady Brook Farm  of Newtown is managing the market and gardening center, bringing together great produce, products and plants from both the College and Shady Brook’s farmland. In addition to fresh produce, dairy, local meats and prepared foods, there’s wonderful locally-produced ice cream by Uncle Dave’s Ice Cream.

We’ll share our interview with Dave Fleming, Jr., manager of both Shady Brook and Del Val Farm Markets, soon so stay tuned.

DVC desserts

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Last month we talked with Sharon Schwartz about her evolution into a fine home chef. This month, we offer part two. Sharon talks about why she decided to “go organic,” and her favorite sources for ingredients in Bucks County. In her own words…

I started to get interested in healthy food choices when I was pregnant with my first child, Jennifer. At the time (this was the 1970’s), we were living on Long Island, and I decided to join a food co-op. They offered bulk food – mostly organic – at cheap prices.  It was the quality of the food that attracted me, and the fact that we had to work there sometimes, and I could meet like-minded people. 

We were also fortunate to live very close to a poultry farm where they raised their fowl and offered eggs that were raised with organic feed. To this day, those were the most incredibly delicious chickens we’ve ever had.  I bought the chickens the day they were killed and got eggs the day they were laid.  You can’t get better than that, and without having to do any of the work!

In those days there was not much organic farming being done in our area. The vegetables at the health food stores tended to be limp and old because they did not move quickly enough.  About the only decent veggies I could get were organic carrots. I did my best to buy produce from local farmers in season, and we did have a vegetable garden (organic of course) in our yard by the time the kids were 3 and 5 years old. 

It was also around that time that an especially great health food store opened in our town on Long Island, and I got very involved with macrobiotics.  I practiced it pretty strictly for myself, and offered it in the house, with much resistance from the kids and Mark (my husband).  In keeping with my “style,” I did take macrobiotic cooking lessons and learned to get pretty creative with my veggies, beans and miso soup.  After finding that my body needed more protein, I kind of gave up on it, but tried to find food choices that were as pure as possible for myself and my family.  I didn’t go back to eating beef or veal, however, because of the ways in which the animals were raised.

When we moved to Bucks County in the mid-80’s, it became more difficult to find organically raised chickens and eggs, and even fish choices were not as fresh or varied as what was available on Long Island.  I did the best I could, but loosened my standards a great deal out of necessity.  I was happy if I could find locally grown food of good quality. 

It has only been recently, with the advent of more local organic farming, and the arrival of Whole Foods and a few other sources, that I have gone back to my purist organic food choices.  Between the organic sections in most markets, the better selections in health food stores, and the arrival of a great wholly organic meat department at Whole Foods (and some at Wegmans) I can get most anything I want (beef and veal included) at the level of quality I want.  Hallelujah!

These are some of Sharon’s favorite places to get ingredients, both in Bucks County and nearby. (Sharon lives in Central Bucks, so she is partial to places nearest to her.) In alphabetical order:

  • Altomonte’s (Doylestown and Warminster): assorted Italian ingredients, including oils (Iliada Greek Olive Oil) and vinegars, and cage-free, organic eggs, handmade ricotta
  • Blue Moon Acres (Buckingham): organic salad greens and herbs; “I’ve even gotten beautiful, big zucchini flowers in season from them which I use to make ‘Ricotta-Stuffed Zucchini Flowers.””
  • Buckingham Seafood (Buckingham): good quality, wild caught fish
  • Cote & Co.  (Doylestown): they carry Max and Me Smoked (organic) Salmon, oils, vinegars
  • Heller’s Seafood (Warrington): good selection of fish
  • Jamie Hollander (New Hope): organic aged strip steaks, good take-out, interesting grocery items
  • The Larder (Doylestown): great bulk food, specialty items, cashews
  • Newtown Farmer’s Market (Newtown): from the Amish stand, chicken, other types of poultry, organic, cage-free eggs; good quality fruits and vegetables from the Asian produce stand (although not organic), and “the falafel guy is great!”
  • None Such Farms (Buckingham): Antibiotic-free, hormone-free, locally raised meats; local produce. “I can even get a brisket with the deckle (fatty part) still on – which makes a superb brisket!”
  • Wegmans (Warrington): for organic produce and other natural foods, in particular, baby artichokes and handmade ricotta
  • Whole Foods (Montgomeryville, Jenkintown, Princeton): for everything organic, but especially meats (Jenkintown store has complete butcher shop). The Princeton store is “huge and fantastic.”

And Sharon’s favorite in-season farm stands:

What are your favorite places to shop for ingredients? Please let us know.

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A lot of things have been swirling around in my head lately. Maybe too many. But as we’ve gotten deeper into the Bucks County food scene, I’ve been forced to pay attention to some things that I have pushed – I’m ashamed to say – to the periphery. Namely, where does my food come from? What choices should I be making more carefully, say about organic, locally produced, or non-hormone/antibiotic protein sources?

You know what I’m talkin’ about.

Often these days, I find my hand – and mind – hovering over these choices in the grocery store. And too often, I allow price and price alone, to make my decision for me. I guess I’m basically cheap (my family will agree).

USDA SealPart of the problem is these decisions are not clear cut. For instance, what does “organic” mean? Pure, safe, non-chemical, good for the environment? Is an organic certification some kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval?” Or is it an empty marketing promise? And is buying something organic from Chile better than from a local Bucks County farmer, who’s following sustainable agriculture practices, not using chemicals, but can’t afford to pay an organic certification organization to give him that seal? Yikes. So you see why my hand hovers.

I was gladdened, therefore, to see several articles appear in the New York Times over the past month, exploring these issues and providing some education for me. I’m excerpting them below, but I strongly recommend you go and read them in their entirety, along with any useful links.

Kim Severson and Andrew Martin explore the topic in light of the recent peanut salmonella scare in their article, It’s Organic, but Does That Mean It’s Safer?

Although the rules governing organic food require health inspections and pest-management plans, organic certification technically has nothing to do with food safety.

Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist and policy analyst with Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, puts a finer point on it.

Because there are some increased health benefits with organics, people extrapolate that it’s safer in terms of pathogens. I wouldn’t necessarily assume it is safer.

Reading that gave me a jolt. I realized that I too had assumed that. The article goes on to describe the history of organic food certification, stating that by 2002 a set of federal organic regulations limiting pesticide use, restricting kinds of animal feed and forbidding dozens of other common agricultural practices had been put into place. Severson and Martin report:

To determine who would be allowed to use the green and white “certified organic” seal, the Department of Agriculture deputized as official certifiers dozens of organizations, companies and, in some cases, state workers. These certifiers, then, are paid by the farmers and manufacturers they are inspecting to certify that the standards have been met. Depending on several factors, the fee can be hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Arthur Harvey, a Maine blueberry farmer who does organic inspections, says in the article:

Certifiers have a considerable financial interest in keeping their clients going.

First, let me say I think most organic growers are in it for the best of reasons. But I was surprised to learn how all this works. I think I’m like most Americans in that I assumed some government agency was “taking care” of this. As it turns out, like most things these days, both the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have their hands full, and have difficulty overseeing all of it.

Mark Bittman, food writer for the New York Times  and well-known cookbook author, tackles the topic in his article, Eating Food That’s Better for You, Organic or Not . His bone to pick, so to speak, is the confusion around what “organic” really means, and whether it is the only choice if one want to eat healthy. In his recent U.S. book tour, he shares the reactions he got from audiences.

No matter how carefully I avoided using the word “organic” when I spoke to groups of food enthusiasts about how to eat better, someone in the audience would inevitably ask, “What if I can’t afford to buy organic food?” It seems to have become the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, even ethically.

But eating “organic” offers no guarantee of any of that. And the truth is that most Americans eat so badly…that the organic question is a secondary one. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the primary issue in the way Americans eat.

Bittman goes on to quote Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food, who advises that we avoid eating “edible food-like substances” and stick to real ingredients, like vegetables. Pollan argues for a “simple shift in eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products.” From these changes, says Bittman, “Americans would reduce the amount of land, water and chemicals used to produce the food we eat, as well as the incidence of lifestyle diseases linked to unhealthy diets, and greenhouse gases from industrial meat production.”

And, Bittman says:

The food would not necessarily have to be organic, which, under the United States Department of Agriculture’s definition, means it is generally free of synthetic substances; contains no antibiotics and hormones; has not been irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge; was raised without the use of most conventional pesticides; and contains no genetically modified ingredients.

The government’s organic program, says Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, “is a marketing program that sets standards for what can be certified as organic. Neither the enabling legislation nor the regulations address food safety or nutrition.”

Finally, a definition of organic that I can hang my hat on. And, “organic” doesn’t mean “local” either – another misconception. It just means it meets the USDA’s organic certification standards. “It doesn’t matter if it’s from the farm down the road or from Chile,” Ms. Shaffer said. “As long as it meets the standards it’s organic.” So it might be organic frozen vegetables grown in China and sold here. Think about that carbon footprint.

Let’s look at the local picture. Those of us living in Bucks County are blessed with local produce in abundance, especially in the prime growing seasons. But as Bittman points out:

…most farmers who practice truly sustainable farming, or what you might call “organic in spirit,” operate on small scale, some so small they can’t afford the requirements to be certified organic by the government. Others say that certification isn’t meaningful enough to bother.

 So your local farmer may actually be farming organic, but can’t officially say so. Talk to him or her, which you can do at your local farmers’ markets, and find out.

Finally, in another recent New York Times article , Andrew Martin discusses what may be the “Age of Aquarius” for the organic and natural food movement, with Democrats in power, and a first lady digging her own garden on the White House lawn (Note: As part of the economic stimulus plan, the Agriculture Department also plans to award $250 million in loan guarantees, spread over the next two years, for local and regional food networks.)

Everyone seems to be giving the administration advice. For example, “author Michael Pollan has called on President Obama to pursue a ‘reform of the entire food system’ by focusing on…diversified, regional food networks,” Martin reports. But there are fears the movement may not be savvy enough for Washington. Pollan compares sustainable-food activists to environmentalists in the 1970s, saying, the movement “is not ready for prime time. It’s not like we have an infrastructure with legislation ready to go.” But Martin says that while the movement may not be ready to turn Washington on its head:

Sustainable-food activists and entrepreneurs have convinced more Americans to watch what they eat. They have encouraged the growth of farmers’ markets and created such a demand for organic, natural and local products that they are now sold at many major grocers…

“Increasingly, companies are looking to reduce the amount of additives,” says Ted Smyth, who retired earlier this year as senior vice president at H. J. Heinz. “Consumers are looking for more authentic foods. This trend absolutely has percolated through into mainstream foods.”

Nancy M. Childs, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph’s University, said sustainable food activists forced the broader public to focus on the quality and sourcing of food, which in turn has prompted demand for farmers’ markets and local produce…

But Ms. Childs worries that some of the activists’ recommendations for buying fresh, local or organic food cannot be adopted by many Americans because those foods may be too expensive. “By singling out certain lifestyles and foods, it’s diminishing very good quality nutrition sources,” she says. “Frozen goods, canned goods, they are not bad things. What’s important is that people eat well, within their means.”

This all leaves me with one conclusion. We, as consumers, have to educate ourselves and make choices that are in the best interest of our health, our wallets and our concerns for the planet, trying to balance all three. The fortunate part is that living in America in the 21st century, and in Bucks County, we have a lot of options at our fingertips. And price is not always the issue – in fact, especially in season, local food can be cheaper.

Also, to learn more, check out this glossary of terms on the Pennsylvania Buy Fresh Buy Local Web site.

What are your thoughts on these topics? Please leave us your comments and educate us all a bit more.

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I’ve always had this thing about focus. When I have my midlife crisis, it might be about starting a business that makes, say, stair risers, or nothing but chocolate ice cream. I’m not sure what it is that attracts me to that kind of thing – maybe I’ve been following too many people on Twitter or something.

Anyway, this is one of the appeals of Basically Burgers, at 12 West State Street in Doylestown: Focus. You go here when you’re in the mood for a burger, or two. You can build your own burger (of up to four patties), or choose from a variety of burger styles, from a basic burger, to a ranch to a Buffalo Bill. If you’re not a big meat eater, they offer veggie burger, a vegan burger, a black bean burger, salmon burgers, ostrich burgers… you get the idea. Just because they stick to their burgers doesn’t mean they don’t have variety. Prices range from $1.75 for a mini-bite to $8.99 for a Taste of Italy two-patty burger, though you could go higher if you went nuts with the add-ons. And that might be tempting. Check out the menu here.

I had a black and bleu burger, which has bleu cheese wrapped in grass-fed, Pennsylvania-raised beef before cooking (I was going to say “Twinkie-style,” but that would be wrong), with sweet potato fries on the side. I ordered it rare, and it came rare. Nodding to Dr. Atkins, I had the burger naked – without a bun – but they happily served it on lettuce and tomato, though I can’t help but grumble about the tomatoes being big-farmed, meaning vague in color and taste. That’s always a shame around here, but on the other hand, it is early in the season. (All the beef here, by the way, is hormone- and antibiotic-free).

I can tell already Basically Burgers is going to be the battlefield between me and Dr. Atkins this summer. First of all, their burgers are too good to eat naked. I’m going to have to get them on a bun. (Note I said “them” – no single patties for me.) Second, they make milk shakes, and you just know a place that takes burgers so seriously is going to put that kind of energy into milk shakes, too. So, I’m going back pretty soon, once the weather’s just a tad warmer, so the good doctor and I can have it out.

Updated April 18 to correct the beef is not Black Angus.

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Directly across from the Delaware River in Yardley is Charcoal Steaks N’Things, a bright steakhouse that is truly family style in a way chain steakhouses only claim to be.

First thing to know: This is a BYOB place. It’s not big on décor – it feels kind of like a new Perkins, without the kitsch. But what struck us first, once we sat down and examined the menu, were the prices – for a restaurant trumpeting steak, this place is inexpensive. (“Steak” and “inexpensive” are not words I’m used to putting in the same sentence.) A 14-ounce New York strip is $22.95, an 8-ounce Gorgonzola Steak, topped with shallots and gorgonzola is $17.95. Salmon Dijonaise is $12.95.

I had the steak gorgonzola and a grilled romaine salad, which is worth the trip in itself. Lynne ordered the Tumble Weed Steak, a $17.95 8-ounce steak rubbed with spices and topped with “frizzled” (read: fried) onions. Both steaks came exactly as ordered: Lynne’s medium-rare, and mine rare. That seems to be a difficult feat for many places to pull off nowadays, so it’s notable.

The service here is quick, friendly and efficient. The wait staff cheerfully tag teams each other to make sure meals come out at a reasonable pace and that tables are cleaned. In a hurry? No problem. They’ll get you out of there. Want to hang out for a while? No worries.

Because it’s built on a second floor just across the street from the river, we can see where this would be a fine place for dinner during the summer months, especially if you get a window table. There’s nothing to block your view of the water while you eat.

Charcoal Steaks N’ Things is located at 11 South Delaware Avenue (River Road) in Yardley. Phone (215) 493-6394. Hours are 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., seven days a week. A friend tells us they serve great breakfasts. In the name of complete reporting, we’ll try that soon.

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Sweet Lorraine’s Café & Bar calls itself “a casual, fun and hip eatery,” smack in the midst of Lahaska’s Peddler’s Village. Casual? yes. Fun? Sure. Hip. I dunno. I’m coming up on 49 and don’t consider myself a real judge of that. But I will say that, the night Lynne and I stopped in for dinner, Sweet Lorraine’s made us feel welcome, served us a nice meal, and chatted easily with us through the bartender and wait staff.

As tends to be our habit on weeknights, we had a light supper at the bar. I had the “All American Philly Cheese Steak Quesadilla,” while Lynne went for the pub fish and chips. Both came hot, and fairly quickly. The quesadilla was nice and cheesy, though I wouldn’t have minded a bit more meat. (That’s a quibble, though.) Lynne’s fish was light, not too greasy, and fresh. We liked the fact the bartender, the wait staff, even the bus boy were up for chatting with us as they went about their work. Admittedly, we didn’t have an elaborate dinner, so with drinks our bill was less than $50.

Sweet Lorraine’s is part of a small chain, though its three sister restaurants are in Michigan. Nouveau magazine says the restaurant was recruited for this location by the management of Peddler’s Village.

Sweet Lorraine’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. That’s good to know, because its locations – at the corner of Route 202 and Street Road – put it in the middle of a lot of commutes in this area of Bucks County. On the Tuesday night we visited it, neither the restaurant or bar were crowded, but I got the sense it’s designed for the bigger crowds that patrol Peddler’s Village on the weekends and holidays. If you’re in the area, or need a handy place for a business lunch during the week, try it out.

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