Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Recipe for a good night

1. Get takeout from Chester's BBQ - preferably the sampler so you get a little bit of every meat they serve (FYI - Chester's is getting their own post on this blog tomorrow).

Chester's box-o-meat

2. After consuming a borderline disgusting amount of Chester's, make a pot of hot spiced cider, preferably using some of the fresh cider you bought at Holmberg Orchards over the weekend. (My way of doing spiced cider - put the cider in the pot with some sliced lemons, a few cloves, and some cinnamon sticks and let it simmer for awhile. Pour a nice slug of Captain Morgan in your glass prior to serving.)

Cider simmering on the stove
 3. Let your cat inspect your pumpkin (also purchased from Holmberg's). This process could take awhile depending on the picky-ness of your cat. 

Buns gets final say on anything brought into our house

4. Carve pumpkins. Swear a little bit because your pumpkins are over an inch thick, making them rather difficult to carve with intricate patterns. Abandon finer points of your chosen pattern in favor of getting done sooner.
Are we done yet?
5. Light up the pumpkins (in the sun room because it is pouring rain outside) and admire your hard work. Drink more cider (with more rum). 

We both chose cat patterns. Is that cute or lame?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A River Runs Through It

On Friday night, Noe and I made plans with my favorite "foodie friend", Loree. Loree introduced me to what has become my favorite restaurant in Connecticut, the River Tavern. We've been on a mission to get Noe out there for awhile, but it hadn't worked so far. However, all the cards lined up on Friday night, and we met Loree in Chester (about half an hour from New London) at 5:45. 

The River Tavern door - all photos by Loree Borgoin

The River Tavern is a very small restaurant with a warm decor (a lot of yellow and red). When you reserve a table for dinner (and because it is so small, I would recommend doing so if you plan to go there on a weekend) they block that table off for two hours - they believe in enjoying your food at a relaxed pace rather than rushing through your dinner. The restaurant was opened in 2001 by Jonathan Rapp. The kitchen is currently presided over by co-executive chefs Chris Flahaven and James Wayman (Jim Morrison, formerly of Thames River Wine and Spirits, put me on to James). The kitchen's focus is "simple, delicious cooking" always using fresh ingredients (local ingredients whenever possible).

We decided to start our meal with cocktails. The River Tavern has a unique, wide-ranging wine list, and I knew I would want a glass with dinner. For an apertif, however, we selected drinks from the innovative cocktail menu (River Tavern cocktails are delicious - not only are they well-crafted but they are made with quality liquors and fresh-squeezed juices. I chose the Ginger Blossom, a delightful concoction of white rum, fresh ginger juice, and honey, shaken with ice and strained into a martini glass. The bite of the ginger was tempered slightly but not totally mellowed by the honey - spectacular.

We decided to order an appetizer while we sipped our cocktails. Loree pointed out a squid dish, sauteed with green chiles. That sounded fine to me and Noe. We weren't disappointed. Sauteed squid can be rubbery if overcooked, but this was nice and tender. The chiles gave the slightly sweet squid a hint of heat. This dish was a great alternative to the usual fried calamari you see on so many menus. 

It was a bit harder to decide on our entrees - all three of us were debating between two or three different dishes. Ultimately, Loree chose some Sicilian-inspired scallops, sauteed with squid and tomatoes and served over polenta. Noe gave in to his first impulse, the Tavern Burger -  a patty of local Four Mile River Farm beef served up with onions, bacon (thick-cut, delicious bacon), aged cheddar, and house-made ketchup. I went for pan-fried skate with warm lentils, bacon, and arugula.

Loree's scallops with polenta

The skate was amazing - lightly fried so the outside was browned, it flaked immediately when grazed with a fork. (For those who have never had skate, the texture and the flavor remind me of a firmer white fish.) The warm lentils gave it a little bit of heartiness. The whole thing was infused with flavor from the tick-cut chunks of bacon (this bacon was glorious) and topped with arugula, finishing off the dish with an interesting hint of bitterness.

I loved every bite.

Pan-fried skate with lentils, bacon, and arugula

I managed to snag a bite of Loree's scallops, which were also perfectly cooked and delicious, but Noe's burger disappeared so fast I barely saw it, let alone got to try it. He gave it a rave review, noting that the meat was moist but the burger was not overflowing with juices and soaking the bun like some burgers he has eaten. (He also put in a request that I start seeking out Four Mile River Farm beef from the local farmers markets.)

The Tavern Burger

We were all pretty full, but we couldn't resist the idea of dessert. We settled on vanilla bean creme brulee. It came to the table ungarnished. This creme brulee needed no additional presentation. The caramelized top was nice and crisp and cracked when tapped sharply with a spoon. Underneath, the warm custard tasted of real vanilla. It was decadent without being heavy - the perfect ending to our meal.

Creme Brulee

Noe and I crack the crust

Noe agreed with me and Loree - the River Tavern is more than worth the drive to Chester. The food is uncomplicated, but sophisticated. It's simple and fresh, well thought out and carefully prepared. I'm glad we managed to convert Noe - maybe now that he is a fan, I will get to eat there more often!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sword play

The broiler is my new favorite thing. I hadn't really done much broiling up to this point - just the occasional browning of something or the other. Yet ever since buying Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which has a number of broiled dishes) and discovering that Noe had a broiler pan (where did this come from?!) I have been on a broiling kick.

My latest broiled dinner - this is super easy:

I got my hands on a couple big, fresh swordfish steaks from a local fish market. I threw them in a marinade of olive oil, herbs, a little white vinegar, and a little fresh lemon juice. I marinated them for about 30 minutes (they were big, thick steaks - about an inch thick).

Swordfish steaks after marinating

Then...I stuck them under the broiler for about six minutes, turned them over, and stuck them back in for another five or six. They were done when they were an opaque white all the way through and flaked fairly easily with a fork.

After broiling...they don't look that different than the raw ones in the photo

We ate these with simple sides of rice and steamed veggies. As for wine, I tried an inexpensive ($10) Riesling from my local wine store, Thames River Wine and Spirits:

The Clean Slate was just a tad sweeter than I normally enjoy, but still had a nice, minerally quality and a bit of crsipness. It actuallt paired pretty well with the herby, slightly acidic marinade.

This is a very simple dinner - but it is dependent on a quality piece of fish. If you can get your hands on a nice piece of swordfish, I highly recommend the marinating/broiling method if it is too cold or rainy to grill. These turned out great.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Picking and Choosing

I've had an urge to visit an apple orchard for a couple weeks now. Back in Michigan, Kristen (my sister) and I would occasionally find ourselves both home and bored on a Saturday or Sunday morning in the fall. When this happened, we would get in Kristen's truck and drive over to Plymouth Orchard for fresh cider and homemade cinnamon-sugar doughnuts.

Fall recently hit New England with a vengeance, and with cool weather and colorful leaves comes a craving for crisp apples, fresh cider, and of course, the ubiquitous cinnamon-sugar doughnut. The problem? I had no idea where any apple orchards were located around here. So I turned to Google and quickly located Holmberg Orchards in nearby Ledyard. This morning, Noe and I bundled up in our sweaters and jackets and headed out.

We pulled up first to the market in front of the orchard and went in to poke around. I was immediately disappointed to find out they did NOT have my doughnuts. However, we saw plenty of apple crisp, pies, and other assorted pastries, and the whole thing smelled overwhelmingly of fresh apples. We decided to drive up to the orchard itself and hit the market on the way out.

When we got to the top of the winding drive, we discovered some pleasant surprises. In addition to apples, you could pick and buy pears (yum!) and pumpkins as well.

Noe searches for the perfect pumpkin

I found mine!

There was also what appeared to be a small barn with a sign reading "Tasting Room". We entered, thinking maybe we would be tasting cider. We quickly found that Holmberg Orchards produces several fruit wines and hard ciders and all were available for tasting.

I don't normally go for fruit wines, but Holmberg's seemed to be at the high end of this genre. While their peach wine was too sweet for my liking, I was very impressed by the Pearfection, a light, dry pear wine that I thought would be perfect to sip by itself or perhaps while nibbling a milder cheese. The Three Sheets apple wine, aged in oak barrels, had an almost Chardonnay-like quality with a bit of apple-y crispness. Both of the hard sparkling ciders had a crisp, fresh quality that I appreciated.

When we wandered back into the market on our way out, we were immediately greeted by the smell of fresh-baked bread. A woman was stacking a shelf with baguettes that were still warm. Even Noe, who is NOT a baguette fan (he calls it "bad-gette") was somewhat intoxicated by the yummy, yeasty smell.

In addition to produce from the orchards, the market carried a nice selection of local and specialty products. We saw wines from many Connecticut wineries (including Jonathan Edwards, where I can occasionally be found moonlighting in the tasting room), cheeses, fresh meats stuffed, marinated, or otherwise prepared for cooking, and a good selection of oils, vinegars, and condiments.

By the time we left, we had loaded up the car with two giant pumpkins, a whole bunch of apples and pears, a jug of cider, a bottle of the pear wine, some steaks stuffed with Gorgonzola and mushrooms, two bags of Deep River Snacks potato chips (these are seriously the best chips in the world!), one of the fresh baguettes, and a few more items I can't recall at the moment. Overall, a successful trip.

However, if someone can point me in the direction of an apple orchard where I can get that cinnamon-sugar (or apple cider) doughnut, I'd be very grateful.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

America's pastime

Last night, I happened to have both my Facebook and Twitter accounts open while researching some social media opportunities for a potential freelance client. I was also watching the Detroit Tigers take on the Minnesota Twins in a do-or-die battle for the AL Central Division title.

As I worked and watched, I also watched the tweets and status updates rolling across my screen. Many people appeared to be doing the same thing I was. I couldn't believe how many status updates were about the Tigers, even as I was posting one or two myself.

The thing I probably miss most frequently about Detroit is obviously sporting events. Most of my regular readers know that I am a huge Red Wings fan. But before I loved the Wings, the Detroit team I had seen in action repeatedly was the Detroit Tigers.

We went to a few games in the old Tiger Stadium when I was younger (way younger - I'm talking about Cecil Fielder walking up to bat while "The Phantom of the Opera" music played over the loudspeaker). They weren't great then - after their World Series win of 1984 (we've all seen the picture of Gibby jumping victoriously in the air) the team had started a downward spiral. They were OK through the rest of the 80's, and in the early 90's traded hands from one Michigan-based pizza man - Tom Monaghan of Domino's - to another - Mike Illitch of Little Ceasars, who also owns the Red Wings. By the time I was in middle school, they were beginning their eleven-year stretch of losing seasons.

In 2000,  the controversial Comerica Park was opened. Comerica was very different than Tiger Stadium, not just because it was newer. For starters, it was located in a prime downtown location by the historic Fox Theater, the Detroit Opera House, and Hockeytown Cafe. This was a much fancier location than Tiger Stadium's corner of Michigan Aveue and Trumbull in Corktown. Secondly, the original distance to left-center was brought under fire for being too hard to hit home runs (it was later shortened). Then there was the historical factor - Tiger Stadium was tied with Fenway as the oldest active baseball stadium in the country.

Certainly not the least of the criticisms was the rumbling that the Tigers were so bad they didn't deserve a new ballpark. The supporters of Comerica Park argued that the new stadium would put fans in the seats - something the team and its losing record was struggling to do.

The new park was certainly a novelty, but the striped kitties were quickly becoming to baseball what the Lions are today to football. Even having popular veteran Tigers like Allan Trammell on the management and coaching staff did not keep the Tigers from a dismal 2003 and pretty crappy 2004.

(You are probably thinking at this point that I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. Or if you don't know, you're probably wondering where I'm going with this.)

Where I'm going is here: the Tigers may not have deserved that park; they may have been the worst team in baseball, but I loved them - and that ridiculous park - because I got to go to games.

At that time in Tigers history, you could barely give tickets away, let alone find people to pay for them. Which is exactly why the company my grandpa worked for at the time always had 4-6 tickets behind the first or third base line in the lower section to give away. AND they came with parking passes.

There were multiple times we'd gather up a group of friends and head to games. Sophie, Anthony, Eric, Becky, Kelli, Rose, and more all went to Tigers games with me, and we always cheered for the Tigers and always had a great time. And I am attached to that team out of more than just the proximity of where I grew up - I am attached because I got to see them play fairly often.

2004 and beyond were a renaissance period: first came Pudge, then Guillien, then Mags, then old-man Leyland came along to replace Trammell. By the end of 2005 the team looked good. My grandpa was retired now, and all of a sudden tickets had gotten harder to get.

Still, even though we weren't going to games on a regular basis at this point, we were invested in that team and felt entitled to cheer for them because we jumped on the bandwagon when they were so bad. And we were firmly on the bandwagon when the team made their (failed) World Series run in 2006.

Flash forward a couple years: I live in Connecticut. Professional sporting events are not easy to come by. I live between two rival baseball teams that have rabidly passionate fans (Yankees and Sox) but don't really watch either. I don't really make much of a point to watch the Tigers, truthfully, not the way I do the Red Wings. But I follow the front office and the Free Press on Twitter, read the scores in the paper, and in general keep up with them, even though I'm not a fanatic.

And last night, I watched hundreds of people all over America engage in conversations about "my" team. Even being stuck out on the east coast and not at Sticks in Ypsilanti, the Arena in Ann Arbor, or anywhere in Metro Detroit, I was still part of the Detroit crowd cheering for the hometown team. You can't convince me social networking is worthless after that experience.

And I'll call the Tigers "my" baseball team no matter where I live or how out of the MLB loop I am. It doesn't matter why you become attached to a team (in my case, it was free tickets during the reign of despair) if you still harbor a genuine attachment and desire to see them do well.

See you next year, Tigers.