Category Archives: Travel Food

The Big British Invite with VisitBritain & British Airways

The Big British InviteThe Big British Invite

London is one of my favorite cities to visit in the world, so I was intrigued to receive an invitation to attend The Big British Invite, a collaboration between VisitBritain and British Airways to showcase some of the highlights of British culture that tourists might want to explore.  The Olympics last year as well as the Royal Wedding and anticipated arrival of the Royal Baby, have made the United Kingdom a very popular destination, with 3,000 people a day traveling between New York and London.  The city and the tri-state area generate the largest group of visitors.  This sold out pop-up last weekend in Soho was to display “a glimpse of what is new and now in Britain,” according to the organizers.

Estelle in British Airways‘ new First Class seats

Dan Stevens examining The London Candy Company‘s chocolate creation

For the press preview, we were able to interact with two of the UK’s current cultural exports: Grammy award winner Estelle and Dan Stevens, who appeared on Broadway after having left Downton Abbey.  With them walking alongside of us through the different displays of British food, fashion, and culture, this was a bit like sharing an afternoon discovering the delights of a city with your friend, The Insider.

Our “boarding pass” for this event – Oh, how I wish it had been a real one!

We were treated to a scarf-tying demo by the folks of Liberty of London, sampled treats from local gastropub Highlands NYC, nibbled on teatime fare from Sanderson Hotel‘s “Mad Hatter ‘s Afternoon Tea,” had a seat in a “London cab,” checked out the latest in punk fashions, and took in a few drinks at a pub, among other activities.  It was a terrific chance to dip into a bit of Britain while not having to pack a suitcase or to deal with Customs, but it did make me realize that I’m long overdue for a real trip to London to soak up some of the wonderful things going on over there.

A mock-up of the exterior of Liberty of London – one of the places I like to drop by on any visit

Demonstrating a way to dress up an outfit with one of their fabulous scarves

London cabbie ready to take you to your destination

Black cabs in jelly form for us to enjoy

Punk – part of their history, still influencing the present

A fashion as iconic as the red phone box

Mini sausage rolls with HP Sauce – prepared by Highlands NYC

Sips of Cullen skink – a Scottish version of a smoked haddock chowder

Shortbreads with Whiskey-Chocolate Drops

Bedford Cheese Shop display of Welsh cheese

A nosh of Welsh Rarebit

Then, time to drop by the pub for a Smoky Whiskey Drink called “The Bribe” (think whiskey + cigars)

The Bumbys give a fair and honest appraisal of your appearance – I was too chicken to let them do that!

This was a cool way to experience the latest in the UK music scene – just put on the headphones and dance

It was time for tea with a Matcha Tea Mousse in a Chocolate Tea Cup

Or maybe one of their special tea blends

Or maybe something else from the “Mad Hatter ‘s Afternoon Tea” put together by Sanderson Hotel

This is a perfect use for all those teacups

But, really, what I fell in love with the most was this dazzling display of landmarks made of sweets courtesy The London Candy Company

Big Ben in Cadbury chocolates

Choco-Henge made of Mars Bars

Jigs Patel – owner of The London Candy Company (which is located on the Upper East Side)

Thanks so much to Extra Extra Creative for the invitation to this event.  Getting to taste and experience some of the flavors and fashions of what makes Britain a great place to visit just reminded me of how much there is to explore there in the culinary and cultural landscape.  Hopefully, I can get over there again before too long!

Buon appetito!

Mamma Agata Cooking School at the International Culinary Center

Along the Amalfi Coast

It’s a bit unfair, I know, to start off a post with a photo depicting a place as lovely and serene as the Amalfi Coast in Italy just as another winter storm is set to hit our area.  It really is one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been to in my travels.  This isn’t just because of the gorgeous, colorful scenery.  The food of this area is also incredibly delicious.  While the dishes might seem to be simple to make, the key is the amazing quality of the ingredients and the artistry with which they are put together.  This was all brought back to me during the weekend before Thanksgiving, when I was able to assist Chiara and Gennaro Lima of Mamma Agata’s Cooking School “The Hidden Treasure” during their culinary demonstrations at the International Culinary Center.

Adding in the green olives to the sauce

As a culinary student, I sometimes volunteer to help out when there are guest chefs cooking at the school.  Depending upon the program, we prepare the food in one of the kitchens that isn’t being used for a class or in the one to the side of the auditorium.  When I arrived to start my shift, another student was also there prepping for the evening’s demonstration.  I introduced myself to Chiara and Gennaro in Italian and asked how I could help out.  Chiara was so excited that I spoke their language (Her English is fluent, but it is easier for Gennaro to communicate culinary instructions in Italian.), that she set me to work right away working with her husband to get everything ready for the evening’s event.

Sauce for the Farmers’ Spaghetti

From the minute I first stepped into the kitchen, it was evident how much passion this couple has for the food of Italy and of the flavors of Amalfi Coast.  The aromas coming from the pots simmering away on the stovetop were rich and intoxicating.  The tart-tangy fragrance of the tomato sauce layered with the briny-meaty smell of the olives and capers combined with the earthy perfume of oregano enveloped the kitchen and the surrounding hallways in a warm, sunny Mediterranean hug.  More than a few staff members and chef instructors passed by our door, peeking in to see what was going on, drawn in by the enticing odors.

Plate of Farmers’ Spaghetti (Spaghetti del Contadino)

During the demonstration, Chiara and Gennaro talked about their cooking school, named after her mother, who was a well-known chef cooking for many celebrities and film personalities who vacationed along the Amalfi Coast.  They also gave out to the audience plates of this deep, intensely-flavored sauce wrapped around ribbons of artisan-made spaghetti from Italy, topped with a little fresh arugula for a peppery snap, and dressed with some of the olive oil that is made from the harvest of their own groves.

Gennaro making Eggplant ParmesanGennaro making the Eggplant Parmesan

Another of the dishes that the attendees of the demonstrations sampled was the Eggplant Parmesan that we put together in advance of the presentation.  The eggplants they prefer to use are the thin, Japanese-style ones, but really the key is to make this recipe when the vegetable is in season, otherwise they are more bitter and take extra care to prepare them.  As Chiara cautioned me, “Mai usare queste fuori stagione,” (“Don’t use them out of season.”).  This conversation was held as we were standing over a sink, squeezing out the brown-tinged bitter liquid from the thinly-sliced eggplants, which had been heavily salted to exude their water, so I could definitely see her point.

Making Eggplant Parmesan

The eggplants were then tossed in a light coating of double zero flour and then fried in grapeseed oil.  As both Chiara and Gennaro explained, it is less heavy than olive oil and makes a lighter coating on the eggplant than other oils.  My task was as “fry girl,” and I worked in tandem with Gennaro preparing the vegetables for the dish.  While frying up the eggplant at the stove, he and I also talked about Italian cooking in general and about the approach that the Italians use in working with ingredients, especially about how much more intuitive and instinct-led their recipes seem to be compared to the more closely structured French culinary methodology.

Eggplant Parmesan ready to serve

Once the eggplant was fried, Gennaro layered it with the tomato sauce that they’d made earlier that day.  He then added fresh basil leaves, mozzarella, grated Parmesan cheese, and, what was a surprise to me, a smoked scamorza, which gives the dish an extra depth of flavor.  The whole pan went into the oven, dressed with a few cherry tomatoes, to bake until the top layer was melted and bubbly.

Portion of Eggplant Parmesan

We served up portions of this creamy, hearty creation for the demonstration attendees to sample while they watched Chiara and Gennaro explain how they put it together and how each component works in harmony to create the tastes of this classic dish.  Frying the eggplant allows it to retain its shape and to keep it from getting soggy while soaking up the tomato sauce.  The cheese gives the dish its richness and makes it a substantial offering for the table, where in Italy it is served as a second (meat) course.

Cooking the meatballs in tomato sauce

Plates of pork meatballs, cooked in a tangy tomato sauce were also served during the demonstration.  Gennaro explained to me that their usual recipe calls for using only ground pork as the fat to make the meatballs tender and delicate.  I could see what he meant after sampling a few unsauced meatballs that he had me try to check the seasoning.  They just melted in my mouth the fatty richness coating my tongue.  For those who don’t eat pork, they also have a recipe that uses beef and veal, however, to those they add some milk so that the meatballs stay moist in order to replicate some of the texture and mouthfeel that the pork fat gives them.

Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

For this dish, I was also on the frying station.  The meatballs were dusted with a little bit of double zero flour before being flash fried (again using grapeseed oil) to give the outside a bit of crust and color.  Then, the meatballs were nestled into a baking dish and covered in the tomato sauce to cook, soaking in its sweet-tangy flavor.  They came out of the oven, juicy and mouth-wateringly delicious.  I could have eaten several platefuls of them.

Limoncello

To end the day’s presentation, Chiara and Gennaro whipped up a batch of their special lemon-scented, sweet coccoli (fritters).  The fritters were consumed faster than I could get a photo of them, coming out of the frying oil and then being rolled in sugar.  They served them along with a small glass of limoncello (lemon liqueur) that is also a specialty of the region where their cooking school is located.  After inhaling its sweet, citrusy bouquet, I realized that I’m long overdue for a trip to Italy and soaking in its sunshine and amazing cuisine.  On my next visit, I hope to stop by the Amalfi Coast to see Chiara and Gennaro to experience some more of their hospitality and maybe even pick up a few more Italian cooking tips.

View of the Bay of Naples

Buon appetito!

For a schedule of the upcoming events at the International Culinary Center, please see their website.  They also have a series of one-off courses as well, like this one.

Some of the recipes that were showcased in the demonstrations can be found in the Mamma Agata cookbook.

A Family Wedding in Virginia

A big hug for the happy couple from the minster

In the midst of all the volunteering, culinary school courses and exams, events coverage, and other things that make up my hectic life, this past weekend, I traveled down to Virginia for a family wedding.  My youngest sister tied the knot with her beau of almost five years.  The ceremony was low key, taking place at the home that they share in the Piedmont area of the state, not far from the Blue Ridge Mountains.  A long gravel driveway brings you up to their doorstep.

BBQ Dinner at weddingBBQ dinner plate at the wedding

This was a chance to gather together the various members of our two clans as well as to sit around and chew the fat, literally, while catching up with family and friends whom I don’t get to see all that often.  We’ve often relaxed around piles of steaming crustaceans at our formerly annual crab fest where my aunt, her son, then girlfriend/now wife, and various friends assorted other relatives, and soon-to-be in-laws would rotate around the dining room table at my parents’ house vying for their spot at the bounty.  It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that this hanging out thing is pretty integral to our family, so I was glad to see it take place as an important component of celebrating their wedding day, which I never should have doubted as the happy couple is very into eating and cooking together.

Steamed Crabs at the wedding feast

As small children, we would listen to our parents and older relatives tell stories about their childhoods while sitting not so patiently, waiting to be released to go play.  On Sunday, it was much the same, with batches of crabs coming out of the steamer followed by piles of molten hot shrimp, all sprinkled with Old Bay and a few glugs of whatever beer was open at the time, creating a wonderful seaside aroma.  Everything was dished up on newspaper-covered, garbage bag-lined folding tables much the same way as we’ve always done it.  As usual, at least in my family, there were kids running around and dogs sniffing after table scraps while the melodic snap-crack of shells took place and people hollered where was the melted butter in which to dip their tender crabmeat or for someone to bring them another beverage.

The wedding cake

Even the wedding cake symbolized some of this same enjoyment of life and food and family.  The bride and groom are both avid boaters and fishers, hence the decorations on top of the cake.  The cake itself was baked by the groom’s sister, who works in a bakery, and when it came time to carve it, the groom allowed his nephew and my niece to cut their own pieces of cake, which were as large as you can imagine a child would make them.  In something that I can only guess was either an accident or a huge stroke of genius, the chocolate cake was incorporated into the vanilla part as a separate layer, blending a traditional white wedding cake with a groom’s cake, much like the coming together of the two families.

A slice of the wedding cake

With very fully tummies and a wonderful afternoon of memories, we bid farewell to my sister and her new spouse.  This was not, I should add, before my newest brother-in-law hauled me into the kitchen to talk about the latest recipes that he is cooking and with which he’s experimenting.  My sister is his avid food critic and recipe evaluator, a role that I know that she enjoys and relishes.  I wish for them every happiness as well as many, many more delicious meals to share.  Hopefully, I will also have the pleasure of partaking in some of them as well.  Someone has to pick up the mantle of hosting those family crab feasts, and their wedding banquet proved that they are definitely up to that task.

Shoes were optional – apparently

Buon appetito!

Eat, Write, Retreat 2012 Conference Recap

For a few months now, you’ve seen this graphic in the sidebar of the front page of this site.  This past weekend, it was finally here, the second annual Eat, Write, Retreat conference in Washington, DC!  Last year, I had found this gathering of food bloggers, writers, PR folks, brands, and others involved in the culinary media industry to be eye-opening and inspirational.  This year, I walked away with my head and my heart full of all the wonderful things I had learned and the amazing people that I had met during a few short days.


Monica Bhide

I will not fall for Monica’s joke at conference next year; I will not fall for Monica’s joke at conference next year; I will not fall for Monica’s joke at conference next year! 

Having really enjoyed her presentation last year, I was eager to see what valuable insights Monica would have for us.  For me, she pried open those creaky wheels in my brain that have gotten stuck in terms of my writing and this website and made me shine a light on why I started doing this in the first place.  What is the driver?  What is the motivation?  Why me?  In our group exercise, we had to turn to the person next to us and come up with One Word – ONE – that describes our websites.  Try this.  It isn’t as easy as it sounds to distill the essence of what you do, what makes you passionate, in just One Word.

I’m still mulling over my word – GUIDE.  Kathy Hester of Healthy Slow Cooking was my partner for this exercise.  For her, it means that I try to help people discover resources, recipes, things going on in the food-oriented space around them.  I like to encourage folks to learn more about their culinary environment through visiting area markets, eating locally-grown seasonal produce, and enjoying food festivals, so I guess in a way I do see this website and the information that I try to communicate through it as a guide to exploring all of these activities.  Let me know.  What do you think?  Does it fit?

Andy Schloss

Andy Schloss of Chef Salt spoke to us more about the business side of food writing and blogging.  For the most part this site has been a hobby for me, an extension of my longtime interest in food, travel, and the recipes I’ve collected along the way.  On the other hand, I would welcome the opportunity to be able to support myself doing what I love.  Andy’s words of wisdom are that, at this point, you need to build several lines of business in order to survive in the culinary world.  Ads on websites are only a small part of this.  Teaching, affiliates, consulting, recipe development, brand spokespersonship, writing, and other avenues are also necessary to generate enough revenue to be self-sustaining.

Styling Carrots

Food Styling Prop Table (see carrots in background)

One of my favorite parts of the conference from last year was back as well.  We had a hands-on food styling and food photography workshop with Lisa Cherkasky and Renee Comet.  Lisa and Renee took several photos, let us see how lighting and angles have an impact on the final shot, and showed us how they do post-production editing using Lightroom.  They then let us get our own hands in the mix working with beans, carrots, watermelon, and other food props trying to create tantalizing pictures.  I don’t use any extra props in my own photos other than to try to avoid glares on the food and the plate and trying to capture those extra drops of goodness that might drip down the sides of an assembled dish, so it was fascinating to me to see how the pros do it.

Green Juice Shooters (apple, spinach, parsley)

Aside from the opportunity to sharpen our skills and to pick up new ideas for our website, we, of course, had a chance to eat during the conference.  One of our lunches was at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw in Northwest, Washington, DC.  For us, they prepared a special Organic, Raw-Vegan Menu, which we were told takes a week to come together.  Before you turn away, just look at these photos and tell me that some of these dishes don’t look just amazing.  We were told that Elizabeth was inspired to embark on a raw-vegan diet after being diagnosed with breast cancer.  She has been able to heal her body through food.

Lunch plate at Elizabeth’s Gone Raw

Kale chips with spicy coating; vegan “sushi” made with shredded jicama and wasabi sauce; red pepper hummus; a “cracker” made of nut flour; and a cashew mousse “pastry boat” with shaved fennel, red onion, spinach, and truffle oil

Mock “Millionaires Shortbread”

The hit of this lunch was probably the cashew mousse creation, which was creamy and soul-satisfying with the earthy aroma of truffles and delicate anise tones from the shaved fennel.  The “pastry boat” was made from nuts and held everything together with a hearty, crunchy backnote.  While we were munching away, Casey Benedict, one of the conference organizers, interviewed Michael Natkin about his new book Herbivoracious, based upon his exploration of vegetarian cuisine on his own blog.  Then, we all flocked to the table again to enjoy some more of this delicious food.

Guinness Beef Stew

Dinner that evening was what one person termed the antidote to our healthy lunch.  We headed over to AGAINN, a contemporary gastro-pub in Washington, DC that works to source ingredients from local farms as well as organically.  This was hearty pub food at its best, with some of my favorites on the menu including Bangers & Mash with caramelized onions and this dark, rich Guinness Beef Stew.  We even had little jars of Banoffee Pie for dessert, which were gobbled up before I could even get a photo of them.

12-year old Scotch Whisky by The Balvenie

Part of that evening was also spent tasting scotch whisky from The Balvenie.  We were able to sample the 12-year and the 15-year varieties.  The smooth, caramel-like liquid slid down my throat with a slight burn, leaving a warming sensation in my stomach.  I’ve never been a whisky drinker, much as I try, but I can appreciate the care and craft that goes into making these beverages.

Barboursville Cabernet Franc (opening night dinner)

This is a conference that keeps you on your toes, literally in the case of the square dancing exertions from the opening night gathering; tests all your senses between the food, workshops, and exercises; and builds strong bonds among its participants.  What is unique among conferences is that it is a smaller event where bloggers, brands, and media folks interact and get to know each other over several days of exchanging ideas, personal cooking stories, and points of view about what is going on in the culinary world.  We leave the conference with new friends, re-energized spirits, and lots of great new tools to try out in our kitchens, courtesy sponsors like Oxo and Calphalon.  I can’t wait to see what the program will be like in 2013!

Buon appetito!

Here’s some post from the other attendees from this year’s conference, too:

52 Kitchen Adventures

(a)Musing Foodie

Comet Photo

Cooking By Design

Canadian Coupon Mom

Cupcakes for Breakfast

Em-i-lis

Food Musings

I’ll Have What She’s Having

Maroc Mama

My Halal Kitchen

Penny Pinching Epicure

Sarafina’s Kitchen

The Wicked Noodle

Wiener Schnitzel and Gene’s Sausage Shop Chicago

The first leg of my Christmas 2011 adventures started out with a trip to Chicago to say good-bye to my uncle who had passed away prior to Thanksgiving (sad) and to meet my brand-new nephew (happy).  My youngest sister’s boyfriend is a good, solid home cook and fellow food lover, so a stop at Gene’s Sausage Shop did not seem out of the question on his first trip to the Windy City.  I tried to prep him for it by explaining that he was going to be entering a “meat emporium,” as if that could adequately describe the culinary wonders that awaited him there.

Interior of Gene’s

My first trip to Gene’s was a little over a year ago when I was visiting my brother in Chicago.  We stopped by the cemetery in the formerly-German part of town to visit the graves on my mother’s side of the family.  I’m about a quarter-ish of German descent, mostly on my mother’s side, although on my dad’s side about 300 or so years ago someone Dutch married someone German in Philadelphia so there’s a smidgen from there, too.  We combined this excursion with a saunter around the shops in Lincoln Park including this one, which is not original to the neighborhood.

Pierogies & Blintzes

At the shop, I discovered that my toddler nephew had a taste for their spiced, meaty Krakow sausage which he devoured as soon as he could grab a fistful of it from his dad.  Although I was bit more polite than my nephew, I, too, was taken with the samples and the tastes displayed all around me.  It’s still astonishing to me when I study the history of cuisine in the United States and find out how Teutonic-influenced our diet is as I don’t feel like I grew up eating the particular dishes from that area.  One of my friends who is French was surprised that I hadn’t realized the level of German inflection in our “American” dishes, too, but that probably goes to show you how foods that are at one time considered ethnic and weird can become assimilated and mainstream (think cilantro and pesto).

This is only a small sample of their sausage offerings.

My sister’s boyfriend seemed to be no less taken with the variety of wursts, smoked meats, sausages (fresh and prepared), salads, and other gastronomic delights from which to choose at the shop.  When he found out that they were out of Wiener Schnitzel (made with veal, not pork), he decided on the spot that he would fix some for dinner that night.  As it was the first night of Hanukkah, and I had woken up with a wicked craving for latkes, we threw in some potato pancakes for good measure.

Wiener Schnitzel, Potato Pancake, Red Cabbage, Cucumbers with Dill

Adding some of their prepared salads, and a Central European-inspired meal was in the works.  The recipe for the schnitzel is a bit non-traditional, but, also being of German ancestry and more recently than that of my family, my sister’s boyfriend assures me that this is the way he is used to making it.  I generally have done the flour-egg-breadcrumb variety.  This one, using just three ingredients (six if you count the salt, pepper, and oil), was quick and tasty and would make a great weeknight supper.  I think my ancestors would be interested to see that some of the foods they might have eaten still have a place on our table today.

Wiener Schnitzel by Mr. Brown

Prep Time:  15 minutes

Serving Size: 4 adults

Ingredients:

4 Veal cutlets, pounded thinly to about 1/4 inch

1 Tbsp. Mustard (he used Thomy mild)

1/2 cup Breadcrumbs (fresh if you can get them)

Salt

Black Pepper, freshly ground

Canola Oil for frying

Assembly:

Take each of the cutlets and spread a thin layer of mustard on one side.  Sprinkle a little salt and a few grinds of pepper on top of that.

Then, flip each cutlet over and repeat the steps on the reverse side.  Dredge the cutlets in the breadcrumbs, making sure to coat each side thoroughly.

Heat canola oil in a large (12-inches or larger) skillet over medium-high heat until the oil is hot but not smoking.  Put in 1-2 cutlets, taking care not to over-crowd them. Cook cutlets for 2-3 minutes on first side until breadcrumbs are golden brown.  Flip meat over and cook on second side for 2-3 minutes more.  Because it is so thin, the veal will cook quickly.

The heat and oil need to be hot enough to make the breadcrumbs crisp but not so hot that the meat burns.  If cooking the cutlets in batches, take care to wipe out the pan and add more oil each time before you put in an uncooked cutlet.  That way, you will not make a smoky, hot mess in the kitchen.  Place cooked cutlet briefly on a paper towel after removing it from the pan to pat any leftover oil off of it.  Serve immediately.

Typically, wiener schnitzel is served with a slice of lemon on the side.  Vinegar-based potato salad, cucumber salad, and a dollop of a sweet preserve might also be on the plate to go with the meat.  Just be sure to serve it with your favorite beer to capture the mood of feasting in Europe.

Buon appetito!

Virginia Fall Dinner at the James Beard Foundation

The first time I walked through the door of the James Beard Foundation located in the former home of the late culinary deity James Beard, a tingle went down my spine.  How many amazing meals had been served in its dining room?  How many incredibly talented chefs had cooked in its kitchen?  Fortunately, with a little bit of careful planning, a reservation, and payment, anyone can enjoy a wonderful multi-course dinner, lunch or brunch here.  This past Saturday, I attended the much-anticipated (well, for me, anyway) Virginia Fall Dinner featuring the dishes and flavors of my home state with chefs from my former stomping grounds of Williamsburg, Virginia.

Colonial Williamsburg comes to the Village

After leaving my coat in the cloakroom and checking in to get my table assignment, I walked through the open-plan kitchen to the reception area.  I really enjoy seeing the hustle and bustle of the preparation for the evening meal.  It reminds me of hanging out by the stove when I was little, watching my mom fix dinner for all of us kids.  I was briefly introduced to Rhys Lewis, the executive chef at the Williamsburg Lodge, who was coordinating getting the evening’s culinary creations to our tables.  The aromas coming from the prep area were making my mouth water in anticipation of all the Old Dominion delicacies that I’d soon be sampling.

Chefs prepping dinner

Spying plates of delicious-looking small bites artfully arranged on serving trays, I passed by the staff and lingered just long enough to scope out the appetizers.  Everything looked amazing.  At the bar table, I picked up a glass of the Kluge Estate Sparkling Rosé from 2007.  The deep pink color gave a festive air to the evening while the bubbles and light summertime fruit flavors of ripe red berries went along perfectly with the saltiness and fried, crunchy texture of the appetizers.  I decided that I might need to put a bottle of this on my list for next summer’s rooftop drinks events and parties.

Sparkling Rose by Kluge Estates 2007

Crispy Chincoteauge Island Oysters

Mini Cuban-Style Sandwiches with Virginia Ham

Toasted Brie with Truffled Virginia Wildflower Honey

Roasted Mushroom Bruschette with Serifina Cheese

As I mingled with some of the other guests, I had to remind myself not to get too full on just this course.  The succulent oysters in a crispy cornmeal outer jacket just melted in my mouth.  The mini Cuban-style sandwiches had hearty, smokey pulled pork, a hint of cheese, and a slab of salty Virginia Ham all bundled together in a buttery roll.  I have to figure out how they made the little nests of phyllo dough for the brie and where they found the floral and earthy truffle honey that was drizzled on top of it.  The combination of sweet, creamy, and crunchy made this an ideal cocktail nibble.  Unfortunately, I missed the bruschette, but I more than made up for that with additional helpings of each of the other selections.  Then, we were called to go to the second floor dining room and take our places for the main meal.

John Shideler Director of Food & Beveral Hospitality for Colonial Williamsburg

One of the things that I enjoy the most about going to a meal at the James Beard House is that it doesn’t matter if you show up alone, with a date, or with friends.  Everyone is there to enjoy the meal, basking in the carefully executed fare and each others’ company.  At my table were the PR folks for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and John Shideler, the Director of Food and Beverage Hospitality for Colonial Williamsburg, so I was able to catch up on all the latest updates from the historic area.

Mitchell Davis Vice President of the James Beard Foundation

We were greeted by Mitchell Davis, Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, who mentioned that Saturday was, in fact, the date twenty-five years earlier when the foundation had been established, so the evening was indeed a celebration.  James Beard was an ardent supporter of American cooking and the foundation brings chefs from all over the country to cook there as well as sponsoring scholarships for the next wave of culinary talent.  When I spoke to one of the chefs afterwards, he said that it had been about eight years since the folks from Williamsburg had made a dinner there, so this was also a special return visit for them, too.

11-05-11 menu signed by chefs

After the introduction, it was time to explore the bounty that awaited.  Each dish had been orchestrated by a chef from a different dining establishment within Colonial Williamsburg and was paired with a separate beverage, also of Virginia origin.  The wine industry in the Old Dominion has really come a long way from when I lived there, and I was quite impressed by the vintages that we were served with dinner.  For the beers, I hadn’t realized that that industry had really taken root in my home state, and some of these need to find a place at my parents’ holiday table this year.  As far as the food goes, I’m going to let the photos below tell the story.

Butternut Squash Risotto with Duck Confit

Paired with Barboursville Vineyards Pinot Grigio 2010 (no photo)

Chesapeake Bay She-Crab Soup with Roasted Oyster Mushrooms

Paired with Williamsburg Ale Werks Wheat Ale

Virginia Ham-dusted Chesapeake Rock Fish

Paired with Rockbridge Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay 2009

Braised Short Rib of Beef with Caramelized Onion Grits & Southern-Style Collard Greens

Paired with Williamsburg Winery Trianon 2007

Williamsburg Ale Werks Coffee House Stout ice cream float for pre-dessert

Goat Cheese Cheesecake with Red Wine Syrup and Late Summer Tomato Conserve

Paired with Rockbridge Vineyards V’dor 2007

As the photos show, this was a culinary trip that showcased some of the best features of Southern cuisine.  My favorites would have to be the soup and the dessert, with a special nod to the Stout float.  Our first course, the risotto, had a nice flavor, but the real star on that plate was the velvety duck confit that had been cooked in apples (another Virginia staple).  She-crab soup, with a creamy buttery base that brings out the sweetness of the shellfish, is one of those dishes that I’ve tried time and again to explain to people up here, as it is one of the few things I have yet to find on a New York menu.  The dusting of crisp, salty Virginia ham gave an extra dash of personality to the delicate and tender rockfish.  The beef was pull-apart tender and just melted in your mouth with collard greens that had a backnote of smokey porkiness which could only mean that they were cooked correctly in bacon fat.  Although I know that coarse-ground grits are in style right now, I was less than enamored of them, as I prefer mine to be less rough in consistency than these were here.  The creamy, smooth cheesecake had a slight note of tang from the goat’s cheese.  Sweet tomato conserve on top of the cake was a reminder that this red orb is actually a fruit and can stand up as a dessert item.

Rhys Lewis Executive Chef of the Williamsburg Lodge

It would be difficult for me to pick a favorite of the beverages if not for the Stout float that we had.  This Williamsburg Ale Werks brew had notes of coffee and semi-sweet chocolate chips which the Tahitian Vanilla Ice Cream accentuated with its creamy texture.  One of the people at our table found it a little too weird to handle.  I should have distracted her so that I could have had a second glass.  Of the wines, I found that they mostly worked with the dishes with the Chardonnay very lightly oaked and the Pinot Grigio, of which I’m normally not a fan, to be crisp and refreshing and not too steely.  The red wine from the Williamsburg Winery was a real surprise with its vibrant berry flavors and round, full mouthfeel.  I haven’t tired their products in years, since I lived down there, and this makes me think that I need to make a roadtrip to their vineyards for a tasting.

Colonial Williamsburg Culinary Team

After all the wonderful food and drink, the closing part of the evening was to introduce the talented chefs behind our amazing meal.  I had found out during dinner that not only did they get themselves up to the city for this event but they also drove a refrigerated truck all the way from Williamsburg to New York filled with the ingredients for the evening’s dinner.  So, this really was an almost entirely Virginia product-sourced venture.  Of course, the whole thing would not have been complete without one more taste of Colonial America.  Heralded by traditional fife and drum music, a final dessert creation was presented at each of the tables, which you can see in the photo below.  As Chef Lewis said about the evening’s meal, he “wanted to bring the taste of Virginia to you here.”  I think he succeeded not only in bring the flavors of my fair home state to the big city, he also brought a bit of its spirit and warm hospitality as well.

Chocolate Cannon on a Chocolate “Plate” with Truffles

Buon appetito!