In Beer, Summer Better Than Others

Question: is there a better way to take in new surroundings than by sitting on a porch on a warm summer night, leaning back in a lawn chair, and popping open a local beer?

Actually, there very well may be – let’s be serious.  Still, the beauty of the aforementioned scenario is once you’re in it, you could care less about anything else.  I had the pleasure a couple times recently, with beers from upstate New York as well as from around the country.  Some were better than others, but as you could imagine, it’s hard to be a total miss under such perfect conditions.

Deceptively simple

Let’s start with the standout: Mow Master Pale Ale from Ellicottville Brewing Company.  I’d never heard of Ellicottville before and wasn’t really expecting much.  Mow Master?  I figured on a pretty binary profile: yellow and fizzy.  Not the case.  The best way I could describe this beer is like Dale’s Pale Ale, lightened up for summer consumption.  It’s got nice full hoppiness with no astringency, a little bit bigger of a body than you’d expect, and mouthfeel that’s more fluffy than fizzy.  Honestly, if I were actually riding a lawn mower on a hot summer day I’d probably reach for something crisper.  But for a relaxing summer night, it’s dead on.

pretty weak

As far as the brewery, it’s in the town of Ellicottville (from the website: “sometimes referred to as ‘the Aspen of the East’”), 3 hours due west of Ithaca.  It seems to be a pretty small-scale operation: just a brewpub that was opened 15 years ago and another that opened recently.  Still, the little brewery’s had some serious success, racking up 3 International World Beer Championship awards.  Now, on the bottle (in the finest print you could imagine) it says EBC is part of the much bigger Southern Tier Brewery.  I’m not sure to what capacity that relationship exists, but even though I’m a big Southern Tier fan, I’d like to believe little EBC is chugging away pretty independently.  From the web presence, it’s a moderately safe bet.

Moving on, these past weeks also saw a couple variations on a familiar theme: the orange and spice summer brew.  The first took an all-American approach: Buffalo Bill’s Orange Blossom Cream Ale.  First of all, between the name and bottle, this beer’s marketing is a slam-dunk.  Unfortunately, success sort of ends there.  I’ve never had a beer that so closely mimicked orange soda: super thin, super fizzy, super orangey.  To its credit, the flavor was a little more Aranciata than Sunkist, but still pretty weak for the category.

Cerveza Belga!

Next up was the Belgian take… actually, the Mexi-Belgian take: Breckenridge Brewery’s Agave Wheat.  This unfiltered Witbier hybrid was definitely in the Blue Moon camp.  Where it stood out was a body just a little bit fuller than the Orange Blossom and a refreshing tartness (almost approaching lambic-sour) that other wheat beers definitely lack.  Still, the flavor was pretty shallow and the experience didn’t go much beyond: “Mmm… orange!”.

I’ve had better stuff, for sure.  But again – sitting on a porch (or, perhaps, a lawn mower), it doesn’t take much for a beer to be transformative.  Do my standards drop in the summertime?  I don’t know, maybe.  I see it more like… on nights like these, it’s hard to get me down.

Buying the Farm

The first box of the season

I’ve written a bunch about how eerily miraculous modern produce is.  About how any day of the year, you can make a smoothie with California strawberries, Ecuadorian bananas, and Florida orange juice and not give it a second thought.  The supermarket may be convenient, but it’s also cheapened a lot of nature’s specialness.

What I’ve written about less are the alternatives to this system… I guess because they’re not as obvious.  Today, though, I’m happy to write that I just took a step towards valuing the farmer… I  joined a CSA.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  It’s basically a contract made between the farmer and the surrounding community: before the growing season starts, community members “join” the CSA (i.e. pay for a season’s worth of produce – in my case, half a year).  Paying for everything up front does a couple of good things: it prevents people like me from chickening out later on, it gives the farmer some financial reassurance in performing a not-so-profitable undertaking, and it promotes more diversified, more interesting, and healthier crops (farmers aren’t constricted to growing “what sells”).

A very untamed salad.

Still, it’s the paying up front that was the hardest part to personally overcome.  The whole thing basically comes out to $10 a week (I’m splitting a $20 box with a friend) – a figure I’d drop at Wegmans on groceries, no questions asked.  The thing is, that ten bucks looks a lot different when it’s multiplied by 23.  A lot different.  I found myself hemming and hawing about it, even when I knew it was the right thing to do.  Luckily, peer pressure won, and so did the farmer.

And so did I – my first box came last Thursday, and it was a total score: a ton of mixed greens, fresh dill, bib lettuce, chives, and the piece de resistance: tiny little wild strawberries.  I’ve never had strawberries like this before… super good.

Ridiculous

The CSA is no doubt a good thing.  I can tell you off the bat eating this produce has been much more enjoyable than the stuff I got at the supermarket.  There’s just an extra something – slightly better quality, much better perceptions – that makes everything more special.  Plus, knowing that I’m doing good is an important part of it all.  Words like sustainability and community are thrown around like crazy these days, but it really does feel gratifying to take tangible steps towards those mega-concepts.

The next step is figuring out how to make this concept more mainstream.  The ideas behind farmshares are solid – it’s their hippy-extremist perception that prevents a lot of people (like me) from reaping the benefits.  All in time.  For now, expect more updates on my CSA.  Not because I’m bragging, not because I’m trying to guilt you into joining one – because I’m legitimately excited to open my box next Thursday.

Triple B-Day BBQ

My Thai slaw

This past week was BBQ night for COME ETE.  There were three birthdays to celebrate in the class (shout out to Aiwei, JeeHoon, and Keith!), and it only seemed right to do it in Ithaca’s Stewart Park – one of the most scenic places for a cookout I’ve ever been to.  For the event, I made the Thai slaw from above (think classic coleslaw with coconut milk, red curry past, lime, cilantro, and basil).

The highlight of the night, though, was a couple of birthday cakes made by Joanna, who just happens to be a professional pastry chef.  I must admit, life is pretty good when you’re among friends, outside, eating a slice of homemade raspberry-lemon cake.

COME ETE!

Keith's tamales

Huge bonus of going to grad school for hospitality: a lot of your classmates know their way around the kitchen.  I’m talking professional chefs.  Even better, the ones that come from the other side of the planet can make stuff you’ve never even heard of before.  As you might guess, being in this kind of environment has led to just one question:  how do I convince all these people to cook for me?

The answer has been my favorite part of the year so far: COME ETE.  COME ETE (short for the Community Of MMH’ers Experiencing Enlightenment Through Eating) is basically a weekly supper club.  Anyone can come, so long as they bring a food or drink that fits with the week’s theme.  I got the idea from dinners Laura has been throwing in NYC.   The premise is simple – food is best homemade, meals are best enjoyed with friends – and the results speak for themselves.

Jess's beautiful curried corn wontons in coconut broth. Click the image to see more of her photos

To give an example of the caliber of these things, some of the dishes at the “Summertime” supper were Vietnamese fried rice, watermelon gazpacho, corn with cilantro pesto, Shaker lemon pie with homemade olive oil ice cream, and a dessert soup made from Chinese fungus.  They’re feasts to the most bizarre degree and I’m unreasonably lucky to be a part of them.

Liquor Before Beer…

Finger Lakes Distilling

Yesterday was a good day – my first tasting trip into the beautiful hills of the Fingerlakes.  The area’s known for its wine, but my crew went straight for the hard stuff at Fingerlakes Distilling.  The place is unique in that, while other distilleries focus on one specific type of alcohol,  they pump out a huge range of products.  Vodka, gin, a bunch of whiskeys, brandies, liqueurs – even grappa (they’ve gotta do something with all the grapes out front).

gotta try this

Still, the variety would be meaningless if it didn’t taste good… and it tasted great.  The two standouts were the gin (the best I’ve ever had.  Seriously)  and the cherry liqueur.  Straight up, if you like gin and live in New York go to the liquor store and find Seneca Drums.  Last year it was named Best NY Spirit at the NY Wine & Food Classic and I’m not at all surprised – it’s bright and really flavorful.  Think Hendrix but more citrusy and smoother.  Great taste.

The cherry liquor was the standout in a line of fruit liquors (we tried the cassis and blueberry, too).  While the others were really sweet and dark, this was sharp and tangy.  Not intentionally sour – more like the tart sweetness of a fresh cherry pie.  Super super good.

To make the experience that much more memorable, as we started the tasting, a huge thunderstorm erupted and the power went out.  We pretty quickly learned electricity isn’t needed to enjoy good alcohol.  In fact, it’s probably an impediment.

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Goodbye Pyramid, Hello Plate

myplate

More kudos to Michelle Obama.  Last Thursday, she (along with some pals) officially updated the country’s whack food pyramid.  And by updated, I mean completely destroyed… SPOILER ALERT: It’s no longer a pyramid!  Apparently, someone realized Americans don’t approach food triangularly.  Hence, MyPlate!

No doubt we’re off to a better start with this incarnation.  Just think about all the stimuli working to screw with how we see food.  Especially for children, who are beginning to develop lifelong paradigms, it’s important to cut through the noise of harmful messages. Without the needless abstraction of the pyramid, the plate does just that.

Still, not everyone’s happy with MyPlate.  Some attack it from a dietary standpoint, criticizing the campaign for only half-endorsing whole grains and for completely ignoring good fats. Others, aligning themselves with the Slow Food movement, complain that the plate fails to promote what’s local and seasonal.  Some are fine with the message but object to the delivery, saying that the plate functions as a logo but not as an informational chart.

I think there’s something to be said for all of these arguments.  Still, while the plate might not be perfect, it’s for sure an improvement.  Fruits and veggies get way more cred, “meat” gives way to “protein”, and we finally got rid of that awful humanoid cut-out with drill-bit appendages from the last pyramid.  Yikes.

In light of MyPlate, I wanted to show what I had for dinner through Michelle’s eyes, followed by my own.  I have to admit… I still sort of prefer my plate to MyPlate.

Hello from Ithaca!

It’s been a while since my last post, thanks to the whirlwind of this past month.  But I’ve been in Ithaca for just over 2 weeks now and I’m finally starting to find a groove.  One thing’s for sure – this year is going to be nuts.  Surrounded by awesome people, new ideas, and the very funky culture of Ithaca, I’ve got no choice but to use EatingGoodly as a dumping ground for all that’s comes my way.  Warning: it’s going to get messy.

In the meantime, here’s a little shapshot of what’s been going on these past two weeks.  Continue reading