Monday, July 20, 2009

Dipping Into the Finger Lakes



I just returned from a relaxing, low-key culinary vacation touring the Finger Lakes’ country of western New York State. It’s a great place to take a break from urban hustle and bustle, yet still have easy access to interesting wines, and occasionally, interesting food.

The scenery is remarkably varied—from colorful harbors, expanses of water, and beautiful rolling farmland to vineyards, quaint towns the locals call “villages,” and a spectacular deep, rugged gorge in Watkins Glen. The set of ten vaguely finger-shaped lakes are not only the dominant geographical feature in the region, but the north-south routes up and down their lengths form the easy to explore wine trails and are perfect backdrop for numerous picturesque inns, restaurants, and historic “gingerbread-style” homes.

Almost all the lakes boast a vineyard or two, and the three largest, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga, are home to dozens. (The Finger Lakes wineries number over a hundred.) Though usually much smaller and humbler than those in more famous, more chic Napa Valley, most wineries have public tasting rooms and knowledgeable, friendly staffs, and there are many more tasting opportunities than can possibly be explored in even several months. Perhaps because the wine region spreads across a fairly large area, the traffic was relatively light and driving hassle-free.

The signature grape in the region is the Riesling (all the viniferous vines are grafted onto hardier native American grape stock), and for white wine fans, there are numerous fine selections to try. Good reds are harder to find, though about half of the two cases we came home with were in fact reds (including an appealing Dr. Konstantin Frank 2006 Cabernet and 2007 Lemburger, and a Ravines Wine Cellars 2007 Pinot Noir).

Great dining experiences also seemed hard to come by, although there were plenty of places that served a satisfactory, if not memorable, meal. Our dinner at the petal pink Pleasant Valley Inn outside Hammondsport was enjoyable; the one at the grandly appointed Esperana Mansion near Penn-Yan was not. Stop there for a glass of wine, the ambience, and the gorgeous view of Keuka Lake (shown at the very top left), but, trust me, skip the food!

I’ll be posting some more pics and some specific not-to-be-missed points of interest shortly, so check back again soon.
P.S.
In response to my observation that finding good restaurants in the area is difficult, a Finger Lake food pro I know sent along the following suggestions: Suzanne's and Stone Cat Restaurants on Senaca Lake. Cayuga Lake--Aurora Inn and Boat Yard (Ithaca). Keuka Lake--Snug Harbor, Italian Bistro (Hammondsport). Skaneateles Lake--Rosalie's Cucina (Phil Romano, founder) and Mirabeau. Thanks for the tips, Pat. I will try some of these spots on my next trip.
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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Good Time, Pleasant Wine, Pretty Town


If you are heading for Niagara Falls, here's my advice: Take your passport, cross over the bridge into Cananda, and after stopping to admire the falls a bit, follow the scenic Niagara river road north to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Bordered by Lake Ontario on the north and the Niagara river on the east, this busy, prosperous town boasts inviting botiques, colorful flowers and charming hotels and restaurants. Everywhere you’ll see reminders of Canada’s long-time ties with Britain—numerous streets and places named for British royalty; red double-decker tour buses; and shops selling tea services, Scottish tartans, and such.

You'll also discover that Ontario has a flourishing wine industry, so plan to stop in for tastings at some of the wineries on the outskirts of town. Or try some of the wines offered on local menus. I've found that the whites are usually the best bests.

If you’re looking for a fine dining experience (and have the necessary budget) try the restaurant at the venerable Charles Inn (209 Queen St., 905-468-4588). The ambiance and service are excellent, and the Continental-style food top quality, if a bit predictable. Or, for more creative, eclectic fare, try the Stone Road Grille (238 Mary St., 905-468-3474). It’s tucked in a fairly seedy strip shopping center, but once you’re inside, the lively, bistro look and feel will quickly win you over. The presentation is fresh and modern, and the flavors bright. We found the portions perfectly adequate, though some have complained that they are too small.
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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Summertime is Time to Celebrate the Banana Split


One of the nation's most famous sundaes, the banana split, has been on the American scene since right after the turn of the 20th century. The other ice cream shop star from that era is the hot fudge sundae; my recipe for hot fudge sauce is here.

Several years ago I researched the quirky, interesting (and fairly complex) history of the banana split for a story published in the National Public Radio "Kitchen Windows" column. To check it out, go to www.npr.org and search on Nancy Baggett.

Most sundae experts (yes, there are some) think that the banana split was created in 1904, by David Strickler, a Latrobe, Pennsylvania, pharmacy clerk. This is disputed by some, but nobody has come up with proof that the banana sundae existed earlier than that.

Soda fountain history buffs point out that the banana split caught on fast, because by the 1920s there were a whole set of banana sundae variations being served in sweet shops. Plus, along with the hot fudge sundae, the banana split is one of the few soda fountain era treats that is still on menus in ice cream parlors today.

 Exactly why the banana split became top banana in a soda fountain era that spanned more than a hundred years (the 1840s to 1950s) and that spawned literally thousands of goodies is open to speculation. Some think it’s the razzle-dazzle colors and variety of flavors--the standard toppings that go with the usual hot fudge,  are strawberry and pineapple sauce, both presented below.  All together the three lend pizazz and something taste-wise for everybody. Plus, the sundae is large and impressive enough to fit the modern trend toward super-sizing. 

 Some experts point to the fact that the banana, a very popular fruit, gets the top billing. Remember though, that for a classic banana split, the fruit must be cut “stem to stern;” cut it crosswise and sundae aficionados will insist that you've created a banana royale.

Pineapple Sundae Sauce

 Fresh, ripe pineapple makes a spectacular sundae sauce, and if you buy a cored, ready-to-use pineapple or chunks, it can be put together quickly. (If fresh pineapple is unavailable, canned juice-packed tidbits will work, too.) Another secret to the intense fruit flavor is incorporating some undiluted frozen pineapple juice concentrate.
 2 teaspoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons sugar, or more to taste
 2/3 cup frozen (thawed) pineapple juice concentrate (unreconstituted),
 3 tablespoons orange juice or water
2 1/2 cups diced (1/3-inch pieces) fresh pineapple
 or 2 1/2 cups well-drained, juice-packed pineapple tidbits (about 1 20-ounce can)

 Whisk together the cornstarch and 3 tablespoons sugar in a medium, non-reactive saucepan. Slowly whisk in the pineapple juice concentrate, then the orange juice until the mixture is free of lumps. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, whisking. Adjust the heat so the mixture boils gently and cook, whisking constantly, just until the liquid thickens slightly and turns clear. Stir in the chopped pineapple (or tidbits). Continue cooking, stirring, until the mixture returns to a boil. Gently boil, stirring, for 1 1/2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and thoroughly stir in up to 2 more tablespoons granulated sugar until dissolved. Refrigerate the sauce in a non-reactive storage container until chilled, at least 1 hour, before serving. The sauce keeps, refrigerated, for up to 5 days. Stir before using. Best served lightly chilled. Makes about 2 cups sundae sauce.

Strawberry Sundae Sauce

 This sauce is always colorful and wonderfully fragrant. For very sweet strawberries, use the minimum amount of sugar; for very tart ones, use a little more. 
About 2 to 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
 2 teaspoons cornstarch
 1/4 cup strawberry jam blended with 1/3 cup hot water
 Generous 3 cups chopped fresh, ripe strawberries

 In a heavy, medium non-reactive saucepan whisk together the sugar and cornstarch until well blended. Whisk in the jam-water mixture until smooth. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat, stirring. Continuing to stir, cook until the mixture just thickens and clears, about 2 minutes. Stir in the strawberries and cook 30 seconds longer. Refrigerate in a non-reactive airtight storage container at least 1 1/2 hours, and up to 5 days. Stir briefly before using. Makes about 2 1/3 cups sauce.

The hot fudge sauce recipe is posted here.

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