New-Style American Cheeses

We were in Troy over the weekend and stopped in at Pioneer, the new food co-op. Even though the cheese counter is not that extensive so far, they do stock some interesting artisanal American selections. Besides, the friendly man working there is quite knowledgeable and has steered us toward some very decent cheeses, like the three we purchased Saturday. These are part of what seems to be a new trend, I’m happy to report, that follows in the European style of cheese-making.

The first one we tried came from Twig Farm in West Cornwall, Vermont, just south of Middlebury, near the New York border. It’s an organic, semi-soft, washed rind cheese made from raw goat’s milk or a goat/cow combination. The man at Pioneer said it would soon become one of our favorites and he’s probably right about that. When we tasted it in the store, it was a bit cool and so the flavors didn’t really come out until after it warmed in the mouth. This is the reason that at home one should store these kinds of cheeses outside the refrigerator, like they do in Europe. Warning: this is not your typical mild American cheese; it has a full-bodied, almost grassy taste.

Next up was a Western Massachusetts Berkshire Blue, a gold medal winner at the 16th World Cheese Awards in London. The fact that this cheese has won national and international prizes and that it is available in places as far away as California is an indication that they have a superior product. Just the look of the yellowish base with veins running through it lets you know that this is not your ordinary blue. Made from unpasteurized Jersey cow’s milk, it is pungent yet quite mild when compared to others of the same type. Not too salty, either, which can sometimes be a problem with Roquefort, for example.

Finally we tried another product of Vermont, this one from Scholten Family Farms in the town of Weybridge, north of Middlebury. Patty, the cheese maker, studied at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese; the fact that there is such a place points to the rising interest in developing new cheeses. Hallelujah! The small medallion-shaped white rind cheese is along the lines of a less creamy Camembert or Brie. It’s made from the pasteurized milk of Dutch Belted cows. (Anyone who drives the Mass. Pike from time to time has probably noticed this unusual breed which has a wide white stripe around the middle.)

Speaking of which, a few weeks ago our new friend at the Pioneer cheese counter also suggested a delicious Camembert produced by the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company,
right here in the Hudson Valley. A very rich and creamy sheep’s milk cheese, it was awarded a prize in 2000 by the American Cheese Society. No surprise there!

These chesses are a bit pricey compared to the plastic-wrapped, industrially-produced cheeses found in the supermarket. But if you’re willing to try them, I feel sure that in no time, with a lovely glass of red wine, you’ll be enjoying them yourself. Cheers!

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Area Supermarkets

One of the biggest happenings this past summer in the Capital Region was, believe it or not, the Grand Opening of a new supermarket. That’s right; everyone turned out in Latham on August 18th to find out what The Fresh Market was all about. I know because I was there, too! Apparently the managers were stunned at the numbers of folks lined up that Wednesday; they had never seen anything like it before. (Little did they know that the same thing occurred when Wal-Mart and Krispy Kreme came to town.) Hmmm, what does that say about our area? In this case, I suppose our community was thankful that a beautifully landscaped gourmet food market had finally come to a half-abandoned industrial plot right at the intersection of Routes 9 and 155.

Anyway, the medium-sized supermarket is well-laid out and attractive, but the prices are ridiculously marked up. Just the week before at my usual grocery store I had purchased an identical two-pound bag of mussels in the same blue netting for $2.00 less. A small can of chipotles in adobo sauce was 70 cents higher at the new store! But, on the bright side, you can get things at The Fresh Market that are hard to come by anywhere else: lamb shanks, for example, as well as frisée lettuce, harissa sauce, small imported olives, and fresh croissants. One time recently, we were buying fish and noticed lovely slices of smoked salmon which were delicious on bagels the next morning. There are also some pretty tasty barbecued spare ribs in their prepared food section. Since it’s only minutes from our house and because we don’t want that piece of land to revert to what it was before, we’ll continue to patronize the place at least for specialty items.

Normally I go to Price Chopper. It’s a decent grocery store with good prices (as their name says!) and I think that having The Fresh Market as competition has actually forced them to up their game. All of a sudden I see things like ground lamb in the meat cooler and crème fraîche at the cheese counter. The other big thing that Price Chopper has going for it is the 10 cents off a gallon of gas patrons get for every $50 they spend, a real draw in these times, of course. In fact, I’m surprised the gas deal hasn’t driven its other big competitor, Hannaford, out of business around here.

The other new market in town is Pioneer, otherwise known as the Troy Food Co-op. After years of waiting, we members were so happy a few weeks ago when the store finally opened. It is nicely laid out with large aisles. We’ve been especially impressed with their local meats, like pork chops, which have no hormones. Pioneer also has a cheese counter that was supposed to rival Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op, but it has a long way to go in that department. There are some good local cheeses, but very few offerings from abroad. Cashiers told us to use the “suggestion box” to get the managers to order what we’re looking for. So, we’ll see what comes of that…

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Casual Dining Our Way

Our readers must know by now that we are undeniably and unapologetically snobs when it comes to cuisine. For the most part we’d rather stay home and try out online recipes or those in some of our many cookbooks than eat inferior food. A new favorite, too, is to use the ideas suggested by Jacques Pépin in his PBS series, Fast Food My Way, or on his website. That does not mean, however, that we don’t enjoy an occasional burger or taco from a fast food restaurant. Au contraire! It’s just that we wouldn’t be caught dead (and never alive!) in a place like Taco Bell; don’t the ads make the food look bad? There are small, ethnic restaurants in and around the Capital District that we like: Bros. Tacos downtown Albany has fresh, homemade tortillas and very tasty carne asada and fish tacos; Pancho Villa’s in the Catskills makes a terrific salsa and has a wide variety of Mexican dishes from mole to quesadillas. We have even tried national chains such as Moe’s and Chipotle. Our verdict: Moe’s sauces are passable, but that’s the extent of it; Chipotle, with its use of fresh ingredients, is not bad at all for a franchise.

A local restaurant we've recently discovered is run by a garrulous go-getter named Tex. Pig Pit Barbecue is definitely worth the trip, either for eat-in or take-out. Situated right at the northern end of I-787 in Cohoes, the place has a lengthy, diverse menu which includes barbecue, Mexican, and southern dishes. (Tex is true to his motto “Put some south in your mouth”!) Their homemade brisket is luscious, smoky and moist. The sides that we chose like the fried okra and cole slaw (or was it the potato salad?) need some work in our opinion. We did enjoy the spicy Cajun beans, though, and will go back and give it another try. [Word to the wise, this restaurant is NOT located on Washington Ave. like this site says; don't make our mistake. Better to call for directions.]

One long-time favorite which I could never overlook is a superb Vietnamese restaurant on Central Avenue in Albany. Just a little better than a hole in the wall, Van's can in no way be called “fast food” because of the service. If you are patient, however, the food is inexpensive and definitely worth the wait. We have been fans since the early days at another location and continue to go to Van’s on a regular basis. Nothing is better than their huge beef pho soup (for $7.00) on a cold night. Other dishes we really enjoy include the vegetarian pancake, the hot and sour pineapple tofu soup (trust me, this is great!), and beef with rice noodles. Truly, there is hardly any way to go wrong here.

For readers who enjoy a bit more upscale casual dining experience, DP Brasserie on Chapel Street in downtown Albany may fill the bill. DP himself is Dominick Purnomo, the son of Yono who owns a fancier place at the same address. The brasserie menu has everything from burgers to crab cakes plus a few international offerings, including Indonesian specialties of their heritage. About a week ago we tried DP for the first time and were favorably impressed. I started out having a very delicious Chicken Satay, followed by vegetarian Stir Fried Noodles with cabbage, celery, and onions which were also very good. Husband thought that his mussels in white wine, butter, and garlic sauce were excellent. The only suggestion I made to the waitress is that they should serve actual bread instead of the unique, but limiting pretzel balls with mustard; she said that Yono’s has bread and that next time we should simply ask for it.

So, there you have some ideas for fast and not-so-fast casual dining in upstate New York.

Two Upstate Bistros

Planning to spend the whole summer celebrating our wedding anniversary was such a good idea in so many ways! Not only did we travel and discover new places, but we also enjoyed a variety of taste experiences worth noting. In mid-July we took off toward the west on route 20 for three days in the Finger Lakes. After having lunch beside the lake in pretty Cazenovia, we arrived at our destination: Skaneateles (pronounced, believe it or not, “skinny atlas”)! We’ll remember the clear waters of the lake, shopping and walking down the streets of the cute town, and visiting the surrounding vineyards. One of our best memories of all, however, is the meal we had at Joelle’s French Bistro.

Located in a charming farmhouse north of town on State Street, the bistro is run by two former residents of New York City who chose to ditch the rat race for a calmer life upstate. The Moroccan-born Joelle and her French husband have created a lovely ambience with cuisine to match. Our first decision was whether to eat out on the patio or inside. A kind of compromise was reached: to peruse the menu out back and then to move in for dinner. Then the most difficult choices began …what to have from a list of delicious-sounding appetizers and entrées. The offerings of the first course were varied and many were oh, so tempting: frogs legs, onion soup, a warm goat-cheese croquette. Finally, my husband picked the country pâté and I went for the beef carpaccio which turned out to be a huge serving of deliciously raw beef, the best I’ve ever had. The only other diners inside that night were two couples at a neighboring table who had ordered another one of my favorites: escargots à la bourguignonne. When we told them how great the aroma was from their appetizer, they insisted that we use our bread to try the leftover sauce. Outstanding! There were the typical elements…butter, garlic, and parsley, but the chef had added some fresh basil which brightened the sauce, giving it a slight anise taste. Next time we’re there I’ll definitely have the snails. For my main dish I had originally ordered the veal tagine, but had to settle for chicken since they were out of veal. While my entrée was good, my husband’s vegetable couscous was really delicious and, as we like to say, a true test of the kitchen. All of that topped off with champagne and crème brûlée for dessert—what could be better?

Interestingly enough, we no longer have to leave the Capital District to get a really good meal. A strip mall in our town recently saw the opening of The Epicurean Bistro and Wine Bar, a branch of a restaurant in Troy. After reading a stellar review in the newspaper, we headed over there one evening in August. For a first course, I must admit that I was quite attracted to the salade au crottin de chèvre, a warm goat cheese salad. Yet, after our experience at Joelle’s, there was no way I was going to pass up the escargots that night, especially when Pastis butter was the basis for the sauce. Although the sauce for the snails at The Epicurean was good, it didn’t quite measure up to the one in Skaneateles. Husband, who has hardly ever encountered a dish of entrails that he could pass up, had to have the special that night: pan-fried brains. (I kid you not!) His evaluation: they could have been more crispy and the sauce was a tad too garlicky for his taste. For his main course, my husband continued his peculiar ways, having the calf’s liver, which he really enjoyed and even I have to admit it wasn’t bad. I went for the more conventional steak/frites, which compared favorably to the dish I'd had at Tree in Manhattan. It was especially fun speaking French with the Parisian-born chef Dominique Brialy. Bon appétit, everyone!

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