Sunday, August 16, 2009

Open House

open house invite fig. a: invitation

Sometime back in late June, we were part of a crack team of entertainers that had been enlisted to throw a summer bash commemorating a year in the Catskills. And, oh, what a year! In just 12 months, the M.H. Merchant Stone House had been restored, refurbished, and revitalized, local friendships had been cultivated, and roots (both literal and figurative) had been sunk deep in the ground. Not surprisingly, given this flurry of activity, The Caretakers were in a celebrating mood. We were thrilled to be invited to the festivities, and seriously honored to be asked to help represent.

So, bright and early, one fine Friday morning, we packed the AEB Mobile Unit full of barbecue gear and hit the road. We'd proposed a homestyle barbecue spread for the festivities, and The Caretakers liked our vision. The proposed menu looked something like this:

2 x 10-12 lb pork shoulders, applewood-smoked and pulled
Down East Baked Beans
Smokehouse Potato Salad
Tidewater Cole slaw
Poor man's caviar
Sweet tea
White Chocolate Cake & Strawberries

If many of these selections look familiar, there's a reason for that.

The next day, Saturday, was Party Day. When we'd arrived the day before, we'd hit the ground running, so a lot of our prep was already taken care of. On our last visit, Michelle and I had gathered a whole bunch of apple wood from the yard, so we had plenty of sweet-smelling fuel too.

fruitwood fig. b: fruitwood 4 smoking

When I fired up the barbecue, it was still overcast, and threatening rain, and with all the rain they'd had over the last 4-5 weeks, the forest out back was bright, bright green.

greenery fig. c: green forest, blue smoke

One of the last things we prepped was the sweet tea. We made a lot of tea, but it sure didn't look like it because the dispenser we were using could have held enough for the whole Russian Army.

iced tea fig. d: sweet tea

With all the prep work done, all the arrangements taken care of, it was time to wash up and make ourselves presentable for our guests.

v fig. e: bathtime

About an hour before the guests showed up, with the shoulders still smoking away, I made a sign to advertise some of our offerings.

bbq fig. f: what'll you have?

I spent hours tending the barbecue, but with my beers, my ballcap, my baseball glove and baseball, and my barbecue, not to mention the two most perfect shoulders I've ever seen, I was pretty much in hog heaven. Plus, I had a nice turntable to keep me company. These Caretakers had seriously thought of everything.

turntable fig. g: bbq hi-fi

Minutes before the action got underway, with the shoulders nearing the moment of truth, Michelle and I took the time to have commemorative portraits taken.

m & a fig. h: m & a

How did things turn out? The party was a huge hit, and, miracle of miracles, even though we'd had a number of downpours that very day, one of which was torrential, the skies cleared up right as the guests began to appear, the sun began to shine, and the evening was a perfect summer evening, with hundreds of fireflies dancing in the meadow, and thousands of stars in the sky. Our barbecue menu went over big--that combination of fruitwood and slow & low cooking made for the most succulent pulled pork and some sensationally smoky ribs--and we ended up making exactly the right amount of food: just enough to keep the midnight snackers occupied. But the real stars were the M.H. Merchant Stone House, its grounds, and its Caretakers. Everything was perfect, and--the true test!--the party soon took on a life of its own. Many of the guests had driven 2-3 hours from New York City and New Jersey to attend, and everyone seemed positively thrilled that they'd made the excursion.

A lot of people had heard that "a famous pastry chef" was part of the catering team, so there's no question that Michelle's dessert was eagerly anticipated. This being essentially a barbecue meal, she'd decided to go with a dessert that was more homespun. She'd settled on a simple, even foolproof, white cake whose tanginess (from the combination of buttermilk and white chocolate) makes for an ideal complement to fresh strawberries, and which she'd recently made a central part of her raspberry/pistachio dessert at Laloux. Strawberries were good and plentiful at the time, and Michelle envisioned following up the barbecue with something of a small-scale strawberry social. Now, if you live in Quebec, you might have noticed that the fraises d'automne are available now--if you've never tried them before, they're amazing, oftentimes even better than our summer strawberries, and this cake really lets them shine.

quebec strawberries fig. i: quebec strawberries

White Chocolate Cake with Strawberries

2 c. flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
3 oz white chocolate, melted
1 1/2 sticks butter, soft
1 1/2 C sugar
4 yolks
1 tsp vanilla
1 C buttermilk
4 egg whites
1/4 C sugar

fresh strawberries, stemmed and quartered
lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350˚F.

Toss your strawberries with sugar and lemon juice to taste. Allow them to macerate while you make the cake.

Mix the dry ingredients together. Set aside. Cream the butter and first count of sugar together until light and fluffy. Add yolks one at a time, and scrape down the sides. Mix well. Add vanilla and melted white chocolate. Add buttermilk and dry ingredients alternately in 4 batches, ending with buttermilk. Set aside. Make a meringue with the whites and last count of sugar. Fold into the cake batter. Pour into a half-sheet pan (12” x 17”) lined with a silpat or parchment paper. Bake 15-20 min. Unmold when still warm.

Dress with some of your strawberries and enjoy.

[based on a recipe from Sherry Yard’s Desserts by the Yard]

The next day we celebrated the success of our celebration at a local swimming hole.

water baby fig. j: water baby

And later that day we paid what's become a mandatory visit to Clare and Carl's on our way back to Montreal.

texas red hots fig. k: clare & carl's

A half an hour later, on the other side of Plattsburgh, and with those ominous clouds now gone, we put the finishing touches on the weekend with a cone at another favorite of ours, Harrigan's Soft Ice Cream.

harrigans soft ice cream fig. l: harrigan's

Clare & Carl's, 4727 State Route 9, Plattsburgh, (518) 561-1163

Harrigan's Soft Ice Cream, 1247 State Route 3, West Plattsburgh, (518) 561-8110


p.s. This post dedicated to the memory of Chico, who had the best personality, and the softest paws.

chico fig. m: sleepytime

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Mountain High

Our exhaustive study has proven incontrovertibly that not only does climbing Vermont's Camel's Hump mountain (a.k.a. Saddle Mountain, le Lion Couchant, and the Camel's Rump) have benefits that are both physical and spiritual, but making your way to the top of its 4,083-ft height has the effect of heightening the sensitivity of one's taste buds, making Vermont's already impressive range of delicacies that much more delicious.

Before we present our findings, you should know that the Camel's Hump is Vermont's third highest peak, but that it's #1 when it comes to undeveloped (or relatively undeveloped) peaks--meaning no ski hills, no radio towers, etc. Its summit sits above the tree line and consists of a delicate balance of rock formations and alpine vegetation. It also affords a glorious 360º view of the region. Not surprisingly, the Camel's Hump is one of Vermont's most beloved state parks.

Scramble your way to the top, stare eastward over the precipice, and the view looks something like this:

green mountains fig. a: due east

Put on your sunglasses, gaze westward toward Lake Champlain and the Champlain Valley, and the view looks something like this:

view courtesy of vuarnet fig. b: due west

Lay your weary bones down, bask in the bright sunlight, and stare up into the sky and the view might just look like this:

michelle in the sky with clouds fig. c: due up

Crouch down and take a close look at the surface of the Camel's Hump and, if you chose the right spot, the view would look like this:

alpine flora fig. d: due down

Return to Red Hen

You know how we feel about Red Hen. We were so impressed when we visited Red Hen back in April that we wrote about them twice: here and here. This time we stopped in en route to the Camel's Hump. We were hoping to pick up some of Nutty Steph's granola for the trail at the same time, but it was a Monday, and Nutty Steph's was closed. Red Hen was open, though, and we took full advantage of their offerings: coffee, a couple of loaves of bread, a couple of sandwiches, and several pastries. The pastries--including one of their awesome ham & cheese croissants, an apple & ginger scone, and a plum & cheese Danish that Michelle promptly announced was "the Danish of [her] dreams"--were what we conducted our tests with. We had a couple of bites in the parking lot near the base of the Camel's Hump, then had the rest once we'd reached the summit. No doubt about it: flavors that were already complex and extremely satisfying became exponentially so at the top of the Camel's Hump. Remarkable!

Return to the Alchemist

You also know how we feel about The Alchemist. Our visit back in April was our craft beer highlight of 2009. Until now, that is.

This time we weren't 100% scientific--we didn't dare try the "before" and "after" thing, and we didn't haul any growlers to the summit to celebrate our triumphant ascent. We just paid a visit in the late afternoon, after we'd gone to the mountain (literally) and worked up a mean thirst. That said, as we settled into our bar stools and began quaffing our first pints, we both had the same impression. We both love our beer, but beer had rarely, if ever, tasted this good. Particularly refreshing on this particular post-hike evening was their Celia Framboise, the most satisfying fruit beer either of us has tasted outside of Belgium. Outstanding!

7149 fig. e: signpost

The Green Cup

Even less scientific, but no less enjoyable, was the test we conducted in Waitsfield. We were thrilled to be back in Waitsfield, and excited to be trying out somewhere new, but the fact that we'd never been to this particular establishment before meant that we couldn't fully gauge the effects of hiking the Camel's Hump on our dining experience.

We first heard about The Green Cup back in April when we visited our friends at Hen of the Wood. We had a particularly excellent server that night--she was knowledgeable, even passionate about her wines, she fielded all our silly, nitpicky questions with grace and charm, and she was happy to discuss Vermont's farm, dairy, and dining scenes at length with us. She gave us a number of tips that night, but the one that really stuck with us was The Green Cup, a tiny café/restaurant in Waitsfield that she claimed had one of the best kitchens in the state. In fact, she told us that Eric, the chef at Hen of the Wood, had had the very finest meal he'd ever had in Vermont at The Green Cup. Given our experience at Hen of the Wood, this struck us as high praise. I'm sure we would have gone the very next day if they hadn't been closed for their Spring Break.

It took us a few months to make our way back to Waitsfield and The Green Cup, but it was definitely worth the trip. Get this:

Rhode Island Squid and Elephant Trunk Sea Scallops with grapefruit, red onion, celery, lemon, and basil

Cornucopia Farm Skirt Steak Salad with lemongrass, cilantro, red onion, avocado, lime, mint, and leaf greens

Seared Arctic Char with Chanterelles three ways (tempura, raw, and roasted), green beans, and white grits

Homemade Fettucini with poached artichokes, a medley of mushrooms, browned garlic, and sweet basil

Again, I'm not sure if it was the effects of all that mountain air, but our meal at The Green Cup was nearly flawless. We loved Chef Jason Gulisano's intricate, perfectly balanced compositions and, quite frankly, Michelle just about lost it when she had that Vietnamese-inspired skirt steak salad. She couldn't have been happier.

The only thing that didn't totally blow us away was the carrot cake we had for dessert,* but according to Mark Bittman, we should have ordered the coconut cake. If only we'd known then...

So, there you go: hike well, eat well.


p.s. Full disclosure: Michelle was a little sore for two to three days after our visit to the Camel's Hump (yet another effect of our hike!), but all that good food and drink made any and all suffering sufferable.

* Then again, by that time it was several hours after our hike.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

3 out of 4 ain't bad

Actually, according to the Gazette's own scale, it's "very good."

gazette scan fig. a: latest review

Team Laloux continues to be on a roll. The latest coup came just this weekend: a very warm, very positive 3 out of 4 review from Lesley Chesterman in this weekend's Montreal Gazette. And, once again, Michelle and her desserts were singled out for particular praise:

Laloux's desserts hit a high under [Patrice] Demers, and that high continues under pastry chef Michelle Marek, who used to work as Demers's assistant. Marek has kept Demers's signature chocolate pot de crème on the menu, but the rest of the sweets are all hers, and are they ever good.

I like that her style is more simple than her predecessor's, and her buttermilk pannacotta with poached rhubarb and ginger scones is a testament to the fact that less is more. Her white chocolate cake with raspberries, pistachios and spiced frozen yogourt was so good that I could only steal one bite from my friend before he inhaled the rest.

If you want to get the full lowdown (which includes some rather fetching photographs of a few of Laloux's latest gourmandises), take a gander here.

And if you choose to visit Michelle and the rest of Team Laloux, you should know that her current lineup also includes a positively stellar apricot cream tartlet with a candied orange & hazelnut nougat glacé and a lavender caramel, as well as my personal favorite, an almond cake with cherries macerated in kirsch, candied almonds, almond granita, chamomile cream, and a cherry sorbet.

Go team!

Laloux, 250 avenue des Pins E., (514) 287-9127


Monday, August 03, 2009

Field notes: NB/PEI/QC

cabot beach fig. a: early morning, Cabot Beach

Does the thought of Atlantic beaches, red cliffs, lookout towers, lighthouses, and countless shades of green appeal to you?

cabot beach pp 1 fig. b: late afternoon, Cabot Beach

What about copious amounts of oysters, lobster, scallops, mussels, haddock, and cod?

If the answer to both of these questions is an enthusiastic "Yes!," you're not the only one.

THE picture province fig. c: "free tour map"

I recently had the opportunity to head out to New Brunswick--"THE 'Picture Province'"--on business, and I managed to extend the trip by a couple of days so that I could continue east towards the Northumberland Strait, the Atlantic Ocean, and the bounty of "The Garden Province," Prince Edward Island. This enhanced road trip was inspired in no small measure by a recent feature by our friend Melissa at The Traveler's Lunchbox, who, when she hasn't been busy making cheeseand butter, has apparently been making coast-to-coast trips from Seattle to Prince Edward Island. Melissa's PEI post is quite a bit more extensive than this one, and her photographs are endlessly more pro. Consider the following a series of stray field notes that just might encourage some of you who haven't been to the Atlantic Provinces (or some of you who haven't been in ages, like Michelle) to do so.

Fredericton, NB

Should you find yourself in Fredericton on a Saturday morning, you might very well want to make your way to this handsome building.

ww boyce york county market fig. d: W.W. Boyce York County Market

You see, every Saturday this building plays home to the W.W. Boyce Farmers' Market, a.k.a. the Fredericton Farmers' Market, and it's a dandy.

You'll find bakers, butchers, fish mongers, cheese mongers, and a wide assortment of other vendors (from sausages to samosas), alongside real, honest-to-goodness New Brunswick farmers, but my favorite stand was a stand that was run by a Mennonite family,

farmers' market, fredericton, NB fig. e: "taste the difference!"

where I found my first perfect raspberries of the season, as well as some truly phenomenal maple syrup.

Sackville, NB

Sometime back in the 1990s, Michelle spent a summer in Sackville, home to Mount Allison University, the 2008 Cultural Capital of Canada, and the self-proclaimed Cultural Crossroads of the Maritimes, and it evidently left quite the impression on her. It may have been a short chapter, but it's a chapter from her life that comes up again and again. So when I found myself passing right by Sackville en route to PEI, I decided I had to pay a pilgrimage.

I called Michelle when I got to downtown Sackville and asked her where she used to hang out, and she just said, "The diner! You've gotta go to the diner!"

mel's tearoom fig. f: Mel's

"You mean, Mel's Tea Room?"

"Yeah, that's the one."

So I did.

After all, Mel's is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Plus, with a sign like that, how could I resist?

Prince Edward Island

I liked Prince Edward Island from the moment its coastline came into view as I crossed the massive Confederation Bridge. In addition to the physical beauty of its landscape, there was the physical beauty of its mermaids to behold.

maritime mermaid fig. g: mermaid, sandwich

And everywhere I looked there were signs that fresh seafood was readily at hand.

flex mussels fig. h: Flex Mussels' mussels

By now this is practically a cliché, but when in Charlottetown, the locally raised, locally harvested mussels at Flex Mussels are not to be missed. I'd been wanting to check out Flex Mussels for a while, ever since I heard that John Bil, oysterman extraordinaire and former member of Team Joe Beef, had been enlisted to help get Flex Mussels NYC off the ground (for some reason, not only did this tidbit of information have me wanting to visit the NY operation, it had me wanting to visit the original, too). Flex Mussels Charlottetown was a little more swish than I was expecting (I'd always imagined something more along the lines of Go Fish), but the mussels were plump and fresh and very reasonably priced, and with the sun shining brightly and a steaming bowl of mollusks before me, I couldn't have been happier.

Hours later, I was looking out at the open waters of the Atlantic from Cabot Beach.

cabot beach pp fig. i: early evening, Cabot Beach

Cabot Beach Provincial Park offers an awfully nice stretch of coastline, but it also has the advantage of being directly adjacent to Malpeque, PEI and the Malpeque Bay region. When you buy a Malpeque oyster in the Montreal region, there's a high likelihood that the oyster bed that it came from was nowhere near Malpeque Bay (Malpeque is something of an umbrella term for PEI oysters, just as Caraquet is something of an umbrella term for New Brunswick oysters), but if you go to Malpeque you can be sure that you'll find plenty of oysters.

malpeque fig. j: Malpeque harbour 1

Fishing is Malpeque's bread and butter. Cabot Beach brings in a fair number of tourists, but the focus here is on oysters, lobsters, mussels, and fish.

malpeque fig. k: Malpeque harbour 2

There are a number of fish markets and seafood restaurants in the region, but my favorite was the appropriately named Malpeque Oyster Barn.

malpeque oyster barn fig. l: Malpeque Oyster Barn

Their oysters on the half shell were supremely fresh and expertly shucked, but the show-stealers ended up being their delicate, savoury fried oysters, made with more freshly shucked choice oysters and a light batter with plenty of herbs.

highland storm fig. m: Highland storm

As you drive across PEI, you see potato patches, potato fields, and potato farms pretty much everywhere you go. Occasionally (like on Day 2 of my visit), you see them with big dark storm clouds looming overhead.

new potatoes fig. n: new potatoes

If you pay attention, you'll also see plenty of roadside stands advertising NEW POTATOES, many of them operating on the honor system,

ornamentation fig. o: shells, trap

and some of them decorated with shells.

Should you find yourself in PEI during the height of summer, my advice to you is to pick up a bag (or two, or three...)

pei potatoes 1 fig. p: PEI potatoes 1

and bring it home.

pei potatoes 2 fig. q: PEI potatoes 2

These little jewels are easily the best potatoes either of us have had in a long while: lovely flavor, perfect texture.

landmark café fig. r: Landmark Café

Should you find yourself in Victoria-by-the-Sea, I, like Melissa before me, highly recommend the Landmark Café. Not only does its dining room bear a striking resemblance to ours here at AEB HQ, but they have a great little menu that's seasonal and PEI-proud, and they serve an awfully satisfying lobster roll.

Islet-sur-Mer, QC

casse-croûte fig. s: sign of the times

On the western edge of Islet-sur-Mer, QC, on the scenic Hwy 132, sits the Casse-Croûte Islet, a.k.a. the Casse-Croûte des Érables, a.k.a. Casse-Croûte INSERT NUMBER OF YEARS IN OPERATION HERE. When I first started going, the sign out front read "37." Now it reads "46." More importantly, it's a real, old-time roadside casse-croûte (outdoor seating only), it's been owned and operated by the same woman for 46 years (!), and their toastés, hamburgers, and fries rank a 5/5 on my personal roadfood scale.

They're so good, in fact, that whenever I head out east, I make a point of stopping on the way out and on the way back.

Be Prepared

Oh, yeah. And if you drive to New Brunswick, PEI, and/or Eastern Quebec, bring a cooler. I returned with several pounds of mussels and oysters, some smoked cod, and a bag of potatoes, and a couple of hours later Michelle and I were sitting down to yet another seafood feast.

W.W. Boyce Farmers' Market, 665 George St., Fredericton, NB--Note: Saturdays only, 6:00 am - 1:00 pm

Mel's Tea Room, 17 Bridge St., Sackville, NB, (506) 536-1251

Flex Mussels, 2 Lower Water St., Charlottetown, PEI, (902) 569-0200

Malpeque Oyster Barn, Malpeque, PEI, (902) 836-4322--Note: only open July 1 to September 1

Landmark Café, 12 Main St., Victoria-by-the-Sea, PEI, (902) 658-2286

Casse-Croûte Islet, Hwy 132, Islet-sur-Mer, QC--Note: only open from May through September