CT Food and Wine Festival

Amy writes: Last Saturday afternoon, Chris took the train into NYC for a bachelor party, and since I had no other plans, I decided to head out to the CT Wine and Food Festival at The Hartford Club. The event promised food, wine, and celebrity chefs and the proceeds went to the Arthritis Foundation, so it seemed like a good time in the name of a good cause.  I attended the afternoon Grand Tasting, which ran from noon to 4. My friend Jolie graciously agreed to drop me off, and her husband would pick me up after the UCONN game got out, so I could taste as many wines as I could without worrying about driving home.

Upon entering, I was handed a program and a wine glass. Good start. There were two levels, and I decided to browse downstairs first. The newly released Beaujolais Nouveau by Georges Duboeuf was the first thing I tried. Not a great year for that one, I'm afraid to say. I regret buying a bottle on Thursday night without tasting it first. Oh well, moving on. Next, a shot of moonshine made by Onyx Spirits right in my town Manchester! Smooth and tasty, like a good vodka. That would be yummy with some apple cider! Another couple of tastings (Barefoot Pinot Noir - not bad for the price, and couple of reds made by Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards from the Finger Lakes - a little sweet for my taste), and then a visit to the Caseus (from New Haven, CT) cheese table. Wine and cheese. Yummmm... Also downstairs were some vendors of wine-themed gifts, lots of beer offerings from such brewers as Harpoon and Otter Creek, and a corner of cigar sellers.

Vowing to take another browse through that area before I left, I headed upstairs. Upstairs was a sea of wine bottles, and the "island" in the middle of this sea was the celebrity chef demonstration area. I would be spending a few hours here, so I settled in. The wines up here were definitely more my taste; in fact, I had tasted many of them before. Still, three of the most noteworthy wines I tried that day include: Palegetto Syrah "Una di Quattro" 2004 - a rich, jammy Italian syrah poured by Angellini Wines; Museum Real Reserva 2005 - an intense, spicy, velvety Spanish tempranillo; and best of all, the Fulcrum Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2010, poured by the vintner himself, and friendly and enthusiastic wine lover who is definitely doing something right (more about that particular wine when Chris and I open the bottle I purchased).


I got the perfect spot from which to view several cooking demonstrations, which was the best part of the day for me. First, Chef Aaron McCargo, Jr., season four winner of the Food Network's Next Food Network Star and star of Big Daddy's House, taught us how to make a seared tilapia with a sauce that included herbs, lemon juice and anchovies (plate pictured above). Chef was funny and engaging, and offered several of us ladies a taste of the delicious dish. I loved it so much that I had to get a signed copy of his book!

Next, I tried a dish made by Executive Chef Christopher Kube of the Hartford Club, the swanky spot where the event was held. That dish was pumpkin soup with a crostini of goat cheese and cranberries. It was perfect timing, really - as I was sipping the soup "shot" the chef took the stage to demo how to make it. So fun!


Chef Joe "JJ" Johnson was up next. This guy has wit, personality and the innate ability to teach while cooking, so he was a joy to watch. He made a beautiful calamari dish that unfortunately I did not try, but it sure looked gorgeous!


Finally, Mike Elder, three-time winner of TLC's Ultimate Cake Off showed off his finishing touches on the wine-barrel cake he made for the event. Such artistic talent! And he seems like a cool guy who really loves doing what he does.


All in all it was a great day. I met some fun people, hob-nobbed with celebrity chefs, and tasted some great wines. But I do have two pretty major criticisms. First, there was barely any food and frankly, when you have all that wine, beer and liquor to taste, you need something to nosh on. Second, several of the celebrities featured on the website were no-shows including Chefs Kevin Cottle (of Hell's Kitchen fame), Noel Jones (ON20), and Hunter Morton (of Max Downtown). When you pay a good deal of money for an event, you expect it to live up to what was advertised and sadly, that was not entirely the case. Since it's the first time for this event, I can only hope next year's planners will consider adding some food and ensuring all the chefs show up. Anyway, check out some more pictures of the festival from the pros at the Hartford Courant here; that's my hand digging into the plate in picture #27!


Happy Thanksgiving! Some Favorite Thanksgiving Recipes

Amy writes:
Life has been unusually crazy. School is, in a word, overwhelming. Winter Storm Alfred put a wrench into the normal flow of life and we still haven't quite recovered from that. Chris is in Florida this week, invited to watch the launch of the Mars Rover and attend an educators' conference at NASA. My mother hosts Thanksgiving and I'm headed there Thursday afternoon. All of which means, I'm pretty much not cooking this year. Still, I wanted to write a post, so... This post features some of my favorite fall recipes that I think would be fabulous for the Thanksgiving table. Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!!! I'm thankful for you, our readers!

Favorite Turkey Recipe:
Although most people would expect me to say "Fried!!!" but I actually prefer the results of dry brining. Moist and tender turkey with a wonderfully crispy skin, plus all the parts cook evenly. To me, that's turkey success! Next time we make this, we'll take a better picture, promise!

Favorite Side Dish:
This year, Mom asked me to bring our award-winning (runners up in the 2010 Sweet Potato Bloggers Contest) individual Sweet Potato and Pancetta Gratins, which she has never tried. These are delicious, not only as a fall side dish but even for breakfast or brunch. Chris has been known to build an egg sandwich around them as well. A definite favorite, and what says "Thanksgiving" better than the sweet potato?

Favorite Stuffing:
A modern twist on Grandma's classic bread stuffing, we love this stuffing we created with panettone. It has a great mix of sweet and savory flavors, and an added bonus is that it's made in the slow cooker so you have more room in your oven and on your stove-top for the rest of your dishes!

Favorite Gravy:
Gravy, in some form, makes an appearance at everyone's Thanksgiving right? This gravy is easy and delicious, and goes really well with turkey. We were finalists in the 2010 Food 52 "Your Favorite Gravy" Contest with this one; they created it in their test kitchen and there is a great photo of it there). It's a winner in our book!

Favorite Bread/Roll:
Why have a plain old dinner roll when you can have light, cheesy, airy gougeres? Picking a seasonal cheese like maple-smoked gouda takes them to a whole new level and adds a classic French touch to the meal.

Favorite Dessert:
Personally, I'm an apple pie girl. And I use refrigerated crust. Baking disasters are my specialty, so on holidays and special occasions, I tend to focus on everything but the baking and ask other people to bring dessert. That said, I make one or two apple pies every fall, and this one is my usual go-to recipe. Do as I say and not as I do...use those crust protectors!

Favorite Ways to Use Leftovers:
Chris is a big fan of making our own stocks. Stocks vary widely in flavor because of the number of variables involved, but this one was one of our favorites, with its deep brown color and rich turkey taste. We used it as the basis for both pot pie and soup, and froze the rest. Don't throw that carcass away! Make stock! It's easy!

I'm not sure Jacques or Julia would call this a cassoulet per se; I know Bourdain certainly would not. Nonetheless, cassoulet is one of my favorite foods and while this recipe certainly needs work, it was a decent first try. Hearty and filling, it can barely be called a "leftover" meal. (photo by Joanne)



Secret Recipe Club: Gingerbread Coffee

Today is “reveal day” for our group of the Secret Recipe Club, created by Amanda of Amanda's Cookin'. The club has grown so quickly that Amanda has had to create four different SRC groups, and we are in Group C. Each month, the participants are assigned a blog to try a recipe from, but the bloggers don't know who has their blog until reveal day (which is today!). It's really fun both to try other foodies' recipes and to see what they do with your own.

Our November assignment was The Avid Appetite, written by food lover Rachel, who has tons of great recipes on her blog, from savory to sweet. One that really caught our eye was the recipe for making gingerbread coffee syrup. Rather than paying ridiculous prices for specialty coffee drinks, Rachel offers ideas on how to make them at home. This particular one was calling our name as we enter the chilly holiday season. We know it will be great for Thanksgiving morning when we're out with the rest of the neighborhood watching the Manchester Road Race (in its 75th year!).

Take molasses

Add brown sugar, spices and water and let it become syrup

Not being fans of sugar substitutes, the only "substitute" we made to Rachel's recipe was to use real brown sugar rather than Splenda. Sweet, warm and full of gingerbread spiciness, this coffee reminded us of the coziness of the holidays, and is one we'll make again and again.

Gingerbread Coffee

3 tablespoons molasses
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
coffee, prepared the way you like it                                                        

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine molasses, brown sugar, waer, cinnamon and ginger. Continue cooking, stirring often, until mixture thickens and has a syrupy consistency, about five minutes. Meanwhile, prepare hot (or iced!) coffee the way you like it. Add two tablespoons of gingerbread syrup to coffee, stir well and enjoy by a warm fire.


Glazed Pork Belly with Baked Eggs: Breakfast, Upgraded to Dinner

For our second attempt at pork belly, we were inspired by Cooking Channel's television show "Everyday Exotic" with Chef Roger Mooking. For each episode, Mooking chooses his "obedient ingredient" and creates three or four dishes highlighting that ingredient. You can find the recipes on the show's website. However, when we made this dish, we were living without Internet in the aftermath of Winter Storm Alfred, so our recipe is adapted from the show. 

Pork belly, from which bacon and pancetta are made, is inherently tough, fatty and salty. The ultimate goal is to get the fat rendered into the meat which will make it tender and flavorful. This takes several steps (blanching, simmering, searing, roasting), but the result is definitely worth the effort.

We started the process, as Mooking did, by cutting the pork belly into 1-inch pieces and blanching them in boiling water for about 10 minutes. While the meat was blanching, we made a pickling liquid out of brown sugar, salt, whole cloves, whole peppercorns and apple cider vinegar. We brought half of this liquid to a low boil and simmered the pork belly pieces in it for a half hour. The other half of the pickling liquid we reduced to use as a glaze for finishing the pork belly.

After removing the pork belly from the pickling liquid, we patted it dry with paper towels and seared it on all sides in a very hot cast iron pan. During this time, we prepared our baked eggs for cooking. We then put the pan with the pork belly into the oven along with a cookie sheet on which the dishes with our about-to-be-baked eggs rested. We let everything bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees.

We made some toast. The timer rang. We drizzled the pork belly into the glaze and plated the dish. We dipped the toast into the creamy baked eggs then bit into the salty sweet smoky crispy glazed pork belly. Oh yeah. This is definitely bacon-and-egg-breakfast upgraded to dinner. Awesome.

Glazed Pork Belly

1 pound pork belly, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 cups water
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 dozen whole cloves
1 dozen whole peppercorns
3/4 cup brown sugar

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanch the pork belly cubes in it for about 10 minutes. In the meantime, make a pickling liquid by mixing the 4 cups of water with the remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Bring half of the pickling liquid to a boil. Remove the pork belly using from the blanching water using a slotted spoon or skimmer and place it in the boiling pickling liquid. Allow to simmer in the pickling liquid for 30 minutes.  Remove the pork belly with a slotted spoon or skimmer and pat dry with a paper towel. Heat a cast iron skillet to very hot and sear the pork belly on all sides. Set oven to 400 degrees and place entire cast iron skillet, with pork belly, into the oven; roast for 15 minutes. Place the unused pickling liquid in a saucepan and heat to high; boil until reduced to a 3 or 4 syrupy tablespoons. After removing pork belly from oven, glaze with this "pickling syrup" and serve.


Divine Treasures Chocolates, Manchester CT

Sometimes you find the most exquisite "treasures" right under your nose. Or at least down the street. That was the case with Divine Treasures Chocolates, a shop specializing in Belgian chocolates, located right here in Manchester, Connecticut (and available online for the rest of you).
"Agave Orange Meets Walnuts" -
sweet chewy orange peel with crunchy walnut pieces

We wandered in after running errands one recent afternoon, and we sure are glad we did. We met and had a delicious chat with chocolatier Diane, whose pride in her fine quality products was clear from the get-go. Diane informed us that she inherited her love of chocolate, as well as some of her recipes from her Canadian-French memere, and then studied in Belgium to learn technique. She uses organic ingredients (including sweeteners) whenever possible, only the highest quality dark chocolate, and dried fruits and nuts from a local supplier.

"Egyptian Jewel" -
a truffle of chocolate ganache, roasted cardamom,
nutmeg, cinnamon and orange peel

The "factory store," located in the Manchester Parkade Plaza, consists of a wide storefront with two cases full of a variety of chocolates; one case is entirely sugar free. Each chocolate is prettier than the next, made with many different shapes and molds. All are labelled with mouth-watering descriptions of the ingredients, so you can find exactly what you're looking for, or be tempted by the offerings. The flavor combinations are sophisticated as well as delicious.

"Hot and Smokey Caramel" -
dark-chocolate coated buttery caramel
with the spicy kick of chili pepper
and the smoky saltiness of smoked sea salt

We tried a dozen different chocolates and not one was a disappointment. Half-way through nibbling, we thought we ought to take a few pictures of some of our absolute favorites. Thank goodness we bought some doubles!

"Ginger Explosion" -
a truffle with candied ginger
roasted in cayenne pepper and cinnamon

Behind the storefront is the factory where Diane concocts and packages her creations. Her hand-made organic chocolates are gluten-free and vegan, and made without cholesterol, trans fat, corn syrup, or refined sugar. And they are some of the best chocolates we have ever had - and that includes chocolates from France and Belgium. This chocolate shop truly is a "treasure." We will be back, again and again and again!

We don't know the name of this one,
 but it was a caramel with subtle vanilla and lavender flavors.


Delectible Dim Sum from Winsor Dim Sum Cafe, Boston

Both of us spent at least part of our college years in Boston, but in very different parts of the city. While Amy studied classical languages on the tree-lined campus of Boston College in Chestnut Hill, a swanky suburb, Chris spent his days walking the city streets at urban-set Northeastern. Amy secretly longed to venture into Chinatown to taste dim sum on a Saturday afternoon but never dared; it was on the border of what was still referred to as the "Combat Zone" and "too dangerous" for a college co-ed. That area of the city was where Chris felt most at home. So maybe opposites attract after all.

Steamed Pork and Peanuts Dumpling -
Soft, elastic dough wrapped around minced pork,
boiled peanuts and vegetables.
A nice variety of textures and flavors.

The Combat Zone is no more. Like New York's famed 42nd Street, this area of Boston has been scrubbed and dusted. It's not uncommon to see vacationing families walking down Kneeland for inexpensive souvenirs or a taste of the exotic. We saw plenty walk past as we stopped at a place more popular with the locals than the tourists - Winsor Dim Sum Cafe on Tyler Street.

Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf Packets -
Sticky white rice with bits of roast pork
steamed inside lotus leaf for smoky flavor.

This narrow second-floor eatery was packed with diners (a good sign!) but the wait was minimal, about 10 minutes. Rather than the typical dim sum set-up (food carts being wheeled past tables), Winsor does dim sum and other Chinese specialties to order.

Easy ordering via check-list.

As we sat, we were given a laminated menu with about 40 pictures, a two-page listing of each of those items as well as a few additional offerings, and a red pen. Soon after, we were served a pot of steaming jasmine tea, and we settled in to make our choices.

Chicken Feet with Black Bean Sauce -
Most likely braised, then fried, these had a gummy
but tender consistency and
sweet flavor.

If you read the first paragraph above, you probably won't be surprised to find that Chris's choices were, shall we say, more adventurous than Amy's. We'll let you guess who chose what. 

Deep Fried Shrimp Rolls -
A crisp wrapper surrounding a delicately poached shrimp
with fresh, crunchy celery in the middle.

This is fresh, hot, authentic dim sum served in a cozy setting by a friendly and welcoming staff. Bonus? Each order is a mere $3.15, and most orders include 3 to 5 pieces, making for an awesome yet cheap lunch in the city.

Baked Roast Pork Buns (served only on weekends) -
A particular favorite, with smoky-sweet
Chinese barbecued pork stuffed inside
steamed sweet bread.