Friday, October 28, 2011

Winter's First Log Lunch - 10/28/2011

Pre-Halloween snow is remarkable, especially when the occurrence is not merely a gentle white mist that disappears instantaneously upon impact with any hard object - the bounty that arrived yesterday came down in thick white clumps, sticky and soft to the touch. The snow's early arrival enabled a unique viewing experience - the trees still possess their vibrant fall foliage, and the white dusting coupled with the bright colors are especially symbolic of the seasonal transition. This week's Log Lunch menu items also conveyed the imminent arrival of winter - the black bean soup, and most notably, the kale and roasted vegetable salad were created with hearty ingredients that I associate with cold weather. Local Mighty Food Farm and Gammelgardens Creamery provided the top-quality produce and dairy for this week's installment.
The picturesque quality of the snow-covered brick wall outside the Log trumped any fears of my assembled plate cooling prematurely in the frigid air. Despite the detour, the black bean soup was still deliciously warm and hence satisfying for both my taste buds and my body - the liquid was pureed, but still contained sizable globs and chunks of earthy bean mass. One common characteristic of all the lunch's components was the pervasive flavor of garlic - I revel in the strong taste of this allium, and find that it is often underutilized in institutional food preparation. Thus, garlic's prevalence in this meal served as a welcome reminder of home-style eats. I adore winter salads, and this one was exquisite - the hearty kale leaves were slightly bitter and thick but also tender and delicately flavorful, providing a preview of what greens winter has to offer. The roasted root vegetables also enhanced the defining wintry quality of the salad - the carrot sticks, cauliflower heads, and onion pieces were slightly mushy and coated with olive oil and herbs, and covered with luscious browned regions from the roasting process. Again, the dressing showcased the magical powers of garlic - comprised of garlic, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a little bit of honey, the thick brown liquid united all of the salad's ingredients. The acidity of the balsamic vinegar and the strong bite of garlic "cooked" the kale ever so slightly, taming the bitter edge of the green. The bread, as always, was divinely doughy and prime for dipping purposes - the variant today was pumpkin sage, and the subtle flavors complemented the stronger tastes found in the other dishes. 
Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, the cooks began passing around trays ladened with decadent goat cheese brownies. It's difficult to do these dense chocolate squares justice, but I will do my best - they were sinfully luscious, the smooth, moist body protracted in places by melted chocolate chips. A thin goat cheese layer ran horizontally through the center of the unit, which sent me further into an ecstatic state because I have always relished the interaction between chocolate (and any other dessert item, for that matter) and cheese. The gamely flavor of goat cheese was noticeable but not overpowering, and added depth to the divinely rich chocolate base. This dessert can only be classified by its impressive decadence, which provided a sweet, substantial conclusion to winter's first Log Lunch.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Food Day Festival - 10/24/2011

 Williams College kicked off Food Day with a festival in student center Paresky. Ever reminiscent of a cozy ski lodge, Baxter Hall’s interior space was scattered with tables upon which local farmers, suppliers, and student organizations displayed food items produced in compliance with the principles of sustainable food systems. The Williams Sustainable Growers project sponsored the welcoming table, which encouraged festival attendees to endorse the Food Day principles in three different ways: a conventional petition signing, filling out a promotional postcard, and finally, a picture petition that allowed each photo subject to illustrate his or her personal goal for the Real Food Movement.

 The extensive sampling prospects sent me into a frenzy of excitement, and I observed other students similarly reveling in the natural artisan granola, handcrafted Vermont cheeses, and rich chili made with local beef, to name merely a few of the products presented by the enthusiastic vendors.
One local supplier’s carefully constructed product presentation: this particular table featured Udi’s granola, which contains only wholesome ingredients that are gently toasted and turned by hand. I sampled the cranberry and vanilla, and found that a decadent buttery flavor and a deep, satisfying crunch characterized both varieties. This table also showcased gluten-free cookies and bread – I will always be partial the elastic texture that gluten contributes to dough, yet the oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip cookies were both deliciously moist and tantalizingly sweet and flavorful. 

Maplebrook Farm, situated in the nearby mountains of Vermont, uses only pure whole milk to craft authentic Italian and Mediterranean cheese. For maximum flavor and freshness, the cheeses are made daily using only traditional, old-world methods (Maplebrook Farm informational brochure). The three variants that I sampled were the “young cheddar bite” cheese curds, the fresh mozzarella, and the whole milk feta. Each type was rich, creamy, and wholly phenomenal, yet the feta’s layered interactions of silky smooth and salty roughness catapulted it into an entirely separate realm.
Cheese curds from Maplebrook Farm

The vast selection offered by Drew's All-Natural Dressings, as served in the dining halls
While the map visually denoted the dense concentration of dairy (and non-dairy) creameries in the Williamstown area, the expanse of products at this long table provided concrete proof of the various creamy options close at hand. Indeed, these local vendors presented blueberry and plain Greek yogurt, five different types of pudding, and similar soy-based products for the lactose-intolerant. I took special interest in the pudding samples, and after careful comparison I found that my favorites were the rice and tapioca variants – although I enjoyed the smooth sweetness of the butterscotch, chocolate, and vanilla bases, I cannot deviate from the textural experience of heterogeneous mixtures. 
Local apples and apple cider, head Peace Valley farmer in the background
The edible offerings of local Ginsberg’s exemplified both the food service organization's culinary expertise and its commitment to sustainable food systems. Pictured here is “Jim Heywood’s Chili,” made with local Hudson Valley beef, onions and jalapenos. The company representative eagerly informed me that the organization pledges to use only ingredients generated within a certain radius, and the crimini and shiitake mushrooms from Catskill, NY, embodied Ginsberg's local allegiance. I relished Ginsberg’s peach melba over sticky rice – the peaches were both sweet and tender but not overly mushy, and the flavorful sauce lacked both cloying sugariness and any hint of gumminess, while the sticky rice served as necessary textured base.

Cricket Creek Farm also demonstrated its impressive cheese selection. Nestled in the Taconic foothills of Williamstown, MA, Cricket Creek Farm is a diversified, small, grass-based dairy, meat farm and bakery (Cricket Creek Farm informational brochure). I tried the soft, fresh cow’s milk cheese infused with lavender and honey – although the cheese itself was delicious, the pervasive flowery flavor was a little too cloying for my taste, and I look forward to sampling one of the savory varieties in the future. Cricket Creek Farm is currently offering a winter CSA whose foundational item is cheese, and subscribers can supplement milk, eggs, meat and bread to form an optimal combination based on personal preference.
 Gusto!, the Williams College food journal and culinary society, brought an assortment of high-quality, fair-trade chocolate, honey, and nuts for the sampling pleasure of the festival attendees. By purchasing such products, one endorses a system of food justice that holds corporations accountable for the treatment of their laborers. Beyond an endorsement of this relationship, Gusto! encourages a meticulous method of consumption that emphasizes savoring each bite, observing the complexity and depth of flavor inherent to top-notch eats. 

 The bounty displayed at this Food Day festival serves as a metaphor for the plethora of subsequent events taking place throughout the week. Yes, I have attended all of them...

(Please note that this entry was created in collaboration with Williams College Dining Services). 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Food Day Dinner - 10/24/2011

"It's time to eat real, America." Today is Food Day, an initiative that aims to bring all Americans together via nationwide events that promote “healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way” ( Williams is expanding upon Food Day and celebrating Food Week – over the next couple of days, many events will take place on campus that highlight sustainable farming practices, access to healthy and affordable eats, and food justice for producers and consumers alike. Tonight's special dinner was one such event - the delicious meal showcased the autumn bounty of various local farms. 
Once again, this dinner showcased why fall is my favorite season - the presence of squash was divinely inescapable, its exquisite texture and flavor featured in three different menu items. While the butternut squash risotto has appeared in the food line before, I never tire of the delicate rice cooked to creamy consistency in hearty vegetable stock - sticky globs conglomerate enthusiastically with the delectable orange chunks of butternut squash flesh scattered throughout the decadent mixture. I relish the butternut squash soup similarly - the smooth, vibrant puree is of the utmost earthy sweetness, with an unassuming creamy quality that does not overpower the squash's prize flavor and texture. The final squash installment was the Peace Valley Farm Kubota squash salad with cranberries and chopped chard leaves - as signified by its darker colored flesh, this squash variety had a more rich, earthy flavor than butternut squash, and the mushy chunks can only be characterized by their impressive density. The sticky orange squash fused in a delightfully oppressive fashion with the cranberry pieces and thinly sliced chard, creating a satisfying salad that appropriately concluded the squash celebration.
Peace Valley Farm contributed much of the fresh produce used in the special dinner - the saute and salad featured swiss chard and mixed greens, respectively, from the nearby grower. The green salad was particularly notable this evening - it contained fresh lettuce mixed with crunchy raw carrot rounds, juicy tomatoes, spicy red onion chunks, and crumbly feta from Maple Brook Farm, and the sizable selection of Drew's All-Natural dressings allowed fortunate diners to incorporate personal preference into the final product. Also traveling a short distance from farm to table were the local purple caribe potatoes, roasted to starchy perfection amidst a coating of olive oil, salt, and pepper. 
The flesh of the free bird roasted chicken was juicy and flavorful - the poultry's impressive tenderness can perhaps be partially attributed to the humane method used to produce the bird. Peeling the skin back yielded a delicate pearly white breast, which the brining process infused with the flavors of salt, pepper, and herbs such as rosemary - the careful preparation of this free range chicken enabled my most favorable meat experience in the dining hall thus far. This special Food Day dinner truly embodied the principles of the movement - lucky Williams diners reveled in a toothsome, healthy meal, and dining services further illustrated their awareness to the cause by using ingredients obtained from sustainable food systems. 

(This entry created in collaboration with Williams College Dining Services). 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bienvenidos a Log Lunch - 10/21/2011

Before Friday, I was alerted that Log Lunch would be Mexican themed, and not even my midterm directly following the weekly event could dampen my anticipatory spirits. The colorful chalkboard authentically welcomed diners to the food line, and acknowledged that local Mighty Food Farm, Peace Valley Farm, and Gamel Gardens provided the produce and dairy that comprised the vibrant spread. I appreciatively registered this information, but must admit that I was a little distracted - the central ingredient in both the soup and salad was butternut squash, and this realization plunged me into a state of frantic ecstasy.
The soup this week was a pinto bean, corn, and butternut squash stew, and keeping with the theme, the hearty liquid had quite a spicy kick. I am usually partial to pureed soups, yet this preparation showcased the butternut squash so I can't complain - the stewed chunks retained their shape but became divinely mushy, borrowing further earthy flavor as the juices from the other vegetables infused the delicate orange flesh. The small pinto bean and corn units added complementary firm texture to the mixture, as did the optional garnish of roasted pumpkin seeds. The chopped taco salad was jam packed with tasty ingredients, a feature that catapulted this week's rendition to the top of my mental favorites list - mixed in with the requisite fresh greens were juicy tomato chunks, crunchy green pepper pieces, corn kernels, luscious butternut squash wedges, smooth sliced avocado, spicy red onion slivers, and crushed corn tortilla chips. Diners topped this deliciously overwhelming mixture with a delicate cilantro-lime dressing - the taste of cilantro is often a bit strong for my liking, yet the ingredients in the salad all possessed aggressively distinctive flavors that effortlessly balanced the bite of the dressing. One aspect of the lunch that I was supremely disappointed with was the pumpkin cornbread - this starch had the potential to be my ultimate dream, yet was so salty that I couldn't eat my entire cube. The grainy flesh was sufficiently moist, with satisfying corn kernels scattered throughout the orange-yellow interior, yet unfortunately, an overpowering saltiness characterized every morsel.
Emilia's spicy "schwabbin' " cookies were decadently rich and buttery, leaving fingertips slick with oily chocolate residue. The thin circles were crispy around the exterior, yet warm and moist in the middle - the combination of chile and chocolate flavors provided an appropriately authentic conclusion to the Mexican feast. Log Lunch has been particularly impressive this year - both the selection and preparation of toothsome menu items makes this meal one I look forward to all week.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Unite for Sight Fundraiser Dinner - 10/19/2011

To raise awareness for global health, Mission Dining Hall put on a special dinner that will donate funds raised by student attendance to clinics in Ghana, India, and Honduras. The initiative aims to help these countries fight preventable blindness, yet student diners also reaped the benefits of this fundraiser - the prepared meal consisted of tasty ethnic dishes that served as a hands-on - or rather, mouths-on - connection to the cause.
One featured menu item was mchicha, an African spinach dish - the greens were cooked down in a peanut-coconut sauce, and the abundant amount of orange liquid rendered the final product rather soupy. Coupled with the absorbent properties of the luscious spinach, one would think this would enable intense flavor absorption, but unfortunately the tastes of peanut and coconut were far too subtle. Nevertheless, I enjoyed a generous spoonful of the soupy mixture over quinoa, the crunchy grains fusing complementarily to the wilted spinach leaves. I consumed the Honduras rice and bean mixture in tandem with the vegetarian lentil stew, and found that the combination enhanced the best qualities of both dishes - eaten alone, the rice and beans had plentiful textural variety but lacked necessary spices, and thus the juicy stew provided further earthy legume flavor. The salad was was simple yet outstanding - it consisted of only fresh greens, bite-sized pieces of lightly fried sweet potato, and hefty, asymmetric chunks of feta cheese, all coated in a rich, quasi-Caesar dressing with a twist. The combination of flavors and textures was intense yet all the components of the salad complemented each other despite their individual strength - the lettuce was supremely crunchy, the frying process left the pieces of sweet potato flesh tender on the inside yet more substantial in both flavor and texture on the exterior, and the strong salty feta provided an essential bite to each mouthful. Heartiness was the defining feature of both the lamb stew from Morocco and the chicken stew from Ghana. The primary ingredient rendered the lamb stew a little heavier, but not overly so - the stringy pieces of lamb flesh were small and tender, and the inherent gameyness was pervasive but not overpowering. In fact, I preferred the former to the chicken stew - by nature, poultry does not possess the same hearty meat flavor, and thus this dish relied on small amounts of cumin and other spices to create a toothsome experience. I would have relished more intense flavors, yet the chicken chunks were gargantuan and lacked any hint of rubberiness.
Adhering to the international theme, the night's dessert option was Tres Leches cake. I'm a sucker for any type of white cake, and moist milkiness of this variant makes it one of my favorites. Indeed, "leche" appropriately characterized every aspect of my succulent slab - the frosting was airy yet the dairy content generated a denser, more decadent topping than the standard sugary blanket, and condensed milk pockets threaded gingerly throughout the cake flesh's interior, waiting for the imminent lacing of my fork's prongs. Certainly, this benefit dinner served as both a wonderful reminder of our potential to impact global health, and a testament to the exquisite flavors embodied in ethnic cuisine. 

(This entry created in collaboration with Williams College Dining Services). 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Exuberant Elizabeth's Dinner - 10/15/2011

If you look at the Yelp page for Pittsfield's Italian-American restaurant Elizabeth's, general consensus holds that this eccentric eatery serves the best food in the Berkshires. I can't say I disagree - the prospect of dining in the cozy, intimate interior and feasting on top-quality homestyle eats had me excited for months. The nondescript building is situated next to an enormous, deserted GE power plant in the midst of the melancholic post-industrial landscape that characterizes parts of the Berkshire region, and despite the cutesy bright blue trim, the restaurant's exterior gives little indication of the culinary magic that takes place within. A George Washington quote that admonishes the destructive power of government graces the building's side, and a sign above the entranceway informs customers that IOUs are an acceptable method of payment (conversely, credit cards are not). Entering the restaurant truly feels like walking into a traditional Italian cooker's - I would use "chef," but that word doesn't seem quite right - kitchen:  fortunate diners are instantly engulfed by warmth, the pungent aromas of butter and garlic, and enthusiastic greetings from the spirited crew.
Even the menu is quirky - the description of each item not only includes a mouth watering account of what is in store, but also a spunky saying or metaphor that aptly portrays the particular dish's defining characteristic. Although I have had the good fortune of reveling in Elizabeth's exquisite food on three previous occasions, I must admit that I haven't sampled extensively from the menu - the specials are always so tantalizing that I can't resist, a trend that extended to this particular night. Regardless of the difficult entree decision, the first course is always the same - a gargantuan portion of salad, served family style and unique in its delectability.
First and foremost, the mixture includes three types of cheese - long slivers of a flavorful white variant, small cubes of biting feta, and dustings of rich parmesan. The addition of currants, bite-sized apple and potato chunks, cold roasted red peppers, and long cabbage strands makes for a salad that illustrates the spectrum of flavor and texture potential. Preparation is key in this divine mixture - all components are painstakingly chopped to the perfect size, even a single raggedly edge absent from every surface. Tossed with fresh, crunchy lettuce and coated with a tangy yet light balsamic, this salad is so good that I have to restrain myself from licking the large metal bowl - luckily, the accompanying homemade "honest bread" - heavenly grainy and doughy on the interior, with the best crunchy crusts - serves this purpose in a slightly more civilized fashion. 
The special I ordered was the Middle Eastern shepherd's pie, and the hulking scoop that was presented to me - I can only imagine how much of the kitchen the entire pie dish must occupy - was a conglomerate of delicious flavors and textures. The bottom layer consisted of tender bacon and wilted baby spinach leaves, upon which rested a generous portion of the smoothest, sweetest butternut squash puree that I have tasted yet this fall. A mixture of slightly crunchy rice kernels and vibrant chewy currants interacted enthusiastically with the luscious glob of squash. The meat component was a pork ragout of the utmost tenderness - the delicate flesh melted in your mouth, releasing savory juices and the flavors of cinnamon and Middle Eastern spices. Finally, a fresh, tart yogurt topped the impressive mass, providing a creamy complement to all the other ingredients. An unconventional entree, and I wouldn't expect anything less from Elizabeth's - all the restaurant's dishes convey the chef's flair for creating top-quality, innovative comfort food. 
Ah, the beauties of sharing arise again - Andrew ordered the other special, a variation of baked ziti. The only way to characterize this is dish is by its impressive heartiness - the perfectly cooked, homemade pasta shells were delicately coated with a sauce so rich that the waitress advertised the congealed cream on the bottom as a cornerstone of this entree. Scattered throughout were tender chunks of boar and pork meat, which interjected their flavorful juices into the sauce and absorbent pasta shells. The serving was topped with fresh mozzarella and then baked until the cheese's white flesh turned a golden brown, fusing tightly with the top shells and stray pieces of meat. Finally, parmesan dustings garnished the entire entity. I always relish large portions, yet Elizabeth's caters to eaters of astronomical appetites - when I previously finished an entire entree, I experienced delirium and heart palpitations later in the night as my body attempted to metabolize such an extensive amount of rich food - my brain easily reconciled this beyond-comatose state, however, because I have long accepted that food of this quality renders my self-control mechanism inactive. This time, I decided to extend this pleasurable consumption experience, and took a little bit of my heavenly meal home. Alas, I have yet to try dessert at Elizabeth's, and thus I sense a return trip in the future. Fortunately, the date has yet to be determined - if I could pinpoint the exact time in the future that I would again have the opportunity to revel in such culinary delight, the anticipation would render me useless until that monumental moment. 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Friday Standard - 10/14/2011

Yesterday morning bestowed upon me the most positive Tunnel City muffin experience I have had yet - indeed, a variety of factors ensured that this simple pleasure reached new heights. First, sharing muffins is always preferable because this consumption method enables sampling of two flavors. Luckily, my visiting mother takes food matters just as seriously as me, and the two of us as a "selection committee" was particularly brutal for the good-natured employees, yet ultimately produced a most satisfactory result. After such extensive debate that the barista had to remove unwanted flavors from the microwave numerous times - this was the first time Tunnel City heated the coveted treats, and the difference was extraordinary - we finally settled on classic blueberry and a specialty day old raisin walnut. 

I made sure to pick two units that embodied the utmost moistness, and coupled with the addition of microwave heating, the texture reached uncharted territory in terms of moist butteriness. Colorful blueberries buried amidst the cakey flesh yielded enthusiastically to my chomping teeth, and the junction between the juicy fruit and decadent muffin body was exquisite. The raisin walnut was similarly divine - the top of this muffin was particularly luscious, dusted with cinnamon and sugar, exploding golden raisins popping gingerly above the surface, and the chopped walnuts scattered throughout added further tantalizing oiliness.
The blustery autumn rain outside enhanced the cozy ambience of The Log, and such weather made the rich potato leek soup especially gratifying. The off-white liquid was thick and chunky, and the fusion of leeks and potatoes created a distinct and pleasurable sliminess - the rich soup absolutely coated the interior of my mouth, generously passing over flavorful warmth and hearty sustenance. No doubt, the soup could have used a bit more salt and pepper, but this lack of seasoning was easily remedied if one ate the dense liquid in tandem with chunks of pretzel - indeed, the exterior of these bread twists was adorned with glistening salt crystals that melted upon contact with heat. Per usual, the day's starch was divinely doughy, the interior flesh delicate and malleable. Large leafy greens coupled with crunchy carrot rounds, roasted onions, leek pieces, and chickpeas comprised the salad - all components were remarkably fresh and tasty, and the new addition of roasted onions and leek pieces served as a reminder of winter's approach.
I must admit, I did not sample the candied apples, blanketed with rich chopped nuts. Although they provided a colorful photo opportunity and looked both deliciously crunchy and gooey, sure to coat your fingers with sticky sweet caramel residue, I am so partial to baked goods that I easily abstained from this fruity dessert. Once again, my Friday muffin and Log Lunch experience began the upward trajectory that continued throughout this Williams weekend. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Driscoll Goes Gourmet - 10/13/2011

After thoroughly checking all the dining hall menus, I noticed that Driscoll's Thursday night repertoire boasted "gourmet" seasonal items: acorn squash from Peace Valley farm, mushroom risotto, and most notably, pumpkin bread budding. We arrived at the dining hall, ravenous from a workout in the brisk fall air, and I must admit I was underwhelmed by the spread - however, a few key dishes ultimately made the dining experience worthwhile.
The butternut squash and pumpkin ravioli was one of such meal components - previously unadvertised, it occupied the "marche" station, and I had the good fortune of checking this separate area and snagging one of the night's final plates before the devastating switch to spinach and feta filling. The noodle exterior was pleasantly chewy and not overcooked, and units were sufficiently stuffed with creamy pumpkin and squash puree and a generous portion of ricotta cheese. The texture of the stuffed pasta squares was excellent, yet the interior pockets could have used more flavor - the taste of pumpkin and squash was overridden by the strong, albeit toothsome, tomato sauce flavor.
Most disappointing was the creamy wild mushroom risotto - usually, the dining hall creates rich risotto that has a most satisfying gummy quality, and diners excitedly struggle to detach the decadent globs that stick to the serving spoon. On this occasion, however, the dish was lacking its signature creaminess - the rice pieces were not bound together by a thick, flavorful stock, and instead sat dryly on my place as separate entities. Moreover, minimal large mushroom chunks were spread throughout, while a multitude of small, succulent pieces would have better enabled maximum flavor transfusion. Unfortunately, both the blackened chicken breast and the roasted eggplant napolean were remarkably bland - the chicken flesh was dry and rubbery, and the absence of the advertised avocado-corn aioli was noticeable. The roasted eggplant had good texture, yet the dish was devoid of any flavorful Italian herbs - I love eggplant, but its inherently mild taste demands seasoning. Peace Valley farm's acorn squash, however, was deliciously sweet and earthy - the baking process rendered the exterior flesh a little bit gray and dry so I was initially dubious, yet after breaking though this coating I was relieved to find that the meaty interior was vibrant, moist, and flavorful. Local maple syrup glazed the surface, and provided a satisfyingly sticky portrayal of the region's culinary wealth.
The pumpkin bread pudding reminded me more of pumpkin pie filling than the traditional textural interaction of divine smooth filling and saturated bread chunks I usually associate with this dessert. However, the bread aspect ensured that it wasn't as quite creamy as pumpkin pie filling, and thus the dessert body could be characterized purely by its impressive moistness and the pervasive flavors of cinnamon and all-spice. Topped with whipped cream, each luscious bite provided the welcome reminder that Thanksgiving is right around the corner. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Muffin & Meatless Mondays - 10/10/2011

Neighboring North Adams is home to Brewhaha Cafe, a muffin supplier I had yet to try before Monday morning. The cafe's baked goods had accumulated a stockpile of rave reviews from my foodie teammates, and thus Andrew and I again embarked on a muffin run not 12 hours after our Mezze feast.
Brewhaha Cafe has the ambience of the classic breakfast joint - tattered paraphernalia adorns the walls, and views into the kitchen allow eager customers to gaze longing at the pan of home fries - and the shop boasts an impressive variety of muffins. One could make a selection from the standard berry flavors, a multitude of bran variants, seasonal and classic favorites, and even a unit that included irish whiskey. Naturally, I choose the pumpkin chip, and it was positively divine - heated to order, the muffin flesh was unrivaled in its moistness, the melting white chocolate chips and luscious pumpkin material creating gooey deposits throughout the interior. Somehow, this decadent breakfast still felt light and some ingredient - perhaps cornmeal - gave the muffin body additional texture beyond the silky, succulent orange dough. I happened to glance back as the genius baker was putting a batch in the oven, and could barely resist the gluttonous temptation of a second, fresh treat.

Coincidentally, I had the privilege of volunteering at Peace Valley Farm on the Monday morning of Driscoll’s weekly “meatless” initiative – how appropriate, given that the dining halls routinely prepare dishes that use produce from this local farm. In the first installment of this “farm to table” adventure, I relished the idyllic fall setting as we assisted the farm owner with preparations for winter’s imminent onset. 
Flash forward to Monday evening, Driscoll dining hall. The aroma of autumn vegetables wafts tantalizingly up the stairs as I eagerly await a coveted position at the food line’s crest. The first dish to greet me was the roasted corn and sweet potato hash – made with vegetables from local Pioneer Valley Farm, the sweet squash flesh coupled with slightly crunchy corn kernels provided the earthy taste of fall, satisfying textural contrast, and an exuberant color combination. The presence of butternut squash pizza sent me into a spiral of ecstasy – the crust was doughy yet delicate, and the vibrant orange topping can only be characterized by its impressive sweetness, further complemented by the garnishing touch of rosemary dust. As I approached the tomato and cheese salad, the day’s events came full circle – indeed, the juicy heirloom tomatoes came from none other than Peace Valley Farm, and nearby Maple Brook Farm contributed fresh mozzarella, hulking cubes of robust cheese flavor. 
Some of the dinner’s ingredients can be characterized as beyond-local: the Williams Student Garden provided collards, which were tossed with garlic sauce and sweet caramelized onions to create toothsome greens dish of strong, savory flavor. Also notable was the hot artichoke and spinach dip, accompanied by baked pita triangles – the dip was deliciously creamy, with generous particles and deposits of hearty green matter, and the wheat pita served as an “edible spoon,” crunchy around the edges yet warm and squishy towards the unit’s interior. Per usual, the salad bar provided an expansive fresh selection – standouts included the curried cauliflower and the bean-and-pasta mixture. The pervasive flavor of cumin coupled with the cauliflower’s unique tree-like composition creates an interesting fusion of texture and flavor. The cold combination of grainy whole-wheat pasta, hearty black beans, red pepper and cucumber chunks, and diced parsley is distinctly refreshing, a mixture that embodies the last of summer’s side salads. A month of Meatless Mondays has displayed the Williams student body is receptive to the message and goals of this initiative—or, we are comprised of appreciative eaters who take pleasure in a quality vegetarian meal.

(Please note that the latter portion of this entry that describes Peace Valley Farm and Meatless Mondays was created in collaboration with Williams College Dining Services).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mezze & Other Quality Eats - 10/9/2011

It had been far less than 12 hours since our Caseus feast, yet Andrew and I found ourselves at nearby Lulu's coffee shop for breakfast cappuccinos and baked goods. Since I am aspiring to consume as many muffins as my budget and waistline allow, I pounced on the opportunity to sample one from an unproven source. When the barista described the bran muffin as "moister than one would expect," I knew this would be my selection. Indeed, the dryness factor usually deters me from the bran variety, but this particular unit was dense and succulent, and most notably, not as sweet as my usual breakfast treats. Although lacking in rich distinct taste, the muffin's texture coupled with its subtle flavor enabled optimal coffee saturation.
Before we were done with breakfast, brainstorming for the next meal had already begun - we settled on paninis, and meandered over to the family owned deli next door to snag a few essential items. This stop provided freshly sliced provolone and cracked pepper turkey, to which we added vine ripened tomato slices, fragrant pesto spread, and roasted red peppers. For some reason, the grilling process always brings out a distinguishable flavor - the fusion of the bread, pesto, and cheese catalyzes a certain sweetness.
The highlight of the day's eating extravaganza was our dinner at Mezze Bistro and Bar, a Williamstown restaurant that embodies "California cuisine" from this side of the country - the contemporary menu showcases fresh, seasonal ingredients from local farmers and suppliers.
Following some quality seasonal beers, we began our meal with mac and cheese - somehow, I found myself craving this rich dish even after the previous evening's cheese fest - and the chopped salad. The creamy pasta was certainly heavy, but not overly so - the pasta was remarkably tender, and the cheese sauce evaded any gumminess, delicately coating each unit with an eruption of flavor. The breadcrumbs and tiny ham cubes contributed invaluably to the toothsome quality of the dish by providing both alternate texture and infusions of rich flavor. The ingredients in the chopped salad displayed the wealth of the season: the greens included kale, and the apple, blue cheese, and pickled red onion chunks amidst a balsamic vinaigrette ensured that this spicy mixture could not be classified as a light summer salad.

Our entrees similarly portrayed the bounty of fall. We ordered the butternut squash cavatelli, and the delicate pasta coupled with small, delightfully mushy pieces of vibrant squash flesh and fried sage, brussel sprout tops, and brown butter revered the autumn harvest with each delectable bite. The lamb kielbasa is made on the premises, and the flesh was remarkably tender and juicy without being too gamey. It was served au jus with cooked down onion slivers and potato chunks, which eagerly soaked up the lamb liquid and fused delightfully with the hearty accompanying mustard.
Apple desserts occupy the primary position at this time of year, and thus we concluded our meal with the local gala apple galette topped with buttermilk gelato. The little unit provided an appropriate conclusion to our seasonal feast - the fresh fruit united with cinnamon, a delicate flaky crust, and cold sweet cream  provided a simple yet satisfying end to the day's culinary pleasures.

Caseus Round Two - 10/8/2011

Reading Period gave me the opportunity to visit Andrew in Hew Haven again, and naturally our top priority was dining at Caseus Fromagerie & Bistro again. Our 9:15 reservation speaks to the restaurant's popularity - the cozy interior can barely accommodate the eager diners attracted by the guarantee of top notch eats. Hence, anticipation built steadily throughout the evening and finally, the climactic moment arrived as we were escorted to the exact same table - indeed, we were about to embark on a similar journey of unrivaled pleasurable consumption.
Again, we began with the Chouffe triple IPA "HOUSE SPECIAL!!!!" beer, served in a champagne bottle and correctly advertised as perfect for parties of two - its hoppy fruitiness creates a combination of remarkable complexity. Caseus is both a restaurant and a cheese shop, and thus there was no question about whether or not the special cheese board would make its way into our order. We started with this decadent spread in our previous meal as well, and thus looked forward to sampling another four carefully selected cheeses. The first was a goat's milk whose rich, gamey flavor went exceptionally well with the accompanying soft, warm cranberry almond bread triangles. The board also included an Italian sheep's milk cheese that was initially mild, yet had a distinguishable salty taste that lasted well beyond the bite's conclusion. Between each nibble - we carefully constructed tiny bites, trying different combinations of bread and cheese varieties - we cleansed our palettes with cured marcona almonds. For something a little closer to home, the board offered a sharp cheddar from Vermont - it seems that this type of cheese is the region's pride and joy, and for good reason. Its strong bite was best complemented by the buttery herb crackers. The final selection was a "rogue blue" from Oregon - its deliciously overpowering smoky flavor provided utmost satisfaction when the cheese was layered with the homemade berry-plum jam atop thin crisps of plain baguette.
Caseus' Saturday special is listed as simply "grill," and the night's item to undergo this delightful preparation was ribeye steak. I was already salivating by the time the waitress finished her preliminary description - the cut was to be cooked medium rare in a delicate marinade, and served with a butternut squash, pomegranate seed, and arugula salad dressed with maple vinaigrette. Two large triangles of blue cheese contributed a rich finishing touch. Beautiful grill marks riddled the steak's exterior, and the meat was sinfully tender and juicy, yielding easily to my knife and teeth. The flavorful salad contributed a light freshness to the dish - this was imperative, as I often combined the other two components for a bite of incomparable decadence.
Since we didn't have enough meat and cheese in our meal, Andrew and I concluded our dinner with a coppa, burrata, and arugula "salad." Coppa is a cured meat that comes from the muscle directly behind a pig's head, and the thin slices had a hearty, salty meat flavor that presented a complex bite when coupled with the slightly bitter baby arugula. The fresh burrata cheese was divinely smooth and creamy - topped with olive oil drizzles and a generous amount of salt and pepper, we sliced off luscious globs and paired them with sweet, crunchy plum pieces. The cheese portion was so delectably gargantuan that we ordered more cranberry walnut bread, the warm succulent pieces perfect for smearing of excess cheese.
We were both rapidly approaching a pleasantly comatose state, yet the eating orgy would not be complete without a hefty slab of caramel pecan pie topped with caramel drizzles and whipped cream, and coffee - decaf, as it was already 11:15. All aspects of the dessert can be characterized by their impressive density - even the whipped cream had scrumptiously substantial weight, and the caramel and pecan pieces were packed so tightly our forks could barely cut through the pie's interior and thick, buttery bottom crust. Thus, the dessert was phenomenal - the subtle burnt flavor of the homemade caramel and the robust pecan chunks coupled with sips of potent coffee made every bite an otherworldly experience. The day's final customers, we left the restaurant brimming with warmth, exuberance, and unparalleled satisfaction.