About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Dog Days of Connecticut - Hot-Doggin' it, day 3 (part 7)

 July 30 2011, Day three (and four)of  "The Great 2011 CT Hot Dog Tour"  continued...
 (go back to part 6)
Salem Valley Ice Cream
Having eaten up (so to speak) much of our extra time before needing to head up to Beltane Farm by the unscheduled clam shack stop, and in light of the growing traffic situation along the scenic coast road we had planned to take, we re-evaluated the situation.  Cynthia found the perfect solution... another near-by food stop!
Salem Valley Ice Cream is often described as one of Connecticut's very best but their location (in Salem of all places) had never been convenient to our travels.  Fortunately us, Cynthia discovered that they also have an outlet right in Niantic, just a few blocks from where we were.
So we navigated our way to the Gumdrops and Lollipops Ice Cream and Candy Shoppe
We eventually located the little ice cream window off to one side of the main building.
After studying the menu, and confirming that they, indeed sold only Salem Valley Ice Cream (for some reason that fact was not promoted or otherwise to be found anywhere there), we ordered.
Cynthia was overjoyed to have finally found a place that served Orange Pineapple ice cream and ordered a small cone.  I couldn't make up my mind and so enlisted the help over the phone of Kathryn way back in AZ.  Despite it being just 9am for her there (still a bit before ice-cream time), she was very helpful and we eventually decided on a small cone of Ginger ice cream for me.
My indecision and conference calling time turned out to be strategically positive events because after Cynthia got her cone the designated scooper-girl inside apparently changed.  Mine cone was almost twice the size of hers!  At least C&J were good sports helping me finish it
My Rating: 8 out of 10.  My ginger cone was really quite good with a nice peppery ginger punch.  C was less than thrilled with hers (part I'm sure because it was so scrimpy) and none of us thought it was as good as the ice cream we'd had yesterday at Wentworth's.
Beltane Farm
Having now completely used up our extra time, we hit the road, traveling via the most direct route we could find. to Beltane Farm. 
The navigating was superb and we pulled into the farm driveway with 2 minutes to spare before our appointment.  As it turned out, we needn't have hurried.
This farm, like all the others we had visited, was absolutely gorgeous.  Lush green pastures, picturesque barns, majestic trees, bucolic animals.
After some exploring around and a lot of hollering, I finally located a young man working in one of the barns. I introduced myself and told him I had a 1pm appointment with Paul.  He said Paul had gone to the dump but should be back soon.  Paul had not mentioned our visit to him but he did not seem surprised at that or the fact that he was not here.
So we wandered around for a while, checking out the cute little tasting house, visiting with some of the animals, eventually just sitting the shade to wait. We noticed that there were a lot of nice little sitting areas, and hammocks and such and I wondered if they were there for visitors.  I can remember the last time I kicked back in a hammock - the dairy business just isn't very conducive to lazy afternoon naps.

Paul arrived about 30 minutes later and seemed, at first, puzzled by our presence.  I jogged his memory a bit and he quickly turned quite gracious and invited us to sit at a shady table and chat for a while.  We exchanged general descriptions of our operations but then he had to take off for a few minutes to help a worker get ready for a farmers market he was he heading to.  We played with the cat.
Soon Paul returned and we talked more about his set-up.  He is currently milking 12 goats.  Apparently it is his partner-farm, Oak Leaf Dairy, about 9miles up the road, that is the more intense commercial operation milking about 100 does.  Never the less, Paul says he keeps very busy, despite having about 6 other workers at this location.
Paul then offered the tour and off we all went.  We started with the tasting house and then did a short walking tour of some of the grounds as he moved a few cows to a different pasture. 
Most of the time Paul was the very picture of the laid-back farmer (I could easily imagine a blade of grass languidly rolling around his mouth as he talked).  He would pull at his bare chest hairs absent-mindedly as he spoke, and pause to slowly scratch an itch as he considered an answer to a question.
Then there was the other Paul.  Every once in a while there would be a spark as he told a story or discussed a common situation (especially when talking about regulators and the like).  A twinkle would come to his eyes and he would become animated for a few minutes before the mood would subside again.  He switched quickly and often between topics over the course of the tour, from cheese to goats, from milk to markets, from regulators to pricing, from history to future plans.
We then moved inside and toured some of the cheese-making facilities including the milking parlor, milk room, cheese room,  aging "cave", and finished product storage areas.

He then took us outside again and back to see some of the goats.  They looked very contented and relaxed (kind of like Paul, come to think of it).

A well-weather man drove up in an old truck while we were speaking to Paul and began pumping liquid from a large plastic tank next to the dairy barn into another one in his truck.  Paul introduced us to his "pig man" who carts off his whey in exchange for some pork form time to time. I'm embarrassed that I didn't catch his name or that of his farm, but he was a fascinating character.
His current project is the development, through breeding, of a very specific type of hog that would be used in the production of an all-American Spanish-style dry-cured ham.  This ham, he said, brings upwards of $200 a lb in Spain and he is hoping, within about 5 years, to have perfected the animals and partnered with a company to do the processing.  Look for it soon in a specialty foods store near you!
As we wrapped up our visit with Paul I asked if he had some cheeses we could buy.  I told him that Kathryn would never forgive me if I came home from a goat cheese diary empty-handed (and bringing home a goat was out of the question!). He took me in the back, handed me several pieces and refused when I reached for my wallet. Thanks Paul!
Paul's operation and his approach to his dairy and his animals  is quite different from ours back home at the Ranch and it was very interesting to see things from a different perspective. It was a very interesting and worthwhile visit and we are all glad we made the trip.
Essex Steam Train
For Jim, no vacation would be worthy of the name without including some form of train watching or riding and the Essex Steam Train depot was only minutes off our planned route.  Coincidentally, we also needed to get fuel for the rental car so I dropped C & J off to see the train and check out the gift shop while I got gas.
The timing was about perfect because just minutes after as I got back to pick them up the big steam train pulled out of the station and Cynthia was able to record a video of its departure on her I-Phone.  Preserved for posterity, again.
Johnny Ad's
Just 15 minutes from the train station we found our next food stop - Johnny Ad's in Saybrook
Johnny Ad's bills itself as "An Original American Drive-In" restaurant and it's exactly that and while the menu offers all the great drive-in specialties including hot dogs, we are here today for the clams.
"Big-Belly" whole fried clams are desperately needed as it has been nearly four hours since our last meal.  We order a "small" to spilt plus a few beverages and go wait in the indoor seating area until our order number is called.
Once again, the clams are gorgeous.  Served still sizzling with a good-sized side container of tartar sauce and a wedge of lemon we dig in...

...and polish of the platter in an amazingly sort period of time.
My score: 9 out of 10.  Why not ten? I don't know.  I still feel that to get a perfect 10 something needs to be extra special.  Besides, I'm mad at them for not being interested in opening a location in Snowflake Arizona.
The Clam Castle
While the clams at Johnny Ad's were excellent, how do know that the next place won't be even better?  Of course we won't unless we try them.  Less than 30 minutes down the road we come to The Clam Castle in Madison and yes, believe it or not, we're ready for more.

We follow two large groups in from the parking lot and find that there is already a fairly significant line crowded into the ordering area.  This could take a while.
Or not.  We notice that everybody (and there has to be at least 25 people in there) is staring at the rather complex and detailed menu board and talking amongst themselves.  Nobody is actually ordering from either of the waiting cashiers.
"Is ANYBODY ready to order!?" hollers out one of the sweaty and frazzled-looking young women over the din.
Well, hells bells, WE ARE so I stepped right up and ordered our small basket of whole fried clams etc, paid, and got our number all within a few seconds.  We were comfortably settled into one of the booths across from the order window, sipping our drinks well before the next people in line had figured out what they wanted.  Amateurs!
Here come the clams!  And AGAIN they are exquisite!  Huge moist bellies, tender "rubberband" (mantle) parts, golden brown, crispy, hot and wonderful.  How can every place we go to have clams be so good when we've been having such a hard time finding even a decent hot dog?  How hard can that be? The clam shacks of Connecticut are restoring my faith in road food again.
Served in the typical paper tray with the ubiquitous cup of tartar sauce and a wedge of lemon this basket could have been served at any of the previous stops we've made.  But wait, there IS something...
I don't catch what it is right off the bat but I am aware that this platter is definitely different. I  like it, but what the heck is it? Then it hits me.  It's the tartar sauce. 
All of the previous sauces we've had have been pretty much the same.  Basically mayonnaise, pickle relish, lemon juice, and maybe a touch of parsley.  If any of them have had capers (actually more typical in "remoulade sauce" than tartar but he difference is often obscure), they were used in such judicious amounts as to be undetectable.  This sauce was very similar with one small but important change.  All of the others had used sweet pickle relish in the recipe while this one had used dill pickle relish.  Who knew such a small change could make such a big difference?  It was an epiphanic moment.
My rating: 10 out of 10. A perfect pile of clams in a classic fry-house atmosphere, bumped up a notch by the surprisingly good tartar sauce.  I was tempted to knock off a point for not being right on the water but heck, I'm the guy who wants to have a clam shack in his little town in AZ so I can get my regular fix.  Besides, water-front property is so expensive I'm not sure I could afford these same clams served there.
Goat Wine
Having accomplished what we wanted to along the shoreline we begin to make our way back in the general direction of our motel.  We come across a lovely little town (completely missed the name of it, however) having something of a festival.  Lots of booths and tables on the sidewalks, strolling entertainers here and there, lots of people.  There is supposed to be a good chocolate shop somewhere along there and Cynthia say's she needs a little "walk". This is code fordoing a little shopping so we find a place to park and go strolling.
Jim ducks into a book store while C and I continue on to the chocolate shop.  It turns out to be more of a gift shop that happens to have a small case of assorted chocolates on display - it is certainly not a chocolate shop. Oh well, were here so we work on putting together a little box of assorted pieces.
I notice that most of the pieces on one tray of dipped chocolates in the display case are badly "bloomed" (damaged by heat or humidity with a very unappealing grey pallor to them), and point this out to the girl working the counter.
"Oh, I know.  They're really funky looking, aren't they? Don't worry I won't put any of those in your box".
No she certainly was not going to put any of them into our box, but I explained that I brought it up because I thought she might consider removing them from the display.
"No, they're fine.  They won't hurt anything" she replied. 
Alrighty sweet pea, whatever you say.  They're not going to hurt anything but sales, and it's none of my business.
Back on the street we meet up with Jim again and notice a wine shop having a major inventory blow-out sale (I assume they are going out of business) with everything at least 25% off and several racks and bins at 40% or more off.  We all spot some amazing deals and lament that our travel plans do not let us take advantage.  One bin catches my eye and I can't resist taking a snapshot to send Kathryn back home...
Having shopped sufficiently, we head back to the car to resume our journey
It's about 7pm and we're back in Cheshire, where our motel is, but there is one more hot dog place we all really wanted to try.  Blackies in Cheshire isn't open on Fridays at all.  It has something to do with Catholics formerly not being allowed to eat meat on Fridays and the tradition being continued here despite the church's change of policy.  So anyway,  Saturday (today) was our one shot at getting to this iconic dog joint.
After getting some help with directions we head out of town on Waterbury Road and eventually come Blackies.

Ordering at Blackies couldn't be easier.  Just tell them how many you want.  We ordered two.
The dogs at Blackies are Hummel Bros hot dogs, a local CT brand.  They are deep fried until they burst.  One of Blackies main claims to fame is their special "house secret" pepper relish so, naturally I slathered mine with plenty of that plus a little mustard.
I was impressed.  That was one very tasty dog!  The deep-frying really crisped up the dog and despite having burst it seams, it still had a good snap.  It was darned hot too.  The relish really was something special and unlike so many "secret sauces" etc, it was actually a positive addition to the dog.  A unique combination of sweet and spice, it was good enough to eat plain and I found myself putting on more the one would for just another hot dog condiment.
Blackies was pretty busy and it was fun watching the regular locals come in and listening to the good natured banter running around the room  .  Recognizing them, the counter man would simply ask "5 or 6 tonight?" as they approached the counter.
My score: 10 out of 10.  Being a bit punchy and bloated from the previous two days' (over)indulgences I'm pretty sure I would not have scored Blackies so highly as we walked out their doors.  I don't think I even finished my one dog, but it was through no fault of theirs.  In retrospect, there is no question that it was a great dog.  I suppose the most telling fact is that sitting here 2000 miles and more than a week away from my Blackies visit, the remembrance of that pepper relish is still making me salivate, just a little.
It's 8:30 PM and we've finally gotten back at our motel.  We're pretty much wrung-out from our excursions and SO not looking forward to that 4:45am wake-up call we would be getting in order to get me to the airport in time for my morning flight back to AZ. 
On the other hand, it IS Saturday night and our last night of vacation.  Maybe we should go out to a nice dinner, get a bottle of wine...?  Oh, what the hell, let's do it!
We had noticed what looked to be a nice but casual seafood restaurant just down the street from the motel so we put our shoes back on and walked the couple of blocks down to YellowFin's Seafood Grille.
The restaurant was not crowded so we were immediately seated in a nice booth.  We ordered a bottle of dry white wine (can't remember what it was) and a plate of fried calamari as a starter.
The calamari was served with a light marinara sauce and was sprinkled with crumbled blue cheese - a fairly bold and different approach to this classic appetizer but it really worked.  It was very good blue cheese and I found myself eating way more than was my share.
For entrees I ordered a Lobster pasta dish, Cynthia ordered Swordfish, and I'm not sure what Jim ordered.  Somewhere right around this point in the meal my blogging/reporting skills completely turned off.  Maybe it was the wine or fatigue or a combination but the rest of the meal is a blur.
I know that my pasta dish was very tasty and remember picking all of the lobster out to eat but leaving most of the angel hair and cream sauce untouched.   I think Cynthia did a pretty good job on her swordfish but was unable to eat even one of the beautiful asparagus spears that accompanied it (fortunately Jim helped out there).  Having finished all we cared to the waitress, looking at our unfinished plates, asked how many doggie-bags we wanted and when told that we were traveling and could not take anything, whisked the pates away without making us feel any more disappointed then we already were.
We were most of the way back to the motel before we realized that none of us had taken a single picture, or made a single note after the appetizer had appeared.  The vacation was definitely over.
My Score: "I'd go back". In fairness to YellowFin's, that's the best I can offer.  Maybe someday I really will have the opportunity to go back and do it right!
One More Dog
Sunday 7/31/2011
It was a long day of traveling that started very early but the travel Gods were smiling, TSA was efficient (but definitely NOT smiling), the weather was good, and everything went smoothly.  After one plane change in Chicago I arrived in Phoenix around 1PM local time.  With several hours to kill before my puddle-jumper commuter flight up to Show Low and stomach that thought two bags of peanuts and a few Oreo cookies was not enough for 12 hours of being awake, I found myself sitting in the sports bar restaurant in Terminal 2. 
What's on the menu? Among other things a bratwurst sandwich with roasted peppers and you know what? That sounds pretty good, so I ordered it.
Sorry, no pictures, but it wasn't bad for airport food and it definitely beat the heck out of some of the other dogs I had consumed on this trip.
My Rating: 6 out of 10. About the worst ambiance I can imagine and priced high for because of the captive audience factor, it was still a pretty good sandwich.

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