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"The Three Little Pigs" at The Piggery

FOR THIS FARMERS-MARKET-STAND-TURNED-DELI, it is a surprise to step into a daffodil yellow, oak- floored establishment packed with customers along Route 13 in Ithaca. A colorfully chalked menu sign with mouth-watering menu options hangs above the counter. To the left, a black wall adorned with names of local farms tells where they sourced their meats, dairy, and produce. The neighboring hand-drawn map of a pig shows me exactly what a “hock” and a “butt” are (it’s not even close to the butt). Little pig ornaments pepper the counter top, from furry stuffed piglets to a piggy-handled whisk.
The bloody flanks I was expecting to find hanging from the ceiling are actually stored in a glass meat case in the back of the room. Amongst your typical charcuterie of sausages, beef patties, and shoulders are T-burg dogs, Boston butts, pâtés, lards, and even whole chickens. The Piggery will only offer what local farms can offer, so the selection of products available changes almost daily. Like the name of the restaurant, the dishes The Piggery have to offer are exactly what they say they are without much embellishment at all, but they defy expectations.
My friend and I quickly nab a table under the orange-tiled ceiling, armed with our coffee, hot cider, breakfast burrito, and “The Three Little Pigs” (a taco, hot dog, and slider). I start with the hot dog and go nuts with the condiments: ketchup with far more texture interest than the creepy smoothness of Heinz, Dijon mustard, sweet relish, and some amazing picked red onions with the perfect amount of vinegar. Yet, I quickly realize that there is absolutely no need to layer all of this stuff on; there is no artificial hot-doggy meatiness to cover up at all. On the contrary, if you can imagine what a real hot dog would taste like made from real quality pork, then this is it.
Next, the pulled pork slider. The pulled pork is moist and flavorful, spiced just enough to let the pork speak for itself. It is topped with cabbage slaw, which adds a beautiful purple color, crunch, and freshness to contrast the sumptuous meat. The mini-bun, with a nice egg shine on top, is simply the perfect carrier for these flavors and textures.
To complete “The Three Little Pigs” trilogy, there is the carnitas taco. Filled with pork, cabbage, carrots, and a delightfully tangy and zingy green sauce, this taco is the third standout in this meal. The simple yet delicious corn tortilla holds up perfectly beneath the mound of ingredients it carries. Think of your imaginary (or real) Mexican grandmother kneading together corn flour straight from the farm and water. Think of the heat from the burner as she toasts them, the authenticity of the whole process. That’s what this tasted like. And the best part? You can smell them on the pan as you wait in line.
Any breakfast burrito sold in the Ithaca area has some tough competition to live up to with famous competitors such Solaz at the Farmer’s Market and Mexeo in Collegetown. The Piggery’s version is packed full to the brim with their signature pulled pork, local black beans, and egg. As someone who likes a lot of stuff in my burrito like veggies, salsa, and even a nice helping of guacamole, this burrito was lacking in the area of salsa, but nevertheless it is quite an enjoyable burrito to wake up to in the morning.
I would like to argue that The Piggery is serving up some of the best cider in the world. Unlike that dark brown whipped cream-covered stuff popular these days, Indian Creek Farm’s cider is a light golden colored drink that tastes exactly like fresh apples. Refreshing, tart, and spiced ever so slightly, this is probably the best cider of my life.
The cooks at The Piggery prove their ability to let the best of ingredients just be themselves, pairing high quality meats cooked to perfection with simple yet creative complements. As a college student too cheap to buy her own meat and too afraid to over or underdo it, The Piggery is the perfect niche for my dose of delicious free-range protein. No frills, no fuss, reasonable prices, and environmentally friendly without being pretentious, The Piggery is an indulgent change of pace.

This is article was written by Iona Machado and will appear in the Crème de Cornell Fall 2011 magazine to be released DECEMBER 2nd, 2011. Look for the magazine at many locations around the Cornell Campus!

Hot Pot Night in Hong Kong

“Sunday, you come to hot pot with me and my friends! Hong Kong style!”

Helen Shih-Chan is family of family of friends of my family (long story) who, along with her husband, is an overly generous Cantonese woman of about 60. I can never never refuse such an offer to eat with locals.  So off I’m am taken to a fluorescently-lit restaurant in what used to be the Walled City of Kowloon. I ignore the stares from the other patrons (as usual, I’m the only westerner there), and I quickly meet our fellow diners, the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Ng.

Upon arriving at the table, the waitresses install two simmering pots into the square table openings; one pot with water and quartered tomatoes, the other with a darker liquid and floating cilantro.

“No English here. I order,” Mr. Chan says to me as he checks off dishes on his paper sheet filled with Cantonese characters.

“Yes. She eat anything,” Helen assures him. (They had fed me duck feet and pig snout two days earlier.)

And soon enough, the dishes of ingredients start arriving: raw sliced beef, frozen meatballs, raw dumplings (similar to wontons in the States but a million times better), and various fish balls. And the cooking begins! Into the broth Mrs. Ng and Helen start dumping ingredients. Next come even more plates of raw dumplings, sliced fish, pigskin, squid, and other unrecognizables. And the chaos really begins! Steam is rising from the pots, arms and chopsticks are flying everywhere, dunking raw meat, passing plates, serving dumplings left and right, dipping cooked bites into the soy and chili sauce. Helen deposits steaming hot meats and fishes into my tiny bowl. “Its hot! Its hot! Don’t eat yet!”

After proper cooling, it is all delicious; especially the seafood dumplings and the meatballs. My bowl is filled over and over again since “no” isn’t a valid answer at this dinner table.

“Cow has four stomach. This is just one,” Mr. Chan tells me as he places a rubbery sting-ray looking item into my dish. “Its good!” he says.

No… It’s not.

Amidst this frenzy I start to wonder what this large untouched plastic bowl of lettuce and cabbage is doing to my right. “That’s for after,” Helen says. And sure enough when the numerous plates of meat are all devoured, into the pot goes all the vegetables along with rice noodles. I sit there skeptical as to how they will turn out: they are cooking them to death! But when the softened watercress and cabbage land in my bowl… Damn. They are the most flavorful greens my mouth has met! The flavor of all those boiled animals has hopped into that lettuce like I have never experienced. This order of operations makes sense after all.

Many Asian countries have communal hot pot dishes: shabu-shabu in Japan, jigae in Korea, suki in Thailand, and a hot pot of mostly lamb in Mongolia. They all have their own respective dipping sauces as well. According to the unbiased opinion of my local Hong Kong hosts, Hong Kong’s hot pot uses the greatest variety of  meats and ingredients and is supposedly all around the best tasting. Three weeks into my Hong Kong semester and this was certainly an exciting meal that I will never forget.

Cantonese lesson from a non-Cantonese speaker:

jan ho-may ”  =  that was delicious

For the past semester and a half I’ve been a part of what is rapidly becoming one of the great Cornell traditions. Akin to streaking the Arts quad or gorge-jumping, Calzone Club is an institution. Until recently it was institution dependent on a local Italian-Greek restaurant that was the original genesis for the club, but we’ve had a breakthrough…

Homemade calzones. Not only are they easy and inexpensive, they are arguably better. Having complete control over dough and fillings is thrilling, almost terrifying at times, and completely awesome. Also cases of beer are much more economical than buying it in a restaurant (always something to keep in mind).

Basic Calzone Dough (makes 2 large calzones, probably enough for 4 people)

5 cups AP or bread flour
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
2 tbsp. olive oil
2.5 cups lukewarm water mixed ahead of time with
1 tsp. dry yeast

Combine water and yeast, allow to sit for ~10 mins. Mix together all the remaining dry ingredients, then add yeast mix. Stir until shaggy and sort of combined, mix in olive oil. When the dough is sort of cohesive, turn it onto a counter and knead for ~5 minutes until smooth. Allow to rise in an oiled bowl with saran wrap, 1.5-2 hours until doubled in size.

To make calzones:

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and cut it in half. Stretch one of the halves into a roughly rectangular shape, keeping it thick enough to hold the toppings. Then, go crazy. Mozzarella and ricotta are de rigueur, but all sorts of vegetables and meats (cook them first) will be amazing. Save the sauce until after it’s cooked (at 400 for about 20 mins or until golden). You’re going to like it.

Purple carrots do a lot of the work for you, making the photo interesting in subject matter alone, but think about the composition and lighting nonetheless.

I’m not a great photographer. The only time I had any real training in the subject was in high school when I took introductory photo and darkroom techniques. It wasn’t the most subtle or well-developed program ad certainly didn’t have any component about food. So, everything that I’ve learned has been through trial and (lots of) error as well as the advice of a few generous and considerably more skilled friends.

The most important thing when taking a photo of your culinary creations is the light. Assuming you have a decent camera (I use an entry-level Canon DSLR) you’ll need to either find or create suitable light to highlight your subject and produce the depth and texture that makes the food pop on whatever print or electronic medium you’ll eventually use to display the photograph. I try, whenever possible, to use natural light from nearby windows, but this is not always possible. Yes, you can take decent photos with the overhead lights in your kitchen, but try putting a lamp nearby, behind the camera. The industry calls this a “fill” and it softens the harsh fluorescent shadow you’ll most likely encounter with purely artificial light.

Framing is just as important, and can really elevate you from amateur to professional status. As a general rule the food should fill most of the frame, or at least be centered enough to be the focus of the image. Until you start composing elaborate backdrops and sets for your food (I’m not there yet, and don’t know if I ever will be), keep the scene simple: a plate or display surface, some garnishes, your meal front and center. With just a few elements in the photo your depth of field will be even more pronounced. The carrot photo above almost takes this too far, but having some background or foreground blurry is not at all bad, and can give the photo far more impact.

Again, I’m not a pro and I’m probably not even qualified to give photography advice, but who cares? I like a few of the photos I take and try to emulate the components in those that I think work particularly well. You can certainly do the same. Play around, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

And why not? Family, friends, and food are the most important parts of Thanksgiving and I (incredibly fortunately) had them in droves.

One of the finest chickens in all the land, courtesy of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in beautiful Pocantico Hills.

And one of the finest hot dogs to go with it all, grilled over open fire and served unceremoniously with dijon mustard and toasted bagel half. True gourmet.


 

Pumpkin spaetzle, kale, tomatoes.

I’m going to try to write some blog posts about the basics of food. By no means am I an expert in this area, so it’ll be a learning experience for all of us.

•••

There’s nothing more basic to eating than taste. The sensory experience of food is, in the end, what drives every chef worth his or her salt to pursue excellence and innovation, new and unusual combinations of flavors, basically everything good.

There are five flavors, just like five senses, try to name them: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and… what? That elusive and all-important fifth flavor is called umami, taken from the Japanese word meaning “good-flavored”. Umami is a beautiful thing, abundant in meats (particularly pork) and generally enhancing the flavor of anything else it’s paired with. It’s hard not to describe umami with vague hand-waving and gesticulations, but describing any basic taste encounters similar semantic problems. In the end, it’s the foods that are umami-rich that best define the flavor and provide a foundation for pursuing it in everyday cooking.

Bacon, that smoked, fatty ambrosia, has six different types of the chemicals that produce umami-flavor in your mouth’s taste receptors, making it singular in its ability to elicit guttural and psychological moans of bliss. As if the pig’s natural selection lead it to maximum and generally uncontrollable deliciousness.

Monosodium glutamate, the falsely denigrated Chinese-food additive of lore, has a chemical signature that allows it to mimic umami compounds, thus giving dishes a new dimension of flavor that could not occur without it (or, say, bacon).

So how do you use your newfound umami knowledge in your kitchen. Add fish sauce to everything. Seriously. Aside from bacon, Asian fish sauce is essentially liquid umami. Just a few drops go an incredibly long way and can be the difference between a good dish and an ethereal one. Try it with something simple first, eggs maybe, and then slowly come to realize that it can simply make any savory dish even more so. That $3 bottle of liquid gold will easily pay for itself in deliciousness. Trust me.

The epic, wondrous, delectable results of a recent CGC sandwich-crafting festival/contest. Feast away.

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(thumbnails for all photos after the break, credit: Leigh Whitman)

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