fig. a: Valley Acres
Things began in Montreal, of course, but it wasn't until we reached Saratoga Springs and Valley Acres that we felt like our weekend escape was truly underway.
fig. b: ornamental corn
That was where we found the first farm stand of our trip, as well as the first crisp, local apples, the first dried corn (in this case, ornamental), and the first apple cider donuts.
fig. c: Michelle makes her getaway
Michelle grabbed a few beauties, posed for a picture, and we got back on the road.
fig. d: All Fired Up BBQ
We thought those apples would tide us over until we reached our destination in the Catskills, but when we smelled the sweet aromas coming from that roadside smoker by the side of the 9W, we knew we had to stop. Our oversized pulled pork sandwich wasn't exactly NC-style, but then the Catskills aren't exactly the Blue Ridge either. That fruitwood-smoked pork was tender and smoky, though, and that $2 side of smoked baked beans (a.k.a., "man beans," although I'm not sure why) was the best $2 I've spent in a long time.
fig. e: Hi-Way Drive-In
We made just one more teeny-tiny stop en route (to the lovely Hi-Way Drive-In)
fig. f: strong home
and half an hour later, we'd reached our destination.
fig. g: "the observatory"
In the observatory,
fig. h: "birds eye view"
we had a wonderful bird's eye view of the landscape.
fig. i: Col. Bill in the house
And in the kitchen, we had a surprise waiting for us: a Col. Bill Newsom's ham, a carefully selected, dry-cured, slow-smoked, aged, 15-lb beauty.
fig. j: ole no. 301
Well, it wasn't a complete surprise, because we'd gone ahead and ordered it from our friends in Princeton, KY when we knew we were going to be in the States for a weekend. We'd been fantasizing about getting our hands on our very own country ham for years, but we were never sure what to do about it because you can't mail-order a ham across the Canadian border and, sadly, neither of us has been anywhere near Kentucky in years. Somehow we'd even gotten it into our heads that there was some kind of Canadian ban on country hams. No U.S. country ham purveyor was willing to try shipping one across the border (we know, because we called a bunch of 'em), and we just figured the Canadian government was hostile towards the traditional curing methods of the Appalachian region. A couple of years ago we just gave up. Every once in a while, though, that urge would well up again, and we'd make some more inquiries. Then, finally, about a month ago, Michelle made an important discovery. She found out that technically there was no restriction against bringing a cured pork product across the border as long as two conditions were met: 1) it was under 20 kg in weight (per person!), and 2) it was for personal consumption only. The reason the country ham purveyors refused to ship hams to Canada had to do with spot checks that had occasionally held deliveries up at the border for weeks, even months, at a time. In other words, if we wanted a country ham there was absolutely no problem, we just had to go down to the States and haul it back ourselves (after spending the minimum amount of time required to avoid duties, of course). Hell, with the average weight of a country ham being about 15-20 lbs, we could conceivably get four or five country hams and bring 'em back, as long as we swore they were for personal consumption. (Yes, your Honor, I solemnly swear that these two hams are for my own personal consumption.)
fig. k: the first cut
Anyway, we promptly opened up the box and got to work on "ole No. 301," and minutes later we were savoring the very best ham of our lives. We'd had Col. Newsom's before, but never like this.
A couple of years ago we watched Anthony Bourdain's Decoding Ferran Adria. Adrià takes Bourdain on a brief and somewhat surprising tour of Spain to help him get inside the philosophy of El Bulli. One of their stops is Madrid's Museo del Jamón, and there Adrià and Bourdain spend some time dwelling on the fat of a particularly fine specimen of jamón. I remember saying to myself, "I think I understand what they're talking about...," but having never experienced jamón of that quality, I could only imagine. Well, now I think I have a better sense, because just the fat alone off that Col. Newsom's ham is a sight to behold.
Anyway, we could have spent the whole afternoon admiring "ole No. 301," but we had some things we needed to pick up for dinner, and, besides, it was absolutely beautiful out. So that's what we did: we went out.
fig. l: Farmer Todd's 1
We took a short drive so that I could get my bearings, but mainly we just hung out at Farmer Todd's, a.k.a. Black Walnut Farm. It was late afternoon when we got there, and things being quiet at the time, Farmer Todd was all too happy to show us around, and we were all too happy to admire his fields.
fig. m: Farmer Todd's 2
We picked up some apples, tomatoes, eggs, and a few other odds and ends, but the coup of the day was the U-pick lettuce patch out back. Michelle was handed a pair of scissors and a bag and she went to town, and later that night we had the very best mixed greens of the entire year. Farmer Todd also gave us a seriously hot tip. The next morning he was going to be receiving two shipments: 1) some fresh apple cider donuts and 2) some locally produced sheep's milk ricotta.
fig. n: apple cider donuts at Farmer Todd's
So the next day we went back again. For some fantastic apple cider donuts (even better than Valley Farms').
fig. o: fresh ricotta from Farmer Todd's
For some truly heavenly ricotta.
fig. p: popping corn from Farmer Todd's
And for some fresh popping corn.
fig. q: fall colors
Anyway, the weekend wasn't all about food. It was about seeing old friends, fresh air, chopping wood and reading by the wood stove, walks in the woods, and fall colors.
fig. r: upstate NY
It was about playing with the dog, and lazing in the grass.
fig. s: Heather Ridge Farm
It was also about checking out some of the local sites. There were more food-related places like Heather Ridge Farm, with its grass-fed lamb and beef, its pastured chickens, its award-winning honey, and its lovely assortment of squashes.
fig. t: I.U. Tripp & Co. 1
But there was also I.U. Tripp & Co. in Oak Hill, NY. Pretty much the antiques shop of our dreams.
fig. u: I.U. Tripp & Co. 2
I mean, just look at this place. And all of it housed within the most incredible antique of all: an 1888 general store. We spent hours, but we could have spent days. Especially because Mary Lou and Nick (and their many cats) were so much fun to hang out with.
fig. v: I.U. Tripp & Co. 3
Everywhere we looked, we saw things that seemed to be communicating with us. In the end, we really didn't get all that much--we kinda got totally overwhelmed. But we'll be back.
fig. w: icicle house 1
Almost as impressive (we didn't get to go inside this place) was the nearby Icicle House.
fig. x: icicle house 2
It made me think of Walker Evans and his American Gothic series from 1931, most of which were taken in Upstate New York. It's also for sale. We tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a house as singular as the Icicle House. And while I took some photographs of my own, Michelle and S. decided to take a closer look.
Needless to say, between us and our hosts, we did a ton of cooking at Strong House that weekend. What follows is just a small selection of recipes--two which were actually part of the weekend festivities, and one that was inspired by our weekend getaway to the Catskills.
Country ham? Check.
fig. y: country fresh eggs
Farm-fresh eggs? Check.
fig. z: country ham & eggs
Fried Kentucky Country Ham with Eggs and Red-Eye Gravy
brown sugar (optional)
freshly ground black pepper
Slice your ham about 1/4" thick. Trim off the rind, but do not trim the fat. The fat provides loads (and I mean loads) of flavor and no other fat will be needed.
Fry the ham slices gently in a large heavy skillet, turning the lean away from the hottest point of the skillet. Be careful to fry slowly and to not over fry. This will make the ham tough. It will also make the fat smoke. Ham is usually done when the fat has turned translucent and the ham begins to brown slightly. Place on your plates.
[For a milder, less salty taste, soak the ham slices in lukewarm water or sweet milk for up to 30 minutes before frying. Make sure to pat them completely dry before frying, though.]
Pour your drippings in a small bowl.
Add a little coffee to the hot skillet after removing the ham and simmer for a couple of minutes, scraping up the ham bits. Make sure there's enough coffee so that it doesn't entirely evaporate. Pour in the bowl of drippings. Stir well and continue to simmer for another minute or two. Add a bit of brown sugar to taste, if you like--this will add color and additional flavor. Add freshly ground black pepper. Do not add salt. Between the drippings and the ham, you won't need it. Pour the gravy over your ham slices.
Accompany with a couple of fried eggs and a biscuit (see recipe below).
[recipe courtesy of Col. Bill Newsom's Hams]
Fresh ricotta cheese? Check.
We'd made crostini with some of our ricotta, but we still had some leftover. Luckily we had a copy of The New York Times Magazine's food issue (October 12), and therefore we had Christina Muhlke's "The Way We Eat" column on Kenny Shopsin and his new book, Eat Me, and therefore we had Shopsin's recipe for Lemon Ricotta Pancakes. We also had his recipe for Mac 'n' Cheese Pancakes, but we had farm-fresh ricotta on-hand, so it really wasn't much of a decision.
fig. aa: ricotta pancakes
Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
3 cups pancake batter (recipe follows)
zest of two lemons
2/3 cup whole-milk ricotta
Stir the batter and the zest together. Gently fold in the ricotta.
Clean a griddle or heavy-bottomed skillet by running an oily cloth over it. If the cloth snags, scrape to remove, then wipe down the griddle with peanut oil. Set the griddle over moderate heat. (It’s hot enough when a drop of water bounces off the surface.) Pour a thin layer of peanut oil over the griddle. Just before you drop the batter, run cold butter across the area where you are going to cook. When it bubbles, drop the batter in 4-inch circles and immediately raise the heat to medium-high. Cook, adjusting the heat so as not to burn the ricotta, until bubbles appear, 1 to 3 minutes. Using a thin metal spatula, quickly flip and gently tap to make them uniform in thickness. Cook until the second side is golden. Serve with real maple syrup.
Makes about 12.
7 tablespoons butter
1 1/3 cups whole milk
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt.
In a saucepan over medium-low heat, heat the butter and milk until the butter melts. Set aside until lukewarm. Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. Slowly pour 1/2 cup of the warm milk mixture into the eggs while stirring. Stir in the remaining milk mixture.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Pour the egg mixture into the flour mixture, a little at a time, stirring slowly, just until the dry ingredients are moistened. The batter should be lumpy and will start to bubble.
Makes about 3 1/2 cups.
[Courtesy of The New York Times. Adapted from “The Breakfast Book,” by Marion Cunningham.]
fig. bb: Michelle liberates the popping corn
Organic popping corn? Check.
fig. cc: Felknor's
Felknor's stovetop popcorn popper? Check.*
fig. dd: Chunk-E-Nut
Vintage Chunk-E-Nut caramel corn box from I.U. Tripp & Co.? Check. The box was actually the inspiration behind this next one. Michelle just bought the box because she loved the way it looked. When we got back home she realized she absolutely had to make some of her own Chunk-E-Nut to fill it with.
fig. ee: caramel corn
Michelle's Chunk-E-Nut Caramel Corn
popping corn from one cob, about 1/3 cup
3/4 stick unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup Lyle's golden syrup (you can also use corn syrup, if you prefer, but to get that true "Michelle's Caramel Corn" flavor we recommend Lyle's)
2 Tbsp. water
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1/2 cup salted peanuts
Preheat the oven to 200°F. Pop the corn in a stovetop popper, a hot-air popper or in a covered pot with a bit of oil. Set aside in a large bowl.
fig. ff: freshly popped corn
In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Add the sugar, syrup, water, and salt, and bring to a boil, stirring carefully to melt all the sugar. Heat to 260°F, stir in the baking soda, vanilla and peanut and pour over the popcorn. Stir quickly using two wooden spoons in a salad-tossing motion. Pour out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for one hour, stirring every 10 min. Let cool and store in an airtight container, or place in vintage Chuck-E-Nut caramel corn box and eat it all up.
Makes a lot.
And last, but certainly not least...
fig. gg: biscuits
fig. hh: ham & biscuit
Ham & Biscuits
3 cups flour
1 scant tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
4 tsp. baking powder
2/3 cup butter or lard
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. buttermilk
country ham, shaved
Preheat oven to 450°F. Sift the flour, salt, baking soda and powder together in a large bowl. Cut in butter or lard with your fingers until it forms a coarse meal. Pour buttermilk over the mixture and stir quickly with a wooden spoon. Pour out onto a lightly floured surface and fold once or twice. Roll out to 1/2" thick and pierce the surface with a fork. Cut into rounds and place on a baking sheet. Do not re-roll the scraps, no matter how much you want to. Bake for 13 min., until golden brown.
Serve with country ham, either plain or with a suitable condiment (like jerusalem artichoke relish, chow chow, or pickled corn).
[Based on a recipe from Edna Lewis' The Taste of Country Cooking.]
For more information about Col. Bill Newsom's hams (everything you ever wanted or needed to know, actually), follow this link.
* If you haven't tried a Felknor's or a Whirley-Pop popcorn popper, we highly recommend them.
Erratum: This post previously described Farmer Todd's ricotta as being made with "goat's milk." Unlikely, I know, but that's what he told us. We later confirmed that the cheese in question was made with sheep's milk.