Popping for Nearly a Century

Nick’s Nest

By Sara Pokorny, Photos by Dominic Perri

Nick Malfas struck buttery yellow gold when he began peddling popcorn from a cart on the streets of Holyoke in 1921. What began as a one-snack operation grew into a brick-and-mortar establishment on Northampton Street. The menu also expanded, offering everything from potato salad to soft serve to bacon cheese fries to loaded hot dogs, all alongside the still-enduring popcorn.

With its red and yellow awning, counter-style window seating dotted with jukeboxes, and 1950 Chicago Coins bandbox, Nick’s Nest is a haven for nostalgia. It’s also a family business, having stayed in the Malfas family for three generations until 2005, when Jenn and Kevin Chateauneuf bought it. Despite the last name change, the family vibe is there, extending outward from the kitchen to the customers. There’s a good chance that at least one person eating at Nick’s at any given moment has been going there since they were a child.

Jeff Ferreira of Chicopee is one such guy. On a busy Saturday morning, when the line is already out the door an hour after opening, he sits at the counter eating lunch. He’s come to Nick’s since he was a kid and can remember the smaller menu. Though the hot dogs are his favorite, he’s tried everything Nick’s has to offer and has never been disappointed.

“They’ve got everything here, and it’s all good,” he says. “Also, they’ve always been really good people, so it’s easy to come back.”

Malfas added hot dogs to his cart in 1922, and that other All-American food would prove to be an even bigger draw than the popcorn. In 1927, he opened a stand on Route 5, and in 1948 he moved into the location Nick’s occupies today. His son Nick took over, and then his grandson Charlie, before the Chateauneufs.

“We added to the menu gradually to bring in a fresh change,” Jenn says, “but at the same time not take away from the hot dogs.” The hot dog recipe remains: They’re steamed and sit in a light brown secret sauce until served. Mustard and relish were once the only topping options (as evidenced by a placard affixed to the counter), but now diners can get onions, cheese, ketchup, and more.

The popcorn is as simply made as the dogs. The modern kettle is tucked away into an older-style cabinet to keep a vintage air. Popcorn packs are roughly the size of a half sheet of paper, dual-sided with one half containing butter-flavored coconut oil and the other kernels lightly dusted in spices. One pack yields approximately three large buckets and, of course, there is butter to spare. Kept in a small metal pitcher near the kettle, the “extra butter” is a fan favorite.

Abby Griffin, an employee at Nick’s for 14 years and a customer since she was a kid, is all too familiar with the buttery appeal.

“One customer we had, I would know by the weight of the container it had enough butter in it for him.”

Built on kernels and dogs slung from a cart, Nick’s has thrived over the years thanks to this familiar food, and customers’ need to find comfort in it. Nick’s, as a place, has become just as comforting, and Jenn understands this.

“Our customers love us because it’s a ma and pa place. In the world of corporate, people appreciate that there are still small places like ours around.”

nicksnestholyoke.com

New Bakery, Traditional Breads

Rise Above

By Marykate Smith Despres, Photos by Dominic Perri

When people think of rye bread, they often think of deli rye. The deli rye I grew up with, even when bought bagged from the grocery store, yielded rounded, half-moon, gray-brown slices that stood (a bit stiffly) in stark contrast to the floppy, bleached white squares of typical sandwich bread. The bread I remember likely had very little actual rye flour, but what it did have—and what kept me from eating it—was caraway seeds.

Brian Meunier, head baker and owner of Rise Above bakery, which opened in downtown Greenfield this June, uses a lot of rye flour, which, he says “adds a slight nuance” of flavor to breads and pastries. It’s caraway, not rye, Meunier says, that “has ruined rye for most people.”

“I’m trying to set that straight. I want people to know that rye and caraway are not the same thing. If you don’t like caraway,” he says, “you can still like rye.”

In the absence of caraway seeds, it’s color (Meunier describes it as a “deep brown or reddish hue”) that signals a bread with a lot of rye flour. Another clue can be weight, as in a dense Roggenbrot—one of many Eastern European rye breads you’ll find at Rise Above-one of many breads with a story.

“People who grew up with this bread, it really means something special to them,” Meunier says. He’s seen it in the way people’s faces light up when they see these traditional breads on the rack at the bakery, the recognition upon feeling the weight of a full kilo of bread in hand. The remembering that happens, and the ways in which that remembering becomes stories shared over a loaf of bread—a Latvian woman at a record store in Somerville transported back to her childhood, a man returning to the bakery with an armful of German and Austrian cookbooks and an offer to translate, a woman sharing her experience learning to bake Roggenbrot under master baker Jeffery Hamelman in Brattleboro in the ’80s—becomes what Meunier describes as “a religious experience.”

“I love that I can connect with people in ways beyond that it tastes good,” he says. “I fell in love with the bread and then fell in love with all these people’s connection to it.”

Rye isn’t the only way Meunier connects with the community. He bakes other well-loved staple breads including baguette, brioche, and challah, plus bagels, muffins, cookies, and a host of pastries that often feature fruits from local farms like Clarkdale just down the road in Deerfield.

And while patrons sit and enjoy local coffee (or kombucha) with their baked goods and their little ones pop in and out of the puppet theater, the bakers work in an open kitchen with café-facing ovens so that people can “see it, hear it, smell it.”

“We’re back there making a mess, flour all over. We make noise. We listen to rock ’n’ roll,” Meunier says. He doesn’t want to hide or separate the process from the product, or from the people tearing pieces and taking bites of that product straight from the bag. “I want you to know that everything’s happening right here.”

Instagram @riseabove_413

FaceBook @riseabove

Telling the Story of Sourdough

Hungry Ghost Bread

By Marykate Smith Despres, Photos by Dominic Perri

It’s not an art,” Jonathan Stevens says of baking bread, rolling his eyes. “It’s a craft.” Stevens has been baking bread for 25 years, 15 at Hungry Ghost Bread in Northampton with partner and co-owner Cheryl Maffei. “Craft is an expression of material and tradition. Art is an expression of the artist. [You need to have] a sense of humility in the face of 10,000 years of bread baking.”

But by that definition, Stevens’ impassioned explanations and interpretations of the process and of bread itself put him somewhere in between artisan and artist, into the realm of storyteller. “There are different ways to understand bread,” says Stevens, the son of a chemist and a psychologist. “Scientifically—that’s just not my thing.”

The story of bread has become, quite literally, ingrained in him, finding its way into song lyrics and poems penned on the back of bread schedules, into the annual Bread Festival puppet-and-brass-band parade through town, into the ways in which he thinks about the history of civilization—from Persephone (the goddess of harvest), to cats in ancient Egypt (whose sacredness came from their ability to guard the grain), to the agricultural industrial revolution—and the ways in which bakeries serve and sustain their communities. Clearly, unscientific does not mean uninformed.

Hungry Ghost breads are sourdough, meaning each loaf begins as a live, fermented culture. Stevens believes that often, a sensitivity to gluten is actually a sensitivity to unfermented gluten. “People need gluten to be fermented,” he says. “The body can’t access the vitamins and minerals [in unfermented wheat]. It can see them, but it can’t access them.”

The crust on a loaf of bread, more specifically, the way the scoring creates sharp ridges and yawning crests, is what Stevens calls “a photograph of perfect fermentation.”

“It’s the last gasp of wild yeast. If you get it right, they die with their arms over their heads,” he says. “It’s a Vesuvian death. You want people buried mid-party.” Stevens dances around to demonstrate, throws his hands over his head and yells, “Yay!”, freezing mid-cheer in mock joy. He’s right—it’s not a scientific explanation. But it certainly makes for a better story.

Hungry Ghost Bread’s 15th annual “Wonder Not!” Bread Festival is on Sunday, September 22, 11am–5pm. The festival is free and includes a giant puppet parade through town with the Expandable Brass Band, wheat planting in the garden, live music, vendors, and lots of bread!

hungryghostbread.com

This Loaf for President

This bread does not boast

This bread does not need

A chief of staff

Or a press secretary

Even at its greatest,

This bread will soon get eaten

-or go moldy.

This bread won’t build walls

Drop bombs, sell fighter jets

Or make secret deals with

Shady Russians

This bread cannot lie

This bread will not exaggerate

How many people it fed

-its list of ingredients

Is astonishingly short

This bread will not play golf

Instead of sitting patiently upon your table

This bread is smarter than you think:

It will teach your tongue

About the Fertile Crescent

It will move your mouth

With a song of scythes,

Of broadcasting hands,

of the furrow on the miller’s

hands, and his stones

This bread believes in

universal health care, from the

inside out, a gut feeling

about common sense

and simple decency

This bread has a heel one can chew on

a crust you can sop up sorrows with

wings for the Angel of Victory

over every kind of hunger

Poem reprinted from Jonathan Stevens’ Bread Poems, collected and published by the author in 2019.

Revitalization by the Pint

Holyoke Craft Beer

By Jordana Starr, Photos by Dominic Perri

Chemical engineer Mike Pratt started playing around with fermentation as an undergraduate at UMass, when he took a fermentation lab his senior year. Though he admits that the wine he ultimately made “came out terrible,” the class had piqued his curiosity. He wanted to learn more.

After graduation, Pratt started homebrewing. Initially taking it up as a hobby, his love for the craft evolved into the desire to open his own brewery. But then life got busy, as it often does, as he and his wife grew their family by two. Now that their daughters are approaching school age, the time was finally right to revisit that dream.

And that dream, as it turned out, was twofold. After moving to Holyoke, Pratt fell in love with the city and could see enormous potential among the unoccupied buildings in the once-thriving industrial town. He points out that Holyoke, with its former paper and textile mills and brick warehouses, is set up for producing things. The new Arts & Innovation District on Race Street, which includes Gateway City Arts, the Holyoke Community College Culinary Center, and Freight Farms—an urban hydroponic farm located inside two refurbished shipping containers in which residents and HCC students are growing food—seemed like an obvious choice for a new brewery and taproom.

“We need to do this now,” he says, “and on Race Street.”

At 208 Race Street, precisely. On February 2, 2019, Holyoke Craft Beer officially opened its doors to the public in the basement of the STEAM Building, a former factory that had once produced valves and steam lines. The brewery itself is a one-barrel kettle with six fermenters, which allows them to keep a rotation of a variety of beers on tap. Ninety-five percent of the grain they use comes from Valley Malt (see page 26), just up the river in Hadley.

The beers themselves pay tribute to Holyoke, with names like Revival Pale Ale, Dreamers & Makers Saison, and Podoke Porter—a reference to the Podokesaurus holyokensis, a dinosaur fossil that was discovered in a hill near Mt. Holyoke College. Holyoke Craft Beer’s head brewer Adam Copeland, the creative mind behind the names, also wrote the recipe for 413, a session New England IPA comprised of four types of grain, one hop variety, and three yeast strains. “This beer,” he explains, “is an homage to where we come from and what put the area on the map: making hazy New England IPAs.”

In addition to Copeland, Pratt brought on Andy Gaylord and Corey Lynch as assistant brewers. All the brewers—who, just like Pratt, got their start homebrewing—work as bartenders in the taproom, which is open on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Pratt also has enlisted the help of local brewing consultant Mike Schilling,* who has designed several of their recipes.

Holyoke Craft Beer is starting to show up on tap in places beyond its Race Street taproom, such as Gateway City Arts, Smith’s Billiards in Springfield, and the Taproom in Hadley. But right now, their main focus is their taproom and encouraging people and businesses to return to downtown Holyoke, as their Double IPA’s name, No Vacancy, suggests.

*Disclosure: The author is married to Mike Schilling.

holyokecraftbeer.com

Will Travel for Food

MUSSEL RISOTTO WITH PARSLEY PURÉE

By Sanford D’Amato, Photos by Dominic Perri

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I’m keeping my foot to the floor so I don’t lose the firefly-sized tail lights in front of me. It’s almost a losing battle as the matchbox Fiat rental Angie and I are in seems to be powered by a wind up rubber band. The rain is pummeling the windshield and the only thing I’m sure about is that there is a large crevasse on either side of the road.

It’s 1985 and my wife, Angie, and I are driving through Europe for the first time. From our starting point in Brussels until our last day in Paris, there was one daily ritual we could count on—we would be lost for part of the day.

This day, it was the second largest city in Italy: Milan. We started out from a small pensione called Hotel Asnigo situated in the hills overlooking Lake Como. The older proprietor, Luigi, lent us his personal map—which, judging from the condition of the paper, must have been a christening gift—to direct us the 40-some miles to Milan from Cernobbio.

We arrived in Milan a few hours before our dinner reservation at 8pm. Being that it was sunny and light out, we didn’t really need the map as the route was very well posted with “Milano” directing signs every few miles.

We went to a traditional Milanese restaurant, and we put ourselves in the hands of the waiter. He brought us a selection from the copious antipasto table that we had to maneuver around as we were seated. The plate contained all pristine grilled and roasted vegetables, some sweet and sour, stuffed or crusted, flanked by paper-thin regional cured meats and salamis.

For the entrée, it was Piccata of Chicken and Veal Cotaletta. All was delicious, but the star of the dinner arrived between the antipasto and entrée. This was usually the position reserved for pasta in Italy, but we were in the north, which means rice, and the waiter brought two of the special Seafood Risottos. This was my first taste of risotto and it immediately changed the way I thought about the white grain. Growing up, we were a Minute Rice family, and I felt that the bland white kernels just took up valuable real estate on my plate that could have been put to better use. This rice took more than a minute. It was cooked all’onda, which loosely translates to wavy. When you tap the rim of the dish, the creamy rice slightly undulates like ocean waves with the pristine chunks of seafood looking like little bouncing buoys. It was absolutely luscious, with each perfectly cooked kernel of rice exploding with briny crustacean goodness.

We walked out of the restaurant after dinner, and the perfect night had turned into an impromptu gale. We ran to the car and unfolded the map, which quickly deteriorated into four separate pieces. Using our best internal GPS, we tried to retrace our way back to the Autostrada (highway), but soon found ourselves following the only tail lights around down a dark and otherwise deserted road. We knew we were in big trouble when the tail lights became headlights that started to beam down on us, eventually swiping right past us on the narrow road. That’s when we figured out we might be following another lost traveler.

After an hour of aimlessly driving, we miraculously ran into the Autostrada ramp flanked by a minute arrow sign pointing toward Cernobbio. Saved again from self-destruction.

Today’s risotto is inspired by that night of highs and lows. I suggest using short-grain Carnaroli or Nano Vialone rice or the easier to procure Arborio for this dish. Be sure and keep it fluid (but not watery) and please don’t overcook the rice. After your first taste, you’ll agree this is a dish worth driving for.

MUSSEL RISOTTO WITH PARSLEY PURÉE

Serves 4 as an appetizer

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and diced fine; need ½ cup

1 cup Carnaroli rice

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

½ teaspoon hot pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1 cup dry sherry, heated

2–2¼ cups no-salt vegetable stock, heated

24 cleaned mussels, placed in a covered pot with ¼ cup dry white wine

½ cup packed (½ ounce) cleaned fresh Italian parsley leaves, puréed with ½ cup no-salt vegetable stock

2 tablespoons salted butter

Fresh Italian parsley sprigs for garnish

Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Place a saucepan over medium heat. Add oil, then add onion, and cook about 3–4 minutes, until opaque. Add rice and, with a wooden spoon, continually stir to lightly toast, about 3 minutes.

Add garlic, pepper flakes, bay leaves, and thyme and stir for 30 seconds. Add hot sherry, continue stirring, add salt and pepper, and cook until rice starts to absorb sherry.

Start adding the stock by small ladles, just enough to keep the rice liquid and continually absorbing—keep stirring so rice does not stick.

While rice is cooking, place mussel pot over medium heat and steam mussels open—should take 2–3 minutes. Remove pan from heat as soon as the mussels open. Keep pan covered.

Add all liquid from mussels as the next addition of liquid to the risotto. Taste rice and continue adding stock until rice is just cooked, but still al dente. At this point, rice should be creamy and fluid, but not watery.

Finish rice by stirring in butter and parsley purée, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately in 4 hot bowls. Garnish with warm mussels and parsley sprigs on top.

Field Notes from Old Friends Farm

Farmer in resiPANTS

By Casey Steinberg, Photos courtesy of Old Friends Farm

Over the past two years, we’ve used our Field Notes column to bring you stories from farmers across the Valley. We loved getting a peek into a different farm each season, but thought it would be nice to try something different and invite a single farmer to share a whole year’s worth of insights. In his second column of the year, Casey Steinberg continues to share his perspective with us all.

It’s easy to slip into the cliché of writing about how fall is the time we start turning inward, thinking about sweaters, the crispness of the air, the waning light, and the impending immense task of extracting the bounty out of the Valley’s farms. But that tends to get predictable and boring. I should talk-up our imminent, magical crop of ginger and turmeric and the gorgeous triple-washed and spun-dry salads we produce weekly. Instead, I want to talk about blue jeans.

Yep, blue jeans, or rather brown, as the filthy case may be. According to a segment of “fashion” news I heard recently, it appears that “dirty” pants are in style. You can now buy the appearance of having worked all day on the farm without having lifted a finger (save for the one it took to click “add to cart”). No joke—these faux-dirty pants go for over $400. Maybe fake dirt is really hard to source? I won’t go into all the potential character judging and social commentary these pants inspire. The attraction is likely rooted in our culture’s innate desire to be connected to the earth in this new world of concrete.

The dirt (read: soil) and wear and tear on our pants at Old Friends Farm is genuine. We feel proud to offer up some real mud-caked-stiff competition to those clean-fingernailed posers. With that, I introduce the limited edition Old Friends Farm Real Dirty Pants, and with them a window into farm life! Each of these unique pairs comes adorned with real soil, mud, grease, and rips! (We can assure you that even though some of our clothes get quite dirty, our produce is immaculately clean by the time it gets to market!)

We’ll start with the old style double knee jeans. They are rare, as the new cuts are baggier with tiny pockets (not large enough for the standard equipment: wallet, mini-wrench, various nuts and bolts, collection of pens and markers, mini tape measurer, granola bar, drip irrigation couplers, write-in-the-rain notepad, handkerchief, cotter pin, and the special rock my daughter insisted I carry with me on any given day). They don’t make these anymore, and when they finally give up the ghost, I will be devastated.

Then there’s the artfully ripped jeans. The back left pocket of these well-loved pants tore when they got caught on a tractor implement. The hammer loop (which is actually completely useless) is tattered because it catches on everything, including the knobs of my cabinets at home—very annoying. Not visible are the mended front pockets, which developed holes due to carrying around loose hardware and sharp giblets. Without these extra stitches, your change winds up in your boots!

Don’t forget the “give and take” jeans. The first area to “give” is always just above the double knee due to repeatedly carrying harvest crates, tools, and other whatnot and the sharp corners on our greenhouse tables that catch our pants at that exact height. Randomly spaced dark spots are a combination of mud, grease, used vegetable oil (used to fuel our delivery truck), and resin from harvesting sunflowers. Some of the newer spots are from sneaking bits of leftover flourless chocolate birthday cake from the crew fridge and wiping the sticky evidence on my pants.

Finally, we have the real dirty Real Dirty Pants. The soggy knees variety originated from a morning of transplanting fall stock—a beautiful, fragrant flower. (The flowers smell infinitely better than the pants.) And the holes-in-the-knees style is created by crawling miles of veggie beds in order to hand weed them.

If, as the poet Kahlil Gibran suggests, “work is love made visible,” then Real Dirty Pants are work made visible, and we love our work!

The Sweet Life

Keeping Bees and Making Honey

By Mary Reilly, Photos by Dominic Perri

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One of my first taste memories is a sweet one. Each summer we would visit my grandmother in a remote corner of Greece. I have no doubt that the food we ate was prepared with care and love, but the most vivid memory I have is of honey.

The honey from this region of Greece was thick and rich. It took ages to drizzle across my breakfast toast, but the flavor was worth the wait. Mouth-filling and decadent, it was Messina’s version of a pop-tart, and a sensory experience I will never forget.

With this introduction to honey, it was no surprise that when my husband, Dave, and I moved to a plot of land that was large enough, we got bees. Becoming a beekeeper is not difficult––there are so many resources: beekeepers’ club, countless websites, and farming friends. The beekeeping community is a welcoming one. Once one starts to keep bees, one can’t help but become an evangelist for the practice.

 

Beekeeping Basics

The first step when jumping into the world of beekeeping is a purely practical one: Where will your hives be located? Obviously, check with your local municipality first as there may be rules about where a hive can be sited. Then, look for an area on your property that gets sun and is located far enough from buildings and structures so the bees have room for their runway (more on that to follow).

Next you’ll need a hive. Hives are comprised of boxes and supers. The supers are where the bees build their comb. A few covers complete the setup. You can pop your hive on a stand if desired, but cinder blocks will do the job pretty well.

Protective equipment is a good idea too. You don’t need a full-on bee suit. Dave and I got along fine with heavy-weight (to deter stings) and light-colored (to keep from getting too warm in the sun) clothing, a hat with a bee veil, and thick leather gloves. A smoker is also a help; it’s a can attached to a bellows that you’ll use to puff smoke gently over the hives. The smoke slows bees down and also sends them into the bottom of the hive, giving the beekeeper a safe margin in which to work.

Then you need to acquire your bees. Most bees in our area are trucked up from Georgia. Order a box (about 10,000 bees plus a queen) per hive.

It’s a magical (and absolutely terrifying) day when the bees arrive. Your ladies (they will almost all be females) will be cranky and sluggish from their trip. With confidence and no hesitation, crack those boxes open, and firmly tap the bees out of their boxes. The bees will fly everywhere, but they are most keenly focused on their queen and finding food.

As you are the most hospitable of hosts, you will have provided them an endless buffet of rich sugar syrup. This gives them energy to start building comb and to explore their new habitat. As the hive strengthens, you’ll taper off the syrup and the bees will take care of themselves.

Leave It to the LADIES

Bees know what they’re up to. There is very little that we beekeepers need to do. When we watched our hives, it was clear that there was a plan in place. We used to joke that “the ladies know what to do.”

The bees create a “runway” in and out of the entrance of their hive. Every departure and return follows the same initial path down the runway––don’t get in the way!

A single queen is responsible for all reproduction in the hive. A queen flies about a mile from her hive on her “maiden” or “nuptial” flight to mate with up to 20 drones (male bees). She will only fly again if her hive swarms. Worker bees (all of which are female) fly as far as two miles to forage for nectar from flowers and trees. Drones fly only to mate with queens from other hives.

Worker bees produce honey as fuel for survival. They extract nectar from flowers, collecting pollen along the way, which is why they are such valuable pollinators. When they return to their hive, they regurgitate nectar into cells in the honeycomb. The nectar dehydrates and becomes what we know as honey.

The Sweet Stuff

Finally in the fall, you harvest. A healthy hive can produce up to 30 or more pounds of honey. A drier summer will result in a lower yield of richer, thicker honey. The weather doesn’t impact honey production directly, but it does impact what grows and flowers.

In general, honey can be substituted for maple syrup in recipes. I have also had great luck using honey in place of corn syrup in candy recipes. It changes up the flavor a little, but I haven’t had a recipe fail when making the change.

Substituting honey for sugar can be more challenging. Reduce the amount of sugar and the total liquid in the recipe by about 25% each. (For more everyday use, I use honey in my coffee instead of sugar.) Some trial and error may be needed to get to an ideal result but any experiments are likely to still be delicious.

Learn more about beekeeping and creating bee-friendly backyards from these local experts:

Franklin County Beekeepers Association
franklinmabeekeepers.org

Hampden County Beekeepers Association Bee School
hampden-county-beekeepers.org

Warm Colors Apiary
warmcolorsapiary.com

Pollinators Welcome
pollinatorswelcome.com

 

Making Time for Tea

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By Jordana Starr, Photos by Dan Little

A hot cup of tea is often the best prescription for melting the winter chills away. As spring moves into summer and we trade warm boots for flip-flops, however, tea drinkers often relegate hot tea to the occasional chilly summer night. But tea isn’t just a beverage for the winter and late fall; there are teas for every season—even the dog days of summer.

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I sit down on a comfy couch by the windows at Crepes Tea House in West Springfield and open the thick, leather-bound tea menu, which is divided into seven sections: chai, oolong, white, green, herbal, black, and red. Each tea can be ordered by the cup, pot, or samovar, a traditional metal urn with a spigot. The teas—there are currently 134 on the menu—have juicy-sounding names like mango sorbet, tropical ambrosia, acai berry, and blood orange. I order a cup each of the strawberry rose oolong and pomegranate white tea.

“At first, we had 100 teas,” says Arturas Ribinskas, who opened Crepes Tea House in 2010. But after a few years in business, the menu was ready for a change. He held a private tasting for his employees and regular customers, which resulted in 50 teas getting the axe, with another 80 being added to the menu. “All our teas are organic,” Ribinskas adds. “They contain real fruit and no artificial ingredients.”

The food menu is a blend of Russian specialities and Western dishes. As my teas arrive, I order the pelmeni dumplings and nalesniki, a ricotta-filled crepe.

Ribinskas came to the United States from Lithuania in 2000, after trying for nine years to run an auto parts business in the former Soviet state. But between an inconsistent legal framework, corruption, and brain drain after joining the EU, Lithuania was not a hospitable place to do business. “You know how you have that moment in your life when you need to change your surroundings?” he asks me. “It was time.”

I watch the teas change color, from clear to blush, the dried fruit and flowers imparting their color. The strawberry rose oolong is very light on the palate, and the vanilla adds a creaminess and thus balance to what could otherwise be an astringent tea. The pomegranate white tea is more fruit forward, with a rich fruit aroma, a little bit of tang, and just a hint of sweetness to the finish. The teas are both warming and refreshing.

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My food arrives and it is well worth the wait. “It takes a little time,” Ribinskas says, “because we prepare all food to order and use fresh ingredients.” The dumplings are delightfully savory, and the crepes are the perfect balance of tart and sweet.

I lean back on the couch, enjoying the last sips of my tea. Ribinskas invites me to stay as long as I’d like. “We’re creating a cozy and welcoming atmosphere here where friends and family can come together and enjoy spending time together.”

Next time, I’ll be sure to bring some friends.

261 Union St., West Springfield
Sunday–Thursday: 7am–11pm
Friday & Saturday: 7am–1am

Last Bite

When I think about summer vegetables, my fantasies turn to juicy tomatoes, those cute little cucamelon cucumbers (they look like a baby watermelon!), and juicy red peppers. My reality, however, is usually zucchini. One plant can yield what feels like hundreds of pounds and by the end of the summer I’m struggling to find new ways to use this seasonal, and very economical, vegetable.

A few years ago I was introduced to Sicilian Sun-Dried Zucchini by Hank Shaw of the website Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook (honest-food.net). You salt zucchini for an hour or so, blot it dry, and dehydrate it until it’s leathery and just starting to turn brown in spots.

Sicilian Sun-Dried Zucchini

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This is zucchini at its most zucchini-ful. With most of the water gone, all you taste is the purest essence of zucchini. You can use a dehydrator as I did, or lay the zucchini on parchment-lined sheet pans and roast at 140° until dehydrated (about 6 hours), or string it up on string or skewers and hang the rounds outside to dry. Store the dried zucchini airtight in the freezer.

4 zucchini, about 3 pounds

2 tablespoons salt

Slice zucchini into disks about ¼ inch thick. In a large bowl, toss zucchini rounds with salt. Let them rest for about an hour.

Pat the disks dry and put into a dehydrator or use one of the methods outlined above. Dehydrate until pliable and dry, but not crisp.

Store in the freezer.

Using sun-dried zucchini

Toss the zucchini rounds into vegetable soup to rehydrate.

Sauté the zucchini in hot oil with sun-dried tomatoes, sliced garlic, chopped chilies; top with lemon juice before serving.

Make a simple frittata for 4: Whisk 8 eggs together, add 2 handfuls of sun-dried zucchini, a handful of shredded cheese, and a generous amount of chopped fresh herbs. Pour into a nonstick 10-inch skillet and cook, covered, over medium heat until the eggs are cooked through.

Honey

Honey is made of the stuff of summer. From warm rains and sun feeding plants to flower. Stirred with a steady song in the bellies of bees.

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A drizzle of honey runs slow and heavy like the summer heat. And good honey, of which there is plenty in the Valley, truly elevates a cup of tea, a bowl of salad, or a dish of ice cream with that sweet-warm taste of summer. Our publisher, Mary Reilly, takes us inside the hive on page 17 and then into the kitchen with honey on page 19.

Summer means eating al fresco. That might mean lunch from Amherst’s New York Halal Cart (page 25), a sweet treat to go from Hot Oven Cookies in Holyoke (page 35), or barbecue in the backyard or out on the town (page 32).

And what would summer be without tomatoes? In Chef’s Kitchen on page 5, Chef Sanford D’Amato has two tomato recipes for us—one quick and easy, one with a bit more flair. While waiting for those Beefsteaks and Sungolds to ripen, you can read about another summer favorite: fish. From the hatchery to the riverbank, on page 28 Laura Sayre takes a closer look at local fishing.

This issue marks the start of our fifth year as your local culinary quarterly. Thanks to you and our advertisers, we will continue combing the Valley’s fields and kitchens for stories and recipes that help readers connect with their neighbors and their meals. What could be sweeter than that?

Marykate Smith Despres

A Food Cart Creates Community

Halal Cart Offers Taste of Islamic Culture

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By Faizan Hassan, Photos by Dan Little

In front of the Unitarian Church on North Pleasant Street in Amherst lies a hidden gem in plain sight: a gem worth six bucks and the potential to rock one’s world.

Elsayed Fathi, owner of the New York Halal Cart, came to the United States from Egypt in 1994 as a 19-year-old looking for work. “I wanted to live the American dream, so I came here I guess,” he says. “I worked in New York for somebody’s cart [and] that’s how I learned to cook.”

Nearly 20 years later, while visiting a friend at UMass, Fathi saw a new opportunity: Despite large numbers of Muslim students in the area, there was a lack of halal food (food sanctioned by Islamic law). In 2012, he left his cart in New York City to be run by his brother and set up shop in Amherst.

“Getting my town permit was hard,” he says. “Because, before me, there weren’t any food trucks in Amherst. I was the first one.”

Fathi cooks “American halal,” a complex melting pot of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and New York street food. “This is not really Egyptian street food,” says Fathi. “It’s a New York invention.”

Popularized in New York in the early ’90s, the first-ever “American halal” cart was founded when two Egyptian immigrants opened up a hot dog stand on 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, and soon realized the potential for halal street food. They introduced meals with meat, pita, and rice, and hence gave birth to “the halal food culture” or “American halal.”

Halal means permissible in Arabic. Certain foods, like alcohol and pork, are not allowed under Islamic guidelines. Meats such as chicken, lamb, and beef are considered halal only when they are slaughtered under Islamic law.

For a meat to be considered halal it must be slaughtered humanely, according to Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a halal certifying agency. Further: “The name of God [Allah] is to be pronounced as a reminder that we do not have the right to take the animal’s life except by the permission of God to meet our need for food.”

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Fathi’s menu consists of only a few items: chicken or lamb over rice or in a filled sandwich. Both are generously covered with a secret-ingredient white sauce.

“The white sauce is bomb,” says Tauqeer Hassan, a student at Holyoke Community College and a regular at the New York Halal Cart. “I’m studying business in college and honestly, there’s a lot to learn from Fathi. Most importantly, the great customer service he provides.”

Fathi operates from a three- by eight-foot cart complete with a grill, gyro machine, steam table, and a small generator to operate the lights when it gets dark. Customers gather around the cart, chat, and watch him cook. He takes orders via an earbud from those who call ahead, while cooking for and joking with those in line.

Though there are many restaurants to compete with in downtown Amherst, Fathi has the advantage of lower expenses, especially when it comes to rent. Lunch cart permits are only $125 annually.

“I don’t have to pay high rents when the university is closed,” he says. “I keep my costs down and choose not to come during winter break when weather is rough and business is low.”

Fathi’s success isn’t just smart economics and good food. His cart, though small, has created a sense of community as a popular hangout spot for the UMass Muslim Student Association (MSA).

Most Fridays after prayer, MSA members gather at Fathi’s cart and celebrate the end of the week.

“We come in groups, socialize, and enjoy the delicious food,” says Zara Mehmood, MSA president.

“The food is delicious. It’s the best value, and he’s a very fun and nice guy,” says Talha Khan, a sophomore at UMass. “My family is from Pakistan, and I grew up eating biryani, which is a very special dish, since I am not close to home. This is the closest thing to biryani that I can find.”

A version of this story was originally published in Amherst Regional High School’s student newspaper, The Graphic.

 

 

Fish Local

Catch-and-eat in the Pioneer Valley

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By Laura Sayre, Photos by Dan Little

You either see it or you don’t. On Route 116 between Amherst and Sunderland, a small brown sign: TROUT HATCHERY. If you fish, you know what this means. If you don’t, you may not see it at all. Trout?

We hear a lot these days about the overfishing of the oceans, about the sustainability of different fisheries, about the healthfulness (or otherwise) of consuming different types of fish. But virtually all of these discussions assume you are standing in a supermarket or sitting in a restaurant. That sign hints at the fact that there are other places to stand: at the water’s edge, for instance, with a fishing pole in your hands.

Commercial fishing is overwhelmingly concentrated on marine fishing, but freshwater recreational fishing dwarfs saltwater recreational fishing in terms of numbers of participants and time and money spent fishing (according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Americans collectively spent 383 million days freshwater fishing, vs. just 75 million days saltwater fishing). The State of Massachusetts, via the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (aka MassWildlife), does a great deal to support recreational freshwater fishing.

Central to their efforts is the trout stocking program, of which the trout hatchery in Sunderland is a part. Nearly half a million trout, most of them 12 inches long or longer, are stocked between April and May each year, along with another 60,000 or so in the fall. The fish are put into hundreds of publicly accessible locations—lakes, ponds, rivers, and brooks—across the state (a full list can be found at mass.gov/trout).

The primary mission of the program is recreation, explains Marion Larson, chief of information and education for MassWildlife. The agency also engages in conservation, restoration, and monitoring activities, but the trout stocking is designed as a “put and take” as opposed to a “put and grow” system—they are there to be fished, free for the taking (while respecting daily catch limits and other regulations) once you have purchased your fishing license. Kids ages 14 and under can fish without a license, and the first weekend in June is traditionally designated as “free fishing weekend,” with no licenses required.

The primary rationale for the trout-stocking program is the economic stimulus that fishing provides—the bait and tackle shops, the boating, the travel, the gear. (At the national level, the US Fish & Wildlife Service estimates the economic value of fishing at $46 billion a year.) The program is also largely self-supporting, funded by license fees and via a federal excise tax on fishing equipment. Approximately 200,000 fishing licenses are purchased in Massachusetts each year.

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Trout have been grown in hatcheries for a hundred years or more. They are both popular for fishing and respond well to hatchery production, says MassWildlife Assistant Director of Fisheries Todd Richards. The Massachusetts program currently raises four types of trout: brook trout, native to Massachusetts; rainbow trout, the most numerous in the hatcheries, native to the western United States; brown trout, a European species; and tiger trout, a cross between male brook trout and female brown trout.

Four of the five state trout facilities are in the Pioneer Valley (in Sunderland, Montague, Belchertown, and Palmer). The fifth is in Sandwich, on the Cape. The brood stock are maintained in Sandwich and Palmer and then the hatchlings are grown out in open, outdoor “raceways”—long rectangular basins with through-flowing water—at the other facilities. The trout are fed on fish pellets made from whole wheat, fish meal, soybean meal, and other ingredients for 1½ to 2 years until they reach the 12-inch release size.

The hatcheries themselves are interesting places to visit, particularly with kids. The McLaughlin Fish Hatchery in Belchertown is the biggest, with 10 paired raceways about 500 feet long located just west of the Swift River, near the base of the Quabbin. The Sunderland and Montague hatcheries are older and more scenic, with old stonework and tall pines shading the raceways. You can buy a handful of fish food from a dispenser for a quarter, and watch trout of different sizes swirl and surge around in the water. Great blue herons stalk the edges of the raceways, while gulls circle overhead.

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Of course, there are many other types of fish to be caught in the Valley—including shad, bass, pickerel, and walleye—and many anglers practice catch-and-release as opposed to catch-and-eat. Some areas are designated as catch-and-release only. Advocates of catch-and-eat point out that an unknown number—possibly 50% or more—of caught-and-released fish won’t survive, so you are not necessarily conserving fish by not consuming them.

There are, it should be emphasized, fish consumption advisories, particularly for certain species and certain waters. The major contaminants of concern are mercury and PCBs. Because trout that have been stocked by MassWildlife will have had little time to accumulate contaminants in their bodies, these are considered to be among the safest fish to eat. The official guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health state that pregnant women, women intending to become pregnant, nursing mothers, and children under 12 should not eat any freshwater fish caught in Massachusetts except for stocked trout. Guidelines for other people depend on the species and the body of water, but many types of fish are fine to eat in moderation. (See mass.gov/dph for more information.)

“Being able to eat something that you’ve caught is one of the motivators for people being out there,” says Larson. In terms of popularity among Massachusetts fishermen and -women, according to Richards, “Bass are number 1; trout are number 2.”

Jeremiah Kermensky, who grew up in the Valley and fished with his father and grandfather and now fishes with his young daughter, says they catch mostly bass and stocked trout, throwing the bass back. “Our family ate a dozen trout over the winter. Anything you can get that fresh is going to be delicious,” he says.

What he enjoys about fishing in the Valley, too, is the range of places you can go. “We go to Nashawannuck Pond in Easthampton, to the Ware River, to Ashfield Lake, ice fishing on Cranberry Pond, between Sunderland and Montague. People have their little places they like to go, but there are always new places to discover.”

That attitude points to the other value of recreational freshwater fishing, intimately linked to its food value: It gets people out into the woods and on the water, where they can observe the state of our local environment firsthand. “Fish are the classic canary in the coal mine,” Richards says. “The fishing opportunities in the state have dramatically improved since I was a kid … Water quality in particular has gotten quite a bit better since the 1970s, thanks to the Clean Water Act.”

Challenges today are more often linked to water flow and to habitat than to pollution issues per se, he says, “although we still have the challenges associated with a high population density in a small state.” MassWildlife continues to improve wild fish populations through habitat restoration and protection, but in the meantime stocked trout function as a kind of farmed-fish-in-the-wild, getting us out of the supermarket and into the woods.

More information about freshwater fishing in Massachusetts, including regulations, public events, and waterway access details, is available online at mass.gov/trout and related pages.

 

Salad Season

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story and food styling By Joy Howard, Photo by Dominic Perri

When summer arrives, there are few things I crave more than simple, effortless food. Spaghetti smothered with a fresh batch of basil pesto, pan-fried zucchini fritters, or barbecued anything. My family has a long list of favorites that we return to throughout the season, but the one repeat meal you’ll find most frequently on the table is salad.

For us, salads are quintessential summer dinner not only because the main ingredients are at their most delicious and abundant, but also because of how each heaping bowl comes together. Some of our go-to versions require little or no cooking (a real boon for a hot summer day!), readily lend themselves to improvisation, and—if you have anyone in the house like my 6-year-old—provide a great outlet for the food-chopping obsessed. With a supply of freshly plucked greens for the base, you don’t need much to make a satisfying meal—a simple homemade vinaigrette, herby roasted veggies, a grilled portion of fish, or a scattering of crumbled goat cheese. Just like the best summer days, a good salad is easygoing and filled with possibility!

I came up with this simple version during a weekend visit to a friend’s house last summer. I’d brought along a bag of my favorite salad greens and some local strawberries—two of the most delicious things I could find at the farmers’ market. I hadn’t put much thought into how I’d use them to make a meal, but the resulting salad, improvised with what I brought and what I could find in her fridge—has become one of my all-time favorites. Aside from the irresistible homemade strawberry vinaigrette, the star here is the salad greens. You can use your favorite, but I highly recommend seeking out the best, which, locally, means the salad mix at Old Friends Farm in Amherst. It’s a blend of flavorful baby greens that includes spicy leaves, and is well worth the effort of seeking out. (It’s the only salad my family eats from May to November.) If you don’t feel like cranking up the oven, try adding 1 or 2 cups of shredded raw beets in place of the roasted potatoes.

Summer berry salad with chicken, herbed potatoes, and goat cheese

For the potatoes

1 pound baby potatoes, halved

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

For the dressing

⅓ cup chopped strawberries

Half a large shallot, cut into chunks

½ cup olive oil

¼ cup white balsamic vinegar

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

For the salad

1 (5- to 8-ounce) bag or carton mixed salad greens

4–6 large strawberries, sliced

⅓ cup chopped walnuts

1 rotisserie chicken, sliced

¼ cup crumbled goat cheese

Heat the oven to 425°. In a small bowl, toss together the ingredients for the potatoes. Spread the potatoes onto a baking sheet and bake until the potatoes are tender and lightly browned, flipping halfway through, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the ingredients for the dressing in a small bowl. With an immersion blender, purée the ingredients until smooth. 

In a large bowl, toss together the strawberries, walnuts, and ⅓ of the prepared dressing. Taste and add more dressing if desired. Divide the salad among 4 to 6 bowls, top each with chicken and goat cheese, and then tuck a portion of potatoes on the side.

When Fruit Inspires Community

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By Trish Crapo, Photos by Dan Little, Trish Crapo, and Dominic Perri, Food styling by Joy Howard

Ten years ago, a favorite customer brought us what looked like four dead sticks and said, “Here, stick these in the greenhouse and see what happens.”

The customer, a Brooklyn schoolteacher who, decades ago, built a weekend retreat here in Leyden, is Italian. She and her neighbors tend fig trees in their backyards in Brooklyn, coddling varieties brought from the homeland.

My husband, Tom Ashley, was dubious. The sticks didn’t look like much. His only experience with figs had been eating Fig Newtons. Neither of us had ever seen a fresh fig.

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Flash forward 10 years and we’ve got six fig trees planted in the ground of the greenhouse here at Dancing Bear Farm, their branches straining the plastic during peak season. Hundreds more of five varieties grow in variously sized pots. One friendly gesture ended up charting a new course for our 30-year-old farm, emboldening us to grow things we wouldn’t have considered before. In the greenhouse, we’ve also got an olive tree, a clementine tree, and a giant rosemary bush.

“My little Mediterranean,” Tom calls it.

Certain foods seem to spark community, uniting people who share a passion for them, like the local Italian men’s lunch group that went crazy for the figs, or the Puerto Rican woman who reached out for fig starts for her fledgling small farm, hoping to help diversify the island’s diet. I’d thought this story would be about that sense of community.

But then, on the night of April 4, a cold front moved in, bringing 40- to 50-mph winds. We woke to find the skin of our large hoop house torn and flapping. Temps had been in the low 20s overnight. The sky was spitting snow.

All of a sudden, our fig story was about survival.

That night, Tom lost 30 trays of tomato plants, part of an order for a nursery. The rest of the order consisted of potted fig trees that had been healthy just the day before, with green leaves and even some small fruit. Now they looked discouragingly like those first four sticks.

Whatever we’d wanted to do that day went right out the window.

I headed off to buy plastic while Tom rounded up a crew of neighbors to be on call once the wind died down. But the wind blew all day. Temps remained in the mid-20s.

Finally, around 5pm, we had a lull. Using a system of boards and ropes, we tossed the plastic over. So far, so good. Then, a gust lifted the plastic like a parasail. It soared and roiled around us.

“It was a 72-foot-long kite,” Tom remembers, shaking his head. “Everybody’s just holding on to their one part, trying to keep it down until somebody comes along with a screw gun and a board.”

It took 12 people two hours to get the greenhouse properly secured. It’s hard to remember anything except the plastic lashing around us. During one gust, our neighbor Lynette and I were lifted right off the ground, clutching plastic in our fists.          

The nursery agreed to take their tomato order late and Tom was able to replant from tiny seedlings that had survived on a heating pad. But it took a solid month before we began to see any significant recovery in the fig trees.

At this writing, in early May, all of what Tom calls the “mother trees,” the ones in the ground, have grown new leaves. Many of the potted ones are showing signs of life as well. Whether they’ll bear fruit this year, and how much, remains to be seen.

The storm was a great reminder of a couple of things: that nature is unpredictable, and much more powerful than we are. All farming—in fact, all human activity—is finally subservient to it. But we were reminded, too, as leaves began to sprout, of the resilience of plants. And of the incredible generosity of our friends and neighbors, who helped when we needed them.

So, in a sense, this fig story is still a story of community. For that, we’re grateful.

 

Fig Marsala Reduction Sauce

Tom makes reduction sauces for almost any kind of meat: steak, lamb, pork, or goat, even chicken or fish. For lighter meats, use vermouth or white wine. For red meats, we like to use marsala, a fortified wine from the region surrounding the city of Marsala, in Sicily. It comes sweet or dry. We prefer dry.

You can make a wine reduction without figs, but, as Tom says, “If you have the figs, that just aces it. Whatever you do, when you throw a few figs in there, it’s going to be delicious.”

½ cup dry marsala

8 fresh figs, cut into quarters

2 or 3 shallots, minced

2 or 3 garlic cloves

1 to 2 tablespoons of butter or ghee

Fresh or dried herbs such as rosemary or thyme to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 4 small steaks or chops

Rub steak or chops with salt and pepper or your favorite dry rub and let sit while you prep the rest of the ingredients.

Sear steak or chops 2 to 3 minutes per side in a very hot skillet or grill pan. Reduce heat and cook, flipping as needed, until just before desired doneness.

Remove meat and cover with foil to rest.

Pour in the marsala.

With the pan still hot, add butter and sauté the shallots and garlic.

Turn down the head and simmer on medium high.

Turn the heat down further and let the shallots caramelize, stirring often.

Throw in the figs, turn the heat back up, and get the pan sizzling hot in order to heat the figs through. Stir or shake the pan to distribute the sauce, while allowing it to thicken.

Add more marsala as needed.

Turn the heat off and let the sauce rest while you plate the meat. Then drizzle over the meat and spoon the figs on top. Serve and eat!

Sharing the Cookie Love

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Sheila Coon of Hot Oven Cookies

By Allison Litera, Photos by Dan Little

Sheila Coon, a mother of seven and grandmother of 10, is equal parts sweetness and strength. She is all about “sharing the cookie love” and appreciates the journey she’s taken to get to where she is today.

The self-proclaimed “cookie nerd” started Hot Oven Cookies in 2016. Originally a cookie delivery business, it has morphed into a mobile cookie cart and a flagship store opening on Main Street in Downtown Springfield this summer.

“Our mission is about more than just insanely delicious cookies,” she says. “It’s also about restored faith and hope, renewed significance and worth, and freedom through the flexibility of business ownership!”

Coon was married for 21 years before she got divorced. After the divorce, she needed a flexible job that would pay the bills and feed the kids.

“I was an average Joe,” she says. “I didn’t have the assets like other professional bakers. With over a decade of experience in the culinary industry and a college degree, I surprisingly couldn’t find anything that fit the bill.”

Coon had worked primarily as a cook and caterer, but she also loved baking. She decided to create her own job opportunity and start a bakery franchise. She drew inspiration from her family.

“When my mom divorced my dad, she started her own warm cookie business,” Coon says. “She influenced me by the way she was able to sustain our family with only fresh baked goods.”

Food was at the center of many of Coon’s large Puerto Rican family gatherings. “Baking cookies made sense,” she says, “especially with so many kids around.”

But Coon wanted her business mission to go beyond baking cookies.

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“[Hot Oven Cookies] is a mobile bakery franchise that seeks to empower women and veterans toward attainable and sustainable self-employment through sales of fresh gourmet cookies through our cookie carts and kiosks,” says Coon, who has several veterans in her family, including her husband. She hopes to add several more cookie carts into rotation within the coming months, and already has a few people interested in becoming franchisees.

Those bakers will have their hands full: Hot Oven Cookies has nearly 100 flavors in rotation throughout the year. Coon uses five bases to create varieties like Dark Chocolate Sea Salt, Pecan Chip, Oreo Butterfinger Chip, Guava Cheesecake, and French Toast Bacon Snickerdoodles. The inspiration came from her home kitchen.

“With seven children, not one wanted the same cookie flavor,” she laughs. “I kept a book and wrote down all their flavor requests. It blossomed from there. Some of my favorites are Nutella Truffle Chip, Ice Cream Sundae, and Oatmeal Blueberry Supreme.”

Coon does her best to utilize local ingredients where she can and is always on the lookout for new community partnerships. “We use local milk from Mapleline Farm in Hadley. We also make our own jams and jellies to use in certain cookie flavors.”

But there’s more to a delicious cookie than the flavor.

“For me, it’s not just about buying a cookie. It’s about the experience my customers have,” Coon says. “Seeing the mint green food truck from afar, walking up and reading the menu, catching a whiff of the cookies baking inside the truck.”

If the cookies don’t win you over, she certainly will. Coon’s charisma, huge smile, and motherly charm elevate comfort food to an even more comforting experience. Her cookies are warm, but her personality is warmer.

“When someone bites into a delicious cookie, their whole expression changes,” she says. “They become visually more relaxed and a smile is brought to their face. That is one of the biggest rewards of my business.”

 

Find Hot Oven Cookies at the Holyoke and South Hadley farmers markets and local events this summer.
hotovencookies.com

A SUMMER CHRISTMAS

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by Sanford D’Amato, Photos by Dominic Perri, Food Styling by Joy Howard

You know that feeling that you would get as a child on Christmas Eve—kind of jumpy, excitable, and restless as the anticipation builds? That’s how I feel at this time of year as I go through the farmers’ market. Those feelings accelerate after Memorial Day while viewing the astonishing array of flowering plants and vegetable sets. Beautiful? Yes. But there is nothing to eat!

In our garden I’ve tilled, I’ve planted, I’ve fertilized and watered, and just when I think I can’t wait any longer, they appear. It starts with tiny red Sweet 100s and Yellow Teardrops, on to the dark orange Sungolds and those formidable giant Beefsteaks, all pulling down the vines as they gain heft. Yes, I’m talking about tomatoes.

I revel in every type of vegetable and fruit, but tomatoes define summer for me. There is never a day when there is not a plump beauty calling me from our kitchen counter. One of my favorite preparations is a throwback classic from my first days in cooking: a salad-stuffed tomato.

The stuffed tomato should be the perfect lunch, a self-contained package of summer. Over the years when I’ve ordered a stuffed tomato—always during the summer season—I should be cutting into an intensely red, fragile bowl that yields and weeps with rich, sun-ripened tomato juiciness. But it usually just scowls with a hard-edged, dry, mealy-ness. After I pick out all the filling, usually chicken salad, the tomato goes back to the kitchen with its sturdy, useless walls intact.

I made my first stuffed tomato when I was a 19-year-old lunch apprentice at a small steakhouse in Milwaukee. The main bulk of my job entailed tending to the extensive salad bar that accompanied the lunch and dinner entrées. My days were filled with cleaning and cutting lettuce and vegetables, preparing eight salad dressings, and helping the chef with plate setups for lunch. The day of the week I lived for was Monday, the one day of the week I could suggest a special to the chef. My very first suggestion was meant to impress the chef: a stuffed tomato. Years before, I had viewed one at a local department store lunch counter and was spellbound with the magnificent knife work that had to be mastered to make the zigzag “crown look” around the rim. The first one I made was delicately placed on a large leaf of iceberg lettuce and mounded high with homemade tuna salad and a dusting of chopped parsley. I naively felt like I had turned an artistic corner in my fledgling career.

Today, my tomato is filled with grilled and chilled shrimp and cucumber salad that is bolstered with large-grain Israeli or pearl couscous. It is dressed with tomato center dressing made from the cut-out center of the ripe market tomato cradle. The acidity from the seeds adds a tart counterpoint to the sweet shrimp and the full-flavored grain.

Get yourself to the farmers’ market when tomatoes are ripe and plentiful and fill your basket. This is not only the perfect time, it is the only time during the year to try this or other fresh tomato recipes. If you’re like me, as you sit down to dig in with the sun shining and the Valley in full bloom, you’ll just know that Christmas actually arrives twice a year.

SEARED SHRIMP, GRAPE AND ISRAELI COUSCOUS–STUFFED SUMMER TOMATO WITH TOMATO CENTER DRESSING

For 4

1 pound fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined, each shrimp cut in half along the vein line

2 teaspoons ground ginger

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

⅜ teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup green grapes, washed, drained, and cut in half

1 cucumber (8 ounces), peeled, cut in half horizontally, seeds removed, and each half cut in ½-inch slices

Israeli Couscous (recipe follows)

¼ cup fresh mint leaves, chopped

4 large ripe market tomatoes, top cut off; scoop out tomato without cutting into sides or bottom flesh and reserve centers

Tomato Center Dressing (recipe follows)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place a large sauté pan over high heat. Mix the shrimp in a bowl with the ginger, pepper, salt, and oil. When pan is hot, add the shrimp and sear for about 30 seconds per side, turning over with tongs, until shrimp are just cooked through. Transfer to a plate and refrigerate to cool.

When cold, mix the shrimp with grapes, cucumber, mint, and couscous. Add half of the Tomato Center Dressing and mix well. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Lightly season the insides of each tomato with salt and pepper and stuff each with a portion of the shrimp/couscous salad. Divide the remaining salad onto 4 plates. Place 1 tomato in the center of each salad. Garnish plate with the remaining dressing or serve on the side.

the Israeli Couscous

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion (4 ounces), diced

1 bay leaf

½ cup dry white wine

Zest of 1 lemon

1½ teaspoons kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1¼ cups unsalted chicken stock

1 cup Israeli or pearl couscous

Place a small saucepot over medium-high heat. When hot, add the oil, onion, and bay leaf. Sauté, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine and lemon zest and reduce to almost dry. Add the pepper, salt, and stock and bring up to a boil. Add the couscous and bring up to a simmer. Cover and cook until tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain any remaining liquid, place couscous in a bowl and refrigerate until needed.

the Tomato Center Dressing

¾ cup reserved tomato centers

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon chopped shallot

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Place all ingredients together in a blender. Blend until smooth and emulsified. Reserve cold in refrigerator until needed.

A Taste of Honey

Whether you keep your own bees or get your sweet stuff from the farmers’ market, you’ll need to get your hands on some honey for these fresh, summer recipes.

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Honey is a natural choice for glazes, dressings, and marinades. Its richness adds another note of summer to in-season vegetables, on the grill or in a salad. Its sweet kiss completes a cool cocktail. And nothing tastes more deeply of summer in the Valley than homemade ice cream made with fresh, local milk and honey.

Southern Delights

BBQ in Hampden County

By Gina Beavers, Photos by Dan Little

It may seem like ancient history now, but a few weeks back we were celebrating spring’s hard-won victory over a rather cruel winter. As the bitter chills of winter subsided and spring stretched wide her arms to shake off her deep slumber, verdant spears of asparagus reminded us that lighter and brighter culinary fare was on the horizon. And that, eventually, those light flavors of spring would succumb to the full-throated tastes of summer.

While few would argue that the fertile soil of Western Mass yields some of the finest summer crops in the country, even fewer would deny their love for one of summer’s more delicious rites of passage: barbecue.

American barbecue is more a religion than a culinary genre, a time-honored summer tradition from coast to coast. But what makes barbecue a thing? From the diner’s perspective, it’s usually about the tender and flavorful meats dished up without the worry of beautiful plating or clean fingers. From the chef’s perspective, it’s the science.

“It’s the knowledge that it takes to make good barbecue,” says Chef Rich Daviau, owner of Damn Yankees BBQ in Holyoke. “You have to know your cuts of meat and you have to know what types of wood go with those meats. You have to know what flavor profile you’re going for.”

Of course, barbecue hasn’t always been the high art it is now; meat has been smoked and roasted since before history was recorded. Through trial, error, and inarguably gourmet touches of genius, barbecue is a global mainstay.

When we think about barbecue, however, we tend to think about the South rather than New England. And unlike Chef Daviau, most of us are far from being pit masters. The art of making fine barbecue, therefore, might be best left to those in the know. So if you haven’t mastered your grill or if it’s just too darned hot to fire up your backyard pit, check out the Southern side of the lower Pioneer Valley.

Theodore’s BBQ: Blues, Booze & BBQ

Theodore’s BBQ is a bonafide fan favorite situated in the 200 block of Worthington Street in downtown Springfield. It’s been in the same location for almost 40 years and is, at once, quaint and gritty—sweet and sour, if you will—the perfect balance. Family-friendly, the tables are covered with brown butcher paper, perfect for doodling with the crayons provided, or catching stray morsels from your relaxed Southern comfort-style meal.

“We smoke our own pork, brisket, chicken, and ribs with apple or hickory wood. The pork and brisket can take up to 12 or 13 hours to smoke. The chicken and ribs take about six hours,” says Keith Weppler, who co-owns Theodore’s BBQ with Keith Makarowski. The process, however, is never the same, he says. “From the amount of the wood to the weight of the meat … it’s different every single day.”

As for the rest of the menu: “We make most of it from scratch including our barbecue sauce.” The extensive menu includes three types of ribs, hamburgers, and house specials like jambalaya and smoked meatloaf dinner. Theodore’s also offers vegetarian options and a vegan and gluten-free black bean burger. Upon finishing your meal, Weppler recommends one particular treat: “You … have to try our bourbon bread pudding.”

Besides good food, this downtown institution can boast great live music throughout the week. If you want to hang out for a while, they’re open until 2am on the weekend.

Theodore’s BBQ
201 Worthington St., Springfield
Monday–Friday 11am–11pm, Saturday 5pm–2am
Sunday 4pm–2am

Sun Kim Bop

Barbecue is a worldwide tradition. From the Caribbean to Korea, you can travel the globe and discover delicious meats prepared for smoking or grilling.

For Korean barbecue, or gogi-gui, there’s Sun Kim Bop in downtown Springfield. Sun Kim Bop began as a hardworking food truck in 2013. Owner Sun Kim shuttled between Amherst, Springfield, and many other towns for lunch rushes, festivals, and events.

A native of Seoul, South Korea, Kim launched the food truck to introduce the Valley to the tastes of her home. “I learned cooking from my mom,” she says. “So I make my food … from scratch.” The truck’s popularity led her to open the brick-and-mortar location in 2017.

The open and airy restaurant is part of a slowly reviving strip of businesses on Main Street across the street from the MassMutual Center and a block from Springfield’s Court Square. Kim says that in spite of the early breakfast hours, the bulk of traffic happens during lunch.

Sun Kim Bop provides tastes of Korean street food including Korean BBQ short ribs or galbi. Scored and marinated, the bone-in beef ribs are smoked and served with a side of spicy Korean BBQ sauce. The meat is smokey and tastes very different from its American cousin.

The marinade is very light. “It’s all natural,” Chief Cook Gerald Gerardo says of the marinade. “It’s soy sauce, ground garlic, ginger, onion, lemon juice, white cooking wine, and sugar.” Served with white rice (bop) and a green salad, the dish is perfect for summer.

Gerardo’s quick tip about the kicky BBQ sauce: “It’s a little on the salty side, so a little goes a long way.”

Sun Kim Bop
1244 Main St., Springfield
Monday–Wednesday 8:30am–3pm
Thursday and Friday 8:30am–8pm
Saturday 11am–2pm and 4pm–8pm

 

Damn Yankees BBQ & Catering

Damn Yankees sits above a stretch of the Connecticut River and just feet away from a busy section of Holyoke’s Main Street. At first sight, you might not realize there’s a restaurant inside the unassuming brick building (better known as the Waterfront Tavern), which perhaps makes Chef Rich Daviau’s joint the best-kept secret in town.

Chef Daviau says that “to get good barbecue is really hard,” but he’s been serving it for years. Daviau is an undisputed barbecue expert and learned the art of smoking meat from some of the best pit masters in the South. With over 30 years of experience in the kitchen, Daviau opened Damn Yankees in 2015 and hasn’t looked back. Inspired by Sun Kim Bop, he expanded last year, taking his BBQ on the road with a food truck.

Damn Yankees churns out a variety of 12- to 18-hour slow-cooked meats six days a week. But when asked about the perfect Damn Yankees dining experience, Chef Daviau says, “Get the brisket.”

Of course, it can’t be all meat, all the time. Daviau says he has an appreciation for sustainable agriculture and purchases his summer produce from local farms including McKinstry’s Market Garden in Chicopee, his hometown.

Damn Yankees also provides backyard barbecues with custom menus. And because it’s New England, they’ll serve up a classic clambake and raw bar, crawfish and crab boil to satisfy traditional Yankee tastes.

Damn Yankees BBQ & Catering
920 Main St., Holyoke
Tuesday–Sunday 11am–11pm

Raising the Bar

Bar Snacks That Go Beyond the Basics

By Mary Reilly, Food Styling by Joy Howard, Photos by Dominic Perri

Who said bar food needs to be basic? Not us! With just a little effort, you can easily add flair (and vegetables!) to make old favorites new. Transform classic bar-top and couch-side snacks into even tastier treats and pair them with a local beer, a homemade soda, or a good game.

Mini Potato Skins

Cracker Jill

Inside-Out Shishito Poppers

Sriracha Cauliflower

Chickpea "Fries"

The Wildcrafting Brewer

By Mary Reilly, Photo by Pascal Baudar

From Pascal Baudar, author of The New Wildcrafted Cuisine (highlighted in Edible Pioneer Valley Issue 10 | Fall 2016), the newly released The Wildcrafting Brewer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018) will inspire a new level of creativity in true culinary DIYers.

Baudar talks us all through Lazy Wines, Herb Beers, and naturally fermented sodas. He also includes a section covering medicinal brews. 

Those who are new to home brewing and fermenting will appreciate that Baudar covers the basics: vessel selection, wild versus natural yeast, which type of sugar to use, etc. Experts will appreciate his take on ingredients: Where can we find natural sources of sweet, bitter, and savory? Baudar shares his experience and expertise through tips and methodology for successful fermentation and brewing. 

Whether you’re a brewer, forager, fermenter, or drinker of beverages, there is a perfect recipe to play with. Go wild!

FLOWER WINE (ELDERFLOWER CHAMPAGNE) 

This is an old traditional European recipe for making wine with elderflower. In Southern California we have Mexican elders (Sambucus mexicana) at low altitudes and the regular elder (S. nigra) in the mountains. One of the peculiarities of the Mexican elder is the fact that the flowers can be smaller, usually half to a quarter the size of the regular elder, which changes the recipe a bit. 

I don’t know why the wine is called a champagne—perhaps it’s due to the color and the fact that it’s bubbly. The old recipes make no mention of adding yeast, because it’s present on the flowers. I’ve had moderate success (probably around 70 percent) with spontaneous fermentation from the flowers, so these days I usually add some champagne or wine yeast if I don’t see any signs of fermentation after a couple of days. 

30 large Mexican elderflower heads or 20 regular elderflower heads 

1 gallon (3.78 L)
 water

3 cups (500–600 g) white sugar

3–4 lemons, zested and sliced

2 tablespoons (30 ml) vinegar (I use apple cider vinegar)

Champagne or wine yeast (optional—flowers should have wild yeast) 

Pick the elderflowers when they’re fresh and full of pollen. Fresh Mexican elderflowers look a bit greenish, while the older flowers are whiter. You’ll discover very quickly that elderflowers are loaded with little bugs. My solution to get rid of (most of) them is to place the flowers in a bowl outdoors for about an hour; the little bugs will vacate. You can’t really remove them all at this point, but as you strain your solution later on, it will take care of the remaining ones. 

Place the water in a container, add the sugar, and stir with a clean spoon to make sure it’s dissolved. 

Add the lemon zest and lemon slices, the elderflowers (remove as much of the stems as you can without going crazy about it), and the vinegar to the container and stir briefly with a clean spoon. Some people add commercial yeast at this stage. 

Close the container, but not so tight that fermentation gases can’t escape. You can also place a clean towel on top. Let the mixture stand for anywhere from 24 to 48 hours. If you didn’t use yeast, you should see some bubbles after 48 hours, indicating that the fermentation from wild yeast is active. If this doesn’t occur, then add some yeast at this stage. Using a clean spoon, make sure that you stir the liquid for a few seconds three or four times a day during this process. 

Strain the liquid (after 48 hours if additional yeast was necessary) into your fermenting vessel (bottle or bucket). Let the fermentation go for another 4 days. Using a layered cheesecloth when straining the liquid removes any remaining little bugs.

Your final step is to bottle your champagne in recycled soda bottles or swing-top glass bottles. Let it ferment for a week before enjoying. I like to check the pressure from time to time by unscrewing the bottle slightly to make sure it’s not excessive. 

Recipe and photo by Pascal Bauder, courtesy of Storey Press.