Food & Drink

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By Heidi Sutton & Ernestine Franco

After a winter punctuated with one snow or ice storm after another, it’s hard to believe that spring has finally arrived. Avid gardeners hibernating in their homes for what seemed like months have been keeping their spirits high by perusing the gardening catalogs for the latest plants and products, all the while patiently waiting for the ground to thaw.

In perfect timing, All-America Selections recently announced its list of new varieties of flowers and vegetables for 2015.  Names like Emerald Fire, Butterscotch, Jolt Pink, Dolce Fresca and Tidal Wave Red Velour are enough to get any gardener excited about trying something new.

Since 1932, this nonprofit organization has annually tested new varieties of flowers and vegetables in various locations throughout the United States and Canada. Judges look for improved qualities such as disease tolerance, early bloom or harvest dates, taste, unique colors and flavors, higher yield, length of flowering or harvest, and overall performance.

Here’s what the judges had to say about some of the award winners:

The Northeast can now plant entire gardens using these AAS winning varieties, all of which have been proven to have superior performance.

For a complete list of the new plants chosen by the AAS, as well as other information about the organization, visit their website at www.all-americaselections.org.

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Inferno Roadside Grill serves up a juicy cheeseburger in Mount Sinai this season. Photo by Lisa Steuer

By Lisa Steuer

A few years ago, most people would have defined a “food truck” as a vehicle parked on the side of the road that primarily sells hot dogs and is mostly appealing for the convenience it offers.

But today, many food truck operators around the country — and now, Long Island — are specialists in their profession. They are experienced chefs who have worked in kitchens for years, have food management experience, or who grew up learning about and appreciating mom’s authentic cooking. They are restaurant owners, wedding and party caterers and seasoned cooks and bakers who all have at least one thing in common — a passion and love for food and cooking.

Burgers by 25A
Patrick Trovato, a graduate of Port Jefferson high school and a current resident of Miller Place, has operated the Inferno Roadside Grill food truck since 2011. Located in Mount Sinai in the Agway parking lot, the Inferno Roadside Grill has built a following solely through word of mouth, said Trovato. Menu items include burgers, grilled chicken wraps, wings and more, and Trovato said he buys all the ingredients every morning, including the beef, which is ground fresh.

“I’ve only been able to do two things in my life — sales and cook,” said Trovato, who previously owned a New York City restaurant with his father and also worked in insurance.

You can spot Patrick Trovato’s truck, Inferno Roadside Grill in Mount Sinai this season. Photo by Lisa Steuer
You can spot Patrick Trovato’s truck, Inferno Roadside Grill in Mount Sinai this season. Photo by Lisa Steuer

Eventually, Trovato decided to leave the insurance industry and go back to his passion of cooking. He purchased an old camper for $500, and it took about four-and-a-half months to transform it into the food truck that exists today. Trovato did all his research, remodeled it, installed a commercial kitchen, made sure he met the proper codes and opened with help from his business partners — his girlfriend, and his friend Kevin, who owns Smithtown House of Vacuums.

“People can’t afford to risk or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a restaurant. So the food truck is a small capital investment, comparatively,” said Trovato. “With a food truck, you can just be great at one thing. … A food truck just lets you be a specialist.”

The Inferno Roadside Grill is open year round, Monday through Saturday, from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., weather permitting. This snowy winter, however, made it rough — from Thanksgiving through March, Trovato was not able to be open for a full week.

Looking forward, Trovato plans to open the Inferno Roadside Grill restaurant in Sound Beach by summer. The restaurant, which will be located at 245 Echo Avenue, will have the same menu currently available on the truck, expanded to include specialty “regional” burgers — burgers that are popular in different parts of the country — and possibly a Southern-fried chicken menu. When the restaurant opens, the truck will remain in operation, but the menu will most likely be pared down to strictly burgers and fries, while the other menu items will still be found at the restaurant.

“I have a special sauce on my burger,” said Trovato.  “When you take the fresh ground beef that’s been seared, seasoned, and you add the fresh crisp lettuce, tomato, onion, then you add the sauce, it’s a really unique flavor profile.”

Puerto Rico on Long Island
Roy and Kathleen Pelaez opened their Island Empanada restaurant in May 2011. There are now two locations, in Medford and Ronkonkoma, and two years ago the Island Empanada food truck opened.

Previously, the truck operated during the week, from May through October, off William Floyd Parkway in Shirley, but at press time, the location for this year was not yet determined. The Pelaezes also bring the truck to different events all over Suffolk and Nassau, including fairs, festivals, private parties and even weddings.

“We’re very unique,” said Roy Pelaez. ”And the food is Puerto Rican style, and there’s not a lot of Puerto Rican restaurants on Long Island.”

His mother and father were both born and raised in Puerto Rico. His wife, Kathleen Pelaez, works as a social worker in addition to working in the restaurants, and his daughters — one of whom is getting her master’s degree and the other her bachelor’s — also help out when they can.  “My mom taught me [to cook] and I was able to then teach the other cooks at both restaurants,” said Roy Pelaez, who also worked in and managed restaurants for more than 20 years before opening his own. “It’s the same food that I made in my kitchen, and I was able to just expand the menus to feed a larger amount of people, so it’s really home-cooked food.”

The Pelaezes opened the food truck to make attending festivals and other events much easier for them.

‘Long Island is behind … the rest of the country. Food trucks seem to be sweeping the nation right now. You can really get some good food — inexpensive, hand-held, quick and easy. And now, Suffolk and Nassau are starting to see it, and restaurant owners and entrepreneurs are trying to jump on it.’ — Roy Pelaez of Island Empanada

Since opening two years ago, the truck has done well, said Roy Pelaez, and even though the truck does make things easier, it is still a lot of work, he pointed out. “People just think they’re going to get a food truck and make a million dollars. It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “But the expenses are different.  … I don’t have the big utility bills.”

The Island Empanada restaurants include 26 varieties of empanadas, and the truck includes the 12 most popular varieties, as well as rice, beans, sweet plantains, potato balls, and flan for dessert.

“Long Island is behind a little bit the rest of the country. Food trucks seem to be sweeping the nation right now,” he said. “You can really get some good food — inexpensive, hand-held, quick and easy. And now, Suffolk and Nassau are starting to see it, and restaurant owners and entrepreneurs are trying to jump on it.”

The Mobile Bakery
Jess Kennaugh, owner of Blondie’s Bake Shop in Centerport, found her love for baking at a young age. “It was what I did for fun after school,” she said.

Then in high school, her first job was at A Rise Above Bake Shop in Huntington, her hometown. Kennaugh eventually went away to school, got a master’s degree in education and planned to become a teacher.  “I just always kept going back to the bakery. I couldn’t shake it.”

Blondie’s Bake Shop and the truck, which is used solely for events like fairs, weddings, caterings, etc., both opened in December of 2011. “I knew that food trucks were becoming more popular in the city and in places like Austin and D.C. and San Diego.  So I figured that it was only a matter of time before that happened on Long Island and I wanted to be a part of it.”

The truck has a full commercial kitchen, and in addition to the regular baked goods found in the bakery, there are waffles made to order on the truck — with berries and whipped cream, or chicken and waffles, for instance — as well as grilled cheese sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, and even a “macaroni and cheese grilled cheese.”

“It’s restaurant quality food in a laid-back atmosphere,” said Kennaugh, about the appeal of food trucks. “It makes fancier food more approachable.”

At the shop, the most popular item is a lemon berry scone, said Kennaugh, but on the truck a favored item is the s’mores pie — which is a little individual pie with a graham cracker crust, chocolate pudding and toasted marshmallow.

“I think the people can get a sense of our enthusiasm for our product,” said Kennaugh. “I have a really young, excited, creative staff, and that energy is contagious. And I think our product is quality; it’s really thoughtfully made and I think that shows. “

Compared to the bakery, the items on the truck are “a little more indulgent.”

A dinner plate prepared by Roy Pelaez of Island Empanada. Photo by Steve Mahoney
A dinner plate prepared by Roy Pelaez of Island Empanada. Photo by Steve Mahoney

“At the bakery, we sell granola and yogurt and egg sandwiches, so there are ways to get around splurging on what you’re going to eat,” said Kennaugh. “The stuff on the truck is much more indulgent — cheeses and bacon, and we really kind of go crazy with ourselves over there.”

This will be Blondie’s third season. And while Kennaugh was still working on the truck’s schedule at the time of this interview, she said she’s hoping she’ll have the truck out three or four days a week through the last week in October.

“We’re pretty excited because we’re being sought out for private events and more obscure events,” she said.

The Mobile Chef
Steven Mahoney of Amityville has operated his mobile catering business, Iron Mobile Chef, for two years.

“I’ve been in the food industry my whole life, since I was a little kid making pizza,” said Mahoney.  He owned a pork and gourmet food store for about 10 years, and also worked as a private chef on the East End of Long Island for about four years before getting into the food truck business.

“The food truck is a new, fun thing — it’s really great,” said Mahoney. “I did a lot of off-the-premise catering before I had the truck, and now it’s just like an extension — a kitchen I bring everywhere.”

Mahoney attends private parties and events as well as festivals all over Long Island, so the truck never stays in the same place. For bigger parties, Mahoney will bring a staff that includes family members to help out — brothers, sisters, aunts, cousins and more. “It’s like a mom and pop store on wheels,” he said.

The unique aspect of Mahoney’s truck is that the menu varies wherever he goes, depending on what’s wanted or appropriate at the particular event. “I can go from hot dogs and hamburgers to lobster tails and filet mignon,” Mahoney said. Items like Philly cheesesteaks and sausage and peppers are usually made for fairs, for instance. At the time of this interview, Mahoney had just finished doing a breakfast party.

“These awesome chefs that are dying to open their own place and they have a passion for cooking and it’s just a little too expensive to get their own restaurant — it’s like their dream come true, but a little bit cheaper,” said Mahoney, about the rise in popularity of food trucks. “It’s a lot more work than a restaurant, but if you have the passion for it, that’s what makes it worth it … I love it and I enjoy what I do. I can work 16-, 17-hour days … and I really love it.”

For those interested in renting Iron Mobile Chef for an event, Mahoney can be reached at (516) 351-5176.

Chef Paolo Fontana demonstrates how to make pasta. Photo by Sue Wahlert

By Sue Wahlert

Chef Paolo Fontana emulates the true mantra of the Italians and cooking, “Pleasure equals eating.” The executive chef of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics Café (SCGP), located on the campus of the State University of Stony Brook, he has created an epicurean delight in the midst of an institution that welcomes brilliant minds from across the world. This isn’t your typical university cafeteria, however. Here you will find the freshest ingredients combined with care to create lunches such as seared lamb loin with Indian spiced chickpea stew or roasted Scottish salmon with ratatouille. Sasha Abanov, deputy director of SCGP said, “This is the best café on campus. It is a great place to take our visitors.”

Aside from the wonderful bounty Fontana and his staff offer during the week, he also hosts the Culinary Master Series, a monthly live cooking demonstration open to the public held in the SCGP Café after hours. This evening event allows individuals who appreciate good food and love to cook to visit with Fontana as he tells stories about his passion and demonstrates techniques he’s learned through years of training and working with other chefs.

On Tuesday, April 7, Fontana held Is It Spring Yet?, the fifth in a series of seasonal cooking demonstrations. Held in the Café, guests are seated facing a large butcher-block table from which they view the Chef creating delicious dishes while being served a glass of sauvignon blanc or merlot wine. With the aid of a large flat-screen monitor and camera documenting the Chef’s work, visitors won’t miss anything he is preparing.

For $35 per person you can attend the SCGP Café’s Culinary Series and be rewarded with Fontana’s themed recipes, a food tasting and the opportunity to interact with the talented Chef. For Is It Spring Yet?, Fontana prepared fresh pasta, hollandaise sauce and panna cotta. Each guest receives a booklet with all the recipes for the evening, and the Chef welcomes questions while he is working.

As the lesson began, Fontana spoke about the “romance of making pasta on the tabletop.” Forming a carefully shaped mound of flour and organic eggs, he gently folded in freshly ground spinach to create beautifully colored pasta. He then demonstrated the kneading process and, after the dough rested, he cut a piece and fed it through a pasta machine attachment to create delicately thin sheets of pasta. He cut the sheets into ribbons of pasta ending the lesson. But there was more! The audience was treated to a dish of paglia e fieno — freshly made pasta with prosciutto, onions and peas coated in a cream sauce.

Like many impassioned chefs, Fontana likes to share stories about how he began his love affair with food. He fondly shared his “first culinary memory,” which was at the age of five when his parents took him to Italy. He recalled being in a wheat field from which stalks of wheat were pulled, soaked in water, rolled in flour and dried to create an original way of making pasta. He praises the use of only the freshest ingredients and the use of locally grown products when available. During the growing season, Fontana and his staff maintain an elaborate garden on the outside patio. It is not uncommon for the Café’s dishes to include homegrown tomatoes, green onions, garlic, lavender and more from their garden.

Two other dishes were demonstrated that evening ­— hollandaise sauce and, for dessert, panna cotta. “The hollandaise sauce is an emulsion sauce,” Fontana explained as he injected some of his scientific cooking knowledge into the lesson. “It is a great way to show your culinary skills,” he smiled. Made of egg yolks, butter and lemon juice, it is a hand-whisked sauce that takes time and concentration. While whisking he joked, “you’ll know if your hollandaise sauce is going wrong if it gets that ‘driveway after it rains’ look!” After a lot of muscle and perseverance by the Chef. the sauce was served to guests over fresh asparagus. Sounds of delight emanated from audience members as they sampled the dish.

The sweetness arrived last in the form of panna cotta, which means “cooked cream.” Using sheets of gelatin, heavy cream and half and half, this is not a dieter’s delight but instead a gift from the heavens. Served with a cherry sauce, this mound of silky smoothness topped off the wonderfully fun and informative evening.

It is evident that Fontana feels very fortunate to have the opportunity to share his gift with others. He credits Abanov as the person who encouraged the idea for these classes. “I am so lucky to be working around such smart people. I feel lucky to teach them something from my world,” said Fontana.

Recently chosen as the 2015 Edible Long Island’s Local Hero, Fontana shares this honor with manager Maria Reuge, dining room manager Julie Pasquier and his kitchen staff.

The last of the Culinary Master’s Series for this season is May 5 at 6 p.m. and is entitled What Else? It’s Cinco de Mayo, a fiesta of Mexican food. For reservations, call 631-632-2281 or purchase tickets online at http://bpt.me/1451646. The Café is located on the second floor of the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at SUNY Stony Brook and is open to the public Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 to 10 a.m. for breakfast and 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch. Check out its website at http://scgp.stonybrook.edu/cafe or like it on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scgpcafe.

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By Bob Lipinski

With the cold weather finally leaving and the holidays just a memory, what better way is there to celebrate warmer weather than with a wine and cheese party. Some helpful hints for a successful party include:

Cheese
Choose an interesting variety of cheeses. Different milks, different countries, the cheese-making styles … all play a role in the subtle differences in each cheese’s color, texture and flavor. Your guests will appreciate the unique colors and textures of the cheeses.
Cheese has sufficient beauty to stand by itself. It shows off best on white dinner plates, plain wooden cheese boards, rustic wooden boards, marble slabs, flat wicker baskets or trays, straw mats or other natural materials.
Do not precut cheese for guests. It exposes too much surface to the air and the cheese will dry out. Before serving the cheese, allow it to sit for 30 minutes to one hour at room temperature, which will soften the texture, release the aromas and maximize the flavor. Serve three to five different types of cheese. More than this causes confusion and leads to cheeses left untouched. Be certain to include one well-known cheese.
Allow approximately four ounces of cheese per person at cocktail parties, unless lots of other food is being served. For eight to 12 guests, have no less than three-quarters of a pound of each cheese.
Provide each cheese with its own knife or spreading utensil, especially soft cheeses. This is necessary, particularly for all blue cheeses. Use tags or flags to identify each cheese … don’t forget the country of origin.

Wine
Offer wines from the same country as the cheese or even decide on a French, Italian or Spanish theme for the festivities. Put up some decorations, play some ethnic music, and perhaps have some small nibbles in addition to the cheese. Provide your guests with small cards containing information about each cheese and matching wine, next to each being served.
Wine choices may include sparkling, dry white or red, sweet white or red, sherry, port or maybe even a pitcher of sangria, decorated with fresh lemons, oranges and several maraschino cherries.
To determine how much wine to purchase, figure on two (6-ounce) glasses of wine per person or one bottle (750-ml = 25.4 ounces) for every two guests. Always purchase one additional bottle in the event of a “bad” bottle or just so you don’t run out. If you don’t use the extra bottle, you can enjoy it when your guests leave!

Bob Lipinski, a local author, has written nine books, including “Italian Wine Notes” and “Italian Wine & Cheese Made Simple” (available on Amazon.com). He conducts training seminars on wine and cheese; sales, time management and leadership. He can be reached at boblipinski.com or at bob@hibs-usa.com.

Music, food and games at SPARKBOOM event on Saturday

Wantagh native AJ Estrada strums a tune from his latest project, ‘Archibelle.’ Estrada will be performing at an event in Huntington on Saturday. Photo from AJ Estrada

By Julianne Cuba

On Saturday, a LaunchPad Huntington on Main Street will be home to an event that merges art, music, food and games, all while showcasing Long Island talent.

The event, called “ART BYTES: A Special #ARTNTECH Event,” is the brainchild of LaunchPad Huntington, a business accelerator and event space on Main Street in Huntington, Long Island Visual Professionals and SPARKBOOM, a project of the Huntington Arts Council that aims to support Long Island artists.

Raj Tawney, who is head of public relations & media for SPARKBOOM, said the program has hosted dozens of events since its first in 2013. Saturday’s event is expected to attract at least a few hundred people — but more than expected always seem to show up.

“The program exists because we felt there wasn’t enough opportunity for Generation Y and millennials in regards to emerging creative talent in Long Island,” Tawney said. “So, we developed this program give opportunity to younger artistic types in the area, so they don’t feel like they need to run to Manhattan to seek opportunity.”

One ART BYTES artist is AJ Estrada, a jack-of-all-trades. Estrada — a native of Wantagh — sings, plays the guitar and paints digitally. Estrada will be singing and performing songs from his new project, “Archibelle.” And his artwork will be on display in the featured artist gallery.

“I think this event, and SPARKBOOM, in general, has done a tremendous amount of work in curating and bringing together creatives from all over Long Island,” Estrada said. “They’re truly an outstanding group of people.”

Alexa Dexa, a Lindenhurst native who takes the name Dexa after her paternal grandmother, will also be performing at ART BYTES. Dexa, who is a 2011 graduate of Berklee College of Music, will be performing selections from her upcoming album, “Year of Abandon,” which, according to Dexa, is a collection of “toychestral” electronic pop songs concentrated on the meanings of the word “abandon.”

Accompanying Dexa’s own voice will be her toy piano, pitched desk bells and electronic beats she handcrafts.

“Any event that supports and showcases local music and musicians in their local neighborhoods is doing a great service to the arts community and the general public,” Dexa said. “Events like this absolutely strengthen the cultural validity of Long Island and certainly keep me from straying too far for too long while on tour.”

The event is free, with a $5 suggestion donation. It will take place at LaunchPad Huntington, at 315 Main Street on the second floor.

Like many school districts across the country, Middle Country Central School District is adjusting to new regulations for the National School Lunch Program, while trying to avoid grumbling from students and their stomachs.

At a Board of Education meeting on Oct. 3, William Kidd, assistant business administrator for the MCCSD, led a presentation on the new regulations, which include calorie restrictions based on grade level, an emphasis on larger servings of fruits and vegetables, and smaller servings of proteins (students in Middle Country can expect to see five chicken nuggets as opposed to the seven they saw last year, for example), and a switch to fat-free or 1 percent milk.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program provides reduced price and free meals to students in public and private schools nationwide. The new rules, which stem from the passage of The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, are the first major changes to school lunches in 15 years. Accompanying Kidd were representatives from Whitsons Culinary Group, the district’s food service management company.

According to Kidd, the district is reimbursed $1.4 million in federal and state funding based on the sale of the regulated meals.

“The school lunch program is self-sustaining when it takes in more revenue than it spends,” Kidd said in an email. “Here at Middle Country, we have been fortunate that this has been the case for many years. All annual meal/food deposits, plus the federal and state funding reimbursements that come from those sales, have allowed the Food Service Program to operate as self-sustaining.”

According to Kidd, the district has seen an increase in the number of students receiving free and reduced price meals over the past few years. This year 2,011 students receive free meals in the district.

Elementary school lunch costs $2, while secondary school lunch costs $2.25. According to Kidd, since last year, the price rose 10 cents for elementary school lunch and 25 cents for secondary school lunch.

The transition has been frustrating at times, Kidd said. Some new options, like a deli sandwich service, which was a success in the schools, had to be revamped because of the new rules — gone are the large deli rolls.

According to Christine Kunnmann, a district manager at Whitsons, there are plans to introduce a new deli station, which will be modeled after Subway and offer students a selection of vegetable toppings since there are no limits on vegetables.

In a phone interview on Monday, Kunnmann said while portions have changed, students are still getting quite a large amount of food. She has been traveling to different districts across Long Island in an effort to educate principals, teachers, cafeteria staff and students about the regulations.

Sue Merims, a food service consultant, said that adapting to the new regulations is “a work in progress.” She said work could be done to improve the lunch’s presentation, as well as offering students more variety and flavorful foods.

After the presentation, board President Karen Lessler said that earlier in the day the board had met with students who vocalized their displeasure with the lunch program. Lessler asked to meet with Whitsons’ representatives to discuss the matter.

“We heard the grumblings,” Lessler said. “… These are serious comments being made by our students.”

On Monday, Kunnmann said meetings were arranged with board members and students to address the issues.

“Now more than ever we need to meet with the student[s],” Kunnmann said in her presentation. “We need to be involved with those students to get their feedback because we know that there are a couple of grumblings out there and we really want to make sure the kids are happy and they understand what is happening with the regulation.”

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