NYC Foodie Date: Planning a Picnic in Central Park

Kyle and I went on a trip to New York City recently and we filled our days with food and fun. I recapped one of of our foodie dates last week and here is another. On this day we decided to sleep in and have a leisurely tour of some of New York City’s finest food shopping and most beautiful outdoor scenery. We started our day with a couple of bagels at La Bagel Delight in Park Slope.

Hola, avocado cream cheese

Stuffed with the heavenly combination of dense crusty bagels and flavor-packed cream cheese, we got on the F train and sipped our iced coffees. We took the subway to Chelsea, a neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan. Soon we were in Chelsea Market, a gigantic food emporium filled with trendy gourmet specialty shops. This is one of my favorite places in Manhattan and I was so excited to show my good-eats-loving companion around.

While in Chelsea Market, we visited a large kitchen supply store, a very cool wine shop, a brownie bakery, a cupcake bakery, a dairy bar and more. We were planning a picnic for later in the day, so we picked up some essentials along our trip. For example, bon bons from Jacques Torres. Totally essential.

We also visited One Lucky Duck, a juice bar created by the same folks who are behind Pure Food and Wine. I ordered a Thai green juice that included greens, pineapple, cilantro and lime. It also tasted very strongly of celery. We loved it!

The guy on the right is making our juice. He kept putting more and more vegetables in there; I could tell it was packed with nutrients.

From the Chelsea Market we took a little walk towards the water and did some shopping in fancy designer stores (not buying!). Kyle loved seeing the limited edition reproductions of vintage clothing and accessories at Levi’s, and I enjoyed admiring the beautiful patterns and silhouettes at Diane von Furstenberg. After getting our shopping fix, we hopped a train to Columbus Circle and picked up the core picnic items at Whole Foods. Then we headed to a nearby wine shop that agreed to open and recork a bottle for us to take into the park. It is not legal to consume alcohol while in Central Park, so I’m not going to tell you that we did.

Also on the menu: a veggie wrap, a wedge of aged mahon, and a bag of organic Ranier cherries. And bon bons of course, how could I forget? We dined near Strawberry Fields on the west side of the park, in a small clearing between the trees. We could see other people walking by on the paths just twenty feet away from where we sat, but they never saw us due to the bushes and trees around our picnic spot. It was a great balance of liveliness and solitude.

The weather couldn’t have been better. As the sun started to set, we chatted about all kinds of things, while spitting the cherry pits into the bushes and savoring the last few crumbles of Mahon and sips of Monastrell. It was a very relaxing end to an exciting day, full of new experiences and flavors. If you are looking to expand your culinary horizons while maintaining a romantic cozy vibe, I would recommend this date for you. Throw yourself into the hustle and bustle of the gorgeous Chelsea Market and the busiest Whole Foods I have ever visited, and then relax in a hidden picnic spot in the park while you reflect on all you have learned. Possibly under a young cherry tree near Strawberry Fields.

Vegetarian Beer Dinner for Two

Want to do something special for the vegetarian in your life? Does the vegetarian in your life love beer? Make him (or her) this meal!

We have all seen the beer dinners advertised at local bars and restaurants before. They promise a tasting menu of delicious dishes perfectly paired with a variety of beers. Unfortunately for vegetarians, most beer dinner menus include at least one meat course for which there are no meatless substitutions. For this reason, Kyle and I have never forked over the cash to attend a beer dinner. That changed on the 4th of July, 2011.

That’s right, I celebrated Independence Day by taking matters into my own hands. I planned and executed a three course vegetarian dinner complete with beer pairings. I used as many fresh, local and seasonal ingredients as possible. Sounds fancy, but it was relatively easy to pull off, and I could see you scaling this menu to serve 2, 4, or even 20. Although I hope you’re working with a larger kitchen and dining area than I am if you plan to serve 20.

First Course

Tomato Cucumber Gazpacho

Organic Ur Pils from Brauerei Pinkus Mueller, Germany

This unfiltered German pilsner is a pale straw-like yellow, which appears clear at first but the haziness comes out when you hold it up to the light. When you taste it, then it is definitely apparent that the beer is unfiltered, yet pleasantly effervescent. The taste is still crisp and light, with tart citrus notes and a slight breadiness from the yeast. This pairing was great, but it would have been outstanding if I had made some crostini for the soup. I suggest that you serve this with toast points or topped with croutons.

Soup recipe from Epicurious Tomato Cucumber Gazpacho (omit anchovy paste, substitute yellow onions for red)

Beer from Ellwood Thompson’s Natural Market. See other reviews for Organic Ur Pils here.

Second Course

Roasted poblano and spicy black bean tacos with chipotle sauce and cilantro lime sour cream

Wilco Tango Foxtrot from Lagunitas Brewing Company, CA, US

This pours a rich dark brown, and smells super malty and sweet, with a little pineyness in the background. Other reviewers have said the opposite, but I say caramel all the way. You can taste the caramel malts on the first sip and I thought it had a bit of a smoky character too. The slightly burnt sugar taste eventually gives way to a little hoppiness, although nothing overwhelming. Lagunitas calls this an American Strong Ale, and also a “Malty, Robust, Jobless Recovery Ale.” I thought this felt like a brown ale on steroids, which is why I was delighted to see a footnote on beer advocate describing this as an “Imperial Brown Ale.” The dark, smoky sweetness played well with the smoky spice and the fire-roasted poblanos in the tacos. I wonder if I picked up more smoke in the beer because of the food pairing, which wasn’t at all a bad thing. My only concern for you is whether you can still find this beer. It is a limited edition and I’ve been hanging on to mine for a few months. If you can get your hands on the Lagunitas WTF, pair it with these tacos and you won’t be disappointed.

Taco recipe original, coming soon!

Beer from Wine World in Bel Air, MD. See other reviews for Wilco Tango Foxtrot here.

Third Course

Bourbon Peach Cobbler

Bourbon Barrel Stout from Bluegrass Brewing Company, KY, US

So this beer tastes a little bit like bourbon, due to the fact that it is aged in bourbon barrels. It is dark in color, sweet, and smells and tastes like bourbon and vanilla. I personally really enjoy this beer, but enough about that. Because while the pairing was amazingly wonderful, the real highlight was this bourbon peach cobbler! I have been dreaming about this dessert. Made with juicy peaches fresh from the market, t is syrupy sweet with just a hint of bourbon, and the soft, buttery crumb of the dough topping is divine. It is especially good with the slight biscuitiness of the beer. I can’t believe I ever considered pairing this with Dogfish Head’s Festina Peche; the pairing of bourbon peach cobbler with bourbon barrel stout is almost perfect.

It’s like Georgia and Kentucky had a love child and it was conceived in my mouth.

. . . too much?

Dessert Recipe from Food Network’s Tyler Florence’s Bourbon Peach Cobbler

Beer from the Krog’s. Read more reviews of BBC Bourbon Barrel Stout here.

What Next?

The sky is the limit, my friends. A 5-course beer dinner? A 7-course wine dinner? A beer and cheese party for 12 of my closest friends? Who knows. Perhaps a throwdown. I challenge any Richmond chef to make a better seasonal vegetarian beer dinner (and please send me a free ticket or two when you do!). The thing is, I haven’t found anything quite like this yet in Richmond and I would love to see more of it. Until then, I’ll be whipping up my own versions to satisfy the cravings. And the beauty of that solution is that if I can do it, you can too!

Discovering Hidden Gems in Virginia

Last weekend I took a trip to Franklin County, VA to learn about Homestead Creamery. Luckily I didn’t have to work on Friday, so Kyle and I took advantage of the day off and headed west a day early. On the way, we stopped at Smith Mountain Lake. Smith Mountain Lake is a gigantic lake in Franklin County, VA that is home to several marinas, resorts and private estates, as well as a State Park. The park features hiking and biking trails, a boat launch and a large sandy beach. On a clear 80 degree day, we were most interested in the beach.

The park charges a $3 admission per adult to enjoy the beach, and I think it is worth it. The clean and well-staffed swimming area features a sandy beach with roped-off swimming areas and two lifeguards, indoor restrooms, a grill and snack stand with eating area, a beach volleyball net, and a fun slide that sits on a floating dock.

You can also rent boats onsite, but we opted to just lay out on the beach and do a little swimming and wading to cool off throughout the afternoon. Though it was never overcrowded (as most coastal VA beaches are this time of year), as the day wore on, people started to leave and we found the spot to be very peaceful.

What a treat!

In the late afternoon, we packed up and made the one hour drive to Roanoke, VA, where we stayed for the night. After checking into our hotel, showering and freshening up, we took a short drive towards town for dinner. I took this overnight stay as an opportunity to try a restaurant that we had never made it to on our first trip to Roanoke in April. Wildflour Market and Bakery is a lovely little cafe and bakery in the Southwest Historic District.

I had gotten a few recommendations that this was a vegetarian friendly restaurant so I have wanted to try it out since planning our road trip last spring. We finally made it there last Friday night and it was worth the wait. The charming interior feels like a cross between a big city cafe and your best friend’s kitchen. The tasteful decorating draws you in and makes you feel at home.

There were large painted canvases all around the restaurant, displaying local artists’ work. The bar looked like a few converted bread baker’s cabinets. It may well have been, as Wildflour has a thriving cake business.

Our cheerful waitress helped us navigate the menu and pointed out the whole section of vegetarian options that they had available. Wildflour lists a millet veggie burger on their menu that piqued our curiosity. While we were deciding what to order, our waitress brought a small sample of the burger for us to try, which was really thoughtful. I noticed that she greeted almost all of the other customers by name and her exceptional customer service was very impressive. She even asked us, “so are you all new around here, or just passing through?” Because clearly if we weren’t new to town or just visiting, she would have known us by name already. Oh, small town charm.

The millet burger was  a winner, so Kyle chose it for his entree. Pardon the dark photos, the romantic low lighting was far from ideal for taking pictures. And oh what a stir I caused when I pulled out the camera. I guess they don’t see many food bloggers at Wildflour? Which is a darn shame.

The burger came on freshly baked bread. At this point I suppose I should mention that Wildflour prides itself on making nearly everything they serve from scratch. You can taste the difference. It’s fantastic.

I had the spinach ricotta pie and a side salad with homemade maple mustard vinaigrette.

The fluffy savory quiche was a good choice after spending all day in the sun. There was enough food there for me to feel satisfied, but it was light enough to not weigh me down for the rest of the evening. The vinaigrette on the salad was really tasty, and I understand why Wildflour sells containers of their homemade salad dressing to go. This would be a kitchen staple for me if I lived in the area.

Wildflour does not only excel in fresh from-scratch cooking; they also have a booming cake business and they specialize in doing wedding cakes. There were over a dozen varieties of cake to choose from after dinner, and because we had heard that Wildflour was great at cakes, we couldn’t pass on dessert! After much deliberation, we split a piece of carrot cake.

It was heavenly. If I was planning a wedding, I might consider getting married in Roanoke, VA just so I could have this cake. Do you think they would deliver to Richmond? Probably not. But you bet I would drive from Richmond to Roanoke for another slice. It was deeee-lish.

To be honest, we didn’t have a great experience in Roanoke the first time we visited earlier this year. However, our trip to Wildflour Market and Cafe and our drive around the Southwest Historic District turned it around for us. I will always have fond memories of Roanoke because of the evening I spent exploring this little corner of the town. We had the perfect romantic date to end a perfect day lounging at the lake, and our expectations were exceeded at every turn. I’m looking forward to making another trip out there in the future!