By Robert Ramsey — Chef-Instructor, Culinary Arts

Earlier this year, on a trip to Guatemala, I found myself sitting in the secret tasting room of a local mezcal producer in the colonial town of Antigua. My friend Adam and I had walked through a bookstore, which opened into a bar, then crawled through a tiny door in the back and perched on low stools. There, we sampled tastes of the smoky and complex tequila derivative, mezcal, poured by an exceptionally knowledgeable barkeep. Months later, as the summer wanes and the cool autumn temperatures move in, my mind has been wandering back to the colonial charms of Antigua — the tastes and smells of local cuisine, the incredible volcano hiking, and the relaxing and inspiring Lake Atitlan. With each adventure in the beautiful country of Guatemala, new flavors emerged.

mezcal carrot cocktail

Mornings started with local coffee, as this region is known for producing some of the world’s finest. Refuge Coffee Bar offers one of the purest tasting cold brews I’ve ever experienced. For lunch, we hit the city market, where you can find everything from fried chicken to street tacos to hearty, local stews. I couldn’t get enough of the different takes on ceviche, a local specialty served in abundance — with fresh fish, shrimp, crab, chilis, onions, lots of lime and a surprising amount of worcestershire sauce — an interesting local twist. It was both delicious and refreshing in the Central American heat.

At night, the city really comes alive. The market in the city’s Plaza Mayor, or central square, is teeming with vendors offering every variety of local cuisine — tasty horchata, tortas bursting with grilled meats, avocado and spices, pupusas with black beans and tacos, tacos, tacos. The intoxicating smells were accompanied by upbeat music, the sounds of local children playing and the postcard-perfect scenery of Spanish colonial churches framed by ominous volcanoes. In Antigua, every night is a celebration.

My favorite meal of the trip was the least expected. The mission was to reach the top of Vulcan Acatenango, a 13,000-foot volcano with sweeping vistas of Guatemala and its neighboring, active cousin, Vulcan Fuego (the most active volcano in the world). I left Antigua and embarked on a series of rides and transfers on the infamous Guatemalan “chicken buses,” which involved sprinting and hurling myself into a moving bus. I made arrangements to set out from the base of Acatenango with a local named Jaime. We arrived at Jaime’s family’s picturesque and ancient-seeming farm in the rolling foothills of Acatenango. It was here that his mother prepared a simple but perfect meal: scrambled eggs from the chickens running at our feet, homemade tortillas from the maize covering the hillside, and rich, smoky refried black beans with a depth unmatched by any other beans I’ve ever tasted. Slow-simmered over a wood burning stove, I imagined the beans had been continuously cooking for countless generations — at least they tasted that way. It was the perfect, rib-sticking last meal before the two-day hike to Acatenango’s lofty crater.

chicken bus

One of the Guatemalan “Chicken Buses”

Vulcan

Vulcan Acatenango

Chef Robert Ramsey

Chef Robert pictured left with his friend Adam

Inspired by this incredible trip, I developed a subtly sweet, intensely smoky and moderately spicy mezcal cocktail. (Pro tip: It’s best made with Ilegal Joven, the youngest of the mezcals we sampled on that gorgeous night in Antigua.) I approached this recipe as if I were building a dish. I started with the mezcal, which is a little savory and a lot smoky. By infusing the mezcal with the fruity heat of the jalapeño pepper, I created a base that needed balance in the form of sweetness (agave nectar) and sourness (lime), and is rounded out by the earthy, vegetal depth of carrot juice. I call it the “Antigua Elixir.” Each sip brings back memories of cool evenings on the shore of Lake Atitlan, where my last magical days in Guatemala were spent.

mezcal carrot cocktailAntigua Elixir

For the cocktail
Servings: makes 1 cocktail

Ingredients:

3 ounces carrot juice
1.5 ounces Jalapeño-Infused Mezcal (recipe below)
1.5 ounces lime juice
1 ounces agave nectar
Ice
1 lime wheel, for garnish
Smoked Paprika Salt (recipe below), for garnish

Preparation:

  • Rub the rim of a rocks glass with the lime wheel to wet it. Turn the glass over and dip it into the paprika salt to coat the rim. Fill glass with ice and set aside.
  • Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and pour in the carrot juice, mezcal, lime juice and agave nectar. Shake vigorously for 15-20 seconds, until the outside of shaker is frosty. Strain into a rocks glass and enjoy.

For Jalapeno-Infused Mezcal
Yield: makes enough for about 4 cocktails

Ingredients:

1 jalapeño, chopped (with seeds)
1 cup mezcal joven

  • Combine the mezcal and chopped jalapeño in a nonreactive container (a mason jar works well) and let the flavors infuse for at least one hour. Note: you can infuse for longer, but the longer you infuse, the spicier your mezcal will be — taste and infuse to your liking.
  • Strain through a fine mesh cocktail strainer. Reserve.

For Smoked Paprika Salt
Yield: makes enough for about 4 cocktails

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons smoked paprika

Preparation:

  • In a small bowl, mix the salt and paprika until evenly combined. Spread the mixture on a small plate and reserve for cocktails.

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By Rick Smilow — ICE President

This past August, some of my family members and I went on a Baltic cruise. In every port and country where we stopped, I was curious about the local cuisine. We had taken several tours, but it was only in Helsinki, Finland that we took a dedicated food tour. Here’s a “road trip report” of what I learned – and in many cases ate — in this lively seaside city and country capital.

Based on its geographic location and history, the influences on Finnish cuisine come from the east and the west. From the west (western Europe and Scandinavia) come dishes and ingredients like pickled fish, hard bread, cheese and smoked meat. From the east (Russia and Ukraine) come foods like blinis, sauerkraut, curd cheese, Karelian pastry, sour milk and mushrooms. Perhaps one of the most unique local foods I tried was poro — that’s reindeer.

Helsinki market

In August, during our visit, the seasonal specialties included crayfish, chanterelles, apples and wild duck. In September, the seasonal favorites include Baltic herring, hare, lingonberries and a seafood specialty called vendace — a small whitefish that’s rolled in rye bread crumbs, quickly fried and served in a bun. As our trip was in the summer, the local greenmarkets we passed early in the morning were overflowing with wonderful-looking produce and fruit.

Our Helsinki food tour was led by Heather Domeney, a native of Tasmania who moved to Helsinki after marrying her Finnish husband. Her tour route and the accompanying food depends on the time of day you start. We had limited shore leave time, so we began promptly at 8:00am, beginning the tour with a tasting of traditional breakfast foods.

The first stop was a small bakery named Kanniston Leipomo. Here we sampled a Karelian rice pie, which is a small, football-shaped rye pastry with rice porridge in the middle. At the second stop, Cafe Kuppi & Muffini, we tasted barley porridge with toppings of our choice. As shown in the photo, I chose strawberry, rhubarb compote and butter. Heather explained that items like these, along with ham and salami, constitute a typical Finnish breakfast. Standard American breakfast items like scrambled eggs are not so common.

Helsinki breakfast

Our third stop was a famous department store called Stockman, which opened in 1862. They have a lower-level food hall that’s a sort of Finnish Harrods, the renowned London department store. It was interesting to see the mix of fresh foods, breads and produce available. First, we headed to the seafood department, where Heather arranged a smoked and cured salmon tasting. As for grocery items, some of the unique items were munavoi (a mixture of butter and cooked eggs) and porosalami (reindeer salami).

Helsinki salmon

When it comes to beverages, Finland has some things to talk about. First, the average person drinks 12 kilograms of coffee per year — the highest rate in the world. The Finnish produce several interesting indigenous beverages like lakka, a cloudberry flavored liquor, and sima, which is a variation on mead and flavored with lemons and raisins.

Like the U.S., Finland experienced a period of prohibition from 1919 to 1932. After prohibition, the government decided that all alcoholic beverages with alcohol content higher than 4.7% would be sold in a state-run retail chain named Alko. Today, there are about 355 of these stores throughout the country. While we didn’t vist Alko, we did stop at a small, independent beer retailer (where all beers were 4.7% alcohol or less) and a brewery-restaurant called Bryggeri.

 

Helsinki beer cheese

At Bryggeri, we enjoyed a tasting flight of beers made on the premises, along with traditional accompaniments of grilled sausage and sauerkraut. The most traditional of the beers we tasted was Lammin Sahti, which is made with barley and rye malts, and has next to no carbonation — both odd and interesting on first taste. Our group agreed that a Brooklyn- or Portland-based modern beer aficionado would feel right at home in Helsinki.

Our next stop was Vanha Kauppahalli, a classy and classic portside covered food market in operation since 1889. Heather arranged a quick tasting of local cheeses at a shop with a name that was rich in vowels – Juustokauppa Tuula Paalanen. As we made our way through Vanha Kauppahalli, what impressed us most was the Nordic seafood, particularly the range of smoked salmon, crayfish, prawn salads and other seafood specialties. What’s more, just outside the hall was a seasonal outdoor food market. There, the offerings were global street food like kebabs and chicken sandwiches, plus local fare like reindeer meatballs.

Though time did not permit us to visit more restaurants, I gleaned additional Helsinki restaurant intel from Heather and my own research. The first restaurants opened in Helsinki in the early 19th century. The most notable early eateries were Kappeli, Kamp and Kaivohuone. According to the Finnish Hospitality Association, in 2014, there were 1,271 restaurants and 52 hotels in Helsinki. By 2015, the country was home to four Michelin-starred restaurants. As for a traditional restaurant entrée, most sources agree that a good place to start would be fried Baltic herring with mashed potatoes and beets.

After a quick but in-depth exploration of Helsinki’s cuisine, I can say there is much great food and drink to try in Finland’s capital. By the time we pulled out of the port, I already decided I should go back…with more days to eat!

All photography by Rick Smilow.

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By Chef-Instructors Ted Siegel and Cheryl Siegel

One of the most beautiful cities in North America is Quebec City, which sits on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Canada’s Quebec province. The city’s historic district was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985. Of all the cities in North America, Quebec City is as French as a city can be without actually being in France.

Laurie_Raphael_lunch

Lunch at Laurie Raphaël (poached halibut with summer beans, sauce choron and tempura of garlic scapes)

During a recent trip to Quebec City, we experienced firsthand a new trend that’s sweeping the food culture in Quebec: using indigenous ingredients, similar to those found in the Nordic climate. We noticed an emphasis on foraged ingredients, such as sea buckthorn, salicornia, cattail, fir, Nordic berries, wild mushrooms, wild fish and shellfish, with a focus on foods with high levels of monounsaturated, omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.

The chefs who are the major proponents of the new Nordic Quebecois cuisine are Daniel Vézina of restaurant Laurie Raphaël (Quebec City and Montreal) and Jean-Luc Boulay of restaurants Chez Boulay and Saint-Amour.

Laurie Raphael

Lunch at Laurie Raphaël

We have enjoyed meals at Laurie Raphaël in Quebec City several times, for both lunch and dinner. The menus change frequently based on what is available, daily and seasonally, in the local markets. The most memorable dishes we tried at Laurie Raphaël were smoked red deer gravlax with foie gras, oyster and sea urchin with black truffle and Champagne sabayon, mackerel quenelles with a velouté of kombu, delicately poached halibut with summer beans, sauce choron and a tempura of garlic scapes.

On Thursday and Fridays, Laurie Raphaël is open for lunch, and offers a five-course tasting menu for $50.00 (CAD) — an amazing value any day of the week.

Lunch at Chez Boulay

Though Jean-Luc Boulay is almost unheard of in the United States, he too is considered one of the godfathers of this current school of cooking. We’ve had the pleasure of dining at Saint-Amour, which is best described as a special occasion restaurant, with a romantic old-world ambiance. Last winter, we indulged in the decadent eight-course “Discovery” tasting menu. One of our many favorites was an unusual soup — butternut squash and curcuma velouté, garnished with a confit of smoked wild hare, fried shallots and an espuma or foam of hazelnuts. Another favorite dish was the seared magret of moularde duck with a sweet potato and foie gras purée and sea buckthorn sauce.

Chez Boulay, the sister restaurant of Saint-Amour, has more of a casual, brasserie-like feel, with a menu that reflects the lush and hearty influences of French-Canadian homestyle cuisine, and impressive portions interpreted with a modern sensibility. There is a prix fixe lunch menu of three courses in which the entree price determines the overall price. At Chez Boulay, two people can dine well, including drinks and dessert, for less than $100.00 (CAD). The dinner menu is more extensive and has á la carte pricing.

Dessert at Chez Boulay

At Chez Boulay, there are a number of different starters or “tasting plates,” including a selection of house-made charcuterie (which we ordered), a tasting of French Canadian cheeses, or a plate of prepared fish and shellfish. During our most recent dinner, we also indulged in the cured pork belly and clam salad, snow crab from the Gaspé Peninsula served with an apple-kholrabi mille feuille and milk sauce infused with bacon and hemp oil, and a tasting of two versions of boudin noir — one presented as a thick “pave” prepared in the classic manner and the other filled with cabbage and leeks, the recipes having been in the Boulay family for multiple generations.

The desserts at Chez Boulay have been some of the best that we have sampled in any of our travels: the frozen parfait with cloudberry confit, sunflower seed nougatine and honey from the chef’s bee hives; and the iconic sea buckthorn meringue pie with a crème anglaise flavored with pine forest spikenard (spikenard is the flower from the nardos plant which is a member of the Valerian family).

Restaurant Toast (Boudin noir with fondue of shallots, apples, baby
arugula and aged cheddar galette)

Creative Petits Four at Europea

It is always hard to choose which of all the restaurants is our favorite. It’s like asking us to choose which of our children is our favorite — an impossibly difficult task. However, we have a deep affection for Restaurant Toast in the Hotel Le Priori, located in the lower section of Vieux Quebec. The chef-owner Christian Lemelin is producing his own version of modern Quebecois cuisine with an international influence. We have thoroughly enjoyed two dinners at Toast, one last winter and more recently this summer. The small dining room features a fireplace, and in the summer we dined on the beautifully landscaped outdoor patio. Of the preparations not to be missed are the foie gras torchon with a “jambonette of duck” sherry vinegar, brioche with camerise ketchup (camerise is a Nordic berry similar in taste to a wild blueberry); seared foie gras on a crisp pork belly confit with nutmeg flowers, roasted squash, maple cranberries and poultry jus; Jerusalem artichoke vichyssoise with house smoked scallops, poached wild shrimp and sunflower seeds; surf and turf of lobster and sweetbread served with a mushroom risotto and Béarnaise sauce; seared halibut with a celery root brandade and lovage velouté. We savored two perfectly executed desserts: a vacherin of seasonal local berries, wild honey, lemon sorbet and cream, as well as a frozen vanilla parfait with a compote of sour cherries, mascarpone, orange and bitter chocolate.

Other essential restaurants are Échaudé and Le Quai 19 (more popularly known as Chez Rieux et Pettigrew), both of which are ideal locations for lunch.

An Elaborate Salad from Le Quai 19

Another food destination worth the visit is the Marché du Vieux-Port, a popular marketplace in the Old Port of Quebec City. Here you can sample the best of local produce, cheeses, meats, seafood and prepared foods, as well as ciders and wines from small, local artisanal producers.

While in Canada, we also spent four days in Montreal, a city we love for its restaurants and food culture. On any trip to Montreal, one would be well served to pay visits to restaurants Toqué! and Europea, owned and operated by Normand Laprise and Jérôme Ferrer, respectively. These chefs radically altered the face of Quebecois cuisine and transformed it into the many modern derivatives that are being practiced throughout the province. Though there is too much rich food culture in Montreal to cover in this post, you can read more about our gourmet adventures in Montreal here.

Want to study the culinary arts with Chef Ted? Click here to learn more about ICE’s career programs.

 

By Kathryn Gordon and Jeff Yoskowitz

ICE chefs Kathryn Gordon and Jeff Yoskowitz recently visited South Korea with ICE alumnus Heejin Lho, who wanted to share with the chefs the traditional foods and culture of her country. While Chef Jeff found his favorite meal (surprisingly) in a food court and learned how to navigate intensely hot kimchis, Chef Kathryn was impressed by the elegant, edible flowers like gardenia and magnolia. Below is a conversation between Chef Kathryn and Chef Jeff that took place during the latter half of their visit.

Korean Temple Food Center

Korean Temple Food center (Photo credit: Melissa Hope)

Chef Kathryn: Jeff, to start this off, what have you liked best so far?

Chef Jeff: Many things fascinated me this week. I liked making songpyeon — the half-moon shaped rice cakes made with pine needles and dough from sticky and non-glutinous rice [in the Songpyeon Rice Cakes class hosted by the Tteok (Rice Cake) Museum in Seoul]. The dough was counterintuitive in terms of its dryness level. If it was too wet, you couldn’t form the cakes because it stuck to your hands.

Fried Stick Rice Flour Cakes (Photo credit: Melissa Hope)

Chef Kathryn: That rice cake dough was amazing because it was colored by fruits, plants or flowers like strawberry, mugwort and gardenia — but the dough didn’t like me! My right thumb just didn’t “get it” in terms of the shaping for the first 15 minutes. Meanwhile, you were the teacher’s pet!

Chef Jeff: I also really liked our Korean Temple Food center cooking class led by the Buddhist monk. It exposed us to new vegetables and cooking methods, like gingko nuts, lotus leaf, perilla leaf, burdock and acorn jelly. We ate acorn jelly three times this week — I had no idea it was so prevalent! It made me want to track down acorn flour in the U.S. and figure out how to remove the bitterness.

So much flavor came from the lotus leaf, which provides an impermeable layer so whatever you cook in it retains its moisture, while deriving some yellow color and flavor. It was also interesting that the blanched and diced lotus root, which provided texture in the rice, is the root from white flowers, not the pink lotus flowers. I also liked learning about the traditions of mixing sticky and non-glutinous rice.

Chef Kathryn: I loved that in Buddhist temples they eat every part of every plant. We ate a salad made from succulents at The Shilla Seoul hotel banquet. We were exposed to foods that we never knew were foods before.

Chef Jeff: The organization and customer service at The Shilla Seoul was really impressive, but so was the customer service at the high-end food markets at the department stores. At the Hyundai Department Store, I counted 12 people in front of the wine area alone, just waiting to assist you with selecting wine. Each area — the fish, the seaweed island or dried roots — had multiple people waiting to help you in your selection and pack it up. I have never seen that level of presentation, care and customer service before.

Chef Kathryn: Heejin carefully selected our menu for the week so we didn’t just taste traditional Korean dishes. What dish did you find the most interesting?

Chef Jeff: I was a little skeptical when she said we were going to a food court for Korean-style shabu shabu, but the dinner at the Shinsegae Department Store was one of my favorite experiences.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul (Photo credit: Jeff Yoskowitz)

I loved how they made so many dishes from the one base broth. The same broth that cooked the sliced beef was reduced with mushrooms, scallions, cabbage and other vegetables before more meat was added. The broth then reduced a second time while we ate that course, and subsequently it was either used to cook noodles and assorted greens, or to make a thick porridge-like stew with rice and greens.

Acorn Jelly with Vegetables

Acorn Jelly with Vegetables (Photo credit: Melissa Horn)

Chef Kathryn: I liked being exposed to edible flowers. I always love cooking with flowers, but never tasted gardenias before this week. When we visited the Tea Story teahouse in Seoul, they had so many teas based on plants and flowers that we don’t typically eat or cook with in American or Western European cuisines, like mistletoe, magnolia and lotus.

Chef Jeff: And then there’s the situation of trying to order hot tea with a meal — the restaurants we experienced literally did not have any.

Chef Kathryn: We learned that with Korean cuisine, you don’t always drink tea with a meal, like you might at a Chinese or Japanese restaurant.

Chef Jeff: Yet coffee shops are everywhere and seemingly open at all times. Per capita, there seems to be an extremely high interest in coffee — I counted three coffee places on one city block alone. The availability of coffee is much more noticeable than in New York.

Chef Kathryn: What did you think of the dessert scene in Korea?

Chef Jeff: I was impressed by how aesthetically clean the cakes and tarts look in every pastry window, and not just in high-end shops and stores — even a chain-style bakery. There is nothing “homey” here, unless you count the fruit. And the fruits in general are enormous! We’ve never seen such big peaches, apples, figs and grapes.

We tried grape tarts one afternoon. We also saw a lot of desserts made with green grapes throughout the week that are not popular in the United States including shaved ice and blended drinks.

Chef Kathryn: What about the kimchi? We ate kimchi made with a lot of greens, cabbage and daikon this week, and were introduced to white kimchi, which I had never had before this trip.

tea ceremony

Tea Ceremony (Photo credit: Melissa Hope)

Chef Jeff: I feel more educated generally about kimchi, although I definitely learned I prefer the garlic (non-Buddhist) style.

Chef Kathryn: In terms of heat and the dishes we’ve eaten with gochujang chili paste — in one meal, your eyes were watering at the end!

Chef Jeff: There are some hot foods you put in your mouth and then it spreads slowly. Once the heat from the kimchi spread, it was too late for me to do anything about it. I did gain a better appreciation of all the contrasting flavors, and the range of foods to pair with something hot came more easily with practice than in the beginning of the trip.

Chef Kathryn: What else besides food did you find most interesting this week?

Chef Jeff: As we were driving south through the countryside to Cheolla Province, the sheer mass of vertical apartment building construction was astonishing. They don’t build one building at a time. We would look towards a range of mist covered forested mountains and see clusters of towers going up simultaneously with cranes on top of each building.

Want to explore the pastry arts with Chefs Kathryn and Jeff? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.

By James Briscione — Director of Culinary Development 

There’s always something new to learn — that is my usual response when people ask me what I like most about being a chef. I could spend the rest of my life in the kitchens here at ICE and learn something new everyday, continuing to better understand the ingredients I use on a daily basis. Sometimes, however, you’ve got to get away to gain new culinary perspectives.

Recently I had the opportunity to travel to Brazil with my wife, Brooke, and our two kids. We spent two weeks immersed in the food and culture of Bahia, a state in northeast Brazil on the Atlantic Coast. Our home base was the incredible UXUA Casa Hotel and Spa in the town of Trancoso. Each day of our trip was spent in the kitchen with local chefs, learning traditional dishes — moqueca, the traditional fish stew of Bahia; bobó de camarão, a creamy dish of shrimp and coconut; acarajé, black-eyed pea fritters — all while drinking more than a couple caipirinhas.

Now that we’re back in New York, we can share these amazing flavors with students. This past weekend, we welcomed 16 students into the kitchens at ICE for a new recreational cooking class: The Foods of Brazil. For a little glimpse of our adventure in Brazil, check out the video below.

Ready to broaden your culinary horizons with Chef James? Click here for more information on ICE’s career programs.


By Chef/Instructor Ted Siegel

Recently my wife Cheryl and I had the good fortune to spend a few days in La Belle Province (Quebec) and visit one of our favorite culinary destinations: the beautiful city of Montreal.

We arrived, exhausted, late on a Sunday night at a time when most restaurants are closed. We knew that we could rely on one excellent spot to be open, so we made the fifteen minute walk from our hotel to dine at one of the most popular bistros in the city—Restaurant L’Express, open until 3 a.m. seven days a week. L’Express has a reputation for serving consistently solid, traditional French bistro fare. Though the menu does not change often, there are nightly off-the-menu specials. Upon placing your order, the server brings a canning jar of cornichons and a crock of Dijon mustard, both left on the table as condiments throughout the meal. We started with one of their famous dishes, octopus and lentil salad: thin slices of perfectly poached octopus dressed with lemon and olive oil arranged in a ring mold around an earthy lentil salad, deftly seasoned with a shallot vinaigrette. Once the mold is removed, the presentation is similar to a savory charlotte. We also ordered pork rillettes, which were impeccably prepared with the right ratio of shredded lean pork and fat, my only critique being that they would have been better served at room temperature rather than chilled.

Montreal_octopus

Octopus and Lentil Salad

Given my love for organ meats, I always order offal if it’s on a menu. Cheryl and I shared an order of crisp veal sweetbreads with chanterelle mushrooms, garden peas and pea tendrils under a cloud of Parmesan foam. Continuing in the “offal” mode, I had rosy slices of quickly seared and sautéed calf’s liver in a light tarragon pan sauce reduction. Cheryl had a creditable hanger steak with pommes frites. Perhaps we should have stopped after the entrees but decided to indulge in an order of ouefs al neige—a giant quenelle of French meringue gently poached in sweetened milk, the milk then bound with egg yolks, flavored with vanilla beans and turned into a silky crème anglaise, garnished with toasted almonds and threads of spun sugar. After a dinner like that, we needed that walk back to our hotel room.

The following day, after taking a riverboat tour of the St. Lawrence River around the island of Montreal, we had lunch at one of our favorite ethnic restaurants in North America: Stash Café, which specializes in homestyle Polish cooking. The tripe soup, pierogies (of any kind) and the perfectly executed pork schnitzel are well worth the visit.

While researching the Montreal dining scene before our trip, one newcomer intrigued me: Le Comptoir Charcuteries et Vin, a restaurant of 40-50 seats serving a contemporary French-Canadian menu of small tasting plates and an extensive list of charcuterie and house-cured meats. It’s a neighborhood establishment where the service transcends warm, friendly and gracious. However, it was the food that left us speechless. We loved our first meal there so much that we cancelled a dinner reservation at another restaurant and returned three nights later. It is hard to find superlatives adequate enough to do justice to the chef and his execution of a very labor-intensive menu. The kitchen opens directly into the dining room and there are only three people working on the line including Chef Ségué Lepage. I highly recommend virtually every dish, as we sampled almost the entire menu during our two visits—easily the best two meals we’ve had in 2016 (and quite possibly in 2015 as well). Though all dishes were memorable, here are my favorites: house-cured porchetta di testa served with goat cheese fritters and ribbons of pickled zucchini; lobster tart on a savory sablé with tomato confit, tarragon crème fraîche, roquette and gently stewed white onions; tataki of seared veal loin with a purée of sage, Marsala wine reduction, fried sweetbreads and marinated radish salad; and wild blue pleurote mushrooms from Ontario with crab mayonnaise, landjäger sausage, wild garlic and dill. Go to Le Comptoir and you will not be disappointed!

Montreal_charcuturie

No trip to Montreal would be complete without paying visits to Joe Beef and Au Pied Cochon. Fred Morin, owner and chef of Joe Beef, and Martin Picard, mastermind of Au Pied de Cochon, have in common both their connection to famed Québécois chef Normand Laprise—the “godfather” of modern French-Canadian cuisine—and their decadent, over-the-top approach to cuisine, gastronomy and life in general—an approach which I fully subscribe to and worship.

Montreal Joe Beef

Joe Beef

Joe Beef promotes itself as a seafood-centric restaurant but it’s really about meat as well. The portions are large, so go with an empty stomach. Prepare to be well fed in a relaxed atmosphere by an approachable staff. The must-tries on the current menu are the appetizer of crispy calf’s head fritters served with sauce gribiche; salade gourmandea large, thick round of country-style terrine topped with a salad of apples and haricots verts and served with a tranche of grilled peasant bread slathered with an unctuous foie gras parfait; roast quail stuffed with lobster sausage in a light jus of the roasting juices; and the lobster spaghetti, which is why anybody goes to Joe Beef in the first place. Chunks of lobster seared in the shell, then stewed with bacon, cream, Parmesan and fresh herbs, and served atop house-made fresh spaghetti with the texture of satin. We also had a perfectly roasted halibut filet with smoked tomato butter. At this point, we moved on to dessert, but should not have, as they were somewhat of a disappointment. Regardless, Joe Beef is a restaurant that deserves at least one if not numerous visits.

Montreal_Joe Beef

Stuffed Pig’s Foot

Finally, there is Au Pied de Cochon, which is consistently rated as one of the top restaurants in North America. We’ve dined there in the past and feel like a trip to Montreal would be incomplete without a visit to Martin Picard’s “temple” of all things duck, foie gras and pork. Be warned: the portions defy any notion of restraint and are not for the “squeamish”—which is a good thing for me!

On our most recent visit we began with three off-the-menu specials: perfectly fried zucchini blossoms with a caper aioli, a totally hedonistic foie gras pizza with prosciutto and cheese curds, baked in a wood-burning oven with just the right amount of char to the crust, and a disappointing yellowfin tuna belly glazed with soy and maple that sounded great on paper but was horribly overcooked. For our entrees, Cheryl and I had their two most iconic menu items: “Duck in a Can” and the Stuffed Pig’s Foot “APC”. The former is a magret de canard (also known as Moulard duck breast), duck leg confit and foie gras preserved in a tin can with cabbage and vegetables, presented and opened out of the can at the table. The latter is a braised pig’s foot stuffed with foie gras and gratinéed with bread crumbs, served on a bed of a silken potato purée whipped with cheese curds, a variation of the famous aligote from the Auvergne region of France, and a sauce prepared from the braising jus. The pig’s foot was big enough to serve two to four people. It was an “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” moment!

Also not to be missed: the two central food markets in the city, Atwater market in “Little Burgundy” and Jean-Talon market in “Litte Italy.” You can sample the best produce, cheeses, meats, seafood and prepared foods that this lush and fertile agricultural region has to offer. At the Jean-Talon market, be sure to visit the tiny but well-stocked culinary bookstore, Librairie Gourmande, most notably for their selection of cookbooks from top Québécois chefs. We enjoyed a surprisingly great lunch at La Crêperie du Marché in the Jean-Talon market, which specializes in the famous galettes de sarrasin—traditional savory buckwheat crêpes of Brittany, France. We savored a crêpe layered with béchamel sauce, Gruyère cheese and mushrooms as well as one with ham, cheese, spinach and a fried sunny side-up egg.

I’ll be going to Quebec City soon, so keep an eye out for my next (hungry) chef’s tour.

Chef Ted’s Montreal Hit List

Restaurant L’Express
3927 Rue Saint-Denis
http://restaurantlexpress.com

Stash Café
200 Rue St. Paul O
http://restaurantstashcafe.ca

Le Comptoir Charcuteries et Vins
4807 Boul St-Laurent
http://comptoircharcuteriesetvins.ca

Joe Beef
2491 Rue Notre-Dame O
http://www.joebeef.ca

Au Pied de Cochon
536 Duluth Est
http://aupieddecochon.ca/?lang=en

Atwater Market
138 Atwater Avenue
http://www.marchespublics-mtl.com/en/marches/atwater-market/

Jean-Talon Market
7070 Henri-Julien Avenue
http://www.marchespublics-mtl.com/en/marches/jean-talon-market/

Want to study culinary arts with Chef Ted? Check out ICE’s culinary arts career program. 

Blame it on Joe Beef: ever since Chefs Frédéric Morin and David McMillan opened this popular temple of elegant excess in 2005, American magazines and food blogs can’t get enough of the indulgent dishes from the capital of poutine. But while Montreal’s savory dishes get most of the hype, the city has no lack of impressive outposts for sweets. ICE Chef Instructor Victoria Burghi reports back from her recent trip to the “city of saints.”

By Victoria Burghi, Chef-Instructor, School of Pastry & Baking Arts

As a pastry chef, I’ve always enjoyed exploring the food scene of a new city—in particular, learning about new styles of sweets. So I was thrilled to visit Montreal this summer and to learn about the city’s wide range of traditional, modern, unique and audacious sweets.

Rhubarb Cannolo - Photo Credit: Trip Advisor

Rhubarb Cannolo – Photo Credit: Trip Advisor

My culinary tour of Montreal began on a Saturday night, at Toqué, one of the city’s most distinguished restaurants. After touring the impressive, highly organized kitchens, our gracious server introduced us to its chef and co-owner Normand Laprise, who greeted us from within an immaculate walk-in refrigerator with a hand shake and a big smile.

After an exceptionally interesting dinner in the hands of Chef Laprise, I only had room for one dessert; but it was a spectacular way to end the meal. Toqué’s rhubarb cannolo consisted of a very thin and crispy tube-shaped tuile filled with cassis chantilly cream and brunoise of strawberries. The filled shell was wrapped in gently poached rhubarb strips, so tender that they fell apart the minute you cracked the shell. This already stunning plate was garnished with mildy sweetened rhubarb purée and a blackcurrant leaf syrup. A creamy, perfectly quenelled juniper ice cream accompanied the dessert.

Needless to say, my first restaurant encounter in Montreal left me hungry for more. So, for the second day of my trip, I embarked on a rambling walk along Rue St. Denis and Rue Mont-Royal.

The first stop of my Sunday tour was Pomarosa, an artisanal gelateria where I sampled avocado gelato, along with the distinctive, tropical fruit flavors of guanabana and lulo. Guanabana fruit has white flesh with hints of banana, pineapple and strawberry. It is a highly acidic fruit, perfect for smoothies or any other frozen dessert, and it’s absolutely divine. The lulo (“little orange”) ice cream was also enjoyable, since it wasn’t too sweet and offered a unique opportunity to enjoy the rhubarb and lime-like flavor of the fruit.

The next stop was D Liche,a quaint cupcake boutique that offers not only sweets, but also a number of baking and decorating tools for aspiring cupcake bakers. Playing off the popularity of miniature desserts, the shop offers two different sizes, which allowed me to indulge in both their key lime and blueberry flavors.

Photo Credit: Point G

Photo Credit: Point G

As I wandered toward Rue Mont-Royal, the range of pastry opportunities continued to grow. One of the spots that would have fit right in with New York’s portable pastry craze was Boutique Point G, a macaron boutique that offers unusual flavors like lime-basil, chocolate-sesame, crème brulée and maple taffy.

A note about local flavor: one word that you quickly learn in Montreal is “érable,” which means maple. Canada is the number one producer of maple syrup in the world, most of it coming from the province of Quebec. Thus, it’s no surprise that it has become a very popular ingredient, seen in maple candies, fudge, butter, cookies and an infinite amount of other confections.

This ubiquitous maple syrup was particularly celebrated at the most memorable of all my stops: À la Folie patisserie. This super sleek, ultramodern pastry shop has infused maple into three classic French pastries—choux, macarons and tarts—and would attract any passerby like honey to a bee.

Photo Credit: A La Folie

Photo Credit: A La Folie

The miniature maple-flavored choux pastries come adorned with small maple-flavored marshmallows, while another noteworthy flavor included a rose water with candied rose petal and pink fondant. Next to these beauties you will encounter happy rows of traditional french macarons, followed by an oversized invention called the YOLO—a large macaron sandwich filled with flavored mousse and cream, then dipped in chocolate.

But the YOLO is only the first of the shop’s creative inventions. I also discovered the frenesie: a choux-macaron hybrid pastry that resembles a traditional French religieuse, a cream puff base topped with a macaron of the same flavor and color. Even more ambitious, À la Folie’s delire is a work of art: the base is a round pâte sablée crust filled with either a fruit purée or cream. Sitting atop the tart is a glazed mousse dome surrounded by tiny macarons and decorated with large chocolate curls.

Even the tarts defy expecations. Instead of a traditional round tart sliced into wedges, the chef filled triangular pâte sablée tarts with frangipane or pastry cream and then, in most cases, topped the cream with a triangle of crèmeux or a light crème patissiere. The triangles are then glazed and decorated accordingly. My personal favorites were the maple and apricot tart, decorated with a half of a chocolate maple leaf, and the apple dulce de leche, whose paper-thin sheets of Granny Smith apple formed a perfectly glazed triangle on top of the crust. The entire shop was truly magical!

If you visit Montreal, you must stop by these dessert destinations and taste the art behind their perfectly executed pastries.

Interested in culinary travel? Don’t miss our Chef Instructors’ guides to Rome, Paris and Puglia.

 

 

By Chef Ted Siegel, ICE Culinary Arts Instructor

In 2005 the New York Times published an article by Frank Bruni (then restaurant critic and editor of the “Dining In/Dining Out” section) about Roman cuisine. The article’s overall message was: “nothing new is going on in Roman cuisine!”.  After a recent trip to Rome my wife, Cheryl, I am happy to report that this is still true.

This might be a slight overgeneralization; there are a handful of Roman restaurants doing “modernist cuisine-molecular gastronomic” spins on traditional Roman cooking. However, most Romans find the modernist trend oxymoronic, referring to this type of cooking as “all smoke and no roast!”.

Fortunately, Roman cooking and the culinary traditions of Lazio (best described as a rustic and pastoral cuisine based on meat and vegetables) has not changed too much since Etruscan sheep herders occupied the banks and mud flats of the Tiber river, as far back as 800-750 B.C. Hallelujah for that!

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Seafood risotto

During our trip to Rome, Cheryl and I thoroughly immersed ourselves in its cuisine, enjoying the glories of traditional “cucina alla Romana. Below is an recount of some of our more noteworthy meals, as well as a list of restaurants that one should not miss if traveling to the “Eternal City”:

HOSTERIA da FORTUNATO (12 Via Pellegrino): A very tiny neighborhood trattoria serving traditional Roman home cooking that is popular with locals. If you go, you will likely see a group of women sitting at a corner table hand-rolling, cutting and shaping all the sublime house made pastas.

Their iconic Roman fritti misti of vegetables and meatballs in a delicate batter is a must-have dish. As for the pasta, try any number of the variations of strangolapreti (“priest stranglers”), a very traditional hand rolled pasta dumpling that is particular to the central Italian regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. The story of how this pasta got its name goes back to the middle ages. Roman catholic prelates would gorge themselves on this simple pasta made water and durham flour until they choked, hence the name.

The variations on strangolapreti that we found deeply satisfying were caccio e peppe, carciofi e gunaciale (artichokes and  smoked pork cheeks- both basic staples of the Roman kitchen) and alla carbonnara. The house-made sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli in a luscious butter and sage sauce (“burro e salvia”) is also a must-try.

HOSTARIA COSTANZA (63 Piazza del Paradiso): This beautiful restaurant is actually built into the cellar of an ancient Roman amphitheater that dates back to the height of the “glory days” of the Roman Empire. The walls of the restaurant are still the original brick work from this archeological masterpiece.

Our dinner began with a perfectly-executed classic: carciofi alla Romana (large globe artichokes simmered in a broth of white wine, olive oil and herbs). The pastas were also fabulous. Worth a return visit were the tonnarelle con bottarga e seppie (square-cut spaghetti made on-premises served in a sauce of baby calamari indigenous to the Mediterranean and bottarga, which is the salt-cured roe of grey mullet); a simple grilled branzino (Mediterranean sea bass); and finally, trippa alla Romana (tripe braised in tomatoes and mint with pecorino alla Romana, a dish that pays homage to the marcelleria – the butchers of the Roman slaughterhouses whose cuisine has dominated the Roman culinary landscape since ancient times. They cooked with a strong emphasis on offal, because that was all they could afford).

Fortunately for us, we arrived in Rome just as puntarelle – a variety of wild dandelion greens – started appearing in the Roman vegetable markets (puntarelle has a very short season from late winter to early spring). Puntarelle is traditionally served with a dressing of red onions, anchovies, lemon and olive oil. Needless to say, we enjoyed the version we had at Costanza.

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RISTORANTE La SCALA (58-61 Piazza della ‘Scala): Ristorante la Scala is located in Trastavere, a very quiet, residential neighborhood southeast of Vatican city. We stumbled into La Scala serendipitously after a day of touring the Vatican. We were so fond of this local restaurant that we dined there twice. Weather permitting, sitting outside in the outdoor dining area affords one an authentic experience with a view of the beautiful church of Santa Maria della ‘Scala.

Being in Rome at the height of truffle season gave us an opportunity to indulge in the truffle menu of La Scala: burrata di bufala with black truffles and rughetta (wild arugula); light as air potato gnocchi with scarmorza (smoked mozzarella) and black truffles; fried artichokes with black truffles, fonduta and guanciale; and finally, sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli in an unctuous butter sauce showered with truffles.

Other dishes worth not missing are the tonnarelle pasta with zucchini flowers and cherry tomatoes, as well as the carciofi alla guidea (artichokes simmered and fried in olive oil), one of the truly great dishes born out of Rome’s Jewish “ghetto”, dating back 2500 years. For dessert, try the crema di zabaglione con fragola (sabayon cream with wild strawberries).

HOSTERIA GRAPPOLO d’ORO (80-84 Piazza Cancelleria): This is another favorite where we had two wonderful meals. This restaurant has a clientele of largely local regulars and would fit right in in a New York City neighborhood. While the décor is modern, the cooking is in keeping with traditional Roman gastronomy.

The delicious house antipasti tasting plate features a modern take on a molded panzanella salad, mille-foglia con burrata e alici (a very light pastry layered with buffalo milk burrata and marinaded white anchovies), pan fried oxtail meatballs with salsa verde, a croquette of baccala and potatoes and an eggplant-ricotta polpette.

The orechiette pasta with broccoli and potatoes was not the usual mess of broccoli flowers and potatoes swimming in olive oil. The vegetables had been cooked down to form an incredibly light, yet slightly coarse puree, bound by a light broth emulsified with a little olive oil. The execution of this dish showed the true skill of the kitchen. Further, d’Oro’s rigatoni all’ amatriciana with a copious garnish of crisp guanciale was one of the better versions of this classic Roman pasta preparation we had during our trip (pasta all’ amatriciana, carbonara and caccio e pepe make up the “holy trinity” of Roman pasta preparations).

For the second course, we sampled stinco di maiale (pork shank braised with chestnuts and beer), guancia di bue brasato (beef cheeks braised in red wine and carrots) and abacchio scottadito alla griglia (the Roman classic of grilled baby lamb marinated with herbs, garlic and olive oil—whose title implies that when you pick up the grilled cuts of lamb, you burn your fingers while eating them!).

CENTRALISSMO “WINE BAR” (15-17 Via Santa Maria in Via): This wine bar and restaurant near the Pantheon gets mixed reviews. However, we had an excellent platter of fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovies and mozzarella, as well as a memorable plate of fried olives. For the primi we enjoyed a very creditable spaghetti caccio e pepe and bucatini all ‘amatriciana. Given the fact that Centralismo is a wine bar, we drank one of the more unusual wines on our trip: Lambrusco, a sparkling red wine from the Emilia Romagna region.

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Potato gnocchi with scamorza (smoked mozzarella) and black truffles

 PIAZZA CAMPO di FIORE

I would be remiss not to mention the Piazza Campo di Fiore, which is one of the truly great food markets in Europe with a wonderful salumeria. Worth visiting is Antica Norcineria Viola. If you are passionate about Italian salume – such as cured hams, salami and anything else that pays homage to pigs – this establishment is a must visit. If you find yourself fortunate enough to wander in there, try the testa, which has a beautifully silky and refined texture.

WINE

The wines we drank were too numerous to mention, but a few were truly memorable:

  • Barolo chinato: A late harvest Barolo made from the Nebbiolo grape in the region of Piedmonte.
  • Merlino: A wine from Trentino-Alto Adige which is produced from the Lagrein grape variety that is grown in the region’s Vigneti delle Dolomiti wine district and is classified as a fortified wine
  • Viscola Querciantica: A wine from the Marchese region in Southern Italy that is pressed from the juice of sour cherries.

GENERAL TIPS

As far as Roman hospitality, we found the service in all the restaurants mentioned above to be warm and welcoming. Most of the Italians we met spoke English as a second language (some more fluent than others) or at least made an attempt to communicate in English.

Be aware that unlike in other places, restaurants in Rome will charge extra for bread, which is automatically brought to the table and is generally of poor quality. (You will not be asked if you want it or not, so don’t be surprised by the surcharge when you get the bill. If you decide not to have bread, inform the wait staff when they bring it to the table.)

Thinking of traveling to Italy? Consider a hands-on cooking experience in the picturesque heart of Umbria, led by ICE Chef-Instructor Gerri Sarnataro. Click here to learn more. 

 

 

 

By James Briscione

 

Have you ever heard a person refer to someone being as “happy as a pig in $h!+?” No? Well, maybe you didn’t grow up in the deep South like me, but trust me, it’s a thing. Poetic as it may be, it’s not terribly accurate. In fact, it’s the PG version of that saying: “happy as a pig in slop” that tells the real story.

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Happy as a pig in slop.

I recently had the opportunity to fly out to Iowa with Chef’s Collaborative and Niman Ranch for their annual Hog Farmer’s Appreciation Weekend. It was a two day event dedicated to celebrating the hard working men and women who are committed to raising animals the right way, passionate farmers who choose patience over profits.

 

At Paul Brown’s Aderland Farm in New Providence, Iowa we saw the painstaking approach that he and his family employ to raise happy, healthy hogs in a sustainable manner. Large fields of pigs, separated by age, played in a happy mixture of sun and mud. Every year Paul rotates the animals’ shelters to a new plot of land, replanting the former plot to ensure that the soil naturally replenishes itself.

 

With space, fresh air and regular attention from caring farmers, these animals do not require antibiotics. They are fed a carefully formulated vegetable diet, safely and naturally growing to a healthy size. Needless to say these pigs, in their slop, were about as happy as they could be.

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Niman Ranch doesn’t discriminate when it comes to pigs; they focus on raising them right, rather than selling a particular breed of pork.

On the other hand, we also saw what I’ll gently refer to as unhappy pigs. Traveling through Iowa hog country, we passed a number of CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations). Up to 3,000 animals live in a single shed, with little room to move. Their lives are so strictly confined, in fact, that some may live their entire life without ever seeing the sun.

 

These pigs don’t live, they survive—standing, pressed together over grated metal floors, just feet above tons of their own… you guessed it. These are the practices of industrial animal farming, whose only concern is creating a product at the lowest possible cost, without concern for the impact on the animals or the environment.

A happy pig makes a more ethical, tastier product.

A happy pig makes a more ethical—and tastier—product.

Here at ICE, we are excited about opportunities to expose our students to sustainable organizations like Niman Ranch, as well as local producers in the nearby Hudson Valley. We hope these educational initiatives will inspire both the future professional chefs and ambitious amateurs who grace our classrooms to make responsible choices about the provenance and quality of the ingredients they choose.

 

By Michael Laiskonis

 

Food is often the easiest gateway through which we navigate new territory and access cultures different from our own—eating is a language we all speak. We can learn a lot about a region and its people by what they cultivate, and ultimately, by what they put in their stomachs. So, when traveling, I find the best way to cut through the sensory overload a new environment presents is to search for what the locals eat, their rituals and traditions.

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Various fresh and dry goods at the market in Kaunas

I’ve just arrived back at ICE after an inspiring week abroad, roaming the cities and the countryside of the tiny Baltic country of Lithuania. My great-grandfather emigrated from Lithuania to the US in 1900, and though generations of assimilation into the great melting pot have diluted many of the old-country traditions, it’s been important for me to learn more about my ancestral roots. Not only has closing this 110-year gap strengthened family bonds new and old, but it has also given the chef in me a new culinary perspective.

 

Lithuania has had a turbulent past. In the twentieth century alone, the country was ruled by Russian czars, torn apart by both the Nazis and Russians during World War II, and ultimately shrouded behind the Iron Curtain for fifty years, until it became the first former Soviet republic to declare independence upon the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s. Today, Lithuania remains in a state of transition, and only since its independence have I been able to reconnect with three generations Laiskonis cousins. Amazingly, the culture and food traditions have survived these decades of repression. Baltic cuisines (including those of neighboring Latvia and Estonia) are still largely unknown due to cultural isolation, so it has been exciting to uncover such secrets by visiting markets, dining in restaurants, and enjoying simple meals in private homes.

 

Roughly the size of West Virginia, the majority of Lithuania’s 3.5 million people live in cities—Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, Siauliai— yet the country’s heart remains in its agrarian past. Even city dwellers maintain a close connection with the soil; nearly everyone has either a small garden or a modest summer cottage in the countryside. Foraging for wild berries and mushrooms is a popular pastime and it seems Lithuanians are born with a keen sense of which wild offerings are and aren’t edible.

Chestnut trees line many of residential streets near the city center of Kaunas.

Chestnut trees line many of residential streets near the city center of Kaunas.

What struck me immediately upon arrival was the rich diversity and abundance of products. The late summer bounty included tomatoes and cucumbers from home gardens; wild mushrooms, hazelnuts, and currants from the forests; even grapes, apples and chestnuts from vines and trees lining the fences of residential streets.

 

Despite this diversity, it is true that traditional Baltic foods subscribe to a vague eastern European stereotype, with a strong emphasis on grains, potatoes, onions, beets, and dairy products, along with a taste for cured meats, dark rye breads, and beer. But to remain within the confines of this general summary would deprive the palate of the range of culinary nuances that vary from dish to dish and region to region.

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“Kepta Duona”—fried bread, often eaten as a snack with Lithuanian beer

 Though its coastline is relatively short, the seaside towns that lie on the Baltic Sea have a rich fishing history. It seems as if every meal in Lithuania (sometimes, even breakfast) begins with a helping of pickled herring, typically served with raw onions, boiled potatoes or pickled carrots. Small fishing villages like Nida still produce a wide array of fresh and smoked fish products (perch, turbot, trout, and eel, among many others)— perfect for a light al fresco meal during the summer months.

 

My meals in Lithuania were a balanced mix of home-cooked family recipes and traditional restaurant fare. In addition to my prior research, I was lucky to have been steered toward the local specialties of each region or particular restaurant. On the coast, of course, one eats fish, but inland, it’s kibinai near the the 14th century castle at Trakai, or smoked pork shank and maedus (honey beer) in Kaunas at Avilys, the Lithuanian equivalent of a brewpub; at Stikliai, a restaurant in the heart of old Vilnius, it was fat grilled sausage with braised cabbage and apple .

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Smoked whole fish from the seaside town of Nida

Cold borscht, or saltibarsciai, is a well-known summer staple, but a hot variation was a heartier, new discovery for me. Koldunai are distant cousins to filled pastas like agnolotti and tortellini, stuffed with ground meat, mushrooms, or cheese. There are several versions of blynai – a kind of Lithuanian pancake, but my favorite was zemaisciu, a thin, crispy pillow of potato encasing a pork filling and sauced with butter and sour cream. On the sweet side of things, I tasted my way through spurgos (doughnuts), sakotis (a variation of German baumkuchen), and tiny mushroom-shaped cookies called grybukai.

 

Before heading to the airport to return to New York, my final taste of the country was a perfect distillation of everything I was lucky enough to see and savor. At Vilnius’ fabled Neringa restaurant, I tucked in to cepelinai, often referred to as the ‘national dish’ of Lithuania. An oval-shaped dumpling, these ‘zeppelins’ consist of a dense dough of raw and boiled potato, stuffed with ground meat, poached in stock and topped with rendered bacon and sour cream for good measure. It’s a dish untouched by decades of change. I couldn’t help but imagine my great-grandfather eating his share of this familiar taste as a young man, before pursuing opportunities abroad—first as a factory worker in Chicago, later as a farmer in northern Michigan.

Cepelinai: meat and potato dumplings considered to be the national dish of Lithuania

Cepelinai—meat and potato dumplings considered to be the national dish of Lithuania

Travel is an instrumental part of a chef’s ongoing education. Even a simple visit to a busy local market is a humbling learning experience—the sights, sounds and smells are small seeds that will slowly germinate over time and influence my cooking in subtle ways. But dining abroad is about so much more than food alone.

 

Our recollections of meals are attached the company and the overall atmosphere. For me, these impressions carry more meaning than any photograph ever could. Each culinary adventure reminds me that the world is bigger and contains more to discover than we ever could imagine. And yet, every excursion proves the world a smaller place,  reinforced by new friendships forged and the realization that we’re all so much alike.